Benefits Street and the Conservative Party Conference: a debate?

By Bernadette Meaden
September 27, 2014

An event to be staged at the Conservative Party Conference manages to encapsulate all that is wrong with the way the public conversation on social security has been framed and managed.

A debate titled ‘Benefits Street: What more needs to be done to help people into work?’ will feature Mark Hoban MP, the former Minister of State for Employment, Steve Hughes, Head of Economic and Social Policy at Policy Exchange, and Deirdre Kelly, described on the event’s promotional material as ‘Deirdre Kelly, (White Dee) Television Personality, Benefits Street.’ The debate will be chaired by Allegra Stratton, political editor of Newsnight.

First, the title of the debate. It seems based on the now very tired assumption that the unemployment rate is not actually a function of the economy, beyond the control of individuals, but the fault of unemployed people. If this is not the assumption, why not call the debate, ‘How can we create more jobs?’ And why make the association with Benefits Street, a programme notorious for stigmatising people on benefits and unleashing a stream of hostility towards the people who took part?

Secondly, the composition of the panel. Mark Hoban was Employment Minister in 2012 when a more punitive sanctions regime was introduced for unemployed people. At the time he promised a "rude awakening" for claimants, and wrote, "I make no apology for this. I am clear that for too long some people have taken benefits for granted as a way of life rather than as a safety net."

Another thing Mr. Hoban did not make any apologies for was the contribution of hardworking taxpayers to his own way of life. After introducing a sanctions regime which has been blamed for causing soaring demand for foodbanks and payday loans, Mr. Hoban was allowed to keep just under £133,000 profit he made when he sold his taxpayer-funded second home.

By my calculations that amounts to thirty five years worth of Jobseekers Allowance, on top of his considerable salary. And yet, on this panel, Mr. Hoban will presumably be the guardian of the public purse which funds the ‘lifestyles’of benefit claimants. It is unlikely that he will be under scrutiny for the considerable benefits he has received from the taxpayer.

Steve Hughes of Policy Exchange has an economics degree and previously worked at the Bank of England, the British Chambers of Commerce, and in Parliament. Policy Exchange has made many proposals to cut the social security budget, including lowering the benefit cap outside London and the South East, capping child benefit at four children, and a ‘smarter’ sanctions regime. Policy Exchange has contributed to an approach which is tough on benefits claimants, not tough on the causes of benefit claims.

The third member of the panel, Deirdre Kelly, became a ‘TV Personality’ when she featured in the documentary series ‘Benefits Street’. Ms.Kelly, a single mother of two, was employed until five years ago. Post-natal depression and bereavement have contributed to her mental health problems, and it has been reported that she is under the care of a mental health team. She can be outspoken, and her agent (who presumably gets a percentage of any fees she earns)says, “In classic Dee style, she said she won't think about what she wants to say until the actual debate. She shoots from the hip, Dee, and that's what everyone likes about her. This will be a great way for her to get her ideas out – and hopefully she will get to go for a drink with David Cameron.”

To me, this panel seems disturbingly unbalanced, and perhaps designed to attract publicity. To have the voice of a working class person who has actual experience of the benefits system heard in such a forum is welcome and long overdue. But to engage in a public debate with an experienced politician and an economics expert would be a daunting prospect for anybody. With two of the panel instrumental in social security cuts and stricter conditionality, is it left to the non-professional to defend the unemployed, sick and disabled, who suffer when such policies are implemented?

For balance, would it not have been fairer to include another panel member, who could counter the well-honed views of the ex-Minister and the professional researcher? Or perhaps Ms Kelly agrees with the two other members of the panel, in which case it won't be much of a debate.

Of course, it is the job of the person chairing the debate to ensure that everybody gets a fair hearing. The person chosen to fill this role does not inspire confidence. In 2012, around the same time as Mr Hoban was introducing tougher sanctions, Ms Stratton conducted an interview with Shanene Thorpe, a young single mother from Tower Hamlets. She quite aggressively questioned Ms. Thorpe why she was living in her own flat, claiming Housing Benefit, when she could be living at home with her mother. After the interview, Ms. Stratton spoke directly to camera, saying, “The government is thinking of saying to young people: if you don’t have work, don’t leave home.”

The clear implication was that Ms Thorpe was unemployed and living off benefits as a lifestyle choice. She was actually working full time, and had been in work or work-related training since she was sixteen, but this inconvenient truth was edited from the interview. After Ms Thorpe complained that she had been misrepresented and humiliated, Newsnight eventually issued a public apology. So, as a Chair for a ‘Benefits Street’ debate, Ms. Stratton does not inspire confidence.

In conclusion, let’s imagine the tables were turned. Would an MP who had received the equivalent of 35 years of Jobseekers Allowance, thanks to a public subsidy and a rising property market, agree to a public debate on MPs expenses with, for example, two people on benefits, chaired by a member of the Occupy movement? It is impossible to imagine such an event taking place, or even imagine anyone proposing such an event: and that speaks volumes about the way the whole welfare debate has been framed for the last four years.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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