Fairer Society Part 1: Only the Liberal Democrats are left to stand up for fairness

Benefits-welfareOn Thursday we saw Ed Miliband deliver his big policy speech on welfare, introducing his ‘youth tax’ in an attempt to be tougher on the Tories than welfare. In the process he proved that Labour, not content with failing to manage the economy properly in their last time in government, have given up on any idea of fairness or social justice for their next time in government.

Interestingly, the policy he announced had been reported on twice already by newspapers, the Sun and the Telegraph, over the course of the past year and, on each occasion, was rubbished by the Shadow DWP Secretary, Rachel Reeves, and senior Labour MPs and PPCs.

I won’t go into too much detail on the ‘youth tax’ but here are its key features:

  • Young people will generally be ineligible to claim housing benefit based on the concept that their parents should look after them instead.
  • Young people without the equivalent of 3 A Levels will be ineligible for unemployment benefit but will instead be forced to train towards getting those qualifications in exchange for a £56 a week youth allowance which would be (expensively) means tested against parental income with the amount being reduced as soon as parental income goes above £20,000 a year
  • Five years of national insurance contributions will be required in order to claim full rate unemployment benefit instead of two

Why is this unfair? In short because it’s punitive and based on bad assumptions. It assumes that a household on £20,000 a year can afford to, or is willing to, help support an additional adult. It punishes young people who’ve been failed by the education system by forcing them (rather than giving them the option) to train for qualifications which they might genuinely not need or be capable of obtaining and by stripping them of the ability to claim housing benefit in almost all cases.

And this matters because we do not live in a fair society. Youth unemployment is twice the national unemployment rate. Figures reported by the Independent yesterday show that poverty is increasing. 18 million can’t afford adequate housing conditions. 5.5 million adults go without essential clothing. 4 million children and adults are not properly fed. 2.5 million children live in damp homes. 1 in 3 cannot afford to heat their homes properly in winter. 17% of adults in paid work are poor and 21% were in arrears on household bills in 2012.

The response to this by the Conservatives has been to call for cutting a further £20 billion from the welfare budget. Labour’s response has been Ed Miliband’s attempt to appear tougher on welfare than the Conservatives. With both major parties abdicating any sense of responsibility for social justice and fairness, the only party left that can stand up for this pillar of a civilised society is the Liberal Democrats. We haven’t got everything right in government, and we’ve definitely made some mistakes on welfare which I will always oppose, but I’m also proud we blocked the Tories planned £20 billion additional cuts to welfare and stopped hosting benefit being stripped from under 25s. We now have the opportunity to show our fairer society credentials if, and only if, we are now prepared to step up to the plate and stand up for those in poverty and deprivation.

In my second article in this series I’ll talk about how we could start to do that.

* George Potter is a Vice-Chair of the Social Liberal Forum and a campaigner for Guildford Liberal Democrats, writing in a personal capacity.

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28 Comments

  • It is blatant inequality discriminating against young adults. They should have the same options as all other adults. Too much do we talk of sexism and racism but ignore the barriers young adults face because they don’t have access to the same rights as someone who may be just a few years older. Equally though I consider it a failure of us as a country if young adults are going straight from school to benefits. Whether training, apprenticeships, jobs, further or higher education more needs to be done to stop the need to even consider putative welfare measures for young adults.

  • Charles Rothwell 21st Jun '14 - 10:36am

    Well said, George, and I look forward to the second article covering actual policy matters. At the heart of the problem (as with much else) is, as you say, the failure of some sectors of the state education system to equip young people with the skills (hard and, above all, ‘soft’) and, unfortunately in many cases, the attitudes, required to get them into employment in the first place. I think far too many schools have been forced to focus so narrowly on league table results that broader issues of preparing young people for post-school* life has been lost sight of and the usual ‘shunt’ of GCSE > A Level > degree operates without any broader considerations far too often. School ‘careers advice’* is also a joke in many areas since ‘Connections’ etc was scrapped (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/ofsted-wants-schools-to-lift-their-game-on-careers-advice-9168704.html) (*although I have to say that even many HE institutions seem to be pretty atrocious in this regard as well (http://graduatefog.co.uk/2011/1285/university-careers-advice-update-anne-wilson/) and seem in some cases to have little interest in the post-undergraduate fates of their alumni (apart, naturally, from those progressing to postgrad. studies). One of the MEGA-fallacies of my generation (university in 1970s) was that employment opportunities and outcomes would just go on for ever getting better and better. Young people today deserve much better.

  • Charles Rothwell 21st Jun '14 - 10:43am

    Well said, Paul. I agree entirely with what you say, especially the final two sentences. When I think of the outcome of eleven (or more) years of compulsory state education for far too many young people in England and Wales, I despair (and can even begin to understand why so many of them feel ‘betrayed’ by oldies like me and the entire political system (leading them not to vote but to tune in to YouTube videos by Russell Brand and other such ‘sages’ (who can more than safely afford not to be bothered getting involved in civic society matters, vote etc) (“The rich can afford to be ignorant!” (Lloyd George))

  • With both major parties abdicating any sense of responsibility for social justice and fairness, the only party left that can stand up for this pillar of a civilised society is the Liberal Democrats. We haven’t got everything right in government, and we’ve definitely made some mistakes on welfare which I will always oppose, but I’m also proud we blocked the Tories planned £20 billion additional cuts to welfare and stopped hosting benefit being stripped from under 25s.

    Sorry, but it’s more than just “mistakes” that have been made by this government. Given their recent record, the Lib Dems can’t claim to have “stood up for fairness”.

