Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Citizen-centred Welfare

So today, after much faddling around with the IPPR, I found myself sitting, breathless*, in a seat ten feet away from Peter Hain while he expounded to a room full of carefully vetted people about the government's vision for a new sort of welfare contract. To be more exact, he was speaking at the launch of the IPPR's own vision of a welfare shake-up, which was inevitably a more radical version of what he could discuss, but he used it as an opportunity to illuminate his early thoughts on the subject.

I was there to learn about think-tanks, government, Peter Hain, getting into Portcullis House, all that stuff. I must have been the only person there without an explicit, welfare-centred agenda, of which more later. And although the topic is not one I know much about - I live in Toryland, SW15, where benefits are a mere rumour barely discussed by the affluent Putney housewives - it gave me a view of some of government's outer workings.

First, the Hain speech. It summarized broad strategic goals - 80% employment, eradication of poverty- at which the welfare system was aimed. Good start to my MBA brain - important to define objectives. Then, the general methods he felt were to shape his approach. Strengthening Jobcentre Plus. No phoney war between private and public providers of the welfare-to-work help, and frequent mentions of the Shaw Trust as proof of this. Translation: the Tories do not have a monopoly on private provision of worthy works. To beef this up, the speech contained further mentions of companies like M&S making positive efforts to help the unemployed. He emphasized how he had "no interest in compelling lone parents into jobs where they are actually made worse off". Finally, he acknowledged the desirability of simplifying the whole system while expressing vague caution.

He took questions from the floor, bunched into threes or fours. Here it became obvious to me that these gatherings are not akin to Greek symposia discussing the abstract properties of the Ideal Welfare system, but gatherings of hard-nosed lobbyists. Everything came from someone with an interest, either academic (the bird-like Oxford Professor determined to include the notion of Gender in the discussion, or the LSE professor objecting to the nature of low-level work in "this service economy we have made") or representatives of organizations I could not name representing mentally ill, physically disabled, unions, homeless people, and so on. From the latter the questions were basically all: "the people my organisation represents do not get enough". So don't think of making a system that makes it tougher for them.

PH had to disappear to be repeat his message in Glasgow, and the policy wonks took over, describing their more radical approach of simplifying lots of benefits into one or two, which I have already read about in IPPR papers published earlier. They were bright-eyed idealists, who themselves had to fight off the qualms of the special interests who could each detect the risk of their own constituency being undermined by radical change, or a simpler system being too crude to avoid nasty side-effects, that the current complicated system has evolved to avoid.

I am not now an expert on the welfare system. I am also vaguely aware of the rightwing view on this, which is for a massive broom to sweep away the encrusted special interests, break the whole thing into something simple that makes the idle, ill or hopeless work some way or other, just as they must have in Victorian days, or starved. After listening to the complaints of so many lobbyists, I can understand the allure of this approach; once you hear all the stories of deprivation, welfare traps, etc from the bottom of society, it is hugely tempting to pretend that a macho effort of will could somehow bring them all into work. "Stop this fussing: there's enough jobs for the hardworking, otherwise why are the Poles and Bulgarians beating a path to the UK?".

But I don't believe it is that simple. Scratch the surface and these lobbyists clearly have a point, and are in fact the mechanism via which the Powers get to know of the individual stories underneath their grand policy statements. Single mothers turning down work that would put their kids in negligent care all day for a mere £20 more a week. People giving up work to care for cancer-afflicted relatives. The mentally ill scared of workplace abuse and miscomprehension. The "london trap" - childcare and housing too expensive to justify many jobs. I have read enough history to know that what went before was not some sort of Pure Work ideal where everyone knew their place, toiled honestly and was somehow supported by a stern but fair society that recognized merit. Welfare came in because of dreadful abuses that stemmed from a
laisser-faire society. For example, David Kynaston's excellent history of the City describes a handicapped ex-sailor having to push a broom across a stretch of muddy road for tips well into his sixties. Our world is a better one for it having the humanity to pause for those who are somehow not able to be economically productive in the system they find themselves in - and I'm sure leftish Tories agree.

But the event left me with a deep impression of how difficult reform will be. These people lobbying the minister are the reason there is so little room for manoeuvre - they are more than just annoying voices offstage, but his actual constituents, the people he hears behind closed doors. He's been there 2 months - they are at it for life. IF the system needed a brutal overhall, it would be easy for the Tories who have no friends to lose. But they are understandably terrified of being labelled as the party happy to leave a handicapped man starving if it reduces a banker's tax-bill. The best hope is perhaps the "spend to save" option that the idealist academics describe - spend more on personalizing the welfare system, therefore avoiding the abuses from scroungers, the mis-allocated efforts that send locksmiths off to work as lifeguards, and the cruelty of making the genuinely unfit labour in poverty for ideological reasons. But it will clearly be a slog.

*not to be fair because of the inspiring quality of the speech, but the mad rush to complete a school run in Putney and get to Westminster in time. Welfare reform does not produce inspiring words.

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