Last week John Humphrys was seconded from the Today programme to present The Future State of Welfare on BBC2. He wrote a piece for the Daily Mail to promote the programme: ‘Our Shameless Society – How our welfare system has created an age of entitlement.’ Returning to his birthplace – Splott, in Cardiff – Humphrys found that ‘one in four people of working age in this area are now living on benefits,’ which he puts down to the ‘perverse incentives’ of an overgenerous welfare system rather than a lack of jobs. But in a piece for Left Foot Forward showing why ‘John Humphrys is wrong, wrong, wrong on social security’, Declan Gaffney points out that only 5.3 per cent of wards in Britain have such a high proportion of benefits claimants, down from 9.5 per cent of wards in November 1999.
To demonstrate the growth of welfare dependency, Humphrys focuses on the 595,000 lone parents who are out of work. He quotes the Centre for Social Justice (founded by Iain Duncan Smith) as saying that worklessness has doubled in 15 years. But in Towards a More Equal Society? John Hills and his colleagues at LSE show that the percentage of children living in workless households fell consistently, if not dramatically, from 1997 until the recession in 2007. Among children of lone parents, the figure dropped from 58 per cent to 48 per cent. Of course, there is still a problem here, and the system is far from perfect, but not for the reasons Humphrys gives. To present it as hopelessly out of control is to repeat a persistent media distortion and ignore the facts.
Humphrys says that he has ‘never before seen the sort of political consensus on the benefits system that we seem to be approaching now’. But this is far from clear from the Ipsos Mori poll conducted for his own programme: 92 per cent of respondents said we need a benefits system as a safety net, while ‘only’ two-thirds think the present system is working effectively. That sounds to me like a strikingly high vote in favour of the current system, rather than evidence of a demand that welfare benefits be curtailed along the lines proposed by the Centre for Social Justice and Duncan Smith.
If someone like Humphrys says there is a political consensus, it becomes harder than ever for politicians to challenge it. We have the absurd position of the public broadly supporting current welfare policy, but the press finding this inconvenient and presenting its own ‘popular’ line. Ed Miliband evidently lacks the courage to stand up to this, or may even believe what the Mail says. It shouldn’t be the business of commentators of Humphrys’s stature to systematically distort the evidence and foster a ‘consensus’ that doesn’t correspond with the facts.
Original post and comments: London Review of Books