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Opinion: We do cut benefits for those who won't work

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 21 April 2010

The Conservative poster campaign promising a crackdown on the workshy is merely echoing government policy - never mind the Big Society, what we need is Liberation Welfare, argues former Labour MP and Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell.

Tory poster

David Cameron is in a corner following the Lib Dem surge. His Big Society message isn’t connecting, he doesn’t know what kind of campaign he wants to run or what kind of leader he wants to be.

In truth, that has always been the problem with his ‘modernisation’ of the Tory party - but it’s becoming more apparent in the heat of electoral battle.

The latest reaction is a poster declaring that people will have their benefits cut if they refuse to work. Wow. Great idea.

The slight snag for the Tories is that this is such a revolutionary idea, it has been law in its current form for about 15 years – and was the law for most of the post-First World War War period.

That was until the Tories reduced conditions on benefits in the 1980s recession, because they wouldn’t increase the spending needed to run the operation. 

This ‘new idea’ is contained in a ‘new welfare contract’ which was not even new when exactly the same policies were announced last September.

Taking each one in turn, the government is already doing them! Help from day one, extra help once you’ve been out of work for 6 months, reassessing all Incapacity Benefit claimants, paying private and voluntary providers for helping people into work – this is all existing policy.

The lack of originality is one thing. But the wider point is that so much of the content of the Big Society argument is based on a view of the country that is at best skewed and at worst a fantasy.

What’s also depressing about the latest Tory parody is that it remains stuck in a tired 1990s ‘rights and responsibilities’ approach to welfare, when we need a new phase that offers more of people and asks more of them in return.   

The Open Left project at Demos has published a new collection of papers which proposes what a new phase might look like.

We call it Liberation Welfare – where people are the primary agents of change in their lives, but in conditions shaped by society. It’s goals would be the following:

Greater greater power in the hands of citizens – rather than a passive and paternalistic approach. Greater security against risks and better incentives for self-protection – rather than accepting market outcomes and regressive incentives. And greater reciprocal between citizens and practitioners at the frontline, based around individual needs – rather than a highly prescriptive, rules-based system of support.

In short, the welfare state should be more empowering and more demanding. Rather than a mutual stand off; mutual engagement and expectations. 

Our collection sets out a wide range of ideas to illustrate how Liberation Welfare could work in practice.

Here are four big ideas that speak to this new philosophy.

• First, anyone at risk of long-term unemployment should be guaranteed decent paid work, and be expected to take it up.

• Second, the incentive to self-protect against income shocks should be transformed, by shifting state support for savings to people on low incomes and reducing the penalty for doing so in the benefits system.

• Third, we should ensure that no one who works hard ends up in poverty, through a combination of the minimum wage, a living wage in the public sector and campaigns for one in the private sector, and wage supplements (such as through the Working Tax Credit).

• Fourth, the package of support and conditions for people looking for, or preparing for, work should be more tailored to their personal circumstances.
Labour is at its best when it has championed radical reform of both the market and the state. Its manifesto commitments to a job guarantee for anyone unemployed for two years, a living wage for all Whitehall staff and a rising minimum wage are all shining examples of this.

The Tories back neither. They aren’t prepared to ensure there is work for people who need it, paid at a decent rate, with the requirement to take it up. Instead they rail against a problem that doesn’t exist.

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