What are benefits for? When the main out-of-work benefit was renamed from Unemployment Benefit to Jobseekers’ Allowance the reason given was that it was felt that unemployed people should think of their payments as being income paid for undertaking job seeking activities rather than for existing in unemployment; an active rather than passive state.
Successive governments have tightened regulations and required unemployed benefit recipients to do more to receive their benefits; more proof of job seeking activities, more training and time spent on work and training programmes, less time unemployed before they have to undertake mandatory activities. But why?
The media, particularly tabloid newspapers, have led the way in demonising the unemployed through the regular use of language such as ‘scrounger’ and ‘sponger’ when referring to unemployed people, and disproportionate reporting of fraud cases. The government appears to be responding to this implication that the majority of unemployed people are criminals who steal their benefits, but is this fair? Is the level of fraud high enough that all unemployed people need reining in?
In a word, no. The government’s own figures show that, for the year 2008-9, benefit fraud cost the country £900m (http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/MoneyTaxAndBenefits/BenefitsTaxCreditsAndOtherSupport/BenefitFraud/DG_10014876). This may seem like a lot, but it is only 0.7% of the total spent on those benefits. More concern comes from the way that, in responding to this issue, government and media exaggerate the problem by joining fraud with error when they talk about it (http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/3088811/DAVID-Camerons-a-5bn-scambuster.html). Benefit recipients clearly cannot be blamed for civil servants overpaying, and yet these mistakes are joined with the much more limited fraud to suggest that the problem is far larger than it is.
This isn’t to suggest that fraud should be ignored. But there are other reasons why benefits are paid to those without any other income, and other reasons why benefits are denied to them. There is a proven link between lack of income and criminal activity; those without money sometimes feel forced to steal to survive. Paying benefits is clearly of benefit to wider society; do we really want to deprive people of the £67.50 they receive in Jobseekers’ Allowance because we feel they have not been looking for work hard enough, only to spend far more on a range of payments including to homeless shelters, social workers, and, for those who turn to crime out of desperation, in keeping them in prison and making other criminal justice system payments?
But more than this, benefits are a vital part of any civilised society. When soldiers returned from the Second World War they were expected to reward the Prime Minister who had led them to victory, Winston Churchill, with another term in office. In fact, a Labour government under Clement Attlee was voted in by a landslide in 1945 on the back of promises of full employment and comprehensive benefits. The Beveridge Report, which paved the way for the welfare state, called social insurance (or benefit payments) one part of ‘a comprehensive policy of social progress’. Those fighting men we see as heroes saw the importance of these payments to the development of the kind of progressive society they had fought to preserve; why can’t we?