There’s been an awful lot of handwringing over the Welfare Reform Bill and the ‘benefits cap’ in particular. However, most of the bill is on the right track, although it’s only one part of the bigger picture.
The Benefits Cap
The benefits cap is clearly illogical and wrong (see why here) even if relatively few people will be affected (that still doesn’t make it right).
The bigger problem is that it’s allowed the Sun, The Express and the Mail to have a field day painting all benefits claimants as scroungers. These assumptions, which the government knowingly does nothing to dispel need fighting more strongly than the cap itself. (See this article from Ekklesia)
The welfare system needs serious reform:
- It encourages dependency;
- It’s so hideously complex it makes the Schleswig-Holstein question look straightforward; and
- There are too many people on the wrong benefit.
Dependency: economic and cultural
Part of the dependency issue is economic. The transition to work under the current system is inherently financially risky. Many people are faced with the chance of temporary work which will make them £10-£20 a week better off. Their desire for dignity and work says take it.
The prospect of going 3-6 weeks without money when the work ends whilst waiting for a perverse job centre bureaucracy staffed by undertrained and underpaid workers means that no intelligent rational economic actor would take the risk. Factor in the fact that many unscrupulous employers don’t pay up on time at the end of the first month and travel costs to and from employment and taking work can seem like economic suicide.
The Welfare Reform Bill in the shape of the Universal Credit does its best to address this and it should be a vast improvement and simplification on the current mess.
But the other part of dependency is cultural. It may have been Thatcher’s fault for pushing millions onto incapacity benefit in the first place but Labour didn’t have the guts to challenge the assumption of a significant minority (no, don’t get too excited Paul Dacre, not everyone) that they would live the rest of their lives on benefits.
I’m not prepared to give up on people that easily. Everyone has gifts and skills that they can contribute to society even if they don’t know what those gifts and skills are themselves.
Sometimes we have do people’s believing for them until they rediscover their own self worth.
Messages without judgment
The government does need to send clear messages that everyone is expected to give themselves the best opportunity for work, but without raining down judgement.
The small group that will never be able to work again in any area should receive our generous support. The majority who have the capacity to do some form of work at some point in the future should be given our generous support in providing the help they need to move them back towards work. If that support is genuinely offered then yes, people’s benefits should be temporarily stopped.
And thank goodness that the Job Centre is contracting out this support work to private companies and charities. No, they won’t all be successful and a few will be awful, but the DWP’s inability to treat people as individuals, each needing different help has been proven again and again.
The Bigger Picture, George
The thrust of the Welfare Reform Bill does deal with the economic roots of dependency and we shouldn’t forget it. Of course, reforming the welfare system is only a quarter of the job and we shouldn’t forget that either.
It’s over to George Osborne to create the environment for good quality, decently paid jobs for those out of work to take up.
It’s over to the rest of us to create those jobs and a positive, accepting culture which eases the stigmatisation of worklessness and the transition back into gainful employment.