James Purnell told Newsnight this week that he wants to “help people love the welfare state” again. His prescription though looks more likely to kill it stone dead. Purnell starts from the wrong position – assuming that people thought Labour was ‘soft’ on ‘benefit scroungers’, therefore they must have been. We don’t pander to peoples false perceptions, we are supposed to correct them. It’s demonstrably the case that the cost of benefit fraud is nothing compared to the cost of tax avoidance and tax evasion. For example, last year, the National Fraud Authority found tax avoidance and evasion cost fifteen times more than benefit fraud.
If Purnell was serious about convincing people to love the welfare state then he would do well to start by correcting the false impression given in the media that benefit fraud is what is ‘dragging the British economy down’. Welfare spending is currently increasing not because of bug-eyed fraudsters milking the system dry but because of this government’s lemming-like economic policies.
So, having started from the wrong place, Purnell can’t do anything right. His idea that we should cut out Winter Fuel Allowances, Free bus passes and TV licenses are frankly an abomination. No doubt he will make noises about ‘targeting’ but we all know that means testing – which is what ‘targeting’ is another word for – hits the poorest the hardest. Elderly people, children, these are our most vulnerable groups and Purnell wants to squeeze them until the pips squeak. It also shows that his welfare policy isn’t designed with the right principles in mind; its sole purpose is to save money, not protect the needy.
Moving onto contribution, Purnell forgets we already have a contributionary system. Everybody in work pays National Insurance, except those on very low incomes. It amazes me that think establishing a ‘contributionary’ welfare state is somehow a new and novel idea when in fact it is an extension of what already exists. What the likes of Purnell are actually asking for is a greater contribution from people who by very definition of being on benefits have extremely limited and probably non-existent ability to do so. In doing so they are penalising the needy for being needy.
Alternatives do exist. One good start would be to stop the massive drain on our economy from tax avoidance and evasion (a form of fraud suspisciously under-report compared to benefit fraud). Other possibilities exist in making work pay by raising the level of the minimum wage to that of a living wage and supporting the democratic restructuring of our economy to create concrete jobs rather than the paper jobs currently being created. Also, substantial investment in skills and training and general education would open up new opportunities for all. James Purnell’s politics on welfare are simply poisonous – they will not save the welfare state but kill it stone dead. Labour should reject them if it really does love the welfare state and instead of decimating it rebuild it as something we can once again be proud of, rather than kill it with fake kindness.