The plain fact is that the benefits system doesn’t work properly

5th January, 2012 11:31 am

It seems a long time ago in the wake of Maurice Glasman’s New Statesman article detailing his steadfast support for Ed Miliband, but earlier this week Liam Byrne wrote a piece in the Guardian pointing out that this year is the 70th anniversary of William Beveridge’s famous report into social insurance. Byrne looked back at the principles that underpinned the Beveridge Report, and considered what had happened to the benefits system since the 1940s. In his article he echoed the language not only of Beveridge, but also of Ed Miliband in his conference speech last year when he said:

“Even after reforms of recent years, we still have a system where reward for work is not high enough. Where benefits are too easy to come by for those who don’t deserve them and too low for those who do. So if what you want is a welfare system that works for working people then I’m prepared to take the tough decisions to make that a reality.”

Beveridge himself, writing in his report into Full Employment in a Free Society in 1944, summarised the Beveridge Plan as ‘designed to secure, by a comprehensive scheme of national insurance, that every individual on condition of working while he can and contributing from his earnings, shall have an income sufficient for the healthy subsistence of himself and his family.’  (my emphasis added)

Beveridge was clear, as is Byrne, that no-one should take from the system without putting in, which is why he called it ‘social insurance’ not ‘free money for anyone who fancies it.’

What Byrne didn’t do in his article, unless I missed it, was call for a return to eugenics, involuntary euthanasia, compulsory athlete’s foot or witchcraft in the national curriculum, which you might have thought if you only read the intemperate and ill-informed responses. Some of Byrne’s attackers simply imagined what he’d said, and attacked that. They imagined he’d attacked disabled people, or people who’d lost their jobs through no fault of their own. It’s hard to argue with people whose senses are so dulled by fury and grievance that they attack you for what you haven’t said. There are many people, some of them quite young, who think the way to make a name or get noticed is to conduct public debate through a megaphone. But Byrne’s article is thoughtful, nuanced and balanced, and his arguments deserve to be heard and understood. Older, wiser heads – MPs such as John Denham and Caroline Flint – get this, and engaged in a comradely fashion. That’s the difference between those who’ve been in the party 30 years and those who’ve been in the party ten minutes, I suppose.

Another group, many self-identifying as ‘left wing’, attacked Byrne for daring to talk about reforming the welfare system at all. They accused him of adopting a Tory agenda by mentioning reform. Some demanded that he be removed from the Labour shadow cabinet, others that he leave the Labour Party altogether. The logic of this position is that the benefits system in Britain is so perfect that it cannot be improved; furthermore, that Labour’s policy at the next election should be to return the benefits system to the exact state it was in in May 2010, in order to recreate the perfection. Before you accuse me of reductio ad absurdum then I invite you to outline what reforms you would like to see? Unless the ‘left’ can come up with its own reform programme, then it will sit to the right of the Conservative Party, in favour of conservation of the status quo, and against all change. They may as well put the welfare state up for ownership of the National Trust, and we can all visit it on our days off.

The plain fact is that the benefits system doesn’t work properly, and as a result millions of pounds are misdirected or wasted. It fails to help people into jobs, but instead allows people to languish for years, sometimes decades without work. It fails to identify and help real needs, such as mental illness, which create barriers to people finding work. It lacks flexibility and common sense. It also creates the conditions whereby some people can choose not to work, even though they could, which is the precise opposite of what Beveridge had in mind when he identified ‘Idleness’ as one of the five giants to be slain.

Ask any pollster what they know about public attitudes towards the benefits system, and they’ll tell you the same thing: a majority of people think the system is unfair, that the wrong people get the most money, and that some people simply take the piss. Crucially, most people blame the Labour Party for the mess, and consider that not only did we create the conditions for people to be deliberately workless, but that we welcome them. These social attitudes are hardening in the slump, according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey. They are most prevalent amongst the people closest to the edge: people working more hours but taking home less money. If you’ve been canvassing Labour-voting areas recently, you’ll know this to be true. If we become the party of welfare, not the party of work, we may as well not show up to the next election.

Labour has a simple choice at the next election: a platform with chimes with the public’s view, which seeks to fix the broken system, and which gets the most help to the people who need it the most, or we can tell the people they are wrong, that the system works fine, and that we won’t touch it. I’m no expert, but telling people they’re wrong and we know best doesn’t strike me as a sound basis to win an election.

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