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

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.

Bringing back working class values?

First published in Culture Wars and republished for the sp!ked review of books

Public services cannot be sustained at their current level. They are under unprecedented pressure from the global financial crisis, slow growth of the UK’s service-based economy and the demographic pressure of an ageing society. Consequently there need to be drastic reductions in what is currently very high but unproductive public spending. One in four of us work for the public sector – councils are often the biggest local employers and the NHS alone employs 1.7 million, making it the largest employer on the continent. Approaching half of GDP (around £700 billion) is spent on public services including welfare benefits which account for about £200 billion. In a bid to cut public expenditure by £80 billion by 2015 tens of thousands of workers have already been made redundant. But, says Tom Manion, ‘radical’ social landlord and author ofThe Reward Society, it is the deterioration of our ‘attitudes, values and behaviour’ that is most costly of all.

The authorities spend a ridiculous amount of resources on dealing with a minority of people who are just not behaving as they should. It would be far better, he says, to encourage good behaviour. ‘If bad behaviour improved, we as a society would have a lot more resources to spend’. Putting to one side the child-like simplicity of Manion’s argument, he is perceptive enough to identify a genuinely big problem – one of the defining ones of our age – and its many manifestations. We now accept as normal the ‘dishonesty, idleness and lack of thought for others’ that in the past wouldn’t have been tolerated, he says. There is an £8 billion a year burden of dysfunctional families who ‘run health, police and social services ragged’. A welfare safety net that has ‘become a spider’s web, trapping people in dependency and making poverty comfortable’. A crippling ‘contagion’ of absenteeism in the workplace: a ‘sickness sub-culture’ not confined to the public sector but nonetheless identifiable with it. Never mind the ‘yoof of today’ it is not unusual for groups of young adults to be making an intimidating nuisance of themselves. These ‘screeching, lurching lads and ladettes, peeing in the gutter and falling into fountains’ at the weekend are ‘back behind the building society counter’ come Monday morning. ‘Their parents would not have behaved like that’, says Manion, ‘so why do they?’ Why indeed?

He answers his own question. Old ‘decent’ working class values have been lost and we’re the poorer for it. He explains that as a ‘bad boy my behaviour completely violated the standards of the working-class culture where I grew up, and I knew that and took the consequences’ he recalls. While his complaint that rent arrears have gone through the metaphorical roof is made by Manion the landlord; he also remembers how his mother’s generation ‘took pride in paying their rent, or indeed any bill, on time’. He invites us to compare this with the points-based public housing allocation system that has created an ‘arms race of need’ in which ‘people’s problems become their most valuable assets’. In place of the independence and pride of an earlier generation is a bureaucratically endorsed culture of entitlement. It has ‘infantilised’ tenants and kept them ‘locked into the dependency frame of mind’ and unable or unwilling to do anything for themselves. ‘Downloading help and sympathy on to people in perceived need doesn’t improve their situation’ he explains. ‘They’ve got to stand up on their own two feet and find their own way of including themselves in society’.

This isn’t helped, argues Manion, by the army of people with ‘social’ in their title ‘engaged in keeping their clients in a state of dependency’. He may sound very Daily Mail but he surely has a point? It does seem to be the case that ‘a lot of people reach adulthood without ever getting the hang of personal responsibility’. There is indeed, if one cares to look, an increasing tendency to blame other people for one’s problems. Unless you believe that living off the state is good for one’s health, it is hard to argue with Manion’s view that the welfare state – whatever its one-time merits as a system of social insurance – is now ‘entrapping people in conditions which stunt their development as human beings’. Manion’s book is welcome in as far as it challenges this culture of dependency. Far from being a figment of fevered right-wing imaginations – as today’s thoroughly conservative left-liberals would have it – a personally debilitating relationship with the state is a very real consequence of the way that a therapeutic mindset has undermined people’s sense of themselves as capable of running their own lives.

