How 'Facebook welfare' could reshape the benefits system

Putting social relationships, rather than the impersonal state, at the heart of the welfare system offers a route out of the negative debate about ‘scroungers’.

Generous benefits stop people working. That view, crudely put, is at the centre of the political debate about contributory welfare and benefit ‘scroungers’. It also explains why financial support for unemployed people in the UK is among the most meagre in the developed world. Stingy benefits give people little choice other than to get back to work as quickly as possible: nine in ten unemployed people are back in work within a year.

But for many workers, meagre benefits and tough sanctions create problems. A big drop in living standards during unemployment affords skilled workers no time to find jobs that put their skills to productive use – something that would benefit them, their employer and the taxpayer. It makes little economic sense to push our computer programmers into the nearest retail job just to save the state £71.70 per week in Jobseeker’s Allowance. The trouble is that while higher benefit levels would alleviate this problem, they would compromise work incentives.

There is a way to get the best of both worlds. By 2018, tens of millions of employees will be saving in a private pension thanks to auto-enrolment. That offers an opportunity to build an integrated system of pensions and unemployment savings – one that doesn’t risk diminishing people’s already low rainy-day savings in favour of retirement saving. Let’s call it a lifecycle account.

On hitting unemployment, benefits would automatically be topped-up to 70 per cent of a person’s prior earnings for up to six months, funded from their personal lifecycle account. They would get time to look for the right job, and in spending their own retirement money, jobseekers would have strong incentives to strike the right balance between taking a job today versus a better one tomorrow.

Can this approach tackle the sense that people who’ve not worked enough get “something for nothing” from welfare? Yes, but it will mean putting social relationships – rather than the impersonal state - at the heart of the benefits system.

Account holders would have to nominate three guarantors from their friends or family. They could go into the red while unemployed, giving them a better level of financial support. But their guarantors would be liable to repay a proportion of the money borrowed if their friend failed to find work and repay the cash.

People would be better supported in early unemployment, but in return their closest friends and family would have a direct interest in their work search activities. Harnessing the power of social networks, you might even call it ‘Facebook welfare’.

There is a route out of the negative debate about ‘scroungers’ but it will take a radical rethink of contributory welfare, putting compassionate obligation at the heart of the 21st century welfare state.  

People enter the Jobcentre Plus office in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.