Peter North, 08/12/2013  

I wouldn't necessarily agree with all of this, and I have little sympathy for the pleas of destitution and poverty, but here Nick Cohen offers a very scathing insight into the complete mismanagement and fraud attached to welfare reform.  Nobody has been more vocal on the need for welfare reform than I, and there's a lot that needs to be done, but this is looking like yet another gravy train for corporate parasites who will not be held to account for their failures.  

But I think the problem lies in the notion that the top-down system as it stands is reformable at all.  It won't matter who is in charge at the DWP, or which company is commissioned to roll out any new system.  The fact remains that no system of this scale and complexity is workable in the time frames given.  The nature of bureaucracies means that you have different agendas pulling in opposite directions, that can only result in mediocrity and failure.  The bigger and more generic a system is, the less relevant it is to its users.  The same is absolutely true of all corporate IT.  

What the DWP intends to do is to create a system that takes human judgement out of the equation, which will inevitably produce a de-skilled public service whereby a job centre advisor is little more than a clueless call centre operator.  Another tier in our "computer says no" society.

I am of the view that only a trained eye can really make the call as to who is worthy of welfare and who is not, and indeed the level of help claimants need.  From what I hear, the Job Centre experience is becoming farcical, whereby guilt is assumed and fraud always suspected - by the computer, and the operator lacks both the judgement and autonomy to override it.

The solution is to devolve welfare policy and administration to councils and let them figure it out, and apply their own rates.  There is a huge diversity of circumstances around the country and various economic disparities that means what works in one area, does not for another.  The so called "bedroom tax" is actually working in terms of challenging the dependency mindset, more than it is relieving pressure on housing stock, but it is still very much a London solution to London problems.  Similarly, London rates of welfare applied to the North means that welfare is actually too generous in some areas, and not enough in others.  The chief beneficiaries of this are largely "welfare farm" landlords.

The only way we can have proper, democratic, accountable welfare is if it is in the hands of the people who pay for it - designed by local people who know the circumstances of their region.  A national, centralised welfare system can only ever be dictatorial, bureaucratic, wasteful and wide open to fraud both by welfare recipients and the corporates who administer it.  The reason national government keeps such an iron grip on welfare is because it is a mechanism of electoral manipulation, and more fundamentally, they do not trust us to run our own affairs.

I salute any moves toward dismantling the monster that is our nanny welfare state.  Reversing the culture of dependency, largely instilled by New Labour, is something of a national emergency.  And that extends to tax credits, housing benefit, child benefit and the myriad of other handouts.  But without addressing the obvious structural flaw in central administration of complex systems, it will remain in the hands of the politicians who created this problem in the first place.  And we will be back here again and again.  This is why we need The Harrogate Agenda.

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