What should welfare reform look like?

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Out leafleting in Newcastle one afternoon a young woman demanded to know why the council were being so slow to rehouse her. She had a two bedroom flat which was bad enough with two kids but there was now another on the way. I explained about the cuts to housing grant, the lack of council homes and soaring demand but agreed with her it was unacceptable and promised to get in touch with Your Homes Newcastle.

As we walked away the Labour Party member I was with muttered: “She should have thought of that before getting pregnant.”

Part of me agreed with her. If she had been in a position to, then yes she should have. But I could not have brought myself to say that to her. To do so would have been to range that young woman in the ranks of the undeserving poor.

For many in the Labour movement, rejecting the idea of the undeserving poor is central to both our values and our policies. Bernard Shaw satirised brilliantly this fault line in his play Pygmalion.

[Mr Dolittle] I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he’s up agen middle class morality all the time. If there’s anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: ‘You’re undeserving; so you can’t have it.’ But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything.

It is to free working people from misplaced middle class morality that welfare rights were established. The idea of a woman being questioned as to whether her third child is the result of rape or bad planning is a conflagration of moral inquisition, distressed privacy and undeserving-poor censure. I too am outraged by the idea that we would not oppose it.

Equally one of the reasons ‘aspiration’ has become a totemic word in the Labour Party is that it is seen as a critique of the undeserving poor who can’t be bothered to raise their heads to see the opportunity all around them. (Others dislike it because they see it in opposition to the ‘rise with your class not above it’ mantra). I believe we should all have aspirations but I do find it ironic to be lectured about aspiration by public school boys who all their lives have been hard put to aspire to anything beyond their grasp never mind beyond their reach. A sense of entitlement is so corrosive as to preclude aspiration in my view.

But what about a sense of entitlement to benefits?

I am not ashamed to have been brought up on welfare

One afternoon I came home from school to find my Mother crying uncontrollably. Newcastle dole office had finally found her a job in a local bookies but she had had to leave after only two days because she could not stand on her feet for long – she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. She was crying from frustration and failure and the shame of once more being on the social. Seeing my mother cry like that had a traumatising impact on me as a nine year old child.

I grew up on welfare. I am not proud of it but I am not ashamed either. Certainly when they married my parents were confident they could support a family but war, illness and misfortune intervened and my mother found herself alone, disabled, with three children to bring up on the State’s penny. It was a position of deep shame to her.

We do not want today’s children to be ashamed of themselves or their parents because they are living on benefits. It is one of the reasons why my mother’s generation set up groups like Gingerbread, Citizen Advice Bureau and Newcastle Welfare Rights whose name says it all – welfare as a right not a discretionary gift or a form of state sponsored charity.

A sense of entitlement to benefits better than one to privilege?

Unqualified for the work she could physically undertake my mum decided to study first with the Workers Educational Association then with the Open University. I remember reading one of her set texts, the Fabian Woman’s Society study ‘Round About a Pound a Week’. This seminal work recounted the lives of the ‘respectable poor’ at the beginning of the 20th century detailing the daily struggle of women to feed their families and the precarious nature of life when illness, a few days unemployment, a couple of shillings of debt could destroy lives.

That was quite revelatory for me. I had thought we were poor but here was grinding, terrifying poverty which did not merely blight lives but obsessed, controlled and destroyed them. I understood that the policies behind the council house my family lived in, the NHS we were treated by and the free school meals which singled me out at dinnertime had been created in response to this, and to all that had been endured by working people in an unfair and precarious world.

But the Fabian report was one hundred years ago. The world may still be unfair and precarious but we have changed, working people have changed, work has changed.  We are richer, healthier, better educated, living longer, more connected to the outside world with access to unprecedented levels of choice in many different areas, with greater rights, great freedoms, and, I would argue, greater responsibilities.


I recently met an intelligent young woman just as she was sitting her GCSEs. She lived with her single mother and her sister in a social housing in Newcastle. At sixteen she was now legally entitled to a room of her own. But her mum would not apply for a larger property, she was afraid that when her daughter went away to University – and she wanted to go to University – she would be hit by the Bedroom Tax. So that young women will spend the next two years, studying for the most important exams of her life in a room shared with a younger sister or in Libraries which are fast closing.  The Bedroom Tax has generated many sad and cruel stories but this seemed to illustrate its systemic faults.  Her mother was behaving responsibly, planning for the future, but in response to fundamentally wrong incentives. We need welfare reform, but not Tory welfare reform.

The Welfare Vote

Of the many comments my decision to vote in accordance with our leadership provoked, the strangest to me was the accusation of cowardice. That I should knowingly bring down upon me a social media storm of accusations, recriminations and abuse out of cowardice seemed unlikely, especially given that the alternative, to vote against the bill, could bring little punishment from an acting leader who would no longer even be deputy leader in two months’ time.

No, for all the complicated reasons that drove Labour MPs to different decisions on how to vote, I don’t think cowardice figured very highly. Which is important as we will need courage when it comes to welfare reform.

Like Andy Burnham I would rather have voted against the bill as a whole and for a Labour  agenda on welfare reform. The opportunity to do that will come when the bill returns. The vote was on whether to debate the bill, not to approve each measure. As acting leader, Harriet could not set out our welfare agenda so that made our position confused and the messaging mixed to say the least.  I want a debate on welfare but not these welfare reforms which make scapegoats of children, the vulnerable and disabled.  

