We need to enable welfare contribution, not just enforce it

Is there a place for the contributory principle in the 21st century?

Liam Byrne’s article in the Guardian over the weekend re-opened the debate about what a more contributory system of social security might actually mean. Stating that "we must do more to strengthen the old principle of contribution: there are lots of people right now who feel they pay an awful lot more in than they ever get back," Byrne gave an example that doesn’t have much to do with the benefit system: giving priority in social housing allocations to those who "work and contribute to their community".

But how much scope is there for a revived contributory principle? And how far might this go to increasing public support for social security? We looked at the options for a more contributory system within social security in a report for the TUC last May. Here’s four things we concluded:

No system of social security can be based only on contributions

There’s a lot of confusion about the role of contributory benefits.

Allegra Stratton tweeted yesterday:

This is clearly a false choice. Any system of social security needs to meet different functions, and different models will be appropriate for each.

Let’s concentrate on working age benefits, as neither government nor opposition seems to be willing to discuss cutting pensioners’ entitlements. Universal benefits are appropriate for meeting additional costs faced by a particular group – those with children (Child Benefit was universal until recently), or those who face extra costs because of disability; the Government’s new Personal Independence Payment, like its predecessor Disability Living Allowance, is a universal benefit in that it’s not means tested, and applies universally to those meeting the conditions.

Tax credits primarily serve to top up wages for families with children – to ensure the politician's goal of ensuring that "work always pays" (something they’ve done pretty successfully to date). There’s a debate to be had about the extent to which tax credit expenditure could be reduced by increasing earnings – but it would be clearly absurd to base wage supplements on previous employment records (and we don’t think anyone is actually suggesting this).

Where the principle of contribution comes in is in the "insurance" functions of social security: preventing poverty during periods of either unplanned absence from work (sickness or unemployment) or planned absence (maternity leave). This is where the contributory principle has always functioned, and where its revival or enhancement looks most promising (of which more below).

A more contributory system isn’t a magic bullet

We know that in the long term, the more insurance based, earnings related systems prevalent in continental Europe are in general more popular than our own more means tested system. But we can’t assume that introducing more contributory elements into the UK system would instantly restore credibility to the social security system, for two reasons.

Firstly, as we argued in the report, and with Ben Baumberg in Benefits stigma in Britain, the widespread perception that the system is allowing people to gain "something for nothing" is based more on political and media representation of social security than experience. Prior to the recession, out-of-work benefit receipt was falling steadily; in contrast, media coverage depicting claimants as "scroungers" or using the vocabulary of non-reciprocity was rising sharply.

A more contributory system might offer a peg on which to hang a rhetorical strategy that seeks to convince people that the benefit system is largely doing the job it’s supposed to, but it’s unlikely to be enough on its own to restore credibility to the system. As we argued in the report, in everyday life people generally have very little information on which to assess whether claimants are "deserving" of support or not, or whether they have made contributions, and there is compelling evidence that they supplement this limited information with media stories. There is good reason, both empirically and theoretically, for suspecting that the default setting for views on social security in the UK is strongly negative.

Secondly, the idea that the UK might move rapidly to a fully-fledged contributory system seems implausible. The proposals for making contributions more important which have emerged so far, including ours, are pretty modest and wouldn’t constitute fundamental changes to a system which relies heavily on means-testing. As a long-term ambition, a rebalancing of contributory, universal and means-tested elements may be attractive, but as a way of dealing with the immediate perceived problem of legitimacy, we shouldn’t expect too much.

A contributory system could be used to break down some of the distinctions between employment and caring, rather than reinforcing them

A frequent critique of contributory systems is that they fail to recognise forms of contribution other than employment – caring for children or relatives for example. The current contributory system, National Insurance, actually does recognise these activities: recipients of Carer’s Allowance receive National Insurance credits, as do those on paid maternity leave.

We think that the key challenge for social security in the future should be to encourage employment. But we proposed a way that a more contributory system might do this by making combining employment and caring more compatible. As we put it in a previous blog for Touchstone:

We take our cue from the Belgian "time credit" system, in which contributions build up to the right to take up to a year off from employment, with financial support, to enable a range of activities including childcare, caring for a sick or elderly relative, or training. As a step towards this, we suggest that parents’ current entitlement to a period of unpaid parental leave could be supported through a contributions related payment. This model could also be extended to workers who need to provide temporary support for elderly or disabled relatives.

Thinking about our current system of parental leave and payment structures might also give us some clues towards how we could design a revival of the contributory principle in areas such as unemployment and sickness benefits. Statutory Maternity Pay at present is earnings related for six weeks, providing a cushion when people first exit employment, and then reverts to a flat rate payment, recognising that over time, most people’s needs will be broadly similar. If we wanted to think in the long term about how to embed a more earnings related system, this might be one model.

Social security exists in context: policies to promote employment will largely exist outside the social security system

Perhaps the most encouraging part of Liam Byrne’s article was the statement of a Labour commitment to full employment, one of Beveridge’s original "fundamental assumptions" underlying his design for National Insurance (alongside the establishment of the National Health Service and the introduction of Family Allowances, now Child Benefit). We argued in the report that this needs to be a commitment that takes into account the reasons why many people remain unemployed: a lack of childcare (now thankfully receiving attention from all sides), and the failure to design an employer-based strategy to enable disabled people to fulfil their potential in the workplace. In this way, "enabling contribution" could be as much a focus of policy as enforcing it through the social security system.

Photograph: Getty Images
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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn ally Diane Abbott argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.