David Cameron has made a bold move in his attempt to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of what the country is prepared to accept, both economically and morally, in terms of how welfare benefits are paid. In a speech on the 25th June, the 52nd Prime Minister unveiled the picture of what may one day be the welfare state. Mr. Cameron has put forward what many modern conservatives have come to embody: the welfare state should act as a safety net, but not a jewel encrusted blanket. Ultimately, people should have to contribute before they can receive benefits, and regional benefit systems may come in to play.
Dependency culture, or entitlement culture as Cameron names it, has finally reached the stage where it needs to be curtailed. This is not a new idea; in fact, since the start of the welfare state after world war two it has become a source of contention. There are those who would take advantage and those who have sought to challenge this ethos. Cameron isn’t wrong to challenge this culture, or as he puts it ‘ruffle some feathers’. And it would appear that the public is behind it too. A recent YouGov poll states that 74% of the population thinks that there is too much welfare, including a surprising 59% of Labour voters.
There are some clear and immediate advantages that have sprung from Cameron’s speech, most importantly that it acts as a distraction from the ongoing euro crisis; a crisis that whether we like to accept it or not does have implications for the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. In more political terms, one motivation may have been to divert media attention away from the House of Lords reform. The fact that universal credit has not yet become operational is not relevant: the country has been promised radical welfare cuts and George Osborne wants to cut a further 10 billion pounds from welfare by 2016.
Few would deny that as a country we still have a duty to protect and care for the vulnerable, which means we are confronted with a peculiar dilemma. Although popular, scraping 10 billion pounds from welfare in the March Budget may undeniably lead to a sharp rise in homelessness. 385,000 people will be directly affected from the plans to scrap housing benefits for those who are under 25. Staying at home is not an option for everyone and many will find themselves sleeping rough. What the government and society therefore needs to find out is how to determine who is in need and who is abusive, without scraping a huge cost in an ill-thought-out and hasty move.
This leads us to the economic consequences of such a policy. At a time when the country is in a large financial deficit and economic growth is uncertain, a large welfare state is needed more than ever; yet its sustainability has become more questionable and unaffordable. It is one thing to introduce welfare cuts of this kind when the economy is booming, but quite another to cut welfare to those who need it most when 2.61 million are unemployed. One possibility and initial problem is one that has occurred in Greece; welfare cuts (austerity) has led to more people being out of work and less tax being collected by the tax man, leading to the need for more benefits. Thus, any short-term economic problems will need to be weighted against the long term.
Yet, as Liam Byrne, Labour’s welfare spokesperson has stated, the Conservative welfare transformation seems to have been made out of false promises. He has been keen to state that housing benefit, far from decreasing, has actually increased by over 4 billion pounds. This leads to another interesting question: will the cuts actually materialise? Either way, if what our Prime Minister has promised does come to light, there has to be some long-term economic benefit. What the government really needs to focus on is the long-term structural problems facing our country, focusing in particular on training out workforce for the economic future that globalization has promised.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is the moral question of can our conscience take the weight of forcing people in to lives that we would forever fight to escape? Greece faces challenges far greater at present than ourselves, yet the question of what people should receive is the same – can we allow any of our population to live in fear of starvation and freezing? This is the harsh reality of the situation in Greece and could become a possibility here in Britain for some.
The country is in desperate need of reform in terms of welfare, in particular, the unsustainable pension system that has been inherited by Cameron’s government. It is entitlement mentality that Cameron is confronting; he is not forcing people onto the street. David Cameron and his government should not be slandered for attempting to challenge established opinions of welfare, yet what has been proposed, appears to have been a rash and severely mistimed move. There are economic and equity issues at work and Cameron needs to give each a great weight in his vision for the future of British welfare.