The welfare state is being demolished. Brick-by-brick. Right down to the foundations. What is left depends on the passage of the Government’s Welfare Reform Bill, which maps out the most radical upheaval of the benefits system for sixty years. Yet, compared to the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s plans to restructure the NHS, the Bill has received relatively little attention in the mainstream press; it has not caused as much public outcry.
The public has never championed the welfare state the same way it does the NHS, which – a new survey shows – inspires more pride in people than other institutions like the royal family. This is because of the two systems nearly all of us will at some point have to use healthcare, but it is a much smaller number of people who come into contact with welfare. Few would object to their taxes being put towards hospitals and doctors; many more would contend that they should pay for benefits. For a lot of people, the idea of paying into a pot only for it contents to be redistributed and used by others – perhaps undeservingly so – doesn’t have them reaching for their wallets.
And so the ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide is born, and with it the longstanding idea of universalism – that we may all fall on hard times, one way or other, and need to draw on the welfare pot at some point in our lives – begins to die.
Research by the left-leaning think tank the Fabian Society reveals that public support for redistribution is falling. In its place, is a growing emphasis on contribution and increasing levels of concern that those claiming from the pot won’t put something back. More and more, that ‘something’ equals money. Even in the age of the ‘Big Society’ – with all the noise about volunteering and community engagement – non-work (or rather non-economic) forms of contribution are failing to be adequately valued. As recently explained by author Jenny Morris, to be ‘independent’ in this society is to be economically productive.
If the authors of the Fabian research are right, then public attitudes to benefits exert real influence over the welfare state’s development itself. Given that public appetite for a redistribution is diminishing, it is not surprising to see this reflected in politicians’ plans to overhaul the benefits system (although, one could argue these have as much to do with political ideology as they do with public opinion). More surprising is that these plans go to such extremes that even those who have worked and paid into the system are soon to find their support cut.
The fixation with economic contribution and those who are able to work, puts those who are not able to work in a precarious position. And while it is assumed that those who (*grits teeth*) are ‘genuinely’ disabled and will be recognised as being so, frequently the tests used to assess this are so critically flawed that even the people who designed them have spoken out against them.
With the Conservatives for the most part in charge (of the Department of Work & Pensions, as well as the Government), the Lib Dems have little room to manoeuvre. A recent poll for The Sun showed Clegg’s party to be polling at 9% – one point above UKIP. Yet Labour – in the midst of its soul-searching policy review exercise – appears to be moving to the right on welfare. Mindful, I’m sure, of think tanks like ippr telling his party that welfare is thought of as synonymous with dependency, and that it remains an issue that leaves Labour vulnerable, Ed Miliband is keen to appear tough on welfare – calling for a system based on values – “the value of work”.
This is an admirable aim. No-one is suggesting that families who work should not be better off than were they on benefits, or that a very small minority (which, depending on what paper you read, is a lot smaller than you might think) do abuse the system. But in a system in which the focus on economic contribution is so strong, you are either, as Morris suggests, one of two things: financially independent or so vulnerable you need to be ‘looked after’. Many disabled people fall somewhere in the middle.
A new report by Demos, commissioned by the disability charity Scope, and which is following the plight of six disabled families every six months over the course of this Parliament, shows that even families who have worked, do work or want to work; who care for and look after family members; who volunteer in their communities, are feeling the safety net snapping under them.
At a time when Labour is seeking to redefine its stance on so many issues, there is a real opportunity for a deep and wide-ranging debate on what it is we need from our welfare state; how it could be ensured that this ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide is broken down, rather than entrenched; and how other forms of contribution and participation should be recognised and rewarded. With the Coalition busy demolishing the welfare state as we know it, it is up to the party that founded it, and other universalist institutions like the NHS, to defend it. You never know: one day, you might need it.