An Austere View on Welfare

26/03/2012 16:30 BST | Updated 25/05/2012 10:12 BST

As we get ever more accustomed to austerity, with the granny-taxing budget of last week only the latest attack on living standards, it is perhaps worth revisiting the welfare discussion anew.

The passing of the Welfare Reform Act was in some ways welcome. It is right that 'jobseekers' who aren't seeking a job get their benefit stopped. There is something to be said for making the system tougher, not because benefit claimants are work-shy; but because it is right to treat people as the autonomous, responsible individuals that we should all aspire to be. Also, the introduction of a universal credit in place of confusing, and wholly inadequate, means-tested benefits will bring greater clarity and a better opportunity to challenge that inadequacy.

Still, there were plenty of reasons to oppose the Bill before it was put on the statute books. Unfortunately opponents failed to make a principled case and instead of attempting to build popular support, they called, unsuccessfully, on the undemocratic powers of 'their lordships ... to water down the legislation'. Anyway, it would appear that the parties have a lot more in common than they like to let on. The shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne, desperately trying to find a fundamental point of difference with the government, has called for a lessening of the benefits burden and the restoration of the contributory principle so that what people get reflects what they put in. He too wants to see the creation of a 'something for something' culture. The rhetoric, on the face of it, from government and opposition, all sounds eminently sensible. And if you ask people on the street (of Barking, East London, for instance) there does seem to be a degree of consensus in wider society too.

Not only that, for all the cries on behalf of 'the vulnerable' over the cutting and the capping, the welfare state has traditionally taken an austere view of its dependents. As Byrne says, Beveridge himself was 'tough-minded' and 'never foresaw unearned support as desirable'. It was always intended to be temporary, a stop-gap during occasional periods of illness or unemployment. He would, indeed, have been outraged at the apparently enforced and unending 'idleness' of a million plus young people. As should we. Beveridge, like Beatrice Webb, was a strong believer in conditionality. But this is hardly a new problem; it has dogged the welfare state almost from its creation. In the absence of a societal system able to generate a living for all, the burden on the welfare system will always be too great to allow benefits to be paid out of contributions like the social insurance system it was always intended to be. Still, apparently, Labour is once more committed to a policy of full employment, and making the penalty for refusing a job offer harsher still. They're not going to create any more jobs; they are just going to impose a 'duty to work'. Good luck with that, its 2.7 million at the moment.

According to Byrne unemployment is 'not a one-off misfortune'. But instead of drawing the logical conclusion that this brings into question the welfare infrastructure, he comes over all Jeremy Kyle. 'It can scar you for life', he says. Byrne's critique of welfare, like that of the coalition's, is patronisingly therapeutic. But don't be fooled, that doesn't mean it's soft and fluffy. It leads where all social policy paths seem to lead today: to correcting the 'skewed social behaviour' that the benefits system apparently encourages. Thus claimants, and tenants of social housing too - Byrne wants to see rewards for the well-behaved ones - are reduced to emotionally scarred laboratory rats; punished or rewarded according to the whims of a political class evidently unable to come up with any real solutions to what is a profound social problem. At least the architects of the welfare state had enough about them to have a go. Byrne recently saluted the 'social revolution' brought about by the 'radical' Beveridge seventy years ago. Of course he was a liberal not a radical, and a reformer not a revolutionary. His reputation just seems so much more substantial when compared with the pedestrian ambitions, never mind achievements, of these wannabe Beveridges today.