Working for Wessex

Frank Field is the Labour MP for Birkenhead, in Cheshire. Though Labour is his label, he is no mere mouthpiece. The unique depth of his knowledge of matters relating to welfare reform is widely respected across party lines. So when he joined the panel for BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions? on Friday night, interesting things were bound to happen.

He told a story about alienated youth in Birkenhead. Approached by some of his out-of-work constituents, he discovered that after more than a decade of taxpayer-funded schooling they still could not read or write. They wanted to work, but not for less than £300 a week. This he questioned, pointing out their lack of qualifications for such employment. And was asked in reply, “So you’d make us take immigrant jobs, would you?”

Field’s anecdote is troubling not so much in terms of its content as in terms of the political system’s failure to grapple with the issues it raises. Can we not organise things better than this? Must we see our countryside disappear beneath urban sprawl because we’d rather import others to do the jobs haughty youngsters disdain to do than challenge them a bit more forcefully?

Of course we can do better. If we are prepared to confront the Left’s dogma that no distinction can ever be drawn between the deserving and the undeserving poor, that the poor are always and everywhere ‘victims’ of ‘the system’. An older Left would have changed the system; today’s just theorises about it and has no practical solutions to offer. It must be right to distinguish the deserving and the undeserving poor, just as it’s right to distinguish the deserving and the undeserving rich. There are three ways to tackle the latter problem. One is smarter taxation, that targets inherited wealth and unearned income, and tackles evasion and avoidance alike. Another is smarter regulation, that roots out unscrupulous behaviour that harms the environment and society. And the third is smarter public spending, that cuts out things that are of no benefit to us but line the pockets of the contractors who organise them. The defence and foreign aid budgets for a start would raise £45 billion.

But the real big spender is welfare. Excluding State pensions but including child benefit, this amounts to £97 billion a year. (Then add £30 billion for personal tax credits, which are welfare in all but name.) Can we honestly say that every penny is well spent? No? Then what are we to do about that?

As ever, the problem is one of over-centralisation. Once, welfare was organised at parish level. Later it was organised at borough or county level. Only in 1948 was it taken over by the central State. Centralisation has both plus and minus points. An undeniable plus is that the burden of welfare is spread evenly. Centralisation made sense to the generation that had been through the Great Depression. Communities suffering over 50% unemployment had to fund welfare by taxing those few still in work, depressing the local economy even further. But centralisation also means bureaucratisation. Rules and entitlements take the place of discretion and incentives. The system costs more to administer and its unconditional nature means that idle labour, a community’s prime asset, goes to waste.

Suppose parishes were put in charge. To avoid the pitfalls of the Poor Law, the money could still be raised centrally, or perhaps regionally, and allocated annually, on a per capita basis, as a block grant to each parish or town council. In larger urban areas without parishes, ward committees of the borough or city council could take on the same role.  The key point is that there should be interaction at a human level between the poor and the politicians, so that each side understands the constraints faced by the other. If we divide £127 billion by the UK population (63,182,000) then a parish with 500 inhabitants would have £1 million to spend each year as it saw fit.

The money could be used to provide unemployed residents with a life of luxury. Or it could be made conditional on them doing something. It could pay for training or apprenticeships, or remedial education. It could pay for work on environmental projects. No-one knows the local area better than its parish councillors. What needs doing? Drainage clearance? Path mending? Hedge laying? Tree planting? Repair of derelict buildings? Let us look beyond artificial limits. Should only public assets be included? We don’t want local businesses using the system to get free labour but what if the cost were to be entered as a land charge against their premises, to be recovered if and when the premises are sold? Can district or county councils provide plant and materials to enable work to be carried out that would entail a long wait were it to be done on a more professional basis? What about projects of more than local importance, such as clearing old trackbeds for the re-opening of rural railways? Site preparation works for new housing or community buildings?

Local control of funds would turn the problem of unemployment into a limitless opportunity. Decision-making would move from bureaucrats with no motive to look outside the box to community leaders with good cause to ask searching questions and demand credible answers. One other consequence would be a different kind of parish councillor: real power would attract the most highly motivated individuals to stand for election rather than stand back.

A vision of empowered parishes shouldn’t stop at welfare-to-work. Parish councils should be the housing management authorities for their areas, responsible for allocating all social housing as it falls vacant. Village after village is being scarred by little developments of new ‘affordable’ housing, even where the village has plenty of social housing already. The problem is that existing housing is allocated at district level on the basis of assessed need, meaning that villagers cannot be housed because what housing there is gets given to townies in distress. So more housing, this time with local occupancy conditions attached, gets built to overcome that problem. It’s about time towns were made to solve their own housing issues within their own boundaries and only look to villages for help if the villages have spare room.

And then there’s local justice, which is in a sorry state. The continuing role of JPs is under pressure. At one end of the spectrum, fewer cases are coming to court as police get to issue on-the-spot fines (contrary to the spirit of the 1689 Bill of Rights, which requires any punishment to be imposed by a court). At the other, district judges (what used to be called stipendiary magistrates) are muscling in on the more complex cases. Magistrates’ courts are being closed, benches amalgamated. Local justice is becoming less and less local, with savings for the public purse being made at the cost of increasing inconvenience for defendants and witnesses who have to find their way to distant venues.

So why not establish parish or ward courts, made up of the local councillors, to deal with all those petty civil and criminal issues that touch upon the smooth functioning of the neighbourhood? Breach of the peace, vandalism, noise and public health, problem family matters, truancy, empty properties, non-payment of rent, eviction notices, planning enforcement. Lawyers would hate it. They’d protest about the potential for victimisation, inconsistent standards, the need to separate the executive from the judiciary. But against this must be argued the gain to the community in terms of the resurrection of responsibility and the sheer economy in speed and cost for all involved. We have a top-heavy society, weighed down with process, and we need to think radically about how best to simplify it.

Don’t expect the Coalition to do any of that, despite their penchant for tinkering at the margins of welfare policy. Don’t expect them to turn the political pyramid the right way up. Last month, the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles castigated parish councils for a 3% rise in their spending plans. Why? That’s precisely what’s needed, matched by a much, much more than 3% reduction in the spending plans of Pickles’ own bloated, London-obsessed government. Parishes across Wessex should be demanding: ‘give us our money back and we’ll do an incomparably better job than you’.

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