Parties need to make the welfare system work, not just act "tough". Photo: Getty
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While the number of benefit claimants is falling, flaws are emerging in the system

A new report shows the early signs of claimant numbers decreasing, but serious problems nevertheless emerging with how the system operates.

Welfare reform has been one of the most controversial parts of the coalition government’s reform programme since coming to power in 2010. A New Policy Institute report published this week finds that while claimant numbers are falling, serious problems are emerging with how the system operates.

Earlier this week, the New Policy Institute published its latest Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion report - an annual, independent assessment of poverty and other forms of disadvantage across the UK. One of the themes of the report is welfare – how many people receive benefits, how much it costs, and how well the system is working to provide support to those who need it. Early signs are that while the number of claimants is falling, cracks are nevertheless emerging in how the system operates.

Our research suggests that on several counts the government is reducing welfare spending. Overall claimant numbers are falling, mainly due to falling JSA claims. Indeed, the number of new JSA claims fell from 3.5 million in 2013 to 2.9 million in 2014, while the number who had been claiming for over a year fell from 430,000 to 310,000. The number of people claiming housing benefit fell last year as well. Moreover, there is some evidence that expenditure on some benefits – tax credits mainly, housing benefit possibly – has peaked.

But when we look more closely at specific policy changes, problems become evident. Take, for instance, the Work Programme. JSA claimants are now more likely to be sanctioned for not going on the Work Programme than they are to actually attend the Work Programme, never mind get a job through it.

Meanwhile, as the graph below shows over 60,000 people had to wait at least 9 months for a decision to be made on their Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claim in 2014, over 50,000 of whom were then found to be entitled to the benefit anyway.

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One of the most contentious aspects of the Government’s reform agenda has been the increasing use of sanctions. As the graph shows below, the number of JSA claimants having their benefits stopped was at a record high in 2013/14, at around 800,000. Another 400,000 claims were referred for sanction, but the decision was made not to stop the payment. This is now lower than the number of claims that were ended before a decision on a sanction could be made – 500,000 last year – and removed from the claimant count altogether.

(Click on chart to enlarge)


The disregard with which benefit recipients are treated would not be acceptable in any other public service. The costs of welfare and the need to reform it will be central to the manifestos of the main parties at next year’s election, as they always are. But the system must be effective and fair. Applicants need to know that their claims will be dealt with swiftly and fairly. The conditions under which people can claim benefits need to be clear and rational. All parties will doubtless insist next year that they are tough on welfare, but they need to be able to demonstrate that they can make the system work.

Theo Barry Born is a research analyst at the New Policy Institute

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.