Welfare: the cap seems to fit

16 Jul 13

The roll-out of the benefits cap and other welfare reforms is controversial. But the government is gambling on the fact that the changes are undoubtedly popular with the public

The roll out of the household benefit cap started yesterday and Ipsos Mori research shows that this reform is popular with the public.

But we are still in the foothills of implementation of a programme reforming welfare benefits, and evidence of impact is only just starting to emerge. Will the impact change opinion?

As well as the high profile benefit cap, the government’s reforms include changes to housing benefit (LHA) in the private rented sector and the ‘size criteria’ introduced in the social sector three months ago. Disability benefits are being changed and the move to a new Universal Credit system is well under way too.

These reforms come at a time when behind every ten doors we knock on we find nine Britons who agree there is a need for a safety net and seven who think the benefits system is not working effectively. By contrast, the NHS – a key part of the welfare state – is viewed very differently by the public.

Celebrating its 65th birthday and lauded during the Olympics, the NHS commands satisfaction and support from the public who back government policy to ring-fence spending on it.

There is a sense among Britons that welfare benefits are too generous, that there is an insufficient link between paying in and getting out, and that some claimants are more deserving than others. Little wonder that our recent survey found high levels of public support – by more than five to one – for the £26,000 cap on benefits.

Most think it will encourage claimants to take action, and while support softens in respect of certain impacts on income and home life, supporters consistently outnumber opponents.

These viewpoints are not based on particularly high levels of awareness or understanding; for example, most, 68%, say they have heard ‘just a little’ or less about the benefit cap while another Ipsos MORI poll last week found a majority wildly over-estimating the extent of benefits fraud, the cost of Job Seekers’ Allowance relative to pensions, and the savings the cap will bring to the Exchequer.

But perception can rule reality; clamping down on perceived free-riding seems to be a political prerequisite even if the public also doubt the state’s ability to do this.

At this early point in the process, the actual impact of reform is altogether harder to pinpoint. Our research for DWP shows just under half of those now in work who remember receiving notification of being affected by the cap recall taking some sort of action in response, mostly looking for work.

This is correlation rather than proven causation and more evidence is needed, but among this group those finding work after notification outnumber those who found work before it by nearly two to one.

Looking ahead, more and more evidence of impact will become available as implementation continues. The emerging picture is unlikely to be cut and dried. What we can say with more certainty is that the public largely says ‘do it’. ‘Did it work?’ will come later down the line, if at all.

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