Our debate on welfare reform is a dismal scandal - Spectator Blogs

19 September 2012

On balance, Iain Duncan Smith’s spell as Tory leader can’t be remembered as an unmitigated success. Be that as it may, sometimes there are second acts in political lives and, just occasionally, these are worth celebrating. IDS is one example of this.

Nevertheless, even a man as palpably decent and well-meaning as IDS doesn’t always pitch his argument about welfare reform in the best, most sensible or plausible fashion. This is unfortunate, not least because it allows his opponents to question his good faith.

And good faith matters in politics. Especially when you’re attempting to overhaul welfare. At the best of times this is a sensitive issue requiring a deft touch. And these are not the best of times.

So much of the argument about welfare reform is bogus and dishonest that one sometimes despairs that these issues can be discussed at all, far less that government policy might be considered with even a modicum of good faith.

It must be admitted that IDS’s colleagues at the Treasury do not always help his cause. The Chancellor and his acolytes chief concern is that welfare bills are reduced. This is not in itself a reprehensible desire but it has the unfortunate consequence of making it easier for Duncan Smith’s opponents to make it seem as though IDS is just a hatchet-man unaware of the difficulties inherent in living on the margins of society and cheerfully indifferent to human misery, thwarted potential and the crippling consequences of everything that comes with all of this.

It produces a dispiriting spectacle. Means are not the same as ends. It’s one thing to criticise methods but if you routinely ascribe the bleakest, darkest motivations to policy ends it becomes all but impossible to have a sensible conversation at all.

And on this we should surely all be able to agree: it would be a good for Britain is welfare rolls were lower. Good for the government’s balance sheet but, more importantly, good for social cohesion and welfare recipients themselves.

The right too often makes it seem as though the majority of welfare recipients are layabouts spongeing off the “system” or otherwise exploiting their “hard-working” fellow citizens. Doubtless there are some people who belong in this category. But they are – and always have been – a minority and a small minority at that. Their numbers should not be exaggerated and doing so does no-one much good.

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Because – and really this should not have to be said but, alas, it does – most people receiving some kind of state benefit don’t find themselves living in luxury. Living on benefits is not fun. Nor, especially for families, is it easy. It’s not the kind of existence many people would choose for themselves, far less dream of one day achieving.

If there’s an unmistakable ugliness to much of the right’s rhetoric on welfare there’s a depressing complacency to much of the left’s. Too often the left treats welfare recipients as powerless, hopeless, victims. Too often the left automatically presumes that measures designed to help the workless into work are inspired by the worst of motives. So, bizarrely, asking if benefit-claimants might be fit to work becomes an exercise in state-mandated humiliation. And anyway, if shelf-stacking at Tesco is all that’s on offer why should anyone be encouraged-  nay, forced! – into such menial employment.

Well, shelf-stacking is not great. It – and jobs like it – are few people’s idea of a life fulfilled. Nevertheless, it is better than nothing. It is a start. Only snobs – of whom there are as many on the left as on the right – can think it so. It is not enough but it is a modest start.

This is not a partisan point. Nor is this: boasting about the level of welfare payments focuses on the wrong part of the problem. Unfortunately, this is what IDS has done in Scotland today. While acknowledging that the still-with-us consequences of the decline of heavy industry explain why, quite reasonably, some areas both require and should require more welfare assistance, he suggested an independent Scotland might have to choose between raising taxes or cutting benefits.

Look, even if this is true (it might be!) this is not a great argument for the Union. Reject independence to protect your benefits!

Then again, the SNP counter is equally dispiriting: Vote for independence to protect your benefits!

In each case – predictably perhaps – the emphasis is on inputs not outcomes, supply not demand. But it is demand that is the problem, not supply. And it is a problem because this demand is a sign of deep-rooted failure. We should be ashamed of our benefits bill. Not because it is too high but because too many people find themselves in circumstances that require state-support. This is a bipartisan failure too.

To be clear, this is not a question of individual cases. I have no doubt that the benefits bureaucracy will fail – even sometimes humiliate – individuals. I am wholly confident it will make mistakes, that it will fail to take proper account of individual circumstances. I am sure there will be injustices. It is depressing that a system that aspires to make the dignity of work pay will often treat individuals with so little dignity. Wherever possible these errors  – for there will be errors – will have to be corrected.

But we should not make the mistake of confusing the particular with the general. No-one (or, I suppose, almost no-one) actually advocates removing the social safety-net but nor does anyone of sense desire a net from which it becomes all too difficult to escape.

Of course, it is extra-difficult to refashion welfare in times of economic distress and uncertainty. That’s one reason why IDS has to win his battles with the Treasury. Welfare reform may actually, in some circumstances, increase the short-to-medium-term costs of welfare. That’s not necessarily a sign of failure if the appalling costs of long-term welfare-failure are reduced.

