Forget it. Yesterday David Cameron seriously suggested restricting benefits for workless families with several children, scrapping housing benefit for under-25s and making the long-term unemployed do full-time community work or lose all payments. And, though the idea was removed from the final draft of his speech, introducing regional variations in the level of benefits "makes sense", according to Number 10.
There is a certain logic in this idea. Given differing regional pay levels, if you believe that the welfare state exists to incentivise people into work, there are concerns about those geographical areas where the gap between in-work and out-of-work incomes is smaller.
Yet similar proposals for public sector pay have just been put to one side, largely because they would make the already alarming UK north-south divide even worse. The same applies to benefits. Lower benefits would feed through to less money going into the regional economies of poorer areas. They would also have a particularly punitive effect in areas like the Scottish Highlands and Islands, where wages may be low but the cost of essentials like fuel and food are higher than London. So why persist with the idea?
The answer is partly political. Against the backdrop of the row about tax avoidance by the super-rich and controversy over House of Lords reform, here is an idea guaranteed to cheer up the right wing of the Tory party. And it appeals to the large numbers from all parties who seem to have swallowed the idea that most people on benefits are feckless scroungers playing the system. Also, massive, radical cuts may be intended to make the current welfare changes seem modest by comparison.
Ultimately, this debate comes down to the function of welfare. If it is about tackling poverty and ill-health and ensuring that, in a comparatively rich country everyone has a decent standard of living, then what Mr Cameron is proposing is outrageous. If it is about using the system to encourage people to work, save and get married, then these ideas are about nudging people in the right direction.
The problem is that many, in fact most, people who rely on benefits are not scroungers. They are people moving in and out of work, those unable to work for a good reason and those who cannot earn enough to live on because the only work available is low-paid and part-time. The West of Scotland has very large numbers in all three categories. So no, Mr Cameron, regionalised benefits do not make sense.
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