Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Welfare reform: making sure money goes to where it's needed

In the 1990s, my mother voluntarily ran a Saturday play scheme in a neighbouring village.  The National Children’s Home had previously resourced the scheme and when they withdrew she led efforts to keep it going.

I occasionally helped my mother out and was impressed by how much the children enjoyed attending and how my mother selflessly kept the scheme open.  I have several good memories of this period but one incident opened my eyes to a way of life not known to me and helped influence my views on the ineffective welfare state.

To attend a day trip organised by the scheme, each child needed a parental consent form.  One afternoon, a young brother and sister arrived but with no such form.  Their parents had sent them unwashed, wearing dirty clothes and with rumbling stomachs.

My mother went to their house to ask their parents to sign some forms.  They weren’t in but a neighbour told her where they’d be: the social club.  My mother went to the club and found them sat outside, well presented, enjoying the sun with pints of lager, crisps and cigarettes.  A professional and tactful woman, she simply asked for the forms to be signed and promptly left to feed their children and get the trip started.

I later found out the parents concerned were living entirely on benefits and their children were often in the state in which they arrived that afternoon.  I was saddened and annoyed that the parents looked after themselves with the benefits they received, but not their children.

Not all benefit claimants make the right choices with their money and this is why I’m so pleased to hear Iain Duncan Smith’s announcement about benefit ‘smart cards’.  Cash is too easy to spend recklessly and, for some, when it isn’t worked for its value is decreased and purpose blurred. Determined money wasters may find ways around any system, but at least the Government is making it more difficult.  Simply by existing, the cards make the statement that benefits are for essentials, not to fund a way of life and certainly not at the expense of a dependant’s welfare.

The main criticisms of such cards seem to revolve around stigma, however, this can be easily avoided by what the cards look like and how easy they are to use.  If it looks like a normal bank card I cannot see how it will prompt embarrassment at the shops.  A small proportion of a card user’s benefits may need to be available in cash for minor incidentals, birthday presents etc but that can be built in to the system.

Ultimately, stigma and ease of use criticisms are sideshows in a situation where conditions and responsibilities need to be outlined and complied with.  The greater good achieved is that children have food, soap and other essentials bought for them and taxpayers’ money is directed to those who need it.

Added to other reforms, in particular the new conditions for unemployment benefit and reducing the overall benefit cap further, this is a major step in the right direction. 

I’ve long supported benefit claimants having to do some ‘work for the dole’ and always thought the £26,000 cap was way too much, as is the proposed level of £23,000.  Many working households have to get by on less than that, why should those out of work be able to claim more?
Welfare reform is supported by the vast majority of the British public and even a majority of Labour supporters agree that benefits are too generous.

The Government’s much needed welfare reform is creating a fairer system, making work more attractive and, at the same time, is reducing the national deficit.  How can you argue against that?

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