Monday, 9 January 2012

Slowly killing the Welfare System by Claudia Wood

By jumping on the coalition’s anti-scroungers welfare bandwagon, Labour’s Liam Byrne has squandered a chance to make progressive changes to the welfare system
Just a week into the New Year and a depressing case of rhetorical brinkmanship is unfolding over welfare reform. The coalition has, for several months, been pushing the controversial Welfare Reform Bill through on a wave of ‘scrounger’ phraseology, often backed by cynically spun DWP statistics. These have been eagerly seized upon by the tabloids.

Despite widespread criticism of this approach, it has proved successful in the sense that is has captured the public imagination and plenty of column inches. It is perhaps unsurprising then that, in 2012, the Opposition has (belatedly) jumped on the ‘something for something’ bandwagon.
This is a massive wasted opportunity. Rather than differentiating itself from the government and gaining credibility as a more reasoned and objective voice for reform, it seems Labour has chosen to adopt an almost identical path to that of the government. Its welfare spokesman Liam Byrne has demonstrated a selective use of shaky facts in his recent Guardian article on William Beveridge, worthy of any IDS speech.

First, Byrne suggested that Beveridge’s discussion of conditionality meant the welfare state was always supposed to be based on ‘earned support’. He failed to point out that Beveridge insisted in 1942 that social insurance had to be combined with ‘national assistance’ – support provided regardless of a person’s contribution to the state. He also omitted to mention that conditionality was discussed by Beveridge two years later only in the context of full employment, defined as an economy where there were more jobs available than the number seeking employment; hardly the case in recession-hit Britain.

On the controversial issue of disability benefits, Byrne chose his words very carefully, stating, ‘I think Beveridge would have looked aghast at the government’s plans to axe disability benefits – like employment and support allowance that working people have actually paid in for.’
However, what he failed to mention was that the majority of disability benefits are given to those who have been unable to make adequate national insurance contributions. Byrne referred only to the contributory form of ESA, failing to acknowledge that of the 662,000 people claiming ESA, 339,000 (51%) claim the non-contributory form, because they have not made adequate national insurance contributions. Then there are the 3 million people claiming DLA, conditional neither on state contributions nor means tested.

Under the ‘something for something’ mantra that the Opposition is adopting, these benefits would surely be scrapped – leaving many extremely vulnerable people with no support whatsoever. But rather than say this – which would be unthinkable – Byrne simply skipped over this rather inconvenient truth.

The fact is, neither party would dream of following ‘something for something’ to its logical conclusion. In civilised society it always comes with a caveat of unconditional support for the most vulnerable, but it seems neither party now wants to muddy their hard line on ‘scroungers’.
This is disingenuous, causing huge anxiety for many thousands of disabled people who, understandably, take the political silence on this issue as a sign that they might be put in the ‘scrounger’ camp. More importantly, it prevents a reasoned approach to welfare reform from emerging.

And this is a crying shame, because the welfare system does need reforming. This needs to be based on evidence of what doesn’t work and wastes limited resources, rather than on sloppy tabloid language and cherry-picking of Beveridge quotes.
Labour could have shone as the dispassionate voice of reform: rather than parroting the simplistic and wholly unworkable ‘something for something’ narrative, Byrne could have presented an approach fit for the 21st century, where medical advances see ever larger numbers of people who may never engage in paid employment live well into old age. And he wouldn’t even need to bring Beveridge into it.

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