It’s the silly season, and newspapers are desperate to fill their pages with anything at all. So it must have been a delight for the Mail on Sunday when Mark Littlewood, Director of the Institute for Economic Affairs, came up with a proposal to name publicly every recipient of welfare benefits. Littlewood’s list would probably include twenty five million people – a similar number to the leak of data in 2007, which included far more than the numbers of recipients of Child Benefit.
The proposal is drawn, like many other punitive ideas on welfare, from the United States. The Jenner Amendment, passed in 1951, makes it possible to publish details from social security rolls. The basic principle, which has recurred from time to time in US policy, is that the recipients of public support are not entitled to privacy – the same idea, for example, has also been used to defend arbitrary house searches of claimants, which would have been unconstitutional for anyone else. Obviously, the purpose of publishing details of welfare receipt – despite Littlewood’s protest to the contrary – would be to name and shame.
I would not accept any principle that declared people receiving benefits to have fewer rights than other citizens, but Littlewood’s proposal is so general that it would not have that effect; it would make public the names, addresses and finances of most people in the country. There is admittedly a case for public support to be public – as there is a case for all tax allowances and declarations to be public, on the Scandinavian model. If anything, the case for open taxation records is rather stronger, because unlike benefits it wouldn’t require publication pointing to personal medical details. The question we need to ask is whether we want to live in a society where everything is public.
What Littlewood (and the Mail) don’t seem to understand is that people on benefits aren’t different from the rest of us. In a flexible labour market, which Conservative governments in particular have been eager to encourage, most people of working age pass through periods when they draw on benefits. Many of our working age benefits – Tax Credits, Child Benefit, Housing Benefit – go to people in work as well as those out of work. Beyond that, everyone in the UK benefits from the welfare state – every child in school, every older person, everyone registered with a medical practice whether they use the health care or not. And that is still the basic difference between the UK and the US. We have institutional welfare, and they don’t.