His solutions don’t break out of this mindset so much as reconfigure it (which I’ll come to in a moment). But his orthodoxy-busting and common-sense approach is refreshing. Manion is no fan of public services which he says ‘just aren’t that good’. Whatever remains of a public service ethic on the part of public servants is allowed to ‘dribble away in bureaucracy and ineffectual pettiness’. Instead of a ‘dynamic and productive’ performance culture we have a ‘survival culture’ he says. ‘People cling on to procedures’ rather than make a decision they may be held accountable for. Which is all spot on as far as it goes. But Manion doesn’t seem to notice that all of this is happening in the so-called performance culture he wants to bring into being. It is the very obsession with processes that is having such a corrosive influence over public service provision and has done for decades now. It has occupied the vacuum where a traditional public service rationale once existed.

Manion’s account of public sector absurdities and his own successes in challenging them suggest that there is much room for improvement. When he first became a social landlord he was baffled by the costly, off-putting and entirely unnecessary practice of ‘sheeting-up’ empty properties when tenants left. Despite much resistance, he says, he brought an end to it and employed estate agents instead of housing officers with a brief to move tenants in and out on the same day. But for all his wise words on dependency and welfare, and his challenges to daft public sector practices, he badly lets himself down with his supposed solutions. This is because he thinks that treating people like idiots will make them more responsible. Apparently oblivious to the economic dislocation of inner cities since the 1970s or the deliberate residualisation and run-down of public housing by successive governments since the 1980s; he insists that the mere presence of tower blocks and the ‘graffiti, litter and needles’ on the walk to school are to blame for the decline of the communities concerned. And that if only the ‘wrong sorts of behaviour by the wrong sort of people’ are dealt with, that will make things better again.

His desire to ‘restore pride and [a] sense of justice’ to communities seems genuine enough but it is soured by his contempt for the ‘wrong sorts’ and a narrow determinism that can see no way out except through his own petty authoritarian interventions. For all his talk of taking on local bureaucrats and liberal opinion more generally, Manion is actually today’s idea of a model social landlord. He believes in building communities rather than houses, and that housing is – despite what you might think – about ‘more than the provision of roofs over people’s heads’. This is despite the sector failing to do just that. As Manion himself tells us, levels of investment in housing in the UK are roughly equivalent to that in the former Eastern bloc countries. We live in ‘poorer quality, more overcrowded accommodation’ than our north European neighbours, he says. But if this suggests rather strongly that the housing problem is a bricks and mortar one, why the obsession with tenants’ behaviour? And why go on peddling the ‘cycle of debt and despair’ that he, like every other patronising left-liberal commentator, claims the poorest in society are caught up in.

Manion is so intent on the naturalising of dependency-induced inadequacies that his behaviour-intervening approach isn’t a challenge to, but a massive accommodation to, the problem he sets out to solve. So, while I can’t help but agree with him that we shouldn’t be subsidising fat people, via their GPs, to go to the gym (his gym!), nor do I think people like him who are ‘exercising regularly, not smoking and eating healthily’ are any more deserving of state ‘support’. It is no business of the state to dictate to people how they live their lives or to reward them when they make the ‘right’ decision either. Manion is full of contradictions like this. He wants people to take more responsibility for their lives but his proposals would have the opposite effect. So while he is against the pampering of ‘undeserving’ dependents; he thinks the rest of us aren’t’ dependent enough and should be compelled to have an ‘annual health MOT with outcomes being linked to taxation levels’.

The same inconsistencies are true of his attempts to manage the behaviour, performance and motivation of his staff. While he seems to have achieved a remarkable turnaround in reducing rates of absenteeism his account of how he has done this is not convincing. His introduction of ‘heath awareness, anti-smoking policies, motivational programmes, annual medical checks, eye tests, fitness and relaxation packages’ seem to have less to do with it than an admirably no-nonsense approach to the sickie. If they pull one staff are booked in for an appointment with the resident GP. This would be enough in itself but Manion goes much further. The Diamond employment package, he tells us, includes all sorts of perks but if the doctor thinks ‘they’re too fat or they drink too much, he will tell them’. And if they choose not to take his advice and make a ‘commitment to maintaining their health’ they ‘lose entitlement to most of the benefits’. Such is the deal you enter into when your employer takes an interest in your ‘wellbeing’ or ‘mental and emotional health’.

