John Dickie: Investing in welfare system would be to the benefit of us all

ATERMINALLY ill man is called by the Jobcentre to remind him to attend a work-focused interview, a condition of his receiving benefits.

Despite his wife's explanation that he has to undergo a serious throat operation the next day, the Jobcentre insists on conducting the interview by phone, causing untold stress for the family at a time when the welfare system should be supporting it.

A young family facing unemployment finds itself having to survive on 230 a week, 137 below what the general public believes is the minimum to get by in today's Britain.

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These are just two stories from the front-line of our welfare system. A system that, as the general election looms, politicians seem to agree needs reform. Yet current approaches – supported across the political spectrum – are increasing the hurdles that the sick, the disabled, the unemployed and those with caring responsibilities face.

They are leading to cuts in benefit levels that are already hopelessly inadequate and undermining action to eradicate child poverty.

The successive introduction of new benefits with even more conditions attached has resulted in a system that is so complex people often do not know what they are entitled to and are frequently plunged into financial crisis every time their circumstances change.

Why? In large part this is because too often politicians re- inforce, rather than challenge, unfounded myths that the system is so generous claimants are choosing not to work, and so lax that benefit fraud is a major problem.

They ignore the fact that benefit rates remain well below the poverty line and that levels of fraud are at an all-time low. In doing so, they stigmatise hundreds of thousands of ordinary voters as trapped in "welfare dependency" and, worse still, as "benefit scroungers". Reforms then prioritise getting people off benefits and cutting the welfare bill, rather than mending the safety net and improving work opportunities.

But if the next government is not to plunge our fellow citizens into even deeper poverty, then we need a more rational debate on welfare reform, a debate that listens to the organisations that work with those who are most affected but, even more importantly, to people who directly experience the system.

That is why the 40 organisations in the Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform (SCoWR) are meeting in Edinburgh today to publish our Manifesto for Welfare Reform. This manifesto, based on the experience of those we work with, calls for benefit rates to be increased so that no-one is left in poverty and all of us have a minimum quality of life that is socially acceptable.

It describes reforms that would ensure the system treats people with dignity. It proposes simplifying the system by increasing benefit disregards to make moves into work easier, and reducing the complexity and stigma of means-testing by making more use of universal benefits such as child benefit. It argues for reforms that would ensure that high-quality childcare and employment support is available to all of us and that take into account the very different legislative framework and key areas of devolved responsibility in Scotland.

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Making these reforms, investing in welfare and insuring against the risks of ill health, disability and unemployment would require investment. But that would pay a massive return, slashing the cost poverty imposes on society, removing barriers to paid employment, enhancing the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens and boosting the security of us all.

• John Dickie is head of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland and a member of the Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform