It would be very easy to lay into David Cameron over his planned reforms of welfare and to dismiss his recent proposals as the coalition taking away crucial support for the young in favour of the elderly, whilst ignoring the fact that the rich keep getting richer.
The problem with this viewpoint is that it is too simple. Ultimately, Cameron is right in a lot of what he said about welfare. The examples he gave in his speech on Monday highlight what is a significant problem in our society. Under the current system a young couple working full-time might take home £24,000 in London, while another couple on the same road with four children, who don’t work, might take home £27,000 in benefits.
As Cameron points out, “Even after the £26,000 benefit cap is introduced, they’ll still take home more than their neighbours who go out to work every day. Can we really say that’s fair?”
For all of his posturing, however, Cameron and his policy-makers seem to be underestimating just how complex the welfare system is and are not focusing on how the current rules do make a real difference to our society. Inferring that all single mothers who are living away from home are doing so for tax benefits (and of their own free will) is short-sighted and simply wrong. Tax benefits were introduced for a reason and many thousands of people in the UK would not be able to survive without them, particularly in the current economic climate.
As The Independent points out, there are plenty of examples of people who will suffer under the proposals, should the coalition press ahead with his plans. 21-year-old Claudette Shay, speaking to the paper, was quick to highlight the obvious issues with the plans, “Living with my parents simply isn’t an option… housing benefit will be crucial when I move into my new flat [she has been living in hostels for two years]. I’ve got myself a job… but will still need help to pay the bills.”
What specifically is Cameron actually trying to do? The reforms spelt out indicate a path which would see a reduction in certain types of welfare (mostly that of large families with neither parent working), a potential abolition of housing benefits for under 25 year olds and part-time community work for long term unemployed based on the Australian ‘work for your dole’ mantra.
He further went on to outline other areas in which a non-coalition Conservative government might look to cut further – an extension of the benefits in kind system such as that which provides free school dinners in place of monetary welfare payments and completely ending the option of benefits for school-leavers. He admitted, however, that under the current government these kinds of changes would not be possible to implement.
While some of these proposals, particularly that for the abolition of housing benefits for the under 25s, will no doubt incense the left-wing press, there is some modicum of sense in what Cameron is aiming to do. Introducing means testing for housing benefits in the style of certain European governments, including Holland, makes sense, though the expectation that parents can simply “top that up” is sheer folly and misunderstands the problem at hand. In many cases young adults are on housing benefits and other welfare because their parents cannot support them.
Despite this, other aspects of Cameron’s proposals are admirable. Currently there is no requirement for people on benefits to have a CV or even basic numeracy and literacy skills, which is a huge problem. While Cameron’s flippant proposal that they “do some form of full-time work helping the community, like tidying up the local park” won’t exactly go towards making these people more employable, the sentiment is not entirely misguided and could well teach some to value their community far more.
What would be more useful, however, would be an increase in funding to provide a greater range of basic educational courses that could genuinely make a difference in helping the long-term unemployed find work, perhaps funded by some of the money raised by cutting over-generous benefits to those who refuse to contribute to society.
Essentially though, is Cameron trying to do the wrong thing? The simple answer, largely, is no. Our welfare system is not up to standard as it currently stands and it can definitely be improved so that it eradicates certain loopholes and gives a better deal across the board, providing that the right safeguards are implemented so that those that deserve benefits continue to receive them.
Yet the Prime Minister should not expect to resolve the issue with a couple of grand gestures. Much like Obama’s healthcare reforms in the US, Cameron should expect a tough battle with fierce opposition. Unlike Obama, he won’t necessarily have the high ground and shouldn’t expect it.
Cameron is right when he says that reform is necessary despite the probability that, “raising big questions on welfare… might not win government support. Frankly it might rub people up the wrong way”. The problem he and the coalition faces is a public that believes in this government the rich are being favoured to the expense of the poor. These reforms will do little to dissuade people that this is the case.