Fight over morality of benefit caps splits UK

A tale of two cities: Winners and losers in Britain’s reformed welfare system.

This week major changes to the British welfare system begin. Supporters say people must be encouraged into work that pays. Critics say deprived communities will be ground down.

Yesterday major changes to welfare were launched in Britain, in parts of London at first and across the rest of the country over the next few months. The bitter dispute that has simmered for weeks between ministers who want to reform the benefits system, and charities who campaign for those living in poverty, instantly reached boiling point.

Benefits paid to those of working age will be capped, so that no family, no matter how many children it contains, can receive more than £26,000 per year – the average level of earnings. Increases to benefits will be limited to 1%. And those living in homes with spare rooms will see their council tax increased.

One effect will be to reduce the incomes of large families, and force some to move out of their homes or local area.

Part of the Government’s motive is clear: to save money on the ballooning cost of welfare, which is now a third of all public spending at over £200 billion per year. But the Conservative ministers in charge of the cost-cutting also insist the changes have a moral purpose: to encourage people into work, boost self-reliance and enterprise, and save Britons from wasting their lives in the expectation that they can always fall back on the state.

Opponents of the changes say this argument is misleading: the majority of those who will be hit by the 1% limit on benefit increases are actually in work, they point out. And some of the biggest losers will be lone parents, who have limited flexibility in combining a job with looking after children.

Others warn of a self-defeating downward spiral in areas already blighted by poverty: yes, those places have a larger-than-average proportion of the population claiming benefits. But removing money from the local economy will hit local businesses, reducing even further the number and quality of jobs available. This, they say, will hurt deprived coastal towns and entire regions of the North of England hard. Meanwhile, affluent areas of the South East will be largely unaffected, worsening the already-marked divide between prosperous and struggling parts of the country.

Cruel or kind?

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Beveridge report, which laid the foundations for the welfare state and its ‘cradle to grave’ protection for citizens in need of financial support. One of the famous Five Giant Evils of society Beveridge wanted to defeat was idleness. Conservative reformers argue that the benefits system in its current form has failed in this objective.

‘Unjust!’ cry their opponents: these changes will harm a society that is already too polarised between the haves and the have-nots. Claiming the moral high ground while making life harder for poor families is, in itself, immoral.

You Decide

  1. Will welfare reform change the nature of the UK? For better or for worse?
  2. Does the debate about welfare reform always divide and polarise? Why?


  1. Take a class vote on whether the benefits system should be rationed more strictly: you could make it a secret ballot or a show of hands.
  2. Research the origins of the UK benefits system in the Beveridge report: why might that model no longer work?

Some People Say...

“The best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.’ Benjamin Franklin”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t know who to agree with.
That’s OK. Most opinion polls show strong backing for the reforms, but also reveal major misunderstandings – huge over-estimates of the amount of benefit claimed fraudulently, for example. Reserving your opinion until we have some evidence of the effect of these changes may be quite sensible.
And when will that be?
It will depend on where you are, and on the UK’s route out of recession. Some areas will face big reductions in the amount of money local people have available to them, but residents of other regions may notice nothing very much. If the overall economy improves, people with reduced benefits will have a better chance of finding work. If not, there could permanently be more hardship.

Word Watch

Working age benefits
These include any payments to a household of jobseekers allowance, income support, child benefit and housing benefit.
William Beveridge was a Liberal politician in the coalition government during the Second World War. His report on building a welfare state was published in 1942 and hundreds of thousands of copies were read by ordinary citizens interested in the plan, which formed the basis of many of the reforms carried out by the 1945 Labour government led by Clement Attlee.
Five Giant Evils
Beveridge wrote that society was beset by the evils of Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance and Idleness. These ‘giants’ were what the welfare state, the National Health Service and compulsory state secondary schooling were designed to slay.


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