It was good to hear the Prime Minister follow Labour’s lead and join the big debate about the future of social security. In this 70th anniversary of the Beveridge Report, we begun posing the big, long term questions about how 70 years on, the welfare state has to change.
But how depressing it was to hear the Prime Minister has learned nothing from the chaos now enveloping the welfare revolution they promised.
At the heart of the Tories promise was a Work Programme and Universal Credit that was supposed to be better than the New Deal and tax credits. Except they’re not.
The Work Programme is sinking fast. Long term unemployment has rocketed up over the last year; one-third of people now on the dole are long-term unemployed. The rate at which people are flowing off benefit and into work has halved in a year. No wonder the government is still insisting on keeping the performance information a secret.
Now we hear of major problems with Universal Credit. On the Today programme, Iain Duncan Smith said the vast IT programme was on time and on budget. Except its not. A newsletter to DWP staff has confirmed its running six months late. And parliamentary questions put down by Labour’s Stephen Timms show the project is already £100 million over budget. IDS doesn’t know what’s going on in his own department.
Massive questions still remain outstanding. No-one knows what’s going to happen to the 20,000 housing benefit staff, currently in local councils, when housing benefit is abolished. DWP doesn’t know whether to include Free School Meals or not. Council Tax Benefit plans, say the IFS, could seriously undermine the project. There’s a word for all this. Chaos.
But what’s holed the Tories plan below the water-line is their disastrous economic plans. Pushing Britain into a double dip recession has pushed unemployment so fast that an eye-watering £9 billion has been added to the benefits bill for dole payments and housing benefit. Dealing with that massive pressure is forcing the Tories to find savings; so instead of redoubling their efforts to get people into work, they’ve decided to just take the money from young people and the disabled: £8 billion will be slashed from disabled people and disabled former workers in this Parliament.
Back in 1942, William Beveridge put three ideas at the heart of his report; full employment, universal help with disability and the job of raising children, and insurance to help with the rainy day. This was a something for something deal where everyone – individual, government and business – did their bit.
These are the first principles the Prime Minister needs to return to. Starting with the most important lesson of all: welfare to work doesn’t work without jobs. Instead, it seems the only principles the Prime Minister cares about is how to placate his slathering back-benches itching for a fight over Lords reform. I’m afraid this big debate needs better motives than that.
Liam Byrne is the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions