Thursday, 27 May 2010

Back to Beveridge

Liberal Democrats have quite rightly, over the last year or so, sought to restore the reputation of Sir William  Beveridge (link to the Beveridge Group here)  as the preeminent author of the caring state in the face of claims by various Labourites. However, it should be recognised that Sir William was not a soft liberal.

As Nicholas Timmins writes in "the five giants" (Harper Collins 1995), "In line with his attempt to balance rights with duties, but also to keep people in touch with work, he recommended both a training benefit and arrangements that would be recognised by those who in the 1980s and 1990s called for American-style Workfare for the unemployed. [However, to] reduce someone's income just because they had been out of work for a certain period was 'wrong in principle', Beveridge said. Most men would rather work than be idle. [If he had been writing seventy years later, no doubt he would have amended that to 'most men and women' - FHL] But the danger of providing adequate benefits indefinitely was that men 'may settle down to them'. Thus he said men and women should be 'required as a condition of benefit to attend a work or training centre' after six months, the requirement arriving earlier in times of good employment and later in times of high unemployment. The aim would be twofold: to prevent 'habituation to idleness' but also 'as a means of improving capacity for earning'. [...] Attaching such conditions to benefit, Beveridge also noted, would unmask malingerers, and those claiming benefit while earning."

So far, we don't have Iain Duncan Smith's detailed programme for benefits. His speech, Spectator article and snippets in other newspapers suggest that it is not far removed from Beveridge.

There are one or two differences between then and now. Many jobs now require IT facility. The training allowance needs to recognise the higher costs of IT courses and be set at a realistic level accordingly. Travel is also much more expensive. One of the reasons that people would rather not work is that travel costs eat into the margin between benefits, if they stay at home, and working if that is any distance away, as is all too often the case. I hope that Duncan Smith will take on board our proposal to pay the full minimum wage to all people in employment, to encourage young people out of the latter trap. The earlier one gets people into the habit of work, the better.

Above all, the tests for fitness to work must be genuine, not an excuse to penalise genuinely deserving cases for the sake of civil servants' bonuses.

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