Thinker's Corner

Under Pressure: are we getting the most from our MPs? edited by Greg Power (Hansard Society, St Philips Building, Sheffield St, London WC2A 2EX, £10, ISBN 0 900432756) questions the effectiveness of our MPs. Apparently, they are not coping too well. In one of the five essays, the psychologist Dr Ashley Weinberg shows how politicians suffer from very high stress levels, with 80 per cent of MPs working more than 55 hours a week. Greg Power, the director of the Hansard Society's Parliament and Government Programme, believes that public expectations of elected representatives have grown. He argues that this increased pressure has not been accompanied by sufficient improvements to facilities, hours or procedures. Anne Campbell MP writes: "The use of laptops in committee rooms is forbidden. I was told that it was because MPs might be tempted to do their own work." It seems that those who advocate our rights aren't able to stand up for themselves.

Old Wine, New Bottle: the just war tradition and humanitarian intervention by Sir Hugh Beach and Roy Isbister (ISIS, Strand Bridge House, 138-142 The Strand, London WC2 1RH) attempts to justify "humanitarian" wars according to the "just war tradition", a set of principles traced back to Cicero and Thomas Aquinas. Using Nato's intervention in Kosovo as a case study, Beach and Isbister argue that, if each of the six principles (just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, probability of success, last resort and proportionality and non-combatant immunity) is respected, then armed force is legitimate. In their view, "Nato's actions led to more good than harm and [were] justified in terms of the high standards of moral objectivity"; but, due to civilian suffering and failure to intervene in similar conflicts elsewhere, the intervention is "a very flawed example". The authors seem to forget that the main difficulty is not coming up with noble concepts, but putting them into practice.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Divorce your husband and watch him get rich

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.