It was noticeable in the response from those opposed to the Bill that it was Labour MPs like me who came in for the most brutal criticism not the Government who are actually bringing forward the measures.

So why did I believe it was so essential that as a party and a country we have a debate on welfare reform?

It absolutely has to be a part of the change we offer for the country.

I am out door-knocking in Newcastle every week and over the last year I’ve campaigned in marginal seats from Brighton to Aberdeen. Wherever I am there is always at least one person, often a woman, who tells me fiercely that they have never claimed benefits in their lives, that they get no help in the struggle to make ends meet whilst their neighbour sponges of them aided and abetted by the State.

The resentment and anger is tangible. Of course I try to convince these voters that no one is happy to be on benefits. But telling people they are wrong rarely works as a tactic. And also it is not true, or at least not wholly true.  

Yes, I know the proportion of welfare that goes on a fraudulent benefits is vanishingly small. But there is not only fraud there is morality and responsibility, the social contract between citizen and state and citizen and citizen.  Why should we expect those on benefits to be so very much more perfect than the rest of us? MPs for example, a small proportion of whom milked the system for everything they could get? The MPs’ expenses scandal was so outrageous and so deeply felt because it was public money, because it was people whose income was already being paid by the state, and because it was, in most cases, not illegal.  The fact is that many, many of my constituents feel as strongly about abuse of the welfare systems as abuse of MPs’ expenses, and for similar reasons.

And whilst the sums of money involved may not be significant on a national level, at the individual level they matter and it is at that level that the contract between state and citizen is made, maintained or broken.  

In a recent debate Osborne criticised the proportion we spend on welfare, saying that the “UK is home to 1% of the world’s population, has 4% of world GDP, but has 7% of global welfare spend.”

I am proud that we have higher levels of support for vulnerable people then average around the world, for me, that is what a lot of the last 150 years of social progress has been about. In welfare Labour cannot condone a race to the bottom – where would we like to end up like Italy with 6.84% or do we fancy taking India for our model and aiming for .59%? I think we’d rather be associated with having a system of social protection like those at the top than those at the bottom.    

But it only works if people believe that the system is fair, that the system rewards hard work and contribution, and that the system is transparent and accountable. We need people to be proud of our welfare system and to know that not only is it not a lifestyle choice it cannot be a lifestyle choice. We need to do that without asking women to say they have been raped, for example.

We need to find a way restore the social welfare contract.

What would reform look like?

So how do we do that? Well we need to be brave and we need to take ideas from a wide range of contributors, we need to stop telling people they’ve got it all wrong and start looking at the causes, real and perceived, of their concerns.

A debate on welfare reform must include universal benefits.  Universality brings huge advantages, raising take up, reducing stigma and giving everyone a sense of ownership of the benefit. But there are also disadvantages in terms of cost to the public purse and underlying rationale.  Why should well off people be given money they do not need? At the least we should look at taxing all benefits so that what is paid to the better off is recovered at the tax rate.

We need to look at the responsibilities of those on benefits. Today’s sanctioning regime is the Kafkaesque evil twin of what could be enabling and empowering support into work.

We need to put more emphasis on the negative consequences of not working on health and mental well-being, and ways to create jobs without displacing existing jobs. The current system requires job seekers to spend thirty five hours a week searching for jobs which are not there or which they are not qualified for but too often does little to help them acquire the skills for the jobs that are there.

We have to look at how benefits are paid for.  And I don’t think it is credible to count on cracking down on tax avoidance as Jeremy Corbyn appears to do. Tax avoiders have by definition much more resources than benefits claimants and can be all too successful at playing the system. We should make tax evasion as serious a crime as benefits fraud – so that means prison not dodgy deals – and tax avoidance a life style choice as frowned upon as intergenerational benefits dependency. But we cannot fund welfare provision by simply hoping to crack down on taxes.

Capping benefits at average earnings is an example of a change which appealed to people’s sense of fairness even though it would cause much great unfairness to some of those affected. But by reducing it arbitrarily in the Budget Osborne has abandoned that pretence of rationality. We need to find other measures which chime with people’s sense of fairness whilst being able to mitigate negative individual consequences.

Then we need also to use technology not to subjugate and scare claimants but to individualise the support offered and the responsibilities accorded claimants. I know many constituents who have been sanctioned for not being able to job search online and have tried and failed to find the number affected nationally. We should look at benefits as an investment in the individual, not a hand out. That should reduce the demonization of benefits claimants with which this Government is complicit.

We need above all to win the next election because five more years of this Government will leave many more in the grinding, life destroying poverty we in the Labour Party thought never to see again.

So what is the answer? Is a sense of entitlement to benefits as corrosive as a sense of entitlement full stop? No, not if benefits are seen not as an end in themselves but as a return on the contribution you have made –  whether that be through work, caring for dependents, supporting the community or in other ways. And not if benefits are seen as part of a journey to independence.

Labour is the party of working people, that is not simply people who work but people without independent means, people who would starve if they did not work were it not for the welfare state. We must be proud of the protection we have built against the misfortunes of working life and ready to reform and adapt them for today’s ills, not bound by the clichés and evils of the 20th century but in accordance with what work, well-being and welfare mean in the 21st.

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