Leader: In defence of universal benefits

The government presents its far-reaching changes to the welfare system as a fiscal necessity. Introducing the Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill in the House of Commons on 8 January, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, declared: “We don’t take this decision lightly, but we have to get this deficit under control or this country will be bankrupt like Greece and like Spain and we’ll have huge borrowing costs.”

Yet many of the measures the government has brought in, or is proposing to bring in, fail on their own terms. The changes to child benefit, which came into effect on 7 January and transformed an entitlement available to all into a means-tested benefit, disbursed according to need, are a case in point. Experience shows that the bureaucratic costs of administering means-tested benefits frequently far outweigh the hoped-for savings.

Then there are the anomalies in the government’s scheme which led one of its natural supporters, the free-market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, to describe it as “pro - bably the single most incompetent change to the benefits system since the Second World War”. Under the changes, families in which one parent earns more than £50,000 will lose part of their child benefit, while those with a joint income of £90,000 in which both parents earn £45,000 will keep theirs.

Mr Duncan Smith likes to invoke the shade of Sir William Beveridge when defending his reforms, but the cuts to child benefit run counter to the animating spirit of the postwar welfare settlement, in which contributions made in work created entitlement to benefits – entitlements that were an expression of equal citizenship and status. The very universal character of welfare state institutions was seen as an important vehicle of social solidarity and cohesion.

Today, the government sees things very differently. In its view, welfare services are to be aimed only at those in direst need. The problem with this, as the social theorist Richard Titmuss once argued, is that “services for the poor will always be poor services”.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.