Saturday, 30 March 2013

UK welfare system: a security at dignity’s expense?

Next week will see start of a new welfare regime - perhaps the most serious in the history of our welfare state. Much talked about is the issue of “bedroom tax”. But the question that has been haunting me for some time is “is our welfare system a security that we get at the expense of our dignity?”

UK has a fine history. No I am not unmindful of the turbulence and evils that has crept up on many occasions over the centuries. But broadly speaking, of all the developed nations, our UK society and system is a lot more robust, accommodative and tolerant. Our welfare state, borne out of a concern for the society’s needy, is a genuine arrangement to ensure dignity for all. The recent debate, however, seems to undermine this notion.

For months, if not years now, a section of powerful politicians together with their media and “civil society” partners were arguing that our welfare system undermines the hard working, struggling middle class. There were talks, passionate assertions, that for many welfare dependency is a lifestyle choice. For me, I found these arguments disgusting, disingenuous and ultimately distressing.

No doubt, our welfare bill is too high and at times of austerity, perhaps too large to sustain. But our welfare state does not provide a lifestyle of luxury or even relative ease for the beneficiaries. Much of the benefit system, as I understood it, was designed to ensure a minimum standard of living for everyone. The principle was that in 21 Century UK no one should be forced to live below a certain level. A laudable and indeed admirable aim.

What the notion meant is that if you did not work, state would provide support to ensure you are able to lead life at that level, if you are working but your salaries are not sufficient to adequately maintain yourself and family, state will step in to fill the gap. If, on the other hand, you earn enough to have adequate level of lifestyle, state will leave you to fend for yourself. This addresses several misleading notions that has been created - that only those out of work or employment are eligible to benefits. Nothing is more untrue than this. For example, majority of the people who claim housing benefits are not unemployed. In London for example, your household income could be as high as £30k per annum, and depending which part of London you live and how large your family, you may still receive housing benefits. This is in recognition that whilst 30k salary may be higher than average, it is still not sufficient to ensure adequate accommodation for many in London given the costly housing market - both rental and buying.

If the government proposals and the changes that are coming are true to the message given by the ministers, it is hardly believable that benefit for working people will increase. What appears to be the case is that benefit paid to the lowest, most vulnerable in our society will see a real time and significant reduction in their income. Housing benefit caps and now the bedroom tax will do precisely the same. Whilst, at simplistic level, this make sense, sadly, it puts us as a nation to shame. We appear to be saying that as a nation that led the light of civilisation for centuries will noW backtrack on the dignity we historically afforded to our poor, vulnerable and voids. We are saying that no matter how inhumane, if you are unable to work and earn your own living, you have to accept an inhumane and inadequate living. The fact that it is inhumane is just tough luck. We seem to disregard the need for protecting dignity of those who find themselves in the unfortunate situation of being at the mercy of the state. We seem to be shutting the doors of possibility to children being raised and being born to those families.

It seems, our politics and politicians are taking us back through to a journey where Britain shall only afford dignity to those who have and not to those who have not. We it seems are becoming a nation of oiling the riches and condemning the society’s vulnerable. A sad thought indeed.