Let’s respond to the Welfare Reform Bill

11:32 am - December 17th 2008

by Don Paskini    

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There’s been a lot of debate in recent days about James Purnell’s welfare reform proposals. Supporters claim that the measures are true to Labour’s traditional values, are essential in difficult economic times and that there is nothing progressive about leaving people to languish on benefit.

Opponents claim that the plans would privatise the welfare state, are an attack on the most vulnerable in our society, and won’t work. In response to the proposals, they’ve set up the ‘Welfare for All’ campaign.

And the truth is… both sides have a point. Even the strongest critics of the bill would probably agree that there are some good ideas in it, for example changing the rules so that people don’t have their benefits reduced if they get child maintenance payments; while even some of the bill’s strongest supporters would concede that we don’t know how successful some of its proposals will actually turn out to be in practice.

Which is where you come in.

The debate so far has tended to be about general principles – is ‘Welfare Reform’ in the abstract a good idea or not, rather than are these specific proposals for welfare reform a good idea or not.

Happily, political debate on the internet is unique in that people tend to put aside partisan disagreements and focus on detailed nuances to make policy ideas work better rather than abusing each other [Note to editor, is that right?].

So in the rest of this article, I’ll give some examples of the kinds of amendments and questions which could help to improve the bill, whether or not you support or oppose the general principles behind it. And in the spirit of higher expectations in return for more support, I’d then ask that you contact your local MP (of whichever party) with these questions and any others that you have about the welfare reform bill (there were some excellent and informed comments in response to my last post), and when you get a reply to let us know.

This will both help to get these issues into the debate, and closer to the time give us an idea about possible amendments which supportive MPs could propose and which would have a chance of passing and improving the proposals.

The Welfare reform bill can be read here, and it has sections on: Ending child poverty; More support in return for higher expectations; More support and control for disabled people; Personalised conditionality; Devolving power to private, voluntary and public providers and A simpler benefits system.

Here’s a possible model letter – but as I said earlier, you are very strongly encouraged to modify it about your particular ideas and interests:

Dear [MP Name],
I am writing to you about the government’s Welfare Reform Bill.

There are some proposals in the bill which I very much welcome. In particular, I support the changes to make sure that child maintenance payments don’t cause people to lose any of their benefits, and the ‘Community Allowance’, which will give disabled people or people with health conditions the opportunity to try out work of benefit to the community where they live while still receiving benefits.

But as well as the measures which are definitely good news, there are others which are more concerning. I have some questions about the proposals, which I would be grateful if you could raise with the minister, and which I would be interested to hear your thoughts on:

1. Advisers will have the power to stop people’s benefits if they are not undertaking work related activities. As a matter of basic fairness, and to protect vulnerable people, do you agree that claimants should have the right to get independent advice and the right to appeal against these decisions before losing any money?

2. How will the pilot projects which involve giving public money to private companies to run welfare services be assessed? Would you support a ‘level playing field’ so that small, voluntary and community groups which are rooted in local communities and know how to help people have the same opportunities to get funding as large private companies?

3. The proposals are intended to provide more support in return for higher expectations. But the extra support announced is very limited and should be much more radical. Would you support bigger increases in the support available to people seeking work, for example a guarantee of high quality, affordable childcare for all parents?

Finally, I am worried that people will be put off from receiving the support which they are entitled to because of the harsh rhetoric about ‘scroungers’, or because of failures in the system. And even government advisers such as Paul Greeg have said that the government ‘must make progress’ on addressing the extremely low value of adult benefits in the UK. What do you think can be done to make sure that everyone gets the support that they are entitled to, to enable them to live their lives with dignity?

Thank you for reading this, and I look forward to hearing from you

Yours Sincerely
[Your name]

Any comments? We can turn this into a model letter that you can email directly to your MP through an online form. But first we’d like to hear your thoughts.

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About the author
Don Paskini is deputy-editor of LC. He also blogs at donpaskini. He is on twitter as @donpaskini
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Education ,Health ,Labour party ,Local Government ,Westminster

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Reader comments

1. douglas clark


Slightly off topic I’ll admit, but has the CIC initiative on here ceased to be of any interest at all?

I’m only asking as I suspect that that entire document was intended to bore people to tears and allow the government to do whatever it wanted. This is a highly frustrating and well-used technique.

My experience of writing to MP’s suggests that it is probably not very effective. What seems to be required is to produce something pithy and get it into the media. Look at the relative success of PX in growing their brand. Which they have largely achieved through media.

