PMQs: Theresa May’s glib ideology won’t feed those relying on food banks

A troubling pattern is emerging at PMQs


‘This is important,’ Dawn Butler shouted across the chamber today, as Theresa May responded to a question about benefits sanctions with yet another attempt at banter.

Since taking the helm at PMQs, May has developed a clear — albeit uninspiring — strategy. In response to any evidence-based question from Jeremy Corbyn on the devastation wrought by Tory ideology, she responds with sweeping ideological statements, based on a simplistic and outdated interpretation of the left-right divide.

For example, in today’s session Corbyn asked the following question:

“This week, Mr Speaker, Oxford University studies found there is a direct link between benefits sanctions and rising demand for food banks. A million people accessed a food bank last year to receive a food parcel; only 40,000 did so in 2010. I welcome the government’s commitment to review the work capability assessment for disabled people, but will she further commit to reviewing the whole punitive sanctions regime.”

May responded:

“It is absolutely right that in our welfare system we have a system that makes sure that those people who receive benefits are those who it is right to receive benefits [sic]. That’s why we have assessments in our welfare system. But it’s also important that in our welfare system we ensure that those who are able to get into the workplace are making every effort to get into the workplace. That’s why we have sanctions in our system. What the Rt Hon Gentleman wants is no assessments, no sanctions and unlimited welfare. That’s not fair to those who are accessing the welfare system and it’s not fair to the taxpayers who pay for it.”

This is a textbook answer from May, involving three key components.

Firstly, she completely ignores the substance of what Corbyn has said, and the evidence he has offered. In this she differs from David Cameron, who would at least have twisted the statistics or offered an alternative piece of evidence that suited his own purposes.

Secondly, she offers a sweeping justification for introducing the policy in the first place, in terms that seem moderate and sensible. This is completely irrelevant to the question, which is not about the basic principles of a welfare system, but rather the excesses of the Tory approach and their implementation failures.

Thirdly, she sets up a blatant straw man — in this case arguing that Labour supports unlimited welfare — self-righteously attacks it, and then sits down triumphantly.

The same pattern repeated with the next question. Corbyn highlighted the death of a former serviceman who lost his benefits and called on the prime minister to end ‘the institutional barbarity’ of the sanctions regime.

May responded by repeating the importance of the benefits system being perceived as fair, seeming to imply that excess deaths are an unavoidable consequence of ‘fairness’.

Of course, it is incumbent on the leader of the opposition to call out the prime minister’s refusal to engage with the failures of her government, and of the two previous governments in which she served.

However, it also behoves the prime minister to take people’s lives seriously, and to govern with evidence-based policy rather than half-baked ideology.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.

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