This week the Benefits Uprating Bill returns to the House of Lords. Many of the Anglican bishops have been hostile to its plan to limit benefits because of their impact on the poor. Children, they say, could suffer especially from the changes, which include capping benefit rises and putting a limit of £26,000 on the total annual benefit a family can claim.
For William Beveridge, who proposed the blueprint for the welfare state, poverty or ‘want’ happened as a result of bad luck in life – losing a job, a breadwinner, illness.
He proposed a simple principle to cover for want, contributory insurance and a fund into which people paid during times of earning to cover payments if earnings ceased, or, as in the case of retirement, when they did. Benefit ‘in return for contributions … is what the people desire’ , he said; and they did not want the feeling that ‘income for idleness however caused can come from a bottomless purse’. For those not earning, or earning enough, a tax funded, means-tested sum would be paid, national assistance. That would have strict conditions and must seem ‘less desirable’ than contributory benefit. Otherwise the insured would be getting nothing for their contribution. And for those of working age who could work, the state had a duty to get them back to work as rapidly as possible.
The Bishops believe it’s their job to speak out for the vulnerable. The Work and Pensions Secretary says that those on benefit should not be better off than those who earn. Whether the bishops or the Work and Pensions Secretary have God on their side is a moot point. The problem is not whether we help the poor, but how we do so. Iain Duncan Smith has made a start with the work programme, to link benefit to work. More important is to link benefit to contribution.
*Sheila Lawlor is Director of Politeia and author of Contribution and Redistribution: The Real Social Security Debate.
Click here to read Sheila Lawlor’s article, ‘The Problem with British Benefits’, in the Wall Street Journal.
On Wednesday 13th March Sheila Lawlor appeared on the ‘Moral Maze’ on BBC Radio 4 to discuss ‘The Morality of Poverty’.