Sympathy for those on benefits is lowest since Thatcher's time

The public is now less sympathetic towards people claiming benefits than at any time since Margaret Thatcher left office, the longest-running study into Britain's social attitudes reveals.

Just 27 per cent of people think that the Government should spend more on benefits while only half believe the state should provide a "decent standard of living" for everyone.

The number of people who think the Government should redistribute income has fallen by around a third since Margaret Thatcher left office. The findings are revealed in the latest British Social Attitudes report conducted by the National Centre for Social Research.

The study, published annually for almost 30 years, concludes that while the public remains concerned about the gap between rich and poor this is not matched by support for welfare and redistribution. It suggests that the Coalition Government's plans to reform and cut back on the benefit systems chime with the public mood.

"It is 20 years since Margaret Thatcher left office, but public opinion is far closer now to many of her core beliefs than it was then," said Penny Young, chief executive of the National Centre for Social Research.

"Our findings show that attitudes have hardened over the last two decades, and are more in favour of cutting benefits and against taxing the better-off disproportionately."

But the study, which is based on face-to-face interviews with more than 3,000 adults, suggests satisfaction with health and education are at an all-time high. When Labour gained power in 1997, only a third of people were satisfied with the NHS, the lowest level since the survey began in 1983. By 2009, satisfaction had nearly doubled, and now stands at 64 per cent.

There is also strong public support for the broader curriculum introduced by Labour as well as satisfaction with the performance of secondary schools.

In 1996, around a half thought schools taught basic skills well, rising to nearly three quarters by 2008.

But widespread concern remains about the effectiveness of schools in preparing young people for work, with only half thinking schools do this well.

The Coalition Government must wrestle with these apparent contradictions at a time when Britain's level of distrust in politicians and government has never been higher and trust in the banks is at an all-time low.

The survey also finds that the banking crisis, anger at MPs' expenses, and the recession have taken their toll on the perceived trustworthiness of politicians. Four in 10 "almost never" trust British governments of any party to put the national interest first, up from the previous all-time high of 34 per cent in 2006 and around four times as high as during the late 1980s.

Banks have suffered a similar decline in trust. In 1983, 90 per cent believed banks were well run and their reputation for being well managed was higher than many other institutions including the police and the BBC.

Now just 19 per cent of the public think banks are well run and their reputation for good management is far below that of either the press (39 per cent) or trade unions (35 per cent).

"The biggest problem for the Government is how to lead the British public away from recession and implement reform when trust in politicians, government and banks is at an all-time low," added Ms Young.

"It will need to convince a sceptical electorate that it is working with their best interests at heart. Emphasising the fairness of any cuts while protecting the tangible outcomes of increased spending will be crucial. The public may want the Government to spend less but they don't want to lose the gains of record investment."