I've been putting off writing this. It's easy enough to write about the history of social security, but the future is necessarily speculative. And it becomes increasingly obvious that there may not be a future for welfare at all. This appeared yesterday in an article in the Telegraph by Peter Oborne: "Iain Duncan Smith's brave and ambitious programme to reshape the welfare state along the lines envisaged by Beveridge 70 years ago is making some progress." This is so nonsensical that one must assume that Oborne wasn't taught history at his public school. Yet this is part of the narrative with which this government is destroying the whole concept of social security. It will become, again, the punitive last resort of the 1834 Poor Laws. Running it will be a profit opportunity for private companies, with no involvement of the tatters which remain of the public sector. There will be a huge role for charities. Universal Credit, if it ever happens, will signal the final killing-off of the idea of National Insurance. Benefits, already no longer seen as a right, will cease in their present form. Welfare will have been reformed out of existence.
This is not inevitable, unless a Conservative government comes in in 2015. Even with a Labour government, though, the future looks precarious. One hopeful sign is that some Labour thinkers have talked about returning to the contributory concept in social security. I believe that this is essential. Benefits, as of right, should be paid if the claimant has contributed over, say, 6 months in the preceding year; paid at a fairly high level for a limited period - again, say 6 months. Once those contributions run out, then benefits should fall to a level set as the minimum someone needs to live on decently. This minimum should be sacrosanct. No one's income should fall below it. There would have to be means-testing, but not of the old kind. And "conditionality"? Yes, there would have to be the condition that the claimant is looking for work, if that's possible. Sickness and disabilities would attract the same minimum income but recognise additional needs.
Housing benefit is a huge cost, and it's money paid to landlords, not to the claimant. There should obviously be a big push on building and buying more housing in the public sector.
And there should, equally obviously, be massive job creation. That's not easy in a capitalist economy, but it could be done, through local authorities, for instance. Unless there are jobs to go to, as we are seeing at the moment, long-term unemployment will remain high.
What we need is not tinkering around the edges. Nor is it the kind of change which this government is engineering, based on personal aggrandisement and contempt. We need an agreed set of principles on which to base a system which doesn't divide people into skivers and strivers. Any thoughts?