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Seriously engaging

07 December 2012

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THERE are some programmes that force themselves on one's attention by sheer weight of worthiness. I was not looking forward to The State of Welfare  (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), three hours of uninterrupted analysis of the Welfare State which swallowed up the usual weekday-morning programmes.

To reinforce the message that this was a serious discussion of means-testing, National Insurance contributions, pensions, and benefits, the presenter, Jane Garvey, announced gleefully that we were going to miss the daily Woman's Hour  drama, which last week was all about lap-dancing; but, in truth, even You and Yours  seemed glamorous by comparison with the behemoth that was to replace it.

As it transpired, The State of Welfare  was as engaging as a three-hour programme on the Welfare State could be. We moved from history to analysis, and from personal anecdote to high-level commentary. Punctuated by the often provocative comments of the great and the not-so-good - Ken Loach, David Blunkett, and Ann Widdecombe to name but a few - it never got bogged down.

We heard at the start a snippet from Kelvin MacKenzie, expressing appalled astonishment at the sight of satellite dishes festooned on the sides of council houses owned by benefit recipients. And the theme of benefit scroungers was one that recurred with unsurprising frequency. A BBC poll carried out in advance of the show indicates a hardening of attitude towards benefit claimants: four in ten respondents expressed the view that at least half of those on benefit were undeserving or claiming fraudulently. Of course, when you meet the average family on benefits, your attitude changes immediately. It is always those other claimants, the ones whom you read about, who are on the fiddle.

That Daily Mail-type campaigns against "scroungers" are effective is evident from the fact that claimants themselves rail against fellow claimants' giving them all a bad name. The cerebral-palsy sufferer who phoned in near the end of the show summed up the sentiment when she complained not about her own support so much as those claimants who spoiled it for the rest of them. It is a point that Polly Toynbee discussed earlier: the popular debate too often focuses on abuse, while drawing fire from more important issues such as the tax avoidance of big companies.

Toynbee was in the company of Roger Scruton and Frank Field for this. Field sees the problem differently. You cannot blame parents for taking the best option available for themselves and their family: if that means taking benefits rather than working, then that is en- tirely understandable. Similarly, one should not blame companies for paying low wages when they see the benefits system subsidising them. It would, he said, strain the probity of a saint to refuse all the means-tested benefits provided by the State, in exchange for hard graft.

Of course, 70 years ago, William Beveridge proposed his system to escape from the tyranny of means-testing and replace it with earnings-related insurance. But that was premised on a state where everybody was in work. No amount of reform is going to solve that fundamental anomaly.

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