As Iain Duncan Smith steers his Welfare Reform Bill through the Commons, forcing the jobless into work, the stakes are high. He wants to cut the costs of benefits and change the lives of the out-of-work millions, warning that unless they "play ball" they'll see their benefit docked. As well as wielding the big stick, he's offering some carrots, notably the chance to keep some benefit while earning. The measure is seen as a flagship for the Coalition and a test case for its twin aims of cutting the deficit and state dependency. Will it work? Will the new welfare state be more affordable or fairer than the old one?
The new Beveridge? Iain Duncan Smith faces a herculean task with welfare reform
Since the general election, the Department for Work and Pensions script has made the headlines and won cross-party support despite criticism from the trade unions, a few members of the benefits lobby and the Archbishop of Canterbury. On the whole, the feeling is that the new system will be simpler and more transparent than its predecessor. It will inculcate the work ethic and personal responsibility in place of the "something for nothing" society and transform Britain's wastelands where generations of families in ghetto estates have never had work. For the first time, many of the long-term jobless will clock in and do a day's work like everyone else. Those who refuse will have their benefit docked. It is, says the Secretary of State, the most important overhaul of the system since William Beveridge created the welfare state.
But closer scrutiny of the White Paper shows that the Bill will be more of a makeover than an overhaul, with more fine tuning on Whitehall's favoured lines, and tighter rules and streamlining which are the stuff of official reform.
For instance, many of the carrots and sticks now proposed were in Labour's pre-election plan, Building Bridges to Work. That would have obliged the long-term unemployed to take a job or work placement, toughened assessment for capacity to work and put those on incapacity benefit through a pretty intrusive round of remedial support. The Coalition now casts the net wider and will oblige more of the jobless to work, with even lone parents of young children having to dip their toe in the labour market. The sanctions at which Labour hinted are more explicit here, such as that to dock benefit. The support is more determined, the supervision of capacity to work more intrusive. Nonetheless, the Coalition, like Labour, has the same aim: to check rising costs by curbing claims, whether through fraud, malingering or habitual idleness. The tone, however, differs. In time of crisis, today's Captain Iain Duncan Smith plays well to yesterday's Nurse Yvette Cooper. The most striking difference is to cost and machine, not substance. The system is to change from one of many to fewer benefits, with a single Universal Credit due to absorb some of the cocktail of today's common tax credits and benefits, and costing a cool £2 billion to set up. Like the single currency, big government may have had its day, but this seems to grant it something of a reprieve.
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