Yorkshire backlash against benefits culture

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Attitudes towards the unemployed have hardened dramatically in Yorkshire over recent years with a majority of people now believing benefits are “too high and discourage work”, a major new study reveals today.

In a significant boost to the coalition’s controversial welfare reform programme, a survey of people’s social beliefs published this morning reveals 54 per cent of people in Yorkshire think unemployment benefits should be reduced further – up from less than a third in 1986.

The British Social Attitudes Survey also reveals that half of people in Yorkshire now believe most unemployed people “could find a job if they really wanted one”.

The results of the annual survey will embolden the Conservatives that they remain on the popular side of the argument over their savage cuts to a host of in and out-of-work benefits since coming to power in 2010. The new cuts and caps have proven among the most divisive issues in politics over the past three years.

Nonetheless, Chancellor George Osborne hopes to proceed with a further tranche of welfare cuts if the Tories are successful at the next general election.

Craig Whittaker, the Tory MP for Calder Valley and a vocal opponent of welfare spending, told the Yorkshire Post: “I’m not surprised at all that attitudes have hardened in Yorkshire, when the public have seen our welfare bill balloon over the last 10 to 15 years.

“Hard-working people want things to be back on an even keel.”

The survey shows that in Yorkshire, 54 per cent of people now believe unemployment benefits are too high, up from 29 per cent in 1986. Exactly 50 per cent said unemployed people could find a job if they made more of an effort – up from 29 per cent in 1994.

Greg Mulholland, the Leeds North West MP who chairs the Liberal Democrat policy forum on work and pensions, said it showed reform of the welfare system was vital in order to restore confidence that it was fair to all.

“During an economic downturn, when taxpayers have had to tighten their belts, it is understandable that attitudes to welfare harden somewhat, and the fact that we had a welfare budget that cost more than the health, education and defence budgets put together made that inevitable,” he said.

“It is thus vital to ensure we see a reformed welfare system... ensuring the public can have confidence that it both encourages people who can work to find work, and also provides appropriate support to those who can’t work or can’t find work.

“Then we can make the case much more strongly of the positive role welfare can play.”

Nationally, however, the survey showed that while attitudes on welfare have generally hardened across Britain since the 1980s, the past year has seen a slight softening as cuts begin to bite.

Alison Park, from NatCen Social Research, which carried out the study, said: “Thirty years of NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey shows the nation has become much more cynical about the welfare state and benefit recipients, but austerity seems to be beginning to soften the public mood.”

A spokesman for the Department for Work & Pensions said there was still “clear public support” for welfare reform because benefits had spiralled to a point where they ”could provide a lifestyle out of reach from many hard-working families”.

The survey also shows party-political affiliations in Yorkshire have remained largely unchanged since the 1980s, despite the huge shifts in the political landscape over that time.

Forty per cent of people in the region described themselves as Labour Party supporters in 1986 – exactly the same figure as today.

Twenty-nine per cent of people described themselves as Conservatives in 1986 – now its is down marginally, to 25 per cent.

However, the proportion of people describing themselves as Anglican has changed dramatically – down from 46 per cent in 1986 to just 24 per cent, while the number of people describing themselves as without religion has risen from a third to a half over the same period.