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 A full house on Benefits Street

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PostSubject: A full house on Benefits Street   Tue Mar 25, 2014 4:53 am


A full house on Benefits Street – at Feckless Stereotype Bingo
At work and pensions questions, Iain Duncan Smith heard yet more tales of tobacco, tattoos and titanic TV screens




What were you doing last Monday evening, around 9pm? More to the point, what was Iain Duncan Smith, the welfare minister, up to? Work and pensions questions had been probing enough on Monday afternoon, but it fell to one of his own side, the Tory backbencher Philip Davies, to ask Duncan Smith the question of the day.

Did the secretary of state spend every evening elbow-deep in his red boxes, hungrily hunting for new seams of fat to trim from the welfare budget – or did he occasionally take some time out in front of the television for a restful evening of high culture?

Davies put it slightly differently, of course: "Has the secretary of state had an opportunity to watch programmes like Benefits Street and On Benefits and Proud?"

Benefits Street, you will recall, is the documentary series set in a Birmingham street in which 90% are said to claim benefits, which has attracted spirited controversy since its first episode screened, on Channel 4 on Monday.

(Channel 5's On Benefits and Proud, meanwhile, has been summarised by one reviewer as the show in which "we track down people who use benefits to help them live and who [aren't] feeling the necessary level of shame about it".)

If he had seen the programmes, continued the backbencher, was the minister, like him, struck "by the number of people …who manage to combine complaining about welfare reforms while being able to afford to buy copious amounts of cigarettes, have lots of tattoos done, and watch Sky TV on the obligatory widescreen television?"

For aficionados of the game Feckless Stereotype Bingo, this was, of course, a full house. MPs could only shake their heads sadly at the thought of all those taxpayers who couldn't afford the luxury of having lots of tattoos done. Duncan Smith, however, would respond only in general terms: yes, of course, many had been shocked by what they had seen – that was why his benefit reforms were rooting out abuses. Typical politician, dodging the hard questions.

He can't be accused of dodging the hardline policies, all the same. If it is an article of faith among the current administration that you can't be too tough on welfare claimants for the electorate's taste, work and pensions questions seemed designed to test that thesis to destruction.

Four people a day were dying within six weeks of being declared fit to work by the government, said Labour's Ian Mearns. The "thoughts and prayers" of the disabilities minister, Mike Penning, were obviously with them, Penning said. "However: there is a system in place for people with life-threatening illnesses, and particularly for those who are likely to die." I feel better already.Ian Lucas said in his constituency people with cancer whose benefits applications had been delayed for many months were being told to chase the claim themselves. Those with terminal illnesses were dealt with very swiftly, said Penning. "They are not," said Lucas. "TERMINAL ILLNESSES!" responded Penning. "Cancer is not always terminal!" It's that kind of cuddly policy.

As for the Quiet Man himself, he was also getting a bit shouty, at one point so rattled by his opposite number, Rachel Reeves, that he crowed himself briefly hoarse. There was, however, an apology, though you had to strain to catch it. Would he apologise, asked Labour's John Healey, after the recent discovery that thousands had been wrongly stung by the bedroom tax?

"I said it, all right, and I say it again: the department is, and I am, absolutely sorry that anybody may have been caught up in this who should not have been," gabbled Duncan Smith, declining to pause for punctuation. "HOWEVER!" The last government had left 1,000 pages of complex housing benefit regulations. "Under universal credit, they will be reduced to 300 pages." Slashed by 70%! It's the kind of cut some Tories can only dream of. Esther Addley
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