John Humphry’s documentary is clearly the kick-off of a GREAT DEBATE about The Future of the Welfare State in this country. It’s one-sidedness and hand-wringing about the need for change though hamper what could have been a great programme. That the welfare state in Britain needs reforming almost – almost – goes without saying.
While we were invited to shake our heads at the suggestion that those who can work but won’t work should be offered tea and sympathy and hand-wring about going back to the days of the deserving and the undeserving poor, we were never really in danger of a serious debate.
The problem was fairly heavily hinted at early on, but like an overweight dog, the programme never really jumped went for it. Early on, we hear from Pat Dale, a single mother living on benefits, who is pretty clear that the wages she would earn from working at minimum wage don’t compare to the benefits she receives. While it’s disturbing to hear someone so disconnected from the desire to be a productive citizen, we have to ask ourselves if we’d would do anything differently with such incentives in front of you? Go figure. The income disparity that means company directors can earn 46% increases in salary over a year, while public sector workers are urged to tighten their belts and service workers earn a pittance surely has some connection to the huge numbers of people willing to live on the state rather than submit themselves to a treadmill of low wages and poverty. Particularly for women with children the incentives to claim benefits rather than work quickly stack up. Humphry’s is sympathetic and mannered throughout, but he never really explores these dimensions.
For a number of years, an organization called Citizens UK has been campaigning for a living wage. Surely this programme, with its clear ambitions to open up a debate on the welfare state could have said more this. It’s not a magic bullet but a living wage could surely be a more efficient way of helping those struggling economically and those on benefit to lift themselves out of poverty, have an incentive to contribute to the system and value the concept of work. A living wage shouldn’t be too difficult to implement in a country where the service industries are such a large part of the industry. It’s not like the coffee shops and bakeries are going to flee London are they? And it would be a swift an efficient way to increase consumer spending power.
The conclusion policy makers on the right seem to have drawn from such examples is of course, that we should make benefits less generous and give people no choice but to work. It’s called workfare – they tried it in America. It failed. Mostly because it never solved the problem of why people were on welfare in the first place.
The Beveridge Report was meant to create a fairer economic system for the working class in Britain, who are now mostly a relic of history. The under-class left in its place need to be brought into the system with a combination of fair wages, and welfare reform.
While The Future of the Welfare State hinted at some of the problems and solutions it missed too much to ever really get going as serious programme.