Paul Spicker: Benefits have far wider role than helping the jobless

SOCIAL security policy is driven by myths and misconceptions. The details of social security benefits are mind-numbingly boring, unless you have the misfortune to fall into the web.

Politicians and the Press like easy soundbites: benefits are supposed to get people into work, or to help people who are poor. This is a long way from the full picture. We ask our benefits to do lots of things, for example, maintaining a minimum income, providing insurance, controlling behaviour, rewarding contribution to society, supporting families, servicing the labour market, financing housing, or covering needs.

The biggest use of benefits in Britain, by far, is to support pensioners. Then there are family benefits, such as tax credits and child benefit. There are benefits for people on low incomes – housing benefit, income support, council tax benefit. There are benefits for people with disabilities – meeting special needs, compensating people for their disabilities, and replacing lost income. There are benefits to release people from the labour market: mothers with young children; carers and people with long-term incapacity, many of whom are in early retirement and would not be expected to work if they had a private pension.

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Provision for the unemployed, which has become the government's main preoccupation, accounts for only a small proportion of benefits.

For much of its time in office, Labour has been changing the way social security works. The benefit offices have changed almost beyond recognition; call centres have become the norm. Instead of basing the administration on the rules of benefits, like insurance or needs testing, the system is now largely based on the client group – a service for pensioners, people with disabilities, unemployed people, families and so on.

Many of these reforms have worked well, but the government seems to be having second thoughts. The disability and carers service has been stuck back with pensions. Jobcentres, which had found a new role and sense of purpose, are having their functions spread across a range of services. Both Labour and Conservatives like the idea of a unified benefit for people of working age. It's a thoroughly bad idea: there are too many different needs to meet, and too many principles at play. If a unified benefit makes allowances for the range of circumstances, conditions and reasons to help people, it won't be a single benefit. If it doesn't, it will hurt people.

The proposal to move everyone into intensive, privatised training is based on the assumption that people will not return to work otherwise. In Scotland, nearly 190,000 people are unemployed. Despite the high levels of unemployment, only 13,000 of them – about one in 15 – have been claiming jobseekers' allowance for more than a year. If things get really bad, as they might, that number will pass 20,000.

The main problem lies with the job market, not with unemployed people – but even if that was not the case, there would be no justification for rebuilding much of the benefit system about such a small minority. The jobs have to be there, and they need a reasonable income to tide them over while they are looking.

I think we are in danger of losing sight of what benefits are for. We might want to work from 16 to 65, stay in one marriage, never get sick and retire on a comfortable income, but life is not like that. We shouldn't want to make people sell houses, cars, furniture or personal possessions because they've become unemployed or sick. Benefits are also there for social protection – making sure that an interruption in income is not a catastrophe. At a time of growing unemployment, the need for social protection is as great as ever.

• Paul Spicker is Professor of Public Policy at Aberdeen Business School