Ever the understanding boss, he worries about how difficult it can be for employees to leave their private troubles ‘at the door when they come to work’? But work can be a refuge or a welcome distraction from private worries too. Giving this up for lunchtime ‘fitness, guitar, dance, singing, yoga and massage’ classes may, and for the counsellors, coaches, mentors and ‘chill-out zones’ might sound empowering but the rationale is both an intrusive and bottom-line one. ‘We pay their wages and in return we expect certain behaviour from them’ explains the touchy-feely Manion. Turning the working relationship into one of counselled dependency can store up many more problems than it solves. For both parties. The fact that public sector workers tend to be a ‘bit jaded and tired’ isn’t surprising but Manion’s approach isn’t going to fill the hole where a public sector ethos should be.

‘Yes, it’s bossy and interventionist’ he concedes, ‘but the benefits to society will be enormous’. Really? As with his counter-factual treatment of the housing problem, Manion ignores much of the evidence in favour of personal anecdotes and prejudices. He manages to find a ’£4.6 million super-size mortuary’ to back-up his flabby argument that ‘excessive Western lifestyles’ will become increasingly unaffordable. We’ll have to spend ‘huge sums’ dealing with the consequences of a society that is ‘eating itself to death’ he claims. In truth, ordinary (as opposed to the rarer cases of morbid) obesity isn’t necessarily a health problem as study after study has shown. Again, as he is forced to admit when he refers to the data, the UK ‘fares reasonably well’ health-wise. Life expectancy is around the EU average; ‘healthy life years’ – those spent without the ill-health or disability associated with advanced age – are higher than the EU average and ‘exceed those in many comparable countries’. This is not to say that all is well with the health service – the NHS does not deserve its protected status as an officially ‘cherished’ institution as the crisis of care in many hospitals and care homes has shown – but it does make a nonsense of the dubious justifications for the lifestyle interventions proposed (and practiced) by Manion.

His obsession with behaviour – whether it’s that of his tenants or his employees – as if it were some disembodied dependent variable to be manipulated by public managers like himself is as depressing as it is wrongheaded. But this is in keeping with the extension of the new public management developed in the 1980s/90s into society at large. As if the managerial colonisation of public services isn’t bad enough they are now intent on the behaviour management of individuals too. Not only in health and housing. The same goes for schooling too. For Manion ‘education remains paramount’ not because it is important for kids to get a good education, but ‘because a well-educated person is more likely to understand the importance of healthy diet, exercise and so on’ which will result in ‘savings for the state’!

Manion, for all his radical pretensions, is more orthodox than he imagines. His belief that public services should be redefined so that they ‘support and promote a safe, decent, healthy, responsible society’ is already in the mainstream of public service reform. The problems that he raises – both cultural and fiscal – are no less real and pressing for that, however, and he is to be commended for taking them seriously. Many of his contemporaries don’t. But his attempt to build public service provision around these problems, rather than to try to understand them and address them in their own terms, can only make matters worse. While it may seem like a good idea to Manion for public sector bodies to tell people how to behave when so many are seemingly misbehaving; this has nothing to do with what public services should be (and used to be) about. Indeed, it makes it all the harder to build public services that meet society’s needs without nurturing more dependency, or taking responsibility out of people’s hands – ironically the very thing that he thinks he is challenging.

What’s so great about the welfare state?

First published on Spiked

Defenders of the welfare state seem blissfully unaware of how it encourages growing numbers of people to become permanently entangled in a supposed ‘safety net’.

Asbjorn Wahl is a trade unionist, director of the Campaign for the Welfare State and Norwegian. While you shouldn’t judge a book by the biog of its author, far less his nationality, it is fair to say that when I opened his new book, The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State, I wasn’t expecting much.

He begins, as all defenders of the welfare state must, with a bleak account of the public; that is, of the welfare state’s helpless, vulnerable clients and potential clients. There is a ‘feeling of powerlessness and apathy among people’, says Wahl, a feeling of ‘tragic stories’ too numerous to mention. As well as discovering an ‘unexpectedly large number… of victims of workfare’, he finds other people suffering ‘bad health and ever-more demanding work’. He tells us ‘stories of people who struggle with their health, then their self-confidence and their self-image’. As I heard a man on a picket line tell a Sky News reporter recently, everyone is ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’.

