All we can agree on is that welfare’s in a state

Our complex, wasteful system benefits the rich while the needy are left to struggle with bureaucracy

Share

What a strange world we live in.

A clutch of Church leaders spent their holiest weekend of the year queuing up to attack the Government for its flint-hearted approach to the poor. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister used his Easter message to proclaim his joy that our hard-pressed nation is giving away 0.7 per cent of its national income in overseas aid.

Few things better demonstrate the peculiar shape of modern British politics. Despite the debt crisis, the Government is applauded by the great and good for encouraging welfare dependency across the globe with anachronistic and profligate aid policies – while at home it is making tentative steps to end such a dependency culture, and coming under withering fire from critics who claim to care about the poorest in society.

Rationalism and reality are rarely allowed to intrude into the emotionally charged debate over welfare. As a raft of reforms came into force yesterday, there were shrill screams of outrage on the left that the poor were being sacrificed, the health service dismembered and the country condemned into Hogarthian dystopia. At the same time, some on the right smacked their lips at the prospect of slashing back the welfare state faster and deeper, despite the biggest contraction since its foundation six decades ago.

The Coalition deserves some credit for seeking to tackle a bloated and unaffordable system – although it is unfortunate that these reforms came into play in the same week as its stupidest policy, of cutting income tax for the super-rich. Britain is far from alone in Europe in wrestling with these issues; the need for action will only grow in time. It is worth remembering that the Blair government came into office declaring the need to save the welfare state and think the unthinkable, only to bottle it on all but the most cosmetic changes.

Labour ended up flooding the country with taxpayers’ cash, much of it landing in the wrong pockets – just as in the aid industry. Doctors, consultancy firms, local authority officials, private landlords and a plague of self-appointed experts did well, while five million working-age Britons were left to rot on benefits, a soul-sapping existence far removed from the dominant “strivers versus shirkers” narrative. When 878,300 people on incapacity benefit decide not to even submit to new tests to determine if they can work, something has clearly gone astray, however flawed the testing process.

Again as in the aid world, policies introduced with good intentions have backfired with disastrous outcomes. To take one example from many, who was helped when the cost of housing benefits doubled over the past decade to £23bn? Certainly not the poor, often stuck in grossly sub-standard homes. And does it really help Britain to spend as much on this single benefit as on all the subsidies for our transport system?

But the same is true of reform – the wrong moves can make matters worse. This is why disabled people are so scared over the scrapping of Disability Living Allowance. Ministers have declared their intention to cut one-fifth off the £13bn bill, yet already half of claimants are turned down for a benefit that plays a crucial role in helping people to work and participate in society. As with the ridiculous “bedroom tax”, there is good cause for concern.

But instead of harking back to a mythical golden age, those who care about protecting the poor and helping people play their rightful role in society should shout loudest for change. Money is a key part of the equation – but it is not the only part. We evolved a complex, wasteful welfare system that often benefits the better-off and the providers of services, while those in need are left to struggle through a blizzard of bureaucracy, only to end up with peanuts when they emerge blinking into the light.

This is one reason it is wrong to continue handing out bus passes and television licences to wealthy old people. Some half of all welfare spending goes to pensioners, something often lost amid the frenzy of this debate.

It is nonsensical to continue giving these perks to everyone, however rich, when disabled people are having vital support slashed. We simply cannot afford to keep on pandering to the electoral power of pensioners, nor to remain in thrall to the outdated concept of universal benefits.

All too often, of course, the welfare system is blamed for problems elsewhere. One reason for the soaring cost of housing benefits is the grotesque failure of successive governments to ensure enough homes were built in Britain. And the spiralling cost of disability benefits is partly down to lingering prejudice that makes it hard for people with disabilities to use public transport or obtain employment; even before the downturn, fewer than half had jobs compared with more than three-quarters of other working-age people.

Voters recognise that the welfare system has gone astray, which is why there is firm backing for policies such as the benefit cap and Labour is in such a pickle on these issues. Such support may wilt, however, as subsequent rounds of reform bite deeper: child benefit proved how people endorse cuts until they change from abstract headlines into reality in their own homes.

Amid the sound and fury of this week, the harsh truth is that we have only begun the battle to remould the welfare state. If we fail to get it right, we will all be the losers.

Twitter: @ianbirrell

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
 

Labour's Simon Danczuk is flirting with Nigel Farage, but will he answer his prayers and defect?

Matthew Norman
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick