I’m unashamedly a supporter of the welfare state. I think it’s fundamentally a good thing that the State, rather than independent charities, steps in to provide support to people who are facing a tough time. There is abuse of the system though, as there is with every single system that exists. There will always be people who take advantage and there comes a point where there is little more you can do to deal with this small group without harming the vast majority of people who are not abusing the system. In terms of the welfare state, I think we have reached that point.
While I am a supporter of the welfare system and while I don’t think there is much more we can do to deal with those who abuse the system without harming the vast majority who don’t, I am of the view that there is room for reform within the system.
The benefits system we have in the UK today is very bureaucratic and complex. There is little doubt in my mind that if we looked at it from scratch again we could simplify the system reducing the bureaucratic nature of it as well. That would ultimately reduce costs in the long term without actually harming the living standards of those who rely on the benefits system to help them make up a shortfall.
One thing I find when I discuss the benefits system with people is that many of the examples people give are not what I would term abuse (by abuse I would refer to people who claim no more than what they’re entitled to, but make no effort to try and get out of those circumstances), but rather they refer to people making fraudulent claims. I often hear people saying that their neighbour or someone they work with is claiming benefits to which they are not entitled. That’s called fraud and it is a criminal offence. People do need to be more forthcoming in reporting those who are fraudulently claiming benefits. Those who investigate these crimes often have to work on information passed to them from the public as without undergoing a very expensive and labour-intensive process of personally visiting every single benefit claimant in the country, it is often difficult to spot fraud. CrimeStoppers will even take reports anonymously and pass it to the Department for Works and Pensions, Police or local authority.
I don’t necessarily agree with the way in which the present Government is dealing with welfare. For instance, I think that the popularly named ‘Bedroom Tax’ (or under-occupancy penalty) is a highly unfair system that doesn’t take account of people’s personal circumstances. It’s a blanket policy, which rarely works (especially in welfare cases). It takes no account of the need disabled people might have for a bigger house than they would otherwise need, or of parents who have separated and require a spare bedroom (or bedrooms) for their children when they come to stay or of people who have children who attend residential schools (for educational reasons such as learning difficulties) and a whole host of other circumstances. One can understand the reason behind the Government introducing the policy, but it is flawed and is poorly thought out. It also fails to take account that because of the Right to Buy and a failure of local authorities (of all colours) to ensure an appropriate supply of housing to meet the needs of the people in their area, that there is actually insufficient housing for people to downsize into if they do find themselves with too much space.
In terms of things like the benefits cap, I think the Government are failing. Again, it is understandable why the Government want to introduce the cap; however, it fails to take account of circumstances. The benefits system should be there to act as a safety net, ensuring that those who find themselves in temporary difficulty are not at risk of losing their home and are able to maintain at least a basic standard of living. That means that when a person who was working become unemployed (perhaps because they’ve been made redundant) they should be able to access support to ensure that their rent or mortgage is covered, that they have enough money to put three balanced meals on the table for each member of their household, that they are able to continue ensuring that their children are properly clothed and able to participate in relevant educational activities and such like. It may not be popular with some in society, but equally we shouldn’t put people in a position where because of no fault of their own they are facing homelessness or can’t feed themselves properly. Both of these situations costs the public purse a lot more than it would to support them until such times as they get back on their feet.
That’s half the problem, there is little thought put into the residual effects of these policies. It might very well be possible to feed a family on £7 per person per week, but is that going to produce a healthy and balanced diet? I’d suggest that it won’t be. That then has a cost to public health and to the NHS in the long term. What savings a Government might happen to make to the welfare budget by simply slashing what is paid is likely to later be dwarfed by the cost to the health budget when people’s health starts to deteriorate because they’re not eating healthily.
As a student I’ve been attempting to eat healthily lately. I have found it to be much more expensive than not eating healthily. I can buy crisps and chocolate to last a week cheaper than I can buy fruit to last only half a week. Meat and fish are also expensive, but pretty essential to a balanced diet. I can buy processed pizzas and other junk food like that for cheaper than I can meat and fish. Fruit, meat and fish are almost certainly going to be off the list when living on budgets as small as £7 per week per person. I know when I undertook the ‘Live below the line’ challenge a couple of years ago (living on £1 per day for 5 days to raise money and awareness for extreme poverty around the world) that fruit, meat and fish were all off the menu for those 5 days. Instead I was filling up on rice, noodles, eggs and bread: not the healthiest of diets.
The reality is this constant chipping away at the system and policies aimed at appeasing party supporters is not working. A proper discussion is needed about welfare, which puts the problems, costs and benefits into perspective so that we can reform the system in a way that doesn’t harm the people it’s there to help and protect. As I said earlier, you are never going to eliminate abuse from the system so we should stop pretending that we can.