Moralizing destitution

Now the clergy are involved. That adds a whole new dimension to the debate.

A bench of bishops and a whole bunch of other church leaders have called on David Cameron’s government to act to address hunger. They note that:

Britain is the world’s seventh largest economy and yet people are going hungry … Half a million people have visited foodbanks in the UK since last Easter and 5,500 people were admitted to hospital in the UK for malnutrition last year.

While not placing the blame for this situation exclusively at the door of the Government’s welfare reform agenda, the church leaders claim that half those using foodbanks:

… have been put in that situation by cut backs to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions.

They see a “moral imperative” to act in the face of this “national crisis”.

This call to arms comes shortly after Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols labelled the coalition’s welfare cuts a “disgrace”. The system has become increasingly punitive and leaves an increasing number of people destitute. He suggests that, for some at least, the welfare safety net has been torn apart.


These ecclesiastical interventions have elicited a sharp response from the Government. The Prime Minister took to the pages of the Daily Telegraph to outline his grounds for disagreeing “deeply”.

The principle underpinning reform is that:

Those who can’t work will be always supported, but those who can work have the responsibility to do so. The welfare system should never take that responsibility away.

All the Coalition’s reforms are, it is argued, in line with that principle.

Cameron’s piece is a masterclass in spin, misdirection and dubious use of statistics. It includes the obligatory criticism of policies pursued by the previous Labour Government. These are policies that, as far as one can tell, are either a product of the Conservatives’ own wild imaginings or must have existed in a universe parallel to our own. In this respect, it is entirely characteristic of the way the Government goes about engaging with its critics, particularly on welfare reform.

The key to the Government’s strategy when seeking to rebuff criticism is to focus on the broad principles, the parameters of the system, and outlying cases that can be used to stoke voters’ indignation. By doing so it ignores most of the criticism, which is often directed at the details of how the system is being administered.

Ministers reiterate the point that people who can work, should work and should therefore be tested for work capability. If found fit to work then individuals may no longer be eligible for financial support intended for the incapacitated. That is an argument that seems, at first sight, uncontroversial.

But Ministers will hardly engage with the argument that those who are being moved off Incapacity Benefit include many who are gravely or terminally ill or those who are genuinely incapacitated and have little chance that their condition will improve. They decline to engage with the observation that many decisions to remove benefits are overturned on appeal, suggesting the original decision was incorrect. They seek to distract attention from the numerous cases of people who have died shortly after being declared fit to work.

In his Telegraph article David Cameron sets out the payment rates for Job Seekers Allowance to demonstrate that the safety net still exists.

But the issue isn’t the payment rates, even though they are, in themselves, modest by international standards. The problem is that a regime characterized by increasingly draconian job search requirements and increasingly punitive sanctions is denying people access to the support needed to keep them from destitution.

While Cameron may not engage with these criticism publicly, we know that, under pressure, the Government has set up its own inquiry into how the sanctions regime is being operated.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Cameron’s piece is the framing he offers for the Government’s welfare reforms. He concludes:

our welfare reforms … are about giving new purpose, new opportunity, new hope — and yes, new responsibility to people who had previously been written off with no chance.
Seeing these reforms through is at the heart of our long-term economic plan — and it is at the heart, too, of our social and moral mission in politics today.

So we have a clash of contrasting moralities. Church leaders feel that in a rich country it is immoral for a government not to ensure sufficient support for disadvantaged households to avoid them being rendered destitute. The Conservatives would appear to believe, in contrast, they have a moral duty to remove support from those who fail to exert themselves sufficiently in securing work. However extravagant or perverse the job search requirements might be. Destitution is, presumably, a spur to ever greater effort.


The disincentive effects of social security is an age-old debate. And in Britain the concept of less eligibility is always lurking in the background. Social security systems should be kept as miserly, unpleasant and stigmatising as possible in order to ensure they don’t induce idleness.

Yet, this is a debate which needs to be given a modern twist.

First, the Conservatives largely fail to engage with the fact that now, for the first time, more than half the poor are in work not out of work. So work does not automatically deliver the solution to the problem. Ignoring this inconvenient fact enables Cameron, seemingly without irony, to write:

There are more people in work than ever before — 1.3 million more since the last election who are able to count on the security and stability of a regular pay cheque.

Second, there is a failure to link the political debate over social security and labour market participation with broader discussions about the future of work. Particularly the future of unskilled work. Outside the Westminster bubble there are plenty of people mindful of the impact of automation and robotics on low skilled work, or concerned about the hollowing out of middle-range roles. With echoes of Keynes writing in the 1930s, there has been plenty of debate about whether we are able to meet the material needs of society without ever needing to return to full employment.

If that is the case then what do we do with those who are ‘surplus to requirements’? There has been an outbreak of discussion about the desirability of an unconditional basic income in a number of countries. Indeed, elsewhere in Europe voters have been invited to express a view about whether such an income should be introduced.

A citizens’ income would be one solution to this problem. But it doesn’t really compute in a context where the political discourse over welfare has narrowed to define a citizen’s worth as directly proportionate to their labour market contribution.

We are going to have to (re)discover a different type of morality if we are going to arrive at a more humane system of social support fit for the realities of the twenty-first century.