Finding a way forward on benefits
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.