Leaders: Benefits blackspots should not be permanent fixtures

IN THE new map of welfare benefits by constituency, published today, one defining feature may be contested: there is very little at all “new” about the pattern it reveals.

Indeed, its most depressing feature can be said to be its familiarity. Glasgow East is shown to have the highest cost in terms of benefits payments per head than any constituency in the UK. And no less than four constituencies in Glasgow appear in the top 20.

As we are now more than half a century on from the decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde, the conventional explanation of such high welfare costs being primarily a function of industrial decline has long worn thin. In truth, the figures may also be seen as illustrative of a more insidious and depressing process: less a welfare-cushioned “managed decline” as a decline that has defied attempts at the most earnest management. Today’s figures may also be seen as a failure of decades of cross-party commitment to welfarism to eradicate its most glaring concentrations. Sceptics may be driven to conclude that the greater and more pervasive the provision of conventional welfare, the greater and more persistent the phenomenon of welfare dependency.

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But all that would be to overlook another contestable feature of this map. It does not capture the extent to which tens of thousands have been helped out of poverty; the substantial improvement in life chances that welfare benefits have made possible and where welfare has provided an invaluable stepping-stone through periods of unemployment, illness and adversity. These constituencies do not have the hinterland of wealth and affluence that cushion such misfortunes in the south-east of England.

That said, welfare provision was never intended, as some fear has now become the case, to be a substitute for a life of productive work or a replacement for individual initiative and the drive for self-improvement. And it is on this perspective that the figures present a formidable, if familiar, challenge to policymakers. Should such concentrations be accepted as an inevitable and immovable feature of modern post-industrial life? If not, should current efforts to reform the welfare system be intensified, with greater incentives to encourage people back to work and curtailment of benefits for those who decline such opportunity?

Whether policymakers come at this from Left or Right, unionist or nationalist, resistance to reform is not an option, any more than bleak acceptance of this blighted map. This is particularly so in a period such as now, with the economy as good as in recession and unemployment continuing to rise to seriously problematic levels.

Well before this has peaked, the UK’s welfare bill overall is already some three times the totality of North Sea oil revenues. Even on the argument that such revenues are best used in the cause of mitigating the long withdrawing ebb-tide of our economic decline, it is utterly unsustainable.