Welfare reform: capping truth, benefiting from spin

By Simon Barrow
February 5, 2012

"The problem with the truth is that it’s complicated. Lies are simple, they can be altered to fit any audience, they can be sensational without any boring honest bits to dilute the story. Honesty doesn’t make headlines. That’s the problem with the Welfare Reform Bill..."

So begins a fine article (do read all of it) on HullRepublic analysing why, how and where the misleading elision between soundbites, spin, fact and truth occurs. It also looks at the groundbreaking path blazed by the Spartacus Report (*.PDF).

Nowhere has the gap between appearance and reality seemed greater in the past few weeks than in relation to the generic welfare cap of £26,000 per household enshrined centrally in the otherwise excessively long and complicated WRB - which contains many other questionable or damaging proposals, too.

The government has sought to portray their top-slicing cap (entirely misleadingly) as a "fair proposition" that nobody should receive more on out-of-work benefit than the average amount earned by someone in work. It is a matter of "not allowing the working poor to suffer at the expense of the benefit-claiming poor", as a Conservative MP astonishingly put it this morning.

There is so much wrong with this statement and it's "fair' corollary, it's difficult to know where to begin.

As a soundbite inducing people to believe that the cap issue is simple, that it's about ensuring that "scroungers don't cheat ordinary hard working people" (as one tabloid commenter interpreted the statement), it has proved devastatingly effective, we should note. The reason the government can cite opinion polls to show that "the public supports a benefit cap" is that a vast number of people, misinformed by the government's allies in the tabloids, have not thought beyond this simplistic conclusion. And the details are undeniably complicated.

Encoded in the pro-cap message is the implication that benefit-recipients are all out of work (factually wrong), that they are free-loaders (the vast majority have been, are or will be taxpayers), and that they are carelessly taking money off others through the state (actually the cap will barely cut the overall government budget and will cost local councils and communities more money).

In addition that MP's soundbite divides the working and the non-working poor; fails to acknowledge that some families will have needs over the arbitrary cap imposed; does not mention that individual benefits are already capped; ignores the idea that benefits should be based on need not block limits; avoids tackling the many examples of deprivation such a cap will inflict on thousands of people; and fails to recognise that reducing families’ benefits will not automatically get them get into work - whereas additional support and available jobs will. (See the Free Churches' Joint Public Issues Team briefing)

Indeed, when it comes to benefits, it seems that the government suddenly develops an interest in the low-paid - because they can be used as a weapon against the unwaged. But when it comes to axing public sector posts, squeezing investment, cutting job schemes, slashing local authority budgets, pressurising pay downwards and other employment-harming consequences of austerity economics (a strategy which Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz calls a 'suicide pact' among certain European governments), suddenly both the working poor and the 2.8 million currently denied jobs are conveniently and effectively forgotten. All the blame must go on benefit claimants.

In addition, in spite of some anomalies (which need to be tackled directly, rather than used as an excuse to cut welfare for those in need), the fact remains that no single family will earn more money on out-of-work benefits than they could earn from working and claiming in-work benefits. The "hard-working family" earning £26,000 a year may well also be receiving thousands of pounds in housing benefit, child benefit, working tax credit and tax credit.

The reality, says the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), is that 67,000 households across Britain are expected to lose an average of £83 each week in benefits when the cap - set at £350 a week for childless single people and £500 for others - is implemented in 2013/14.

It will drive larger families into cheaper accommodation (where available, and destitution where not), it will break up some families and dislocate people from schools and care networks, and it will make areas of cities such as London unaffordable for those claiming benefits.

The cap will additionally hit all couples with four children and no private income who pay rent of £127 a week or more. Smaller families in high-rent areas could also suffer, says IFS research economist Robert Joyce. For collateral reasons, it may even reduce fertility rates and encourage partners to live separately, he adds.

By the way, housing benefit rates are already not just regionalised but localised in broad rental market areas, in this sense, Labour's alternative series of regional caps to "take account of differing housing costs" is also counter-factual.

So the IFS's analysis is backed up in different ways by commentators on Inside Housing and other specialist journals, and by research done by a multitude of charities, academics and poverty analysts.

The long and the short of it, as Archie Kirkwood MP said (and as the Church of England bishops failed to say, incidentally) is that the benefit cap is wrong in principle because it distorts the whole basis of the benefit system.

So there you have it, pro-generic benefit cap soundbites deconstructed in eight paragraphs. But the fact that it takes quite a bit of information and evidence to demolish a few words of propaganda precisely illustrates the media and politics debate challenge. As that HullRepublic piece puts it: "The problem with the truth is that it’s complicated. Lies are simple, they can be altered to fit any audience."

One could be more generous to the intentions and beliefs of others, and say "construals and misconstruals" or "perceptions and misconceptions", rather than "truth and lies" but the practical outcome is the same. People at the sharp end suffer while others pontificate. Those who advocate attacks on the vulnerable or poor to protect the interests of the comfortable or wealthy have an easier time than their opponents, because a swathe of those they want to vote for them are predisposed towards believe what they say out of self-interest.

To recognise all this is not to advocate giving up. Quite the opposite. As the seven amendment votes on the Welfare Reform Bill in the House of Lords showed, people are persuadable by reasoned argument and compassion. But good, straightforward truth-telling epithets are needed. And as one theologian I know put it: "For these purposes, truth is whatever enhances, dignifies and sustains life, starting with those most threatened by its denial; while lies are whatever pushes people to despair and destruction."


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He has been involved in briefing, research, commentary and reporting during the course of the Welfare Reform Bill report stage, and its return to the Commons.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.