There is no sign that Cameron or his team understand what it takes to make social progress. They should look harder at just how heavy the lifting has been for Labour. He sets himself a dangerously high benchmark if he wants to be judged on how much faster he can improve the lives of the poor. With this week's rhetoric, the Conservatives suggest they will do more – but that's a tall order, since Labour has still made better social progress than they can hope to match.The difficulty for Lady Toynbee is that she rarely encounters those for whom she writes so bravely; they are unlikely neighbours to her either here or to her Tuscan villa, and they rarely venture into Waitrose. She therefore tends to see them as statistics, as percentages of median income, of numbers of at-risk children, as lower life expectancies and as higher prison risks. What she's campaigning for is not the poor but against the idea of poverty.
Frank Field, in contrast, actually knows what he's talking about. He actually understands that we've moved from the age of Beveridge, when the dole was a shameful but necessary safety-net, to an age of entitlement in which Welfare is a lifestyle choice. Field's is the first of five steps to welfare reform. Oh yes, Polly, it can be done - and it can be done differently to Labour's abject failure. There is an alternative.
1. Localise welfare
The first stage is to re-personalise welfare, that it's not 'The State' but 'my working neighbours' who are paying the bills. Benefits office staff know their clients better than anyone, and are the best placed to make accurate and fair benefit determinations. Welfare administration should be localised down to Parish level, with local benefits officers given a budget and allowed wide discretion in making benefit determinations. Claimants would have a right of local appeal to a Parish lay-tribunal. The result would not only be better, quicker and fairer decision making but taxpayers at the local level would know exactly how many (but not who) of their neighbours they were supporting, and at what cost.
A cap of two consecutive years claim for all benefits including HB and CTB except those for the profoundly physically or mentally disabled; at the discretion of local benefit officers, benefits to be up to 70% of the previous two years average earnings for the first year for the newly unemployed, or for those shifted from higher rate disability / invalidity benefits onto workless benefits. Those already on workless benefits would have two years more from the date of enactment. A lifetime cap of six years.
3. Transitional support
Unemployment is a stock concept. Even at full employment levels, at any time there will be those between jobs. An inflexible benefits system means frictional costs are high; many won't claim for a few weeks of unemployment because of the huge bureaucratic barriers and inefficiencies in doing so, and the same inefficiencies often mean it's easier to stay on benefits than accept a job offer. Removing the frictions in moving into and out of jobless benefits, and local discretion over transitional support grants and loans (where, for instance, accepting the next job may involve moving home, or putting the dog into kennels whilst working away) will remove the 'stickyness' of unemployment
Subsidised welfare housing is one of the nation's most expensive luxuries. We're past the days when a Council house was for life; welfare housing at taxpayer expense should be short-term and transitional, either for the temporarily unemployed or those undergoing life crises such as family breakup. Again, the stocks of welfare housing should be managed and allocated at local level by local benefits officers. Allocation priorities should include keeping two-parent families with children together, and short-term buffer accommodation for single persons with or without children who have excellent prospects of moving into work and getting their own place.
5. Community Settlements
We all know that however successful the above measures are, there will always be a hard core of the idle, the feckless and the sociopathic underclass who will exhaust their benefit or bear fatherless children with no intention of ever working or providing for themselves. We cannot abandon them. Even these must receive our Christian charity.
We need to build community settlements to house them, in supervised dormitories for the men, in wards with separate cubicles for single mothers. Such settlements would needs be 'closed' to restrict access to drugs and alcohol, but not prisons; clients could leave whenever they wished, but with no return within fourteen days. Useful work during the day for both men and women, and teachers and health workers for the children, would aim at rehabilitating even these and allowing their return to the world of self-responsibility. There would be no restriction on how long they stay once in - for this would be the final provision, and nothing more but the street and starvation beyond it.
Do I think Cameron would be brave enough to enact the above? No. I fear he's determined to prove Lady Toynbee right.