Does Wahl blame the ‘machinery of the welfare state’ for this sickening trend? No, far from finding fault with a set of institutions that actively undermine people’s sense of autonomy and self-reliance, he chooses to blame the left’s favourite bogeyman: neoliberalism. ‘Since neoliberal reforms increase economic and social differences and social differences in turn create larger social and health-related problems’, explains Wahl, ‘the conclusion must be that neoliberalism is both a health hazard and socially destructive’. And not just for put-upon workers or welfare recipients. So formidable is this mysterious force of neoliberalism that it is even ‘turning the welfare state into a highly vulnerable victim’, too.

This is not to make light of the welfare problem. Even putting aside the plight of those living in the crisis-ridden Eurozone’s periphery, like Greece and Spain, over a million young people are out of work in the UK alone. And many more people are on sickness and disability benefits of one kind or another. But blaming ‘the system’ is a frankly adolescent response. ‘Illness, disability and a loss of work motivation’, Wahl tells us, are ‘rational and understandable responses to the brutalisation of work and the increasing inequalities in society’. But why should working conditions be considered inevitably illness-inducing as opposed to radicalising? Especially if one considers the kinds of deprivations earlier generations of workers endured without exhibiting such symptoms.

Wahl understands that the fate of the welfare state is inextricably linked with the declining fortunes of the political creed with which it will forever be associated: social democracy. He is critical of the morphing of what were ‘mass organisations for the workers’ into not very effective ‘bureaucratic and establishment… election machines’. They are cut off from the masses, he says, and as a consequence subject to ‘ever-deeper political and ideological crisis’. The trouble is that his own ‘radical’ brand of state-socialism-cum-anti-neoliberalism is no better. Indeed, it has a lot in common with the ‘anti-austerity posturing’ that Brendan O’Neill has argued on spiked is increasingly evident across Europe, most notably with François Hollande’s Socialist government in France and the left-wing Syriza party in Greece. Regardless of Europe’s economic woes and the political fallout, the left, as Wahl himself argues, is in crisis across Europe: the trade-union movement is weak and defensive, and there is a ‘lack of ambitious alternatives’.

Wahl is good on the origins of the welfare state, situating it in a historical conflict between the interests of labour and capital, both at home and abroad. It is, he rightly says, the institutional outcome of a historically specific compromise. From the Boer War to the Bolshevik revolution, this new role for the state was driven both by elite concern at the declining ‘stock’ of the working classes, and by the threat of radical change posed by their politicisation. These ‘social reforms were intended to stem the tide of socialism’, he says. The ruling class was helped in its attempt to ward off socialism by a set of relatively strong economies, the continued exploitation of former colonies, and the political stand-off of the Cold War. Taken together, this all ‘helped to damp the radicalism’ of the left in the postwar years.

That much of the European left associated itself with Stalinism, the despotic variant of state socialism that kept social transformation on ice for so long, is somewhat neglected by Wahl. Indeed, while he also says the welfare consensus began to break down in the 1970s as the economic growth that ‘gave room for’ it faltered, it was the crumbling of the political consensus after the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade or so later that was to have the greater impact. The disorientation and social pessimism that resulted, not only for social democrats but across a political spectrum denied the old poles of left and right, meant that the welfare state also lost its moorings. Today’s financial crisis has only added a sense of urgency to the need to resolve the welfare problem. For all the ‘radical’ posturing of leftist groupings across the continent, this is no bad thing.

Yet rather than confront the welfare problem, Wahl prefers to delude himself about the wonders of welfarism. He claims the welfare state is regarded ‘positively’ by the people of Europe, because it is ‘identified with a more secure and better society to live in’. It is part, he says, of the ‘humanisation of society’.

In reality, everything from the riots of last summer to efforts by the UK Lib-Con coalition government to arrest the decline in education standards suggests that the welfare state – in the UK at least – has become something of a liability. Across the continent, as Wahl’s account inadvertently suggests, the welfare state is not serving as a sensible arrangement for the maintenance of social security and delivery of public services. Instead, it has fostered dependency – both material and moral – and encouraged a growing section of society to become permanently entangled in the supposed ‘safety net’.

