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October 2nd 2013
There is, I think (and by 'think' I mean 'read in the Times'), a fundamental difference in the way that the Left and the Right think of the welfare state. The Right (amongst whom I count myself) view it as the last resort for those in need; the safety net in place for when we fall off the tightrope. The Left regard it, if not quite as the default position, then at least as a fundamental aspect of normal life. This difference of opinion is all part of the small government vs. big government argument. This might help explain why lots of people are angry about the coalition's (oh, all right, the Tories') actions on the welfare state, and why lots of other people see them as the most sensible things in the world.
It would be good, first of all, to cut through some of the more hyperbolic reactions to the Conservatives from critics who insist on conflating a crackdown on benefits cheats with a crackdown on benefit claimants (the same critics who seem to believe that wanting to remove illegal immigrants is the same as wanting to remove immigrants; by this logic criminalising theft is the same thing as criminalising buying stuff). Even if the country didn't have a gaping hole in its finances, there would be no good reason not to stop people from fraudulently claiming benefits - just like there's no good reason not to stamp out tax evasion and, where possible, avoidance. And it goes beyond the most obvious cases of fraud; where there are people who have developed a reliance on benefits where they should not, the government is also right to step in to help. You can debate the efficacy of job-finding schemes - well, they need significant improvement, don't they? - but you can't deny the rationale that says that benefit payments for job-seekers should be the stop-gap, not the solution. Similarly, the government is not eager to remove benefits from people with disabilities; rather, it is eager to identify those who are truly in need so that they can supported, and remove support from those who do not need it (or, perhaps, who need less of it). There's no denying that this will typically result in lower government expenditure, which given the deficit is not an unworthy goal.
Another recent measure that will reduce government payments is the benefits cap, the brainchild of IDS which again appears to be much misunderstood. Firstly, it doesn't impact you if you're 65 or older. Secondly, it doesn't impact you if you receive Working Tax Credit, Disability Living Allowance or any one of eight other benefit types. Thirdly, the cap for a couple or a single parent is £500 a week, or £26,000 a year, which (for those benefits which don't incur income tax, e.g. House Benefit, Child Benefit) is equivalent to a pre-tax income of £30,140. The average gross income of a full-time worker in this country (based, admittedly, on data for the year ending April 2012) is £26,500. A fundamental cornerstone of the current government's welfare policy is that it shouldn't be advantageous not to work if you are able to, because it's difficult to explain to Mr & Mrs Hardworker (the lack of hyphen is Tory policy as of conference season) that they've actually lost money by going to work - and the benefit cap fits squarely into this ethic.
There are actually two sides to government policy on those in need. The first, as discussed, is simply to make sure that those who need support get it, and that those who don't, don't. The second is to move more people from the first category to the second, and this is what Michael Gove really meant when he said "I appreciate that there are families who face considerable pressures.Those pressures are often the result of decisions that they have taken which mean they are not best able to manage their finances." Yes, he needs to learn to express himself more sensitively - or, indeed, stick to his job as Education Secretary - but he was not lambasting poor families; he was pointing out that the government provides financial aid and guidance to help those who are not financially aware. For goodness' sake, he was offering to help.
How badly that help is needed was made clear to me in an article Caitlin Moran wrote a couple of years ago, also about welfare payments but from a very different point of view to mine, where she in support of the poor: "They’ll have got a massive overdraft, like everyone else in the Western world. They’ll have got your telly the way you got your telly." Well, actually, I've never had an overdraft. I bought a cheap telly at university when I didn't have much money, and bought a bigger telly when I could afford it. If anyone thinks, like Moran, that that's weird, they need all the financial guidance they can get.
To add a little balance, I should say that I don't support all the government's action on welfare. The removal of the spare room subsidy is a good idea in theory - i.e. welfare support should meet genuine need; no one needs the government to pay for them to have an empty room - but in the absence of suitable alternative properties it simply isn't practical. Similarly, the suggestion that benefits will be stopped for all under-25s (see here) comes from a desire to move people away from a lifetime of benefit dependency, but certainly sounds very poorly thought out.
Well, it's been a while since I wrote a political blog post. I promise that next time (and it might even be within the next month) it'll be might lighter. Puppy-dog tails, sunbeams and polar bear cubs.

what was I listening to?
Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings - Counting Crows
what was I reading?
Mansfield Park - Jane Austen
what was I watching?
Swingers
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