As the nation prepares to tune in to the latest episode of Benefits Street on Channel 4 at 9pm tonight, this morning newspapers feature a bidding war between the Conservative and Labour as to who can be toughest on welfare.
Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa May have written a joint article for the Daily Mail saying:
“We know that the idea there’s a set number of jobs to be divided up and handed around is wrong, and things are far more complicated than the simplistic notion that all immigrants come and ‘take British jobs’.
But evidence from the Migration Advisory Committee and other academic studies has demonstrated that immigration can displace some British workers in the labour market. So we have tightened up the system… and the latest figures show our reforms are working.
For those migrants who do come here, we’re ensuring they are unable to take unfair advantage of our system by accessing benefits as soon as they arrive.
For example, we introduced rules so that from January 1 this year we are banning individuals from receiving out-of-work benefits until they have been living in the UK for three months. And we will go still further: from the beginning of April we will be removing entitlement to housing benefit altogether for this group.
In addition, EU migrants can only claim jobseeker’s allowance for six months unless they have genuine prospects of finding work. No longer can people come here from abroad and expect to get something for nothing.
Together, these new immigration and benefit checks will clamp down on those trying to exploit the system. We can ensure that Britain’s growing economy and dynamic jobs market deliver for those who work hard and play by the rules.”
However Mr Duncan Smith’s shadow Rachel Reeves is launching a counter offer. Interviewed in The Independent she says:
“It has to be right that people who are not trying hard enough and don’t want to make the effort required to get into work, or get the skills they need, forfeit their benefit.”
She said: “If you don’t have these basic skills, you are going to struggle to get a job. If people have been out of work for six months, employers are not interested in them. Short term unemployment can quickly become long term unemployment and then becomes a lifetime of unemployment.”
The Government are already introducing this requirement for those benefit claimants aged 18 to 21. Labour’s proposal that it should also apply to older welfare claimants is perfectly reasonable – although there may be a practical case for starting with a smaller group and then “rolling it out.” Also valid is Miss Reeves’ comment that applying benefit sanctions for those who refuse such help is “tough love.”
The difficulty for Labour in seeking to compete on this territory comes with their lack of credibilty. They failed to tackle the problem of welfare dependency when they were in Government – despite sometimes offering some rhetoric about doing so. By contrast the Coalition Government has made great strides in this regard. It has been very much a Conservative achievement, indeed a personal achievement for Mr Duncan Smith. The Lib Dems have hardly been pushing him to go further – although they are keen to take credit for cutting tax on the low paid which has certainly helped the reforms have an impact in cutting unemployment. The Labour Party have opposed him every step of the way. Even when they support a reform in principle – such as Universal Credit – they oppose it in practice.
The other difficulty that even if we generously put their record to one side, Labour’s message remains confused. Miss Reeves says she has refused to watch Benefits Street. Whatever criticisms one might have of the series that does seem indicative of a Party that is still in denial. They will seem to think that the way to “help” people and be generous is to spend lots of money of welfare and not to be “draconian” in forcing people to work.
Often Labour talk about those who could work but choose not to do so as a “small minority.” So that’s all right then. Even if it is a “small minority” – which is doubtful and usually undefined – are they to be ignored? Imagine if a Conservative politician said there was not difficulty with foodbanks as only “a small minority” used them. Or they will say that of Britain’s £159bn annual benefits bill – £74bn goes on the state pension. As if the remaining £85bn was a trifling sum.
Labour have very little to say about ensuring there is a greater incentive to work – rather than, to give the example cited by Fraser Nelson, someone earning £350 a week is only £35 better off working than being on welfare. Given those figures why on earth should it be assumed that only a “small minority” could work but choose not to?
In some ways Labour would make welfare relatively more attractive than work – for instance in reinstating the spare room subsidy.
Competition as to which party can best tackle the moral and economic disaster of benefits dependency is welcome. However it is a competition that Labour can’t win – and so far they are still not seriously trying to.