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Theresa May's welfare spending policy is historically obsolete, say academics

Published 02/12/2016

Theresa May's policy of cutting the welfare budget in times of austerity overlooks its role in a nation's economic success, academics have said.
Theresa May's policy of cutting the welfare budget in times of austerity overlooks its role in a nation's economic success, academics have said.

A group of Cambridge academics has said Theresa May appears to hold a "historically obsolete view" on welfare spending.

Cutting welfare and social care budgets in times of economic hardship, on the basis these are luxuries that can only be afforded when times are good, overlooks their role in a nation's economic success, the team of researchers wrote in medical journal The Lancet.

The authors, based at St John's College, University of Cambridge, are studying the causes of health inequalities and looking at how research in this area can be used to inform policy interventions.

They argue that the concept of a British welfare state dates back to the Poor Laws in 1598 and 1601 during the reign of Elizabeth I and helped England grow "the most dynamic economy in the world".

By contrast, growth rates fell behind rival countries in the Victorian era after The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which sent people to workhouses in appalling conditions in an effort to prevent abuses of the system.

The authors of the paper noted that November's Autumn Statement announced there would be no further welfare cuts during the present Parliament beyond those already announced.

But the academics criticised the continuation of existing policies, which have cut welfare spending in the name of austerity.

Referring to the statement made by former prime minister David Cameron that "you can only have a strong NHS if you have a strong economy", the authors argue: "The narrow view that spending on the NHS and social care is largely a burden on the economy is blind to the large national return to prosperity that comes from all citizens benefiting from a true sense of social security."

They continue: "There are signs that Theresa May subscribes to the same historically obsolete view.

"Despite her inaugural statement as Prime Minister, her Chancellor's Autumn Statement signals continuing austerity with further cuts inflicted on the poor and their children, the vulnerable, and infirm older people."

The paper argues that progressively-funded health and welfare spending is an integral part of economic growth.

Professor Simon Szreter, co-author of the paper, said: "We are arguing from history that there needs to be an end to this idea of setting economic growth in opposition to the goal of welfare provision.

"A healthy society needs both, and the suggestion of history is that they seem to feed each other."

The Elizabethan Poor Laws enshrined in law an absolute "right of relief" for every subject of the Crown, funding the policy with a community tax.

The authors say this represented the world's first social security system, made the elderly less reliant on their children for support, increased labour mobility, enabled urban growth and eased Britain's transition to an industrial economy.

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: "Our reforms are incentivising work and restoring fairness to the system, while supporting people from all backgrounds.

"Employment is at a record high and we continue to spend over £90 billion a year on working age people who are out of work, disabled or a carer."

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