There were three parts to this discussion. The first was the original question “What are benefits for?” in general terms, the second was about public perception and the third about current practice.
Nowadays benefits are usually linked to work, so the purpose is seen to be to tide people over while they are unable to work, but also to prepare them for work and enable them to take work when it is available. So, at one level, the benefit system simply fulfils a duty of care - to keep people going while they are unable to fend for themselves. They also do have a specific link to work - to allow people a decent minimum income so that they can afford to look for work and so that they remain mentally and physically fit to take on work when it becomes available. Finally, I suggest that there is also a link to the next generation; some people on benefits have children and again a decent minimum ensures that children are properly brought up and grow to be fit workers. Lastly, there are some people whose benefit is not linked to work, people whose physical or mental condition is such that work is not a realistic option for them. Again, we owe a duty of care to ensure that they have a decent minimum to get by on. Without going into the details here, I take it as read that we can afford this. Despite the bankers' mistakes and the austerity that has forced on us, we still live in one of the world's largest economies. A decent minimum of welfare provision is affordable.
Public opinion tends to be largely anti welfare nowadays. One of the reasons for this is misconception about the level of benefits and about the choices that are available to people. Rhetoric suggests that the benefit system is responsible for people being out of work - making work pay is the mantra. This rhetoric, which is convenient for right wing opinion, ignores two facts. The first is the number of jobs available. We have currently 2.3 million unemployed people, and a further 1.5 million underemployed. We have half a million vacancies. The logic of “making work pay” rhetoric is that if you removed all benefits tomorrow, those 4 million people would suddenly find work. They will not; they will be destitute.
People point to the half million vacancies - why don't those get filled? The answer is they do. Again there is a misunderstanding, an idea that the 2.3 million unemployed are the same people this month and next, using all their wit and ingenuity to avoid actually having to go to a job interview. They are not. Instead a lot of people are moving in and out of work. Employment is much less certain than it used to be. A very large proportion of our working population now faces the prospect of moving in and out of jobs during their whole working life. This month's half million vacancies will have been filled by next month. But next month there will be another half million vacancies elsewhere, and a different half million jobs lost, putting a different half million people into the unemployed statistics. That constant churn is now a fact of economic life.
Claims have been made about families where three generations have never worked, this being one of the reasons why the benefit system needs to change. Despite the claims, nobody has ever been able to find such a family.
The rhetoric about benefits also ignores the fact the a large proportion of those on benefits are in work, but being paid at such a low level that tax credits and housing benefit are necessary for them to be able to survive. (One way to reduce housing benefit is to build more houses - which will be part of the topic of our next debate on 14th March about the value of land.)
There is a mass of information about how the British public overestimates the level of benefits, and the number of people on them. This is astarting point.
Finally we look at government practice. We hear a lot of rhetoric about getting people back to work - which is difficult when there are no jobs for them to do. We have heard from David Cameron this week about it being a moral mission, to combat the criticism he has been getting from church leaders. Looking at what the DWP is actually doing paints a different picture to what Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron are saying.
The bedroom tax: the idea is to make people move to smaller homes where appropriate. The policy overlooks the problem that the smaller homes for people to move to do not exist. Many many people are stuck in the houses they live in and now living on less than they had before. Either the DWP did not realise there were no alternatives or they did. If they did not realise, they are monumentally stupid. If they did know, then the policy is just vindictive. There are also many many cases of disabled people who need the extra room for large scale equipment, or for overnight carers to sleep in - or indeed the spouse to sleep in. Despite David Cameron's statements, many of these people are not shielded from the bedroom tax.
Sanctions. When people fail to look for work they can be deprived of benefits. In principle this is right and proper. But the sanction regime is being used on a very wide scale and quite arbitrarily. Evidence shows that targets are set for the number of sanctions given despite denials from the DWP. A man who had a heart attack during his Work Capability Assessment was sanctioned for not completing the assessment. A collection of other equally arbitrary removals of benefit is listed here. These are not just the odd unfortunate case: this is routine behaviour by Job Centre staff. And the numbers have increased significantly: more than 100,000 people a month have four weeks or more of benefit removed, often for arbitrary and petty reasons. It is difficult to discern a moral mission in this treatment.
There is a link between sanctions, and also delays in determining benefit, and the increase we have seen in the use of food banks. In the survey that we did in a few roads in Ringmer prior to this debate, many residents were shocked to learn that there are a number of food banks now operating in Sussex, including Brighton, Crowborough, Newhaven, Hailsham and other places. There are two that we know of in Lewes. Many of the people referred to food banks are in fact in work, but unable to to afford their bills. Others are referred because of benefit sanctions and other reasons.
Getting people back to work is a laudable aim. It involves creating jobs for them to go to rather than tweaks to the benefit system.