Owen Paterson on welfare reform at Queen’s

Owen Paterson used his visit to QUB last night to articulate the government’s position on the Welfare Reform Bill, with much talk of ‘rebalancing the economy’ and injecting ‘dynamism’ by tackling our ‘broken’ welfare system. In a week when the Work Programme and A4E scandals in GB have raised public anger about the exploitation of the unemployed, the Secretary of State insistently painted the coalition’s economic position as ‘progressive, kind, moral’ and ‘fair’.

His secondary message was that Northern Ireland has all this to look forward to. Far from needing to be ‘insulated’ from reform as a ‘special case’, he argued that our particular circumstances make reform all the more necessary here. Highlighting our disproportionate numbers of benefit claimants relative to the rest of the UK, over-reliance on the public sector and lack of enterprise, he suggested that rebalancing the NI economy will take 25 years but promised that welfare reform will ‘change lifestyles’.

This was not a ‘left/right argument’, Paterson, said, but a question of ‘lifestyle change’. The language of lifestyle choice is an effective way to put the responsibility for unemployment on the unemployed without openly calling them work-shy scroungers, but he risked overdoing it.

At times it sounded like the government’s entire economic policy was fuelled by a paternal desire to get us all out in the fresh air at a reasonable hour in the morning. An anecdote about a woman choosing to work in a laundrette, despite being financially penalised for doing so by the benefits system, because she liked ‘the company, the social contact and so on’, highlighted the positive commitment to ‘make work pay’ but came across as chillingly  patronising.

A counterargument was put by panel member Professor Mike Tomlinson, who welcomed changes to marginal tax rates to benefit the poorest people entering work, but objected to the emphasis on unemployed people being ‘hassled rather than helped’ and especially to the undercurrent of ‘stigma and humiliation’ he saw in the government’s rhetoric and policy at a time when the number of jobseekers far exceeds the number of vacancies.

He presented the Work Fare debacle as both an example of the coalition’s ‘hostility’ to the unemployed and a sign that ‘compulsion has its limits’. Overall, he suggested that the coalition is taking the UK ‘in an entirely new direction’, with the ‘role of the state pegged back to a level below that in the USA’.

Paterson confirmed that reforms will be adapted somewhat to the peculiarities of Northern Ireland, such as the legacy of the Troubles, the bordering land of low corporation tax, and our particular housing arrangements. He emphasised the role of the Assembly, claiming that this was ‘policy in local hands’.  

Lee Hatton of the Law Centre (NI), on the panel, welcomed this  flexibility but posed the question of whether, given that the Work Programme is the carrot and sanctions the stick, and we don’t have the Work Programme over here, we should be getting ‘the same sort of stick’.

He pointed out that our housing stock, with a high proportion of properties having three or more bedrooms, would make it impossible for many people to avoid proposed penalties for ‘extra’ rooms. He also raised the lack of a childcare strategy, something picked up by Professor Yvonne Galligan, who pointed out that 1/3 of all working age women in NI are ‘economically inactive’.

She suggested a need for ‘meaningful’ jobs and said that education is vital to them. (She politely failed to comment on being the only female on a panel whose central topics included childcare and what Tomlinson called ‘the feminisation of unemployment’.)

Dr Graham Brownlow, QUB economics lecturer, picked up on the role of education and an ‘education/skills mismatch’ between employer needs and our workforce ‘at both high and low ends’ of the market and emphasised that structural inefficiencies within NI are a ‘legacy of the political settlement’ rather than any ‘economic reality’.

Tomlinson reiterated his concerns about the coalition government’s ‘style’, both in pushing legislation through the Lords and in terms of language, suggesting that in the case of the benefits cap, ‘dynamism’ means ‘homelessness’. Paterson ended the discussion with a spirited rejection of the idea that the government is exploiting the ‘stigma’ of unemployment.

Ian Duncan Smith, he argued, is profoundly committed to improving the lives of people whose families have been jobless for generations. Paterson remembered IDS returning from his visits to Easterhouse in Glasgow, ‘agog’ at the degree of deprivation he had seen and the good work being done in spite of it.

I for one don’t doubt IDS’s sincerity, but I do doubt the ability of politicians so far removed from poverty as to be ‘agog’ at it to deal effectively with the real and complex problem of long term unemployment, which requires more than a ‘lifestyle’ makeover.

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