Lord Freud and Foodbanks: a Parable for Our Times
- December 13, 2013
Even by the dire standards set by the government, the Under-Secretary for Work and Pensions Lord David Freud, or Baron Freud of Eastry is a nasty piece of work. Freud is Sigmund Freud’s great grandson, and the Great Man’s humanist genes have clearly not filtered down to this callous apparatchik and Ian Duncan-Smith’s key advisor on welfare ‘reform.’.
Yesterday Freud suggested at a conference on welfare that local councils might start funding some of the hundreds of food banks that have popped up all over the country in the last two years – largely as a result of the reforms that his ministry has implemented. Freud said that society has experienced a ‘terrible economic thump’ and in-kind support in the form of food parcels was ‘actually a very interesting way’ of helping people to survive it.
Yes, don’t you find food banks ‘interesting’ readers? I know I do. But Baron Freud hasn’t always shown such interest. In July he was suggesting that foodbanks were simply a freebie for the greedy, and denying any ‘causal connections’ with the benefits changes introduced by the government.
This was a lie. As anyone who has ever visited a food bank will tell you, many people who use them are forced to do so because their benefits have been cut or delayed, and many have actually been referred to them by their local jobseeker’s centre.
Freud’s observations might suggest a politician who is ‘out of touch’. But there is a lot more to him than that. On the one hand he represents the essential ideological continuity between New Labour and the Coalition. But his career is also something of an iconic parable of our dystopian times.
Freud was appointed by Tony Blair in 2006 to advise the Secretary for Work and Pensions John Hutton on welfare reform, even though he admitted at the time that he ‘didn’t know anything about welfare at all.’
So what had he done to warrant such attention? Well, he started out as a financial journalist, before working in the City in the 80s and 90s as a stockbroker and investment banker. Freud made vast sums of money for himself and others. He was involved in a number of high profile share promotions that led a member of his own team to describe it as the ‘Fraud Squad.’
Freud later admitted in a 2006 interview that a number of his financial activities in the 80s would be considered illegal at worst and ethically ambiguous at best. A reviewer of his 2006 book detailing his experiences in the banking sector noted that Freud ‘will be remembered in the City as one of the key players in several of the most embarrassing and badly managed deals in investment banking history’.
But that isn’t the kind of history to trouble New Labour. On the contrary, Freud was rich and he was a banker, so he was chosen by Blair to oversee an independent investigation on welfare reform that would help secure his ‘prime ministerial legacy’.
In 2007 Freud was the architect of the government’s Welfare Reform Bill, which the Social Security Advisory Committee described at the time as ‘ a major departure from the principles …that have underpinned UK social protection for almost sixty years’.
Not surprisingly Freud favoured greater private sector involvement in administering the benefits system, and also in incapacity benefit assessments of the type that brought such a bumper harvest to ASOS and other companies. Freud’s attitude to welfare was made clear in a 2008 interview, in which he declared ‘ We cannot have people simply loafing about, doing nothing and expecting the state to finance their lifestyles. That is the way to the destruction of our society.’
Some might argue, especially since 2008, that the activities of bankers like Freud have done far more to bring about the destruction of ‘our’ society than disabled or sick people who depend on the state for their survival. But not New Labour and not the Coalition.
In 2009 Freud joined the Tory party and was created a baron, and in 2012 he was placed in charge of the government’s welfare reform program. Freud promised to take steps that would prevent lone parents, the sick, and the disabled from having a ‘lifestyle’ at the expense of the state.
This is exactly what he has done, with catastrophic consequences for men, women and children across the country who have done nothing wrong except to be poor.
But given the way things are, it is entirely appropriate that this millionaire banker, who made a fortune playing the kinds of speculative financial games that did so much to bring about the ‘economic thump’, which has now caused the greatest fall in living standards since Victorian times, has played a pivotal role in implementing reforms that have targeted some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
And no wonder he finds food banks ‘interesting’. After all, as he once said of himself and his banking colleagues ‘If the rest of the country knew what we were being paid, there would be tumbrels on the street and heads carried around on pikes’.
Now that really is an interesting idea.