Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Photo: Getty
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The government is tripping up on welfare – a blessing and a curse for Labour

A slew of welfare stories this morning suggests the coalition is stumbling over its biggest bugbear: the benefits bill. Labour should play this carefully – in economic, not social, terms.

First, to untangle the welfare spending stories this morning:

  • Some leaked government memos show that the Department for Work and Pensions may be in danger of spending beyond the government’s self-imposed welfare spending cap. This is mainly due, according to civil servants, to rising claims of the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which was introduced in 2008 to replace the Incapacity Benefit.

    If the limit (£119.5bn) is breached, DWP ministers will have to answer to parliament and ask MPs to approve the additional cost, which the documents show it is “vulnerable” to having to spend.
     

  • Unfortunately for Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, this leak comes on the day he’s announcing his new welfare scheme of Universal Credit will be rolled out to 90 jobcentres in northwest England. This process should get underway next week. Implementing this new system has been a notoriously haphazard and slow process, and the new plans for the northwest will do more for furthering the discussion about government incompetence than celebrating a supposedly more efficient state.
     
  • In another blow to the government’s welfare record, Westminster’s favourite inquisitor Margaret Hodge MP and her crack team on the Public Accounts Committee have reported that changes to disability benefits have caused a “fiasco” for sick and disabled people. The committee calls the reforms, in the form of the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – eligibility for which is assessed by the infamous Atos fit-to-work tests – a “rushed” change, which has had a “shocking” impact on claimants.
     

This is bad for the government. Its benefit reforms and spending cap are intended to toughen its stance on welfare, a path popular with voters, yet this clumsiness certainly doesn’t foster the tough, lean image it’s attempting to present.

However, it is up to the Labour Party to play this correctly so that the government doesn’t get away with smothering negative stories with fresh Universal Credit rollouts and condemnation of their "soft" opposition.

Having announced his own proposed changes to benefits yesterday, Ed Miliband is clearly trying to display a viable plan for the welfare state to complement our age of austerity. Essentially, he’s doing Labour’s version of being “tough on welfare”. So it can’t just be the same attacks on the government, as the PAC has voiced, using "shocking" personal stories of claimants, and accusing ministers of not caring for our most vulnerable. Instead, the message must be a condemnation of its vulnerability to over-spending taxpayers’ money. A purely economic, and arguably more rightwing, position than Miliband has yet been quite ready to adopt.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.