I am confused. I have a grade A in GCSE Latin. This, according to current thinking is both A Good Thing (Latin) and A Bad Thing (GCSE). Perhaps the latter point of view is right and the reason I am confused is that I’m wrong in my understanding that a “benefit” is that which does good to the recipient. Those more classically (or more expensively) educated than I seem to be of the opinion that the origins of the word lie more in a grudging conferral of patrician favour. I can’t see the etymology for that interpretation, but perhaps, as a comprehensive pupil, I wouldn’t.
Today, in his Spending Round, George Osborne announced that Winter Fuel payments are to be withdrawn from those living overseas, on the grounds, apparently, that Abroad Is Hot. How that applies to those living in the famously temperate winter climes of, say, the Alps is unclear. Perhaps, just as BoJo blames the Met Office and warnings of climate change for the blistering of the Home Counties with redundant swimming pools, so George/Jeffrey Osborne will precipitate a ski-ing slump across Europe as rumours spread that snow and ice are henceforth to be things of the past.
Maybe we should welcome this cautious shift in focus from the feckless scrounger of lore to the greedy OAP living it up on the Costas. After all, 47% of all benefit spending goes on state pensions alone, with a further decent chunk made up of other benefit payments to those no longer of working age. Add in free prescriptions, bus passes, TV licences and the winter fuel payment itself, and, in these cash strapped times, Granny seems to be doing rather well. It’s tempting to look at many of my parents’ generation, who took lucrative early retirement (albeit from relatively modest jobs) to live in houses worth dizzying multiples of what they originally cost, enjoying a leisurely late-middle-age with holidays, home improvements and cars, and wonder why they should be exempt from the cuts which are falling so heavily on the sick, the disabled and the vulnerable.
It would be tempting, but it would be wrong. Not on the oft-touted ground that they paid their taxes in the expectation of certain rewards; after all, anyone working now is forking over tax and National Insurance contributions with precious little hope that they will do anything much more over time than sandbag the too-big-to-fail banking sector. Nor on the grounds that they are unrepresentative: “pensioner” is as meaningful a term when assessing someone’s circumstances as “mother”. It’s wrong, because envy and opinion polls are no sound basis for deciding how to award public funds.
Of all the jobs in the world, addressing the complexities and anomalies of the British social security system is not one which appeals. The big universal benefits are perceived to be outdated and unaffordable in this economic climate. Child Benefit has already been cut: not fully subject to means testing, but withdrawn instead from one easy-to-identify group in a clumsy fudge. The public applauded loudly, but amidst all the holier-than-thou renunciations from noble Cabinet millionaires, it’s unclear whether people appreciate that the taxpayer continues to pay, in considerable amounts, Child Benefit to very wealthy people.
The same applies now to the withdrawal of WFA. A millionaire with a holiday home in Malaga will still be eligible; a destitute elderly couple, trapped by the European property crash in a nightmare reversal of their dream retirement, won’t. Will we, however, be spun the line that the undeserving are no longer draining scant public resources? You betcha.
I haven’t heard anyone ask of this government: why, amidst the rhetoric of tough choices and unavoidable spending cuts, it is deliberately making decisions to continue paying wealthy individuals at the expense of those less well off? Universal benefits may be wasted on those who don’t need them, but at least the principle on which they’re paid is clear. If elements of means-testing are to be introduced, how is it defensible to pay, for example, Child Benefit on the basis of anything other than a child’s demonstrable need, or Winter Fuel payments for any other purpose than alleviating fuel poverty? I don’t argue that universal benefits should remain. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know whether or not they should, or if they are sustainable. What I do argue is that, if the system as it currently stands is genuinely unaffordable, tinkering around the edges in this way does nothing to render it less so. If we need to have a discussion about making all benefits means-tested, let’s have it in the open, and start from the fundamental point that money collected in taxation from people of all incomes should be redistributed in a transparent and ethical manner and on the basis of meeting need.
This chipping away, pandering to prejudice, and calculating that people will applaud the cuts as affecting those better off, is insidious and dangerous, as well as downright inefficient. It does nothing, really, to save money. It does everything to save face; a kind of “all in this together” figleaf to cover the glaring, growing inequalities in our society. It’s fine to acknowledge that people may not need a particular payment. It’s fine, too, to agree that you’re happy to renounce it on your own behalf. It’s not fine to unilaterally divert funding away from those who may need it in order to placate a sense of injustice you yourself perpetuate, purely in the interests of winning votes. Worse, it does everything to create and reinforce a sense of grievance which makes disinterested protest on behalf of those genuinely vulnerable ever less likely.
I hope that this announcement mobilises opposition: not, necessarily, to demand that universal benefits be maintained at all costs, but to require accountability in the process of deciding where to spend our money. To complete the misquote in the title, we should challenge this concept that claims arise from greed and go back, instead, to address how best we can meet the all-too-real needs around us. I’m pretty sure, after all, that that’s what benefits are for.