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Why don’t Labour talk about welfare reform?

5 April 2013

4:24 PM

5 April 2013

4:24 PM

Philip Collins is shackled by the epithet ‘Tony Blair’s former speechwriter’; shackled because his columns prove him to be his own man. His latest (£) is a carefully argued critique of the Labour Party’s total lack of a welfare policy, titled ‘Labour Can’t Win If It’s On Mick Philpott’s side’ . The most arresting section is:

‘There is no better illustration of the self-harm of Labour’s position than that it is driving me into the arms of the Tory backbencher Bernard Jenkin. I usually regard Mr Jenkin as the prime specimen of perspective-free hyperbole on Europe and tax cuts. But Mr Jenkin was one of a number of Tories who suggested that child benefit be limited to the first two children; this would save £3.3 billion if it were applied to all recipients.

There are more than 85,000 households that claim for five children (!90 familes claim for ten) and almost a quarter of a million that claim for four. Many working people take the responsible view that, though they would love another child, they cannot afford it. What’s wrong with embodying the same standard in the benefits system?’

Labour’s silence on these matters really is deafening. It does not take genius (nor does it make you callous) to see that the Philpott case, though extreme, raises some questions about how we order society. It raises questions about our acute housing shortage, the policing of our benefits system, the efficiency of our social care services, the competence of the criminal justice system, and our ability to protect vulnerable and impressionable women from monsters like Mick Philpott. And, of course, it raises questions about how such a monster was created and supported. One must not deny Philpott’s personal responsibility for this and other crimes; but I do not believe that such tragic stupidity and malevolence emerged entirely ex nihilo. Most crime has a context that needs to be understood as far as possible, in order to see how particular systems and circumstances might be improved.

Philip Collins recognises that child benefit is one relevant issue here (there are many others). Irrespective of the rarity of large families likes the Philpotts and the Frosts, you can’t avoid discussing the policy, and not necessarily because the benefit should be limited: my colleague Freddy Gray has stated some philosophical reservations to such a limit, and the Economist’s Daniel Knowles lists further practical objections. Beyond the controversy of capping, there is the more immediate matter of how and to whom the benefit is allocated. For instance, £13.40 a week for an additional child is a latte and a cake or two for some affluent parents; for many others it makes the difference; and for many more it makes only part of the difference. A few extra quid a week might make life more comfortable for those in the middle to the bottom, while the most affluent should perhaps forgo their state-funded cafe jaunts. Returning to the Philpott case, would a little more money have stopped Philpott? Almost certainly not; but it might stop somebody else, and at the very least it would make life easier for the most vulnerable and destitute, which could yield social dividends and increase personal happiness. Having increased the value of the benefit for those who need it most, then one might be able to consider the gradation of a cap to curb abuse and excess.

Labour should be at the heart of these and other discussions about welfare. The welfare state is, at least in popular terms, its monument. It is extraordinary that ground is being so readily ceded to the likes of Bernard Jenkin and David Davis, while the government steals a march with a programme that, though well intentioned and required, is far from consistent in all respects (the protection of ‘middle class’ pensioners’ benefits is a case in point).

Part of the reason for Labour’s reticence is, I suspect, that we’re moving towards a position where the universal welfare state is going to be questioned (which is a euphemism for slowly demolished) as a matter of necessity. Some Labour politicians privately concede this, or at least they did. I spoke to several Labour backbenchers in the months after the last election, and they talked of the need to reward those on low to middle incomes who contribute to the welfare system and recalibrate the range of services and support to benefit the more vulnerable (David Lammy wrote an excellent book about these and related matters). This was promising; but the party blinked under Miliband and Balls, safe in the knowledge that the cry of ‘evil Tory cuts’ would sweep it back into power as if it was 1945. In reality, 2015 beckons.

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