Letter: The means test and the modernisation of benefits

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The Independent Online
Sir: Polly Toynbee's article ('The nagging doubt of the benefit', 18 December) itself created some nagging doubts in my mind.

In her desire to champion (again) the cause of more means- testing, she seems to present a one-dimensional view of the social security system and the source of any additional resources to improve the incomes of those in poverty.

Of course, we should re-examine the whole of the tax and benefits system, with open minds,

whoever we are. But let's look carefully at the multiple functions of any sophisticated social system in today's complex society, rather than just advocate immediately the abolition of any elements that are not directed at the short-term relief of poverty after it has already overwhelmed people.

Of course, we should update our benefits system to match modern conditions. But let's not accept uncritically the blast from the past that is currently masquerading as the modernism of means- testing.

How, for example, can we meet women's aspirations for an income that is not totally dependent on how much their partners receive? How can we provide real security in the instability created by today's shifting labour market and family patterns? How can

we encourage people to take up opportunities, rather than put-

ting a brake on their efforts to do so?

The answer to any of these questions, I would suggest, is not likely to be 'by means-testing everything that moves'.

Let's see how we can find the money to give more to those in poverty. But let's be just a bit more imaginative about where this could come from than picking on the nearest 'universal' benefit to finance it. Of course, we should look at the tax and social security systems alongside each other, but without believing the old myth that benefits delivered via the tax system will solve the take-up problems of means-tested benefits automatically.

Yours sincerely,

FRAN BENNETT

Director

Child Poverty Action Group

London, EC1

18 December

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