This week the UK parliament debated foodbanks. On Facebook and Twitter this proved to be a big deal but on the main news outlets it never got a mention. So what’s gone wrong?
We need to remember the nature of the debate. It was one of 17 occasions in this parliamentary session that the Labour party, as the official opposition, got time to debate their motions. These are occasions when the opposition tries to score points over the government or embarrass them on some policy detail; and at the end of the debate there is a vote along party lines (opposition vote one way, government the other). This week was no different; the relevant government ministers were forced to appear in the commons to respond, try to score some political points of their own without making a commitment they might regret.
Accordingly the main news outlets didn’t think it was newsworthy. It wasn’t, except for it being an example of how parliamentary tactics and politics trump serious policy issues.
This opposition motion was cleverly chosen because it was the result of a public petition, which meant there were people who were passionate about it. They were therefore appalled by the way the issue was treated in the commons, and by the government in particular. What they hoped was a chance to debate a serious issue had been chosen by the Opposition as a stick to goad the government. No doubt there will be some in politics who are happy with this, because they knew it was going to happen and want to use it to reinforce the narrative that the government doesn’t care about poor people.
But behind the unedifying party politics, there are some real problems and the government needs to pay attention to them.
1. The benefits system makes claimants feel like criminals, it takes too long to support people who are in need, creating crisis situations. Public policy is always a blunt instrument, but the aim of reducing fraud harms the vast majority of claimants who find themselves in difficulty. There will always be those who know how to milk the system, but the overwhelming majority of people receiving benefit simply need help and don’t have the knowledge, energy or skills to fight the system.
2. The debate about poverty is clouded by definitions; most use definitions based on relative rather than absolute poverty. There is an intelligent debate to be had about the country’s ability to afford welfare when linked to measures of relative poverty, if the Conservative Party had the guts to do it, but there is no excuse for levels of absolute poverty where people can’t afford food or basic housing and the relevant ministers need to get a grip. There are difficulties here, particularly around the cost of housing, which are linked to other policy issues but if the department of Work and Pensions showed the same zeal for tackling poverty as it does for creating Universal Credit they could go a long way to solving the worst cases.
3. Political parties are woefully bad at explaining public policy choices and the issues behind them. None of them want to spell out the downsides or to debate how true the various assumptions are, so whenever their party gets into power people are disappointed. The result is people distrust politicians because they never do what they say and don’t seem to have any principles. When as this week, we see debates where MPs vote for party motions rather than about principles, most voters think MP's live in a different (incomprehensible) world. Whatever your political persuasion it is hard to have confidence in the current system; the desire for radical change will therefore keep growing.