Arguing for universal benefits

In an article in Scotland on Sunday, Dani Garavelli considers the arguments for free school meals as a universalist measure.   I contributed some points, which the article refers to, but my contribution is immediately followed by comments from  John McTernan, a former political secretary to Tony Blair.  He said this:

“There’s not a single person in the country who believes everyone should get a housing allowance, no-one believes everyone should get tax credits – everyone believes those benefits should be means-tested because that’s the way you focus the most help to those in the most need.  The state pension is universal and that’s correct. But anti-poverty measures have always been targeted at those who need them most.”

Stuff and nonsense.   There are loads of people who do think that all our basic benefits should be universal:  you can find them at the Citizens Income Trust or the Basic Income Earth Network.  The state pension is contributory, not universal, and consequently it fails to provide sufficient support for more than two million pensioners who are entitled to Pension Credit.   Anti-poverty measures  take many forms, some of which are targeted on those on lowest income, and some – like early years intervention – which aren’t.

I don’t agree wholly with the arguments of people who argue for a Citizens Income, for just the same reason that I don’t agree with those who argue that all our benefits should be means-tested:  our benefits systems have to deal with multiple objectives and complex circumstances, and one size can’t be expected to fit every case.  Universal benefits have to be combined with lots of others, including some contributory benefits, some means testing and some discretionary provision,  so as to provide people with a stable income in an unpredictable environment.    But within that framework,  I’d certainly like to see both a universal housing allowance, and a universal benefit rather than  tax credits – so that’s one person, at least, who thinks so.

One comment

  1. John Veit-Wilson

    The real problem is that policy seems to be made in both major parties by people who think in such simplistic and incomprehending terms as Blair’s political secretary’s response seems to exemplify. It’s the consequence of treating policy making as a matter of electorally expedient marketing based on slogans like “targeted at those who need them most” instead of principled social planning with regard to the variety of applicable principles and considerations you outline. We live with the consequences.

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