I read much of the press coverage across a range of policy areas, but most commonly housing policy and welfare reform. A lot of the coverage in the broadsheet newspapers at the moment is documenting the negative consequences of one or other of the policies the Government has implemented.
You can almost guarantee that the last paragraph or two of an article will carry a statement from the relevant Government department. And you can almost guarantee that the statement will make little or no connection with anything that preceded it in the article.
Today’s example comes from a piece in the Independent. The purpose of the article was to highlight that several councils have run out of money and/or overspent on discretionary housing payments, which the Government sees as the main mechanism for mitigating the worst effects of the bedroom tax. This suggests that some households are finding themselves in serious financial difficulty.
The article ends with the following statement:
A DWP spokesman said: “Our reforms are necessary to restore fairness to the benefits system and make a better use of social housing. We are saving the taxpayer £1m a day, but we have given councils £345m since reforms came in last year to support vulnerable groups – including £20m of top-up funds that only a quarter of local authorities bid for.
“These figures suggest this funding is working well, with the vast majority of councils spending less than 90 per cent of cash with just a month before the end of the year.”
Here the spokesman starts with the standard approach. He takes the opportunity to state the purpose of the policy from the Government’s perspective, even though that is of no real relevance to the article. He then goes on to offer a questionable statistic about savings. Unusually, he does at least make an attempt to address the issue in question – the spending to support vulnerable groups. The implication is that £345m is plenty. We then get a bit of positive spin. He finishes with a point that is largely a red herring – the majority of councils spending less than all of the cash available is not really relevant to the question of whether the policy is causing extreme hardship where the money has run out.
We also already have a sense that the way in which DHPs are being used is rather more complex and political than it might be. Which in no way detracts from the problems this creates for vulnerable households.
Overall, this is actually a relatively modest example of the genre. It is not uncommon for the departmental contribution to be a bland statement of the government’s objectives with no attempt to engage with matter in hand.
I’ve no idea whether DWP are the worst offenders here, because I’ve not got the same level of familiarity with what is going on elsewhere. But they are certainly masters of the art.
I wonder what these quotes from the Government add to our understanding of the issue. No doubt the reporters are obliged to seek a view from the relevant government department. So they get in touch with the press office. But the response they receive is almost always the policy equivalent of a batsman in cricket dropping a dead bat on a ball. It seeks to kill it stone dead. There is no attempt to engage with or rebut the claims that policy is having serious negative consequences. The Government hardly feels the urge to explain that the negative impacts on vulnerable households are a price worth paying to achieve a broader benefit. Or treats the putative saving of taxpayers’ money as self-evidently sufficient justification, whatever the negative impacts on wellbeing. The Government often seems content simply to ignore, deny or rebuff any and all claims and concerns.
Of course, there is an outside possibility that the Government press office provides an extensive point by point rebuttal of the concerns expressed in the article. But all that gets boiled down by the reporter into a bland statement which suggests that the Government is just a little contemptuous – that they don’t really feel the need to justify themselves to the little people.
Either way, it does little to foster much in the way of public dialogue or engagement. It does nothing to illuminate. It does much to create the impression that the Government is out of touch and uncaring.
And it annoys the heck out of me.