Taxpayers need to know how welfare budget is spent

The Times - 14 Apr 2019

A paradox. Elections can be decided by the amount of taxpayers’ money each political party believes should be spent by the state. Yet the total sum of taxpayers’ hard-earned cash going to each of the major government programmes, and particularly the largest — the welfare budget encompassing health, social care, social security, education, and housing — has long been unclear to most of the country.

Equally strange is how little attention has been given to what those programmes cost. As Andrew Forsey and I argue in our book Not for Patching, the government should set up a strategic welfare review to examine the outcomes taxpayers ought to expect from those sums.

Defence of the realm is the primary purpose of government. Even when the country has not been directly involved in military conflict, the regular strategic defence review has retained its status as a cornerstone of government policy. Not so with other forms of public expenditure. We should be fighting a continuous war against poverty, destitution, squalor and ill health, but there is no comparable strategic review of those areas.

The task of initiating a regular review is the only feasible means by which taxpayers and the state can seek to navigate a clear path through such variables as the number of people contributing to the welfare budget, the size of contributions required and the number of people drawing support. It would do so by pulling them together into a single, ongoing consideration of our country’s needs as well as its ability and willingness to meet them in the future.

A great deal of the information necessary for such an analysis is published in stops and starts by the Office for Budget Responsibility. But the important work of this organisation is not, at present, built up into a comprehensive plan for the welfare budget that is approved by the cabinet and then debated seriously in parliament.

With our country still trying to get to grips with the result of the Brexit referendum, there could not be a more fitting time for the government to heed William Beveridge’s salient call to action — this is not a moment for patching — and set out what it believes to be the country’s social objectives and how they ought to be paid for over the coming decades.

A strategic welfare review could play a crucial role in giving the country a new sense of direction. We are the last to pretend that such a task is easy; it is quite the opposite. But such an exercise will never be achieved unless a government has the courage to begin the task.

Frank Field, MP, and Andrew Forsey are authors of Not for Patching (Haus Publishing)