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Britain debates: What should European welfare look like?

The debate in Parliament, which today passed a measure to temporarily cap most welfare benefits, is part of a larger debate in Europe over how to handle welfare amid the debt crisis.

By Correspondent / January 8, 2013

A homeless person rests in front of a bank beneath graffiti that reads: 'Welfare where are you?' in central Athens, in November.

Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

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London

On Tuesday, the British government pushed through a parliamentary vote to temporarily cap welfare benefits, setting down a dividing line on an issue that will be pivotal in determining who wins Britain's next general election.

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But it also is the latest round of a struggle being played out in virtually every European nation facing the questions of what a welfare state should look like in the 21st century and how welfare can be subsidized in an era when the right (and many on the left) claim that dwindling resources mean traditional models are no longer affordable.

The bill, backed by the government's Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties coalition, caps annual increases in many benefits to 1 percent – effectively a real-term cut as it is below the expected level of inflation – and passed the House of Commons easily despite opposition from both the opposition Labour Party and even from some Liberal Democrat members of the governing coalition.

Domestic debate over dependency

The government paints the measure as necessary to fix an increase in benefits paid to supposedly work-shy “shirkers” over the past five years at a time when another group characterized as “strivers” have been unfairly shouldering the burden of paying taxes.

"Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbor sleeping off a life on benefits?” asked Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne last year when the measure was announced.

But critics charge that Mr. Osborne's imagery was a classic example of Conservative Party scapegoating of the poor, meant to play to a particular strata of voters fiercely fought over by the Tories and Labour. Labour points to analysis showing 7 million working households will lose out by an average £165 ($265) annually under the plan. And Sarah Teather, a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament who lost her job as children and families minister in a reshuffle in September, also said she would be voting against.

"As a constituency MP representing a very deprived area in London, I feel deeply anxious about the policy and I will be voting against the bill ... very reluctantly and with a very heavy heart," she told the BBC.

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