Wahl also complains all too defensively that the public sector is ‘presented as meaninglessly bureaucratic, laborious, [and] rigid’ by its detractors. As a long-serving, otherwise left-leaning and latterly redundant local-government officer, I regret to confirm that it is all of those things. Consequently, I have found myself at odds with the none-too-inspiring fightback against public-service cuts. Wahl is critical of the shift to arms-length arrangements, from contracting-out ostensibly public services to the outsourcing of decisions about the economy to the EU, IMF and World Bank. But his obsession with neoliberals under the bed means that he sees the rise of quangos (which are alive and well in spite of the UK government’s supposed ‘bonfire’), and the dominance of unaccountable supranational institutions, as an alien invasion by big business. He fails to see that these developments are a consequence of the long-standing diminution of politics in favour of the impositions of a managerial state.

Still, Wahl at least recognises the ‘historic defeats’ visited on the labour movement and how this plays itself out today. Just a quarter of the European workforce is unionised, he admits, noting that even this fraction is a consequence of public-sector expansion and not politically engaged labourism. Yet still he hopes against hope that something or somebody might animate a movement that has long since entered a state of rigor mortis. He thinks rather wishfully that ‘a certain radicalisation’ of the trade unions is occurring in response to the economic crisis. While events on the continent may well have ‘flung the door wide open’, it is far from clear what is on the other side.

Nevertheless, the historic role of the trade unions with regards welfare is instructive. Wahl refers to the ‘benefit funds, burial clubs and similar solidarity schemes’ that existed before the welfare state. They provided the model for welfarism insofar as they provided social insurance for their members.

As Wahl says, today’s trade unions are more likely to be found representing (or rather counselling) individuals suffering ‘increased stress’ or poor self-esteem. But rather than make these individuated experiences of the workplace intelligible – beyond blaming the market, that is – he uses psychiatric jargon as if it needs no further explanation. This betrays the extent to which the problem is driven as much by the left’s own intellectual disorientation as it is by the organisational collapse that Wahl attributes to a mythical neoliberal onslaught. He even wonders whether the ‘brutal working life’ to which many are apparently subject ‘tends to undermine rather than strengthen welfare’ or whether it is worth the resultant economic growth. (Er, what economic growth?)

Wahl is critical of both the anti-democratic tendencies of the European Union and the imposition of the ‘economic straitjacket’ resulting from the attack on living standards in the Eurozone periphery countries. But his call for the ‘stimulation of the economy, investment in infrastructure and in productive activities’ can hardly be taken seriously given his doubts about the benefits of economic growth. While attempts by Europe’s governments to counter the financial crisis, and in so doing to create public debt crises, have, as Wahl says, been ‘exploited as an excuse to make massive, intensified attacks on the welfare state’, this does not in itself invalidate the attack. His view that capitalist excess is responsible for all of Europe’s ills is also his blind spot when it comes to seeing the damage done by an increasingly therapeutic welfarism. In truth, the welfare problem is not something dreamt up by neoliberals (whoever they are). Rather, it is symptomatic of a political culture that robs people of their agency, something that you might expect somebody like Wahl to be opposed to. Far from it. ‘Good social security’, he says, ‘gives people that much-needed self-confidence boost that enables them to become active players in society’.

As this back-to-front and patronising rationale makes clear, today’s welfare state infantilises people. It tells them that they are too damaged to function without its official hand-holding and belittling interventions. Any ‘progressive’ movement would surely endorse the contrary view that people should be treated as morally independent beings, responsible for their own actions? But to say as much is to invite the charge that you are horribly right wing and endorse ‘welfare-to-work’ policies (which, incidentally, sound rather more like the unforgiving and austere welfare state envisioned by its founders than that proposed by its supposed critics).

Whatever the rhetoric on either side, we should be far more concerned by the initiative-sapping and ever-indulgent welfarism that Wahl would evidently like to see more of. Instead of meeting people’s need for periodic support in difficult times, the welfare state has increasingly come to institutionalise a dysfunctional, and increasingly therapeutic, relationship between state and society which neither can afford. Worse still, it is a dead weight around the neck of anybody that wants to criticise how society is, and come up with a vision of what a better society might really look like.

