IF it was a joke, it wasn’t a very funny one. It happened at one of those grand events so secretive that most of us never even get to hear about them, never mind receive an invite.
The occasion? The Conservative Party’s Black and White Ball, an event involving politicians, big business and high stakes corporate fundraising. No doubt it also involved a copious amount of rich food and expensive alcohol.
Despite what some people might think – and I reckon I am safe in presuming Old Etonian Mr Swire to be amongst them – living on benefits is not an enviable lifestyle choice.
And it also involved Hugo Swire, a Foreign Office minister, acting as auctioneer for a series of high-value items that included dinner with Boris Johnson and a shoe-shopping expedition with Theresa May.
However it will be remembered for a gaffe about people on benefits which says more about the Government’s attitude towards this particular demographic than any string of policy announcements. That it was caught by a hidden camera on behalf of Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, seems to offer a just desert more fitting than any fancy pudding on the menu.
As bidding gets underway, Swire is heard trying to persuade a guest, who is sitting at the table of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, to increase his bid for a certain item. “£60,000?” he says. “Iain, persuade him. He’s not on benefits is he? Well, if he is then he can afford it.”
Okay. I’m not getting this out of perspective. I hear jokes about “people on benefits” almost every day. Mostly these come from my son, who is almost 13. It’s a strange kind of hierarchy, this work versus benefits situation. Despite what some people might think – and I reckon I am safe in presuming Old Etonian Mr Swire to be amongst them – living on benefits is not an enviable lifestyle choice in communities like mine.
In Barnsley, there is a divide between the families who go out to work and those who exist on support from the state. No-one is more judgemental on this than young people. They pity and deride those “on benefits”, and understand a lot more than you might think about the problems of the dependency culture.
This is because they see it at first-hand in school in every day. They know the kids whose parents can’t afford to buy them new trainers. They see the school-leavers who come back to give inspirational talks about their careers in the police force or the Army. And they also see those who couldn’t be bothered at school hanging around in the town centre all day smoking roll-ups and staring into space. Indeed, I’d wager that this lot might be even more judgemental than your average Old Etonian Tory Minister.
And that is pretty judgemental. This coalition Government will go down in history as sweeping into power with a series of hard-line reforms which turned benefit claimants into public enemy number one.
From the instigation of Universal Credit to crack-downs on Disability Benefit, to restricting Child Benefit and curbing the benefits available to young people leaving school, not a corner has been left untouched.
Ask your average working person if they agree with all that has been done and I think that most of them would generally agree with the principle – if not the practice.
However there are two problems with the coalition’s attitude towards benefit claimants: the roll-out of reform fails to take into account individual circumstances, and the attitude of certain politicians, Hugo Swire amongst them, makes the changes more unpalatable than any fund-raising dinner.
Thoughtless comments by Tory toffs overshadow all the excellent work which visionaries such as Iain Duncan Smith have put in these past five years. They highlight the fact that the Britain we live in is still “broken” despite the lofty promises of the Prime Minister.
Indeed, it is not only broken, it is riven down the middle. Our children are growing up in a society so divided it is difficult to see how any future politician could heal the rifts. How out of touch are the likes of Mr Swire and his friends? Do they even care? I think they do not, and that is the worse thing about it.
That said, the attitude of my son and his friends might come as something of a surprise to Mr Swire and his party compatriots. They are more conservative than you might think. Only a few weeks ago David Cameron announced draconian measures to crack down on NEETs (young people not in employment, education or training). Those in this situation for more than six months will be forced to do community work in exchange for their benefit money. This could involve working for charities, volunteering at day centres for the elderly and so on, as well as supervised job-hunting.
It makes sense. People – including my son – would agree with it. However, when it comes accompanied by a backdrop of braying voices and individuals bidding thousands of pounds for a dinner with Boris Johnson, it doesn’t go down too well, and it certainly provides much food for thought ahead of the May 7 election.