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The architect of the contributory principle: Would William Beveridge approve of what has been said about the system he designed?

The architect of the contributory principle: Would William Beveridge approve of what has been said about the system he designed?

Vox Political supporter (and McKenzie friend at the recent Freedom of Information tribunal on benefit claimant mortality) Glynis Millward has provided an interesting follow-up on the article about cancer sufferer Pete Woodcock.

Some commenters on the original newspaper story claimed that Mr Woodcock, whose benefits had been cut, should be grateful for the “free” treatment he would receive from the NHS. The comment is despicable, as it misrepresents the contributory principle of ‘benefits in return for contribution’ (as framed by William Beveridge, who designed the Welfare State) to become “free allowances from the State”.

Glynis has sent us the following report, explaining why this is wrong. Unfortunately she has not said where she found it, so I cannot give it the proper attribution.

“Any discussion of Beveridge today needs to recognise that along with the erosion of the link between contributions and entitlements, the contributory principle has also been the victim of an extraordinary impoverishment of meaning.

“When Beveridge contrasted ‘benefits in return for contribution’ with ‘free allowances from the State’, his aim was to break with previous paternalist models of social protection: the new model turned on workers having an entitlement to the benefits for which they had paid.

“This did not mean that benefits were unconditional (Beveridge was clear that both unemployment and sickness benefits were conditional on making preparations to return to work except where this was ruled out by disability) but it meant that they were part of a deal between citizens and government: a social contract extending across the lifecycle and across generations.

“In contrast, when ‘the contributory principle’ is invoked these days it is often in terms of the policing of the benefit system, referring to little more than the idea that people who have not worked or fail to meet worksearch conditions should not be able to access benefits.

“This attenuation of the idea of contribution is an important development in the political language of welfare in the UK. It arises in part from the way the language of reciprocity came to be turned against the welfare state in earlier decades.

“The political fortunes of the phrase ‘something for nothing’ over the last twenty years are instructive. ‘The something for nothing society’ was introduced into the political discourse of welfare by Peter Lilley at the Conservative party conference in 1993; it was adapted by Tony Blair as ‘the something for nothing culture’ to frame New Labour’s welfare reform agenda in the late 1990’s. Variations on the phrase continue to frame policy statements on social security on both Labour and Conservative sides, reinforcing the message that the main problem faced by social security is one of non-reciprocity, of people taking out who have failed to put in.

“And policy under both the current and previous government has often seemed to have more to do with reinforcing the sense of a system subject to massive abuse than any genuine policy objective. It is hard to imagine Beveridge welcoming ‘lie-detector’ tests for benefit claimants, or proposals to cut benefits for the families of convicted rioters, or the existence of a benefit fraud hotline where people can denounce their neighbours under cloak of anonymity, with only 1.3 per cent of calls leading to the detection of any fraud.

“In the report we subject the ‘something for nothing’ perspective to a reality check and find it severely wanting. Perhaps the most heretical statement that could be made about the UK social security system is that it overwhelmingly does what the public want it to do: however, this would seem to be the case.

“Most people who claim benefits have ‘put in’ in the past and will do so in the future; most benefit claims are short-term; most long-term claims are for disabled people or carers.

“As for the social archetypes that haunt the contemporary welfare discourse – the families in which no-one has worked for generations, the areas where ‘nobody works around here’ – these bear virtually no relation to any identifiable social reality. To see ‘scrounging’ or benefit fraud as the main issues facing social security is about as realistic as seeing the theft of prescription medicines as the main issue facing the NHS.

“If the contributory principle is to play a serious role in future thinking about social security, we need to move away from the ‘something for nothing’ framing and address the ‘nothing for something’ problem of a system in which the great majority of people contribute but see little visible return for their contribution. In doing this, we should be alive to the full meaning of the principle that Beveridge set out when he talked of ‘benefits in return for contributions’.

“Although there were important limitations to Beveridge’s system which were to dog social security policy for decades – especially with regard to gender and disability – his contributory principle was nonetheless intended as a principle of inclusion. To use it to draw new lines of exclusion, as often seems to happen today, would be a poor tribute to his achievement.”

Possibly the most useful part of the above is the comparison with the NHS. Clearly the theft of prescription medicines is not the most important issue facing the health service – it is the effect of the shift to a privately-run healthcare system, its consequent burden on funds and its effect on treatment. Take that information back to the benefit system and there is a strong argument that all this talk of a “something for nothing” culture is an attempt to indoctrinate the public into accepting that they should contribute towards their own unemployment benefits by taking out insurance against losing their jobs – even though they have already contributed towards such a system, simply by paying their taxes. And remember – we all pay taxes; the government gains more revenue from indirect taxation (including, for example, VAT on goods purchased) than from Income Tax.

Your opinions are invited.

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