Fringe benefits

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EVERY government pledges to reform the Byzantine rules of Britain’s welfare system. Few have achieved any meaningful improvements over the last 30 years, however, because of protests, party splits and the sheer complexity of the way social benefits are managed.

The changes that have been achieved have been dogged by accusations of unfairness. Given this depressing history, only an optimist like David Cameron could hail the Bill published yesterday as bringing “ambitious, fundamental and radical changes”. It is right, however, that he tries.

It is also right that plans to cut housing benefit for long-term unemployment claimants are dropped, because there was a hint of vengefulness about the idea.

Instead, it must be hoped that the minority of jobless people who are malingerers are pursued with a healthy vigour. Tackling the workshy has been a problem for every administration and it must be done in a way that forces the lazy into action while protecting the support given to those genuinely looking for work in a faltering economy.

The rest of the welfare system must also be simplified. Tax credits, the unloved legacy of Gordon Brown’s time as Chancellor, have been fraught with problems despite good intentions, while the disparities in housing benefits have given rise to the phenomenon of families living in taxpayer-funded mansions. These may not be as common as some Conservative backbenchers fear, but with the nation facing a budget crisis even a few incidences is a few too many.

The cultural change that Mr Cameron wants to affect is vital. The number of people on sickness benefits must be brought down and the incentives to return to work must be strengthened. Benefit fraud, which barely got a mention yesterday, must also be heavily reduced. That would be a sign of true reform.