Has the writing of Tory welfare policy been outsourced to the Daily Mail?

The Tories announced two new welfare policies this week. The first was their plan to remove benefits from those with drug and alcohol problems or who are obese and who are refusing treatment, while the second, announced today (not for the first time?), seemed to be all out work for the dole for 18-21 year olds.

I was listening to a talk show discussion on the radio yesterday about the first policy, and was struck by how there was a neat divide between those who worked with addicts or in the healthcare sector in general, and those who seemed to me the type of people who think what’s printed in the Daily Mail is the unvarnished truth. The healthcare professionals universally thought it was a ridiculous idea, while the Daily Mail readers thought it was simple common sense. Guess which these policies are designed to appeal to?

There was a Tory MP called Alec Shelbrooke on the programme to speak in favour, and he was basically spouting the hardworking taxpayer funding lifestyles line. When asked what would happen to a person whose benefits were stopped, he declined to give an answer, but it seemed fairly obvious his view was “fuck ’em”.

There’s no doubt policies like this are popular with a sizable chunk of the public who are quite keen on poor-bashing, but I think policies like this should at least be based on some semblance of evidence. Welfare policies should be designed around what works rather than what will make ‘hardworking taxpayers’ give a little less thought to how hard they are being screwed. At the moment, though the Tories seem to be taking their manifesto pledges directly from the Daily Mail. Both these policies seem to be of the traditional ‘nasty party’ variety. From what I was hearing on the radio about the addiction/obesity policy, it just won’t be effective at turning people’s live around, and seems just about being vindictive. On the 18-21 year olds policy, I just think, why not give them a job, rather than making them pick up little for the same as Jobseeker’s Allowance?

UPDATE: Via Twitter, someone sent me this link, which details how the Government already ruled out the drug/alcohol benefit withdrawal policy, giving good reasons why it wouldn’t work, so they are now seeking to go against their own advice.


Daily Mail wins misleading headline of the week award (again)

Yesterday the Daily Mail published a story on its website headlined “£7,000 per person is the true cost of welfare as UK spends a quarter of national income on handouts”. This is a story about some data published by the EU which shows the amount each nation spends on ‘welfare’ – a measure which here includes healthcare and pensions. The Daily Mail calls these ‘handouts’. Is NHS care a handout now? The article below displays a bit more honesty (only a bit) and includes this chart (look at the chart title. Romania and France don’t even appear on the chart!)

Daily Mail

It trumpets the fact that UK spending on welfare is 17.5% above the EU average, but then also says it is only the 15th biggest spender in the EU. You could just as easily (and perhaps more honestly) write the headline as :

“UK spending on welfare (including health and pensions) is lowest of any Western European nation” (OK so I wouldn’t make a good sub-editor, but you get the idea).

Hats off Daily Mail, hats off.

How are your sandwich-making skills?

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This Daily Mail’s front page caused a bit of a stir today with its implcation that Brits lack the skills or attitude to make sandwiches! The story is that an Irish firm who make a large proportion of pre-packed sandwiches sold in the UK have struggled to hire British workers and have instead looked to Hungary for staff . The Daily Mail decided to spin this as a ‘lazy Brits’ story, that people don’t want to work any more as they can live off benefits. The rather ridiculous headline was quite well lampooned by Twitter users and some of the best responses were collated in this article.

The real story here of course is not one about lazy Brits but rather shitty employer struggles to fill shitty jobs. This article gives some more background on the employer in question. If this firm was not able to import workers from Hungary, it would be forced to either improve the pay and conditions it offered, or go out of business (or ring up Iain Duncan Smith and ask for some ‘work experience’ victims). Because we have free movement though, and many of the countries in the EU are much poorer than the UK, firms like this are able to keep wages low and working conditions poor and still find people willing to take the jobs. The government could legislate to increase the minimum wage, forcing companies like this to pay more, but that would only make those jobs more attractive to EU workers, meaning many Brits will still lose out.

As much as we have seen studies recently showing a positive impact to free movement, the problem is, the benefits are not being felt by those at the bottom.

Public Attitudes to Welfare – Another Reason why we need a Job Guarantee

This pissed me off today. A good old fashioned hatchet job on a couple of creditable people who dared have the nerve to stick their head above the parapet and speak out. But this is not a blog about Richard Littlejohn, a thoroughly despicable individual who reminds me a lot of Lewis Prothero from V for VendettaOne of the subjects of Littlejohn’s outburst did a pretty good job of responding hereso there’s not much more to be said on the man himself.

What’s more interesting is what it says about the welfare debate in this country. Until now, I’ve been quite optimistic about people’s attitudes about the welfare state, but now I’m not so sure. It would be easy to dismiss Littlejohn’s article as trolling or ‘linkbait’, but I think people in general are very easily persuaded that there are millions of people out there taking the piss while they work hard. It’s a view I often hear from friends and colleagues, and no amount of facts and figures will change their minds. People resent the fact that benefit claimants seemingly don’t have to do very much for their benefits (not true, but that’s what they think).

