Monday 23 January 2012

How to reform welfare

The government has announced today that, if the Lords pass amendments to the welfare reform bill currently going through parliament, they will send the bill straight back to the Lords without making any changes. In other words, the government is digging in its heels. In media interviews Ian Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary and ministers displayed an unprecedented amount of confidence over the weekend that they will get their way. Judged by the outpour of criticisms in the past couple of weeks from disability rights organisations and other charities, the government’s certainty that they will get their way is simply astonishing. What happened?
A couple of things have happened. First, Britain has seen a gradual but steady shift of opinion from the left who would think of benefits as a way to alleviate deprivation and address inequalities, to the right, who see benefits as a safety net when anything else has failed. 
On top of that, Conservatives, in particular Ian Duncan Smith, has used a reform strategy that is nothing short of smart. If you remember, after his failed leadership of the Conservative Party, IDS became the chairman of the Social Justice think tank, which set about to investigate in detail the issues around poverty, worklessness and benefits. 
His hard work on analysing the complexities around worklessness has led to the formulation of a radically different approach to the ‘get on yer bike’ call by previous Conservative governments. 
IDS’s welfare reform has some interesting political tactics. First, present the issue of welfare reform as one that centres on the interests of those on benefits. The debate about the deleterious effects of worklessness on families and children is typical for this strategy. 
Second, never use immoderate language but acknowledge the complexity of the issue and the personal dimensions of worklessness. This ties in with a public recognition that moving people from unemployment into jobs requires personalised support. 
Third, and most plausibly, make an argument about the link between work and the level of benefits as an incentive to work or stay on the dole. IDS has throughout the debate stuck to these parameters of the strategy. 
All this means that there are precious few serious politicians or political commentators who argue that things should stay as they are. Apart from left doomsayers, such as Polly Toynbee, there seems to be a broad consensus in the population that the cap on benefits is the right thing to do. 
Most interestingly, as the latest polling suggests, there is even a large majority amongst Labour supporters who think that the government is justified in pushing for a benefits cap of £26,000. The poll results also suggests that there is a sizable minority amongst Labour supporters who would like to see this limit to be LOWER than the government wants it to be. 
In addition, the welfare reforms have benefitted from the fact that the Labour party has tried too in its last years in government to reform the benefits system and that there is a broad consensus that the benefits system is hideously complicated which invites fraud and error on a large scale. 
The previous Work and Pensions secretary James Purnell (Labour) probably doesn’t believe his eyes. I am pretty convinced that his proposals (had he been allowed by Gordon Brown) wouldn’t have looked much different to those of the current government. 
All in all, this means at least one thing: welfare reform is a win win for the government. That is why IDS can afford to bat away any calls for changing this legislation that may crop up in the Lords this afternoon. Whatever happens in the upper house, he will get his bill through. He knows that the British public supports him. 

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