Why we really can’t afford the Welfare State

800px-Jobcentre-plus-First published in Institute of Opinion

The nasty, cutting coalition of the left-liberal imagination is showing itself to be anything but. Why else would George Osborne’s announcement that he is to cut £12 billion from the welfare budget after the next election cause such cabinet unease? Nick Clegg isn’t best pleased; and the welfare and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, is apparently resisting anything other than the snail-pace reform that has so characterised the introduction of his much-maligned universal credit.

‘Sources’ contrast the Chancellor’s brutal-sounding ‘lopping off narrative’ with the slow and steady approach of Duncan Smith. But, in truth, the details we have so far suggest that the political elite as a whole lack the cojones to see it through. As commentators point out, cutting housing benefit for under-25s and targeting the relatively well-off who live in social housing isn’t going to make much difference. While the Lib Dems and Labour opposition are almost enthusiastic in their desire to deny old people of their pensioner benefits (winter fuel allowance, television licences, bus passes), the aged Tory heartland seems to have dissuaded even ogre Osborne from considering such an attack on the ‘vulnerable’ – an imaginary group that cuts-phobic left-liberals usually fall over each other to patronise.

On the other hand, while those urging the government to cut much more are right to worry that the measures taken so far, and those so far proposed, are not even nearly up to the task of balancing the books; they are wrong to think this is the biggest problem. Cutting welfare and other public spending is not going to make the economy grow; nor will it make the dependent any more independent. The point of ‘lopping off’ chunks from welfare spending should be to realign the workings of the benefits system with a new way of thinking about the relationship between the state and the individual. Instead of spending a quarter of public spending on entangling people in a long-term relationship of passive dependency, something that none of us can afford – financially or morally; we should be building a consensus around the popular view of welfare as nothing more than a safety net, a stop-gap, a contributory system of mutual social assistance.

The flip-side of the welfare coin is, of course, the world of work. So those critics who want to scrap a jobcentre ‘service’ that tries and fails to both administer out-of-work benefits and help people get off those self-same benefits have it right. The unemployed, as Demos argue, should be free to choose their preferred job broker or, dare I say it, should go it alone and find work themselves. And yet in their eagerness to squash the myth that claimants are defrauding the benefits system, Demos wrongly argue that many of those who should be claiming benefits aren’t. And therefore the state owes them something. They come up with a figure of £5 billion a year. This may or may not be technically speaking the case but I’m not sure it’s helpful. There are lots of people out there who don’t feel entitled even if Demos says they are. They don’t want to live off the state; they would rather support themselves and get by without the hassle and intrusion, all for a pittance. That’s no bad thing, and the sooner the political class stop fudging the issue the better.

Picture by: J J Ellison

I don’t like the bedroom tax either, but …

First published in Huffington Post

There’s not much to like about the bedroom tax.

Ed Miliband, ever-desperate to engineer a connection with a bored and far-from-convinced electorate, will not only freeze energy prices but has promised that a future Labour government will abolish the hated bedroom tax too. It has already had a terrible impact on what welfare reform’s paternalist critics routinely describe as the ‘vulnerable’. The ‘under-occupancy penalty’ or ‘abolition of the spare room subsidy’ to housing benefit for those living in social housing – like the community charge before it the sort-of-official names for this non-tax never caught on – isn’t easy to defend, even for those of us with more than a little sympathy for the reforms.

Those deemed to have more than their allotted number of rooms will find their benefit cut by 14% for one ‘spare’ room; and by 25% if they have more than one spare room. Of the reported 660,000 households affected, 220,000 are families and 440,000 include people with disabilities. A group of charities have written to the prime minister expressing theiroutrage at his misleading statements to the effect that disabled people are exempt. For all but a few this is simply not the case. But this is less a case of Tory nastiness, as most of the critics seem to think, than it is to do with the incompetency of the reformers. Arguably the bedroom tax is not nearly discriminating enough. Expecting people like the sick brother of an MP to pay – a man whose kidney dialysis machine occupies a ‘spare’ room according to the witless officials responsible for administering his housing benefit – makes no sense.

