Tom Richmond: Compassion in fighting dependency on welfare

THERE was a revealing exchange on the radio during the election which goes to the heart of the current debate about the Government’s welfare reforms – and the next tranche of £12bn cuts to working-age benefits.

Those questioned were the recipients of tax credits and so on that subsidise their incomes. They all agreed that the welfare bill needed to be cut – provided, of course, that it did not impinge upon their personal financial circumstances.

The dichotomy does not end here – Labour’s welfare spokesman Kate Green told Parliament that her party “will be tougher in cutting benefits” but will not tolerate “cuts in benefits for people who are in work and who need those benefits to enable their work to pay”.

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Yet, because the Opposition and welfare recipients want the best of both worlds, it is all the fault of David Cameron’s Government according to those who went on last weekend’s anti-austerity marches.

It is not. The real blame rests with Gordon Brown who presided over disastrous policies which discourages work – and personal responsibility – because there were sections of society who were better off on benefits than in regular employment, and it has fallen, once again, to the Tories to sort out the financial mess bequeathed by Labour.

In many respects, it would have been easier for Mr Cameron, and Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, to appease opponents by achieving £12bn by other means – such as a populist reduction to Britain’s overseas aid obligations.

However, if Britain is to live within its means, welfare expenditure cannot go unchecked. Even with £21bn of cuts in the last Parliament, the current budget stands at an eyewatering £220bn and will still account for 12.7 per cent of all public spending by the end of the decade once the latest cuts have been implemented.

Yet, while the Government’s room for manoeuvre is limited because of its desire to maintain its obligations to the elderly and disabled, they need to be careful to avoid triumphalism after a resolute Mr Duncan Smith responded to the aforementioned Ms Green with this attack: “Labour Members say that they will be tougher than us. Let me give the hon. Lady a simple pledge: we will protect the most vulnerable. There is only thing that is tough at the moment —tough on Labour Members: they lost the election.”

What Ministers need to do is find a more effective way of putting the cuts in financial context – and explaining why the eradication of welfare dependency is both principled and compassionate. If they don’t, they will have handed Labour a lifeline that the opportunist Opposition frankly does not deserve.

IF working-age Britons are to become less dependent on the welfare system, then a sound education is critical to this. And it’s not just about literacy and numeracy – business studies, and computing, are just as important.

Yet strong leadership in schools is critical to this. Without inspiring headteachers, and greater input to lessons from business role models, too many youngsters will go through the motions and fritter away the chance to learn skills which hold the key to their future.

As such, it is imperative that the Government heeds this week’s warnings about a growing shortage of headteachers – and younger teachers being fast-tracked into such roles without commanding the requisite leadership and experience. Ministers need to bite the bullet and begin to respect heads as colleagues rather than opponents, a lesson that needs learning sooner rather than later.

AFTER a lifetime in politics, Michael Heseltine has great insight into what works – and what does not. It is why the Tory grandee says regional leaders, rather than the Government, should take the lead on devolution. What we want is to say to the communities that make up England ‘You know best how you could administer the framework of local decision-making, you know the strengths and weaknesses that make up your community, and it is therefore for you to address the diversity and complexity in your proposals’,” said the Deputy Prime Minister.

The problem, however, comes when local leaders, for example, cannot agree on whether Yorkshire’s best interests will be served by a single authority representing the whole region – or a network of devolved bodies.

This lack of unity could play, still further, into the hands of the Government who will simply adopt a ‘take it or leave it’ stance while Greater Manchester forges ahead. Is that what Yorkshire wants?

Talking of devolution, Lord Woolmer of Leeds – the Batley and Morley MP from 1979-83 – made a salient point when be bemoaned the lack of a reasonable explanation for delays to the electrification of the Trans-Pennine railway route.

Given that George Osborne outlined this scheme as long ago as 2011, it does not bode well that this upgrade was stopped in its tracks because of a Network Rail management reshuffle and concerns about cost. Why has it taken four years to reach this point? After all, improved rail links are supposed to be integral to the much vaunted Northern Powerhouse.

However, I caution Thirsk and Malton MP Kevin Hollinrake not to build up his hopes after using his first appearance at PMQs this week to tease out of David Cameron a commitment to improve the A64 through his Ryedale constituency.

Mr Hollinrake’s redoubtable predecessor, Anne McIntosh, obtained similar promises, most recently in January 2014, and look what happened to her – she was de-selected by an ungrateful local party. I’m afraid I’ll only believe it when bulldozers move in to start dualling the road from York to Scarborough.

HAVING just read Sonia Purnell’s outstanding biography of Winston Churchill’s indomitable wife Clementine, I now have a greater understanding of her extraordinary role in the war – not least when Britain’s leader was recovering from a serious illness when he was due to meet General Charles de Gaulle, who had shown growing indifference towards Britain.

Relationships were tetchy until Mrs Churchill pulled an indignant de Gaulle aside and told him: “Mon General, you must take care not to hate your allies more than your enemies.” Has there ever been a more telling intervention by the spouse of a British premier?

FINALLY, all eyes will be on Andy Murray over the next fortnight as he bids to regain his Wimbledon title. He’s unrecognisable to the scrawny, surly Scot who burst onto the scene 10 years ago and reached the third round as a novice before running out of puff and throwing a tantrum. How times change. Now he is the ultimate competitor thanks to an insatiable work ethic and fitness regime that has captured the imagination of the country. It is game, set and match to Murray over his critics who can now only admire the tennis tenacity of Britain’s greatest ever player.