Find­ing a way for­ward on ben­e­fits

The Church of England - - THE RECORD -

Both sides in the de­bate about wel­fare are run­ning true to form. The ‘Daily Mail’ and Con­ser­va­tive politi­cians use the case of Mick Philpott to give the im­pres­sion that abuse is ram­pant while pri­vately ad­mit­ting that the ex­am­ple of a man with a wife, a mis­tress and 13 chil­dren is prob­a­bly unique.

The churches, for their part, have con­cen­trated their fire on the suf­fer­ing the cuts in ben­e­fits will cause and the wide­spread myths about scroungers and shirk­ers. This is the easy bit. It is more dif­fi­cult to say what should be done about a wel­fare bill we can no longer af­ford. Hous­ing ben­e­fits, for ex­am­ple, now ac­count for £28.3 bil­lion a year, one-tenth of the to­tal wel­fare bud­get.

Is it rea­son­able to ex­pect tax­pay­ers mak­ing a daily jour­ney on a crowded trans­port sys­tem from Es­sex or Hert­ford­shire to work in cen­tral Lon­don to sub­sidise peo­ple liv­ing in West­min­ster or Kens­ing­ton? Pri­vate rents have gone up by 37 per cent in the past five years.

Opin­ion polls show that while in 1987, 55 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion was pre­pared to see an in­crease in wel­fare ben­e­fits even if it meant an in­crease in tax­a­tion, now only 27 per cent think that way. Seven peo­ple in 10 want to see less spent on wel­fare.

There are many rea­sons for this state of af­fairs. Abuses in the sys­tem high­lighted by the right wing press are only one rea­son. The eco­nomic cri­sis is im­por­tant but some years ago David Wil­letts warned that as Bri­tain’s pop­u­la­tion be­came more eth­ni­cally di­verse there would be less sup­port for wel­fare. The wel­fare state was pop­u­lar in ho­mo­ge­neous so­ci­eties like Swe­den; it was never held in equal es­teem in such a racially di­verse coun­try as the US. Re­search by Robert Put­nam has shown that plu­ral­ism leads to less trust and less readi­ness to share. This is not just a racist at­ti­tude.

When I lived in Aus­tralia I was struck by the re­sent­ment felt to New Zealan­ders who en­joyed ac­cess to the ben­e­fit sys­tem. In 2001 a rule was in­tro­duced that New Zealan­ders must be res­i­dent in Aus­tralia for two years be­fore claim­ing ben­e­fits.

Con­ser­va­tive politi­cians are not slow to play on hos­til­ity to ben­e­fits. Ge­orge Os­borne is a politi­cian to his fin­ger­tips and he knows how to make aus­ter­ity pop­u­lar. Churches may get sup­port from ‘The Guardian’ and Labour Party but out­side their own ranks most peo­ple will sim­ply shrug their shoul­ders and say ‘They would say that wouldn’t they? Vic­ars only work on Sun­days’.

In the long run the best way to help the poor in the present cli­mate of fi­nan­cial strin­gency is to re­form the wel­fare sys­tem. De­spite all his rhetoric this is what Iain Dun­can Smith is not do­ing. Here Frank Field is of­ten right. In the long run the only way to make ben­e­fits ac­cept­able and worth more is to tie them to con­tri­bu­tions. Bev­eridge was quite clear that what he was rec­om­mend­ing was ‘so­cial in­surance – giv­ing a re­turn for con­tri­bu­tion ben­e­fits up to sub­sis­tence level as of right and with­out means test so that in­di­vid­u­als may build freely upon it’.

Get­ting to such a sys­tem will not be easy. Suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have made numer­ous mis­takes that can­not quickly be cor­rected but Bev­eridge’s vi­sion should be the aim.

In the mean­time other steps can be taken. More em­pha­sis needs to go on ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing. The government’s vo­ca­tion scheme is to be com­mended. More money would be bet­ter spent on child care than on ben­e­fits.

Pe­nal­is­ing peo­ple for liv­ing in so­cial hous­ing with a room ex­tra to their re­quire­ments when there are not enough smaller flats and houses is a short–sighted pol­icy that will pro­duce a host of hard luck sto­ries in the me­dia. Ur­gent steps need to be taken to in­crease the num­ber of houses be­ing built. Last year three times more fam­i­lies were cre­ated than houses were built.

In the de­bate be­tween the Government and its crit­ics cer­tain truths are be­ing over­looked. There are lim­its to the amount of money Gov­ern­ments can spend, how­ever re­luc­tant the churches are to recog­nise that fact. Economis­ing on the wel­fare bill is not the same as re­form, no mat­ter how much Iain Dun­can Smith may pre­tend it is. Not all spend­ing is good and not all re­form is bad, but cuts do not al­ways equal re­form.

Pen­sions rep­re­sent a grow­ing pro­por­tion of the wel­fare bill and at­tempts are be­ing made to stir up in­ter­gen­er­a­tional hos­til­ity. War be­tween the gen­er­a­tions could re­place class war­fare. An at­tempt has been made at re­form­ing pen­sions and re­tire­ment age is be­ing raised over Trade Union op­po­si­tion. Op­po­nents are right to point out that there is a dif­fer­ence in life­span be­tween dif­fer­ent classes and be­tween dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try and that needs to be borne in mind. As for uni­ver­sal ben­e­fits such as bus passes, TV li­cences and heat­ing al­lowances, they should not be abol­ished but taxed in the same way old aged pen­sions are taxed.

In the cur­rent eco­nomic cli­mate vot­ers across Europe are turn­ing not to the left but to pop­ulist par­ties that play on hos­til­ity to im­mi­grants and wel­fare re­cip­i­ents. One way to change this is to re­form, not abol­ish, the sys­tem so that its ad­van­tages can be seen by all.

Mick Philpott

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