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The MP Interview: Tim Farron

On the social housing crisis, admiring Tony Blair, and standing in for Take That.

What made you go into politics?
I joined Shelter after watching a repeat of Cathy Come Home on TV.
What job did you do before you became an MP?
I was a university registrar.
Which law would you scrap?
Probably the unmitigated right to buy! It has seen us lose the majority of the UK’s social housing stock. I would like councils to be able to opt out of the right to buy scheme.  It would help us take a step towards dealing with the affordable homes crisis our country faces.
And if you could pass one law, what would it be?
A right/duty for councils to build affordable rented/shared ownership homes.
Do politics and religion mix?
They can do. We all have values, mine are in part formed by my faith. I’d say that my passion to tackle inequality, poverty, exploitation and the abuse of power and wealth come from those values.
Who is your favourite prime minister from history, and why?
Too clichéd to say Lloyd George?  Despite the working classes not having the vote to be able to reward him for doing so, he set up the nascent welfare state.
Name three dream dinner-party guests.
Paddy McAloon from Prefab Sprout; Jo Grimond and Neil Armstrong.
Which politician from a different party do you most admire?
I hate myself for saying this, but Tony Blair.  He’s a class act.
What’s your karaoke song of choice?
"The whole of the moon" by the Waterboys, I sang this with my mate Andy Prosser at Kendal’s premier night spot only the other week.
What’s the last film you saw?
Tintin with my kids.
What’s the last work of fiction you read?
The Redeemer by Jo Nesbo.
Newsnight or Question Time?
Humphrys or Paxman?
Paxman I think.
Who is your favourite blogger?
Caron Lindsay - A fantastic blog written by a great Scottish Liberal.  I also read Lib Dem Voice, a brilliant place if you want to know what the "Lib Dems think".
Who is your favourite newspaper columnist?
Polly Toynbee – she writes well, makes me cross, and sometimes even makes me laugh.
If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?
More time with my kids.
What’s the funniest or saddest thing you’ve ever heard at a surgery?
Funniest thing: ‘Mark Owen from Take That has just cancelled so is there any chance you could do the opening ceremony for our new playground?’
Saddest thing: Too many to mention.  Mostly housing related issues, families in desperate poverty, stupid and cruel immigration decisions that separated loved ones. They break my heart but these are the things that keep me going – when you get someone re-housed or help someone get their personal debts under control, it makes the job worthwhile. I can take or leave the Westminster village nonsense, but the casework and the community campaigning stuff always motivates me.  When someone comes up to and says "Thanks Tim - you got me and my mum re-housed" it really cheers you up.  Making a difference is what keeps me going and why I got into politics in the first place.
What was your worst doorstep campaigning moment?
Being told in Bermondsey by a woman that she was definitely not voting Lib Dem, that she was voting Labour . . . for that nice Simon Hughes.
Who is the most important person in your life, and why?
My wife Rosie, for all the obvious and very lovely reasons.  
Do you think you will ever be prime minister – and if not, why not?
It’s not my lifetime ambition.  My ambition is to make a difference and stand up for the people who can't be heard.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.