Are Tesco and Next importing foreign workers because they cost less than British ones? It's the claim by Labour MP Chris Bryant, indignantly denied by the firms concerned, and it's all a bit confused at the moment. Many of us have little doubt that Bryant is right in general; but it's necessary to get the details absolutely right.
That's never been a consideration for Iain Duncan Smith. He has penned an extraordinary rant in the Mail today. The headline is: "For those eyeballing benefits as a one-way ticket to easy street, I have a wake-up call for you: those days are over! Says IAIN DUNCAN SMITH". That in itself is enough to get jaws dropping among benefits claimants. But the bizarre statements have yet to come. Did you know that "there are 4,000 single people making more in benefits than many individual people would earn from work"? Just try working out what that means. You'll notice that there's no mention of the fact that this is all down to the cost of rents. But IDS wants Mail readers to know that by the end of September those people will be subject to a new cap of £18,200. Then there's the Claimant Commitment" which "transforms the relationship between the claimant and the system. Claimants will sign an agreement to undertake certain activities in order to get their benefits in return. Our advisers have the power to sanction people who don't uphold their part of the bargain. No longer can people just turn up to claim benefits with no onus on them to better their situation."
What can one say to that? Does he not know that the current system is already exactly what he describes? And why won't he publish the sanctions figures? Well, probably, but it's not truth or accuracy which matter, it's feeding the prejudices of the public at large. And that seems to be the case with yet another poverty entertainment show tonight. Channel 4, which once did such a good job with Benefit Busters, now prefers to give us a series which harks back to the start of the welfare state in 1949 and see how today's unemployed would fare. The Mail, of course, has no doubt. It uses the term "handouts", which had no place in 1940s thinking. It says that "benefits were originally conceived as a temporary helping hand in times of trouble, not a lifestyle choice". There's that phrase again, the lie which says that all unemployed people have made a choice to be so. I won't be watching.
Duncan Smith's past is coming back to haunt him, and I'm starting to understand why he hates the BBC so much. Well before the scandal broke over MPs' expenses, there was a lesser scandal of MPs employing their relatives on the government payroll, often for doing nothing at all. One of the MPs caught up in this was IDS himself, who was leader of his party at the time. The BBC's Michael Crick discovered that he was paying his wife, Betsy, £15k a year. "Betsygate" was uncomfortable for IDS, but it was worse for some of his staff. A blog points us to evidence given to Parliament by his aide Dr Vanessa Gearson in October 2003. It's long and detailed, but well worth a read.