For many years mainstream politicians have responded to focus groups and polls and adopted a stance on welfare reform of ‘tough but fair’. The balance shifts from issue to issue, although recent decades have seen a general move to more judgemental public attitudes to benefit recipients. Is the Coalition getting this balance right?
The Government has to be commended for its boldness. The implementation of the Universal Credit is a major and risky reform. While many of the Coalition’s changes in benefit entitlement – particularly in relation to housing benefit - are highly controversial, and their full implications yet to be seen, it is clear that toughness has in some sense paid off. In relation to changes in benefit for those with long term health conditions, tighter and more strongly enforced criteria have not only led to some hard cases but also to a strikingly high proportion of potential and existing claimants simply giving up their claims rather than be subject to scrutiny.
If money has to be saved from the benefit bill it is surely best that it be saved by stopping unreasonable claims. And although there are powerful lobbies highlighting the hard cases thrown up by tightening up criteria, the fact remains that the pressures of austerity means that whoever was in power would have had to make their own tough and unpopular choices.
But it is precisely the Coalition’s boldness which makes it all the more important to avoid any impression that tough choices are turning into gratuitous poor-bashing. This is why - if I were in Government - I would be very worried about the apparent breakdown in communication and rigor around the troubled families programme.
As it happens I know some of the people leading on this programme and I know them to be driven by a genuine desire both to break the links which pass deprivation and destructiveness from generation to generation and to protect other members of disadvantaged communities from the impact of the most chaotic families on neighbourhood life.
But as this powerful post from Jonathan Portes makes clear, the recent messaging on troubled families has fallen into two deep and dark traps. First, some ministers seem to be arguing that merely to be poor and finding it hard to cope is sufficient grounds for social condemnation and state authoritarianism. Such a message would take the fair out of ‘tough but fair’. Second, the use of statistics in relation to the numbers of families fitting different categories of families appears to have gone from speculative, to inventive to simply invented.
The work with troubled families is important. Behind the rhetoric the Government is taking forward and expanding an approach begun under the previous administration and there is no reason why there shouldn’t be long term cross Party support for concerted action. But if Jonathan Portes is right (and he was certainly right when he told me a few months ago that one of my posts was ‘fiscally illiterate’!) there is a real danger that serious work is sabotaged by sloppy and irresponsible political messaging.