Has David Cameron opened a new front on welfare?
Chris Johnes Director, UK Poverty Programme
2nd Jul 2012
Chris Johnes, Director of Oxfam's UK Poverty Programme, argues that we need more honesty in our debates on UK welfare, to avoid raising tensions and stoking prejudice.
David Cameron's speech on the future of welfare - delivered last week in a shopping centre in Kent of all places - has provoked hugely varied responses. His speech and the reaction it provoked illustrates how clearly we need a debate acknowledging the realities of the lives of people accessing welfare. A debate that recognises the changing nature of the economy, which is increasing, not decreasing the need for support.
Social Protection - or welfare as it's commonly called here in the UK - has become central to political debate in the UK. Partly this is because we spend so much public money on it, partly because it generates such an emotional debate about people's place and value in society, and partly because of its umbilical link to the nature of the UK economy.
The debate is not at all new. The apparent differences between the "deserving poor" and the "undeserving poor" have run through questions of social protection ever since the days of the Old Poor Laws. David Cameron's speech was no different, although he was perhaps clearer on exactly who he saw as the deserving recipients of welfare, which was pensioners. Purely coincidentally, of course, the demographic most likely to vote.
Cameron's speech sought to focus the "deserving versus undeserving" debate on the issue of in-work benefits. Although these cost around £25bn less per year than benefits to the elderly, for Mr Cameron this seems to be a case of undeserving welfare recipients compared with deserving strivers; people who work on low incomes and don't receive benefits.
But of course this is not a true reflection of what happens on the ground and it is not even a true reflection of current UK Government policy. As organisations like Oxfam know from our UK programme work, the vast majority of people on benefits are not content with their situation. Most would like to work and the vast majority of those that don't seek work either have huge caring responsibilities or serious health problems (including major mental health or addiction issues).
One of our projects in south Wales takes place in an area often labelled as "workshy." However, there are waiting lists for almost all of the community based classes that equip people with the basic skills for seeking work. In the nearest town two miles down the road, 2000 people applied in 12 hours for 300 low paid jobs offered by a supermarket.
However even getting these jobs will not necessarily help people escape poverty. Working age poverty is an increasingly large phenomenon in society and very many people in work need to claim some degree of welfare support to survive. And government policy recognises this: reforms, notably the introduction of Universal Credit, will make balancing a low wage and welfare support easier and remove some of the disincentives to work, at least for the first earner in a family.
The distinction between the "strivers" and "scroungers" is much more blurred than political rhetoric would have us believe. In the last three years the numbers of housing benefit claimants who are working has doubled, and a host of other benefits are also central to the livelihoods of millions of low paid workers, especially part timers.
Cameron's view that welfare is only "a safety net for those who have no other means of support" doesn't match the reality of current (and future) government policy or the needs of the economy. Currently welfare payments to people in work not only keep the workforce out of deep poverty, but effectively act as an enormous subsidy to business, suppressing wage demands at the bottom end. On current trends, in-work benefits (tax credits,
child care support and housing benefit) are likely to grow as averages wages flatline and the large majority of new jobs created are largely in unstable, low wage sectors. At the same time the costs of essentials such as food fuel and housing are rising far faster than incomes.
And so whilst elements of Government policy are adjusting to make this combination of welfare and employment co-exist more effectively, to frame a debate as a vast chasm between the unemployed and the low paid serves little purpose beyond raising tensions and stoking prejudice. It certainly does nothing to help the public understand the nature of the challenges facing welfare budgets and won't help shape responses addressing the real challenges facing people living in or threatened by poverty.
A welfare system that is fit for the twenty first century will be one that supports low paid work, people seeking work and those who cannot work. Let's have a debate that recognises those needs and the rights and responsibilities of both government and citizens to make that system work. This is a debate which needs to be more honest about the nature of work and its limitations in tackling poverty, and honest about the availability of work in many parts of the UK. Blaming the most vulnerable members of society and lambasting a system that is already under reform isn't the best
way to move this debate forward constructively or fairly.