Monday, 23 January 2012

The benefits cap is all about morality, with a nonchalant regard for the consequences

Today's debates about the Government's proposed benefit cap have been unusual in the context of welfare reform.  Few numbers have been throw about, there is little talk about policy objectives and whether the cap will boost employment seems at best a side issue.

Instead, the policy is all about morality and, more specifically, about what is fair and what is unfair.  According to the Coalition - and, seemingly, the 75% of the public who agree with them - it is only fair to cap the total amount of benefits an out-of-work household can claim at the same level as median earnings.  If you can take in more through benefits than you can through the average income then, according to this logic, there is something deeply wrong with the welfare state.

Putting aside whether this a morally justifiable position to take, perhaps the most worrying feature of the debate has been the complete sidelining of the likely effects and outcomes of the policy.  The consequences of the cap will be horrific for those affected (just a few are outlined here by the Guardian).  Yet in debate after debate these issues - from child poverty to homelessness - are brushed aside with remarkable nonchalance.  What matters - and only matters, it seems - is justice for the taxpayer.

You can't take morality and justice out of social policy.  But equally, you can't and shouldn't take out evidence.  In debating the benefit cap the Government and its many supporters are doing precisely the latter.  The social and economic fall-outs from the cap have become secondary to notions of justice, and those who are seeking justice care little for the condemned.

Policy-making should always be about combining your politics with the evidence.  People on the left have  often wrestled with this dual concern: as the desire to seek economic justice has often clashed with the need for economic efficiency to fund the goals of social democracy.  Yet politicians can sometimes find themselves in a dangerous comfort zone: when the public are on their side they can resort to political manoeuvres with little regard of the consequences.  This is where the Conservatives find themselves today on welfare; the limits on how far they will go are unknown and, at this point in time, deeply unsettling for those who care about the welfare state.

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