Local benefits (again)
Richard Kemp, leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the Local Government Association, has written to Danny Alexander, calling for the ‘localisation’ of the benefit system. Cllr Kemp, who represents an inner-city ward in Liverpool, argues that making Councils responsible for benefit levels and eligibility would be an improvement because:
We would be able to use money effectively by applying appropriate levels to people and linking benefit packages to training and regeneration resources. This will get people back into temporary work in the short term but re-energise communities in the long term.
Cllr Kemp also calls for local ‘welfare to work’ pilots and for local authorities to be made responsible for the administration of benefits:
We would reduce worklessness by reducing the fear of benefit traps and reduce costs; by providing a ‘Total Place’ solution for benefits we could cut out many costs of administration and employment.
This is not a new call, though the last leading local government figure to make it was Lord Hanningfield, who, as Conservative leader of Essex Council, made it one of the most ideologically right-wing in the country.
The problem is that this call is made at a time when the central government has prioritised cuts and deficit reduction. This means that the Treasury is very unlikely to pay for higher benefit rates in London and other places where the cost of living is higher. What we would be far more likely to see is rates being cut in places like Wales – and, quite possibly, Liverpool – where it may be claimed that it is possible to get by on a lower income.
This may actually be Cllr Kemp’s intention – that could be what he means by “appropriate levels”. It would also make sense of his claim that devolution would help tackle benefit traps.
There are only two ways to deal with benefit traps – one is to raise the net income of people in low paid jobs or working reduced hours, the other is to cut their out of work income. Egalitarians and anti-poverty campaigners support the former and oppose the latter because out of work incomes are already so low they force people into extreme poverty.
Cllr Kemp, however, believes that benefits are a “waste of public sector money” and that they “entrench inactivity and inhibit enterprise” – I wonder whether he would be likely to vote for adequate JSA rates if his council was made responsible for the decision.