After the Riots … just fire-fighting?

I was invited to speak earlier today at the London Asian Fire Service Association conference The Riots – A Year On. This is what I had to say.

There is something to be said for the view – often held to be a conservative one – that society has broken down, or at the very least those communities affected in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, broke down during last year’s riots. Those few days revealed that something quite serious had gone wrong, something rotten had been left to fester for too long.

We can ridicule the conservative for banging on about a moral decline that can be traced back to the Sixties. But what of those who hark back to the only slightly more recent Eighties as a supposed explanation. That’s when the rot set in say some of those on the left. I should probably say that I use the terms right, left; conservative and radical with abandon here. But they haven’t meant very much in a while.

Still are those supposedly radical (or is it left-liberal) commentators with their belief that mass looting and violent disregard for one’s own neighbourhood is some kind of statement about socioeconomic disadvantage, any closer to the truth? Or have they just swapped one excuse for another? Is the notion that we are more selfish and consumerist any more of an explanation than that society has become more permissive?

At least old-fashioned conservatives had a set of convictions that they stuck to regardless – even if all that is left is a conviction for convictions of rioters, or even virtual rioters. The absence of which is, in my view, one explanation we might entertain. Especially as the decline of the sorts of institutions about which they felt so strongly (e.g. the Church, the family) – not to forget those held dear by the left (i.e. the trade union movement) – has left a vacuum. The welfare state has extended its reach as they have collapsed, but as an institution it tends to engender relationships of dependency and entitlement.

In the absence of a clear left-right distinction, or institutions that might have a more positive role to play in the life of communities, the solutions tend to converge. So while the coalition were quick to blame problem families for the riots – a category created by New Labour remember – those who regard themselves as progressive were busy pitying and patronising them with talk of providing parents with ‘support’. The language may sound more liberal, but the result is much the same.

Parental determinism – the belief that parents are responsible for just about every social problem you care to name – is rife. They are made scapegoats on the one hand for society’s problems, and yet denied the opportunity to decide for themselves whether to smack their children or not, on the other. To his credit David Lammy MP for Tottenham made this very point after the riots even if he too in his book about the riots – Out of the Ashes – returns to New Labour type when it comes to proposing policy solutions.

Much the same can be said about the discussion of young people and the riots. Youth unemployment is a huge problem today. With over a million young people out of work in the UK, and there are over 5 million unemployed in the European Union – that’s more than 20% of the EU population – it is a problem that can hardly be underestimated. But that doesn’t mean it should be used as an excuse for the riots – not least because it was a phenomenon confined to Britain, actually it was very English – anymore than the Sixties, the Eighties or so-called problem families. However dire the situation may be and however clueless the political class might be when it comes to proposing solutions; this is not just an economic problem.

The stay-at-home generation where young people opt to stay at home with mum and dad rather than venture out into the big bad world is one troubling trend. The much-cited unemployability of young people is another. It is not just that times are hard. Times have been hard before but – to use a quote I thought I’d never use – there was a time when we might expect young people to ‘get on their bike’ whether it was to look for a job, or just experience life beyond their own – or at least their parents’ – doorstep. Instead today society seems beset by punctures or else insists on finding all sorts of excuses for leaving the metaphorical stabilisers on.

Which brings me to the rest of us – the grown-ups. From problematized parents to put-upon police officers, our authority and self-respect as adults has never been more in question. While the violent tantrums of youth are indulged and given unwarranted significance by their ventriloquist dummies in the left-leaning commentariat; those who should be holding the line – quite literally in the case of the police – are no longer able or its seems willing to. Whether its teachers unable to control their classes or police officers complaining about being called names by government ministers; traditional authority figures and the institutions they embody, are experiencing a profound crisis of confidence. While young people are infamously informed about their rights and have an unequalled sense of entitlement; adults are much diminished. They don’t know how to exercise what authority they might have, far less back each other up.

