Poll finds mystery meltdown of state aid

A survey of public attitudes towards the welfare state showed high levels of support for increasing pensions and other benefits, though Reader's Digest, which commissioned the study, sought to present the findings as evidence of a welfare "crisis".

The monthly magazine, part of an American conglomerate publishing in 48 countries, claims a UK readership of 6.1 million. It said the data proved the welfare state was destined for "meltdown".

Using language remarkably similar to that of the Tory front bench, Russell Twisk, the editor, said: "There is widespread public awareness of crisis."

However MORI, which interviewed a national sample of some 2,000 people in July, told a different story. The opinion-poll organisation said the survey showed only that the public was divided over the amount spent on welfare benefits. A majority of people thought the levels of pensions, child and unemployed benefit were either too low or about right.

There was support for reform in certain areas, for example "workfare", or linking payment of the dole to work requirements. Equally, there was support for unconditional increases in universal benefits.

When they were told spending on welfare and social security was running at pounds 90bn a year, or about a third of all public spending, nearly two-thirds of the public responded that that seemed either too little or was about right. Only a third said it was too much.

Not surprisingly, more Tory than Labour supporters thought too much was spent on welfare. MORI confirmed what the annual British Social Attitudes and other surveys have found: "While in theory many would like the expending on state subsistence to be minimised, in practice it is accepted legitimate claimants should not have their benefit lowered."

Most people thought old-age pensions were inadequate. Understandably, given how far they are from retiring, a higher proportion of teenagers and young adults thought the state pension for a single person of pounds 61.15 a week was right.

Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, who wants to cut child benefit for the better-off, may take comfort from the finding that, by a slight majority, Labour supporters favour limiting child benefit to those with low incomes.

Labour is also likely to pay special attention to MORI's consistent finding that Scots consistently favour higher levels of welfare payment: would they continue to be as generous if the entirety of such payments had to be met from Scottish taxes?

Proposals for changing or even expanding benefits won support. More than 85 per cent of people thought there should be tax concessions to women who stayed at home to look after young children. A clear majority thought the long-term unemployed should have to do community or other work to qualify for the dole; the region with most resistance to the idea was the North-east.

More than three people in five rejected the notion that state pensions should be limited to those without an adequate private pension, though MORI noted that attitudes towards pensions among the young were hard to measure, since many had not thought about them.

There was strong support for tough action against social-security fraud, though that turned out to be based on exaggerations of how much is lost.

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