Christina Patterson: In a changed world, we need a new social contract

But only fantasists, and Labour politicians, don't have to make a choice. If you're in charge, you do

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It would be nice, in the run-up to Christmas, to have at least one day off. It would be nice to have a day without another set of statistics that showed that the statistics released two days ago, which said that things were looking terrible, and that lots of people were going to lose their jobs, and that nothing in the economy was growing, or growing in a way that made any difference to anyone except the person whose accountants made sure that almost none of it trickled into anything you might call tax, weren't nearly gloomy enough.

It would be nice not to watch interviews with teenagers, who smashed windows, and set cars alight, and made people so frightened that they didn't dare go out of their front doors, saying that they thought that the riots they'd taken part in, which had been great fun, would probably happen again. And not to switch on the Today programme, and hear that, after pouring billions and billions and billions into benefits for the country's poorest families, something called "child poverty", which seems to be a special term for the children of poor adults (though you might have guessed that children of poor adults wouldn't be all that rich) has increased.

And it would be very nice not to open a newspaper, or switch on the telly, and see a group of men in suits explaining why the other men are stupid, and think that things we'd once thought could only get better, can, in fact, only get worse.

If you were the kind of person who didn't go round telling everyone that you were an optimist – the kind of person, for example, who didn't think that cheering up some of your nuttier backbenchers was more important than the future of your country – then you might well feel a bit worried. You might think that throwing money at social problems didn't seem to have worked, and now it looked as though there wasn't any money left to throw. You might wonder what kind of promises politicians could make when there wasn't any money to throw. And particularly the kind who only seemed to go into politics to throw it.

You might, in that case, be interested in new plans set out by Westminster Council. It's calling the plans a "civic contract", which makes you think of the day last year when the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister looked as though they were making one, and also looked happy, and even in love, which they don't look now. But this isn't the kind of contract you make when you want to enter into a legal arrangement with someone you love. It's the kind of contract you might have to make if you want to benefit from any kind of public spending. It's called, in fact, a "consultation on the future direction of public services".

The "need for greater economy in public spending", it says, demands "a new approach". One, apparently, that will be "guided by a new sense of civic responsibility". What this means is that social housing, for example, will be "a privilege, not a right", and one that's granted to people who are making some contribution to the community. It means that people who work, or who adopt or foster children, or who volunteer as police officers, or in the TA, will have priority over those who don't. And particularly over those who indulge in "antisocial behaviour".

The Council will, it says, offer its citizens a "ladder of opportunity" by working with local businesses to provide apprenticeships, training and work. It wants a "stronger role for residents and businesses in the management of the public realm". It wants "everyone to play their part – no matter how small". It wants to end the culture of "something for nothing".

It is, say Labour Councillors, a "cruel con trick". It is, they say, an attempt by a Tory Council to "hide the impact" of its "cuts programme". They're worried, they say, about the return to ideas of a "deserving poor".

What they don't say is that Labour policies – which you might call policies of "something for nothing" – of increasing benefits to poor parents, actually meant that more poor parents had more poor children. Paying people more not to work than to work meant that more children grew up in workless households, and in the kind of "troubled" families which, according to Government estimates this week, are costing taxpayers about £9bn a year. Throwing money at poor parents, in other words, just made things worse.

The result is a mess. It was a mess before the global economic crisis which scuppered all plans for large-scale public spending, and before the crisis in the eurozone, and before Britain, or its bulldog Prime Minister, cut us free from the neighbours who are also the biggest market for our exports. It was a mess before even those with jobs thought they were quite likely to lose them.

But only fantasists, and Labour politicians, don't have to make a choice. If you're in charge, you do. If you're in charge, you can choose whether to give a tenancy to someone who's trying to escape from unemployment, or to someone who isn't. If you're in charge, you can encourage businesses to give opportunities to local residents. And you can send out the message that it's better for everyone if you're contributing something to the community that's supporting you, and it's sure as hell better for your children.

The world has changed. It isn't fair, but it has. If this means that people who show more of a commitment to their fellow citizens get to live in nicer homes than people who don't, then so be it. At this rate, we'll all be lucky to have any homes at all.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/queenchristina_

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