Monday, 31 August 2015

There is plenty to attack IDS on... it's just that made-up welfare benefit quotes aren't one of them - my Catholic Universe column

Thank heavens for small mercies. 

As parents are busy buying new school uniforms and desperately hoping to get just one more year out of that hand me down blazer at least political silly season is drawing to a close.

OK, I know we are not quite there yet. Whilst the vast majority who are eligible (and probably a fair few of those that aren’t) have cast their votes in the circular firing squad that is the Labour leadership election we still have a couple more weeks to wait before the result is declared and the real, even potentially litigious, recriminations begin.

But as often happens in the dog days of late summer there are still a few gloriously silly stories out there to capture the imagination of a political hack aching for serious politics to start once more.

It used to be when the media was looking to fill a few pages over the summer they would manage to dredge up a good scandal from the party whip’s bottom drawers. There was nothing like some judiciously leaked extra-marital shenanigans to keep the public interest sated for a few days and otherwise rebellious MP’s in check until the Christmas break.

Fortunately for all of us these days sleaze is just so, well, 1990’s. Who needs to recall the darkest days of John Major’s premiership when it’s possible to whip up a little indignation and faux outrage with the help of social media?

This week the internet’s ire, and subsequent media coverage, has been drawn by Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith. The reason for this outpouring of anger? Mr Duncan Smith’s department has been found culpable in creating quotes from fake benefit claimants to promote the positive effects of its benefits sanctions regime.

I’ve never met Mr Duncan Smith, although funnily enough he is one of the politicians whom I would very much like to. By any objective measure he had a disastrous time as Leader of the Conservative Party but his period of rehabilitation after that debacle has seen him return to the front line of politics in what is one of the most high profile roles in government. 

Mr Duncan Smith is one of the few parliamentarians who proudly wears his Catholicism on his sleeve and the teachings of our faith on the duty to work  in no small part seems to drive his zeal in getting benefit claimants back to work, by hook or by crook.

The revolution on welfare that has been evident during Mr Duncan Smith’s time in office, particularly the draconian nature of a sanctions regime which sees benefits being withdrawn all too readily and reportedly as part of staff appraisal targets has made him one of the most divisive figures in politics.

Being responsible for such a high profile department whilst displaying the same type of ideological drive as Michael Gove did in his time at the Department for Education is undoubtedly going to make people dislike you, especially when the department you manage  is at times literally responsible for the lives and deaths of the most vulnerable people in the country.

So it comes as no surprise that revelations of made up quotes will send the chattering classes into overdrive and calls for resignations to come thick and fast, but this is where those silly season stories full of faux outrage need to be given a little bit of proportion. So let us put a few facts on record.

It transpires that someone in the DWP communications team approved the production of leaflets that contained case studies of benefit claimants who had been helped by the new sanctions rules, within those case studies the benefit claimants who were identified by their first names gave supporting quotes. The only problem was the claimants, case studies and quotes were fabricated.

On the face of it government departments shouldn’t make stuff up and it appears that that is exactly what has been done but I want to take a step back for a moment and admit my own guilt in a very similar situation.

Several years ago I was a manager at a local council when it became apparent to us that based on demographic information not enough local residents were claiming housing and council tax benefit. For whatever the reason it appeared that statistically not enough people were receiving assistance.

Now, falsely claiming benefit is undoubtedly wrong at the same time old people living on the breadline and not getting the help due to them is just as egregious and so I decided that we should undertake a poster campaign to promote the take-up of benefits.

Getting the intricacies of the benefit system across to people in a poster, often those who don’t have the highest standards of literacy, is not easy and so after a great deal of thought my team came up with a campaign which contained nothing more than quotes.

The fact is my posters showing that Mrs Smith, 78, from a village down the road saying ‘I didn’t think I would get any help but £5.00 a week makes a difference’ was a great success.

Being directly responsible for the production of the poster campaign  would also have made me far more culpable than Mr Duncan Smith is. I don’t care. My campaign helped people and it was the right thing to do.

For many years communications professionals have created quotes, and indeed people, to meet a need. There was no way in my campaign I could have used real benefit claimants as, I would venture a guess, there was no way the communications team in the DWP could have either.

Creating quotes for the purposes of promoting an idea is something that we have all either knowingly or not bought into. In our society it has a place but, lets face it, that place isn’t in the removal of a Secretary of State.

The fact is those who are against many of the punitive changes to welfare, and I am one, by all means should oppose Mr Duncan Smith but for heavens sake do so because you perceive his ideology to be wrong. IDS is no Al Capone so please don’t try to get rid of him by the analogous offence of tax evasion.

Inevitably all of this righteous indignation has led to the one thing that always follows in these modern times. A petition.

Petitions are now synonymous with outrage, and there are thousands of them.

In the past week I’ve been asked to sign a petition calling for Mr Duncan Smith’s sacking, calling for dog theft to be made a ‘serious crime’, a stamp to be issued honouring Sir Nicholas Winton and another calling for Justice for Cecil the Lion.

Astonishingly all of these petitions have gathered well over 10,000 names, Cecil has more than a million.

There are thousands and thousands of petitions out there and social media means that it is getting easier and easier to gather signatures.

The law of diminishing returns, or as my mother used to put it ‘the boy who cried wolf’, means that each one is having less and less influence.

There is more to be said about petitions which I will return to in a future week but it is vitally important to remember that there is a fine line between outrage and bluster. All too often the speed with which petition totals rocket up suggests that that line has been well and truly crossed.

So in writing this weeks column I am taking a risk. If the ‘Sack IDS’ petition is successful this page could be woefully out of date by the time you read it. I doubt it will be

In the meantime you can rest assured that as the government continues it’s reform of welfare benefits Mr Duncan Smith won’t be disappearing from the headlines and this column will be revisiting him too.

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