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Public opinion on benefits is not a one-way street

Voters believe the welfare system is too generous but also remain committed to fairness and to tackling "causes not symptoms".

Last night’s Channel 4 debate on welfare, which followed the final episode of Benefits Street was predictably feisty. Welfare and benefits are fairly hot topics, drawing opinions which come with plenty of baggage on a range of issues including self-responsibility and the role of the state.

During the debate some contributors talked about the need to understand "real" opinion beyond the audience of James Turner Street residents, programme makers, commentators and politicians. As well as (mis)representation, there was also much talk about (mis)perceptions.

These are clearly important factors driving the commissioning of the series in the first place as well as subsequent reaction to it. They also provide the backdrop to one of the most reformist periods in the history of our benefits system. That history has seen changing attitudes but it is worth remembering that there has never been universal support for the modern welfare state. In a survey commissioned by the BBC in 1956, two in five believed that the British way of life was deteriorating and the most common reason given was "too much welfare and care".

Today, behind every ten doors we knock on, we find seven Britons who think the benefits system is not working effectively, and three times as many who consider benefits too generous than think the opposite. There is a sense that there is insufficient link between paying in and getting out, and that some claimants are more deserving than others. Little wonder that we have found high levels of public support – by more than five to one – for the £26,000 household cap on benefits.

But attitudes are not all one-way. For example, there are equally strongly held views that it is important to have a benefits system to provide a safety net for anyone who needs it, and also evidence of a preference for reform tackling causes, not symptoms. The British are also sensitive to fairness; so, just as context shapes policy on benefits, the impact of policy and its perceived fairness might itself shape that context. Reflecting this, while support for the benefit cap looks set to endure, public opinion on the "bedroom tax" is more nuanced and less predictable.

Last year, the British Social Attitudes Survey found a "softening of attitudes" towards unemployment and welfare payments. At a time when the economy has started to improve, our monthly Issues Index – measuring what the public consider to be "the most important/among the most important issues facing the country" – has detected a rise in the salience of "poverty/inequality".

Finally, it is worth considering what the public understand about these issues. Ipsos MORI surveys have shown this to be fairly shallow in respect of benefits and welfare. Related to this, a study of housing benefit last year concluded that "facts in and of themselves will not change hearts and minds, but stories and emotions do". Given this, it is clear why Benefits Street has hit such a nerve.

Ben Marshall is a research director at Ipsos MORI.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.