The state helps Katie Price care for her disabled child. Photo: Getty
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What the Katie Price benefits row reveals about our paradoxical attitudes towards the system

The celebrity model has defended spending taxpayers’ money on care for her disabled son.

Viewers of Celebrity Big Brother have been yanked through their screens into a moral dilemma regarding care for the disabled, welfare handouts, and multimillionaires. And it looks like this unexpectedly stressful viewing experience has revealed a great deal about the nation’s paradoxical thinking regarding benefits.

Katie Price, the model and celebrity formerly known as Jordan, was explaining to fellow housemates on the show how she pays to care for her disabled son, Harvey. She clashed with the rabid rent-a-rightwing pundit Katie Hopkins over the fact that the state provides a car to drive her son to and from school each day: “he has a driver and a nurse who sits in the car with him”.

Hopkins criticised her use of taxpayers’ money on account of her wealth – the Mail describes Price as a “multimillionare”. In spite of Price telling Hopkins that it would probably cost her £1,000 to pay for a trip between London and Sussex herself, the latter insisted: “With the amount you earn, I'd find that tricky when you can afford it yourself . . . if you can afford to pay for something you should pay for it and you shouldn't rely on the government, I think that's wrong.”

Price’s defence was that she pays her taxes, and does not have a set amount of income each year – and what would her son do if she was paying for it herself, something happened to her, and she could no longer to fund his care privately?

She has also put out a statement on her website, calling it the “local authority’s duty” to pay for Harvey's transport, as he attends a special school outside the area where he lives. The statement also criticises the “government’s choice to close the special needs schools”, meaning Harvey has to go to a suitable school so far away.

What Hopkins’ reaction reveals is how nonsensical attitudes can be towards the way handouts are distributed. The disabled and most disadvantaged have been hit by far the hardest under a coalition fiddling around with where welfare lends a hand. And suspicion of state help from right-wing figures like Hopkins is propping up such unfair changes to the system.

The most pressing problem with the principle of universal benefits is that it aids the advantaged, not the disabled children of those who have ill-advised government cuts to contend with. It’s what benefits wealthy pensioners, who are given winter fuel allowance and free bus passes regardless of how comfortably off they are, and gives all infants – including those from well-off families – free school meals.

Granted, these aspects of the system are occasionally used to condemn the government, but it would take far louder opposition to change them, as they are a symptom of the benefits system being used brazenly by a government buying votes.

Changes to pensioners’ perks would mean risking the ever-precious grey vote, and free school lunches are a gesture brought in by a government attempting to appeal to middle-class voters, and – I’ve been told by a frontline source – can actually save the government money on Pupil Premium spending; a system put in place supposedly to help disadvantaged children.

So before commentators jump on Hopkins’ bandwagon of taxpayer tutting, it’s time to think: should we criticise a universal system for aiding disabled children who have to travel miles from home to get an education due to government choices, or should we concentrate our efforts on scrutinising a state using handouts to buy votes, hurting those who need them most in the process?

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt