Ryan Shorthouse is Founder and Director of Bright Blue and David Kirkby is a Researcher at Bright Blue. They are co-authors of a new Bright Blue report entitled ‘Give and Take: how conservatives think about welfare’.
In his famous 1942 report, Sir William Beveridge – the architect of the modern welfare state – repeatedly stressed that his proposals for welfare were “what the people of Britain desire”. He realised that public support mattered for its sustainability.
If he were alive today, Beveridge would surely declare that something has gone wrong. Public support for state welfare is at an historic low. Nearly nine in ten think that the welfare state is “facing severe problems”. Amidst an unsupportive public, Conservative voters stand out as especially unsympathetic to state welfare.
Since the middle of the twentieth century, welfare has been increasingly provided by the government. But it is not the only source of welfare; a person’s wider family, charities and local communities all play a role. Together, they form our welfare system, which is vital for helping the vulnerable and impoverished in our society, including those both in work and out of work.
To ensure the survival and success of this system, it is important to boost public support for it, especially among conservatives. Today, Bright Blue released its report, Give and take, exploring in detail how conservatives think about welfare and offering policies based on conservative views and principles to not only improve the welfare system, but boost public support for it.
Since the start of this parliament, the prevailing narrative from this Government on welfare has been reducing public expenditure on it. Fiscal contraction has of course been necessary. But, alone, it is insufficient for conservatives. In polling we conducted with Survation for this report, we found that an ideal welfare system for a majority of Conservative voters (57 per cent) is one that invests effectively in people and enables them to contribute to society in the future, compared to 43 per cent who said it is one where government spends a lot less on benefits. A clear majority of Conservatives voters (69 per cent) believed that the state should be doing more to encourage stable families, with only 31 per cent preferring the state not to interfere in families.
The Conservative Party in particular should draw upon a wider range of conservative principles to reshape our welfare system. Three principles are especially important for conservatives: reciprocity, personal responsibility and interdependence.
First, conservatives believe strongly that reciprocity should lie at the heart of the welfare system. Reciprocity is the principle that what an individual receives should be related to what they have done or offered: so-called “something for something”. We found that Conservative voters were markedly more likely to prefer allocating benefits on the basis of contribution, as opposed to need, than Labour voters: 67 per cent of Conservatives agreed that those who are unemployed and have contributed to the system in the past should be paid more than those who are unemployed and have not.
Second, conservatives tend to see individuals as agents who can shape and determine their circumstances, and so are seen to be more responsible for their situation. Conservative voters were found to be much more likely than Labour voters to attribute the poverty to individual (for example, “lack of work ethos” or “unwillingness to accept boring/menial jobs”) rather than environmental reasons (for example, “lack of jobs”). On this view, claimants ought to be expected and encouraged, as far as possible, to take control of their own circumstances and make their own decisions about how they spend their money.
Third, conservatives believe strongly that families should be encouraged to do more through the welfare system. In this sense, welfare should be made more interdependent. Our polling showed that Conservative voters see families as primarily responsible for supporting those in financial difficulty. Given the choice of the state, families, local community, neighbours and friends and charities, 54 per cent of Conservative voters agree that families are most responsible for supporting people in financial difficulty.
The Conservative Party has, admittedly, proposed policies to strengthen these key principles. For example, the Transferable Tax Allowance for married couples is designed to support families and extending the time until EU migrants can claim certain benefits is about reinforcing contribution in our welfare system. But we can and should go further to make Britain’s welfare system more interdependent, reciprocal and conducive to personal responsibility. Bright Blue proposes four new policies.
First, we propose the introduction of a Contribution Supplement in the Universal Credit to provide additional money for claimants who have longer National Insurance contribution histories. This Contribution Supplement will be tiered. So, the Government will decide a minimum number of years of NI contributions for which a claimant has to have previously worked for until their household becomes eligible for extra payment. If the claimant reaches a higher specific number of years worked with NI contributions previously, that household will be eligible for another payment. This supplement will be time-limited and withdrawn at the standard Universal Credit taper rate. Households can only receive one Contribution Supplement at a time. We propose ending the current out-of-work contributory benefits – Contributory Jobseeker’s Allowance and Contributory Employment and Support Allowance – which are currently paid at the same rate as their means-tested counterparts, and moving claimants onto the Universal Credit with the Contribution Supplement.
Second, we propose a Contribution Supplement in Statutory Maternity Pay. Mothers with longer National Insurance contribution histories will be eligible for additional funding on top of the base rate of £138.18 per week they receive after the first six weeks. This will be tiered. So, the Government will decide a minimum number of years for which an eligible mother has to have previously worked for with National Insurance contributions until they become eligible for the extra payment. If the mother reaches a higher specific number of years worked previously they will eligible for another payment. This Contribution Supplement would be introduced for the duration that a mother is on Statutory Maternity Pay (or Maternity Allowance) after the first six weeks. From 2015, parents will be entitled to shared parental leave. A mother can choose to transfer any 50 of her 52 weeks to her partner. In this scenario, fathers will be eligible for the SMP base rate. The payment they receive will be called Statutory Paid Parental Pay (ShPP) and will only be paid to them for a maximum of 37 weeks. We propose that fathers also be entitled to be paid the Contributory Supplement of SMP through their ShPP if their partner is eligible for it.
Third, we propose that all people be able to save into a contributory top-up account from their salary through a new class of National Insurance. These contributions will go into a tax-free, high interest savings account. Government may decide to further encourage savings to this account by topping up accounts for those on low incomes. The contributions to this account will be capped. Individuals can draw down from these accounts when they are eligible for Universal Credit, when they or their partner are on paid or unpaid parental leave, or upon retirement. Alternatively, upon retirement, individuals can choose to transfer their surplus balance to other relatives.
Finally, we propose extending Shared Parental Leave to working grandparents. All working grandparents will be able to have any of the 50 transferable weeks of new Shared Parental Leave transferred to them. Grandparents would receive the usual guarantees of statutory parental leave – including being paid the base rate of Statutory Maternity Pay for a maximum 37 weeks – and would be entitled to return to work upon completion of the leave. They would also be entitled to our new Contribution Supplement of SMP, but only if the mother transferring her leave is eligible for it.
Not only would our proposed policies ensure that vulnerable and impoverished people benefit from a fairer and more effective welfare system where contribution, families and personal responsibility lie at the heart of it, they are also likely to increase public support for the UK’s welfare system, especially from conservatives. That support urgently needs rekindling, now more than ever.