Welfare, the bedroom tax and the battle of languagePosted: August 2, 2013
This week’s court ruling on the bedroom tax and BBC Trust verdict on the John Humphrys welfare reform documentary got me thinking again about the importance of language in the debate on both.
Language matters. You don’t have to be familiar with discourse analysis to know that there is a difference between ‘the bedroom tax’ and ‘the spare room subsidy’ or ‘welfare’ and ‘social security’. The words we use to frame ideas have a power that goes beyond themselves because of the associations, conscious or otherwise, that they bring with them. The battle of language is also a battle of ideas and of ideology.
I’m acutely conscious that every time I write ‘bedroom tax’ I am using a term invented by its opponents. As a blogger I know that I do not have to be bound by considerations of journalistic impartiality, but I still feel periodically uncomfortable with this. I justify it to myself on the grounds that it is common currency among people who work in housing and that it was first coined not by a politician but by the admirably independent peer Lord Best. I could say ‘social sector size criteria’ or ‘under-occupation penalty’ but I think my meaning would be less clear if I did. I could even say ‘spare room subsidy’ but more on that below.
I’m even more aware of the power of language when I write about ‘welfare’ and ‘welfare reform’. This is commonly used – and commonly understood – terminology that has been used by politicians of all parties and again I justify it to myself on the grounds that my meaning might be less clear if I used an alternative.
The politics of welfare
However, ‘welfare’ comes loaded with ideological baggage. Even at the very beginning William Beveridge railed against the ‘welfare state’ that he had supposedly created because of its ‘Santa Claus’ connotations. He preferred ‘social service state’. Since the 2010 election the Conservatives have claimed ‘welfare’ as their own, and one of their key strategies for the next election is to brand Labour as ‘the welfare party’. Labour continues to squirm as the government makes new cuts in benefits in the knowledge that opposition will put it on the wrong side of the opinion polls. Arguably much too late, the Labour leadership has taken to talking about ‘social security’ instead.
The politics of ‘welfare’ was imported from the United States, where ‘social security’ means pensions and ‘welfare’ refers to working age benefits, especially those paid to single mothers. Writers like Charles Murray argued this was creating a ‘culture of dependency’ that was transmitted to their children and creating an ‘underclass’ of welfare recipients. ‘Welfare reform’ is also an American import. As advocated by people like Lawrence Mead, who was interviewed extensively in the Humphrys documentary, it was implemented by the Clinton administration in the 1990s and became known as ‘workfare’.
The John Humphrys documentary set out to examine this change in the politics of ‘welfare’ and the shift in public perceptions that accompanied it ahead of the Welfare Reform Act. My impression at the time was that it gave far too much prominence to advocates of the ‘dependency culture’ thesis like the Centre for Social Justice in the UK but that it was more balanced when it presented the results of welfare reform in the US. You can make up your own mind by watching again here.
The conclusion drawn by Humphrys himself in a Daily Mail article at the time (and republished this week) was that:
‘It may be that we really are on the brink of another welfare revolution. I have never seen the sort of political consensus on the benefits system that we seem to be approaching now and our poll suggests the politicians are reflecting a changing public mood. But that consensus has yet to be converted into hard policies acceptable to the nation as a whole. Beveridge tried to slay the fifth evil giant [idleness] and, in the process, helped to create a different sort of monster in its place: the age of entitlement. The battle for his successors is to bring it to an end.’
Breach of impartiality
In the wake of documentary, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) launched a complaint with three main elements:
- that the programme framed the issue of welfare reform solely from the government’s point of view without noting that there are other views about the challenges facing social security and welfare benefits
- that a lack of statistical and other objective evidence failed to equip viewers with a adequate context to reach an informed opinion
- that Humphrys conflated his personal opinion with factual reporting, breaching editorial guidelines that prohibit BBC journalists from expressing personal views about public policy.
The editorial standards committee of the BBC Trust rejected the first and third points but on the second:
‘The committee concluded that viewers would be likely to form the conclusion that the benefits being targeted by the government were largely responsible for the view held by some that “the welfare state is in crisis”. The committee also concluded that viewers would be likely to form the impression, despite the anecdotal testimonies of job seekers heard in the programme, that there was a healthy supply of jobs overall. As both issues are central to the viewers’ understanding of the key issues discussed in the programme, and because this was a controversial issue which was also a major matter within the meaning of the editorial guidelines, the committee concluded that the failure of accuracy had also led to a breach of impartiality on this occasion.’
That’s a pretty damning verdict and it’s hard to see how it did not contribute to framing the issue from the government’s point of view. Iain Duncan Smith certainly gave that impression when he told the Telegraph that Humphrys was a victim of BBC left-wing bias:
‘I have just watched reporting on the BBC about the Government winning a High Court judgment on the spare room subsidy that once again has left me absolutely staggered at the blatant Left-wing bias within the coverage. And yet the BBC Trust criticise John Humphrys’s programme, which was thoughtful, intelligent and born out of the real life experience of individuals. John is undoubtedly a robust broadcaster but I don’t know anybody who thinks he is in any way biased.’
That’s not quite what Duncan Smith was saying two weeks ago when interviewed by Humphrys on Today programme the benefit cap and (ironically) his misuse of statistics. However, it does bring me neatly back to where I started with the bedroom tax/spare room subsidy.
There is of course nothing wrong with an elected politician or a campaigner describing a policy in whatever language they like. However, where a supposedly impartial media goes along with it there is a problem. That was exactly the point made by IDS himself when he complained to the BBC in March that it was ‘using the language of the Labour Party’ by referring to the ‘bedroom tax’ in news reports.
The spare room subsidy
At around the same time the Conservatives responded by coming up with ‘spare room subsidy’. The first reference I can find is this one from Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps on February 17:
On March 6 David Cameron used it for the first time at prime minister’s questions in a bid to change the terms of the debate. The Conservative leadership had clearly decided – much too late – that language matters and that ‘under-occupation penalty’ and ‘social sector size criteria’ were not doing the job. For me, this was much too late since ‘bedroom tax’ had already stuck but ministers continue to insist on ‘spare room subsidy’.
What’s interesting though is the reaction of a supposedly impartial civil service. The DWP press office in particular has previous form on the politicisation of its communications and especially in its use of Twitter. The main content of these tweets from Tuesday is factual enough but look at the hashtag used:
Compare that with the final impact assessment of ‘social sector under-occupation’ from June 2012, which does not mention ‘spare room subsidy’ (or ‘bedroom tax’). Press releases issued as the Welfare Reform Bill also used the neutral term ‘social sector size criteria’ until the run-up to implementation on 1 April. Even in late January, DWP tweets were referring to the ‘so-called bedroom tax’. However, from the end of February onwards, DWP communications have routinely used ‘spare room subsidy’ instead. This statement on Tuesday’s court case is a classic example but the same politicised language is also used in other website content including this ‘fact sheet’.
Among the various codes on civil service behaviour, the one that I can find that covers the behaviour of press officers in most detail is the Propriety Guidance produced by the Cabinet Office. In ‘press office dos and don’ts’, press officers are told they that should ‘present, describe and justify the thinking behind the policies of the minister’ and ‘be ready to promote the policies of the department and the government as a whole’. However, they should not ‘justify or defend policies in party political terms’.
There are also four ‘government publicity conventions’. The second and third stipulate that government communications should be ‘objective and explanatory, not biased or polemical’ and ‘should not be – or liable to be – misrepresented as being party political’.
We live in a politicised world. The way that power operates makes complete impartiality impossible in the civil service as in the media. However, conventions like this and the BBC’s rules on impartiality exist for a reason. Language matters – whoever you are.