Lord Freud, Peter Oborne, and welfare reform

By Bernadette Meaden
December 11, 2016

Veteran journalist Peter Oborne rightly has a reputation for integrity and intellectual rigour. Whilst not sharing his politics I have great respect for his journalistic standards. When Mr Oborne thought the Telegraph was spiking negative stories about HSBC he resigned as chief political commentator, saying the Telegraph was committing “a fraud on its readers”.    

With such an honourable track record, it is difficult to express how shocked and disappointed I was when I read Mr Oborne’s Mail Online  article about Lord Freud, who recently resigned as Minister for Welfare Reform. The piece was headlined, “I salute an unsung hero who's rescued millions from a life of despair”. The piece seemed to contain no evidence to substantiate this very big claim.

The article is characterised by a striking lack of awareness of the negative impact of welfare reforms. Perhaps this actually could be described as one of Lord Freud’s achievements. In October, following a Freedom of Information request, John Pring of Disability News Service forced the DWP to reveal how it had manipulated media coverage on welfare reform. “Among the information contained in the reports is the number of stories DWP press officers have managed to 'spike' – or persuade journalists not to publish – with the March 2014 report showing they succeeded in killing 44 stories in the previous month.”

Mr Oborne begins his article by stating that welfare reform was "a moral campaign" and describes the social security system the Conservatives inherited in 2010 in such lurid and sensational terms it reads like a parody. He says, "handouts to the unemployed paid them enough money that there was no incentive to find paid work"’, and “There were numerous housing estates up and down Britain where entire families had lost the very concept of working… Instead, these people’s lives were defined by criminality, drug addiction, alcoholism and prostitution.”

To make such sweeping and derogatory statements about a whole section of society is bad enough. But to then cite as your only source of evidence Channel Four’s Benefits Street, as Mr. Oborne does, is extremely disappointing from such a highly-regarded journalist.

Mr Oborne says “Channel Four’s brilliant but harrowing series Benefits Street – featuring feckless layabouts such as White Dee – gave a vivid and tragically accurate picture of the social degradation that resulted.” If Mr. Oborne had looked a little further , he would have found a piece, also in the Mail Online, which explains how the person he describes as a "feckless layabout" was in fact battling with "severe depression that left her housebound".

But that would not fit the narrative which has been used to justify the welfare reforms devised by Lord Freud and Iain Duncan Smith. Overwhelmingly, they only make sense if one assumes that most people claiming benefits are either lazy or dishonest, and sadly Mr Oborne seems to accept and perpetuate this ‘us and them’ narrative.

Strangely, almost the only hard fact Mr. Oborne includes in his piece serves to undermine his whole argument. He attributes to Lord Freud’s welfare reforms the fact that “The unemployment rate has fallen to 4.9 per cent, the lowest it has been for 11 years.” Hang on a minute. Eleven years ago, pre-reform, weren’t people living on lavish ‘handouts’ which deterred them from looking for work? Something does not add up here. The truth is that the unemployment rate has always reflected the state of the economy and the labour market, and that remains the case.

Mr. Oborne also asserts that, “Only 11 per cent of children are now growing up in workless households, compared with 19.8 per cent when records began”. It’s true, there has been a steady decline in the number of children living in workless households. But thanks partly to welfare reforms, in-work poverty has risen – two thirds of children in poverty are now in working households. And since 2010, the number of children living in absolute poverty (unable to meet basic needs like adequate food, clothing and heat) has increased by half a million. Again, Mr Oborne does not mention this crucial fact.

A central tenet of Lord Freud’s reforms was the insulting assumption that many people in receipt of disability or sickness benefits had simply chosen not to work. Yet despite spending billions on carrying out millions of assessments, the number of claimants is almost unchanged. In this area, reform has cost more money than it saves and has only served to increase the insecurity, fear and anxiety felt by people who already face considerable difficulties. Perhaps the most glaring omission in Mr. Oborne’s positive view of welfare reform is the United Nations finding that the government’s reforms amounted to a "grave and systematic violation" of the human rights of disabled people. Surely that cannot be simply brushed aside?

Nor does Mr Oborne mention foodbanks, or the harsher sanctions regime introduced in 2012, which has caused immense hardship. In October a study  by Oxford academics found “clear evidence of sanctions being linked to economic hardship and hunger”. The authors called on the government to “consider whether stopping basic income payments for vulnerable, out-of-work groups is a fair penalty, or whether the long shadow of the harms associated with this practice (eg food insecurity) outweigh any positive outcome of sanctioning”. How can a government imposing hunger on its own citizens be regared as an achievement? Again, the article does not address this subject.

Mr Oborne reserves his highest praise for Universal Credit, “a fairer and simpler system of payments, and central to reforms to make work pay”. He is clearly unaware that Universal Credit, as it rolls out across the UK, has become associated with increased hardship, particularly a sharp increase in rent arrears. Designed by people who seem to think that unemployed people have a nest egg to fall back on, Universal Credit has an inbuilt delay of several weeks, even a couple of months, before a claimant receives payment.  Unsurprisingly, they are then unable to pay their rent and fall into debt which they may never get out of. In June, social housing bodies said that 79 per cent of tenants on UC are in rent arrears compared to 31 per cent of other tenants. They also reported, “an increase in demand for money and debt advice services, food banks and hardship funds” with “tenants increasingly using loan sharks and pay day loan companies.”

When he resigned from the Telegraph, Mr Oborne wrote, “There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. Newspapers have what amounts in the end to a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth.” That is a noble sentiment, which makes it all the more disappointing that when writing about policies which have had such a dramatic and negative impact on so many lives, Mr. Oborne seemed unaware of the truth about welfare reform.

------------

© 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

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.