Leaders: Benefits changes miss chance of proper reform
Iain Duncan Smith must live in a strange world.
His world – to follow his idea that child benefits and tax credits should be limited to the first two children of a family – is one where parents make rational decisions on how many children to have based solely on how much money they might lose or gain. Really? And they can all tell the future?
Moreover, the people in his world are divided into workers and shirkers. The workers decide how much of their income they can afford to spare on raising children and limit the number of offspring to that figure. The shirkers, however, don’t worry about such things because they know that the more children they have, then the more money the government will shovel in their direction.
Well, it is perfectly true that a lot of couples do worry about whether or not they can afford to have a large family. And, according to Mr Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, there is a “clustering” of large families among the section of the population that lives more on welfare than on income.
But to suggest that money is the sole criterion for bringing or not bringing more children into the world is absurd. Has he never heard of pregnancies that occurred because birth control methods didn’t work? Or of those born because a couple were overcome by passion, or because they don’t know or understand birth control? Less money going to poor families will, in reality, only mean more hardship for those families.
Such factors are also behind the statistical fact that families with more than two children are more likely to be living in poverty and receiving welfare payments than families with two or less children. That implies that if this two-children rule was introduced, it would not succeed in persuading poorer people to limit family size and thus would make much existing poverty even worse.
Mr Duncan Smith is, however, also concerned about cutting £10 billion from the UK government’s welfare bill. And on some calculations by children’s charities, introduction of the rule on a blanket basis, covering those workers on such low incomes that they also receive welfare payments, up to £4.5bn might be cut from welfare spending. This would also penalise, using Mr Duncan Smith’s social classification, workers as well as shirkers, and deepen poverty problems.
Few would disagree that the child benefit system is in need of reform. The benefits system should not be there to fund extravagant life choices; benefits are there to support the poor and needy, but there are many parents receiving child benefit who are have absolutely no need of state support. The principle of benefits is that society collectively, through the state, agrees to support people who it agrees need it. The forthcoming means testing of child benefit is a welcome step, but setting the limits where it has is a cop-out, and deeper reform is needed.
Public sector staff must be protected
Jobs in the public sector are getting more dangerous. An annual survey by the trade union Unison has found that nearly 35,000 workers reported being attacked violently this year, an increase of a fifth on last year and close to double the number of assaults reported in the corresponding survey in 2006.
The union says that when people find out that they are no longer getting a service they used to receive, or that they face long delays in getting answers from officials, they are bound to get frustrated, and angry people are more likely to lash out. It does stand to reason that this may be a factor in the rise.
Such assaults, inexcusable in any case, have broader repercussions. The victims are trying to deliver a public service. The economic climate means there is more demand for these services, but spending cut-backs mean there are fewer staff to deliver them. Those who are left to serve the public should be able to do so without fear of injury.
Moreover, meeting the threat by increasing the security of staff, say, by providing screens, guards and closed circuit television monitoring at unprotected counters or by insisting employees should make visits in pairs, increases the cost of services
and reduces their availability still further.
Society signalled its abhorrence of attacks on fire, ambulance and other emergency workers through the Scottish parliamentary act that increased penalties for such assaults. Consideration may have to be given to extending the scope of such legislation to include other public sector workers. In the meantime, the courts could play a role by handing out tougher sentences to the perpetrators of such attacks.
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