Parliament spent six days debating the Queen’s speech with the topics for each day’s debate chosen by the opposition. Intended or not, we gained an insight into how the Labour leadership’s mind sees the emerging political agenda. I cannot remember in recent times when a Queen’s speech does not devote one day to welfare or, as it is now called, welfare reform. No such debate took place this year. Why?
It could be that there were other topics of more pressing value. It could be that welfare reform does not now rate as an issue of importance at shadow cabinet deliberations. It might mean that we do not have a particular view on the government’s welfare reform strategy. Or it might be that, because we do not have a distinctive enough line, other topics easily gained ascendency.
I fear it is the last. But not confronting the issue won’t make it go away. Welfare reform will feature in the next parliament, whether we like it or not.
One reason for this is that the welfare budget now takes a cool third of all the money spent by the government. There is no way that we are going to make it into fiscal balance, even if we approach this objective less rigorously than the timetable to which the government said it is committed, unless the size and growth of the welfare budget is faced. The government has already concluded that the electoral deficit will not be eliminated by the end of their parliament.
But welfare reform must go way beyond playing its part in any realistic and achievable deficit reduction programme. And for Labour it is this ‘going beyond’ which is crucial to the argument. And this is not achieved within the parameters set within the government’s welfare reform programme.
The debate must go beyond the simple rhetoric of creating an incentive to work. This is the proud claim of the government’s universal credit: that it will ensure no one moving into work will be worse off. Of course this is a good objective. But any incentive offered by the new universal credit is unlikely to make much difference to that growing group of claimants who view their benefit as a pension for life. Only a job paying many times their benefit income is likely to tempt them, but their skill base makes such an offer almost unimaginable.
Welfare now, sadly, peddles values which the bedrock of our working-class and middle-class supporters see as an attack on the ethical values they hold. And it is here that the government’s bizarre thrust for a welfare El Dorado comes smack up against the electorate’s support. The universal credit is sold on the idea of simplifying a complicated welfare system. Who could be against that?
But the universal credit is a means-tested benefit and means tests act like a cancer, and a rampantly growing cancer, within the welfare state. Means tests teach the attraction of dependency, they penalise work and reward either inaction or downright dishonesty. They are one means by which the welfare bill is pushed up.
Means tests are an attack on the ethical position Labour has always held, specifically about the welfare state, but, much more generally about how we should conduct our private and public lives.
We have an open goal now on welfare reform but we seem reluctant even to acknowledge the ball, let alone get our best kickers onto it. This hesitancy was on display during the six days of the Queen’s speech.
Frank Field is MP for Birkenhead and former minister for welfare reform
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