Should welfare be a ‘moral mission’?


I was asked today to comment on the unfolding dispute between the Archbishop of Westminster and David Cameron regarding the ‘morality’ of welfare reform. The Archbishop made the point that while the case for reforming welfare was sound, the way it had been implemented had led to unintended consequences which meant people were facing destitution – an outrage in such a wealthy country.

He was no doubt referring to the hundreds of thousands of people affected by benefit sanctions – nearly 600,000 people had their JSA withheld in the first six months of last year – a ten per cent increase from the year before, for anything up to three years. For these people, using up any savings they may have, borrowing from friends or doorstep lenders, and using food banks are the only ways in which they can get by.

But he might also have thought of those affected by the under-occupancy penalty, or ‘bedroom tax’ – many of whom are facing eviction because while the money to pay the rent has been cut, smaller and cheaper properties to move into are almost non-existent in many areas. Or he might have been thinking of the disabled people, two thirds of whom are being turned down for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP, the benefit replacing Disability Living Allowance) after an assessment process which is experiencing delays of six, eight, or even ten months during which time they receive no financial support.

In any case, David Cameron refuted the Archbishop’s view, claiming there was a ‘moral mission’ to give people ‘hope and responsibility’ in welfare reform, which was just as important as the need to reduce welfare spending.

I would question whether the PM has properly scrutinised what the DWP has been up to these past few years. The DWP’s under-occupancy penalty impact assessment, for example, states that the primary motivation for the policy is to reduce housing benefit costs, while acknowledging there is ‘little evidence’ of the policy having any impact on behaviours – but that in any case, if everyone chose to downsize as a result of the penalty, there would be a ‘mismatch’ between demand for smaller homes and the amount available.

The time limitation of ESA now means that someone who has worked for 30 years, then has a stroke, is only given one year’s worth of sickness benefits, regardless of how long he takes to recover and get back to work, and how much he had contributed in national insurance and tax. This is not going to instil hope.

All the while, the Work Programme is limping on, and despite recent improvements the job outcomes it achieves in about half of the country is worse than if it left people to their own devices. Leaked documents show local job centres are setting targets for the number of JSA claimants they sanction while Work Programme Providers are using derogatory and demeaning language when discussing their ‘clients’.

For unemployed people, hope surely springs from believing you’re employable, and that there’s a job open to you. Providing help for people to get the skills and experience they need, and generating jobs, is how governments can instil such hope. Stopping someone’s JSA for 4 weeks for being 5 minutes late for your Jobcentre Plus appointment is not the same thing.

But whether one believes such reforms make people hopeful or hopeless is rather beside the point.

For me, what’s more worrying is the fact that a ‘moral mission’ is being used to shape the reforms at all. The language of righteous crusade, used by IDS and David Cameron, is not fit for changing such a complex and expensive piece of state machinery as the welfare state, upon which millions of people rely. It’s like someone talking about what is ‘right’ when haplessly cutting the wires to disarm a bomb.

A sense of righteousness is a dangerous guide when adjusting the intricacies of our welfare system. It allows you to justify unintended consequences as sacrifices to the greater good – or worse, refuse to believe such consequences exist.

On 27 February, MPs will be debating the Government’s refusal to carry out a proper assessment to quantify the impact of welfare reform – such evidence is no doubt viewed as an inconvenient fly in the ointment. Moral fervour also encourages you to rush in without working out how best to achieve your objectives.

It’s that sort of approach which leads not just to the unintended human consequences the Archbishop referred to, but to the wasted cash of ESA appeals (£66 million), Universal Credit IT systems (£130 million) and bedroom tax/under-occupancy penalty loopholes (£25-40 million at last estimate). Rushed implementation of plans, designed without proper evidence, costs all sides dearly.

Yes, our welfare regime has penalised people for working. It has led to people receiving benefits they didn’t need, in place of proper help in finding work. But it has also allowed employers to pay poor wages in the knowledge the state will compensate people with tax credits, and it has allowed landlords to name their price in the knowledge that the state will always pay the rent.

While it’s morally right to fix all of these things, that’s no excuse for sloppy policy-making. Only if implemented fairly and effectively can welfare reform tackle the poverty trap and instil hope. And to do that, the government needs to lead with a cool head and a grasp of what works – and leave talk of moral crusades to the Archbishop.