Sunday, 25 November 2012

If I Had Been Owen Jones

For the first time- ever, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was made to feel the heat. Every journalist had failed, every disabled person was evaded(except for that one encounter with Kaliya Franklin trapping him in the disabled toilet he shouldn't have been in) and when that couldn't be done, it was always off the record. The media were nowhere to be seen to film these encounters with Duncan Smith, or Grayling or Miller. Only Freud has been caught on camera being so inept, but no one in the media seemed to bother much with the committee stage of the Welfare Reform Bill.

I have to say though that I do not like Owen Jones' style. On Question Time this week, he did what every other member of the media-class should have already done, rather than treating this most despicable of ministers with gentleness and regurgitating his briefings to them word for word. But I felt unsatisfied. He made Iain Duncan Smith angry and seen to be angry, as in 'lost his temper through lack of self-control' angry rather than 'righteous railing against injustice angry' which is what Jones expressed.

I would have made him scared, and seen to be scared. Or that's just my incredible ego talking. You decide.

Jones' method was to bring up a case recently reported unusually widely in the media- that of the father Brian McArdle, who was found 'fit for work' by Atos after suffering a stroke that paralysed half his body and then dying the very next day after the assessment, and of his 13-year old son Kieron who wrote a letter to Duncan Smith. The response was a template letter that was tone-deaf to the situation. I'm constantly reminded that the public remember stories, not facts and figures. Narratives have the more immediate influence and the McArdle's were a powerful enough story with the few words Jones was allowed to get out to sway at least half of the audience. But I still don't like them(narratives I mean, not the McArdles). I like something that is on an even playing field, even when the opponent keeps cheating- it makes their eventual defeat more absolute. Iain Duncan Smith is a consummate cheat and rule-breaker.

Combining statistics with narrative, he got away with his '2.6 million just parked on benefits and forgot about' again. What ever Jones could have come back with if time had not run out, it would simply have been another piece of one-upmanship, not a rebuttal. A rebuttal means Duncan Smith can never use that gambit publicly again, ever- it's been revealed to be tripe. A clever comeback just means you are showing there are 'two sides to a story' and the public thinks the reasonable ground is somewhere in between them. This however implies that both sides have gone beyond what most would consider reasonable in their public actions. The disclaimer to make is that welfare campaigners do not set policy and do not have the near-automatic access to the national media that the government and supporting think-tanks have: the burden on them should automatically be higher than it is on us.

Even still- on the facts we are consistently right and ministers like Duncan Smith are consistently wrong. The only time they are right is when they are being downright slippery. This makes us the far more trustworthy and reasonable, if we are to interpret this as being two distinct sides in a debate.

Duncan Smith thinks the welfare reforms are not going to cost more than they will save- but the government very deliberately only filled in impact assessment forms(without any evidence of actually assessing impacts) for individual proposals, not for the cumulative effects of all of them. 

Duncan Smith says that '26 thousand pounds a year is hardly impoverishing somebody'. But the government fought very hard in the House of Lords to stop benefits for children being exempted, as it more than halved the already small savings of the benefit cap. Essentially, the cap is targeted at families. Most people do not live with the costs of many children and they think that benefits are so high that each child is a net gain for the household. Rather than tackle that myth, Duncan Smith has exploited it. With both housing and the costs of raising children thrown in, 26 thousand annum is not enough given that circumstances can change rapidly. Let's also not forget that this is based on average income, not average 'earnings' like Duncan Smith stated- working families that have an income like this are usually getting some of it from working benefits themselves, hence the reason why the government exempted those on Working Tax Credits. Pointing out how little money this vindictive policy saves, intended purely to win popularity from a certain demographic and little else, would have disarmed Deborah Meaden's barely coherent point on the need to spend money wisely, without screaming 'the country is not like a company' as I might have.

Disabled people are not exempted from the cap, despite what the Secretary claimed at least three times. Duncan Smith already said that DLA claimants were exempt- this does not by a long shot equate to 'disabled people' unless everyone with a disability is now eligible for DLA. They aren't, they aren't anywhere near. Even with the changes to ESA, DLA remains the hardest benefit to win a claim for and the government intend on narrowing that further when they replace it with PIP.

 And the cherry on the top when the Secretary blew his top. Here's what he said:

"Hold on, we've heard a lot from you..."

we actually didn't, David Dimbleby constantly interrupted Jones throughout the programme.

"I didn't hear you screaming about two and a half million people, who were parked, nobody saw them for ten years, not working, with no hope and no aspiration. We are changing their lives, I'm proud of doing that, getting them off benefit is what we're going to do."

He got applause. Would he if the audience had known it was a complete lie? For most of the last decade the overall claimant count for Incapacity Benefit was around just under 2.6 million. But these were not 2.6 million people on it for a decade- most of them were actually different people. In the narrative Duncan Smith is asserting, 2.6 million people on IB for a decade is only possible if there are absolutely no on-flows, no new people claiming the benefit as well as no one leaving it. Readers of The Files will remember this graph:

No that's not it, sec:

The blue line is ESA and IB claimants combined up to May 2010. The green line is just IB claims. What I pointed out when I first posted this graph was the drop on the green line and how sudden it was beginning from Autumn 2008, when new claims for IB were stopped as ESA was introduced. That sudden drop on the green line is entirely because new claims stopped, that represents the natural off-flow for Incapacity Benefit. I kept tabs on the figures every quarter as they updated and just before the IB-ESA migration trials started, they had settled on around 1.3 million although they were still naturally falling. These aren't people 'parked' on IB, almost all of them leave it because they either go back to work or because they die of the serious illness that was why they were claiming in the first place. They were seeing doctors for treatment quite regularly.

Iain Duncan Smith has defamed millions of people. He has done this to score points and get his way, but in doing so he has rendered British society unable to understand its sick and disabled, effectively alienating them. He has undermined his own government's ability to help us in the process because they refuse to acknowledge just what challenges we actually face in getting work. If he can not represent us accurately, he can not make informed decisions about us and certainly not when he's stonewalled us like he has done.


  1. Notice how IDS talks about getting people 'off benefit' rather than into work. It seems to be a phrase that Tory ministers keep repeating, and I think someone somewhere should pick them up on it. It would support the theory that their aim is to sanction people rather than find them jobs.