Benefits urgency

19th December 1997 at 00:00
This week's furore over cuts in benefits only goes to show that virtually all Government policy, these days, is about moving money around. We may be pleased that education is a priority, but let's not fool ourselves that this is all about making us more enlightened and fulfilled.

Nearly all the developed countries are trying to revamp their education systems - since every government needs to exploit its human resources as effectively as possible in a world economy where nation shall compete against nation.

Such a hard-nosed analysis will go against the grain for many teachers (who would never have chosen teaching in the first place if they thought that money was the most important thing in the world); but this is not to say that the Government's current education policies should not be supported. We shall all be worse off - or, rather, a large number of us will be - if Britain slips further down the economic pecking order as the latest news suggests it might.

So: we have a finite amount of public money available, and we need to decide where best to spend it for the good of all. The root-and-branch review of benefits now taking place is perfectly defensible. Numerous distortions of the system have crept in over the past 20 years. But the way in which it is being handled suggests that ministers have no idea how sensitive the issue is.

Take the cut in benefit for new lone parents; all the emphasis so far has been on helping them to find work (an admirable aim) without any apparent recognition that in areas where work is scarce this policy represents an attack on the most vulnerable people in our society: children living in poverty.

And it smacks, too, of political expediency. There are now more middle-class voters than working-class ones. So we have the prospect of lone parents losing their measly Pounds 11 a week, at the same time as the Government is backing off from proposals to scrap universal child benefit for 16 to 19-year-olds still in education. Yet, by definition, this latter group are going to be better-off. The poorest teenagers mostly leave school at 16.

It looks horribly as if someone has calculated that there are more middle-class votes to be protected in marginal constituencies, whereas many of the lone parents who will suffer are already sunk in the "underclass" and probably don't vote anyway.

Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Social Services, reportedly believes welfare should be a combination of money and services - and that groups in receipt of benefit should be offered more help in the form of services. This is interesting, since it represents a shift away from the Thatcherite view that people should be given the money and left alone to make their own choices. It could also be that the new emphasis on better school meals and nutrition levels is part of that thinking - and many children could have cause to be thankful to the nanny state.

A real dilemma for teachers is that education is one of the services which could benefit from a cut in welfare spending. They know only too well that if children come to school cold or hungry or upset by family rows, they are less able to learn. So these cuts could prove to be shortsighted in educational terms - increasing the pressure on vulnerable families to the detriment of their children's ability to benefit from school.

It may be that the Government, having decided that "education" is what the public wants, believes that sacrificing lone parents in order to help pay for it will be acceptable to the voters. This may be right - but the Government still needs to think again. When Tony Blair spoke of "hard choices" in his party conference speech last October, we did not expect those choices to be made by struggling parents trying to decide between heating, clothing and food.

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