If I said ‘Iain Duncan Smith eats babies for breakfast’ and, when challenged, responded that I didn’t actually have any evidence to prove this but that didn’t matter because ‘I believe it to be true’, you would probably think I’d been out in the sun too long or had one too many Pimms.
At one time, most Europeans believed that the earth was the centre of the solar system. It turned out they were wrong. But this was the line of rationality taken by the same Duncan Smith this morning on the BBC Today programme when interviewed by an unusually tame John Humphrys (unusual but not surprising because he has bad form himself on welfare issues).
Duncan Smith said that, despite the lack of evidence, he believes it to be true that the pilots of the overall benefit cap encouraged thousands of people back into work. This is despite criticism from the UK Statistics Authority about his, shall we say, creative use of statistics on this and other welfare reform matters. Real facts about the number of people in Haringey, one of the pilot areas, who went into work, provided by the Leader of the Council, Claire Kober, were dismissed as he accused his critics of ‘seeking out cases’ and being ‘politically motivated’.
Duncan Smith always reminds me of the ‘swivel-eyed loons’ that David Cameron’s associates believe inhabit local Conservative Associations – except he is in the Government and in charge of one of the departments that has the most impact on the lives of people who are poor. His level of annoyance at being challenged on any of his policies has risen alarmingly as his barmier policies have come into force.
Labour’s position on welfare reform has improved recently, especially with the ‘benefits to bricks’ policy being debated, but the Party still gives the impression of a rabbit startled in the headlights. There are those who, completely mistakenly in my view, believe that Labour is ‘too soft’ on welfare and that the Party must get onside with the majority of people who tell pollsters they support the Government’s policy. I think it is simply untrue that the system is soft – here for example are some recent examples of jobseekers losing benefit for the most trivial and often unfair reasons. I also think that the correct response to a particular public opinion is not to simply fall in line, but to show leadership and argue from your own principles – otherwise we would be supporting capital punishment, Labour in power would have ended immigration, and we would still be campaigning to quit Europe.
On the OBC Labour has said it supports a cap but wants it to be regionally-based to take much better account of rent differentials . Others have argued that Child Benefit, which is available to all on standard tax rates, should be taken out of the OBC. Either option would substantially reduce the dire impact the cap will have on families. Both deserve to be better debated.
Of course it is hard to get to first base with a progressive view on welfare reform when the media are rampant on the issue, the phone-ins are full of bigots, and the (BBC’s best friends) Taxpayers Alliance are telling everyone that there are a very large number of skivers and scroungers out there.
In face of the onslaught against people on benefits, it is vital to remember some key points and to say them over and over again.
The ‘overall benefit cap’ is not ‘fair’ because does not compare like with like. Humphrys started his piece by saying that the cap was set ‘at the average income for a working family’. Wrong, it is set at the average earnings – the average income of a working family would also have to take account the benefits and credits they receive – meaning that their average income is significantly higher. If the OBC was set at average income, there would be nothing to shout about. Despite all the comments to the contrary, it is virtually impossible for an out of work family to be better off than an in-work family.
The way it will work until Universal Credit is introduced means that the overall benefit cap is essentially a further cap on housing benefit. It will hit hardest at families with larger numbers of children living in areas with high rental costs – on any estimate it will increase child poverty, which the Government is supposedly against. It will save very little money (I believe £110m in the first year) and is little more than a political device designed a) to get favourable publicity about clamping down on benefit recipients and b) to set a trap for Labour. Indeed, in public spending terms it is almost certain to be counter-productive – by increasing homelessness, it will push up costs in local government and other parts of the benefits system, probably by a lot more than it saves.