“No rights without responsibilities” is one of the key mantras of
the New Labour government. The political meaning is quite clear –
no one, particularly those on welfare, will get a free ride.
The message is that decent hard-working families will not be taxed
to support the feckless. The difficulty for Labour in government
has been turning the slogan into practical policies that make sense
when dealing with the messy realities of modern life.
There have been a few extraordinarily misconceived proposals
floated in health such as the idea of fining patients for
non-attendance at surgeries. But in the main, attention has focused
on social security and ways to bring “conditionality”, as it is
called in the jargon, to bear on benefit recipients.
A brief examination of our benefits system reveals that the
majority of the money goes to older people and disabled people –
two groups not in need of New Labour discipline. That leaves the
shrinking pool of adult unemployed and the largest group of working
age benefit recipients – lone mothers. There has so far been no
stomach for compelling the latter group to do anything in return
for their benefits, particularly after the controversial cuts in
lone parent benefits. This has left the largely unloved unemployed
young male as the sole focus of political rhetoric and benefit
conditions. So, as David Blunkett used to say – there are four “New
Deal” options for the young unemployed, “there is no fifth option
of a life on benefit”.
But you cannot keep a good slogan down and there are signals that
wider conditions for benefits are on the agenda again. Frank Field
has floated the idea of removing housing benefit from antisocial
neighbours. A lovely, headline-grabbing, populist idea. However, it
starts to break down on closer examination – where are these
families going to go if, and when, they are evicted? In what way
will their behaviour – undoubtedly difficult, but complex in origin
– be improved? Or what about removing child benefit from mothers
whose children are persistent truants? Will loss of income lead
parents to focus more on the welfare of their children?Or will it
just make the jobs of the police and social workers more difficult?
It is time perhaps to look at the case for positive rather than
punitive conditionality. For example, we know that the hard core of
our long-term unemployed – whether working class men or lone
parents – lack basic skills such as literacy or other
qualifications which make you work-ready, such as a driving
licence. Why not tie benefit payment to self-improvement –
attendance at literacy and numeracy classes, volunteering or
gaining basic qualifications. It might not look like the slap of
firm government but it might just be good policy.
John McTernan is a freelance writer and analyst.