Public attitudes towards the welfare state have been hardening for years. The British Social Attitudes survey showed that the proportion of people who feel that benefits for the unemployed are “too high and discourage them from finding work” had risen from 44 per cent in 1999 to 55 per cent in 2010. Today’s Sunday Telegraph poll confirms that these opinions are not softening, with 56 per cent of people responding that benefits are too generous.
The recession has something to do with this. With families struggling to make ends meet, there has been a backlash against anyone seen not to be doing the right thing. This is true at both ends of the income distribution. At one end we have seen protests where CEO pay has diverged from performance. At the other end, the public is frustrated with the idea that benefit claimants are living off hard-working taxpayers’ money but not seriously trying to get back to work. Reports have indeed shown that some job-seekers on benefits in Britain spend as little as an hour a week actually looking for work. Compare this to the 40 or 50-hour weeks on close to minimum wage that many people have to endure and it is clear why this could be seen to be unfair.
The conditions placed on claimants in return for benefits can also be feeble. In general, three “job-seeking” activities are required each week, but these could just include looking for jobs in a newspaper, or getting a haircut. We need to get people doing more, so they get jobs faster. So it is right that the Coalition has focused on strengthening these conditions. The Prime Minister’s speech earlier this week is the latest in a series of announcements aimed at ensuring benefit claimants are serious about finding work; it outlined some sensible proposals, including that benefit claimants must have an up-to-date CV. But, while extensions to these requirements are needed, they must not be the only focus.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that, in fact, most benefit claimants are unlikely to fit the stereotype of “benefit scrounger”. These claimants are desperate to find work, might have children to support and could have real disadvantages in the labour market. They may be young people leaving the care system, former addicts or just long-term unemployed, who desperately want the steady job that firms are unwilling to give them. These people all need extra help to find work, but the current system does not distinguish them from those not willing to look seriously for work. Policy and public discourse must become more nuanced to ensure that requirements are increased for those who are not doing all that they can, but support is stepped up for those who need it.
The second reason for wider reforms is that the “contributory principle” – that people who pay through National Insurance and income tax get something back from the state when they fall on hard times – has been completely eroded. Families who have been working hard all their lives but find themselves unemployed because of the recession realise that they get nothing more than those who have never contributed.
With this in mind, it is unsurprising that a poll commissioned by Policy Exchange found that over half of respondents believe that “no benefits at all” should be given unless people have contributed. It was encouraging to see a mention of this principle in David Cameron’s speech, but much more needs to be done. In general, “much more needs to be done” summarises where we have got to with welfare reform. The Coalition has made a good start in ensuring that all claimants are doing all they can to get back to work. To really tackle the problems with the welfare state it needs to ensure the something-for-something approach rewards the right behaviour, as well as punishes the wrong behaviour, and that people in need get personalised help to find work.