Editorial: The welfare state enters a new, and riskier, era

The political and public climate for benefits reform was unusually benevolent

In a way, ministers might be annoyed that most of the running, in terms of hostility, has been made by the “bedroom tax”.

In another, though, they might be grateful. The Government’s apparent failure to anticipate the indignation felt by those essentially being fined for having a spare room, and the delight of those who sense  a chink in ministerial defences, has obscured the much bigger picture. After barely three years in office, the Coalition is introducing probably the most sweeping reforms since the foundation of the welfare state.

The Government is not drafting legislation; it is not steering it through Parliament; it is not putting out proposals for consultation. It has done all this. There were times when its competence, let alone its intentions, raised questions. The cack-handed way in which the then Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, went about his NHS reforms ultimately cost him his job. The very notion of testing invalidity benefit recipients for their capacity to work drew protests, in part because of the insensitivity with which it was tackled. Now, though, the preliminaries are over. The legislation and many of the measures themselves are coming into force.

The much-contested “bedroom tax” went into effect yesterday. So did new arrangements for council tax which will mean more people having to pay; swingeing restrictions on legal aid, and NHS reforms that will see prime responsibility for commissioning care pass to doctors. Next Monday, the new personal independence payment replaces disability living allowance. The benefit cap – limiting total household receipts from the state – comes in a week later in four London boroughs. Two weeks after that, one district of Greater Manchester  pioneers the centrepiece – Universal Credit.

Not all has gone according to plan. The work of NHS commissioning that was intended to be led by GPs has been extended to hospital doctors and managers. That may be a concession that ministers   – and the GPs and their patients – come to rue. There were supposed to be four districts implementing Universal Credit at the outset. That is down to one. An NHS emergency phone line, intended to take the heat off emergency ambulance calls, has been delayed. But the changes that are going ahead constitute a formidable list. And whether you like them, loathe them, or are waiting to see, ministers deserve some credit. It has taken almost every government in recent memory at least twice as long to accomplish nothing like as much. The sheer size of the task, and the risk of protest, discouraged any serious effort to grapple with welfare. 

How these measures will be judged, however, depends not on what has already happened, but on what happens next. The Coalition was – crucially – able to capitalise on a widespread public sense that benefits of all kinds had become a disincentive to work. A little of the shine was also taken off the NHS in recent months by the report on Stafford Hospital. The climate for reform was unusually benevolent.

The generally quiescent public mood, however, could soon turn. If, for instance, it emerges  that figures produced by the Government – showing that more than 800,000 people gave up claims for disability benefit – were massaged, or that genuinely disabled people were too scared to claim; if the benefits cap results in already deprived families becoming homeless; if government computers cannot cope with the single pilot of Universal Credit; if GPs are attacked by angry patients for rationing care, then not only will the whole Government be in the dock – Mr Cameron personally underwrote both the benefit and NHS reforms – but any reform of the welfare state, however justified, will be twice as hard next time around.