Rachel Reeves (RR), who was promoted to Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary last Autumn, recently unnerved the left- that is, the real left- with an interview in which her tone on benefits claimants seemed a little too Tory. Her predecessor, Liam Byrne, was all too willing to jump on the benefits bashing bandwagon that has soured public opinion on the welfare system that any Brit might need one day. I am delighted to say that Reeves has now presented a coherent and broadly fair policy on social security.
RR (I’m hoping this will catch on as much as IDS, her opposite number) intends to do away with the American-style workfare and replace it with a two pronged system: the previously outlined Jobs Guarantee and a skills test for all new Job Seeker’s Allowance claimants. The latter would test job seeker’s english, maths and IT skills. Those whose skills are not sufficient for today’s employment market will be given free training. Importantly, skilled job seekers (yes, they do exist. Policymakers forget that too often) will not be forced into inappropriate training or workfare, unlike IDS’s system. But it’s worth noting that the test will help migrants who speak limited English and the poor or older people who haven’t used computers before.
Also, a contributory element would be restored so that unemployment benefits are boosted according to people’s National Insurance contributions. I’m broadly supportive of the aim: as in continental Europe, we would recognise that the contentious worker who falls on hard times after 20 years of work deserves a greater payment than the migrant who hasn’t paid a penny in UK tax. But, as others have pointed out, people should not be discriminated against because they were stay at home parents, or have just left school and haven’t had a chance to work yet. I hope RR has a solution: my suggestion is that in such circumstances, people are assumed to have a certain number of years of NI payments under their belt. I don’t write Labour policy though, unfortunately, so it is down to RR to close these gaps.
Yet it’s not just the policy that Labour is improving: it’s the thinking. RR has said that we must challenge falsehoods that have become prevalent in discussion on the welfare state. For example, many people supported by the state are also in work: there is no great divide. In any case, RR has also been bold enough to point out that being out of work does not constitute laziness. Thank goodness that somebody in politics is realising this.
There might be some hope for Britain’s social security system after all.