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Welfare - The British Position

  • David Grossman
  • 7 Nov 07, 04:45 PM

The Conservatives think the public mood on welfare has changed. The big shift they think has happened as a result of last week’s revelations about the numbers of foreign workers employed in the UK over the past decade. The current official estimate is 1.5 million. Parliamentary answer 18 July 2007

Over the same period it appears that the number of welfare claimants has fallen hardly at all. According to the former welfare reform minister Frank Field:

"The economy has been growing each quarter since late 1992 but the numbers of working age claimants moving into work has been modest. I calculate the numbers have fallen from only 5.7 to 5.4 million. The government asserts the total is 4.7 million. The independent Statistics Commission has been asked to arbitrate.

"Yet, whatever the outcome, the spotlight will be on the failure of the £84 billion welfare to work programme.”
Frank Field MP - Daily Telegraph 3 November 2007

The big question that the Conservatives now think the public is asking is a simple one:

“How come all these foreign workers can find jobs in the British economy when so many British people seem stuck on welfare?”

Before the clock ran out on him Tony Blair was desperate to push through changes, perhaps sensing that he hadn’t done enough on welfare reform in the past. He appointed David Freud to propose radical reform. Mr Blair predicted this review would throw up some pretty difficult political challenges for the government.
He told the House of Commons Liaison committee on 6 February 2007:

“When we publish David Freud's Welfare Reform Programme.......there will be some quite difficult proposals in relation to how people come off benefit and into work - lone parents, people on incapacity benefit and so on.”

So it proved. The Freud report recommended a radical shake up of the welfare system. Contracting out welfare to work programmes to all sorts of organisations, including private sector providers, who will be paid by results.

Gordon Brown’s government has so far not fully embraced the Freud Report - Peter Hain MP, the Work and Pensions Secretary told an audience in September:

“I have yet to be convinced that David’s specific proposal based around 11 regional contacts, thereby replacing a one-size-fits all state monopoly approach, with a one-size-fits all private monopoly approach is the answer.” Peter Hain MP 12 September 2007.


This kind of welfare reform is already commonplace in the United States. Wisconsin led the way in the mid-90s.

Under the then Republican Governor Tommy Thompson the state cut out cash welfare benefits almost entirely, instead the money was spent on helping people find work. In his conference speech this year David Cameron praised what had been achieved in Wisconsin:

“....where they've cut benefit roles (sic) by 80%, and the changes we will make are these: we will say to people that if you are offered a job and it's a fair job and one that you can do and you refuse it you shouldn't get any welfare.”

Having seen the Wisconsin system in action I have a few thoughts on the chances of introducing it in the UK:

1. In America it only worked because both parties signed up to it. Although the idea came from the Republican Party, it took Bill Clinton, a Democrat trying to connect with working class Republicans to sell it nationwide.

It is the first law of public service reform that the People who think they will lose out under any change usually have more motivation to make a lot of noise.
This includes not just the recipients of welfare under the current system but also the public sector employees (and their unions) who administer the current system. If all political parties are signed up to the changes then there is less chance that one or other party will backtrack in the face of hostile headlines.

2. In America the politicians managed to change the way the public thought about welfare. It was no longer seen as cruel or mean to cut someone’s welfare in order to force them to get a job. In fact thinking changed 180 degrees. It was actually seen as cruel to keep someone on welfare a day longer than necessary. The only way out of poverty is through work, not bigger, more generous handouts. Although many British voters have started to ask questions about welfare it’s by no means clear that the link in the public’s mind between cutting benefits and “meanness” has been broken. If people suspect that the motivation for welfare reform is purely to save money it becomes a far harder political sell. It only worked in the US because voters became convinced it was a better system for everyone including the welfare recipients themselves.

3. The American system relies on a huge and well-resourced charitable sector. In Wisconsin I went to the amazing Open Door Cafe at the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist in Milwaukee. Here volunteers provide over 200 hot meals a day, six days a week for homeless people. It appeared to me that many of the people who use the service are not really in a position to get a job however much the welfare system “incentivises” them.

They have in the jargon “multiple barriers to work” for example mental health problems, drug or alcohol dependency, and are often illiterate. Someone needs to help these people if the state withdraws from providing a universal right to welfare benefits. All British political parties say they want to beef up the voluntary sector in the UK but we are nowhere near American levels of charitable action.

What happens now?

The Conservatives are set to publish their proposals on welfare reform early in the new year.

The government’s green paper In Work Better off: Next Steps to Full Employment was published in July. The consultation period on it has just finished. It’s not yet clear when and even if the government will introduce a new welfare reform bill.