Given all this is it really such a surprise that those communities collapsed? It’s a wonder that it didn’t happen much sooner. Indeed so emptied out of authority are those that once exercised it that few dare to go much further than suggest we engage communities with this or that initiative. To boost people’s confidence or protect them from their own vulnerability. But this is no answer either. As before, the language may sound ‘supportive’ but it tends only to undermine. I spoke at an event last week about community engagement and came to the conclusion that sometimes it is better that we – by ‘we’ I mean the authorities, or those in the public, community or voluntary sectors who make-believe that they represent the community – don’t engage.

I think those of us who see it as our job to ‘do something’ about the riots should at the very least hesitate. If we get the analysis wrong, and in my view nearly every report and comment piece on the riots so far has, then to act on that wrongheaded analysis can only make things worse. We might do better to disengage from the community for a moment, and engage with the problem presented by last year’s riots in its own terms. What happened in those few short days of last summer was quite unprecedented. It had never happened before in quite that way. It wasn’t a rerun of the Eighties riots. It had no political content whatsoever. That was grafted on afterwards by commentators, researchers and politicians looking for a new hook for old arguments.

I think we should all, like doctors, take the Hippocratic Oath. For those of you that haven’t read it – I had to Google it myself – I am referring to the bit that says you should ‘first, do no harm’. Medical practitioners around the world are taught this important principle. According to Wikipedia: ‘It reminds the physician and other health care providers that they must consider the possible harm that any intervention might do’. This is not so much a reminder for us as a warning – and one we should take very seriously if we don’t want to undermine communities further – that those of us seeking to intervene in communities should think about the potential harm we might do by the very act of intervening.

I’ve already talked about how figures of authority, whether they work for the state or reside in communities, are routinely undermined these days. By constantly questioning the capacities of parents to bring up their own children; by giving credence to the highly dubious excuses of rioters; by insisting that communities can’t cope without us ‘supporting’ them, we inevitably do damage. The questioning and doubting alone make it very difficult for people to work things out for themselves. By constantly intervening – however well-intentioned our interventions might be – we implicitly, if not explicitly, infantilise the very adults who we expect to set an example to the young people, and they were mostly young people, who set out to destroy their communities. Darra’s report concludes by arguing that it is the responsibility of the authorities to put individuals, families and communities ‘back on their feet’.

No it isn’t. That is the responsibility of individuals, families and communities themselves. To say otherwise is not only patronising, it is also wrongheaded and liable to reinforce the dependency of young people who have picked up all too easily on the message that they’re owed something; or of the 120,000 so-called problem or ‘troubled’ families – or the Panel’s 500,000 ‘forgotten’ families – that are the lucky recipients of no end of supposedly supportive programmes; and of entire communities who are told that they need ‘building’ by us. We might flatter them and say we’ll involve them in this or that, but they’re dependency on our interventions is at least the start and usually the end of it.

I should probably admit to an interest here. Not as the old-fashioned ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ Tory some of you might take me for – that would be to forget what I said earlier about the old poles of left and right not meaning much anymore. No, I’m a community engager. That’s my job. I spend most of my time intervening in neighbourhoods on behalf of public and voluntary sector organisations; while, of course, reminding myself of the Hippocratic Oath. So I am sympathetic to those of you in the room who spend your time – when you’re not fighting fires – running various community initiatives. You, like me, are only trying to do what you think is best to avoid those ugly scenes of last summer from happening again. Or to make some sort of improvement to people’s lives. You might even kid yourself that you’re empowering people, or involving them or doing wonders for their self-esteem.

I just ask you to ask yourselves whether what you’re doing is really for the best, whether the community you are working with is really going to better off as a result? Is it going to stop the riots happening again, or is it going to contribute to the conditions that made them possible in the first place?  In other words, is it just going to be another in a long line of initiatives that far from building communities actually just chips away at their foundations? There is a lot of talk – not least in the Panel’s report – about building the ‘character’ of young people, and the resilience of communities. But these sorts of qualities – and they are very desirable qualities – can only emerge from within communities. They cannot be taught or built from without. That can only happen if we leave them alone a bit more, and intervene a lot less.

I will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas this month at the debate Pop-up Communities: here to stay?, part of the After the Riots strand at the Barbican.

Work, welfare and the disabling state

Recent moves toward a more personalised and cost-effective way of supporting people with disabilities in the workplace are to be welcomed. However as with all ‘support’ provided by the state to its dependents it can disable as much as it claims to enable.

