Monthly Archives: February 2014

‘No Frills Society’: Nah’, you’re alright.

Pensioners at bus stop

Should the M and S frequenting cohort of better off seniors lose their bus pass?

For far too long the narrative on welfare has been negative – fundamental Attlee era entitlements vilified, with the most prominent scrutinisers inevitably the affluent. Benefits claimants have become both the source of popular judgement and ridicule – the infamous Benefits Street surely the nadir of a media tide decrying an alleged ‘Benefits Culture’.  But with institutions such as Channel Four appearing to side with crude, condescending portrayal, there lies scant hope for an informed debate on welfare with a General Election looming

 Bigoted extremists such as Katie Hopkins, or rather the growing airtime she accumulates across the daytime TV schedule, surely heralds in a new era of aggressive scepticism. Whilst her overt snobbery may even inflict the ire of the portion of aloof society she claims to represent, her outbursts on welfare claimants are not alone, and the response from the Left is often woefully poor. Clichéd responses are not enough to tackle popular disillusionment with what welfare really is -a lifeline for many. Perhaps a less patronising prime time chronicling of what life on benefits really is like, could help educate the employed as to the realities of life on the ‘dole’. 

Yet a curious divergence from mere scorn for the welfare entitlements of the less well-off is occurring. A growing lobby, from the top of the socio-economic food chain have begun to bring into question their own entitlements, as highlighted last year with the campaign to strip well off pensioners of perks including the free bus pass. Iain Duncan Smith’s recent avowal that no pensioner benefits are ringfenced could on one level, highlight how under David Cameron, we really are ‘all in this together’…

 More likely it could constitute an alarming shift toward a no frills society.

Why is a subtle shift toward a Ryanair-esque culture of hidden surcharges permeating beyond mere Tory ranks? How can a squeezed middle be expected to top up their taxes by now having to pay add-ons for entitlements enshrined within our proud welfare state?

A recent Social Market Foundation report, headed by the Master of £32,000 a year Wellington College, claimed that parents earning over £80,000 a year should be forced to pay school fees for any children attending the best state schools. His logic? Unconvincing – yet it does hinge upon the not entirely false notion that the best schools are monopolised by the sons and daughters of the affluent. The fees, he believes, would force such parents to consider either  sending their children into the independent sector (freeing up places in good state schools), or ‘paying nothing at middle- and lesser-ranking state schools’ (implicitly arguing that this might drive up overall standards).

 Aside from a litany of flaws – one being his thinly veiled assumption that parachuting in middle class kids to inner city comps might benefit the intellectual development of their hard up classmates, the precedent is thoroughly un-British. The idea of the economic elite subsidising the education of the comparatively poor is surely populist, and to an extent, justifiable. In isolation, such a move toward school fees for the wealthy might well appeal to certain groupings on the Left. 

Yet why stop at school fees? Why not push for the wealthiest patients to be made to pay for their using of currently free NHS core services? Shouldn’t those requiring expensive, yet vital, operations be made to pay toward the cost of their treatment?

No. In Britain, we’re blessed with one of the most comprehensive provisions of healthcare and education in the world. That the quality of care or of teaching is not uniform is starkly apparent, yet it remains a noble goal to aspire too. Nonetheless, such world leading services are not God given, or as the Tories would have you believe – ‘something for nothing’. Rather, it forms the centrepiece of a British social contract where taxpayer contribution is reciprocated by the state; a consensus for collectivism unparalleled.   

 The precedent of introducing a tier based system for vital services provision, or with expensive add-ons for certain members of society, is toxic. Our welfare system is founded upon values of universal access to health and education as important as the sliding scale of tax contribution, depending upon income bracket, which finances it. When Lloyd George first envisaged the framework for his then radical Liberal Reforms package over a century ago, he included universal Free School Meals. Sentiments of universality within education and health provision should remain sacrosanct – it’s our challenge to keep it so.