So yes, the bedroom tax is mean-spirited. The children of benefit claimants are, under the new rules, forced to sleep in the same bedroom; and separated parents are expected to make do with a sofa for their visiting kids at weekends. But it is also mad even in its own terms. The ‘tax’ was imposed on the dubious grounds that an alleged one million spare bedrooms, when freed up, would magically become new homes for half of the two million or so people on the social housing waiting list. Instead a severe shortage of two-bedroom homes into which ‘under-occupiers’ might otherwise have moved has resulted in misery all around. Those that can move are forced into more expensive accommodation in the private sector, costing the taxpayer even more in housing benefit; and increasingly leaving those larger homes that nobody can afford standing empty and at risk of being demolished. Most will have to cough-up and put-up with an even more miserable existence than that they were enduring before the ‘tax’.

And yet … despite the understandable worry and anger of those affected and the over-emoting of their supposed sympathisers in the left-liberal commentariat, there is something amiss with the reaction of the latter to what is an indisputably awful policy. While they point to the lack of affordable housing as the real culprit they don’t call for the one thing that might solve the problem – a mass housebuidling programme. The sort of thing governments used to take on in the first half of the twentieth century. That there are ‘375,000 families living in cramped, overcrowded accommodation’, as employment minister Esther McVey announced recently, is the best argument in favour of pursuing such a policy. Instead it is used to justify forcing people to shuffle along to make room in the existing inadequate stock. This is despite the number of homes being built year-on-year being nowhere near enough to meet the demand of an increasing population. The housebuilding rate continues to fall from an already inadequate 21st Century peak of 223,530 in 2007/08 to a pitiful 124,720 in 2012/13. This represented a fall in the number of houses built of 8% on the previous year. But even more to the point, there is no criticism at all of the very welfare state that is both crippling the public finances and putting-up a large minority of the population in state-subsidised accommodation that they can’t afford themselves; or at least cannot scrape enough together for from their own meagre incomes.

This can’t go on. It is not enough to fret about the lack of ‘affordable’ housing or to call on the UN to protect the human rights of ‘the vulnerable’. There are three things that can be done to solve the problem and without resorting to the victim-politics to which the anti-cuts and anti-welfare reform lobby have become all too accustomed. There isn’t nearly enough housing being built of any kind whoever eventually moves in, or whatever their alleged capacity to cope with the semi-withdrawal of state support. Making housing affordable will best be achieved by building much more of it. Instead of devoting their energies to patronising the workless, they should be campaigning for the government to create the economic conditions – through, for instance, strategic investments in infrastructure including the housing stock – that will generate more and better paid jobs. And if they really care about the downtrodden, rather than continually shouting it down, they should be supporting – albeit critically especially when it comes to the likes of this ‘tax’ – the need for urgent and more far-reaching reform of the welfare state.

We can cope without the state

First published in sp!ked

The following is an edited version of a speech given by David Clements as part of ‘Cuts, cuts, cuts: what, where and why?’, a debate at the recent Battle of Ideas festival.

I’m not a big fan of ‘the cuts’. They may be necessary, given the parlous condition of government finances, but they are hardly going to make public services any better. With the possible exception of the police, where a fall in crime has continued despite recent cuts, the services we receive are likely to get worse. Moreover, such cuts won’t solve the economic crisis.

Take local government. In the past few years, local government has been at the forefront of UK public-spending cuts. The funding that councils receive from central government accounts for around a quarter of public spending. Councils have already seen their funding cut by somewhere between just over a quarter and a third, depending on who you ask; and there will be another 10 per cent cut in 2015. The chair of the Local Government Association has described councils as the ‘hardest hit’ organisations in the public sector. Critics say that councils can draw on their reserves, raise council tax and – most controversially – increase various charges, fees and penalties for everything from car parking and speeding to planning applications and licensing.

And yet the arguments against the cuts are so objectionable that I’m almost tempted to wield the axe myself. It’s not simply the fact that some services – like health and education – have been ‘ring-fenced’, though I do think we should be asking searching questions about why the National Health Service should receive special protection. (Rather than insulating this mythically ‘cherished’ service from cuts, it should be exposed to a wide-ranging debate about its current performance and future role.)

No, the biggest problem I have with anti-cuts lobbyists is that they insist that everybody is ‘vulnerable’ and won’t be able to cope if the state isn’t there with a safety net.

So, like the representatives of local government, people with disabilities (once a bolshie bunch that would tie themselves to railings to publicise a political issue), or at least those campaigning in their name, routinely describe themselves as the ‘hardest hit’ by cuts to local services and welfare reform. Women, too, once championed by equally bolshie groups of feminists, have been turned into special victims by today’s campaigners. Indeed, the police and domestic-violence campaigners, not satisfied that a fall in crime in general, and in domestic violence in particular, is a good thing, have joined forces to claim otherwise. So under the headline ‘Police referrals of domestic-violence cases drop 13 per cent’, we learn that this is not at all welcome but is in fact ‘alarming’. Obligingly, the shadow home secretary blames spending cuts for this outrageous failure to find more alleged abusers to haul before the courts.

