Podium: Work won't solve all our problems

From a lecture on `The Welfare Society' given by the sociologist to the Demos think tank in London

I AM, if not the Third Way, then the man in the middle. I think of myself as a LIBERAL, with capital letters throughout, but I suspect that the party on whose benches I sit in the House of Lords regards me as a maverick at best, and a traitor to its manifestos at worst. It would fair to the Lib Dems, if you were to regard the following comments as my own.

Something has clearly gone wrong in the process of slaying the giants of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. I want to pursue what may well be called the New Social Question of those with but a tenuous hold on full citizenship with its attendant rights, opportunities and obligations. If the welfare state has failed to bring them in, what else can be done to create a more inclusive society? Let me look at two issues of great significance, fraud and work.

Put at its crudest, we must assume that between 2 per cent and 7 per cent of all money spent on social security - between pounds 2bn and pounds 7bn -is claimed fraudulently.

Crass cases and the presence of organised fraud underline this. The other day, newspapers reported the case of a Belgian resident who regularly comes by Eurostar to collect a housing allowance in Haringey. No-one would defend such practices, or indeed any violation of the law.

The key question is: is fraud really due to greed, or does it actually respond to need?

Could it not be that many of those who manage to get housing benefits, or jobseekers' allowances, or even disability benefits to which they are not entitled, have no other source of income? Indeed (to enter nearly- forbidden territory of discourse), is not benefit fraud a less destructive crime than mugging and break-ins and drug peddling would be?

What is necessary, above all, is to consider ways in which those who have no other source of income can be put in a position which makes it unnecessary for them to break the law.

Conservatives and Labour, and more particularly New Labour, have this in common, that they like to keep people under control. Mr Darling says he has "ended the `money-for-nothing' culture", and is still accused by senior Tories of "outrageous laxity". But what do they want instead?

In fact, the single most characteristic promise held out by Mr Blair's government in its social, economic and educational policies is - work. Welfare to work, education for employment, from benefit dependency to the independence of work - these are the phrases which recur in a plethora of green and white papers and ministerial statements. Work it appears, will solve all problems.

It would be tempting to speculate precisely what problems can be solved by work.

Problems of expenditure perhaps? That would be nice for the Chancellor, and perhaps for us all. Or is it problems of social control? Is work the last bastion of a matrix of social control that used to be provided by family, school and neighbourhood which are frequently no longer available as disciplinary forces? Is the insistence on work part of the same syndrome of creating a more organised, controlled society?

It can no longer be assumed that GDP growth equals employment creation; jobless growth is a fact. Macro-economic and supply-side conditions of growth do not by themselves create employment; they may do the opposite.

I suspect the most intractable aspect of the new social question is posed by men, especially young men.

They expect "regular" jobs, but cannot find them. They begin to reject the entire official society which does not seem to have a place for them. Before long, they turn to crime, or to drugs, or both. They breed children but don't want to look after them. They begin to drift, often in and out of prison. We have a problem here which defies even social entrepreneurs.

The real issues of our society are micro issues. They require community action.

The advantages of guaranteed basic incomes for all, whether they work or not, are evident. The twin problems of fraud and work would lose their sting. Short of a guaranteed basic income, there are already tested models of similar intent. Working Families Tax Credits are a small step in the right direction, though they do imply work, and they assume families which, for many, may not exist.

I do not think that we know very much about the society in which we are living. We have become obsessed with macro-data. What we need is an ethnography of reality. In the meantime, experiments with basic income guarantees and the promotion of social entrepreneurs are not the worst immediate remedies.

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