On Welfare Denialism

One real gem of an idea nestling in between the usual stale nonsense.
One real gem of an idea nestling in between the usual stale nonsense.

Yesterday we were treated to the spectacle of Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith promising to “slash Britain’s benefits bill” by picking around the edges of the problem and denying benefits to immigrants who do not speak fluent English, a transparent piece of Daily-Mail-pandering that sows despair in the hearts of anyone who wants to seriously reform Britain’s welfare system.

This was a triumphant case of grabbing headlines whilst accomplishing nothing courtesy of the Conservative Party, but it turns out that Labour were not to be outdone. Today, it was the turn of Rachel Reeves, the shadow Work & Pensions Secretary, to put on the Tough Love hat and have a crack at the welfare problem.

Almost anticipating the backlash and onslaught of scepticism, The Guardian hide the story well away in the depths of their online news site, reporting:

Labour would force jobseeker’s allowance claimants with inadequate maths or English to go on basic skills courses as a condition of receiving their benefit, Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary, will say on Monday .

It is estimated that one in 10 of Britain’s 250,000 monthly new JSA claimants have inadequate maths or English, two skills critical to finding work. Nearly 20% of those with repeat claims have problems with reading or numeracy. Labour said the pledge could be funded from the existing skills programme.

Much as with the Tory announcement on welfare, there is nothing inherently wrong with this idea. If a significant proportion of repeat benefits claimants have low literacy or numeracy skills that could be holding them back from gainful employment, then it is probably right and proper to take action to address this skills gap. If, as Labour claim, the testing could be funded with existing money then so much the better. But while there is nothing wrong with the proposal itself, there is everything wrong with unveiling it as a major announcement or in any way a serious attempt at policy change.

Dan Hodges, writing in The Telegraph, spares no time in shooting down the proposal and exposing it for what it is:

Reeves’s speech was trailed in this morning’s Independent. “Her mission is to create a ‘fair and affordable social security system’, with ‘sticks and carrots’ to get the unemployed back to work, which will be good for them and for taxpayers,” wrote the newspaper’s political editor Andy Grice.

That’s not Rachel Reeves’s mission. Her mission, handed to her by her leader, is to make the country think she is planning “tough” reform of welfare, whilst at the same time reassuring the Labour movement she is not preparing any significant reform at all.

“It is hard, but it is also fair. You can call it tough love,” said Reeves. No you can’t. Setting someone a maths test isn’t tough, or loving. It’s a maths test. At her school did they say “right Rachel, you’ve got an hour of PE, an hour of Geography and then an hour of tough love”?

He then rightly contrasts the awesome size of Britain’s welfare bill (here he separates out pensions) with the puny scale of the measures that Reeves is proposing:

Is there anyone anywhere who thinks a maths test will come anywhere near addressing the current crisis of welfare, or if you prefer, the crisis being created by the attack on welfare? It is a nonsensical policy. Saying “the big problem with the welfare system is very few claimants have good numeracy skills” is like saying “the biggest problem with the welfare system is very few claimants have Indian elephants as pets”. It’s true, but it’s irrelevant. Teach them better maths. Teach them better English. Teach them to lightly fry chorizo and play Bach. What impact is that seriously going to have on the nation’s £100 billion welfare bill?

Hodges (who, in course of the past year, has become my favourite Labour-in-exile commentator) believes that Labour would do well to stop talking about welfare altogether, for fear of making themselves appear even more incoherent and opportunistic than they do at present. I would be tempted to agree with him, but for the presence of one genuinely good and revolutionary idea in Reeves’ speech, the proposal to award higher level unemployment benefits to long-term or higher rate taxpayers for the first months of their claim, so as to provide a “soft landing” for those newly out of work.

The Guardian reports:

In her biggest speech since taking on the portfolio, Reeves will also confirm she is seeking to strengthen the contributory principle by exploring how long-term taxpayers can receive a higher-rate allowance for the first months that they are unemployed.

This is laudable, and something that I have myself supported for a long time. Such an action would return the concept of unemployment benefits or Jobseeker’s Allowance to being viewed as a kind of insurance rather than an ever-present and unchanging right.

Why should it be that someone who has worked over a period of years, perhaps in a well paying job, and has contributed many thousands of pounds to the treasury should, on losing his or her job, receive exactly the same allowance as a young person living at home who managed to fall out of eleven years of compulsory education without any qualifications? For the newly-unemployed high earner, jobless benefits may be a way of scraping together enough money to keep making rent, mortgage or bill payments while they scramble to find new work. For the unemployed eighteen year old, that same money may be nothing more than beer tokens to be redeemed at the nearest Wetherspoons pub.

Of course this is a generalisation and of course we cannot individually means test the level of benefits awarded to each claimant based on their individual circumstances – nor would it be the appropriate role of government to attempt such a thing. But surely it is not so outrageous to restore a link between the amount of money contributed in taxes over the years by a new claimant and the amount that they are awarded in benefits? Is that not part of “making work pay”, as well as making sure that capable but overstretched workers (probably with limited to no savings) in today’s precarious economy don’t fall off a complete financial cliff if they happen to lose their jobs? If I sound at all bitter when I discuss this, it is because my argument comes from my own bitter experience.

So overall, another day of great frustration on welfare. Labour have joined the Conservatives in seeking to tinker around the edges in pursuit of cosmetic change and tabloid approval, while the crux of the problem remains conspicuously untackled. The only shining light in the whole tired song and dance, the newly-broached idea of giving higher allowances to higher-contributing taxpayers, was proposed by the party I least suspected to ever endorse such a thing (how on earth did Iain Duncan Smith let Ed Miliband steal a march on him like this?) and while it is truly refreshing to see this being advocated by a major political party in the UK, it is almost sure to die a slow death under withering barrages from the far left proclaiming it “unfair” and “discriminatory”, and another step on the road to a “two-tier Britain”. So clearly and vividly do I see the imminent death of the proposal that it is very hard to generate enthusiasm about its announcement.

From a Conservative perspective, it should also be troubling to David Cameron and to Tory supporters to see Iain Duncan Smith join Michael Gove as the second Conservative minister to be completely outmanoeuvred by their Labour counterpart. With Gove it was the Labour proposal to license teachers and enhance their professional standing and standards, and now with Duncan Smith the Tories were nowhere to be seen when Labour suggested tiered unemployment benefits according to contributions.

In the first years of the coalition government we were continually told of the revolutionary new ideas and policies being cooked up by ambitious Tory ministers determined to enact real change and make their mark after eleven stultifying years of New Labour’s centralisation and standardisation efforts. In 2014, innovation and revolutionary ideas are hard to come by anywhere at all in British political life, but where it does exist, it is not emanating from the Conservative Party.

This should worry anyone who does not want to see the spirit of Gordon Brown in the guise of Ed Miliband reoccupy 10 Downing Street next May.

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