Liz Elsewhere

The American , November 29th, 2007
“David vs. Goliath”
by Liz Mair Link to original source


By pushing for welfare reform, British opposition leader David Cameron has taken on a political giant.

Welfare reform is becoming a hot topic in Great Britain, where Conservative Party leader David Cameron is calling for a radical shakeup of the benefit system. Why the sudden fuss? For one thing, welfare rolls have barely contracted under a decade of Labour government. Despite the party's pledges to get people off the dole and into work, since 1997 the number of benefit recipients has shrunk by just 300,000. Worse, according to the free-market Adam Smith Institute, more than 3 million Britons have been on welfare for over a year. Benefit dependency remains particularly widespread in Britain's big cities. According to the Spectator magazine, one out of five people in Birmingham claims benefits; in Glasgow, Liverpool, and Manchester, that number rises to one in four.

According to Britain's Treasury, millions of jobs have been created in the last decade, too - but more than 80 percent of them have been filled by foreign workers. It appears that many Britons now favor welfare over work. With as many as 51 separate benefits now available, there are plenty of options allowing them to stay on the dole.

Cameron and his new breed of Tories want to change this. In his speech to the annual party conference in Bournemouth this year, the Conservative leader said that Britain should look at reforms that have "worked elsewhere in the world." Specifically, he is looking to Wisconsin, where ex-Governor Tommy Thompson implemented radical and aggressive reforms that ultimately cut benefit rolls by around 90 percent. There are bound to be differences between the "Wisconsin Works" program and the plan best suited for Britain. But Cameron has indicated that the basic approach will be the same: welfare will be denied when an individual refuses a suitable job, and the government will treat poverty as more than just the absence of wealth.

In the UK, this latter point is especially important. British governments have tended to treat the immediate symptom of poverty - a lack of money - rather than address the societal ills that produce poverty and exacerbate it. This would likely change under a Conservative regime: the party has already established a "social justice policy group" headed by Tory MP (and former party leader) Iain Duncan Smith.

In late 2006, Duncan Smith released his “Breakdown Britain” report, which identified pervasive problems that contribute to poverty, such as family breakdown, educational underachievement, and substance abuse. These are social phenomena that, sadly, remain widespread across the UK. Labour has been wary of tackling them head-on, which helps explain its broader opposition to welfare reform. 

Indeed, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s 2008 legislative agenda, unveiled this month, includes no significant proposals to address welfare dependency. Until this week, the most that Labour seemed prepared to do was mandate that by 2015 all Britons must stay in school until the age of 18. Now Brown looks prepared to go further—but only a little.  In his address Monday to the Confederation of British Industry, he pledged to introduce new training schemes and require Britons who have claimed the “jobseeker’s allowance” benefit for six months to undergo a skills check. This may be a decent start, but it’s far from the kind of sweeping reform that is required. 

What constitutes such reform? Here’s one small example: under Wisconsin’s “Learnfare” scheme, parents had their benefits cut when their children played hooky from school. With truancy rates running surprisingly high among 16-year-old Britons, and with one in five British children living in a welfare-dependent household, it’s no wonder Cameron favors the Learnfare initiative.

Prime Minister Brown, meanwhile, knows that welfare reform traditionally has proved politically toxic in Britain. Tony Blair wanted to try it, but ultimately shied away in the wake of protests. Even Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t touch it.

But public opinion may be shifting. A recent BPIX poll conducted for Britain’s Mail on Sunday newspaper shows the Tories holding a 5 percentage point advantage over Labour. It looks like a peculiar result, except that the same poll suggests the Tories would hold no such lead were Tony Blair still in charge of Labour. Which begs the question: even in Britain, with its cherished social safety net, could people be yearning for the reformist instincts of Blair, as opposed to the prudence of Brown? That’s certainly one interpretation. Expect Cameron to run with it.

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