Just over a week since Gordon Brown called the General Election for 6th May and all three major English political parties have now launched their manifestos. So we thought we’d reflect on the different approaches to welfare reform each party presents.
First off, Labour and A Future Fair for All. Welfare is up front in the headlines of the ‘tough choices’ that an incoming Labour government would have to make:
“Tough choices on welfare: our reforms will increase fairness and work incentives, including £1.5 billion of savings being delivered.”
Those savings are projected to be made primarily from the transfer of the last remaining 1.5 million people who are still on Incapacity Benefit onto either Job Seekers Allowance (and from there, they hope back into work) or Employment and Support Allowance. The manifesto talks about the ‘tough-but-fair’ Work Capability Assessment that will facilitate this process. Evidence emerging from many disabled people’s charities points to a contrary experience, that it is not fair to those with disabilities who perhaps would most benefit from the support available on the Employment and Support Allowance.
There is a continued commitment to the Future Jobs Fund, a temporary measure designed to provide 6 month paid work experience for unemployed young people. That it is paid work experience is to be welcomed, that it is costing the tax payer £1 billion for such a short term solution to a long term problem is perhaps not.
Worryingly it also states that, “All those who are long term unemployed for two years will be guaranteed a job placement, which they will be required to take up or have their benefits cut.” I imagine people on JSA would be delighted at the prospect of a guarantee of a job if they have endured two years of unemployment. What isn’t clear from the manifesto is if this ‘job placement’ is paid, or whether an individual who has suffered the indignity of long term unemployment is then required to work for their benefit, a policy we wholeheartedly oppose.
What the manifesto lacks, is any commitment to reviewing the benefits system itself. As with all parties that have held office for some time, it’s difficult for Labour to critique a system it has been running for so many years. And yet the benefits system needs a fundamental overhaul, a complete review and redesign to make it fit for the 21st century. This lack of vision on the part of Labour may cost them much needed votes.
And so onto the Tories and their invitation for us to join government.
Unsurprisingly, their manifesto commitments around the benefits system read much like the Labour Party’s. This is because both parties have been advised by Lord Freud, who stopped advising James Purnell MP, former Secretary of State for DWP, to take his plans to the Conservative Party back in February 2009.
What seems out of place with Conservative policy amongst Freud’s plans for welfare reform is the continued commitment to introduce Work for your Benefit, mandatory community work placements for the long term unemployed. Already being piloted by the Labour government, this initiative flies in the face of the Tories’ plans for a Big Society.
Their manifesto states that “The Big Society runs consistently through our policy programme”. If this is the case, why are they planning on punishing the long term unemployed with community work, while simultaneously trying to persuade the rest of us it’s something we should be doing in our spare time?
Community work is a carrot, not a stick and to use it in this punitive manner sends mixed messages the electorate will not warm to.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Tories’ plans on welfare is the complete absence of much of the excellent work that has been produced by Tory think tanks over recent years. In particular, the Centre for Social Justice‘s Dynamic Benefits report, which unequivocally outlines why the welfare state is broken and must be radically changed and Policy Exchange‘s Escaping the Poverty Trap.
One can only hope that should the Conservatives win the election that Ian Duncan Smith MP is able to assert more influence over the reforms of the welfare state than he has been able to over his party’s manifesto. He seems to be one of the few MPs who in JK Rowling’s words has “taken the trouble to educate themselves about the lives of all kinds of Britons“.
And finally to the Liberal Democrats who launched their manifesto yesterday. Beyond the big headlines about making the tax and benefits system fair for all there is suprisingly little detail from them about how they plan to make the benefits system fairer. They state that, “Labour has created a hugely complex and unfair benefits system, and it needs to be reformed.” It’s somewhat disappointing then, to read on and find no information about how they plan to reform the benefits system.
Is anyone from the Liberal Democrats able to enlighten us? I’d love to know. We agree the benefits system needs to be reformed, but how? Voters are going to be wary of reforms that are unarticulated, even in the broadest of terms in an election manifesto. Please let me know if I’ve missed something.
We can only hope that the pledge to stop people who earn up to £10,000 a year paying any income tax, extends to those on benefits who take part time or sessional work while on benefits. The Centre for Social Justice’s report Dynamic Benefits has said that the current benefit withdrawal rate when someone does take work is akin to between a 75% and 95% tax rate on the poorest in our society.
Hardly the incentive the unemployed need in order to get back into work. And yet in this time of recession, this remains unaddressed by all 3 main English parties in their manifestos.
What are your thoughts on the manifesto commitments on welfare reform so far?