Ignoring the Facts

John Perry

Last week John Humphrys was seconded from the Today programme to present The Future State of Welfare on BBC2. He wrote a piece for the Daily Mail to promote the programme: ‘Our Shameless Society – How our welfare system has created an age of entitlement.’ Returning to his birthplace – Splott, in Cardiff – Humphrys found that ‘one in four people of working age in this area are now living on benefits,’ which he puts down to the ‘perverse incentives’ of an overgenerous welfare system rather than a lack of jobs. But in a piece for Left Foot Forward showing why ‘John Humphrys is wrong, wrong, wrong on social security’, Declan Gaffney points out that only 5.3 per cent of wards in Britain have such a high proportion of benefits claimants, down from 9.5 per cent of wards in November 1999.

To demonstrate the growth of welfare dependency, Humphrys focuses on the 595,000 lone parents who are out of work. He quotes the Centre for Social Justice (founded by Iain Duncan Smith) as saying that worklessness has doubled in 15 years. But in Towards a More Equal Society? John Hills and his colleagues at LSE show that the percentage of children living in workless households fell consistently, if not dramatically, from 1997 until the recession in 2007. Among children of lone parents, the figure dropped from 58 per cent to 48 per cent. Of course, there is still a problem here, and the system is far from perfect, but not for the reasons Humphrys gives. To present it as hopelessly out of control is to repeat a persistent media distortion and ignore the facts.

Humphrys says that he has ‘never before seen the sort of political consensus on the benefits system that we seem to be approaching now’. But this is far from clear from the Ipsos Mori poll conducted for his own programme: 92 per cent of respondents said we need a benefits system as a safety net, while ‘only’ two-thirds think the present system is working effectively. That sounds to me like a strikingly high vote in favour of the current system, rather than evidence of a demand that welfare benefits be curtailed along the lines proposed by the Centre for Social Justice and Duncan Smith.

If someone like Humphrys says there is a political consensus, it becomes harder than ever for politicians to challenge it. We have the absurd position of the public broadly supporting current welfare policy, but the press finding this inconvenient and presenting its own ‘popular’ line. Ed Miliband evidently lacks the courage to stand up to this, or may even believe what the Mail says. It shouldn’t be the business of commentators of Humphrys’s stature to systematically distort the evidence and foster a ‘consensus’ that doesn’t correspond with the facts.


  • 2 November 2011 at 3:53pm
    Guernican says:
    And I'm pleased to see that, amazingly, many of the Mail comments contributors seem to agree with you.

  • 2 November 2011 at 6:05pm
    John Perry says:
    This is true, although among the 'highly rated' ones the following is more typical:
    "A brilliant article which gets right to the heart of the prolems we have in this country - a lavish and bloated welfare state which rewards idleness. This is why we now have a huge underclass of state dependent chavs. They know they will get a free house, free car, free council tax, free cash in the bank, freebies galore such as prescriptions, blue bages etc etc. Its like a golden palace of riches living on benefits in this country (you also get enough to buy plama tvs and Sky!) Forget the bankers, its the scroungers who are destroying this country."

    What is so sad is that this not only puts all the blame on one group of people (and not, of course, on the bankers) but it is a typical and gross overestimate of the lifestyle that can be sustained on benefits. To be fair to Humphrys, I don't think he joins in this type of exaggeration, but inevitably his supposed 'consensus' tends to promote it.

    • 4 November 2011 at 1:41pm
      willharwood says: @ John Perry
      So... if the "one group of people" he puts all of the blame on were to be "the bankers" then that would be okay? Because singling out a certain section of society is fine only if they all work in Canary Wharf?

      I do agree with you, by the way, on the rest of the piece. It's just that that left a slightly nasty taste in the mouth.


    • 7 November 2011 at 2:16am
      John Perry says: @ willharwood
      OK you've caught me out. I do think bankers are part of the problem, but I agree they are by no means all of it. Slapped wrist for over-simplification. Perhaps they'll invite me onto the Today programme.

  • 2 November 2011 at 6:24pm
    Leo says:

    That's what happens when the LRB trolls pile on...