By Chaminda Jayanetti
Politicians like to talk about their “backstory”. It makes them seem normal, relatable, or so they hope. Even if their background is hopelessly out of touch from that of most people, there will usually be some difficulty, or tragedy, or hardship – real or perceived – that can be front-paged to hide the privilege beneath. Even a grammar school education can be rebranded as “state”.
With Stephen Crabb, the recently installed Work and Pensions Secretary, it’s not so much of an act. He grew up in council housing. He went to state school, and both his parents received benefits at various points. So far, so normal.
Another aspect of his childhood that Mr Crabb has openly talked about is the domestic violence his mother suffered at the hands of his father. He has discussed it in media interviews. He has talked about the effect it had on him, and how his mother became an inspiration to him.
He has brought it into the public domain. Which is his right, assuming his mother gave her consent.
Mr Crabb now finds himself with a level of power he could never have imagined in those early years. He is now in charge of welfare policy and the benefits system, after six years of Iain Duncan Smith at the helm.
As he decides how to manage the Department for Work and Pensions and lay out a path for the benefits system, he might wish to consider the following:
- the benefits cap has forced women with children to return to abusive partners because they can no longer afford to raise and house the children by themselves
- the bedroom tax has meant that more than 200 women at risk of domestic violence can’t afford to keep a panic room to protect themselves in case of attack
- Universal Credit will be paid to a single person in a co-habiting or married couple rather than to both individuals, meaning that an abusive man will have much greater financial control over his partner – the government thinks it is enough to say that victims of domestic abuse can simply request an alternative arrangement
- refuges for women escaping domestic violence will be made subject to caps on Housing Benefit, which could make them unaffordable for many women because they cost more to run – the government has postponed implementation of this for a year, but the threat remains
- Housing Benefit is being axed for people aged under 21, with an exemption for “vulnerable” young people that will last only six months, placing young women who live far from or do not get on with their families at greater risk of abusive relationships
- overall cuts to benefits, especially those to child benefit and tax credits, have fallen mostly on women, reducing their financial independence from male partners and making it harder to leave abusive relationships
Mr Crabb has been an MP since 2005. He has sat on the government benches since 2010. In the last six years, he has rebelled against the party line once in 1,477 votes. He has never opposed the government’s welfare cuts to date.
The legitimate role of a politician’s background and life experiences is to inform their knowledge of how people live, whilst recognising the limitations of that knowledge. It is not there just to hang out for public display like a bunting of normality.
Mr Crabb did not have to talk about his childhood. He chose to. He did not have to talk about the trauma his mother faced. He chose to. He now has it within his power to ensure that his government, his department, on his watch, does not condemn more women to that trauma.