It may be that IDS’s Universal Credit proves insufficient to the task. But complaining, as Nicola Sturgeon did this morning, that the government is hell-bent on “dismantling welfare as we know it” gets everything wrong. Welfare as we know it is failing too many people. It takes a special brand of well-intentioned heartlessness to believe (or claim, the two being different) otherwise.

Welfare is a disgrace not because benefits are too readily available or too generous (they’re not) but because too many people find themselves in situations in which they must depend on welfare or leading lives devoid of hope and work and dignity.

Fixing this is a ten-year project and it’s not a matter of welfare policy alone. Joined-up government has a bad reputation for all the obvious, often correct, reasons. Nevertheless, the link between education reform and welfare reform is surely obvious and necessary. In each case it is a matter of lifting people up, not cutting them adrift. It is also, of course, hard-pounding and difficult work and setbacks and sobering failures will abound.

Nevertheless the effort is a worthy one and, between them, IDS and Michael Gove are pretty much the best arguments this government has going for it.  They are the most important people in power today.


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Show comments
  • Radford_NG

    22 Sept.c.9.10am.BST…..There is much sense in what you write……BUT:if they are not malicious why have they adopted this negative American term WELFARE? In our country ‘welfare’ refers to social services and charities.What has happened in practise is that the policies of the Tea Party (which are contentious in America;and politically contended ) have been adopted in this country without any discussion.This is exemplified by Ed Miliband telling Parliament:”Social housing should go to those who contribute to society;not to bad tenants and those on welfare”.

  • Hugh

    “Doubtless there are some people who belong in this category.
    But they are – and always have been – a minority and a small minority at
    that. Their numbers should not be exaggerated and doing so does no-one
    much good.”

    Could you share the numbers you’re working from? We hear this a lot – yes, there are some, but only a tiny number. In fact, the assessments on disability benefits (badly done, though they seem to be given the number of successful appeals) seem to suggest it’s not such a small minority. The number of claimants during a decade when the economy was doing well suggest much the same.

    • Spammo Twatbury

      “The number of claimants during a decade when the economy was doing well suggest much the same.”

      Can you explain to us how a healthy economy cures disabilities?

      • Hugh

        I wasn’t referring to disabilities payments in the second case, but can you explain why we have so many more people with disabilities than comparable economies?

        • Spammo Twatbury

          Firstly, I’m going to need you to establish that we do, rather than merely saying so.

          • Hugh

            The OECD found in 2010 that the UK was above average overall and that those between 20 and 34 were more than twice as likely to be on disability benefits than elsewhere.

            I await your explanation with interest.

            • Spammo Twatbury

              I await your actual sourced citation with the same. And ideally, your clarification of whether you’re talking about disabled people or other benefit recipients. You seem to swing unpredictably between the two.

              • Hugh


                I would have thought it was pretty clear that when I stated UK 20-34 year olds were “more than twice as likely to be on disability benefits than elsewhere” I was talking about disability benefits.

                • Spammo Twatbury

                  Who you’re talking about at any given moment has been anything but clear. Construct your sentences with more care. For example, this:

                  “In fact, the assessments on disability benefits seem to suggest it’s not such a small minority. The number of claimants during a decade when the economy was doing well suggest much the same.”

                  …certainly SOUNDS like its about disability benefit claimants, but you rather huffily said it wasn’t when challenged. So if we could be clear on who you’re actually referring to, it would be a help.

                • Hugh

                  Yes, that was unclear. I think I’ve since clarified, and been fairly clear since. In fact, I suspect you have been able to follow the last couple of replies fairly well, and yet you haven’t come much closer to an answer.

                • Spammo Twatbury

                  Okay. Your question is “Why we have so many more people with disabilities than comparable economies?”

                  Firstly, the source you cite places nine other countries above us, so your premise is a little shaky in the first instance. Of the countries above the average we’re fourth-lowest. Since with any average some people have to be above it by definition, that’s not a particularly smoking gun.

                  Secondly, it’s hardly a secret that under Mrs Thatcher the government was happy to shunt people onto disability benefits to keep the unemployment figures down. That doesn’t mean, however, that those people weren’t disabled – rather, it means that the criteria for that classification were at the relatively relaxed end of the spectrum, compared to the present situation where they’re at just about the most draconian extreme imaginable.

                  Now, you have to be a deaf blind paraplegic with terminal cancer to have even a chance of being categorised genuinely disabled by Atos. In a number of cases, they’ve found people “fit for work” who were actually dead. (Admittedly, they’d still been clinging desperately to the last straws of life when tested.) It’s plainly unreasonable to judge disability by the current criteria.

