Why do fit and able men and women choose to stay on the dole instead of going out to work? The short answer is because they can. Of course, unemployment and incapacity benefits exist for very good reasons. People do find themselves out of work through no fault of their own. People do get sick and a society that has any sense of solidarity looks after its members who fall on hard times, but that is not going on here. Every calculation, and plenty of direct evidence, suggests that there are large numbers of people for whom benefits have become a way of life, despite the fact that they are perfectly capable of providing for themselves. This is bad not only for public funds, but for wider society and the individuals themselves. Work brings order and stability to lives that can otherwise drift into the chaotic or criminal. It also, on average, brings a better standard of living over the medium and ling term. Put simply, if you live on benefits then you are likely to be poor, remain poor, bring up your children in poverty and have a much worse quality of life.
Tony Blair talked tough on this, but did more or less nothing about it. In fact the hidden unemployment of the benefit-dependent has grown sharply under Labour. Gordon Brown has belatedly started to talk about this issue, but it is the Conservatives that are making the running. Drawing on the US experience, where sharp curbs on welfare have reduced unemployment and all of the related social problems. The Conservatives have proposals to make Incapacity Benefit more rigorous, to stop the benefits of people who refuse to take a job that they are offered and to require that the long-term unemployed work in the community instead of sitting around at home. There are also proposals to contract private companies to find people work on the basis of no jobs, no fees. All in all this is first fresh thinking on this issue since Frank Field was sacked by Tony Blair for actually trying to reform the system. If I was Brown then I would be worried by all of this. A rule in politics is that you don’t hand the initiative to your opponents. Now, anything that he proposes will be measured against the Conservative proposals, and because they got in first he will seem like a copycat.
One good thing for the country though is that people are at least seriously thinking about benefits reform. A policy bidding war in this area is no bad thing.