2. Alisdair Cameron

Don, I’d add in something to question the expertise, skills and knowledge of private sector ‘advice’ providers (and how advice may be contorted by the incentive system), which ties in a bit with the threat that big firms scoop all the contracts.
also something on the costings of the contracts for advice/training (big firms underbid, then ramp up down the line seems likely)
Oh, and something in a prominent position about respecting the medical evidence, and ensuring that nobody on say DLA gets it cut on the say-so of NON medically qualified private contractors. We get more of this happening in mental health, where for example (a client of mine) a gent with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia had his DLA stopped on the assessment of someone whollly ignorant in MH. Beggars belief

It’s common to talk about the marginalised, and those are abandoned, rejected and neglected by society. What does a society look like that does not neglect the long-term unemployed? It might look like the system Paul Gregg endorses, with personal advisers, “paths back to work” and so forth.

And when society is paying attention to the long-term unemployed and not neglecting them, is there really no role for ‘sanctions’ , that is making assistance conditional on behaviour? Yes the idea of the long-term unemployed being scroungers who play the system is a right wing stereotype, but does being left-wing really entail denying that any such people exist and therefore any system which tries to address that is doing no more than persecuting the vulnerable? What is left wing about a system were a number of people (I don’t know how many – I wish this debate was informed by some numbers) are in effect living off the efforts of others with no intention of supporting themselves through working for a living? Of course there are a great many people who are long-term unemployed through no fault of their own and ought not face sanctions of any sort, and yes any system of sanctions will be fallible even if it is designed to identify those people, and that is a worry, and it might be that this system of sanctions is so flawed it ought to be opposed; I don’t know. But it seems to me there is a great deal of opposition on the left to conditionality in principle, and I don’t see what’s left wing about that.

It is usually the right wing that says people are rational, know what’s good for them and can be left to their own devices. It is usually the left wing that point out that social costs and benefits may diverge from the private, and that state intervention may be required to guide society toward the optimum. What is different here? Why all of a sudden should the left-wing’s policy toward unemployment consist of providing unconditional income support, training and other assistance on a purely voluntary basis (and perhaps state job creation)? If long-term unemployment does devastate communities and spread poverty and disadvantages down through the generations (externalities that may not be taken into account by the private actions of individual unemployed people) then why do so many left-wing people rule out conditionality? Chris Dillow has a well grounded left wing unconditional benefits policy, but he’s the exception (and his citizen’s basic income idea is probably rather far from being feasible)

I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know whether these reforms are for the best or not. All I know is that a lot of left-wingers appear to have leapt joyfully on the opportunity to rave about how the bastards are picking on the poor again without showing much sign of having thought about the issue on hand. Look at the responses to Paul Gregg’s piece on CIF. The idea that he might be a genuine left-winger who has thought long and hard about the question, and who might know a great deal about the subject, appears to have occurred to precisely no one.

I suppose I ought to add that I work round the corner from Paul, although calling us acquaintances would be pushing it.

Good post. The problem with welfare reform is that it’s so big that people tend to approach it according to what they regard as their own priorities, be they drugs, disability, mental illness, social problems in deprived neighbourhoods, childcare, economics etc. As a result, it’s difficult to narrow the issue down to four or five key questions or areas of concern, but you’ve done a good job here, particularly in relation to claimants receiving independent advice when they come into conflict with their careers advisers. Some kind of local arbitration service would be very welcome.

Personally, if I was to write this letter, my priority would be to ask about/urge caution on the ‘work for your benefit’ scheme. I know it’s only a pilot programme and that it won’t start until 2010 at the earliest, but I think Labour MPs really need to affirm the principle that any full-time work people do under the scheme should be paid the minimum wage. Ever since the Freud review evoked rhetoric about large swathes of unemployed people doing litter-picking to claim their £50 a week, there’s been a fear that the reforms could create an army of subsistence labourer. The white paper might make that less likely, but I still think it needs setting down in stone that it could never happen.

Thanks to everyone for comments.

1 – douglas, dunno about CIC, have to ask the editors. On writing to MPs, the debate is at a stage where writing to MPs to get them to raise issues with the DWP and assess support for amendments is particularly valuable, obviously this sits alongside other kinds of campaigning efforts.

2, 4 – agree with that, please do write along those lines and let us know what responses you get!

3 – I think, and I suspect you would agree, that with something like conditionality it is important to make policy based on the evidence. So my objection to the current proposals is that the goverment’s own research shows that conditionality is very ineffective when it comes to the most vulnerable, and that this particular set of proposals lacks any sort of safeguards to prevent abuse. That’s not to say that conditionality would never be appropriate (indeed, conditionality is already part of the welfare system), but that these specific policies won’t work and will do more harm then good.

Worth noting that, for example, Paul Gregg pointed out that welfare systems which use conditionality as part of more effective systems also have much higher levels of out of work benefits. The idea behind this post was precisely to do more detailed work about the effects of these measures in practice, for people who haven’t found the debate about principles at an abstract level very engaging.