Watch David Grossman’s film about Welfare in Wisconsin here

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 06:21 PM on 07 Nov 2007,
  • Bedd Gelert wrote:

Looking forward to this film. I like this quote :-

"Before the clock ran out on him Tony Blair was desperate to push through changes, perhaps sensing that he hadn’t done enough on welfare reform in the past."

So why did Blair shaft Field so royally after asking him to 'think the unthinkable' ? I can't recall the detail on this, but I have a funny feeling it is engraved on Frank Field's memory...

  • 2.
  • At 08:14 PM on 07 Nov 2007,
  • B Hall wrote:

Part of the problem with the debate over benefits is that they are inevitably all lumped together, when in reality there are many different circumstances in which people receive benefits.

Carers save this country the cost of funding another National Health Service, and also receive benefits. Are they valued citizens, or are they dependents? Our society would certainly be sunk without them.

It's all too easy to use inflammatory language about benefits, but many of those carers living on benefits are working hours far longer and more arduous than any employer would be able to demand of them, for far less money. Also, it is worth mentioning that many of these people fail to claim benefits for which they would be eligible - purely because of the stigma that is attached to doing so.

  • 3.
  • At 09:09 PM on 07 Nov 2007,
  • Timothy Mullen wrote:

If Tommy Thompson's system was so brilliant, why was he the first Republican to drop out of the Presidential nominating race? Why do both the current illigitimate occupant of the White House and Congress agree that more needs to be spent on getting people medical insurance (but differ on how much needs to be spent)?

Welfare, or benefits, are nothing to be ashamed about, and to suggest otherwise is about as stupid as anything that emerges from George W. Bush's mouth.

The one question Frank Field failed to address, and the reason why he failed as a Minister, and continues to fail as a neo-con pundit in the Daily Telegraph, is how many of the supposedly "economically inactive" are unable to work because of work-related illnesses? The Tories "Minister for Stoke-on-Trent" Stephen O'Brien is banging on today about the number of people on incapicity benefit, but misses the fact that the City has the highest per-head incidence of chest illnesses (caused by working on pottery factories, coal mines, etc) than anywhere else in the UK.

  • 4.
  • At 11:32 PM on 07 Nov 2007,
  • dave martin wrote:

The subject of welfare debate and immigration are one of the same. Recent figures suggest that 100s of thousands of uk jobs have been taken by immigrant workers, a vast majority of these jobs it could be said are in manual/non skilled positions. Nonetheless these positions are being filled by workers prepared to travel hundreds of miles and work for and in many cases a basic minimum wage. So why have not the government insisted that these jobs be filled by our own British workers ?. It would certainly reduce the benefit claimants to virtual zero !!. It could be said that in order to avoid an army of legal immigrants ( a direct result of our immigration policy) roaming the streets and claiming benefits we should give them "uk jobs" and blame other social factors as to why 100s of thousands of uk workers are still without a job. It has also been said that a percentage of the uk workforce are just to lazy to get up on a morning and go out to work. What a dilemma the government must be facing

  • 5.
  • At 11:39 PM on 07 Nov 2007,
  • John Baxendale wrote:

I thought the best bit of the report was when the Christian lady said (I paraphrase here) that it was a good thing the state had abandoned all tnese poor people because it gave Christians a chance to be charitable towards them. Up to that point, I was wondering what happens at times when there simply aren't enough jobs in the economy to employ everyone - which, after all, is why unemployment benefit was invented in the first place. But apparently the answer is that the unemployed become dependent on charity. A good illustration of why America really is a foreign country - but not a good model for Britain, I think. Even Thatcher didn't go that far, so I doubt if touchy-feely Cameron is going to run with this one.

  • 6.
  • At 12:02 AM on 08 Nov 2007,
  • Melissa Murray wrote:

As an American, who is from Wisconsin. Trust me when I say that what Thompson did, was NOT beneficial to the state. There are still the same disenfranchised class of people, who were not provided with adequate training, and even if they could find jobs, they would have to work 3 jobs to pay bills, and then they still can't afford health insurance.

Remember my British friends, this is a country where 47 million people don't have health insurance, therefore no access to health care.

Trust me, this is not a system you want to replicate.

  • 7.
  • At 01:18 AM on 08 Nov 2007,
  • Philip wrote:

“How come all these foreign workers can find jobs in the British economy when so many British people seem stuck on welfare?”

This is a good question if it's not asked merely rhetorically with the implication that Brits on welfare are simply idle.

