An interview(£) with Tracey Crouch, the Sports Minister, by Isabel Hardman for The Spectator this week discussed Crouch’s tough upbringing. Her mother struggled financially after divorce.
The interview continued:
“But given Crouch knows what it means to struggle to make ends meet, isn’t she worried about the cuts to tax credits that will hit families not unlike the one she grew up in? She’s happy to defend these controversial reforms that have agitated so many of her colleagues. ‘I think it’s about communication,’ she says, adding:
‘We will be discussing this, and I’m sure that DWP are looking at all of these issues, in great detail but I think at the end of the day one of the kindest things that we can do is try to help people to support themselves and work around their finances: some of my most heartbreaking cases are those that come to me saying that they are struggling and then you go through with them their expenditure and income – I’m not generalising at all, I’m talking about some very individual cases – and actually they just haven’t realised some of the savings that they need to make themselves, you know it can be… things like paid subscriptions to TVs and you just sit there and you think you have to sometimes go without if you are going to have people make ends meet.’ “
Of course politicians are constantly asked “what would you to say to someone” in particular difficult circumstances apparently exacerbated due to some aspect of Government policy. The correct politicians answer is to express sympathy and then answer in terms of highlighting what Government help is available and add something about how “I’m afraid it is necessary for us” to do whatever the policy is that is being challenged.
Crouch’s answer included acceptance of the political responsibility but it also provided a human element – practical, personal advice. Then there was a media firestorm of synthetic outrage.
For instance Karen Buck, the Labour MP for Westminster North, said:
“It’s frankly offensive to be telling some of the lowest paid people in society that their financial struggles are down to bad spending choices.”
The low paid people coming to Tracey Crouch’s constituency surgery with their financial struggles didn’t seem to find be given practical advice “offensive” – that seemed to regard it as helpful.
I was pleased that another Labour MP, Frank Field, declared:
“I think she’s very brave to do it. It’s part of a very necessary debate.”
“I think it’s just so difficult for politicians to try and introduce the complexities of life when parts of sentences are taken out of context. The way she’s been selectively quoted and bashed about will make it just so much more difficult for politicians to tell the truth as they see it and thereby increase even further the gap between us and voters.”
We have had variations of this story many times. Last year Baroness Jenkin suggested one reason people needed to visit foodbanks was because they don’t know how to cook. She pointed out that porridge is cheaper than breakfast cereal. This was condemned as “out of touch”. But when I visited a foodbank I found that cookery lessons were provided, along with simple recipe books, and that Jenkin’s comment was regarded as entirely sensible. Of course plenty of rich people don’t know how to cook either – but for them it doesn’t matter.
This is not to duck the politics. I have suggested that the Chancellor should ease the pain of the Tax Credits cuts by raising the threshold for National Insurance as well as income tax.
Crouch could also have discussed with her constituents in part time work (who are mainly the ones losing out over the Tax Credits changes) whether they could increase the number of hours they work.
But rather than retreating over being accused of “gaffes” Tory MPs should try to offer practical advice to their constituents – both individually in their surgeries and generally through the media. It is refusing to help in this way that shows a lack of compassion and sensitivity.