Leaders: Why benefits revamp worth pursuing | Terry Wogan

Terry Wogan. Picture: Jon Savage

Terry Wogan. Picture: Jon Savage

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A cardinal requirement of a social welfare system is that it should help people in difficult circumstances effectively.

It should also be fair and transparent. That it not the case today, with our complex matrix of different rates, tiers, thresholds, allowances reliefs and exemptions. So it is brave of the think-tank Reform Scotland to come up with radical proposals that claim to both incentivise work and de-clutter the existing system.

It proposes the replacement of the current work-related benefits system with a new Basic Income Guarantee. It argues that there remains a disincentive to work (the “welfare trap”) caused by the high level of marginal taxes faced by those moving into work or increasing their hours.

On the face of it, this might run headlong into a greater difficulty: that guaranteeing everyone a basic income as a benefit would in due course lead to a further welfare trap, requiring even more exemptions, tapers and reliefs. The Reform Scotland paper itself itemises no less than 29 different benefits including Employment and Support Allowance, Personal Independence Payment, Income Support, incapacity benefit, Universal Credit, Child Benefit, One Parent Benefit and Guardian’s Allowance together costing £93.6 billion. Both the levels and the qualification criteria of each one of these are ferociously defended and hostile to amendment.

There is little doubt that the current system, and even the soon-to-arrive Universal Credit, is too complicated and those complications mean that in many cases work does not pay. It is right that policy reformers should be looking at this, just as other countries – notably Switzerland – are also actively considering reform.

Another potential advantage of the proposals would be the sweeping away of different rates for marital status, and that the basis for benefits and reliefs should be more focused on individuals rather than households. This would tackle some of the anomalously large payments claimed by some families. However, reform here needs to take note of powerful evidence that, overall, the family unit still remains the most popular and stable arrangement for the care, rearing and socialisation of children.

The Reform Scotland paper concludes that the benefits system should protect the unemployed and under-employed, but at the same time must reduce – and ideally remove – any disincentives to take work, particularly part-time work. A manifest failing of the present system is the cash penalty for many taking up employment. Reform Scotland believes that the system should act as a “safety net” to provide financial security for those out of work, and a “safety trampoline” to encourage more people to re-join the workforce.

Few would argue against simplification of the current system, and although a universal payment might at first seem more likely to create a welfare trap than what we have at the moment, if it is set at the right rate and the incentives for all work are maintained then it would be a bold improvement.

A genuine National Treasure

To describe someone as “a national treasure” has become a cliché. But seldom has it been more true than in the case of Sir Terry Wogan. The radio broadcaster and chat show host endeared himself to millions with a soft, gentle humour perfectly suited to his breakfast time radio programmes and his TV interviews.

Little wonder that tributes have poured in. His breakfast radio shows became for millions an unmissable start to the day. Whether it was light-hearted exchanges with listeners or his witty mockery of BBC bosses – an art form with which millions of beleaguered office workers came to identify – he raised the perfect humorous touch into a unique art.

As for his TV chat shows, it is no easy task to put a guest at ease while extracting responses that opened them to soft ridicule – a human can opener with a velvet touch. But it is his incomparable commentary on the Eurovision Song Contest that many will most fondly remember him.

Until Wogan arrived, the Eurovision pantomime was covered with deadly seriousness. It took the barbed commentary of Wogan to expose its absurdities. This he did with astute observation and a masterful command of irony. In due course he had a profound influence on the contest, encouraging other countries to scrap their po-faced style of reportage and adopt more Wogan-esque coverage.

Whether live “on air” or in his personal dealings with staff and colleagues, Sir Terry maintained an unfailing warmth and gentility – a character trait that endeared him in a world riddled with envy and rivalries, and which helps explain the huge flow of tributes from leading broadcasting figures throughout yesterday.

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