There is a lengthy queue of groups claiming to be the worst-hit by government cuts. The British Medical Association claims cutbacks are increasing child poverty, making familiarly dubious claims about children’s wellbeing and concluding that if we were ‘failing our most vulnerable children’ before, we certainly are now that we’re cutting welfare and children’s social care.

Another claim is that cuts to school breakfast clubs mean that parents are unable to feed their children before they go to school – which makes you wonder what parents did before breakfast clubs first appeared in the 1990s.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), basically an international club for the world’s developed countries, claims that the cuts will widen inequality. Here, the OECD joins a long line of organisations and commentators taking a swipe at old people, who it claims have largely escaped the hardships so far. In contrast with all the victim-talk for other groups, we are reminded that nearly half the money spent on benefits goes on the state pension, and there is a cross-party consensus that pensioner benefits will be means-tested after the next election.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) budget, accounting for nearly a quarter of all public spending (£166 billion per year is spent on benefits) certainly has a lot to answer for. The DWP is undermining all of the cutting going on in local-government and central-government departmental budgets by doing too little to trim the benefits bill. Housing benefit is the second most costly of all benefits after the state pension – it has risen to £24 billion this year. The government aims to cut this by £500 million per year. There is a benefit up-rating cap of one per cent in place until 2015/16 aimed at saving £3.1 billion in working-age benefits. And the introduction of Universal Credit (to replace many of those working-age benefits) is supposed to save £38 billion by 2023. There are clearly attempts to solve the problem, but they don’t look like being anywhere near enough.

So you might expect that there would already be a battle of ideas happening about the welfare state and how we go about making it affordable, if we choose to keep it at all; but no such debate is taking place. Instead, there is a lot of noise about how ‘vulnerable’ claimants won’t be able to cope with the benefit cap, Universal Credit, the ‘bedroom tax’ and the demands of the Work Programme. There is no discussion of the idea that it might be unfair to expect a life on benefits to be more rewarding (financially at least) than being in work. Or that people shouldn’t be subsidised by the state to live in houses that are too big for them or that they can ill afford. Or that young people not in education, employment or training shouldn’t be living off benefits. Apparently, they too are vulnerable. According to opponents of the Tory proposal to cut benefits to the under-25s – one I happen to agree with – 18- to 24-year-olds in receipt of benefits tend to come from broken families or might be abused if they go back to live with their parents.

Despite the often hysterical claims, these sorts of policies, in my view, are worth supporting. But there are no easy solutions to what is a complex and long-standing problem. The public sector is still far too big, with public spending currently equivalent to 44 per cent of UK economic output. Nevertheless, there are trends which mean that the state will inevitably have to grow further in order to accommodate the increasing care needs of an ageing population. The only cap planned for social care will be on how much individuals have to pay for it before the state steps in. To ease the pressure on housing and housing benefit we need hundreds of thousands, if not millions more homes to replace an inadequate, ageing housing stock. And if we do get back in the business of building things, the anti-free school lobby – while wrong about free schools themselves – are probably right about the need to build more primary schools. With these pressures for increasing state expenditure, surely we need to think about what might be cut elsewhere?

To conclude, we have the peculiar situation of the government doing a lot of cutting in some areas, only to see spending getting out of control elsewhere. And at the same time, we have this hysterical over-reaction on the part of the self-appointed defenders of ‘the vulnerable’ who, apparently oblivious to how serious the fiscal situation has become, think the cuts have already gone too far. There is a grown-up debate to be had about public services and the welfare state, and we urgently need to have it.

There is more to welfare than a broken IT system


First published in Institute of Opinion

The implementation of the government’s Universal Credit, already proceeding ‘carefully’ according to welfare minister Lord Freud, is now slowing to a crawl with just one new area joining the scheme this month. By now it was supposed to be well on the way to a national roll-out. Instead, it continues to be dogged by the difficulties with the project mismanagement of an IT system subject to scathing criticisms from the National Audit Office and the parliamentary public accounts committee.

So far just a few thousand people are claiming the new benefit that merges six means-tested working-age benefits and tax credits. It will, once it is eventually rolled-out across the country (still scheduled for 2017), affect something like 8 million households. One might reasonably ask whether it makes much sense spending tens of millions of pounds on a gigantic and failing technical solution to what is a deeply ingrained cultural (as much as an economic) problem? In order to ‘make work pay’ (let alone save a projected £38 billion), the government are going to need more than a computer system no matter how big or clever it gets; if they are going to undo the damage done by a welfare state that maintains millions of people, including entire communities, in a state of miserable, unproductive passivity. But it seems the critics too are missing this most fundamental of points

Despite one controversy after another about how ministers are calling benefit claimants names (‘scroungers’, ‘shirkers’, etc); or how ‘the vulnerable’ are being victimised by the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, the work programme, and anything else to do with the reform of the welfare system; there is next to no debate about the underlying substantive issues. It is the implementation, not the rationale, of Universal Credit that comes in for most criticism. So not only have the critics delighted in anticipating the inevitable problems with the ‘over-ambitious’ IT system; they also like nothing more than to anticipate the inadequacies of the supposed beneficiaries of the shiny new benefit. It is outrageous to expect claimants to apply online because they just won’t understand it, or to expect them to get their money monthly (rather than weekly) because they are too feckless to manage it properly. Such are the arguments used by the supposed defenders of the welfare dependent.

Indeed what both sides seem to have in common is contempt for those entangled in the welfare net. While blaming welfare claimants for the mess won’t do, nor will the patronising words of commentators and lobbyists who worry over the inadequacies of those in need of little more than a job. For all the venom directed at benefit claimants on the one hand, and at incompetent political managerialists on the other; there is little prospect of an end to dependency and worklessness, or of the government’s failure to tackle it being properly exposed.  What is really outrageous is that rather than having an argument about the rights and wrongs of welfare, both sides are projecting the welfare problem onto the supposed deficiencies of individual claimants – whether they blame them or feel sorry for them.

Why Freud might have a point about food banks

lossy-page1-293px-Unemployed_men_queued_outside_a_depression_soup_kitchen_opened_in_Chicago_by_Al_Capone,_02-1931_-_NARA_-_541927.tifFirst published in Institute of Opinion

No, not that Freud. While the therapeutic politics behind the food banks discussion has a lot to answer for, it is not to Sigmund but to his great-grandson Lord Freud that I refer.

As I recently discovered, despite the impression given by campaigners, the country is not witnessing depression-era levels of poverty. Nevertheless the numbers getting their meals from food banks has increased considerably, from tens of thousands to half a million in just a couple of years according to one estimate. As is widely recognised, this is largely the result of the abolition of the social fund, other benefit changes following welfare reform, more delays and sanctions in the payment of benefits; and the novel and dubious practice of job centres referring them rather than the usual practice of giving claimants an advance on their benefits. So while the people running them are right to suspect that food banks are effectively being drawn into a wider unofficial welfare system. The good news (if you can call it that) is that the extended queues does not mean that people have got much poorer and hungrier all of a sudden, and are lining up much as the poverty-stricken were outside the soup kitchens of 1930s America.

Lord Freud, a work and pensions minister and (worse) a wealthy former investment banker – did I mention he’s a Lord? – caused controversy last month by denying that the recent popularity in food banks had anything to do with the above. Using the logic of anti-roads campaigners he said that the high take-up in their use was simply a consequence of there being more of them. “If you put more food banks in, that is the supply” he said. “Clearly food from a food bank is by definition a free good and there’s almost infinite demand.” (A statement that could hardly have been better designed to trigger, as it did, the usual Labour Party soundbite about those nasty ‘out of touch’ Tories.) While his critics were right to criticise Freud for his ignorance of the impact of changes to the welfare landscape introduced by his department (not to mention the impact of the economic crisis on people’s standard of living), and the implication that the problem of poverty would be solved if food banks were all closed down; he also has a point.

While in most cases people’s sense of pride and self-respect – even today when the old working class values have been eroded – tends to trump the logic of the market; we are increasingly encouraged to regard ourselves as vulnerable, incapable of looking after ourselves and in need of ‘support’. The resultant growth of a therapuetic state to meet these new found needs is the inevitable result. So could it be that those numbers have also been increasing because more people are being sucked into a dependent relationship with the state, or in the case of food banks with the extended state of ‘charitable’ support? Certainly as both Freud and the prime minister have said, the increase in the use of food banks was already beginning to rise before these welfare changes were implemented, and even before the coalition government was formed; and the arguments presented by the food bank movement itself also point to what can only be described as a therapeutic turn.

