Reformed, simplified welfare is not only fair, but popular

Ian Parsley
Ian Parsley

The future of the Northern Ireland Assembly now seems to hinge on Welfare Reform.

The DUP had hoped to influence this in a hung parliament; Sinn Fein had hoped to be able to deliver some sort of deal under Labour.

Neither is now an option.

Both parties, and others, may want to consider why it is not an option.

The Conservatives won the UK General Election outright, increasing both its overall vote and vote share.

This happened predominantly because economic circumstances in most of the UK have improved.

In particular, two million more people are in work than was the case in 2010.

This means the proportion of the electorate who are in work had increased.

It is perhaps unsurprising, in that context, that an outright majority voted for broadly centre-right or right-wing candidates.

Low productivity and low pay (which are directly linked to each other) are now a genuine issue and a huge challenge.

However, the fact remains that being in work is a vast improvement on not being. This is about more than mere income, although that is important. It is about the social networks, the self-esteem and the broadened opportunities that come about through entering the workplace – be this in the public sector, in business, or in self-employment.

There are further, broader social benefits of work too.

Work at any level gives people the chance to work their way up to higher income for themselves, and to make a greater contribution to their workplace and to the economy (and indeed society) as a whole.

Most importantly of all, we have to ask who creates jobs? Jobs are created almost always by people who already have them.

We must never forget that the more people we have in work, the more people we can get into work. The current welfare system actively blocks people from entering the workplace.

On that basis alone, it is to be opposed, not supported; and reform of it is to be promoted, not rejected.

The current system is even worse than that. It is also far too complex. I meet people weekly who are not only confused by the array of benefits they could potentially apply for, but who are fed up banging into brick walls as they seek to access them.

This is grossly unfair – not only are people not getting benefits to which they are entitled, but they suffer additional stress from applying for them and being rejected.

The whole system is set up to catch fraudsters out, not to help people in genuine need – to the extent that those in genuine need are often locked out of it.

Therefore again, a simplified system, complete with a new straightforward Universal Credit, is again to be supported, not rejected. A simplified welfare system which rewards people who can work and cares for those who cannot is a popular welfare system.

It is peculiar, therefore, that the Northern Ireland parties are so unwilling to recognise this obvious point.

Reforming welfare in Northern Ireland should not be about saving £3.1 billion for public services (although that, too, is of course important, particularly for those who depend on them most); it should be about recognising that a system which impedes people from entering employment and blocks people from accessing benefits to which they are entitled is both economically and morally wrong.

Parties may be assured that the voters see it that way – and so should they.

• Ian Parsley worked as a consultant with the Centre for Social Justice, the group which helped shape welfare reform