Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

An open goal on welfare reform

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


Photo: Martin Borjesson

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Frank Field MP

is MP for Birkenhead and a former minister for welfare reform


  • These are the sentiments of a true Tory – ‘the welfare bill is huge therefore, in hardened times, it is the duty of “responsible” government to cut spending more vigorously (mainly, because most of the money goes to the work-shy and benefit cheats)’. How much of this right-wing cliched argument is true? What % of benefit claimants, for example, are avoiding work that would otherwise generate greater net income and what amount does this cost the State? Surely, the costly bill for welfare is mainly the consequence of high unemployment because of low employment vacancies and NOT because of welfare cheats. That argument is as fallacious as claiming the NHS bill is so high because of ‘foreign health holidays’. The Tory definition of “reform” (as in welfare reform) is “slash and burn”. A compassionate and civilised socialist government would enact policies that would defend the economically weakest members of society – especially during a recession. What you need to do, Frank, is visit Greece and see how the policies of your friends Merkel, Osborne and Legarde etc are “reforming” welfare.

  • Mr Field has raised very important point which we in Labour Party don’t seem to take much note at this stage other than just shouting against the Tory led government which is right thing to do. But we ourselves have not steered the issue on the basis of policy. The issue of “means testing” must be seen carefully. It needs some thought to tackle the problem. The issue of welfare should also be part of employment strategy to encourage people developing financial independence and better living standards for themselves for long term in their lives. It is uncomfortable to read Mr Field’s comments but at the same time can Labour Party really afford to ignore that and for how long? Issue of “Means Testing” should be discussed more openly to form a socialist response to the Tory imposition on working classes.

  • Time some people started to accept that other people weren’t put on God’s green Earth just to work for them. Many people no doubt don’t want to work because they simply prefer not to. And when one looks at the paltry rewards on offer, who could blame them?

  • Means testing is always, in the end, a disincentive to improving your financial circumstances through initiative and hard work, as the harder you work and more tax you pay, the less services you recieve from the state in return. Whilst bemoaning this effect, the tories ( and Labour to a lesser extent) have simultaneously opposed universalism in the benefit system at all levels for decades, acting to remove universal benefits on many levels.
    A logical approach to work seekers allowance would be a system whereby everybody, even the employed, had the right to a basic dole payment , but would have to take the time to go down to the dss twice weekly (at weekends) to collect. The rich and upper middle classes would probably choose not to bother anyway, but the disincentive tio work evaporates, the waste of means testing would be reduced, and barriers to improving onesself (such as people studying masters and phd qualifications being exempt from dole) would also be ironed out. But that would involve using the words ‘universal’ and ‘benefit’ together.

  • An effective welfare system needs to be built upon support as well as punishment, you can’t punish someone with no marketable skills into work. We need to look at how to ensure those who haven’t the skills to find employment can attain them before penalising those who have no skills to make them employable, for being unemployed. There is merit in introducing more universal benefits in terms of childcare and caring for dependent adults in particular, people are happier to pay-in if they get something out of the state as well – but this time we need to shout about what we’re doing so that people understand what they’ve been given and how they have come to get it.

  • For a lot of people, myself included, there is a very strong desire to work. The problem is, there aren’t the jobs. I have a number of health issues (fibromyalgia and ME) and also Asperger’s that limit what I can do but since I graduated 3 years ago I have not stopped working on a voluntary basis, about 8 or 9 hours a week because that’s all my body can take. Additionally, I have lost track of the number of (part-time) jobs I’ve applied for where I either never hear back (in the days of email templates it really doesn’t take long to send a message that says “We have received your application. On this occasion we are not taking it any further”) or, on the odd occasion when I do, I invariably get told “There was someone else with more experience”. How can we get experience if nobody will give us a chance?

  • And why does welfare “peddle values which the bedrock of our working-class and middle-class supporters see as an attack on the ethical values they hold.” ? because of the rank cowardice of a broad selection of MP’s willing to bend the knee to Right wing newspaper proprietors.

    Arguing that the dependency and fraud are rampant is something that is not supported by facts but rather by anecdotal stupidity that “everyone knows someone who is claiming who shouldn’t be” At a time when the economy is limping, worldwide, a politician who comes out with sch an attack on the poor, disabled, and jobless should be put in the stocks in the town center and pelted with rotting fruit

  • One other little thing… Mr Ethical, above, carefully avoids any mention that the main reason the welfare budget’s so big is because the baby boomers are now getting to pension age. Yup, there’s a big bulge in the stats because the boomers are getting old. They’ll be wanting their pensions (which they’ve paid for already) and they’ll be needing lots of care (which they’ve also paid for already). No amount of welfare reform is going to alter that. Frank’s plan for dealing with this looming juggernaught of a problem seems to consist of ignoring it altogether while spouting irrelevant drivel about ethics. Way to go Frank. We’ll all be voting Labour now for sure.

  • No mention that the vast majority of benefit recipients work and that many benefits/allowances-DLA,CA etc save vast amounts of money to the State in other expenditure.The repeated myth of “dependency culture” etc repeated parrot like as is the depiction of receivers.As a receiver,educated,nonaddicted,responsible ,saving far more than I receive I implore the Labour Party not to try and outdo IDS on bilious “religiosity/morality” based on such nonsense.

  • If everyone had the right to a basic dole payment, otherwise known as social credit, who would distribute it? How are you going to make them man the distribution centres, build them in fact, clean them etc. if they don’t want to? What if people don’t want to work in banks any more, what if they’d rather stay home and live on their basic dole/social credit? What good would the money be then?

  • I think, Frank Field, that you should go and join the Tory perty right away and have done with it. You quite clearly have utterly blinkered neoliberal views that are more right wing than Ted Heath and even Tony Blair.
    I think what we really need to prevent the suffering of the ninety nine percent is bank reform, tax haven reform, Land tax, wealth tax, and monetary reform. Full employment, not welfare reform!!!! This was ever intended as humanitarian safety net, not a way of life!!
    You should read and watch the following, and learn, and if you are not moved by it, consider that you may not really be a Labour man.

  • Aghh I can hear the cries of “why don’t you join the tories” but frank speak your mind were are A democratic socialist party afterall.

  • Well done Frank, the issue needs to be discussed, ignore the loony fringe. 3/4 of a million eastern Europeans working here tells you something about attitude.

  • At home at last Doe mate, but sadly most of the people comments are not your kind, they are not Tories they are labour. So you and John who was a Tory for most of his life they are Loony fringe

  • Like a soldier with his legs missing do not forget it was labour that made out injured soldiers go through the hoops to get benefits, take them to court to get compensation.

    Which labour we get at the next election will depend on how labour looks at the sick and the disabled right now it to close to the Tories, one thing to have money for the deficit another to take it from the poorest not the richest, seems bankers get a bonus the sick and the disabled get the stick

  • The elephant in the room is that we are increasingly jobless society. There is little point in hiring cowboys to coerce the unemployed to find jobs that SIMPLY ARE NOT THERE.

    The Tories at least had the balls to say, well we are going to confront the deficit problem. What the left must now find is the courage to address the even more awkward jobless society problem….

    The truth is that mechanisation, automation, software, moving factories abroad and all the rest of it have created an economy in which a job is a scarce resource, for which competition is ever more fierce for diminishing returns…

    But the politicians just put their head under the duvet and concentrate on making the unemployed ‘get’ a job, as if they could be picked off a tree

    The politicians think the world they grew up in is still extant.

    But it isn’t, and the left hasn’t got the guts to say so, prefering the illusory safety of the Daily Mail bigot focus group.

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