Monday, July 06, 2009

Discretionary welfare - the irony and the problem

Last week I commented on the turn-around the Left has made on the issue of discretion in the area of welfare benefits. Having achieved their rules-based welfare, they are now calling for eligibility rules to be bent and discretion used for top-ups.

To illustrate my claim here is a passage written by Geoffrey Palmer, then a Professor of Law at Victoria, later Labour PM and briefly PM, in 1976;

"The message is, in my view, that whatever benefits we decide to pay we should pay them as of right. We should cut down the areas of discretion. We should make the benefits available automatically where at all possible and we should eliminate the screening mechanisms which destroy the dignity of the person receiving the benefit. When the community has decided to spend as much money as New Zealand has on income maintenance the money ought to be delivered by efficient and up to date machinery which aims to serve the recipient of the benefit without making him feel like a beggar."

In 1975 there was a grand total of 54,152 working age people receiving a benefit and nearly a third were widows. The population was 3.1 million.

Today there are over 300,000 with a population of 4.3 million. The results of rules and entitlement-based welfare are clear.

My own view about discretion is that is belongs in the area of private and voluntary charity where it can be exercised rightfully by people who have raised their own money and gathered their own resources. We should have far more of this sort of assistance. The organisation I work for does not carry on providing help endlessly to people who are not making a reciprocal effort.

When it comes to the state, the use of discretion becomes more difficult. How much power should state agents have when it comes to taxpayer purse strings? Hence we should have far less state assistance.

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