Sunday 20 September 2009

LibDems will keep child benefit universal, says Webb

That was the very decided view of Steve Webb, the party's shadow spokesman for work and pensions, who was on excellent form at the CentreForum and Fabian Society fringe in Bournemouth this lunchtime.

Webb said he had been interested to read on Saturday that the party planned to review the question of whether child benefits should be means-tested - referring to leader Nick Clegg's interview with The Guardian. But Webb told The Guardian's Michael White, who was chairing the fringe meeting, that he had been able to move very quickly indeed to assess the merits of the idea.

"We've been able to conduct the review speedily over the last 24 hours - and I am pleased to say that the policy won't be changing", said Webb.

Webb acknowledged the importance of universalism for maintaining support for tackling poverty. But he also explained why it would make no policy sense to means-test child benefit, when child support already involves a combination of means-testing through the tax credits system and the universal child benefit.

There was an on-going debate about the right balance between those two elements, there would be no sense in turning child benefit into a second means-tested benefit, replicating several of the administrative problems faced by tax credits, of higher costs, complexity and difficulties with take-up.

Indeed, it would be "absurd" to do that, said Webb.

Webb is deservedly highly respected across the spectrum for his genuine expertise on poverty, benefits and taxation, having spent a decade working on these issues at the Institute of Fiscal Studies and as Professor of Social Policy at Bath University before entering Parliament. And I hope Webb's role in coordinating the party's election manifesto is another reason to be confident that his view should prevail.

So that was a very good response to my own warning to the fringe meeting that too many progressive voices seem to risk forgetting Richard Titmuss' famous argument that "services for the poor will always be poor services"

Last weekend's Observer had highlighted Labour debate questioning universal benefits too, while Nick Clegg had suggested on Saturday that it was "patently silly and patently unfair" for millionaires to receive child benefit, while at the same time acknowleding the danger of undermining "middle-class solidarity" with the welfare state.

So it is important to see something of a universalism fightback now getting underway.

Fabian research director Tim Horton raises that banner in the Fabian Review conference special, published next week, drawing on our major research project on poverty and inequality which finds that this to be a very important lesson of the most effective anti-poverty strategies internationally and in UK welfare history. And our recent public attitudes research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation - which found that everybody across the income spectrum thinks of themselves as being close to 'the middle' - offers a clear contemporary warning about why it would be immensely short-sighted for those wanting to reduce poverty to cut the middle-class out of universal services.

All of that underline Paul Waugh's argument this weekend about the political danger to the LibDems if they were to means-test child benefit, and Yvonne Roberts' defence of child benefit as reflecting mutuality.

Don Paskini set out very well the strategic issue of why those on the right who want to undermine redistribution would do well to start by arguing for more targetted anti-poverty measures.

It is good to know that Professor Webb will be making sure the LibDems remain aware of these arguments.

Now, about that child trust fund policy ....

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