Is Chris Grayling running scared of Margaret Hodge?

Justice Secretary accuses the chair of the Public Accounts Committee of "political grandstanding" after her committee described the performance of the Work Programme as "extremely poor".

Margaret Hodge, the redoubtable chair of the Public Accounts Committee, appears to have touched a nerve. In an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live Pienaar's Politics last night, the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, accused the Labour MP of "political grandstanding" and of failing to take "a proper and dispassionate view of her job".

It's unusual, perhaps even unprecedented, to hear such strident criticism of a select committee chair from a minister, so what could have provoked Grayling's ire? The answer is last month's Public Accounts Committee report on the Work Programme, for which he was responsible while employment minister. The scheme's performance was described by the committee (which has a Conservative majority) as "extremely poor", with only 3.6 per cent of claimants moved off benefits and into sustained employment. 

This success rate was less than a third of the DWP target of 11.9 per cent and even below the official estimate of what would have happened if the programme had never existed, prompting the famous claim that it was "worse than doing nothing". Not one of the 18 providers, such as A4e, Ingeus, REED and G4S, managed to meet its minimum performance targets, with the best provider moving five per cent of claimants into work and the worst moving just two per cent. 

And it is those most in need of help who are failing to get it. As Hodge noted, "of the 9,500 former incapacity benefit claimants referred to providers, only 20 people have been placed in a job that has lasted three months, while the poorest performing provider did not manage to place a single person in the under 25 category into a job lasting six months." Given the extent of the failure, Grayling was warned that there is a high risk of one or more of the providers going bust, or having its contract cancelled. "The Department must identify cases where a provider is at risk of failing and ensure there are specific plans in place to deal with this," the MPs said. 

Confronted by these uncomfortable truths, it's unsurprising that Grayling feels the need to lash out. But his discomfort is merely evidence that Hodge is doing her job: holding the executive to account for their use of taxpayers' money. While Grayling claims that the scheme, which pays providers by results, represents better value for money than the last government's Future Jobs Fund, this claim rests on a generous interpretation of the data. 

Ministers boast that the cost of every job secured under the Work Programme is just over £2,000, compared with a cost of almost £7,500 under Labour's scheme. But as Alex has previously noted, this takes no account of the fact that had the programme not existed, there would have been an extra 14,000 jobs created. As he concluded after crunching the numbers, "the Work Programme did not cost £2,000 per job. Instead, for every £4,600 it spent, it destroyed one participant's chance of employment."

The government points out that the orginal performance targets were set when growth was expected to be significantly higher than it is now. But given that the IMF, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and others argue that the excessive pace of austerity is at least partly to blame for this, it's not clear why it regards this a legitimate excuse.

Rather than impugning Hodge's integrity, Grayling would do better to develop a Work Programme that actually works. 

Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking and the chair of the Public Accounts Committee. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder