Letter: Poor should not finance public debt

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The Independent Online
Sir: The Secretary of State for Social Security, Peter Lilley MP, has finally laid out his strategy for reducing the social security budget through 'better targeting' and 'more self-provision' (report, 24 June).

These phrases may sound innocuous, but they pose genuine threats to the future of the welfare state. As the Secretary of State made clear, targeting can be achieved by means-testing or by narrowing the scope and tightening the eligibility conditions for benefits. The latter might be a more subtle approach than the means-test but the effect will be the same. Thousands will lose support from the state and others will have to jump through yet more hoops to get help from an increasingly stingy, discretionary and stigmatising social security system.

Mr Lilley's vision of continued universal contributions alongside private provision, through extending the principle of opting out, is a simplistic one. If the more affluent have to pay for a social security system from which they themselves derive little or no benefit, their willingness to pay diminishes. The welfare state, which currently embodies the principle of social solidarity - that all contribute and all gain - will become but a residual safety net of benefits for the poorest.

Above all, the debate about public spending has been drawn too narrowly. The scale of the social security budget is largely a response to failures outside the benefits system - such as the recession and rising costs. To focus on social security alone without taking account of the panoply of tax reliefs and allowances is to make the poorer sections of society pay for the government's debt. This burden should be borne in particular by the more affluent who have gained substantially from the tax cuts of recent years.

Yours sincerely,

CAREY OPPENHEIM

Child Poverty Action Group

London, EC1

24 June

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