                  What we learn from this, of course, is that the stats are meaningless unless we know the relevant criteria for disability in the countries being compared. But even leaving that aside, the UK is merely in the top third of countries. If we were twice as high as anyone else it might be statistically remarkable. As it stands, you’ve yet to prove that case.

  • Spammo Twatbury

    I seem to have missed out on what you propose as the solution, Alex.

    Welfare dependency is a direct result of government policy. If you depress wages while allowing the cost of living – and in particular the cost of housing – to spiral out of control, you will always have both unemployment and the working poor.

    But neoliberal domestic economic policy – the only kind of economic policy currently available to UK voters – is built on inflating house prices for political advantage. That in turn inflates the benefits bill, in particular the housing benefit bill, and in effect forces the poor to subsidise the rich.

    The long-term solution is not to squeeze the poor until the pips squeak and then keep squeezing. It’s to allow and encourage the housing bubble to burst, allow house prices to fall, and allow (or if necessary force) rents down, so that someone working a 40-hour week can afford to put a roof over their heads – something that isn’t even remotely close to the case for minimum-wage workers in most cities. Ideally, you also build social housing for rent, so that the huge housing benefit outlay at least stays in the public sector rather than simply enriching private landlords and feeding the property price spiral.

    That way, people don’t have to work three jobs to keep their heads above water, freeing up more jobs for everyone else. People actually have some money to spend, keeping revenue flowing to businesses, enabling them to grow and produce more jobs.

    The problem is that there is no political will for this strategy, and only a limited amount of money you can take from the poor before they’ve got none left. We’re seeing the outcome of that approach now, as the economy stagnates and withers, but the Tory conclusion (shared by the other two) is “We’re clearly still giving too much money to those damned scrounging poor!”

    (Note that I’m not suggesting we do anything about massive tax avoidance, which dwarfs benefit fraud by thousands of percent, because plainly we can’t expect government to tax rich people properly. That’s communism.)

    You’re absolutely right that nobody, or at least almost nobody, wants to live on benefits. It’s a miserable, defeatist existence. But in focusing on IDS’ intentions rather than the consequences of his actual actions – and even he has said the £10bn in extra welfare cuts is wrong – you condemn millions to grotesque and needless suffering.

    “We need to somehow eliminate the failings in the system, while doing nothing about the underlying causes which make them inevitable”, is a recipe for disaster. Yet it’s what you’re advocating.

  • LB

    It’s not the kind of existence many people would choose for themselves, far less dream of one day achieving.


    Lots do.

    Lets look at what Labour was paying out annually to some claimants, and not disabled either.

    Housing benefit – 104,000
    Child Tax Credit – 13,337.04
    Income Support – 5,539.67
    Council tax – 2,157.83
    Child Benefit – 3,863.91
    Free Schooling – 6000 * 5 = 30000
    Free Health Care – 1800 * 7

    Total 172,000

    That’s 172,000 pounds a year off the state, for what?

    Well, around about 60 British standard peasants – min wage earners – have to work for a year, and consume nothing to keep that lot going.

    • Spammo Twatbury

      You seem to have pulled these numbers out of your arse. How many people – if any – are getting £104,000 a year in housing benefit, exactly? In what way does “free schooling” of five children cost £30,000 compared to the free schooling that every child in the country is entitled to receive whether their parents are on benefit or not? (The same goes for your apparently arbitrary figure of £1800 for health care.)

      And what’s your proposed alternative? Given that there are always going to be unemployed people, and that some of them will have children, what would you do with them? Camps on the Yorkshire moors?

      • Hugh

        “How many people – if any – are getting £104,000 a year in housing benefit”

        Just under 100 apparently.

        • Spammo Twatbury

          So something in the region of 0.001% of claimants, then. Well, that definitely seems an excellent basis for punishing the other 99.999% whose average payment is just 4% of that figure.

          (And in any event, of course, see above. Even in that tiny handful of ultra-extreme cases, the money isn’t making the “scroungers” rich, but the landlords charging them extortionate rent. They, not their tenants, are the people lining their pockets at the taxpayer’s expense.)

    • Spammo Twatbury

      Oh, and while we’re here:

      “paying out annually to some claimants”

      We’re not doing any such thing, of course. This mythical scrounger of yours allegedly pocketing £104,000 a year, or a little under £9000 a month (I live in a nice two-bed flat with a garage in the second most expensive city in Britain, and my rent is a little under £9000 a *year*) in Housing Benefit isn’t sitting with the money in his bank account. He has his hands on it for five seconds, then has to give every last penny of it to his landlord.

      That landlord – almost always a private-sector entrepreneur of the sort you doubtless see as a heroic “wealth creator” – is the person the taxpayer is funding, not the benefit claimant who’s still having to live off economy-brand baked beans despite his vast “income”. Your rage is directed at a penniless victim, not the person who’s ACTUALLY milking the taxpayer for all they’re worth.

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