Sunday, September 19th, 2010 01:30 pm
A few days ago, Nick Clegg wrote an article for The Times (reproduced for free on his site here), in which he talked about the need for reform of the welfare system. In The Times, this attracted the headline "Poor must accept cuts in benefit, says Clegg", which itself attracted much understandable criticism.

Except, as you can see by reading the article, he didn't say that.

Except, as far as I can tell, he all-but did.

At least, he didn't give any other mechanism by which what he said made sense. The article says (a) that the welfare budget is too big and must be cut and (b) that we need to give people incentives to move off long-term benefit dependency. At first sight, those two objectives seem to line up, but at second sight there's something a little odd going on; if it were that easy to do get people off benefits, Labour would have done it. Nick Clegg himself acknowledges that this was a long-term objective of Labour's, and attacking supposed benefit scroungers was very much a feature of the last government. As Nick Clegg points out, this failed to achieve savings in the welfare budget.

So how is the coalition going to do it? I'm not denying that they might have a plan, but Nick's article is completely free of one. The vague rhetorical stuff at the end, about putting power in the hands of the welfare recipients and reshaping the State are all well and good, but contain no proposals that will clearly save money. Possibly it's just assumed they will. Call me a cynic, but if Labour's rhetoric didn't do it, I'm not at all convinced that ours will, either. Initiatives to get people back into work usually cost money. For that matter, greater scrutiny of benefit claimants to try to weed out those who are claiming falsely costs money. It's the flip-side of all that 'red tape' we're supposed to be saving money by eliminating; cut the red tape, and you'll catch fewer benefit cheats.

(Incidentally, I'm not at all convinced that there's much money to be saved by going after benefit cheats, or those who have supposedly opted for a 'lifestyle on benefits'. I take on trust that such people exist, because people tell me they know some, but I don't think there are that many of them. I don't think that vein can be mined for £4 billion, as George Osborne claims he can do, or more than a tiny fraction of that amount. What's more, I suspect that if you try to do it, the people you will actually hit are those who are bad at gaming the system, or who have trouble filling in forms - in other words, some of the most vulnerable even of those on welfare. But because of all this talk of the £4 billion coming from benefit cheats, the public at large will assume that anyone who gets their benefit cut must have somehow deserved it, and will think the cuts are fair.)

I don't see a cut in the number of people who need welfare happening, somehow. And if you cut the welfare budget without cutting the number of people on welfare, then you are, indeed, going to cut benefits to the poor.

I've just heard a speech by Danny Alexander in which he made much the same points as Nick Clegg but, again, without the linking jigsaw piece of how you get people off benefit while cutting the welfare budget. This is worrying. One game to play at Conference is to see which phrases and themes are repeated by all the on-message MPs, because those are the ones that the leadership wants conference to absorb, accept and repeat. This - 'we will cut the welfare bill and we will incentivise people to get back to work' is clearly one of them, which makes it worrying that, as stated, it has no mechanism to make it happen other than making the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society poorer and more vulnerable.

Danny Alexander also talked about going after taxpayers; both by closing loopholes that people currently exploit legally, and by going after tax evaders. This is welcome news, and appears to have been agreed with George Osborne. My worry, though, is that it will be hard to do; with taxpayers, the government is usually trying to claw back money from someone who already has it. With people on benefits, the government is trying to not pay someone who doesn't yet have the money. The latter is easier to do; what's more, if you do it unfairly, the taxpayer is in a much better position to mount a legal challenge than the person on benefits.

A repeated refrain in Danny Alexander's speech was that we were doing things 'not because they were easy, but because they were right'. My worry is that we (as Liberals in the coalition government) will cut benefits from the most vulnerable not because it is right, but because it is easy. I hope I'm wrong.

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