Saturday, 9 February 2013

Bevan was right - it is essential we maintain universal benefits

Why on earth should we pay a winter fuel allowance of £250 to wealthy pensioners? At a time when we can barely afford to pay for benefits, if you believe the Coalition government, it just doesn't make any sense. Well the Coalition has got it wrong because it really does make perfect sense for the following reasons; if we want to maintain a decent system of social security, it must apply to all; furthermore the fact that universal benefits apply to all strengthens social solidarity, something which it is essential to maintain; then there is the cost of means testing, which is not only an expensive waste of money, but also deters people, particularly elderly people, from claiming the benefits they are entitled to.

In his recent Guardian article John Harris made the case for universal benefits, and he is absolutely right. As he said;
"Once again, we have to wearily go back to first principles. As the child benefit fiasco proves, means-testing and selectivity cost huge amounts of money and governmental effort. In stigmatising help and demanding engagement with a labyrinthine machine, selective benefits often fail to reach the people they are meant for (which is why over 25% of kids entitled to free school meals don't get them, and the means-testing of winter fuel payment would be dangerous)."
Some benefits, such as unemployment benefit - now stigmatised as 'Jobseekers Allowance' - which deliberately makes it sound like a hand out - will only ever apply to certain members of society for obvious reasons. But others such as child benefit must remain universal if they are going to be maintained at reasonable levels.

Of course conservatives would love to see the end of universal benefits. This is because they know that it would be so much easier then to further reduce the levels of benefits for the poorest in our society to pay for more tax cuts for the better off. Aneurin Bevan, the great Labour Party socialist, undertsood this very well and said;
"If benefits are restricted to the poor, they will end up being poor benefits."

Aneurin Bevan

Finally, one of the commenters on Jon Harris's article also summed it it up beautifully;
"The welfare state is a national insurance. You don't exclude some because they're too rich. It goes against the principle. Just as you don't exclude rich car drivers from claiming on their car insurance "because, Sir, you don't need it".'

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