When the benefit system was created it was a laudable attempt to help people unable to work and support poor families in real need who could not sustain a basic standard of living. It gave dignity to those who were at their wits end trying to put food on the table and pay their essential bills.
Seventy years of tinkering and ad hoc development has made the welfare system overly complex and unsustainably expensive. There are now 32 different benefits costing taxpayers £492.82 billion in 2011-12. Examples can be found of tax credits paid to families earning in excess of £50,000 and housing benefit in excess of £100,000 to some households.
At a time of economic downturn coupled with high levels of national debt funded by borrowing, the need for reform became obvious. Ian Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary proposed the simplification of the system by replacing most benefits with a single Universal Credit. At the same time he sought to cap benefit payments to encourage people to move into work rather than living off benefits as a way of life. His aim is not to dismantle the welfare system, just to make it sustainable and understandable. With an ageing population and a fluid labour market there will always be a need for welfare support.
The Opposition, trade unions and some church leaders have attacked the reforms as ideological, right wing, callous, and inhumane. However, any Government in the current economic climate would have done something similar. When in office Tony Blair saw the need to get welfare spending under control, offering a ‘hand-up rather than a hand-out’. Gordon Brown also criticised people whose lifestyle involved living permanently on benefits rather than working. Ed Miliband ordered his MPs to abstain in the parliamentary vote on Duncan smith’s reforms, though 40 rebelled and voted against them.
The Universal Credit is being introduced gradually to identify and correct unforeseen problems before they cause chaos. The Budget limited benefit increases to 1% for the next year. With inflation at 2.5% this means belt tightening. The cap on housing benefit was set at £26,000, equivalent to £35,000 before tax. Council tax benefit is abolished and council tenants in receipt of housing benefit will lose some of it if they have a spare bedroom. The Opposition call this a ‘bedroom tax’ but ministers see it as fair because tenants in privately rented accommodation already experience this reduction.
A Christian perspective recognises both personal responsibility, advocated in 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-15, and communal care, such as that taught in Leviticus 25. Everyone is expected to work and provide for their families, not live permanently on benefits, only seeking temporary help when unable to cope because of unemployment, sickness or other disaster. In relation to this Messrs Blair, Brown and Duncan Smith are singing from the same hymn sheet. The real issues are the need for job creation, education and attitude change so that benefits become a last resort, not a way of life.