The great welfare debate
Three quarters of Anglican churchgoers think the welfare state creates dependency, according to a poll carried out for the Westminster Faith Debates. Half of all members of the Church of England think that the welfare budget should be reduced and only one in five think it should be increased.
These results are actually more hardline than those for the population as a whole and show a major divergence between the views of ordinary Anglicans and those of church leaders.
There is a similar divergence on matters of sexual morality but while the Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested the church needs to take note of the widespread rejection of its teaching on sexuality he has not voiced similar fears about a failure to follow the bishops’ lead on welfare.
Lord Carey, who has shown no intention of modifying his views on sexuality, is closer to the popular view on benefits, saying it is ‘simplistic’ to blame increased use of food banks on the cuts.
An all-Parliamentary inquiry chaired by the Bishop of Truro and Frank Field has been set up to look into the causes for the increased use of food banks. It is likely that the use of penalties to force benefit claimants to look for work or the late payment of benefits will be shown to be factors driving people to them. If this is proved to be the case, it may have some impact in swaying public opinion but it will not be decisive.
A survey undertaken by Theos shows that 87 per cent of the population think the welfare state is facing severe problems. As two contributors to a Theos collection of essays, The Future of Welfare, put it, we have ‘fallen out of love with welfare’.
What has gone wrong, according to many of the contributors to this collection, is that we have moved away from Lord Beveridge’s vision of ‘social insurance’, where people on benefits received back from the money they have paid in to one of means-tested welfare where everyone is eligible for payments based on need. This is seen as unfair for a number of reasons. Someone who has been in work for many years and is then unemployed receives only a very small payment that lasts for a short period before savings over £16,000 have to be spent.
At the same time there is anger at a system that, rightly or wrongly, is seen as enabling people who do not want to work to live on state support. Immigration and the growth of a more pluralist and less cohesive society has meant the development in Britain of attitudes common in the US where racial divisions have been a factor behind opposition to welfare. In Britain a strong sense of national identity in 1945 helped the creation of the welfare state.
Unfortunately moving to a social insurance model will be more difficult than some advocates acknowledge. Many people need help who have not been in a position to work. Youth unemployment is a major problem and there are people suffering from disabilities who have never been able to contribute to a social insurance policy.
It is in any case questionable from an ethical standpoint whether we should attempt to set up a welfare system that only pays back the people who have contributed. A welfare system should give expression to society’s dedication to helping those in need. What can fairly be asked of those in receipt of benefits is that they acknowledge an obligation to pay back to society for the help they have received. In this way the community can go on supporting those in need even at a time of financial difficulties.
In practice this means that those in receipt of benefits should be ready to undergo training or take part in social or charitable programmes. In the case of young people, a paid work programme would be better than benefits. This would help them to form the habits necessary to continue in employment and enable them to start making contributions.
In some ways present rules are not tough enough. Checks should be made to ensure housing benefit is paid to landlords and not simply spent by the recipient who then ends up with a poor credit rating.
Several years ago I drove through the Lake District and noticed that at every cafe or coffee bar I stopped I was served by friendly young Poles. When I pointed this out to friends and drew attention to high youth unemployment rates in Whitehaven and Maryport on the edge of the Lake District I was told it was unreasonable to expect young men whose fathers had gone down the mines to work in hotels and restaurants. Young people from all over Europe are prepared to uproot themselves and seek work here. We do our young people no favours if we protect them against social change.
Bishops are right to protest against a welfare system that leaves too many people in need but the churches need to throw their weight behind attempts to redesign the welfare state so that it commands more support and so that it ensures everyone will be better off working than remaining on benefits.