The pathway to universal social benefits for those who need them has never appealed to the Right in politics. Their message has alway been, ‘very nice but the nation cannot afford it’. In their time the country could not afford a state pension, or the NHS, unemployment benefit, a minimum wage, or a guaranteed income for the disabled and the destitute. This conviction runs in parallel with a value judgement: these benefits should only go to the deserving poor, and to its associate idea, that not many are deserving. It was once the case that poverty was considered not to be a sin but a misfortune. It was the Victorians who branded it otherwise.
Social democrats have always considered welfare as a safety net through which the unfortunate should not fall. Human nature being infaillable it was accepted that there would always be some who abused the system but that no device of man could prevent some abuse. Taxpayers were the fortunate: after all they had income and their taxes helped the unfortunate.
Is it possible to select the deserving and weed out the spongers? One can try, it is right to attempt it, but the pathway leads to poverty, discrimination and, yes, a lack of compassion. There are a thousand reasons for some not working: mental or physical problems, looking after children or incapacitated adults – and a lack of work. Now all these people and they run to hundreds of thousands are for the high jump. If they try and fail to get a job any payment being made to them and their families will stop. ‘Work will make you free’. Hold on, are they not the words above the entrance to the Auchwitz concentration camp? Some of these people, staring at the tellie with instant coffee to hand, know at the start they will fail. And what about the children? We shall look after them say the Coalition at the same time denying this family financial help. How will this be done? If they are shunted to a boarding house in Hastings, homeless, penniless, away from school and friends, are they being helped? Surely it is better and more compassionate to help keep this family together in its own home. It is usually better to have a home than not.
Well it is objected, I exagerate. It will not come to that. But it will for some family near to you, perhaps many near to you. What about your neighbour or your neighbour’s friend? Let us consider the 8,500 London families whose Housing Benefit is to be cut, some of these will lose their home and fail to find another. Not all of them you mutter, and serve them right, they, this family, should get on their bikes, assuming that they have them, and find something else. Some will, but some cannot. Perhaps no more than half, you retort, will lose out. Oh that’s good not more than a half, being 5,000 families in southern coast boarding houses. No problem. One would be too many, ten a mishap, but thousands of avoidable family disasters? Surely, a shame on us all!