Friday, 26 November 2010

We need welfare reform in Northern Ireland precisely because of our high dependency levels.

In yesterday's Belfast Telegraph I argued that, while the detail of Iain Duncan Smith's White Paper might be up for debate, the principles behind it certainly aren't:

In a world where each government proposal is instantly critiqued by self-interested groups with official-sounding names and subjected to mysterious 'equality impact assessments', a shadow of doubt is soon cast over the stoutest common sense.
When the coalition announced it could not afford to continue to pay out £25,000 yearly rents - beyond the wildest dreams of hard-working, affluent families - to benefits claimants, there was an outcry.
Even Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London, likened the policy to ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
Iain Duncan Smith's welfare proposals did not provoke such an overblown response, but the usual critics were out in force, alleging the measures amounted to an attack on vulnerable people. Their claims bear little scrutiny.
The Work and Pensions Secretary's White Paper on a 'Universal Credit' has wrongly been bundled together with the Government's deficit reduction programme.
Actually, Duncan Smith's plans to make work pay will cost £2bn more in the short term - and it's simply not true that they are inspired by the same instinct as cuts.
Undeniably, there is still an unreformed Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party which sees the necessity of slashing spending as an opportunity to pursue the ideological goal of a smaller state.
These welfare reforms are something completely different.
They spearhead a drive to encourage, or 'nudge', people to be responsible and industrious, rather than lazy and dependent, which forms the core of what David Cameron describes as "progressive Conservatism".
It's the type of ambitious policy which enabled Cameron to shed the Tories' stuffy image in the first place and which still helps to bind the party to its Liberal Democrat partners.
The Universal Credit is not about penalising people who cannot find employment. Properly implemented, it will help those who are prepared to go back to work and punish only incorrigible claimants who simply refuse to take a job.
Its aim is to maintain support for jobseekers who want to work, even for a few hours, but who fear that, if they do, their benefits will be withdrawn, leaving them worse off.
There's room for an argument about the details, but most people will agree the principle is sound enough and it is absolutely vital Northern Ireland is not excluded from these reforms.
Contrary to the protestations of our Social Development Minister, Alex Attwood, we need the scheme precisely because our take-up of benefits is so unusually high.
Attwood insists it is unreasonable to punish the unemployed when there are no posts for them to fill. That argument ignores the thrust of the White Paper and its long-term objectives.
It might seem blindingly obvious, but the point has clearly been missed: if there aren't any jobs on offer then people will not be penalised for refusing to take them.
And in tune with the Government's chief aim of simplification, sanctions for abusing benefits will be spelled out clearly.
In contrast, for people who really are entitled to help, the coalition hopes the process of applying will be less daunting and, theoretically, take-up should be higher where it's needed the most.
Whether the Government's proposals can achieve their stated aims is up for debate.
To usefully take part in that discussion, Duncan Smith's critics need to delve into the detail of his paper, rather than criticising its broader ambitions.
The vast majority of the public will agree that it’s perfectly fair to give people a nudge if they persistently refuse to move from dependency into work.  That’s not a harsh or unfeeling principle, it’s actually the unimpeachable human heart of the coalition’s programme, even in a time of austerity.

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