Migrant benefits debate highlights need for a bigger conversation

Today Prime Minister David Cameron outlined the Coalition’s proposals to introduce controls on welfare benefits paid to migrants from the EU.  (See the BBC report)

The debate about welfare entitlements for immigrants seems a proxy for the kind of conversation we should be having about our benefits system as a whole.

During the National Conversation on Britain’s welfare state we kept returning to the issue of  contribution.  We found people were concerned about others getting ‘something for nothing’.  Not because they resented paying for it, more because they worried it fed a dependency culture.

The political classes are now talking about how migrants need to contribute to the UK welfare system before they can access public services and support.  But we haven’t yet begun the big conversation we need on building a fair and affordable welfare system.

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More on ‘give to get’…

The National Conversation is not about finding consensus – but rather common ground where people can come together to have grown-up conversations that generate more light than heat.

When we looked at the welfare issue in autumn 2012 – and once we got past partisan rhetoric – we found many people worried that the idea of contribution had slipped out of the welfare debate.

So it’s interesting to see two major papers – The Times and The Independent –  publish leaders this week on the question of contribution, and why it’s the key to creating a welfare system that is both fair and affordable.  From today’s Times (£):

Sir William Beveridge’s original idea of welfare in Britain was that help was afforded in return for a contribution through national insurance.  There was a direct link between paying in during good times and drawing on the pool of collective resources in bad times…  The link between contribution and welfare has declined to the point of invisibility and it is understandable that there should be public trepidation when eligibility is no longer in any way earned.

It’s good to see contribution recognised as the critical issue in the welfare discussion.  But it will be interesting to see where the discussion goes next.  As we found during the National Conversation pilots in York, it’s one thing to agree that contribution is a key principle.  Another to determine how that can be made to work in practice.

To each according to their need?

An editorial in The Independent asks if needs-based welfare has run its course.  Should the contributory principle (the basis of Beveridge’s social insurance) make a come back?

In the longer term, the Government should also canvass views about a more contributory benefits system. Much current popular resentment reflects a feeling that there are people getting something for nothing, whether they are new migrants or those who have never worked. Over the years, the role of contributions has been reduced, and greater emphasis placed on need. This shift may now have run its course. A return to more contributory benefits might at once make the system seem fairer to all, without discriminating against new migrants.

We absolutely agree that that “the Government should also canvass views about a more contributory benefits system”.  Re-building the welfare system for the kind of society Britain is today needs to start with grown-up conversations about what people believe is workable and fair.  For a Westminster political class that’s grown out of touch with the public, this could be a great way to re-start relationships.

Give us a choice

“Have the people given up on politics or has politics given up on them?” asks Janet Daley in today’s Sunday Telegraph.  She writes at the end of the week that saw UKIP (“a party that will never form a government, and that has vilified all the plausible governing parties”) come second in Eastleigh, and a stand-up comedian ‘Beppe’ Grillo win the balance of power (a privilege he says he will not exercise) in the next government of Italy.

So why are voters moving away from the mainstream?  For Daley, it’s all about choice.  Or rather, the lack of it as Tories, Labour and Lib Dems converge around a mythical ‘middle ground’.

We hear a lot about the middle ground these days.  As politics become more professional, more centred on the Westminster bubble and more detached from the real world, the middle ground has become a kind of holy grail for politicians and pundits.

Everyone wants to be on the middle ground, it seems.  But It’s a strange-sounding place. Where ideas don’t matter, only impressions. Where nothing but consensus counts – and anything off the mainstream menu is considered unthinkable and extreme.

The middle ground is an insult to voters’ intelligence – and it’s sucking the life out of politics. If our political classes wonder why we’re staying away in droves, just consider what’s on offer on polling day.  More of the same – differentiated only by the colour of the rosettes.  And – as if to distract us (or keep themselves interested) – a background drone of manufactured outrage, posing and low-level scandals.

As Daley concludes (before moving onto US politics: another uninspiring example showing that every unhappy polity is unhappy in its own way): “Democratic politics is about choosing between differing political options: without significant meaningful differences between parties, the democratic process is pointless.”

So – as National Conversation pilot confirmed – if we want to rejuvenate democracy in the UK we need politicians to get off the centre ground, and give people real choices

Politics is another country…

We started the National Conversation because we believed mainstream politics in Britain was becoming a minority interest.  A club with fewer and fewer members – and which no one, apart from political obsessives, wanted to join any more.

Yes, people in general care deeply about political issues.  But they don’t want to play the game of party politics.

This week’s Eastleigh by-election (turn out 52.7%) was as uninspiring as anyone could have expected.  But one glimmer of light came this morning, with Michael Gove giving his reaction to the Conservatives achieving third place in the poll.

Speaking on BBC R4’s Today, Gove said: “it is the case that there is a greater sense of disengagement from conventional politics now than there’s been, certainly in my adult lifetime” and that, in a broader sense, “people believe elites have failed”.

We could not have put it better ourselves.