Red Alert, Trevor Mallard recently drew attention to a developing debate among British Labour MPs about a new vision being required for the welfare system. British shadow minister for Work and Pensions, Liam Byrne believes that the architect of Britain's social security system, William Beveridge had neither anticipated nor sought the results of the system largely created under his advocacy during the early 1940s. Mr Mallard did not comment, the significance of which I can only speculate about.
What I can more safely ponder is whether there is a case for a similar debate here. It was during the late 1930s that New Zealand's Labour government gave the country most of today's welfare benefits under the urging of Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage. So what did Michael Joseph Savage expect from social security bearing in mind the new array of benefits was created only 40 years after the first old age pension which was strictly administrated to exclude people deemed 'undeserving'?
Do you think he expected benefits would support one in five children because their fathers couldn't or wouldn't? To be fair it wasn't Michael Joseph Savage who created the Domestic Purposes Benefit (soon to become Sole Parent Support). But he developed the Widow's Benefit by extending it to deserted wives, and established the Emergency Benefit which would increasingly be used to support unmarried mothers at the discretion of the social welfare department. In the 1930s marriage was revered as both the social and economic cornerstone of society. Children born outside of marriage were still officially described as illegitimate and were subject to follow-up enquiries to ensure their well-being. I expect that if he were around today Savage would view the large number of needy, fatherless children with compassion but dismay and he would reflect over the causative role welfare has played in this state of affairs.
Did he expect that benefits would support criminals caught in the revolving door between prison and the community? Today each year around 4,000 people move between prison and the benefit system. The Social Security Act 1938 repeatedly refers to a requirement to be of good moral character and sober habits. This prerequisite might have been suspended for unemployment benefits but it seems unlikely.
Did he expect that benefits would support people who believe paid work and consumerism are capitalist concepts to be avoided? Unlikely. 'Labour' was named for the representation of workers. Not people who want to pontificate about the philosophy of 'forced dead-end jobs' forgetting the disservice they do to the very people who support and contribute through menial paid work.
Did he expect that benefits would support thousands of people who had caused their own incapacity to work through drug and alcohol abuse? Today there are around 6,000 people on Sickness and Invalid Benefits with the primary incapacity of substance abuse.
Only the last can I answer with a definitive no. There were rules to prevent people in this category from qualifying. Eligibility for an Invalid's Benefit required that, "...incapacity for work was not self-induced" and again that the "applicant must be of sober habits". These restrictions appear to have been relaxed during the 1960s.
So when Labour's shadow minister for Work and Pensions says that a new vision is needed for welfare today how can anyone, including Labour supporters, disagree? I suspect that Trevor Mallard doesn't.
And the new vision needs to go much further than a re-naming of benefits, stricter gate-keeping and new obligations. It needs to examine the very role of the state in helping people. Historically, in the UK and the US, the state has become over-involved in welfare before. Belatedly it realises that the help it provides actually exacerbates the need (the 'aggravation' principle) and then scrambles to pull back. It happened in the 1800s in Britain, the lesson was forgotten, and now history is repeating.
In New Zealand, Labour is traditionally the party of reform. Maybe it will be open and responsive to what its British counterparts do. I hope so.