  • I disagree with Labour on the youth JSA first I think the youth should get the funds at 18 and second in my view it’s likely to drive down birth rate if you will pay until 21 in addition I think that minimum wage for youth should be the same as adult unless employer is paying for training out of house

  • Stuart Mitchell 21st Jun '14 - 1:51pm

    While I agree with much of this article, I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick with this bit :-

    “Five years of national insurance contributions will be required in order to claim full rate unemployment benefit instead of two”

    What Labour are saying is that while the standard rate of unemployment benefit will remain unchanged, there will be an increase in the amount paid to people who have five years of contributions. So this particular part of the proposals is a benefit increase, but you have worded it so that it sounds like a cut!

    As for the rest of it – while a lot of what you say is good, you’re a long way from convincing me that the Lib Dems are the party who can be most relied upon to stand up for fairness. Probably the biggest single losers from the benefit changes of the last four years were the part-time workers who lost all their tax credits very early on in the coalition – in some cases losing a vast proportion of their household income. Labour stood up for them – the Lib Dems didn’t.

  • Charles Rothwell 21st Jun '14 - 3:10pm

    I think Stuart is right and that what Cruddas/the IPPR Report (from which Milliband has lifted these various policy proposals) is attempting to do is to restore the contributory principle to a range of welfare payments, particularly JSA, as they found this went down well with focus groups when they were researching the report. I also cannot see that the principle is one to which Liberals can object, as it goes through Beveridge and right back to Lloyd George and Churchill.
    As regards the 18-21 “reforms”, though, I agree with Owen Jones on yesterday’s “Newsnight” who said they are just “window dressing” and aimed purely at portraying Labour as “tough on benefits” and trying to bury the “tax and spend” legacy. As Jones pointed out, the reforms will be useless until such time as the British economy can again provide well paid, decent and secure jobs (which will save enormous amounts in subsidizing employers (e.g. through tax credits)) for the young people who come off such programmes (which, by the way would not have to be “the equivalent of 3 A Levels” (as just one A or AS Level on its own is a ‘Level 3’ programme)). Jones pointed out that we currently have 30%+ of graduates in jobs for which a degree is not required so just getting hung on up training/courses and not having sufficient traction in the economy to then provide the right kinds of jobs at the end of such courses/training is hardly going to solve the problem. What is needed is a kind of (Lloyd George/NOT the other!) “Orange Book” with a proper industrial strategy to rebalance the UK economy away from overdependence on services/finance to industry and exports while stimulating sectors such as renewables and, in particular, house building.

  • Charles R – Fortunately, I think Lloyd George’s Book was Yellow, not Orange!

  • I would endorse the comments of Charles Rothwell. The IPPR report http://www.ippr.org/publications/the-condition-of-britain-strategies-for-social-renewal includes much that Libdems could agree with such as the collective defined contribution pensions, which share the risks underlying pension investments and so provide greater security for individual savers as developed by pensions minister, Steve Webb.

    The report also highlights the need to reduce the deficit and the pressure this is putting on the benefits system, noting:

    “However, the best way to control rises in the benefits bill is to tackle the deep-rooted factors that drive higher spending, such as low pay, insufficient housing, high childcare costs and long-term unemployment…it is vital to pursue a strategy for shifting the balance of spending away from cash transfers and towards social investments in housing, childcare and employment.”

    I look forward to George’s next two articles discussing the principles and policy necessary to speak convincingly on social justice and fairness

  • Richard Harris 21st Jun '14 - 4:30pm

    @ George potter.
    Electorally this is a case of wanting the cake and eating it. You can’t seriously be saying that your record in government is not supportive of the social justice mantel but only the libdems can claim it outside of government?

  • Richard Harris 21st Jun '14 - 5:17pm

    @George potter
    Sorry George, but its a bit like claiming that the lib dems are best place to be the nice party who want things to be better for everyone. I can’t imagine any party saying anything different as about themselves, so you are left with the record of each party when in power to see who is fairest. I’m afraid the libdem record is no better, and possibly a little worse than labour when one considers the LDs failed to halt really regressive policies put forward by the Tories but supported by the libdems. Just telling everyone that you really didn’t mean it isn’t enough. You would have an argument if the party had sacrificed power on the principle of fairness but you did not. I say again, you cannot have been part of this government and then claim to be something fundamentally different.

  • “In order to say that we need to have the policy to match but my point is that the political space is there for us to occupy since both Labour and the Tories have abandoned it.”

    The point is that – on the evidence of their actions – the Lib Dems have abandoned it as well.

  • @Chris
    “the Lib Dems have abandoned it as well”

    By the way, why did you stop using the Aloysius handle?

    As to fairness, Jon Stewart said, ‘If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbies.’

    What about some fairness by doing things to reduce energy prices? Have the Lib Dems considered introducing marine energy as a way to achieve this?

  • Always worth remembering that all it would take for any one of the governments policies to fail would be for the Liberal Democrats to pull out of the Coalition.

    Instead of telling us how fair they are, why don’t they prevent the Coalition’s unfair policies from proceeding by doing this?

  • “By the way, why did you stop using the Aloysius handle?”

    I decided it probably wasn’t a good idea to carry on using my real name. There can’t be that many people called Anthony Aloysius St around, and I don’t want the Clegg police turning up at my door at 6am.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 22nd Jun '14 - 6:20pm

    DavidG
    No policy is created to cut support from those who deserve it. I’m assuming there is a right of appeal in a case like yours and local support services to check that you are treated fairly in your appeal. You are right that too any people have lost financial support in unfair ways and there should be financial reparation when their later claims are upheld.

  • The problem is though, that there is no evidence of what will happen in the future, just what happened in the past. And that sadly shows what a mess our leadership have made of it.

  • Joe, what evidence is this?

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