The problem with food banks, says Nick Saul president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, is that they “let us and our governments off the hook for finding real economic and social policy-based solutions”. People, he says, become “passive recipients of food handouts” rather than active members of their community. Right, and right again. But Saul is sniffy about conventional food banks and the supposedly inferior fare provided by their supermarket donors; and doubly patronising because he thinks that those dependent on food handouts also need lifestyle lectures, whether its “nutrition initiatives for low income, pregnant women” or extra tuition for the no doubt neglected kids. Patrick Butler at The Guardian is similarly sympathetic with those schemes determined to distance themselves from the “food-bank mentality“. They should do more than just feed people, so the logic goes. They should help them to break free of their dependency too. So what makes these anti-food banks so much better? Their clients “receive counselling, debt advice and health advice each time they visit”.

While the sentiment may sound radical these schemes are actually more likely to further ingrain people’s dependency. The idea that what the poorest need is more intervention and support in order to reduce their dependence on … er, intervention and support, just doesn’t make any sense.

I’d prefer to take my food parcel and go thank you very much.

Why the Rising Interest in Food Banks

First published in Huffington Post

If you believe the headlines people are going hungry in Britain today. The only reason they are not starving to death is because soup kitchens, food banks and other charitable schemes are springing up to serve those in most desperate need. Indeed the numbers using food banks increased nearly three-fold last year on the previous year to more than 350,000 according to one charitable food provider determined to raise the nation’s awareness of the ‘hunger on our doorstep’. A consortium of charities has even accused the government of being in danger of breaching its obligations under the UN economic and social rights convention if it goes on cutting public services and benefits. According to Fareshare, an organisation that redistributes left-overs from supermarkets and other retailers, it is supporting more people than ever via a growing number of charities; and providing meals for an estimated 44,000 people a day (an increase of 16% on last year). Sainsbury’s alone has provided 3.2 million meals in the last two years. Which, given that the supposedly evil supermarkets are blamed for everything from failing farmers to the demise of the high street, may come as something of a surprise.

But scratch the surface a little beneath these shocking headlines and you might find you come to a rather different view. First of all you learn that part – probably a large part – of the rising demand for food banks etc is a consequence of welfare reform and the way benefits are being paid (or, indeed, not paid). With the abolition of the social fund on which the most desperate had previously relied, and an apparent reluctance on the part of the DWP and Jobcentres to pay them an advance on their benefits; they are being referred to local authorities, charities and food banks instead. All in the name of building the Big Society you understand. According to the Trussell Trust, one of the major food crisis charities, over half of the recipients of their food parcels did so because their benefits had been delayed, cut or stopped altogether. Indeed, this has been raised in parliament and even pointed out (albeit further down the page) by those who nevertheless claim that there exists something approaching Dickensian levels of poverty in Britain today. I know times are hard, with everything from food and fuel price hikes to high unemployment having a part to play, but even today’s poorest are not facing Hard Times!

And its not just Lefty-Liberal do-gooders twisting the facts to suit their anti-austerity agenda. The Tory/Liberal austerity-implementing government apparently feel compelled to invent food crises too. A few months ago agriculture minister David Heath made the bizarre World War II-citing claim that before too long we could be ‘digging for survival‘. Because we are dependent on imports for 40% of our food, so the logic goes, we are at risk of I know not what catastrophes that could make us dependent on hastily dug allotments. That we live in a modern world and depend for our comforts on the benefits of an international division of labour is, in reality, no bad thing. The notion that there is a big problem of food security – fueled by periodic scares about everything from terrorism and global warming, to there being too many people to feed, or too much horse in the food chain – is baseless. But it all adds to the fantasy of impending food-related doom.

That is not to say that there aren’t people facing great hardship and that this is not set to get significantly worse. With the annual rise in benefits to be no more than 1% a year from now on, an estimated 50,000 households expected to lose about £93 a week when the benefit cap is eventually rolled out; and 660,000 households seeing their benefit cut by around £14 a week with the introduction of the hated bedroom tax – things are clearly going to get much tougher for the poorestBirmingham City Council, for instance, has mapped the miserable impact of welfare reform on some of its already hard-up residents. But the real shocker here is not that the poor are going hungry – they’re not. It’s that people are living in a seemingly permanent dependency on the state and on the no-less dependent charity sector, without anybody apparently able to challenge the view that they are anything more than pitiable creatures barely able to feed themselves. The political class are utterly clueless with not the first idea about how they might do something about the economic crisis, other than cutting away at public expenditure. And campaigners, instead of holding them to account, prefer patronising the supposed victims as a vulnerable bunch of inadequates.

