Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Have universal benefits had their day?

This week, Labour has made some (potentially) significant shifts in its welfare policy.  On Monday, Ed Balls announced that a future Labour government would seek to means-test the universal Winter Fuel Allowance.  And today, the BBC report that Ed Miliband will state that Labour wouldn't reinstate the universal principle to Child Benefit.  These are significant shifts: suggesting that Labour is coming into line with centre-right (and perhaps public) views on universality.

The Right have never liked universal benefits: seeing them as a waste of money and unaligned with the proper purpose of social security, which is need.  The Left have never really been able to argue against this point: many people receive benefits who don't, in the strict sense of the word, need them.  Instead, the Left has supported universality as a mechanism for maintaining support for the redistributive welfare state as a whole.

I've argued this point myself - and certainly think that universal benefits do help public support for welfare from dropping even further.  But this New Statesman piece makes a valid point: universality doesn't just come in the form of benefits, but also services: the NHS, schools, Sure Start centres and public transport (at least for pensioners).  And often, it's universal services - as opposed to universal benefits - that seem to command the most solid levels of public support.

So, whilst the death knell might be sounding for universal benefits, this doesn't mean it has to sound for the universal principle as a whole.  More free childcare instead of universal Child Benefit; well invested active labour market programmes for all unemployed people instead of widening eligibility for JSA; means-tested winter fuel payments but more social care for the elderly. Universal services, but not benefits, could kill two birds with one stone for the centre-left: economic credibility and a stronger welfare state.

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