Welfare Reform is this government’s most difficult but most popular policy.

4 April 2013

I always enjoy Peter Oborne’s columns not least because his opinions are as entertaining, predictably unpredictable, quixotic and changeable as his cricket captaincy. This is not a bad thing. This week he’s back in full-on Cameron as Disraeli mode, arguing that the coalition’s reforms of education (in England, though sadly the Peter and the Telegraph refer to “Britain’s schools”) and welfare (across the UK) are so important that success here dwarfs any failure anywhere else.

I think he may be right.

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Coincidentally, I’ve an article in today’s Scotsman that, though chiefly concerned with Iain Duncan Smith and welfare reform, makes passing reference to Gove too. These two, perhaps more than any other leading ministers in the government, appear minded to think not only that Something Must Be Done but that Something Can Be Done. Being hated is not always the worst thing in politics. Nor, of course, is thinking long and hard before acting.

Anyway, if I were advising Labour I suspect I’d say that being The Party of More Welfare is not necessarily the optimal place from which to campaign. As John Rentoul is wont to say, Ed Miliband is much too fond of “idiot-leftism”. Anyway, here’s my piece:

The image of IDS as a callous “toff” hellbent on whipping the poor into submission is in any case a laughable caricature. Few British politicians – and no Conservative ministers – have thought longer or more deeply about welfare reform. His answers may prove mistaken but he cannot sensibly be accused of failing to address the question.

Despite the hysterical reaction to this week’s benefit changes, no-one actually proposes eliminating the safety net. The Treasury might wish to sharply reduce spending on social protection but, including pensions, the government will still spend more than £220 billion on welfare payments of one kind or another this year. The overall welfare bill is not falling. Indeed, IDS has long argued that some payments might, at least in the short term, need to rise to help move claimants from welfare into work.

Moreover, despite what the BBC, Guardian and other bastions of conventional, left-wing opinion might have you believe, the government’s welfare proposals are its most popular policies. Politically speaking, this is a simple question: who wants to increase welfare spending and who wants to reform a system everyone knows is no longer “fit for purpose”? We know where the Conservatives stand; it seems that Labour is likely to fight the next election as the party of increased welfare payments. The Tories are not unpleased by this.

Despite what you may have been led to believe, the public hates spending money on welfare. According to a YouGov poll released in January, 77 per cent of voters favour stripping child benefit payments from families containing one earner making more than £60,000. More significantly, 76 per cent support removing benefits from claimants who refuse to accept offers of employment. And while 28 per cent suspect the government is being “too harsh towards people on benefits”, some 47 per cent fear the government is “not being tough enough” on benefits.

Similarly, limiting the annual increase in benefit payments to 1 per cent in each of the next three years is approved of by 45 per cent of respondents, while 51 per cent also think it is “unfair” for benefits to rise “when many people in work are seeing their wages rise by less than inflation”.

Three in four voters also support IDS’s benefits cap. Most voters are, I think, appalled to discover that it is at present possible to claim £26,000 or more a year in benefit payments. Granted, only a small number of families find themselves receiving such extraordinary largesse, but the fact that some people do receive such remarkable disbursements from the public purse appals most Britons. Defenders of the status quo have trapped themselves in the position of defending the indefensible.

Nor is this a matter of mean-spirited English people hammering the poor, while generous “community-minded” Scots take a different line. Though the Scottish sample size in YouGov’s UK polls is small and should therefore be treated with some caution, it seems evident that, broadly speaking, there is no great difference between opinions north and south of the Border.

Indeed, Scots may take an even tougher line on welfare than voters elsewhere in the UK: 82 per cent support a benefits cap while 81 per cent agree benefits should be removed from those who decline a chance to work. An overseas observer contemplating this data might be tempted to conclude that Scotland and England could almost be part of the same country.

Visit any working-class pub in Scotland and you will hear opinions that make IDS seem like Polly Toynbee. Perhaps, as Ms Toynbee is wont to suggest, the public has been gulled by right-wing newspapers or hoodwinked by a false dichotomy between “shirkers” and “strivers”. Be that as it may, a majority of Labour voters also think the welfare bill is too high and would like to see something done about it.

Whole thing here.

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  • lancashirelass

    I’ve just done the maths – capping child benefit at 2 children will save nearly £23m per week, nearly £1.2 bn per year. I chose to bring kids into this world and I am responsible for them. This money could be put to far better use.

    • Monkey_Bach

      I’d wear a condom if I were you.

  • tartan1314

    It may well be popular but unemployment can hit any of us (particularly in the current economic climate) as can disability and ill health. We have relied on the state to help us when this happens – as we have paid in our taxes and NI – it’s our contract with the state. If you asked people what they would think if they lost their job and were told the state would make them move home, work unpaid for a multinational and have to choose between heating or eating, I think their answer would be very different. Whilst there are good arguments for the reform of welfare – not least that it is so complicated resulting in people missing out on support they desperately need – there has been a great deal of misinformation around this issue. For one, as noted, there are very, very few claimants who would get anywhere near benefit cap levels under the new Universal Credit yet it is made to appear that large amounts of benefit claimants have an equivalent income of £26,000 per year (including the cost of high private sector rents). Policy should not be created based on the minority. Furthermore, there is an urban myth of generations of families who have never worked but prefer to live on “generous” benefits when the reality is that many individuals move in and out of low paid and insecure employment. The Government needs to work to create more jobs and ensure that these jobs pay a living wage so that those unemployed – either short or long term – have the ability to make a difference to their lives. Finally, the group most disadvantaged by these changes are those who are sick and disabled and their carers. The DWP’s own figures found that fraud rates for DLA were below 0.5%, yet the myth is peddled that many disabled people are not disabled (and thus are “shirkers”) and therefore the system had to change. It is changing to one that will involve an assessment by ATOS or another similar organisation… whose assessments under ESA have already been slated. What this means is that many disabled people will lose the financial support they rely on with no realistic possibility of being able to work and change their circumstances. The “bedroom tax” also penalises disabled people disproportionately… failing to realise that their home is not only the place they live, and perhaps adapted to meet their needs, but also where they can receive practical support from their carer, friends and family who live nearby. (I know that where I live, moving to a smaller house would mean moving at least 10 miles away from family and friends; with the next nearest social housing some 25 miles away). Government says that discretionary housing payments will help but less than half of disabled people will be helped as these funds are insufficient.

  • Mombasa69

    Well said, £220 Billion is going to be spent on Welfare in 2013 alone, that’s an increase of £5 Billion from last year ffs, even after the government gets tough.

    • Gareth

      Too many people bandy around macro-statistics such as “£220 billion” in a manner which suggests that as long as the country is spending this much on welfare, it doesn’t matter to whom it goes or in what quantities. Actually, what the expansion of the welfare budget represents most clearly is an increased level of need due to a stagnant economy. It isn’t just people on the right wing who dislike having to spend such large sums of money on welfare: I’d rather there wasn’t this level of deprivation, and that this government would tackle causes rather than symptoms. In a climate where it can be very difficult to find decently waged jobs and affordable housing, it seems perverse to punish individuals with so little analysis of the consequences for individuals or for societies, however popular polls suggest it might be.

  • gladiolys

    Would you also argue that the death penalty should be restored, as that commands a majority among the voting public?

    • andagain

      Most people would.

      • Monkey_Bach

        Which is why we live in a democracy rather than in anarchy where the law of the jungle trumps civil, secular law. And thank goodness for it!

        • andagain

          I wan’t aware that a distinguishing feature of democracy was the government refusing to do things that are popular.

          I rather thought it was the other way around.

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