Monday, 1 April 2013

Whither or wither the Welfare State?

One problem (just one, you ask?) I have when politicians of all persuasions talk about welfare reform is that they never really tell us what they/we believe the welfare state is for. And it follows from that, what welfare reform is actually intended to achieve. Instead 'welfare reform' has become a default term for cutting the welfare budget. But budget reduction is definitely not reform. It changes the size but not the shape or the effect of welfare; it reforms absolutely nothing.  To pretend otherwise is downright dishonest and we are getting lots of that this week as more 'reforms' are rolled out by Posh Dave and his henchman Ian Duncan Smith.

But why should we be surprised at this?  It captures the kind of shallow thinking that pervades our government, our institutions and, let's face it, our times.  The kind of thinking that means our leaders see more sense in the short term fix rather than the longer term solution. The kind of thinking that says that the answer to binge drinking and alcohol fuelled anti-social behaviour is to increase the price of drink rather than tackling the underlying admittedly complex social issues. The kind of thinking that says that the answer to our financial crises is to give more money to the banks rather than the restructuring and regulation of the systems that brought us so low.  I could go on (and on and on and on.....) in this vein but I've strayed from the point at which I started: welfare reform.

I wonder how many people today remember from whence came the Welfare State?  Perhaps a quick refresher is in order, if only to remind ourselves of the original intent of the Welfare State? On 1st December 1942 the wartime coalition government published a report, written by Sir William Beveridge, entitled 'Social Insurance and Allied Services'. The Beveridge Report quickly became the blueprint for the modern British welfare state and it aimed to provide a comprehensive system of social insurance 'from cradle to grave'. It proposed that all working people should pay a weekly contribution to the state. In return, benefits would be paid to the unemployed, the sick, the retired and the widowed. Beveridge wanted to ensure that there was an acceptable minimum standard of living in Britain below which nobody fell.  Not a bad objective and is one that any civilised society should support.  Over the years there have been many changes in detail to what the Welfare State provides for its citizens (provided by our money remember) but no real debate about the fundamental question: what exactly do UK citizens expect from the Welfare State of the 21st Century? 

At the moment the debate around welfare remains firmly fixed on the overall cost of the welfare bill and there is a political battle about what is spent, for how long and on whom. There is a divide between those who say that all who need it should be comfortably supported for as long as is necessary, and those that believe such support in and of itself is debilitating and creates a dependency that is itself a cruelty. And because we have a Tory/Coalition government hell bent on imposing ideological change and breaking citizens’ ties to the state at any given opportunity, the cutters are winning.  Yet another chapter in the long and rather inglorious history of welfare reform.

Call me an Old Labour dinosaur (you are an Old Labour dinosaur, Parsons) but I am a firm believer in the Welfare State and, yes, I still subscribe to Beveridge's original tenet of ensuring that there is an acceptable minimum standard of living in this country below which nobody should fall.  And I want my taxes and my government to preserve it.  This is one position: the other is that being pursued by the cutters. Unfortunately it is not yet apparent to me what path Ed Milliband's Labour will take or even if 'they' recognise that a firm choice must be made. Both paths are set with danger and will face resistance. But it is crystal clear to me that if we (and by that I mean those of us on the left) continue to fudge between them, we will achieve nothing and remain as we are, with a creaking and unsatisfactory system that has neither the support of users nor of the wider public.  I just cannot believe that the people of this country really want to dismantle the Welfare State and let the free market and the pursuit of profit rule everything.   Don't be taken in by the rhetoric: the majority of those being screwed by the changes this week are those least likely to be able to cope.  Compassionate Conservatism?  My arse!

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