This week PM David Cameron criticised the 'something-for-nothing' welfare state culture. But, explores John Humphrys, is Cameron's proposal to stop housing benefit for the under 25s the right way of tackling the issue?
The Prime Minister has set the cat among the pigeons (not least within his own Coalition Government) by suggesting this week that the welfare system may need an even more radical overhaul than it is already getting.
In a Sunday newspaper interview and in a speech he delivered in Kent on Monday, David Cameron floated some radical ideas that a majority Conservative government might want to implement if it won the next election. He says he wants to put an end to a ‘something-for-nothing’ culture of entitlement he believes prevails at the moment. Is he right?
Mr Cameron’s main target seems to be housing benefit, especially that paid to the young. The number of people overall receiving the benefit reached an all-time high of five million recently, but he’s particularly interested in the 380,000 recipients under the age of twenty-five. They claim, on average, about £90 a week and the cost to the taxpayer is not far short of £2bn a year. The Prime Minister argues that if many of these recipients were denied the benefit and forced to go on living with their parents for longer, not only would this save the Government a lot of money but it would also be fairer.
He told the Mail on Sunday: “A couple will say: ‘We are engaged, we are both living with our parents, we are trying to save before we get married and have children and be good parents. But how does it make us feel, Mr Cameron, when we see someone who goes ahead, has the child, gets the council home, gets the help that isn’t available to us?’ One is trapped in a welfare system that discourages them from working, the other is doing the right thing and getting no help.”
Another idea floated is to tighten up on the rules concerning job seekers’ allowance. The suggestion is that a group of hardcore work-shy, numbering between five and ten thousand, who fail or refuse to find work or training after two years, would be forced to take part in community work if they wanted to go on receiving benefit.
Most radical of all was something the Prime Minister acknowledged as difficult and which he was not yet advocating himself, though he thought it should be considered – namely that child benefit should be restricted to the first three children in a family.
Overall, Mr Cameron said he wanted to strike a better balance between those “who work and do the right thing” and those who “have understood how to work a system”.
Inevitably, these ideas, even when falling far short of specific policy proposals, have drawn immediate criticism. Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, described them as “hazy and half-baked”. He criticised the idea of denying housing benefit to those under twenty-five on the grounds that at a time when it is difficult enough for young people to find work anyway, taking away housing benefit would make it even more difficult, especially when available jobs may be far from the family home.
Campbell Robb, the chief executive of the housing charity, Shelter, said it would have a devastating impact on many people’s lives. “I think we would see many more people ending up homeless as a result of this kind of change”.
Most interesting has been the reaction of the Prime Minister’s Coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. They have bent over backwards to acknowledge Mr Cameron’s right to air ideas that his party might want to advocate at the next election but have made pretty clear those ideas are not something they’d want to espouse themselves in a hurry. They argue that the Coalition has already embarked on what the (Tory) work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has called “the most radical and wide-ranging welfare reform in a generation” (including sweeping away the complexity of myriad different benefits in favour of a new universal benefit and also putting a cap on the amount of benefit anyone can receive each year) and they want these to bed down before they start thinking of any more radical ideas. The LibDems have given the signal that they have little stomach for the sorts of reform the Prime Minister is starting to chew.
This may not trouble Mr Cameron too much. His purpose in airing these thoughts seems to have more to do with party politics than with any burning sense that the problems of the welfare state are so urgent that they must be reformed by a week on Thursday. He clearly feels the need to reassure his own backbenchers and Conservative supporters in the country that he still has the appetite to do Tory things even while he may be constrained from doing them at once by the realities of coalition government. That may be also why the education secretary, Michael Gove, floated ideas for reforming the exam system on Tory lines last week. The need for such reassurance is all the greater at a time when Conservative MPs are being asked, for the sake of the Coalition, to back essentially LibDem-driven proposals to reform the House of Lords, which few of them enthusiastically support.
What is interesting politically, though, is that Mr Cameron feels able to muse publicly about further welfare reform without him seeming to worry that it will reinforce unwelcome stereotypes of the Conservative Party as the “nasty” party that doesn’t care about the unfortunate. When he became leader, Mr Cameron sought to “detoxify” the party by articulating a new “compassionate conservatism”. On the face of it, these new ideas would seem to fly in the face of all that.
But he and his advisers have clearly been reading the polls (not least those conducted by YouGov). These show that opinion has hardened against those regarded as “welfare scroungers”. This allows Conservatives to return to an old theme: that welfare should not be thought of simply as being about generosity to the unfortunate and spending lots of money, but should be designed to shape behaviour. The system should be about sticks as well as carrots, about incentivising people to do what Mr Cameron calls “the right thing” and not being too troubled if people fall into difficulties if they refuse. The welfare system should provide a safety net not a hammock.
Opposition politicians will also have been looking at these polls and will therefore hesitate before rejecting Mr Cameron’s ideas outright.
But for all politicians the difficulty comes with the detail rather than the broad approach. There are always pressing exceptions to sweeping reforms. It is already being acknowledged, for example, that housing benefit could not possibly be denied to people under twenty-five who were victims of domestic violence.
It’s the effect on children that is the most sensitive political issue regarding any reform of welfare. Taking away housing benefit from under-25s may, in the long run, help to change behaviour so that fewer children are born to single mothers without work. But in the meantime many such children will still be born. Will we be prepared to see them brought up in the often cramped conditions of their grandparents’ flat because their mothers can no longer get council homes? And will politicians be prepared to take the political flak for forcing them to do so?
These are the questions that politicians in all parties will have to mull in the light of the ideas the Prime Minister has put on the table.
What’s your view?
- Do you think the welfare system has created a “something-for-nothing” culture or not?
- Do you think the housing benefit system needs reforming or not?
- In particular, what do you make of the Prime Minister’s suggestion that claimants would have to be at least twenty-five before becoming eligible for housing benefit?
- Should people on job seekers’ allowance be forced to do community work if they’ve not got work or training after two years?
- Should child benefit be restricted to three children per family?
- In general do you agree with Mr Cameron that we have not yet got the balance right between those who work and try to “do the right thing” and those who “work the system”?
- And, if you do, what other changes would you recommend?
- How far do you think we should go to protect the welfare of the children of parents who “work the system”?
- If Mr Cameron were to advocate these changes at the next election, how much, if at all, would it affect your willingness to vote Conservative?
- And do you think the welfare system ever will be reformed as you would like it to be?