Many of the emails and blog replies I receive effectively ask just this question. I am bombarded with many examples of how our welfare state rewards people who do not get a job, do not buy their own home, do not save hard for a rainy day, and fail to provide a decent pension for their old age. Those who have worked hard to make provision for themselves and their families ask why do I have pay twice, once for myself and once for those who did not bother to be prudent?
The answer is in one sense very easy. I want to live in a society where we all contribute to provide an income to those who are disabled, who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own, who cannot find a job despite looking hard for one. Few of the toughest critics of welfare would make the case for letting people sleep rough on the streets for lack of a roof over their heads, or would wish to see children go without food or basic amenities for lack of money.
The problem is in the tests we apply to see who should be eligible. All three main parties and most voters agree that much of our welfare provision should be means tested. No-one wants to offer unemployment benefit to the billionaire who does not need to work, or to pay for the children of the banker or footballer on the seven figure salary. Most agree we need to target the aid and assistance on those in need.
So far so good. It is the next step of the argument that causes the practical problems, and some of the moral argument. It is the need to offer the money to those who not only need it but deserve it. Most people and the three main political parties do not think benefits should be given to the individual who simply will not work, despite work being available. Difficult judgements have to be made case by case. Was this individual unlucky in not having a job in an area of relatively high employment? Was this individual trying to put employers off by his approach to job interviews so he could stay on benefit?
I always want us to be more generous to people who are blind or deaf or unable to use their limbs. These are visible and debilitating medical problems. It is more difficult if someone claims they are depressed or have a bad back. The condition could be life sapping and make it impossible for them to work, or it might be something many put up with without stopping them earning their own living. These tricky decisions are having to be made by adjudicators and medical advisers, to offer justice over claims.
The welfare system largely provides help to individuals and families with insufficient independent income, but some of the money is also based on spending patterns. Instead of giving people a fixed amount to take care of housing needs, housing benefits are based on the actual cost of the person’s accommodation. There does seem to be widespread support for the reform that says there needs to be some upper limit on how much a family without income can spend on housing to receive state support.
The issue I would be interested in comment on is how tough should the state be when assessing eligibility for benefits? How do we answer the question Why should I be prudent? At the very least it must always be worthwhile working. It also needs to be worthwhile saving, a topic I shall return to later this week.
I was pleased to see the Shadow defence Secretary acknowledge Labour needs to show what it would cut. They have always found cutting national security easy – they did some of that in office whilst presiding over the huge overall surge in public spending elsewhere. I await with interest how they would cut this far bigger area of social security, where cross party agreement could add to the authority of the decisions. This year national security or defence is scheduled to cost £40 billion and social protection or social security to cost £200 billion.