Letter: Advantages of universal benefits

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Sir: Polly Toynbee's criticisms of social insurance as a means of helping the poor ('The nagging doubt of the benefit', 18 December) do not bear examination. What she and others, including government ministers, have to do is produce a more convincing explanation of deepening poverty and the present experiences of families eligible for income support, so that better policies can be developed.

She writes feelingly of families on income support 'struggling through Christmas', but also of national insurance benefits and child benefit being wasted on people with working incomes, such as herself.

What is the scientific evidence? There is plenty to show the inadequacy of income support in amount and flexibility and the failure of that method of support to reach a huge number who are eligible to receive it. But this has also been true of means-tested systems since Elizabethan times.

Means-testing, which puts the onus of proof upon the poor, has never worked equitably and has a number of social ill-effects - alienation, instability, indebtedness, detachment from community membership, hostility from the securely rich, distrust from the temporarily secure majority.

Contractual national insurance serves a variety of functions, such as preventing the near poor from becoming poor, and compensating for dependency because cash allowances are more effective than tax allowances.

It is cheaper to administer than private medical insurance and private pension schemes, simpler to understand and communicate entitlements, and more reliable than either occupational or private provisions (as recent cases such as Maxwell and Hanson testify).

Through taxation, employment and incomes policies, as well as social insurance, other European countries have avoided large-scale means-testing - and also the high level of poverty in the UK.

Yours etc,


Department of Social Policy

University of Bristol


18 December