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.

  • OneNI

    I think your last paragraph somewhat patronising. IDS is undoubtedly not ‘so far removed from poverty’ have your ever been to his constituency of Chingford!
    Paterson speech is here
    And deserves to be read in full
    Did the other panelists address how to reduce the deficit or did they think that was from Westminster to sort out exempting NI?

    Did any of the other panelists seriously object to the proposition that the current system is clearly wrong and we need to move to a system that makes work a better option than benefits?
    Sadly many of the opponents of refrom appear to be suggesting its all too difficult and we shouldnt even try

  • Old Mortality

    ‘She suggested a need for ‘meaningful’ jobs….’

    Does that mean Prof Galligan wants no growth in public sector employment?

  • Old Mortality

    I also wonder whether the jobs typically filled by migrant workers such as in food processing are deemed to be not ‘meaningful’.
    What is the definition of a ‘meaningful’ job, according to Prof Galligan. What is she a professor of? Is her job ‘meaningful’?

  • Little James

    It is very simple, you should not be finacially better off on benefits than if you choose to work. Some of our local politicians could do with articulating how thousands of struggling working families are feeling. Yet all we get is “the special circumstancesof Northern Ireland”.

  • Framer

    There is only one medium-term way of addressing unemployment and it is in the gift of the public sector trade unions.
    Private sector employment with the collapse of the building sector and retail will not be able to do more than try to hold its own so it is for the public sector to share out its amazingly well-remunerated jobs with their exceptional terms and conditions. Remember they are paid at a premium of 40% above private sector averages here.
    All vacated public sector jobs should, where possible, be split and offered to two unemployed people, particularly the young.
    Apparently Spain is doing this. But first the unions would need bought off.
    Half a public sector job in Northern Ireland is nearly as good as a whole private sector one.

  • Ní Dhuibhir

    Yes One NI, I know IDS is not as far removed as someone like Cameron, but the account the Tories use of his Damascene conversion to welfare reform makes it sound like the whole idea of life on benefits being a bit crap came as a surprise. You’re right, while Paterson was emphasising the role of the Assembly, others (especially Tomlinson) were arguing that these issues are ultimately Westminster’s responsibility.

  • Old Mortality

    Your suggestion sounds a bit like an indoor relief scheme. It might have some merit were it not for the fact that the public sector in NI already serves that purpose in that it employs more people than is necessary to fulfil its functions effectively.

  • cynic2

    ‘She suggested a need for ‘meaningful’ jobs….’

    Just what is a meaningful job for a 17 year old who cannot read or write and has a 3 bottle a day cider habit?

  • cynic2

    “All vacated public sector jobs should, where possible, be split and offered to two unemployed people, particularly the young.”

    Good idea but they would have to have the skills to do them…that is a core problem. The Welfare system also needs reform to get them to take work. At the moment many wont work as opposed to are unable to find work

  • Sean Og

    The public service unions could do a lot for youth unemployment if they were serious about it.

    How about a ban on overtime work?

    A ban on partial retirement (where a member of staff over age 60 works 3 days and gets their pension for the other 2 days).

    A ban on part time working that leaves part of a job not covered eg someone working a 4 day week and no one hired to cover the 5th day.

    They have no interest in such ideas because they have no intetrest in the unemployed when it may cost their members.

  • Framer

    Precisely my point.young Sean.

    The public sector unions are by definition about the self interest of their members and Luddite where necessary despite high flown rhetoric about the poor and oppressed.

    Substantive job splitting would require suspension of normal trade union oppositionalism and probably a rewriting of numerous employer agreements and equality regulations.

    A tall order but with a devolved government…

  • cynic2

    “How about a ban on overtime work?”

    Potential breach of contract. In any case the members wont accept it

    “A ban on partial retirement”

    Illegal – age discrimination

    “A ban on part time working”

    Potential sex discrimination and age discrimination.

  • carl marks

    A Bit of help here,
    Last week for me the recession turned into a depression, I was made redundant.
    My question is this, what I have been told i will be getting in regards to job seekers allowance does not cover anywhere near my outgoings. Can anybody tell me how I can get to the place where i am better off on benefits than I would be working?
    There seem to be people who can live rightly on what the gov hands out, but I don’t think I can do it.
    Even when i had a wage coming in things were tight, One daughter spending a year in Singapore (part of a law degree), and the other wanting to study engineering degree at trinity had stretched us to the limit.
    In short i would love to afford a 3 bottle of cider a day habit but the wherewithal is just not there (Cynic2 i believe that such people exist how do they do it)

  • carl marks

    oh aye typical the F*&%^k!$g washing has picked today to die!
    what that will cost i dont Know but it did’nt sound cheap.