So what’s the solution? Successive governments have tried to compete over who can be the toughest on welfare, introducing to fitness to work tests, more hoops to jump through and harsher sanctions. This government has taken this to demented and particularly cruel levels at a time when jobs and in short supply, and decent paid jobs are as rare as hens teeth. At the moment, the options for an unemployed person is get a job (if they are very lucky), fruitlessly look for a job, or go on a government punishment scheme. I think we need a 4th option – a guaranteed job paid for by the government.

This removes a lot of the resentment felt by working people towards those out of work. If anyone losing a job had the option of taking a guaranteed job, they will be seen as doing something for something. Most people would take that option I believe. I think the welfare system should be rebuilt around the idea of a full employment economy as we had when the welfare state was introduced, then we can get past this playing off one set of people against another, and ensure the welfare system does what it’s suppose to – pick people up who’ve been discarded by the system and keep them active and ready to get back in the game.

Who’s winning the welfare war?

Two significant events this week – the start of long-awaited cuts to certain benefits, and the conviction and sentencing of Mick Philpott – has led to the outbreak of a war of words over the rights and wrongs of our welfare system.

Grant Shapps and Iain Duncan Smith kicked things off last weekend, with Shapps pointing at some Government figures and then lying about what they told us about welfare and IDS telling Jon Humphrys he could live on £53 a week. This led to the heart-warming sight of a petition set up to challenge IDS to prove it garnering almost 450,000 signatures in less than a week. There were also stories about some of IDS expense claims, like £39 for one breakfast and £110 for a bluetooth headset added to the ridicule.

Then came Mick Philpott and the Daily Mail’s nasty front page on Wednesday:

daily mail philpott

There was also this fairly objectionable and fact-free piece in the Telegraph by Allison Pearson. At first, the linking of Philpott’s crimes to the welfare system were confined to the right-wing press but then George Osborne decided to give everyone the benefit of his wisdom on the matter saying:

“Philpott is responsible for these absolutely horrendous crimes… But I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state – and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state – subsidising lifestyles like that, and I think that debate needs to be had.”

In response to this assault on the welfare state, many on the left pushed back admirably, providing detailed and fact-laden rebuttals to some of the propaganda being put out by the media and the politicians. Owen Jones in particular repeatedly called out those on the right who sought to score political points from the Philpott tragedy:

Bloggers also played an important role in getting some facts about welfare out there. In particular this post and this one struck me as being important contributions.

So I would say those of us defending the welfare state definitely have the facts on our side, but this brings me to the question posed in the title above – Who’s actually winning the welfare war?

People on the left like John Harris have been cautioning for a while that polling shows people in favour of more cuts to welfare, and George Osborne certainly thinks he is on the right side of the argument. At the same time, there are also voices from the right urging caution over appearing to be “foaming-at-the-mouth” over welfare. Owen Jones on the other hand sounds more optimistic, tweeting:

At the moment I’m somewhat less pessimistic about where this will go. The reason is amply illustrated in this video clip from one of Stewart Lee’s standup shows:

The truth is, an awful lot of people seem to be impervious to facts or reasoned argument. Here’s another (mindboggling) example. Look how Richard Dawkins patiently explains the evidence for evolution, while the creationist lady just keeps repeating “where is the evidence” (I like to imagine Dawkins just going into a room on his own and screaming after these type of interviews 🙂 ).

Bringing it back to this week’s welfare debate then, after tweeting a link to Johnny Void’s excellent post explaining in detail how it would be very difficult to make a profit from benefits by having more children, someone replied to my tweet to say:

The Daily Mail also ran a poll on Thursday asking whether people thought benefits contributed to Philpott’s crimes. Around 70% agreed. Now often, when the Mail runs hateful articles, the comments underneath show people in disagreement with the article’s content, but under this one, the three most popular comments were:

“It was not the benefits that killed the children but sure as hell he was the master of abusing the benefit system and he is the prime example why we need the benefit changes introduced and more to come hopefully.”

“Sound right to me. Why should I pay for the lifestyle choices of others? My wife an I stopped at 2 children because we could not afford more!. How many more are there claiming large amounts of money pushing out kids year after year?”

“This is what happens when there is benefits system that makes it pay to breed, the more kids the merrier. Limit all benefits payments to two children only NOW!”

Now to me, these comments (particularly the third one) are batshit crazy, but it seems to be what a lot of people actually think, hell, a lot of people I know personally think like that. I don’t think people are impervious to facts, just that it takes no time at all to repeat a lazy stereotype about welfare, but much longer to rebut it. It seems to be much easier to spread fear and resentment with a few lies and some unrepresentative extreme case than it is to persuade through coherent argument and facts and figures.

I think those who defend welfare (and public services in general) need to come up with some better strategies for dealing with misinformation of this kind, because there is undoubtedly a lot more of it on the way. Owen Jones is doing a good job, as are a number of Guardian columnists and notably some relentless disability campaigners who are trying to fight back, but the Labour Party don’t seem know which way to face at present. I’d be interested to hear if people agree with me, or are more optimistic. We all need a bit of hope!