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Europe must ‘roll back’ the unaffordable welfare state – says MEP

If we are prepared to facilitate grassroots organisations to overcome barriers to volunteering in order to help those in need in their local communities, the welfare state could once again become a last resort rather than a first resort – claims Syed Kamall MEP

In 2010, my colleague James Elles MEP proposed an amendment to the European Union budget to fund what became the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System to identify long-term trends on major policy issues facing the EU. One of the reports commissioned by ESPAS Europe’s Societal Challenges An analysis of global societal trends to 2030 and their impact on the EU implores policy-makers to consider the impact of ageing populations, which pose “significant challenges to the affordability of welfare systems”.

These challenges are exacerbated by the fact that most European governments are currently struggling to fix their broken finances. In many countries, so much of governmental budgets go on education, pensions, welfare and healthcare that clawing countries out of debt will inevitably involve cutting back on state spending. French President Francois Hollande’s Socialists are facing up to this reality in France, just as the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has in the United Kingdom.

How then to reduce the size of the welfare state while helping the most vulnerable? The first step is to recognise that the welfare state of today is a far cry from what its inventors envisaged: a system which would support people in need at times when they most needed it and help return them to self sufficiency. While throwing large amounts of taxpayers’ money will help lots of people in need, the Centre for Social Justice think-tank has also identified how poverty traps in the existing UK welfare system may skew incentives even encouraging individuals not to work.

Therefore, we need to look for alternative ways to tackle poverty. In doing so, there may be lessons from what existed before the welfare state to see what did or did not work. Before the welfare state in Britain, there was a rich tradition of helping both those in and out of work to help themselves. When the British state first intervened in education in 1870, the majority of the nation’s children were literate – educated at church, charity schools and Sunday schools.

When national insurance was introduced in 1911, more than three quarters of those covered were already being provided with healthcare and other benefits – including in some cases unemployment benefits by friendly societies. Before local authorities provided social housing, there were thousands of housing societies providing decent and affordable accommodation for tens of thousands of low-income families.

Long before the state accepted overall responsibility for the welfare of the nation’s children, there were charities running children’s homes. The problem was that these charities did not cover everyone who needed help. Roll back the state and these kinds of organisations will return but the challenge will be how to reach a better balance between state and voluntary provision. That is maintaining a safety net of the welfare state while encouraging other organisations to inspire people to lift themselves out of poverty.

I have seen how local voluntary community organisations can run successful projects that tackle social problems and also how the state can crowd out the efforts of volunteers and community organisers. These projects tackle some of the most difficult problems facing poorer Britain’s poorer communities including prisoner rehabilitation, education, financial education, tackling gang culture and violence, microfinance and so on.

This should not be seen as a ‘right-wing’ welfare agenda: the trade unions remain to this day pioneers of many welfare services for their members. They used to run night schools; cooperative societies were formed and mutuals covered all kinds of risks. When my father was a bus driver, he was able to use his trade union’s own hospital instead of the National Health Service. There are some on the left who wish to rediscover this rich history.

It is possible for a government to be compassionate while acknowledging that the state is not always the answer to every problem. Voters understand this and will reward the party with the most sincere plan to protect the vulnerable while rebalancing the books. Local branches of political parties can also attempt to help the needy or as Ghandi put it “be the change”. As religious and political movements in Latin America and the Middle East have shown, in doing so they might find themselves re-engaging communities in the political process.

If across the political spectrum, we are prepared to encourage and facilitate grassroots organisations to overcome barriers to volunteering in order to help those in need in their local communities, we may once again arrive at a welfare state – which acts as a last resort rather than a first resort. Such action might just help nations to meet the demographic changes head on while repairing their finances too.

Syed Kamall is a Conservative Party MEP for London

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