AS the debate grows about the next phase of welfare reform, I remain committed to the Ten Minute Rule Bill that I introduced to the House of Commons in December 2012 and which called for the introduction of a Welfare Cash Card.
The principle behind my Bill was to make all benefits payments, regardless of family income, in electronic format; thereby enabling the prohibition of welfare payments being used for non-essential, desirables and often damaging goods such as cigarettes, alcohol and gambling.
A poll in The Yorkshire Post the following day found 75 per cent of readers agreed with this principle.
After 13 years of a Labour government abusing the welfare state for their own political gain, voters lost faith that it could achieve its aims.
New Labour created a situation where it was easier to sit at home on benefits than take up a job and consequently a migrant workforce entered Britain to take up those jobs. Lord Peter Mandelson himself commented that Labour “actively sent out search parties to get them to come… and made it hard for Britons to get work”.
This short-sighted policy created huge divisions in society, with those who went out to work each day resenting their hard-earned taxes being used to fund the lifestyle choices of those who chose not to work; families who saw their benefits rise twenty per cent over the same time that earnings rose just ten per cent.
I believe it is a fundamental responsibility that Britain, with the sixth highest GDP in the world, should have a system where those in the greatest need are supported by state intervention. Britain should be proud of its welfare state, yet it remains in the shadow of suspicion and stigma because of the something for nothing culture encouraged by the last government.
We need to fix the broken system while never allowing ourselves to forget that less than a century ago the loss of your job could well mean starvation, homelessness, and too often, death.
The welfare state was first established to tackle the Beveridge Report’s “five giant evils” of squalor, want, ignorance, idleness and disease and much has been achieved since its formation, but how many of these evils can we truly say have been eradicated?
Our NHS continues to tackle disease through a free universal health care system, but can the same be said for its fight against a rise in lifestyle-linked illnesses such as alcohol and drug addiction or poor diet? Are we funding rather than tackling these problems?
Reports in recent Sunday newspapers spoke of a new underclass of dysfunctional families now costing Britain £30bn a year. These out-of-work families, often with drink and drug problems, are blighting estates and sucking up huge amounts of scarce resources while proving that money alone will not overcome such social ills.
The majority of welfare claimants use the system for what it is intended but – sadly – a minority of welfare abusers are tarring all claimants with the same brush. Therefore, a carrot and stick approach must be the way forward.
A report from the Centre for Social Justice recommended a way of tackling addiction among those dependent on the state, it proposes a new tax on alcohol to fund rehab programmes. The report stated: “For years full recovery has been the preserve of the wealthy – closed off to the poorest people and to those with problems who need to rely on a public system. We want to break this injustice wide open.”
This approach shadows the philosophy Beveridge envisaged by establishing the welfare state, however, imposing a new tax on those with responsible drinking habits to fund support for those out of control is fundamentally unfair.
By prohibiting welfare payments from being used to purchase damaging goods such as alcohol and cigarettes we can reduce pressures on the NHS while using resulting financial savings to increase NHS spending on the most effective and fairest way to offer rehabilitation to the poorest.
My Welfare Cash Card Bill did not propose to list items that should not be purchased with welfare payments but suggested it only enable the purchase of items and services needed to keep people out of dire poverty.
Therefore, benefits should only be available to purchase FETCH items – food, energy, transport, clothing and housing.
For those on benefits who require rehabilitation it is right that they have access to the same services that the rich are able to access with ease, but no longer should taxpayer-funded benefits be funding such a lifestyle, if rehabilitation is rejected then their benefits should be stopped.
This is tough but we will never restore faith in our world leading welfare system if we carry on enabling those who seek to abuse themselves.