One employment scheme will cost £6.8m to subsidise employers at a rate of up to £2,275 per worker over 3 years ‘to support more than 1,000 young disabled people a year’ into work. In the case of Remploy, while half of the factories are due to close this year with the remainder awaiting their fate until next, the government has offered private bidders potentially wanting to take over the factories subsidies of over £6,000 per worker over the first 3 years of operation. So what constitutes reasonable support to get somebody with a disability into work, and what can only reinforce a disabling culture of state dependency? A dependency that is twofold. One that not only threatens continued dependency for the disabled but  subsidises private interests too. Those companies accepting state handouts would be otherwise unwilling to take on what are after all loss-making enterprises – in Remploy’s case at a rate of £68m a year.

As Randeep Ramesh explains, Remploy is not only on its way out because it is a bad model for getting people with disabilities into work. Its post-war era state-dependent factories are very uncompetitive. Operating in sectors ‘such as electronics, textiles and automotive’, says Ramesh, they are concentrated in a failing part of the UK economy i.e. the part that produces things. Of course, as interviews with Remploy workers conducted by The Guardian suggest, whatever the economic rationale the experience of work is in and of itself something that brings a degree of independence that somebody with a severe learning disability, for instance, might not otherwise get.

A segregated environment is also one that is deemed safe from abuse and discrimination, or a lack of understanding of the limits imposed on people by their disabilities. But this notion that the only alternative to segregated employment is a life on benefits should be challenged. As should the way in which the already existing challenges of economic failure, welfare cuts and lower rates of employment for the disabled; are being confused with a fear of discrimination that is driven more by a culture of pessimism in the disability rights movement than by what able-bodied people really think.

Beyond basket weaving?

Like the Paralympics, Remploy – the oldest and the biggest employer of disabled people in the country – was established after World War II to provide employment for injured soldiers, and it has continued to do so since the announcement of factory closures earlier this year. David Floyd, an advocate of the social enterprise model that Remploy were belatedly piloting, supports the government’s decision to close these state-subsidised and segregated workplaces as recommended in the Sayce Review.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, was charged with establishing ‘how the government could better support more disabled people to get into mainstream employment’. As Floyd argues, the response of trade unions that ‘disabled people are vulnerable and need looking after by the state’ is patronising and wrong. The view of those opposing the closures seems to be that Remploy is the best people with disabilities can expect; that they are vulnerable dependents who need protecting. As a spokesman for Unite put it during a recent strike by Remploy workers: ‘To attack the most vulnerable in our society and throw them on the scrapheap is an act against disabled people‘. But what is the alternative?

‘Sit-down comic’ Laurence Clark is torn. He turned down a gig at a Remploy factory once. It reminded him of a visit his special school organised to a nearby sheltered workshop to see ‘older peers packing disposable nappies into bags and other mundane chores’. For Clark, ‘even as a child, I expected a bit more out of life than this’. His career advisor suggested IT but this only confirmed that ‘computing had become the new basket weaving’. But it is the ‘attitudes and inflexibility of employers’ and the threat of removing ‘essential support’ provided by the state that is most problematic. Still, says Clark, Sayce is right to conclude that Remploy is expensive and outdated, representing a poor use of resources that might more effectively be used to support disabled people into mainstream work.

Sayce calculated that the state subsidy to Remploy is £25,000 per worker compared with the government’s Access to Work scheme costing just £2,900 with the prospect of a more integrated and independent working life. The government is committed, said Maria Miller then minister for disabled people, to finding a better way to spend the £320 million that goes to supporting people with disabilities (currently a fifth on Remploy alone) into employment every year. Access to Work, costing £100m a year to run – including support with ‘interpreters, special technology and office adaptations’ – and similar schemes; are a better way of doing this, she says, because they support individuals to access the same workplaces as everybody else.

Miller, before she was moved in yesterday’s reshuffle, had promised an additional £15m to help get a further 8,000 disabled people into work. So it would seem that the government is actually moving in the right direction. However, while this simultaneous broadening and personalising of the support relationship should be welcomed, other initiatives are more problematic. This is something I will explore in my next post.