Part of the answer surely is that those who chose to come here are usually more skilled, more self-confident, less likely to be a single parent etc. Almost by definition, people with the get-up-and-go to migrate to a new country are going to be among the most dynamic of human beings. And they approach what to us is a low-paid job with the enthusiasm of someone for whom it is a golden opportunity. If you retain tie

Part of the reason may also be more subtle - incoming people have social networks made up of people who know where people like them can find work. Whereas benefits claimants have social networks composed of other claimants, which reinforce their own feelings of resignation and futility.

The reasons why people don't find jobs might in fact not be so different to the reasons why a lot of benefits go unclaimed. People don't know what is available, or where to start, they lack self-confidence in dealing with the system, and they are put off by British social stigmas - whether those stigmas are attached to claiming benefits or to doing menial work.

Anyone who wants to claim that Britons are just idlers and scroungers needs to explain why up to £8bn pa of benefits go unclaimed, and only 50-60% of those eligible for Jobseekers Allowance actually claim it.

If we addressed these questions seriously me might find that what will help British people into work is to find ways to give them the same hope and self-belief and skills the newcomers have.

  • 8.
  • At 10:40 AM on 09 Nov 2007,
  • Bedd Gelert wrote:

A good film Mr Grossman, and an apology.. I didn't read your article properly to begin with because I thought it would spoil the film..

So I missed the bit about Tony Blair proposing yet another review, and the fact that Peter Hain appears already to have kicked it into the long grass.

A more cynical man than myself might assume it was to enable parties to sound 'tough' or 'decisive' at election time, and quietly drop these initiatives when the cost in votes in actually implementing them becomes rather clearer..

  • 9.
  • At 08:20 AM on 19 Nov 2007,
  • Robert wrote:

The fact is Labour has changed the rules, they are not going to look at your disability anymore they are going to look at what you can do, last year i was offered a six week job handing out baskets in Asda, so the answer to can you work is yes.

Do we have any jobs for you well no , but if we had work you would be able to do this. So I will then spend the rest of my life on a lower benefit saving the government perhaps billions putting me into massive poverty.

The laugh is I had an accident at work, I did not get compensation because it took 13 years I did not get legal aid and had to give up, the company had accepted liability but knew i could not keep paying legal aid.

But the fact is saying to a blind person you can become cat whisper is not giving us jobs is it.

telling me I can work is easy finding me that work is different.

I have spent four years looking for that magic job.

  • 10.
  • At 05:55 PM on 26 Feb 2008,
  • Fiona wrote:

I find the British public's general lack of knowledge of the problems/barriers facing many unemployed/low paid workers people in Britain really alarming and worrying and the main obstacle to progress in this area.

It is this myth that the most people who are claiming benefits or who are living in poverty are there through choice which needs to be dispelled. Most people living at that level simply do not have the personal competence or the support networks to improve their circumstances.

Finding a new job can be extremely difficult even if you already have an extensive work history, experience of job hunting and are currently in work, let alone if you haven't. Practically every job around requires previous experience in that exact industry doing that exact same role, you now have to have a certificate to become a cleaner! (Level 1 in Cleaning Technology which states that you can use polish and a duster apparently!!!) Transferable skills from one industry to the other are usually disregarded, so what if you don't have any work related skills at all? Even for articulate experience people getting a new job can be tough, even a job for which you more than meet the person and job specification criteria. Explaining a few weeks gap in your CV is often tough enough, let alone for people who have had years of unemployment!

Rather than focusing on this Wisconsin system and all that inhumane crap spawning from America, why not focus policy making more on employers and force them to remove the barriers they put up for people to actually get a secure job! There is far too much emphasis on box ticking and interview and surface presentation, surely we can think of more fairer ways of assessing a person's suitability and abilities to carry out a role. These job ads stating a preference for the bubbly and outgoing personality should quite frankly be outlawed!

The idea that by removing something, you remove the need for it is an absurdity. If we closed all the hospitals do you think there would be no more illness?? Or during a famine, people will survive because suddenly they no longer require food??!

More horrifying is this trend towards looking for guidance on social matters to the likes of America. As a previous comment states - 47 million people there have no access to medical treatments, medications, doctors etc for serious medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer, arthritis etc. Some people at the poorer end of the social spectrum, if they are lucky enough, have to be treated by voluntary doctors in pig pens, barns and makeshift tents - this, in one of the world's richest nations!! And we are talking of emulating them??!!

Why not start looking towards countries where things are actually working, where there is harmony, not gross inequality and poverty on a mass scale.

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