The Debate Over Welfare Needs to Be Better Than the ‘Bedroom Tax’
The arch neoconservative Douglas Murray is wrong on almost every issue, but for me he’s accurately diagnosed the problem with political debate in the UK. He argues that activists on the Right think those on the Left are stupid, silly, immature and sometimes even ‘loony’. This means that they treat them like political jokes, ignoring their protests and failing to engage with them in a significant way. In contrast, activists on the Left think those on the Right are evil, malicious and cruel, and so fight against them as if the future of humanity depended on it. The problem with this false dichotomy is that political debates are always more nuanced, and framing them as a fight between good and evil achieves nothing.
The current debate around welfare and unemployment benefit is a perfect case in point. Both systems, the one established by New Labour and the one proposed by the Coalition, have the same basic aim – to ensure that the Government shares the risk of unemployment with citizens. The two systems primarily differ on their emphasis. The Coalition reforms give an increased emphasis to making work pay, recognising the welfare traps created by the previous system. In order to remove these traps a number of policy changes have been introduced such as caps on benefits, a staggered decrease in benefits as you enter the workplace and a simplified Universal Credit.
These changes are relatively minor, taking into account spending increases and decreases in the past decades, and are certainly not ‘vicious’ or ‘savage’. Most of the headline policies are just that – tabloid headlines. The £6,000 annual cap on housing benefit will affect very few outside of London. The 26k a year benefit cap is more a statement of principle than policy, making clear that you shouldn’t earn more on benefits than the average working household. Again it affects only a tiny percentage of claimants. This is not to be blasé about the impact on families and individuals, because clearly life could get tougher for the long term unemployed who are facing decreased benefits under the Universal Credit system.
But a Government does nothing to serve its citizens if it just makes sure they’re comfortable in unquestioned obsolescence. Surely anyone with an ounce of respect for the out of work believes the Government’s burden of responsibility is far, far higher than that. The argument from Iain Duncan Smith and the think-tank he founded, the Centre for Social Justice, has never been that high welfare spending is unfair primarily to the taxpayer, it’s been that it’s unfair and cruel to the individual claimant.  As The Spectator Editor Fraser Nelson succinctly puts it: ‘IDS is carrying out his reforms not in the name of economic efficiency but in the name of social justice’.  The old system created perverse incentives meaning it didn’t make sense for people to enter the work place, and left them in a cycle of dependency that betrayed their potential – as individuals first, and taxpayers second.
At least, these are the arguments I’d like to be making in an article examining Government welfare reforms. Clearly one of the key issues of our time is how a Government manages social risk – political leaders from across the developed and developing world have been wrestling with it since the middle of the 20th Century. There are also clearly a number of angles and perspectives in this argument, of which mine is only one. But instead of engaging in this debate fully it’s necessary to respond to whether the Welfare Secretary himself can live on £53 a week, or whether the Government should withdraw it’s ‘Bedroom Tax’.
To address the first, the argument that IDS has no authority on the issue of welfare because he hasn’t been on unemployment benefit himself or couldn’t live for £53 a week is frivolous. There’s clearly a more subtle point here, underneath the obvious publicity stunt, about the experiences our politicians have to draw on when making decisions. However, it’s unavoidable that our politicians aren’t going to have come off the dole a few weeks ago, and a reality that most of them don’t have personal experience of Jobcentre Plus. But IDS has been examining social policy for over a decade and his recommendations through the years have gained cross party support. To say that he shouldn’t be listened to until he is subjected to some kind of BBC3 shockumentary experiment where he’s seen weeping in the corner of a Clapham council house shows just how desperate our political debate has become.
The so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’ also demonstrates the difficulties with breaking away from the No Cuts/Cuts dichotomy. The situation we’re in is that we don’t have enough social housing, despite the recent increases in its construction. On the other hand we have people in social housing who have spare rooms, funded by the Government. Those who have this space are therefore given the option to provide the spare space to those who need it, or have their housing benefit decreased. The argument between the Left and the Right is currently over why housing benefit claimants should or shouldn’t keep their money. A more sensible discussion would be over why those who don’t have anywhere to live should have their access restricted to available housing.
But as I’ve said, both of these popular media issues miss the point. The argument we need to be having begins with unemployment, but then moves on to more general welfare issues, particularly unfunded pensions. That’s before even moving on to arguments about key state services that are facing huge institutional pressures to reform. And throwing money at the issue just isn’t an option anymore, as growing government borrowing and deficits have shown. In order to have this debate that will ultimately define our vision of the state in the 21st Century, we need to move the discussion on from the caricature of a scrounger-loving Left and a cut-happy Right.
If we’re pointing fingers at who got us into the mess, the blame lies just as much with the Guardian as with the Mail, with Owen Jones as much as Peter Hitchens, with Polly Toynbee as much as Melanie Phillips. Both sides and their followers need to stop screaming at each other over meaningless press strategies peddled by spin-doctors and engage with the issues. We have a responsibility to make the debate over welfare better than the ‘Bedroom Tax’, not for those setting policies but for those who are ultimately going to be affected by them.
Written by Adam Hawksbee