Benefits must no longer be unconditional

Monday, 22 August 2011

Benefits must no longer be unconditional

Synopsis

After the riots, David Cameron said the cure for the "sick" parts of our society was to restore discipline and end the something-for-nothing culture. Polls show people think he's right. But will he be able to translate his instincts into reality?

Though many people support cutting off rioters' benefits, I'm sceptical about whether this will happen. There's a better approach, which is also more realistic politically. Academics call it "conditional welfare". As well as restoring authority, the evidence is that it could help reduce the mass worklessness that has plagued many parts of Britain for the past 30 years.

Conditional welfare has several elements. The first step is to divert people from claiming benefits in the first place. When you first turn up to make a claim, officials don't start filling out forms. Instead they suggest jobs you could do. In some American states, people have to show they have looked for work for a couple of weeks before starting to make a claim, which slashes the numbers going on to welfare.

The next step is much better tailoring of treatment, so people's problems are identified quickly. Jobcentres don't ask obvious questions such as, "Are you a drug addict or drinker?" Better targeting means we won't waste money on those who don't need help, and don't leave those with problems to flounder.

After a period on welfare, or immediately in some cases, you have to work for your benefits. This causes people to leave welfare more quickly, and find jobs that pay real money instead. This idea is controversial, but a poll for the think tank Policy Exchange a few months ago found that nearly 80 per cent of people supported the idea that those who had been on benefits for more than a year should have to do community work in return for their benefits.

In many other countries, people on "workfare" can be seen cleaning the streets, picking up litter and removing graffiti. In Britain, this approach was piloted in 1996-97. But although the pilots were successful, they were never followed up. The current "Work Programme" does require people who have been out of work for more than a year to attend programmes of coaching, training and work placements. But this lacks the clarity and deterrent factor of schemes in other countries which replicate the normal working week. Traditionally, officials have worried about the cost of such programmes, but, properly targeted, they could more than pay for themselves.

To restore the idea of something for something, we need to make National Insurance count again. For example, everyone on Jobseeker's Allowance basically has the right to turn down jobs they don't want for the first three months of their claim. This is appropriate for those who have paid in, but not for those who haven't.

Much of the long-term welfare problem and related criminality is really about drugs. The Department for Work and Pensions estimated a few years ago that there are around 300,000 severe drug users on benefits. Many more will be alcoholics. We could learn from the "Hope" project in Hawaii. Drug-addicted offenders in the community were tested every day. Failure to stay clean meant an immediate prison sentence. The sentence was shorter than the traditional length, but it was immediately applied, not on the sixth such breach. This improved compliance and cut relapsing so radically that it saved money and freed up prison spaces. As any parent knows, responsibility is taught through clear boundaries, enforced predictably. Our current criminal justice system rarely displays these qualities: only half of community sentences are completed, and prisons are awash with drugs.

Sanctions for breaking benefit rules don't have to be big, but consistently and firmly deployed. A long-running issue is that it's hard to take benefits from those with children. Perhaps we could learn from Australia, where the sanction for problem drinkers is that benefits are no longer paid as cash, but on a card that can only be used for food and necessities.

Before the riots, the Prime Minister hit out at absent dads. There are roughly 300,000 absent fathers who are on benefits. They pay just £5 a week, deducted from their benefits, no matter how many children are involved. Instead of tiny fines, worth less than a packet of cigarettes, they should face stronger work requirements of the kind described above. Only by getting these men into work will they be able to earn the money to support their children.

Some people say there are no jobs. But people from outside Britain are finding work, while British nationals aren't. Some people would say the ideas above are too tough. But there's nothing nice about leaving people to rot on benefits.

The Government is trying to improve the financial incentives to work. That's important, but it will take years. We know conditional welfare can work quickly. In Australia, welfare rolls were cut by around a third once claimants were asked to attend compulsory work programmes. In Wisconsin, the US state which went furthest in implementing conditional welfare, the caseload dropped by a staggering 87 per cent – twice the national average.

Reducing worklessness is the biggest contribution government can make to reducing family breakdown. It would help to restore authority, and change the culture of entitlement without responsibility. It's an idea whose time has come.

Related Staff