Overhaul of the benefits system isn’t black and white

Protestors demonstrating against the bedroom tax.

Protestors demonstrating against the bedroom tax.

It is sometimes difficult to see beyond the rhetoric when politicians are arguing over issues such as welfare.

Of course, it suits some people to paint the exchanges as a simple Tory versus Labour, blue versus red, rich versus poor battle.

They would have you believe that the Conservative party – or Coalition government – is hell-bent on punishing the most vulnerable in society while protecting the well-off.

Initiatives such as the ‘bedroom tax’ – which sparked angry demonstrations in North Staffordshire this week – seem to support the claim that there is some sort of class war going on and you therefore have to choose a side.

But if you look beyond the headlines and the soundbites you’ll see it isn’t quite so black and white.

This week a raft of controversial changes to the benefits system come into force which include the nonsensical reduction to benefits for people in council or social housing if they have an empty bedroom in their homes.

It’s a huge own-goal by the government which has the potential to seriously disadvantage a group of people who can’t afford to have their financial support reduced.

There is also a benefits cap which will prevent any household receiving more than £26,000 a year from the state – a sum which is supposed to reflect the average gross salary of a full-time worker.

The latter sounds fair enough in principle but it stands to reason that the occupants of every home should be assessed depending on their specific circumstances.

Therein, of course, lies the problem with the welfare state.

Blanket rules for everyone don’t work. They simply aren’t fair because everyone’s circumstances differ.

The great shame is that the much-needed debate over the welfare state is being drowned out by the outcry against some changes which are clearly ill though-out.

However you spin it, this country pays out hundreds of billions of pounds each year in benefits (a projected £216b in 2015/16) and it is a bill the UK simply can’t afford.

Under the previous Labour government the welfare bill rose dramatically and it is only right that during these austere times, when everyone is having to tighten their belts, that the benefits system comes under scrutiny too.

Last year I wrote about proposed changes to incapacity benefit – a controversial subject in an area like North Staffordshire which has higher than average numbers of people claiming the allowance.

My column prompted criticism from all quarters, including letters from the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau and various claimants citing their own reasons for being absolutely deserving of the said benefit.

My contention was a simple one: If you were genuinely unable to work through ill-health then surely you had nothing to fear from the new, albeit stricter tests, which the government was introducing.

Now the results of the incapacity benefits review are known.

Official figures show that 878,300 – more than a third of those who had been claiming benefit – decided not to take the tougher medical assessment to determine whether or not they were fit for work.

Another 837,000 people were found to be fit to work immediately.

A further 367,300 were assessed as being able to do some kind of work.

Only 232,000 of the total number of people receiving incapacity benefit in this country were classified by doctors as being too ill to do any sort of job.

This means that, according to doctors, seven out of eight people who had been receiving incapacity benefit could and should have been looking for employment rather than relying on hand-outs.

One could argue that this demonstrates that during Labour’s time in office the welfare state masked the true unemployment figures by ‘hiding’ hundreds of thousands of people behind a fog of sickness benefit.

I would simply say that while certain changes – i.e the ‘bedroom tax’ and cap on benefits per household – seem random, unfair and rushed, these figures clearly show that an overhaul of the welfare state was long overdue.

The government may be wrong about some changes to the benefits system but there’s no denying the unpalatable truth that large numbers of people have been in receipt of benefits to which they shouldn’t have been entitled.

Incapacity benefit is one example of a flawed, bloated system which incentivised not going to work.

It wasn’t helpful to the individuals lulled into a life of dependency and cost the country an absolute fortune.

Addressing this won’t solve all our economic woes but surely every little helps?

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

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