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The Welfare State is the hallmark of a civilised society

29 April 2013

I have to admit that I’ve been watching the war of words being waged against our Welfare State and those on benefits with increasing anger. I have to declare an interest. In the early 1990s, I was dismissed from the electronics industry for trying to organise a union within a US multinational.

 I then had, as they saw it, the temerity to go on television to expose the union-bashing practices they were engaged in. Of course, many of you will appreciate that this happened at a time when working people lacked a statutory right to union recognition, blacklisting was legal and independent union representation at disciplinary and grievance hearings was at the whim of employers. Thankfully, much of this landscape is now history, even though recently uncovered evidence suggests that illegal blacklisting continues to blight the livelihoods of many trade unionists and their families.

The long and short of this story is that having publicly exposed bad practices, I never returned to a job within that industry. I was dependent on benefits for a considerable period of time. I can assure you that I most certainly did not live the life of luxury that so many right wing commentators would have us believe. I did not starve and had a roof over my head, but having to buy a pair shoes or a winter coat became a struggle that could only happen after making tough choices of what to go without. I shudder to think what it must be like now when so many on benefits have seen their payments dramatically cut.

I count myself incredibly fortunate – my union’s intervention saw me receive a settlement that eventually allowed me to go back to university, even if this took an awful long time to materialise. Thankfully, tuition fees back then were a tiny fraction of what people now have to pay to continue their education. You know, I have always seen our Welfare State as the hallmark of what makes us a civilised society – it should provide protection from the cradle to the grave. It is an act of solidarity between people of working age and the retired, between the able bodied and the disabled, between the healthy nd the sick, between the rich and the poor and between those in work and the unemployed.

The Liberal politician William Beveridge rightly declared in the 1940s that there were five giants that we needed to defeat: poverty, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. He proposed setting up a Welfare State with social security, a national health service, free education, council housing and full employment to conquer these ills. Of course, it was left to Labour’s Clement Atlee to make this vision a reality. Somehow I fear that Beveridge will be turning in his grave as he sees his Liberal successors march hand in hand with Tories to destroy many of the remaining vestiges of his legacy. To be fair, the Tories never wanted our Welfare State in the first place. The current economic crisis just provided them with excellent cover to hammer more nails into its coffin.

Unfortunately, myths about welfare spending abound – the reality is hardly ever told. For example, almost half of welfare spending (47 per cent) goes on pensions. A further 11 per cent is used up by housing benefit with a large chunk of this going (to landlords) to provide for people in work whose wages are too low. Reintroducing rent controls and a programme of council house building could significantly reduce this expenditure – never mind requiring companies to pay wages people can actually live on. Only 3 per cent of welfare spending goes on unemployment benefit, whilst a far larger amount is used to top-up the low incomes of millions in work – in effect a subsidy to the profits of employers.

Lastly, government figures show that only 0.7 per cent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently. Of course, we should have zero tolerance to this, but it reminds me that tens of billions are lost every year through tax dodging at the other end of the scale – and successive governments have been, shall we say, somewhat reluctant to do much about it. I for one will continue to defend the civilised values that our Welfare State underpins. I very much hope that you will join me in this!


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