Posts Tagged ‘Welfare Reform’

The Strange Case of Sir David Freud

Sir David Freud, the Government’s most prominent and controversial welfare advisor, has quit to become a front bench Tory spokesman.

This may in time highlight the dangers of giving prominence to an agenda you do not fully believe in. David Freud has far more chance of a significant impact with the Tories given an increasingly likely election defeat for the government, and the Tories are already known to support his agenda far more fully, in practice and in spirit, than Labour do. You can get a good idea of Freud’s ideas by looking at his telegraph profile:

…and his BBC one:

Some of Freud’s overall beliefs are very reasonable, and difficult to argue with. The welfare system is almost certainly over-complicated, bureaucratic, inefficient and sometimes counter-productive for people going back into work. His rejection of the malicious description of people on the dole as inherently lazy is also to be admired:

“There’s good, evil, laziness and hard work in everyone, it’s a question of motivation. I do not accept the rhetoric about lazy scroungers. Even if they’re a Jack the Lad or a Jill the Lass, there’s usually something else as well – they’re illiterate or they’ve got no social skills.”

Freud is also willing to see serious money invested into helping people back to work – something that should be more widely followed as an example, as many people who moan about the problems of the welfare system are all too often ignorant as to why it was needed to begin with, and how much it costs to solve what are very real problems.

What is worrying is actually the attitude Freud takes towards approaching the solution of these very real and complex problems, however. Having been shocked at the overall complexity of the system, it should have rung alarm bells as to how complex the overall problems it dealt with were, but Freud shows little appreciation as to how difficult it is to “solve” anything, instead describing the solution as “obvious”, which is worrying, considering that he doesn’t specify what “obvious” is.

The Telegraph then says, grandiosely:

“There can be few things more horrid than the welfare system. “It’s a mess nobody understands or can manage,” [Freud] says. He took three weeks to research and write the first draft of his report”,

…as if three weeks was a particularly long and arduous time to spend researching such a thing. But I find it incredible that as little time as three weeks is needed for researching such an issue. The welfare state is well known not only as one of the most complicated organisations in existence, but also as an organisation whose need of reform over the last half-century has only been matched by the lack of success of those trying to reform it. The failure of countless governments, advisers, experts and managers to agree on how to reform the welfare system into something more efficient and successful, provides us with a big clue as to how difficult the task awaiting any energetic and bold David Freud, and to claim that the task is anything near “obvious” or simple smacks of naivety, or even carelessness.

Freud’s most prominent idea, it seems, is the outsourcing of jobseeking programmes. This would involve both the voluntary and private sector, though it would seem from Freud’s comments that he is thinking mainly of the latter – more on the voluntary sector later. Though I’m generally not a fan of employing the private sector to this end, because there’s a very real danger of the creation of lots of non-jobs which mess the system around and do nobody any good in the long-term, I recognise the fact the private sector can play a useful role in creating new jobs for the long-term unemployed, and has been used to at least some success in, for example, Denmark. However, it has to be regulated carefully, and more to the point is at its least likely to be useful in the midst of a recession, when the problem is that of the most expendable jobs being shed in the ruthless pursuit of companies cutting cost. Not, then, the most likely time for a business to think of taking risks in creating new jobs for the unemployed, even if there are significant financial incentives to do so.

The other, more deep-set, problem is simply that the private sector is not going to prove an impartial mechanism for everyone seeking work – which means that quite apart from being potentially unreliable, this solution only covers one part of the problem. No matter how much you make this a lucrative market for the private sector, there will:

a) Be certain jobs and certain employees who are in least demand, which will mean significant sections of the unemployed largely left behind by this reform.

b) More to the point, the Private Sector would by no means automatically provide the right job for someone. I am by no means advocating that people on jobseeker’s allowance should be fussy over what work they go back into, but on the other hand there are always potentially jobs which are “not right” for somebody’s situation, circumstances or even health. Unemployment benefits were introduced to give people freedom from economic oppression, and some control over their lives – in other words, a liberal policy. It would be a pity to lose this element – after all, Beveridge’s second groundbreaking report was called “Full Employment in a Free Society” for a reason.

This brings me on to a second issue – that of single parents, or “lone parents”, the most obvious candidate for potential jobs being “not right”. Now, Freud makes a point of saying that lone parents should “have to work when their children reach five”. But he appears to fail to appreciate exactly why they haven’t “had” to work until their children reach 16 or leave full-time secondary education, up till now. The reason is that there are many different types of job which can be incompatible with parenting. Even with cheap-to-free childcare – for whatever some people might like to believe, childcare simply is not a panacea for lack of parenting time, and it isn’t healthy to view it as such. It can be useful, but healthy parenting necessitates spending time with your kids, and if you have to commute two hours each way to a low-paid, 6-day, long hours job it is not likely to impact positively on one’s ability to give children enough time – and furthermore, parents should have a right to quality time with their children. That can only be a positive thing, it ought to be recognised as healthy to both parent and child. Simply put we should have recognised this fundamental point long ago.

Now, I have no wish to see parents forced into “economic house arrest” and encouraged to stay at home and watch daytime TV, as Freud puts it. People should be rewarded for being productive and doing work compatible with their children, either voluntary or paid. It’s good for us, it’s good for the economy, it’s good for society. But people should be encouraged, and given the freedom to choose work compatible with parenting, not forced into finding any generic work, because that takes away such freedom and risks striking right at the heart of Thatcher’s favourite community: the family. And that would be wrong, plain and simple.

Freud says “The point about my approach is you don’t need to make a huge fuss about categorising people – everyone should be able to work.” But this almost sounds childish in its simplicity: no-one should be “categorised”, but sometimes people have circumstances that need to be taken into account. To suggest that parents with children do not have important circumstances different to others is simply absurd. And it doesn’t stop there. The point about welfare to work is getting people into a long-term, lasting and productive job when at all possible, and never forcing someone into a job which causes damage to both themselves and their family. And this should be a fundamental principle of the welfare system.

Finally, Freud is also right to point out the way the Incapacity Benefit has been abused – not least by governments keen to make use of an unemployment benefit that doesn’t add to the unemployment figures – but his comment about GPs “classic conflict of interest” is somewhat tactless to say the least. GPs are supposed to be a medical confident of people, and look after their patients’ needs, and to suggest that independent GPs start performing tests for disabling conditions is travelling down the dangerous road towards entirely impersonalising healthcare and removing patient rights. Far better, for once, to take an idea the government is now bringing in: after a certain amount of time on Incapacity Benefit a more detailed assessment specifying what work their patient is capable of doing is required, and then it is negotiated with your personal advisor at the job centre – a capability assessment.

Incidentally, Freud does not even appear to have all of his facts right about the IB claiming process: though your local GP is involved, an approved healthcare professional now has to be involved in assessing your claim, who produces the separate capability report: in other words, not only is this “conflict of interest” tactless, it is also misleading. GPs and patients do not have full control of the IB assessment anymore, even if they once did.

In conclusion, if the Tories win the election, David Freud might be something of a cause for concern, despite his good intentions; at least, if he does not do more in-depth research and analysis into the problems of the welfare state. Because though existing problems are often obvious, potential solutions rarely are – otherwise the welfare state when introduced would have been perfect, as it was set up to address one of the most obvious and shocking problems of human history.

[This note is archived from 17 February 2009]