Fraser Nelson’s column this morning looked at the Tories’ moral mission in Government, arguing Cameron should emphasise reforms that save lives, not just money. It’s a great article, but I think we need to temper it a bit – especially on welfare. If the Conservatives are to win and keep the moral high ground here, there are a couple of things that need doing. 5 things, in fact:
First, make sure it works. Government IT is never exciting, but in this case it’s the difference between Universal Credit working and not. Add in some knotty issues about the devolution of council tax benefit (which might entirely undermine the desire to make work pay and simplify the system) and the fact that some people’s work incentives are actually being reduced, and it’s not clear it will function as intended. There’s nothing moral about policies that don’t work. Centre-left social policy is often attacked as the triumph of good intentions over outcomes: it would be a disaster if IDS’ reforms win the same reputation.
Second, tread softly around disability benefits. Technology certainly means easier and cheaper lives for some disabled people, and ensuring those who can work do work is right. But the means of promoting both those things is all-important: DLA has a tiny, tiny fraud rate, it’s already assessed (ie, everyone claiming it has already had their level of disability examined) and trying to identify need is a subtle task, not easily rushed or outsourced. There’s a political danger here – could you think of a better way to reinforce the ‘cruel Tories’ line than cutting disabled benefits? Especially for, say, veterans injured in action? – but a more important moral one, of letting crude health assessments hurt the already excluded. Disability support costs money, but then government spending is always a question of priorities.
Third, enough of the strivers and skivers talk. There is a fear that such language is counterproductive. Morally it’s inimical to the spirit and design of welfare reform. If we want to build a welfare system that genuinely encourages work, we need to understand that at the rough end of the labour market, work comes and goes and pay is often irregular. That’s the whole point of Universal Credit, and also the reason it’s so difficult to introduce: it relies on month-by-month information about what people are earning, and then tops it up accordingly. Not only is the worker/shirker meme a bit nasty, the centrepiece welfare reform actually relies on the knowledge that as a rule, it’s a false distinction.
That leads onto the fourth point, which is to keep clarity about means and ends. Everyone knows the benefits uprating bill, for example, was about making life difficult for Labour. Now obviously that serves a purpose, and this isn’t to say that the raw politics don’t matter. But it shouldn’t be confused with policy goals. If we think benefits should rise at the same level as earnings, that’s fine – so why not formally link benefits to earnings, rather than uprate by an arbitrary 1%? Or if improved work incentives are the goal, why not differentiate between working benefits and out-of-work benefits? If the main aim is just saving money, then isn’t there an existing narrative that works? Embarrassing Labour is fine, but is not in itself a moral end: a workable, fair welfare system is. The two are not the same thing, and when pursuing both we need to keep that in mind. Otherwise we’ll become pale centre-right imitations of Gordon Brown, creating dividing lines purely for its own sake.
Fifth – be consistent across age groups. A vast chunk of the welfare budget goes on older people. Such relative generosity towards the over-65s is increasingly hard to justify when compared to others, and undermines claims to working-age people that the system is built on fairness.
One of the Tories’ weaknesses has long been the suspicion of motives. Welfare needs reform, so it’s a clear opportunity to escape that trap – if the 5 things above happen, that is. It’s certainly possible to claim the moral high ground on welfare. But only if we actually do the right thing.