Festival of Ideas: Implementation key in welfare debate

Should a single working man fund a family on £26,000 in benefits? Why is the welfare process so useless? How can you balance the North-South divide? These were among the questions discussed this past Friday when Nouse Events co-hosted a meeting of minds from around the UK as part of the University’s Festival of Ideas. Think tank directors, journalists, and academics descended on York for a day full of talks, beginning with Julia Unwin, Joseph Rowntree Foundation CEO, and featuring billionaire businessman Lord Sainsbury as the evening drew to a close.

Around 150 people hung with the programme throughout the day, with locals from across the city forming a strong presence. Uninhibited by the anxieties of student embarrassment, some of these entertained the crowd as much as any panellist, with their impassioned, unrestrained and frequently uninvited diatribes. Among the panellists, the tussle between crusading Harriet Sergeant and resolute Zoe Williams over welfare highlighted one of the modern state’s greatest challenges – how to justly and effectively help people seek work.

Williams saw few problems with the system itself, arguing welfare skivers were almost entirely a product of false, government-led portrayals.

Her assertions that work always pays and no one on benefits misspends money designated for improving their job prospectsseemed in opposition to the countless stories of recent years, with few more useful than Sergeant’s recent book on her three years with a South London gang.

She told of how one member did finally find work, but then immediately became liable for half a dozen taxes. With zero-hours contracts now dominant, he quickly lost it, and ended up in court liable for council tax arrears. Worse, the monolithic computer system was too inert to turn his benefits back on, leaving him penniless for weeks. It’s a familiar and maddening tale, and, as usual in politics, it is barely discussed. Implementation is second to rhetoric and policy, with the vital cog – signing up private companies to deliver the system – left to the civil service.

While Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, noted that universal credit is a laudable attempt to correct the many uncoordinated benefits that help make the system so impossible, past attempts to farm mass computer systems out to the private sector have failed spectacularly. The National Programme for IT in the NHS has cost over £6.5bn and has failed to deliver the universal coordination of healthcare IT it promised. The Department for Health have been left paying private sector companies, like BT and CSC, with contracts more expensive to terminate than complete.

Unsurprisingly, the delivery of universal credit has fallen behind schedule. First announced in 2010, a pilot is still yet to be launched, with promises of one beginning in October 2013 and a pie-in-the-sky hope of delivery by 2017. The programme is on its third executive in less than as many years. As usual the delivery of a major IT system is in shambles, leaving the policy minutiae debated on morning shows and the House benches irrelevant and abstract.

A host of other topics were touched on during the day, with Lord Sainsbury advocating state funding of parties, echoing Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendation of recent years. The Festival is running until June 29th, with Brain Sewell and Melvin Bragg among its many notable upcoming guests.

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