HUER'S CALL, by MIKE SAGAR-FENTON: We all wanted a benefits shake-up... but not like this
You may think that the workings of the welfare state are of no interest to you, but the amount of money spent on benefits still has you seething.
You'll have your own bêtes noires – people who claim benefits while they're working; girls who have babies just to get into the housing system; men who father them all over the place and don't pay for their upkeep; people claiming disability who are as capable as you or me; big families in sumptuous accommodation costing a fortune in Housing Benefit while half our kids can't even afford to leave home. And so on.
Why doesn't somebody do something? Well, somebody is.
Just over the horizon in the flush of spring comes the answer we've all been waiting for, with an appropriately hyperbolic name, Universal Credit. This administration will hail it as something like: "The biggest shake-up in welfare services since St Martin and the Beggar". And for once it will be right.
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Look what it's taking out: Jobseekers' Allowance, Income Support, Child Tax Credits, Working Tax Credits, Housing Benefit. All these will be rolled up into one monthly payment sent directly to a claimant's bank account. The Disability Living Allowance – which at least says what it is – becomes a "Personal Independence Payment". And Council Tax Benefit will be replaced by a chillingly vague "localised support", ie higher rates.
The DWP, from Iain Duncan Smith downwards, will deny with a straight face that the purpose is to cut billions from welfare budgets, but it's not a bad aspiration. There's no question that the above list of abuses subverts the principles of the welfare state.
Living in a subsistence economy like Cornwall it's easy to see why they do it, but benefit cheats take money from those who really need it. It's not funny and it's not clever.
But neither's the solution. It looks great on a plate – one simplified, IT-friendly payment replacing all that bureaucracy – but it seems doomed to leave a bitter taste.
One flaw is the level of organisation it anticipates from claimants. Some have lifestyles which are already chaotic enough. Claims can only be done online (anyone recalling other huge national IT disasters must already be trembling), but a large proportion of applicants still don't have a computer.
And even more don't have a bank account. If they do, who has access to it? If every monthly benefit including the rent is paid in one steaming great chunk, do the DWP assume recipients' skills in monthly budgeting? Won't that lump of cash be a temptation to those with habits to feed? Will the rent still be there come the end of the month?
Twinned with the Universal Credit, though not so widely flagged, is a requirement for all employers to report their wage payments a little more frequently.
A little more frequently? Currently they make an annual tax return, but as of next April they will have to report every single payment they make, every time they pay it, monthly, weekly, daily, whatever. The idea of course is to try to check who's being paid what against who's claiming what.
Not a bad idea, but it's the biggest untried bureaucratic network in the country so far. One power outage and the whole system's in digital limbo. There'll be no written records. No-one knows if it'll work or not (so it's being piloted in places we don't care about, like Wigan).
And it still ignores the basic problem that there are just too many of us. IDS knows this and thinks you can limit fecundity by reducing benefits.
Meanwhile, the desperate need for better and earlier child education in sex, contraception and relationships – currently delivered by gangsta artists and fellow infants – goes begging.
Men still get away with serial parenthood without penalty. We're breeding like rabbits, without the extraordinary ability rabbits have (which IDS obviously thinks we share) to reverse conception if things get too stressful.
It's top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions to complex problems, again.
So let's see how much we'll save by putting all our welfare eggs into the online basket. The universe holds it breath...