One thing that struck me about this exchange on Channel 4 News yesterday (11 Feb) was its unwitting illustration of the social distance characterized by the metaphor of the ‘Westminster bubble’.
For me the journalists doing the best work on social policy right now are those who are able to pop this bubble, and in doing so, throw abstract policy into stark relief to the lived reality of those on the receiving end.
The Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman is brilliant at this kind of reporting, as is Dawn Foster. Their work stands out because people are central to their stories. The ‘human interest’ angles they concoct attempt to bridge the social distance that exists between policy and reality.
Poppy Noor's exchange with Work and Pensions Select Committee Member, Nigel Mills MP, had the same effect. It brought the government’s plan to strip young people of their right to housing benefit up against reality.
Furthermore, it's worth noting Mr Mill’s ‘caught-in-a-headlight’ response:
'Well… this is just an idea… Er, we haven’t done all the detail on this yet.'
The implication being that, at some point, all the detail will be done.
But the idea of stripping benefit from the under-25s isn’t a new one is it? In fact, the Conservatives have been ‘flying a flag’ for this particular idea since at least summer 2012. I know this because, during that very same summer, I attended a lobby of parliament organized by a group of young homeless people from Essex whose foyer home will become unaffordable should a future government decide to cut housing benefit for the under-25s.
At that event, two summers ago, I listened to another Tory MP make the same (at that point credible) excuse for the policy:
'Er… it’s just an idea… Er, we haven’t done the detail on this yet.'
It begs the questions: At what point will the detail be done? Isn’t it incumbent on a lawmaker who sits on the Work and Pensions Select Committee to get informed about the concrete effects such a policy is likely to have?
Once again we are back to the yawning gap between the political class and society at large. To be fair, this isn’t just a problem with MPs. I’ve witnessed the same chasm between abstract policy and lived reality at most of the think tank events I’ve attended. I’ve felt it in conversations I’ve had with some charities, I’ve seen it at select committees, at the job centre etc.
It was vividly illustrated recently by the Department for Work and Pensions' decision to appoint a former Policy Exchange economist, Matthew Oakley, as the person best placed to carry out a review of the way benefit sanctions are enforced (or, to be exact, the way the sanctions are “communicated” to unemployed people).
Leave aside, for a moment, the fact that Oakley was himself influential in convincing the DWP to adopt harsher rules on benefit conditionality in the first place (See ‘No Rights Without Responsibility’ – Oakley & Saunders 2011 and ‘Something for Nothing’ - Doctor & Oakley 2011)*. And ignore, if you will, the fact that the conditionality rules themselves are not up for discussion as part of this supposed 'review of sanctions'. Instead, consider Oakley’s CV and judge for yourself whether he is likely to understand the reality of the impact his abstract policy prescriptions have on people’s lives or employment prospects.
Dr David Webster of Glasgow University, makes the point vividly in his response to the ‘Oakley Review’
'The reviewer [Matthew Oakley] appointed in September 2013 apparently has some twelve years of work experience, exclusively in backroom roles, split between the Treasury and a politically committed ‘think tank’ (Policy Exchange). His recent appointment to the Social Security Advisory Committee (January 2013) and move to Which? in October 2013 will as yet have done little to broaden this experience. Contrast, for instance, the case of William Beveridge, who prior to attempting to influence national policy went at the age of 24 to work at the Toynbee Hall settlement in the east end of London, where he found out a great deal about unemployment and unemployed people at first hand.'FFffffffffffffffffffffrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrtttttttt *makes sound of Westminster bubble deflating*
*I'm indebted to Dr Webster for these references.