I’ve just come back from a couple of weeks on the continent, doing some work, and having some fun. The first week was spent at 3GSM, the massive mobile industry trade show over in Barcelona. The second driving back through France, visiting friends and various tourist sites along the way. The trip has inspired a few new ideas and perspectives on the future.
A conversation with a friend in Paris sparked this particular post. He has been in welfare and social services, and helping to create policy around these areas, for the last thirty years. He has come to a conclusion that some might see as radical: that the current approach to the welfare state in Europe, largely driven by handouts, is doomed to failure. We need to tackle the root causes of poverty more effectively, and unfortunately the handouts themselves might be part of the problem.
It all sounds fairly right wing, the sort of language an old Tory government might have used before announcing swingeing cuts to the welfare state (calling benefits ‘handouts’ is typical Daily Mail-style inflammatory language, but that might just have been the translation). However, the point itself makes a lot of sense. The state can’t afford to budget for endless expenditure on benefits, given the growing and ageing population. We also simply can’t afford to have so many people not working. I learned at a conference yesterday that there are now a million fewer 20-somethings than there were 10 years ago, and apparently thirty percent of public servants qualify for retirement in the next decade.
Those capable of work need to be given every opportunity, and encouragement, to move in to work. This includes all sorts of groups even the discussion of whom is largely a no-go area for many politicians: notably the disabled, and single parents.
The root causes of unemployment are many, but there are some obvious ones that need to be addressed. The greed and laziness theories of some of the press, who describe armies of benefit cheats — largely asylum seekers in their misguided view — are generally held to be inaccurate within the profession. Education, childcare and simple lack of confidence are more pertinent issues to be addressed than criminality.
Where the difficulty lies is getting the right balance between carrot and stick. The stick is generally the withdrawal of benefits but this has to be applied long after people have been given the opportunities. The carrots are many: greater wealth should be the obvious one, but there is also the impact on self-esteem and quality of life that the right job can bring. Certainly though, if some people are genuinely better off on benefits then this needs to be addressed. The current British government seems to be moving in the right direction — if a little slowly — by increasing the provision of childcare before and after school. Free childcare for all might be scarily expensive from the chancellor’s perspective but it is hard to argue against the long-term benefits to the country, both social and financial.
And this is where the problem lies: the solution requires a long-term view. Yet most politicians seem to be more concerned with re-election than actually making a difference. Witness the glacial pace of change implemented by the ‘New’ Labour government despite a radical agenda and a landslide victory. The short-term approach means increasing benefits for popular or vote-winning constituencies (savings schemes for kids, re-establishing the link with inflation for pensions), and cutting those for the more unpopular groups (to the point where genuine asylum seekers are treated like criminals whatever their reason for entering the country).
So to the future: we either need more selfless politicians, or a different form of government. Flip-flopping between left and right every few years is a very slow way to make progress, and we can’t afford to be slow about this.