By Adrian Sinfield, Professor Emeritus of Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh and Honorary Fellow of the JUC.
I doubt if the many tributes to and obituaries of Nicholas Parsons who has just died at the age of 96 will recall his great performance working with Julian Le Grand and others in The Spongers, broadcast by Granada TV on 15 May 1989. The mock panel show had Nicholas as the compere with an assistant Pandora who opened magic boxes to reveal how much or little two couples and their children, the working class Ackroyds and the middle class Osbornes, gained in benefits from the welfare state across their lifetimes. I used a 20-minute video of it for teaching on the social division of welfare on undergraduate, postgraduate and Erasmus/Tempus courses for years. It took account of not only state benefits but some tax reliefs and some occupational benefits. Nicholas kept bringing in Julian Le Grand as ’The Professor’ to tell us who was getting what, and to explain why. By the end of their longer lives the Osbornes were shown to have gained more than the Ackroyds. It was ideal for one of the closing sessions of my course: it generated a great deal of amusement and much relevant, often challenging discussion. Meeting past students now, they often recall that, if nothing else.
Julian told me that Nicholas got very engaged with putting on the show and came up with suggestions that sharpened it in a number of ways. In Good Times Bad Times (2015) John Hills built very successfully on it to discredit ‘the welfare myth of them and us’ including analyses of further generations of those two families, presented as case-studies set in italic.
By a curious coincidence I heard of Nicholas’s death an hour or so after discovering that HMRC is no longer publishing its annual lists of the costs of tax reliefs and expenditures first started after much campaigning in the late 1970s. That data was integral to the Spongers analysis and much used in my course. Instead HMRC has released a Bulletin on the Estimated Cost of Tax Reliefs which presents each costed relief in a separate table and chart. Apparently they do not want us to add them up as this is misleading. The Office for Budget Responsibility did so in its July Fiscal Risks report. One of its tables presented ‘policy motivated’ tax reliefs from 2005-06 to 2023-4 as a percentage of GDP. OBR regarded them as ‘large in absolute terms – approaching 8 per cent of GDP – and also by international standards’. So HMRC has thrust one less visible, less accountable but quite considerable element of the social division of welfare further back into the black box. I can only hope that the OBR, the National Audit Office and select committees challenge this. John Stewart’s biography of Richard Titmuss, out this year, describes the difficulties he had in 1955 and again later to get consideration of these issues.
Even more now, we need more programmes like The Spongers using the skills that Nicholas had to open up the full picture of who gets what, and why.