6. Mike Killingworth

[2] Alisdair, this is exactly what the government sees as so important. So long as such judgments are made by medically qualified people, they will be made in the interests of the individual under examination. The government wants a judgment made which will balance the individual and the social interest.

Particularly in the field of mental health there is a clear possibility of conflict between the two. For an indvidual with mental health issues, who wishes to return to work, their need to do so is in a way and at a speed which does not jeopardise the management of their underlying condition. The social interest is that they should return to work as quickly as possible, and from the social perspective a risk of relapse/deterioration is acceptable – as it will apply only to a minority of cases – whereas from the individual perspective it is not.

This is what the government is trying to fudge, hoping that we wno’t notice this divergence. In crude terms, from a social perspective a system which gets more people back into work, producing £X savings in reduced benefit costs and increased tax revenues but leads to an extra, say 500 suicides a year may be preferable to an alternative system which produces £0.75X but avoids those suicides. (That figure represents approximately the difference between the current suicide rate and the government’s own target for suicides in 2011).

It would certainly be worth trying to get out of government what impact they expect their proposals to have on the suicide rate (one of the few ways in which mental health can be quantified) but I am not sure that writing to one’s own MP – who may or may not have any interest in the issue – is the most effective way of getting disclosure.

I would suggest that we invite someone from MIND to do a guest article on this issue to include their suggestions on how we can best assist.

7. Alisdair Cameron

Mike I know much much more on this than I can post at the mo, but will return. Big schisms appearing on this, with Purnell having upper hand at the moment. Back later

Don, yes I do agree, and would be swayed by evidence that conditionality work and also agree it perhaps need complementing with some generosity.

All I know is that a lot of left-wingers appear to have leapt joyfully on the opportunity to rave about how the bastards are picking on the poor again

Well, not really joyfully. But other than that, why not? Am I really supposed to believe that the remit here is anything other than “the bastards picking on the poor”? What would my rational reason be for this?

10. Luis Enrique

If you start by assuming the govt can only have the worst of motives, it is not surprising that’s what you find when you look at what they do. You ask for a rational reason why you should look at the world first and make your mind up about it second? Or you really think that it’s “rational” to approach the government and its advisers like a collection of cartoon villains?

And, yes, “joyfully”, like the Independent reader who’s reads John Pilger with the same relish as Sun readers look tits on page 3. Beware the Happy Death Spiral!

11. Luis Enrique

I’m terribly sorry, wrong link. I meant the Affective Death Spiral

<i<You ask for a rational reason why you should look at the world first and make your mind up about it second?

No. I ask for a rational reason why after a decade of thse people making certain sorts of noises for certain sorts of reasons, I should entertain as a likelihood the small possibility that though the noises are the same, the causes have changed.

13. Luis Enrique

Oh I see, because you know that for the last decade everything was done with the aim of screwing the poor etc. Well I suppose starting from that axiom, it would be strange to entertain any other possibility. It would be a bit like suddenly wondering whether Dick the Dastardly has decided its not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts.

Roughly, yes. And I’ve got people telling me Dick Dastardly’s a gentleman who’ve apparently never seen the show before.

15. Luis Enrique

well ejh, one of my fondest beliefs is that we should all think about how we might be wrong (and know that we may be wrong) and I like how you put it – my giving Dick Dastardly the benefit of the doubt just shows I’ve not being paying attention.

Of course the reverse holds, and you might never see the good in what the govt does because you are never looking at that possibility, having long ago decided what they are like and now everything you see confirms it (the affective death spiral).

a bit of both, perhaps.

Well, what confirms it in this instance is first, their preparedness to enagage in quite unpleasant rhetoric, and secondly, their preparedness to deliberately play up to quite a false impression of the welfare system as it exists now – as if there were no obligation to look for work or no likelihood of having benefits stopped if you did not.

There’s a connection here to the Iraq business – you’ll remember debates about “does a healthy policy ever have to be promoted with a bunch of lies?”.

It’s a pattern, quite a long-term pattern and while I’m prepared to give almost anybody another chance, I’d want to see some evidence that the pattern had been broken before doing so. Think of me as a parole board, if it helps.

Why does Dick Dastardly cheat anyway? He’s got by far the best car. Sorry, I’m not sure if that’s relevent to the Welfare Reform Bill but it’s something which has always bugged me.

Don P

Good model letter – getting back to the start of the thread. Only ting I’d like to see addeed- tho i see the need for brevity – is a call for ‘implementation research’ of the type i’ve suggested on my interminable post.

ONe things I need to myself is look at exactly how much is supposed to have been set asdie in the CSR for this ‘reform’ process – a commenter on my blog suggests some has been ringfenced and he seems a pretty reliable source of info.

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