Workless defended by Packer

13 July 2012

THE notion that a "hard-core culture of worklessness" exists in the UK has been challenged by the Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer.

The Bishop was responding to comments from Hazel Blears, the Labour MP for Salford and Eccles, at a debate on welfare organised by the St Paul's Institute on 29 June.

Ms Blears referred to 1.5 million people who have not worked for nine of the past ten years, and suggested that "not every single person there is going to be disabled to the extent that they can't do any work. . . There is then a hard-core culture that you do not go to work; and that is the biggest thing that winds up other working people [and] that starts to erode confidence in the Welfare State."

She gave examples from her constituency, including "pyjama mums", who laughed at her when she suggested that they look for work, and a woman seven-and-a-half months pregnant, with another four children at home and a partner who also did not work. "My heart sinks, because I think: what is the future for that family?"

Ms Blears said that she had begun to "hate" the word "welfare", which "has got connotations around handouts, scroungers, and the undeserving poor"; she preferred "the ideas of social security, insurance against hard times, and solidarity between rich and poor". The "erosion of the contributory principle" had led to a "crisis of confidence among working-class people in the Welfare State", which had first been created by politicians such as Clement Attlee, who was "no soft touch". He had once said that "a socialist state cannot afford men to remain idle."

Bishop Packer, who opposed the Government's welfare reforms in the House of Lords, including the inclusion of child benefit in the cap on benefits ( News, 25 January), said that a "lack of concern" for the welfare of children existed within the present political establishment. Those who could "afford to bear the burden of the economic pressure" should do so in the current straitened times, he said, while everybody should regard tax not as something "taken from us by an unfair government", but as "part of a just society, and something we should be pleased and delighted to pay".

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He challenged Ms Blears's comments. "I don't for one moment dispute that there are those who can't bring themselves, or can't be brought, into a way of thinking which is looking for work, but there are many, many people who do want to work, and who actually can't find work."

Ms Blears conceded this, and noted that the creation of the Welfare State, in the 1940s, had been based on the premise of full employment. It was "our fault" that a culture of worklessness existed in some areas: "We've left them too long without saying 'There is a way back.'"

Today, almost £1 in every £3 spent by the Government goes on welfare - most of it on benefits for the elderly including pensions. In a YouGov poll conducted in February, 74 per cent of respondents agreed that "the Government pays out too much in benefits: welfare levels overall should be reduced."

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