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Tuesday, 16 October 2012
Are people becoming harder hearted?
Last week at the Conservative Party Conference, George Osborne announced his intention to save a further £10 billion from the welfare budget by 2015. At our fringe event that night, most agreed with Julia Unwin (Chief Executive, Joseph Rowntree Foundation) who said that one of the reasons the Chancellor feels able to move in this space is because he is confident that he is in tune with the public mood. And it is clear from our findings on British Social Attitudes that public attitudes towards welfare benefits have toughened in recent years, despite the recession. That led one member of the audience to ask a difficult question: are people themselves becoming harder hearted? This stimulated a thoughtful discussion constrained neither by tribal thinking on the left or right.
Julia Unwin acknowledged that ultimately, we were all done a disservice by allowing too many people to languish on lone parent and invalidity benefits in previous decades. There were perverse incentives at work, not least a desire to keep the unemployment figures down. The result was that some people were consigned to a life on benefits. Paul Johnson (Director, Institute for Fiscal Studies) agreed that some of the current difficulties are the result of these old problems still being unpicked. He pointed out that nearly 30% of all government spending now goes on welfare: a figure that has grown from around 20% in thirty years. He also commented that part of the reason for toughening attitudes is likely to be the result of different groups faring very differently under the Labour government. Families and pensioners did well, he argued, but working people without children have not seen their incomes rise in the same way, and perhaps it’s no wonder if such people feel hard done by.
Julia Unwin’s concern was that we will somehow really begin to lack compassion for those in poverty. She argued that it’s time to develop a new narrative. Rather than seeing a group of others who depend on ‘us’, we should recognise that in truth, we all lead very interdependent lives. That as a society, we are all dependent on services funded by us all, particularly services like the NHS (interestingly, we find in BSA a continued support for the “free at the point of use” principle for the NHS). She also pointed out that many benefits actually go to people in work. Julia argued that while we must address dysfunctionality in the welfare system, we must also ensure that the system is enabling, and does not take away people’s dignity. She reminded the audience that when it comes to poverty, the public has a pretty generous view of what everyone should expect in Britain today: JRF’s work on Minimum Income Standards reveals surprisingly high expectations.
It was good to round off our events at the party conferences with discussion that took the issues back to basics: debating the principles of social security and welfare and what kind of society we want to live in, rather than simply how to cut the deficit. It's important to root such debate in a bedrock of impartial evidence. This will be even more important as we approach the General Election in 2015 – when it’s likely that some of the really difficult issues will be up for grabs, including benefits for pensioners - since these account for half the welfare bill.