Few issues are more contentious than welfare reform. Few would argue that the system is in need of reform and that vigilance is needed to prevent welfare costs spiralling out of control.
Since 1948 the UK’s welfare bill, adjusted for inflation, has climbed from £11 billion to £200bn, an 18-fold increase. As a share of national income it has risen from 4 per cent to 13 per cent.
It is not the growth in the UK’s welfare bill per se – as a share of GDP it is by no means the highest in Europe – but the explosion in UK government debt and the rise in debt interest costs that drives the need for reform. But such a programme needs to be fair and avoid the perception that those less well off in society are unduly affected. Here there are grave concerns about the way the planned reforms are going to impact. The so-called bedroom tax for example is now widely seen to have been particularly an error of political judgment.
A report by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University studied by the Scottish Parliament’s welfare reform committee, finds that the government’s welfare reforms to date – including a cap on housing benefit, a freeze on child benefit and the scrapping of disability living allowance and incapacity benefits – have hit poverty-stricken areas the hardest. In Scotland the most severely hit area has been Glasgow Calton, where the area will see the average adult £880 a year worse off.
The Holyrood committee claims the changes would take £1.6bn a year out of the Scottish economy, though Scotland’s average loss of £460 a year per adult of working age is broadly on a par with the British average of £470.
Given that poorer areas almost by definition have a higher concentration of welfare claimants, it is inevitable that the impact of welfare reform here is more keenly felt. But it compels attention to two policy areas if the plight of those in our poorest areas is not to be worsened. One is to ensure that more precise targeting of welfare payments does not deprive those in genuine need and leave them worse off. The second is to ensure that government policy overall works to increase employment prospects in these areas, for it is regular and sustained employment that offers the most effective means of poverty alleviation. Here there is some progress: employment has increased by 48,000, unemployment has fallen by 10,000 and the number of people in Scotland claiming jobseekers’ allowance is 33,600 lower than 12 months ago.
That is encouraging. But it in no way lessens the need for greater care and sophistication in welfare reform policy. At present there seems to be too much concentration on driving through reforms to hit financial savings targets rather than on working to ensure that our welfare system provides an escalator out of poverty – and not a bleak staircase down to even greater deprivation.
Willing Murray on in title defence
It was a massive achievement for Andy Murray to win Wimbledon last year. But if that was not epic enough, an even more daunting challenge faces him: can he win a second time? As John McEnroe testifies, it is tougher to stay at the top than to get there in the first place, but for McEnroe it seemed easier to win Wimbledon the second time. “There is a lot less pressure. And sometimes you get hungrier when you’ve tasted it once.”
But the odds look challenging. Of the 20 first-time winners of the Wimbledon men’s singles title in the Open era, only four have gone on to retain their crown the following year.
Then there are questions over Murray’s current form. His back surgery means he is not yet back to his peak. Since his season began he has lost 11 times, more than he did in the whole of an injury-punctuated 2013. The records show he has beaten only one in the top 20. At the same stage in 2013, he had beaten nine players in that 20-strong top league.
But there is one quality that is invaluable in top class tennis and which Murray has consistently displayed: an indomitable will and determination to win. After his latest defeat he lost little time in getting back to the practice court with his new coach Amelie Mauresmo.
Murray has inspired millions with his grit and dedication. For all the formidable odds, let’s not forget that he reached at least the semi-finals in each of the past five years. He has the track record. He has the support of all of Scotland and the UK willing him to victory. And as he walks out on to the court as defending champion, the first British man to do so in decades, we wish him the very best of good fortune.