Universal Credit Where Credit is Due?

First published in Huffington Post

On Monday 29 April the ‘revolution’ began. The government’s Universal Credit Scheme designed both to simplify the benefits system and disincentivise dependency on it began… in Ashton-under-Lyne. According to The Guardianthis historic shift would affect ‘a few dozen’ people on the Monday, increase at a rate of 300 people per month as the ‘pathfinder’ continues until October and then be rolled out across the country by 2017 (though even this is now in some doubt).

So this supposedly radical overhaul of the system – despite Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, describing it as a ‘fundamental cultural shift’ and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) calling their jobcentre staff out against it – is nothing of the sort. The lather up into which both sides have worked themselves about these reforms (ahem, not a revolution) is something of a mystery. Despite, as Nick Pearce argues, doubts as to whether people will be any better off in work and the possibility even that more will be caught up in a permanent semi-dependent limbo of part-time work and benefits claiming; make it all the more surprising to discover that Universal Credit is still in fact little more than a ‘tidying up exercise’.

In his calmer moments Duncan Smith, whose rather poisonous Centre for Social Justice came up with the idea, admits as much. This is not Paris 1789 or the spectre-haunted Europe of 1848 anymore than it is a rising Dublin in 1916 or a revolutionary Russia in 1917. Sadly 2013 in Ashton-under-Lyne is only to be the beginning of a ‘perpetual process of rolling out and checking‘. Storm the barricades! Of course there is nothing wrong with this. As Matthew Oakley writes elsewhere for Huffington Post incremental change is perhaps more suited to this kind of thing. By doing things slowly and dealing with the inevitable difficulties that arise during implementation the problems can be addressed. There have already been the inevitable teething troubles albeit reported a little too gleefully.

For we are not witnessing, never mind partaking in, any such seismic changes but – with a little tinkering here and a little claimant bashing there – the piloting of a new and probably better way of administering the benefits system. For all that it is, as Oakley rightly says, a move in the right direction – even if that is as much backwards as forwards to the ‘contributory principle’ envisaged by Beveridge – the debate so far hasn’t gone much beyond the difficulties around implementing it. While I’ve little time for Duncan Smith and what he stands for, it is notable that even he feels the need to sound conciliatory rather than go on the offensive. He has made it known, for instance, that the application process for Universal Credit has been designed by claimants themselves. Not the sort of thing that I can imagine Norman ‘on yer bike’ Tebbit associating himself with. Perhaps the critics will cite this as evidence to support the fraudulent claim that far from making work pay ‘workfare’ expects them to work for nothing!

Universal Credit will replace a number of existing benefits and tax credits. It will also, by ‘tapering’ payments as people re-enter the workplace try to ease the transition into work and beat, like tax credits before them, the much maligned benefit trap. As well as the doubts raised by Pearce regarding these latter claims, one of the problems with Universal Credit is that it just isn’t universal enough. There are a number of other benefits and credits that will remain untouched by it and continue to deem the benefits system unnecessarily complicated. But it is the fact that claimants have to apply online and rely on a new government IT project not going disastrously wrong; and that they will be paid monthly salary-style into their accounts, that has caused as much criticism as any substantive changes contained in the reforms. It seems that the merest hint that claimants should be responsible for budgeting and at more than a fortnight’s duration; or that they, rather than their landlords in the case of housing benefit, should receive the payment direct; is enough to expose the paternalism in critics who envision more evictions as tenants spend their money in the bookies or on pay day loans rather than on paying the rent.

Even where they do find fault with the substance of the reforms as in the case of Nick Cohen at The Observer it, likewise, betrays the prejudices of a commentariat that has little regard for those they claim to defend. He seems to have convinced himself that by doing away with child tax credit, traditionally paid to the mother, Duncan Smith is engaged in a weird evangelical Christian conspiracy that will put women at the mercy of their misogynistic partners. But it is not right wing irrationalism or a fear of what men might do if they get their brutish hands on the Universal Credit that should worry progressive minds (if that is what Cohen is supposed to have). Rather it is the patronising knuckle-dragging cynicism of the anti-reform lobby that finds it as hard to imagine the workless finding their way around a computer keyboard, as it does to acknowledge that increasing conditionality or imposing more sanctions is at least more honest than hiding behind ‘the vulnerable’ at every evasive opportunity.