If you want an illustration of just how damaging tribalism can be in politics, look no further than this Westminster Hall debate, held yesterday. Labour's Lisa Nandy had organised it, which was on ‘effects of government policy on UK poverty’, partly, it seems to raise some stories from her constituency about benefit sanctions that had been unfairly applied, and partly, presumably, to take a few party political pot shots at the Tories.
That’s fair enough with an election coming up, and it would have been fair enough for the Tories in the debate to defend their record robustly. What doesn’t seem to be fair enough or indeed at all sensible is the response that Tory MP Mark Spencer offered to a specific case that Nandy listed. Here’s the exchange:
Lisa Nandy: We find increasingly that people are sanctioned for being just a few minutes late for appointments to sign on. My local councillor, Jeanette Prescott, said that
“several times this year I have had to refer a gentleman with learning difficulties to Denise (the local Reverend) for food due to him having sanctions on him for turning up late (once by 4 minutes). The gentleman can’t tell the time and is a recluse. He has been found sitting in his flat in the dark with no electric or gas. He won’t ask for help. Only for the old neighbours watch out for him and contact myself heaven knows what would of happened to him. I was informed he has to get a letter off the doctor for an electric card…The lad turned up at my door the other night. He hadn’t eaten for 5 days. He looked like he was dying.”
Mark Spencer: I hope that the hon. Lady appreciates that people who work very hard, and who might be earning very small amounts from working 50 hours a week, have to turn up to work on time. If they are late for their employment, they might be sanctioned by their employer. It is important that those who are seeking employment learn the discipline of timekeeping, which is an important part of securing and keeping a job.
Lisa Nandy: I must say to the hon. Gentleman that taking that sort of patronising tone towards people is exactly why people throughout the country are so angry with the Government. While he was speaking, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) made the point that two Conservative Members turned up minutes late for this debate, but they will still be allowed to participate if they wish to do so. I will come on to the example of a working couple who got in touch with me recently and who have had real problems with the system. Nevertheless, I am happy to give way again if the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) wants to come back on this point: what would he expect someone with learning difficulties, who cannot tell the time, to do in that situation? He has no one to turn to for help and was sanctioned for being four minutes late.
Mark Spencer: I think that that emphasises the importance of the education system in solving the challenges that we face as we move forward. We must try to ensure that the employees of the future are in the best place to be able to take on a career and move forward with a job.
Lisa Nandy: The man I am talking about is the fourth case of someone with learning disabilities being sanctioned that I have come across in my constituency office this month. The Minister’s Department holds the responsibility for people with disabilities. I hope that she has listened to the comments made by her colleague and will take the opportunity to condemn them. I also hope that she will ensure that in future no one will be sanctioned for having learning difficulties that prevent them from being able to tell the time.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with defending your government. But in this exchange, Mark Spencer seemed to be suggesting that if only the education system were better, this man wouldn’t have any learning difficulties. This is an interesting understanding of what learning difficulties are (interesting in the sense that he is wrong). Learning difficulties are not something that can be ‘cured’ by education. They are something that someone, however well educated, will have for their whole life, even though they can manage them in order to lead an independent life, which means that this claimant could hold down a job, but with reasonable adjustments. Here is an explanation.
Spencer was, very ineptly, trying to dismiss the case that Nandy is referring to. More adept politicians tend to neutralise these case studies by saying that they are very happy to look into the detail of the case and to see if there is something that the Jobcentre could have done differently. Indeed, Esther McVey later told Nandy that she ‘would like to know about the specific instances’ so she could find out what happened at the Jobcentre. She added that ‘somebody with learning difficulties is a vulnerable person and has a good cause’. This at least gives the impression that the minister is willing to consider that the system might have glitches in it that need fixing. Most systems do. McVey may have found out that the example Nandy was using wasn't quite as it had been presented, or else she might have found that something could be done. But she wasn't dismissing the example without checking first.
Spencer, on the other hand, was so tribal and so keen to defend his side that he gave the impression he couldn’t care less about the claimant that Nandy mentioned. That sort of rigid tribalism is bad for politics and very bad indeed for policymaking.