When Sir William Beveridge set out his plans for the modern welfare state in 1942, he said that he wished to banish want by providing assistance from cradle to grave, a welfare system to which all would pay and from which all would benefit. We don't have that now; many don't pay and many don't benefit. He set out his vision of every citizen willing to serve according to his powers, having at all times an income sufficient to meet his responsibilities. Now, whether a citizen is willing to serve or not, that income is available and is often more than the minimum UK working wage. What was once a fall-back position, a safety net for those citizen's who fell on hard times, is now a foundation stone of modern society, the starting point for many to calculate their income needs, the desirable object of many out of work migrants, the bedrock of many people's lifestyle.
Even without the European Union, which makes it possible for the peoples of at least 29 countries (members plus accession countries plus, through a quirk, some others able to obtain EU passports), that's well over half a billion people, to receive a whole range of benefits in the UK without actually paying a penny towards them, or even contributing towards the UK economy, Beveridge's plan has been perverted, his vision lost.
It was three years ago that George Osborne stirred up controversy by suggesting that there were those who had made living on benefits a lifestyle choice. One or two recent cases have reopened that debate, notably those of Heather Frost and Tracey MacDonald. The former is a 37-year old single mother of 11 children (with several different fathers), for whom the Council is building a 6-bedroom house because it doesn't have one a large enough to house them all. The latter, also single and I think about the same age with a daughter, lives on the Eastlands Housing Association complex which recently asked residents to cut down on luxuries in these hard times; whereupon Tracey went on television to argue that it was her right to spend her money however she wished and that it was indeed her lifestyle choice to live on benefits and to spend them on 'luxuries'.
I do actually sympathise with Tracey - everyone should spend their income as they wish; the Housing Association request was a mistake. But it is the thought that the various benefits she receives are considered her income that is so depressing. She made clear that she had no intention of working. That does seem to me a travesty of the Beveridge vision. Heather, well, I don't know, she is so beleigerent about her rights to be looked after that I don't know where to start. All sorts of derogatory terms have been bandied about, because of such cases - the feckless underclass, problem families, etc, but plans to restructure the welfare system have also led to more publicity for the political problems faced by the present Government over benefits. I suspect that more such cases will be unearthed before the new measures are welcomed in.
Never the less, apart from the two ladies mentioned above, there does seem to be a significant part of the British population for whom benefits are now seen as a initial basic right, rather than a final dire necessity. And it's not just those without visible means of support.
A recent caller to a radio programme, on which Nick Clegg was answering questions, berated the Deputy Prime Minister for a new policy under which an allowance would be paid to working mothers to help with the cost of childcare. She claimed it was discriminating against mothers who elected to give up their careers to look after children themselves. 'There is absolutely no provision within the tax system to help families like myself, and our family is no doubt a net contributor to the Exchequer.'
It's an interesting thought, isn't it. Britain is a net contributor to the EU, but can there be net contributors to the Exchequer? I suppose Beveridge had people like her family in mind when he said 'every citizen willing to serve according to his powers, having at all times an income sufficient to meet his responsibilities'. And, she continued, there is no provision within the tax system to help 'families like myself '? Do we think that there should be a welfare system, or a tax system for that matter, which helps everyone, however well off? And wouldn't that mean that those that really need it would have to receive a little more? And yet this a lady in what we might normally consider to be very well-off circumstances – a very well-paid husband, nice house in nice area, in fact professionally qualified and able to return to her career in due course, feels that the Welfare State should support her too.
She did acknowledge that the various free education provisions we now enjoy were actually assistance to all families, but she took exception to the language about helping 'hard-working families', which she described as offensive to stay at home mothers who were also hard-working and that it sent out a message that staying at home to raise your children was 'the lazy option'. I can sympathise with her affront. But she's wrong about the substance. Staying at home is a lifestyle choice, but it doesn't make sense to pay stay at home mothers an allowance designed to help those who are not at home to look after their children themselves. It doesn't, as she suggested, make staying at home seem like a lazy option; it simply recognises the difficulty those having to work out of the home will have in looking after their children during the day. Many mothers make the opposite choice to this lady, because they can't afford not to work. They are the ones Beveridge intended to help. The allowance is also of course designed to make it possible for mothers to go out to work if they wish to do so . . .
There was another example at about the same time. A Mrs Stephanie Demouh and her children had lived for around three years in a £2million four-bedroom house in Belgravia, one of the most exclusive areas of London, provided almost entirely by housing benefit (of several thousand pounds a week). New rules, limiting benefits to £400 a week, designed to stop taxpayers’ money being spent on houses in the most expensive areas, meant that she had to be moved somewhere cheaper. But she has now appealed to the Council to find and fund another home in Belgravia, so that her children can continue to attend their primary school and she can continue her courses at Westminster University. She is married incidentally to a businessman and has a 50 per cent share in his fashion business, but she does not live with him.
I don't know, nor understand, all the details of this extraordinary case, but again, we have a person, a student at that with a well-paid husband (who presumably lives somewhere) who seems to believe that state-funded accommodation is some sort of right and that she should be able to choose which house she lives in. I haven't heard how this case has played out, and obviously I hope that the lady's appeal is ignored, but it is the fact that someone thinks that it is OK to be provided with a house, while they are studying, and despite her apparent income, that suggests that the view of benefits has gone awry. Perhaps the fact that the case wasn't just thrown out publicly means that someone else thinks such a situation is normal too. As I say, I know nothing of the background here, but the apparent shift in the principle of welfare is an interesting development.
So, Beveridge's plan (I hope) is being fulfilled. There are those for whom benefits provide a welcome safety net. But the envy shown by those needing the welfare system has now been replaced with envy from those not receiving its benefits. Somehow we are now beginning to believe that we should all receive something from the State. Come to think of it, maybe I should get child benefit too. I don't have children at home, but that's no reason why I should be discriminated against, is it.