Sunday, 1 July 2012

The debate on welfare reform has to be about more than just what to cut.

This week Prime Minister David Cameron announced the launch of a ‘debate’ on reform of the benefit system, Westminster code for trying out the policies his party will take into the next election.

Amongst the suggested changes are capping the amount people can earn whilst living in council housing, linking benefit levels to wages rather than inflation and removing the right to claim housing benefit from the under 25’s. A plan to introduce regional differences in the amount paid in benefits was removed from the PM’s speech, but is still very much on the table.

In a speech launching the debate made in Kent David Cameron said there was something ‘truly awry’ about the benefits system and that it had created a ‘welfare gap between those living long-term in the welfare system and those outside it.’ This, he said, had created a culture that sends out ‘incredibly damaging messages’, such as ‘That it pays not to work. That you are owed something for nothing,’ causing ‘huge resentment amongst those who pay into the system, because they feel that what they’re having to work hard for, others are getting without having to put in the effort.’

The speech and the ‘debate’ it is supposed to have launched is David Cameron’s latest shot at connection with ordinary voters, that and putting some clear blue water between himself and the Liberal Democrats in order to shore up his precarious position with his own party. It will not work on either count.

The thinking behind his ideas for reforming the benefits system is flawed, young people leaving home and claiming housing benefit to do so aren’t automatically freeloading, they could well be escaping chaotic and possibly abusive families. People claiming unemployment benefit for more than six months aren’t skiving off to watch daytime TV; they might live in places like my home town of Stoke-on-Trent where there are an average of seventy three people chasing every available job.

A comfortably off member of the political elite like David Cameron may not, through personal experience anyway, though you might hope that a professional politician had some capacity for empathy, be aware of such realities. The voters he is trying to talk to are though; often because they are only a couple of pay-cheques away from the benefit queue themselves.

The welfare state indeed ripe for reform, but that will not be brought about by stirring up tabloid style outrage with tales of ‘scroungers’ milking the system. What is needed is new thinking and the courage to put forward new ideas that might, at first, attract criticism but will pay dividends in the long term.

As a means of keeping the more rebellious elements in the Conservative Party quiet talking about welfare reform has the advantage of playing some powerful notes on the political dog whistle. The only problem is it also tends to call home some decidedly mangy policies, the sort of thing that play well with the ‘Turnip Taliban’ but alienate almost everyone else.

The Tories, unlike Labour, are relentless pragmatists, theirs is a party without dogma and taking a hard line stance alone is not enough to save a leader who looks like becoming an electoral liability from the axe. After a bungled budget followed by countless u-turns Citizen Dave is starting to look like just such a liability; he might be finding out what its like not to save a job one day soon.

Time to be beastly to the bankers

Following on from the chaos caused by the computer system at Nat West developing a bad case of the yips and the revelation that traders at Barclays have been manipulation the Libor rate to defraud customers there have been calls for an inquiry into how the banks operate.

This is an attractive idea, but a likely dead end. Any such inquiry would, like the Leveson inquiry into the media, rapidly turn into a dreary talking shop.

The flaws in the banking system, a lack of morality, huge rewards offered for taking insane risks and a near total disconnect from reality at the highest levels of management, are already well known.

The solution is also all too clear; fining banks is an ineffective punishment, in a world where trillions of pounds can be wiped out with a single key-stroke three hundred million is little more than pocket change. It is time for bankers who commit fraud on a grand scale to be brought to trial and if found guilty sent to jail.

And another thing

The Spice Girls are getting back together to promote the musical ‘Viva Forever’ based on their 1990’s hits. This will delight their now thirty something fans, at least it will until they realise their youthful rebellion has become the stuff of corporate nostalgia. Then what they want what they really, really want might be to feel a little less old.

Leaving David Beckham out of the GB Olympic football team isn’t a cruel snub to a national treasure; it’s a rare outbreak of sanity in the mad mad world of football.

If Goldenballs had been serious about being an Olympian he would have spent the past few years plying his trade in the Premiership rather than trotting around in the lucrative mediocrity of American Major League Soccer.

Time and fashion move on leaving those who can’t or won’t keep up in their wake, as the performance of Roy Hodgson’s journeymen showed at the European Championships teamwork and effort now count for more than celebrity glitter. Football might not be coming home; but it might finally have started to grow up.

Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Giant Tortoise, died this week and thanks to the resulting press coverage I learnt that the proper name for the last surviving member of a species is an ‘endling.’ This makes me wonder who will be the Lib Dem’s endling as the party stumbles towards electoral extinction; Unloved Nick or Annoying Vince would be my guess.


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