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Make work pay
Just occasionally, a government comes up with a proposal that is so sensible it makes the opposition’s kneejerk criticism seem pathetically misjudged. So it is with David Cameron’s plan to use data from credit agencies to trap benefit cheats who are stealing £5.6 billion annually from the taxpayer. Opponents will have to do better to explain why this is an incursion on civil liberties when exactly the same information is used on a routine basis by banks and retailers to judge customers’ creditworthiness. If a benefit claimant is spending £2,000 a month on his credit card while supposedly unfit to work, it is the government’s duty to pick this up. The cost of respecting benefit cheats’ civil liberties by declining to use such data is £100 a year for every man, woman and child in the country.
This said, the problem of benefits fraud will never be solved so long as our welfare system continues to pay claimants to do nothing. Elsewhere in the world, governments are tackling soaring benefits bills by making welfare payments dependent on turning up for work or training. In Australia, for example,
anyone out of work for more than 18 months is obliged to accept a job placement. When the system was introduced, the number of claimants fell — hardly surprising, since those who had been fraudulently claiming benefits while working could not be in two places at once. Similar results have been achieved in the US and in Germany, where a system of ‘Help and Hassle’ has put greater pressure on benefit claimants to accept work.
Yet in Britain, welfare claimants are only compelled to attend a routine interview at a Job Centre. When in 1993 John Major suggested forcing dole claimants into work or training the plan was rapidly dropped after the then Labour social security spokesman Donald Dewar denounced it as ‘workfare’. Mr Dewar was effectively arguing that it is demeaning to have to leave the house every morning and go to work in return for your wages — even though that is what millions of people do every day.
It is idleness, not workfare, that destroys hope. The welfare system has created dynasties of unemployed because it has removed the link between effort and reward. The longer a person is unemployed, the harder it is to get back into the practice of working. The government could reduce welfare dependency and fraud in one go if it abolished unemployment benefit, at least for the long-term unemployed, and instead offered claimants a job, undertaking the kind of small-scale community projects which would not otherwise get done in the current climate of deep cuts. If such work were paid at a little below the national minimum wage, there would always be an incentive to survey the jobs market for better-paid work. Time off would be allowed for training and interviews. The battle against benefits fraud would become unnecessary — so what if somebody wanted to boost their income by stacking shelves at night as well carrying on their day job?
Conditionality schemes — the polite term for workfare — have been dismissed in the past because of cost. They do, of course, require people to organise them. But such is the scale of fraud and the corrosive effect of long-term idleness that it is time the costs and benefits were reassessed. You can buy an awful lot of organisational skill for £5.6 billion a year.
For anyone still clinging to the idea that we have brought democracy and human rights to Afghanistan, the latest news from the country should come as a shock. The Taleban seem to be growing in confidence and influence. First there was the shooting of aid workers in Badakhshan; now a widow accused of becoming pregnant after the death of her husband has been flogged 200 times, then shot in the head. Rather than mobilising troops to rescue the woman, the local security chief simply con-
demned the punishment as ‘very severe’. Now that both President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have signalled their intention to withdraw troops, it is as if the Taleban consider they have won the war and are preparing for power. But we cannot abandon Afghanistan yet. If the Taleban sense victory, many more women will be beaten, stoned and executed. We cannot expect President Karzai’s corrupt administration to be able to police the country. Even if the government in Kabul did have the necessary determination to tackle the enemy, it would be incapable of doing so. The state that the West planted in 2001 can barely function, let alone stand on its own.
Perhaps it’s true, as both Obama and Cameron seem to agree — that to waste more lives and more money in Afghanistan is futile, but we must remember that we have not yet left. It is more crucial now than ever that we keep our commitment to educating and protecting women in Afghanistan, and to the rule of law.
THE SPECTATOR 14 August 2010 3