The John Humphrys BBC welfare documentary on Thursday night was well made. It reminded us how Beveridge wished to slay the five dragons that included the dragon of Idleness. It told us that the public overwhelmingly wants a safety net so no-one need be homeless or short of food. Voters do not want a generous system to support lifestyles for people who are capable of work but do not seek jobs actively or at all, nor do they want benefit recipients to be paid more than many enjoy in work.
The questions raised are worthwhile asking and debating. Welfare reform is one of the main preoccupations of the present government. Labour agrees it is unfinished but necessary business.
The first question to ask is who qualifies? Should people have the right to enter the UK and claim benefit once they arrive here? Is Mr Grayling right to resist the EU idea to allow the free movement of benefit seekers as well as workers? If we accept genuine asylum seekers should be able to claim benefit, are there any other categories coming in from abroad who should also enjoy that right? If someone comes in from elsewhere in the EU to work, and then loses their job, should they have gained entitlement? At what point should an illegal entrant qualify for benefits, if at all? If someone has been here illegally for a few years, are they now the state’s responsibility?
The second question is to ask about housing benefit. Most of us agree people out of work or disabled should be helped with their housing costs. Most also agree this should be limited in a couple of ways. What level of savings and other assets should disqualify you from getting housing benefit? People with £100,000 in the bank can presumably pay their own rent or mortgage. Should there be a ceiling on how expensive a home you can claim for? Or at least a limit on how much you can claim, ruling out living in some of the dearest districts and properties?
The third question to ask is what should the state expect by way of action to get a job? If you turn down a couple of offers should you lose benefit? Should you be expected to show progress to getting a job, and demonstrate a certain number of applications? Are there categories other than the badly disabled who should be excused the need to find work?
The fourth question concerns the sensitive area of children and families. What should be expected of absent fathers by way of financial contributions? At what stage should single parents be expected to work as well as caring for their children?