Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Tackling poverty, part three

Poverty is only a potential problem for those in employment, for those without work it is often a stark reality. I suggested yesterday that subsistence benefits should be paid to those who are unemployed but looking for work. My reasoning is that those who are prepared to take any job rather than exist on benefits should not be dissuaded by benefits being too generous. It is a tough stance but one which I believe to be justified because I have great faith in the inherent decency of people including that strand of decency which makes them want to work rather than, let's put it bluntly, scrounge.

One of the strongest justifications for having a national minimum wage is that it guarantees a living wage for those in full time work. I will not pretend that life on the minimum wage is a bed of roses for a couple with children who decide the best interests of their children requires one of them to stay at home, but a full working week will bring in a living wage provided the income tax threshold is increased to a sensible level. But what of those who do not want to work? To what extent is it appropriate to protect them financially from the otherwise inevitable consequences of their idleness? Merely asking the question would label me a fascist in the eyes of the left, but that is no more than a label and I am not interested in being unfair to anyone, my concern is that the system should do everything it can to bring the best out of people and encourage everyone to support themselves if they possibly can. Not only will that reduce the burden of tax on those who work willingly, it will also improve the lot of those who currently live on benefits a little above subsistence level but would do a lot better if they found a job.

I believe two changes to the current system to be necessary. First, permanent dependency on the State by reason of physical or mental incapacity to work should be limited to those who really are incapable of work. Over the last eleven years the government has made it easier to claim incapacity benefit, so much so that something in the region of 2,500,000 people currently claim a benefit which should be available only to those genuinely unable to work. Idleness and fecklessness are not incapacities, they are idleness and fecklessness. Fictitious bad backs are not incapacities, they are bogus excuses. No one knows how many of the 2,500,000 are really unable to work, but we all know that it is good for unemployment statistics if a vast number who are out of work are classified as unwell rather than unemployed. Yet governmental attempts to hide the true level of unemployment do not fool anyone, it is obvious (according to my personal version of common sense) that in a population of some 30 million people of working age it cannot be the case that 8% are incapable of holding down a job. The most dangerous consequence of trying to mask unemployment by calling it incapacity is that the government has an incentive to continue the pretense. For so long as they feel there is political mileage in reducing the headline unemployment rate by attaching a different label to a large number of unemployed people, they have no reason to change the system. In turn that locks the people on incapacity benefit into that state, they receive more than if they were "ordinarily" unemployed and the financial gap between being on benefits and being in work is reduced.

Secondly, those who are able to work should only be allowed to receive benefits of any kind for a limited time. Will this push them into starvation? No, it will push them into work. For quite some time this country has been able to absorb migrant workers for one reason and one reason only, that those who live in this country have been unwilling to do the jobs the migrants have taken. Not unable, unwilling. How many office cleaners, parking attendants, roadsweepers, kitchen porters, hotel chambermaids and dustmen are white and British? In all cases the answer is very few in proportion to their number in the country. That is not because the foreigners who fill those positions have stolen jobs, it is because those sitting on benefits have not applied for the work. This is a systemic problem caused, I believe, by the easy availability of benefits. I do not believe most of those on benefits would think it such a good life if they tasted work and the self-pride it brings, but there is an underclass who have never worked and have no comprehension at all of self-worth.

Recently we saw a fine example of the hopelessness benefit dependency brings. The by-election in Glasgow East highlighted an area in which generation after generation of families never work. They do not need to because they receive housing for free and enough to live on. They are told by those on the political left that they are victims who can never improve their lot because the system does not allow it. I disagree, they are not victims of a wicked capitalist economy, they are victims of those who have told them for decades they have no hope of improvement. By my definition they are not in monetary poverty but they are certainly a lot poorer than they would be if they took the jobs people travel thousands of miles to fill and they are in poverty of expectation.

It will not be an easy task to change the culture on the sink estates of Glasgow East and the other inner city constituencies and there is no painless way of changing that culture. Yet it must be changed if those people are to have a chance of living a life in which they can walk down the road with their heads held high, knowing that they are providing for themselves and their families. It is a harsh method, but imposing a strict time limit on their State benefits is, I suspect, the only way to get them out of their rut and give them an opportunity to live independent lives and enjoy the satisfaction that brings.

I cannot accept that those on the sink estates want to live on the poverty line forever, nor can I accept that they are unwilling to work under any circumstances. What I can accept is that they have been labelled victims for so long that it will take time to persuade them they can cope on their own. The jobs are there, Glasgow East is a short bus ride from vibrant hotels, pubs, restaurants and clubs who need staff, lots of staff. Thousands of jobs currently filled by transient employees from overseas could be filled just as well by locals if only they felt there was a reason to do them. It is time to be cruel to be kind. That would be real social justice.

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