Tackling the ‘welfare reform’ debate.
Anyone with the most minimal of interests in current affairs will have been subjected to all levels of delirium regarding welfare reform this past week. Whether it was drawing the connection between receiving benefits with the repulsive actions of the Philpotts, or misty-eyed romanticism of the day dear old Blighty changed. Welfare reform can only be defined as a political minefield, one in which policy makers should tread carefully.
The reality of the welfare debate situation, like most things politically, lies somewhere in the middle. Dan Hodges of The Daily Telegraph compared the welfare “debate” to the immigration debates of the past. On the one hand there was hysteria about Britain being “swamped” by immigrants. On the other were accusations of “racism” leveled at anyone who dared suggest immigration was now presenting problems that needed to be addressed.
The Conservative Party treads clumsily and dangerously close to the hyperbole of the Daily Mail and its ilk with rhetoric of ‘shirkers versus workers’. The Labour party are just as guilty: shadow work and pensions spokesman, Liam Byrne, drew the same analogy when the times suited him.
The reality is this exaggeration doesn’t help anyone except to fill the pockets of tabloid newspaper owners. The battle between ‘shirkers and workers’ does not exist; well at least not to the levels implied. Unemployment only counts for 3% of the welfare bill as the vast majority of benefit recipients are in work.
There is a serious discussion to be had about welfare and pandering to the Daily Mail does not contribute to it. Neither does equally panicked ‘end of times’ scare mongering. Readers of the Mirror the past week might have assumed that the welfare system came to an abrupt halt on April 1st. The reality is the growth of welfare is being curbed, not the levels of it. The pre-coalition welfare system was not a perfect institution that should be left untouched: welfare spending rose each year, yet so did poverty levels and the complexity left thousands of pounds of benefits unclaimed.
It is reckless to assume that the current state of the welfare system is sustainable. However, there is a fundamental flaw with the current methodology of reform. It is a legitimate argument to enact reforms to ‘make-work pay’, but if there is no work, and little done to help workers, the idea is undermined.
The coalition promised a ‘private sector led recovery’ to economic prosperity and the idea is to compensate for jobs cut in the public sector. However employment figures are being bolstered by record growth in numbers of part-time jobs, this is neither sustainable nor desirable. Of course getting people into work is better then trapping them on welfare, but the government should not take these figures as evidence of success.
The government can do more to foster the conditions that will help small and medium businesses thrive and get people back into the job market and earning better incomes. The Adam Smith Institute has produced a report that calls on the government to take radical steps to kick-start employment in small and medium-sized enterprises, by reducing regulation, taxation and freeing up the labour market.
David Cameron has defined his brand of Conservatism as compassionate, fitting with the One Nation Conservative tradition. The idea of One-Nationism is to prevent social class antagonisms and to prevent social unity but this is only achievable if the government do more to help those at the bottom. They have taken steps towards helping those on low incomes by raising the personal allowance but there is more it could be doing – attacking those receiving welfare is not the right course of action.
The debate over welfare reform has politically been won. The public tend to agree that the system is in need of reform; the Labour Party are now in a testing position as to where to manoeuvre on the issue. However, just because the government has the backing of the nation, doesn’t connote what they are doing is the best course of action.
So before bashing those out of work, the coalition should focus more on creating the conditions to get people back into work. If the goal is to get people off welfare, this is only achievable if there is an alternative to welfare. The return to economic prosperity and issues regarding welfare reform are far more complex than the media have presented them in the past few days.