Where next for welfare?

Yesterday in his speech at Bluewater, David Cameron offered his latest ideas on how Britain can cut its welfare bill, calling for the country to return to the “first principles” of welfarism.  This morning, the broadsheets returned their verdicts.

In The Daily Telegraph, Philip Johnston wonders what “first principles” the Prime Minister could mean.  Was it the Beveridge Report (seventy years old this December) or something earlier?  Whatever the case, Johnston welcomed Cameron’s ideas if they tackled dependency culture.

In The Guardian, there is anger.  The leader paints a portrait of Cameron as an out-of-touch “gin-soaked colonel in his clubhouse” and talks of the Tories opening up “a new front in the class war”.  Both the leader and Polly Toynbee accuse Cameron of getting his numbers wrong.

Yet, while there is an angry defence of the status quo, The Guardian does not offer ideas for change.  Hugo Rifkind notes in today’s Times (£): “What does the British Left have to say about today’s welfare state? Not much. And sooner or later, it’s going to have to say something.”  But then, according to Rifkind, no one is prepared to stick their neck above the parapet on welfare: “the big problem with the benefits debate is that neither Left nor Right dares to say what it really thinks.”

At the National Conversation we want to give people – across the political spectrum – a chance to say what they really think about welfare.  It’s clear that we are overdue a sane and not a sanitised discussion.

If liberty means anything at all…

Today is the anniversary of the birth, on 25 June 1903, of Eric Blair.  Or George Orwell, as he is better known.

It’s not a remarkable anniversary, like a centenary.  But we wanted to mark it – because Orwell inspires the spirit of the National Conversation.

Nobody ‘owns’ Orwell: both the left and the right scrap over his legacy.  But everyone of good will is united in respect for Orwell’s fearlessness, honesty and essential decency.

Why we’re here

Prime Minister David Cameron, in his foreword to the Ministerial Code of Conduct, pretty much sums up what the National Conversation is about: “People have lost faith in politics and politicians.  It is our duty to restore their trust.”

We believe the duty to re-connect people with politics shouldn’t end with government ministers or MPs.  By engaging people in a real conversation  – and learning more about how we, as citizens, can shape the Westminster agenda – the National Conversation can help restore trust and strengthen our institutions.

Is child poverty about more than money?

In May the Centre for Social Justice published Rethinking Child Poverty, arguing that current measures for child poverty “[fail] to acknowledge that poverty is about much more than a lack of income… To construct a measure of poverty that is both accurate and useful, it is vital that the main drivers of poverty – family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependency and worklessness, addiction and serious personal debt – are made the priority for measurement.”

This weekend, Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu gave his reply.  The Archbishop writes that “instead of redefining Child Poverty, we urgently need to do something about it.”  He believes income inequality is the root of child poverty and recommends we “look at how Beveridge tackled the giants of inequality and use that as a blueprint for a new social covenant.”

You can’t begin to tackle a problem until you define and measure it.  If Beveridge was writing his report today, how would he have defined child poverty?

Can universal benefits survive?

Universal benefits – paid to everyone regardless of income – are coming under increasing scrutiny as the government tries to reduce the welfare bill.

Last week The Sun launched a “Ditch Handouts to the Rich”campaign, targeting benefits like the Winter Fuel Allowance that are paid to all pensioners.

Over the weekend, Janet Daley in the Sunday Telegraph weighed in to the debate, writing that “the state can no longer afford blanket cash handouts to whole swaths of the population, based on quite arbitrary criteria (an age which is not even the normal retirement point) and regardless of their individual means.”

In The Guardian, Michael White seems to agree that “free bus passes and winter fuel help for dukes and bankers are hard to justify as “progressive universalism” except in political terms: it locks them in.”  He believes Beveridge would have been “puzzled” by efforts aimed at “defending benefits for high earners solely on principle.”

Is “principle” a strong enough reason for keeping universal benefits or – as benefits and pensions approach one third of the national budget (£202.6 bn, from an overall spend of £701.7bn last year) – do we need to re-think the system?

Are equal shares always fair?

The Sun’s got universal benefits for OAPs in its sights.  Today it launched a campaign called ‘Ditch Handouts to the Rich’.

The campaign targets £2 billion of benefits paid to all OAPs, regardless of their wealth.  To illustrate what it regards as the unfairness of universal payments, the paper highlights the “100,000 households with a retirement income of more than £100,000 a year” who receive Winter Fuel Payments.

Introducing means tests for OAPs would be a controversial move.  Arguably, pensioners have spent their lives contributing to the benefits system via their taxes.  By receiving benefits they are just getting back what they have put in. But means tests could also mean that money could be targeted at people in the most need.

We believe these are the kinds of questions that will be raised by the National Conversation when it goes live later this year.  In the mean time, we’re keen to find out what you think: are equal shares always fair?