Is the welfare state about need or nudging?

David Cameron

To William Beveridge it was about eradicating evil - the "giant evils" of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. To David Cameron it is about encouraging citizens to do the right thing - to work, to save, to take personal responsibility.

The prime minister urges us today to go back to first principles in thinking about what the welfare state is for.

For some it should be the mechanism by which the state seeks greater social justice. For others it should be a mechanism by which the state seeks to promote individual morals.

Mr Cameron's starting point for a national debate appears to echo the view of the high Tory thinker and journalist TE Utley, who described the welfare state as "an arrangement under which we all largely cease to be responsible for our own behaviour and in return become responsible for everyone else's."

Instead, the Conservative leader imagines a welfare system where ministers in Whitehall pull fiscal strings which encourage people towards his party's core values of hard work, saving, marriage and having children (when you can afford to).

To Mr Cameron, the machinery of state benefits is less about need and more about nudging. He wants to end the "culture of entitlement" and focus on those "who have no other means of support, or who have fallen on hard times".

IDS: We are engaged in possibly the most radical and wide-ranging welfare reform in a generation

In order to strengthen his argument, the Conservative leader paints a picture of "them" and "us". He talks of a "welfare gap in this country - between those living long-term in the welfare system and those outside it."

It is a view that plays directly to ancient anxieties about the residuum of society, the shadowy people who remain in poverty because of their indolence, incorrigibility and moral corruption. Mr Cameron notes the division and resentment "amongst those who pay into the system" against those who are "getting without having to put in the effort."

This battle between "strivers versus skivers" has underpinned British attitudes to poverty since the Poor Laws. Ministerial rhetoric about scroungers, benefit cheats and what Kenneth Clark recently called "the feral underclass" presses the point.

The man who invented the welfare state

William Beveridge
  • William Beveridge (1879-1963) was an economist and social reformer whose 1942 report formed basis for post-war welfare state
  • He named five "giant evils" for governments to tackle - Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness
  • Copy was reportedly found in Hitler's bunker

There are two problems with this argument. First, those in poverty are not part of some clearly defined group. Many people move in and out of welfare all the time as their circumstances change. Secondly, because it is not that simple, there is a significant risk that measures designed to kick the feckless up the backside end up hurting the poorest and most vulnerable.

The Conservatives want to make the welfare state simpler - the Universal Credit introduced next year is a bold attempt to do that. They also want it to cost less - the chancellor has already made it clear he wants to save a further £10bn from the welfare budget in the first two years of the next Parliament.

But the welfare state is complex because it is trying to do a very complex thing - provide tailored support of exactly the right amount and type only to those individuals who need it. "Strivers versus skivers" may appeal as a slogan, but the world isn't that simple.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 296.

    All this is music to the ears of those UKIP/ Tory Voters ...You know, the ones who have contempt for the weak and a longing for an England with Cricket Matches, Warm Beer and Corner shops run by White people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 295.

    #286 You mean the combined forces of Theresa May and Andrew Lansley have proved inadequate?

    That's incredible.
    Maybe Jezza Hunt really didn't know what was going after all?

  • rate this

    Comment number 294.

    288. juliet50

    I certainly think that the welfare bill is unsustainable

    Actually collecting tax, as distinct from media focused table thumping, will yield substantial dividends - of course, we might need to employ HMRC staff instead of sacking them but hey, they'll be self financing and prevent unnecessary unemployment!

    Why chase a minnow when there's a marlin?

  • rate this

    Comment number 293.

    292. Algol60

    Make Farewell State handouts LOANS, not gifts.
    Oooh you're one of those suckers that thinks Eire's going to pay back with interest?

    Wow, students have debt before they start work but you're advocating it much earlier - where does it end? What about a foetus - cabn it be held accountable?


  • rate this

    Comment number 292.

    Make Farewell State handouts LOANS, not gifts. The potential recipient might then think twice about applying. Moreover, make the responsibility for repayment of the loans shifted to the recipient's siblings, offspring or parents should repayment not occur, This might make familial pressure apply where legal pressure is ignored.

  • rate this

    Comment number 291.

