This year has seen a gruesome series of stories bearing out the Broken Society narrative, starting with teenagers shooting each other and ending with Karen Matthews abducting her own daughter in search of a McCann-style reward. Look at most of these stories, including Baby P, and there is a common theme: they take place in welfare ghettoes, those oases of deprivation in every British city. While we should condemn the evil, we should also condemn something the system that incubates the evil. There was a reason that Beveridge called idleness a “giant evil”. As I say in my News of the World column today when you pay people to do nothing you mess with human nature.
This point was put very well by Sir Norman Bettison, chief constable of West Yorkshire Police, which investigated Shannon Matthews’ abduction.
“Here are almost hidden, secret parts of our community. People who actually don’t socialise beyond a small group of people. No holidays, no going to town, no going to the cinema. If it doesn’t go on in their house, or a house nearby, it doesn’t happen as far as they’re concerned. And what that means is that they are not socialised in the way that society is generally socialised in terms of norms of behaviour. Norms of behaviour are, for them, whatever they can get away with.”
So the horizontal ties that used to bind people to their communities are replaced by vertical ties that bind them to the state. Karen Matthews saw kids as a meal ticket, she had seven of them by six fathers, and she clocked up £1,400 a month on benefits which she called “my wage”. You can call her a slob, a sponger, all the rest of it. But she didn’t do anything illegal. She was simply responding to an offer being made by the state: have kids, get a free house and cash. If the state paves a road to this kind of lifestyle, is it any surprise that some people follow it?
At the Tory conference, I was on a CPS panel where a member of the audience asked if we believed girls really would have a child to acquire more benefits – as if the very notion were preposterous. Shaun Bailey, a fellow at the CPS and Tory PPC for Hammersmith, replied: “Gals getting knocked up to get housing? It’s a cottage industry where I come from.” The conference went quiet. He was the only one in a room who actually came from a deprived housing estate, and knew what he was talking about.
Yet these mothers are following a trail laid for them by a government. I say blame the trail, not the people who follow it. People everywhere follow trails laid down for them. Born in the right place, and that trail leads to university and a job. If you’re born in the wrong place, that trail leads to welfare dependency and poverty. Sure, you can deviate from this trail, but it’s a broad rule of thumb. This is the social apartheid in Britain today, the product not of unbridled market forces but of the perverse incentives of a mutated welfare state that is now breeding the poverty it was designed to abolish.
The welfare state is now the number one sponsor of that “giant evil” of idleness. This trail to poverty is a very expensive one. But it only costs money. Removing that trail, implementing tough-love welfare reform, costs political capital. And that is something all too few governments have been willing to expend.
Until, weirdly, now. I don’t expect James Purnell to say any of the above when he announces his welfare reform White Paper on Wednesday, but from what we’ve seen it will quite literally be the most dramatic overhaul to the welfare state since its inception. Brown is on board – I suspect because he needs to pick a fight with the Labour Left for reasons of political positioning. Purnell is talking about scraping Incapacity benefit and assessing all 2.6 million people on it to see what work they can do. The Tories (who first proposed this) agree. But Purnell is also talking about forcing lone parents to seek work when the youngest is not 16 years, as has been the case for ages, but 12 months. This is too much for the Tories. Chris Grayling, one of the party’s very best and most dedicated fighters, will probably support Purnell through the House with this – so it will happen. The vote will be won, no matter how big the rebellion.
This is not revolution, but glasnost. The welfare state has more “clients” (5.2 million) than a lot of countries do people. When Peter Hain was in the job, he didn’t have the faintest idea of the harm the system did. Neither did David Blunkett. Purnell is following on John Hutton’s brave work acknowledging that welfare dependency is a new giant evil, and on that must be tackled for humanitarian as well as economic reasons. And rather than be put off by the recession, Purnell says it should redouble his efforts in introducing a work-for-dole system. When people lose contact with the labour market, he argues, it can be very difficult to get them back. Many of the 2.3 million long-term (ie, five years or more) welfare claimants are the legacy from the last recession. This was the mistake of the Tory years. Labour, he’ll argue, cannot afford to condemn the people losing their jobs now to the same scrap heap.
The Labour left will murder Purnell for all this. The Compass Group is already promising to put a horse’s head under his bed. He doesn’t seem to care. Nor does Brown: it suits him both to see Purnell get a kicking, and for Mr & Mrs Swing Voter to see his government crossing swords with Old Labour. The government has commissioned research which shows the public are even more up for tough love welfare reform now than before the credit crunch. It looks like it will happen, into the headwind of a recession.
Grayling is (with a few caveats) supporting Purnell, which tells you how deadly serious Grayling also is about success here – and his recognising that there are issues that transcend party politics.
I know many CoffeeHouses have reservations about Purnell: I challenge them to name any work and pensions secretary, of any party, who has had a more well-researched and radical welfare reform programme.
This is the real deal. A real solution to a real problem, being tackled with as much urgency as anyone could expect. Purnell is about to undergo the toughest task in politics, one that neither Blair nor Thatcher tackled. And I, for one, wish him luck.