Conflict & Justice

Britain gets tough on welfare

This is a defining moment in the long history of Britain's welfare state.

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Benefit payments account for almost a third of the one thousand one hundred and fifteen billion dollars the government spends a year.

Kevin Hudson from Mansfield is a father of four who's been out of work for six months. He gets unemployment benefits. He says he's looking for a job, but the current system makes it hard for him to get ahead.

�I've asked to go into college courses,� he says, but �they said that if I go into a college course over sixteen hours that they'll stop my benefits.�

The coalition government argues the system is both unaffordable and socially harmful, creating an unemployed underclass trapped by state handouts.

Ian Duncan Smith, the minister responsible for welfare, says the government will make sure that work always pays more than a welfare check.

�And by reducing complexity we will reduce the opportunities for fraud and error which currently cost the taxpayer around five billion pounds a year.�

Under the measures outlined today, unemployed people would lose their benefits for up to three years if they repeatedly turn down job offers.

Although there's broad support for the welfare reforms in principle, the opposition Labour Party's spokesman on welfare Douglas Alexander, is questioning whether there will be enough jobs. �Without work, these changes won't work,� he says, �because if you're going to move people from welfare into work, there needs to be jobs for people to take up. Today we've got five claimants chasing every single vacancy in the British job market so if you get these changes wrong you could end up with a higher welfare bill, not a lower welfare bill.�

What's at stake here is an attempt to change British society and its attitude toward work and welfare.

Other changes announced in recent days are offering similar shake-ups to the kinds of benefits people here have come to expect.

Just yesterday, student protesters clashed with police in London during demonstrations against plans to increase tuition fees in England.

Tens of thousands of people took part in the largely peaceful march. But some broke past police lines at Conservative party headquarters, breaking windows and throwing objects from the roof.

Some politicians here are saying they expect more protests in the weeks and months to come as further cuts take hold.

Public opinion polls suggest most voters accept the idea of reducing Britain's deficit.

It may become a much tougher sell as the idea becomes a life-changing reality.