    The NHS is a public service funded by N.I. and tax contributions. It is not a private company that needs to have administers appointed. If it needs more money then give it. I have no problem with paying for a service to look after my 86 year old mum who has paid her way or any other person that needs medical care. This governments ideologys quite shocking - they need to get some life experience

  • rate this

    Comment number 290.

    I'm a bit surprised they haven't wheeled dear old Vince out to promise "A thorough investigation of questionably amoral,and unacceptable tax avoidance,to be carried out in a totally transparent manner...........results will be available around 2020,and after a sensible consultation period,legislation to put an end to it 'could' be in place 20 years after that".

  • rate this

    Comment number 289.

    Let's have a national debate on UK tax evasion and how to crack down severely on our serial tax avoiders Cameron ! As that is where the UK's real parasites and crooks are all to be found ! You know , the same types that also like to donate money to right wing political parties!

  • rate this

    Comment number 288.

    I certainly think that the welfare bill is unsustainable. On walking to work this morning a number of foul mouthed youths were yelling and swearing at each other and quite obviously had been drinking and were unemployed. Target those for a start. How can anyone who is not working afford booze.

  • rate this

    Comment number 287.

    282. blackie1947 - in a democracy alternative views can be expressed & heard. I find that those contributors who ignore the hard problems like benefit reform & lay the ills of the world at the door of immigrants ill informed & counter their posts with reasoned argument. If as you feel the majority of the country feel as you why did the Tories fail to gain a majority in the election?

  • rate this

    Comment number 286.

    Perhaps the government need to seriously look at the foreign health tourist NHS users. Until recently I did not know that any person diagnosed in the UK gets treatment, my local hospital treats average 2 per week at a staggering £55,000 per day for the serious illnesses. if this is common to all NHS hospitals it is costing 10's £billions per year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 285.

    When you come down to it you are never going to cut the cost of the welfare state without cutting the cost of pensions and pension related benefits (which is by far the biggest portion of welfare benefit spending), and making people pay for their own healthcare, you will never get close.

    I doubt you will find a politician brave enough to propose this, let alone implement it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 284.

    Our benefits system is complete farce and needs overhaul from ground up.

    While there are a 'genuine' disability claimants this seems to be largest abuse due to extra benefits available.

    No-one on benefits ESPECIALLY 'lifestyle choice' should have standard of living above working taxpayers.

    Definate cut off after two children..breeding is not an occupation...get over it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    sorry but i just had to laugh....dan penteado £24000 housing benefit fraud..........but he has already paid back £210 must have been hard. for him to find

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    I agree that democracy is alive and well in our country, but is definately not preserve of the lefty whingers who appear to dominate these blogs. I fear they are wasting their collective breath, and they will fnd this out in 3 tears time as this government is more popular then the BBC etc would have us believe. Glory be a coalition works, no surprise to me, consensus and no division

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    As long as he also tackles the tax system on first principles - everyone pays, with no get out clauses for rich or poor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    Tackle the mythical "feral underclass" by all means.
    But Cameron should also tackle the "morally wrong" tax avoiding super-rich feral overclass.
    Or is this debate just a cynical pr stunt to shift public attention from his tax efficient chums by the pr savvy pm.
    Cameron's inductive assertions regarding welfare unwittingly betray his ideological and class based prejudice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    I'd like to see the welfare budget SLASHED by a lot more than 10 billion.

    Nobody should be allowed to claim benefits if they have refused a job offer they were capable of doing, even if it was sewage worker.

    I do not approve of the vast majority of who recieves my tax money, and I pay top whack. It is untenable to have a system where the people who are "helping" do not actually WANT to help.

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    I agree as long as he hits the real spongers, not those on low salaries.

    There would be other things he could do at the other end. CEO's should not earn more than 10 times the amount of an average worker, and force landlords to charge lower prices to young people. All in this together.

    And briefly, capital punishment - violation of human rights. I never ever want to see it in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    275. blackie1947 - Thankfully the last time I looked this country was a fully functioning democracy & not open to the extremes of left or right.

    Its interesting all this talk of the deserving & undeserving poor. HB is a benefit given to primarily working people (deserving?). Maybe more effort is needed with the likes of Dan Penteado (£24k HB fraud) while earning £50k.


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