Mark Hoban is a former Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Employment Minister, and is MP for Fareham.
“You’re brave” was the reaction from one SpAD when I mentioned that I was on a panel at a fringe meeting with a Celebrity Big Brother finalist – namely, White Dee from Benefits Street. White Dee has certainly made a name for herself following her TV debut with a reputation for plain-speaking. So I have to confess to having been a little unsure of how our joint appearance at Policy Exchange’s fringe meeting at Party Conference would work out. Her celebrity status meant we had a packed room at the Birmingham Novotel. The audience included conference delegates, charity workers, journalists and even one of Tony Blair’s former political advisors, John McTernan. Oh, and a film crew that was shooting a documentary about her.
If the audience turned up expecting a stand-up row, they left disappointed. White Dee, or Deirdre Kelly as she is properly known, is no fool and, as one of two present found out, she gives no mercy if you treat her like one. Yes, she is forthright – but she is also thoughtful. Deirdre will stand her ground when challenged but, like a lot of people who have been at the sharp end of the benefits system, she talked a lot of sense (apart from her support for Nigel Farage).
We agreed that those who can work should work; that claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance comes with conditions; that we should make every effort possible to ensure that our young people don’t start life living on welfare, and that support for those out of work should be tailored more closely to their needs. No one should have been surprised by the degree of consensus. Deirdre expressed similar views to the majority of the population who support our welfare reforms. The vast majority of people want to see a system that encourages work and is fair to both taxpayer and claimant.
When we came into office we inherited a welfare state that simply didn’t work because it had lost sight of its purpose. The number of households where nobody had ever worked was doubling, and the welfare bill was rising twice as fast as average earnings. Deirdre and I agreed that one of the problems of the system was that some people were better off not working than working – a situation we will rectify with the continued roll-out of Universal Credit.
The welfare state we inherited promoted dependency, rather than independence. It wrote off people on sickness benefits. It ignored the individual needs of job seekers. By allowing benefits to grow faster than wages, it eroded the financial incentive to work. Our reforms have started to tackle these issues by breaking the culture of dependency and worklessness that blights far too many of our local communities.
The results of what we have achieved are remarkable. Since the general election, the number of JSA claimants has fallen from 1.5 million to 961,000 and long-term unemployment is falling at the fastest rate since 1998. In part, this is a testament to the success of the private sector in creating 2.1 million additional jobs. Our long term economic plan has created the conditions for businesses to grow and create jobs.
But our welfare reforms are playing a role, too. We have increased the expectations of those who can work to find work, but we have also increased the support available to them. The Work Programme has helped 500,000 people to re-enter the workforce. That’s also why we launched Community Work Placements for those who have left the Work Programme without finding sustained work. Someone taking part in Community Work Placements is expected to undertake full time work for the benefit of the community, recognising the help they need after two or three years of unemployment to get back into the jobs market.
I visited the programme in Portsmouth last week, and was impressed by what I saw. The centre offered people a wide range of placements, disproving the myth that this is all about working in charity shops. Our commitment to Community Work Placements is a sign that no matter how long someone has been out of work, we won’t give up on them.
Many of our welfare reforms have helped people who were neglected by previous governments because they are the hardest to help. The long term unemployed and the sick were left to fend for themselves in a dysfunctional welfare system which would never ask how we could support them back into work. Our reforms have started to help engage people who were parked on the fringes of society by our benefits system.
Getting people off benefits and into work is the first step, but we must ensure they don’t return to a life of dependency. Universal credit is the next step, by providing greater incentives to encourage people into work to increase their earnings and empowering them to lift their family out of poverty. But work doesn’t just provide an increased source of income, it also improves self-esteem and ultimately the feeling of self-worth.
As Conservatives, one of our goals is to empower individuals to take greater control of their own lives. Our welfare reforms are aimed at getting those who can work back into work – to restore dignity to people by enabling them to look after themselves rather than rely on the state to provide for them. Deirdre’s story is an example of that. She used her fame as White Dee from Benefit Street as a springboard, is now making money out of her celebrity and, as she proudly pointed out, is no longer claiming benefits.