Government challenged in Lords on Social Fund and child support

By staff writers
25 Jan 2012

The government has been desperately lobbying behind the scenes to try to avoid further defeats on its controversial welfare bill in the Lords today.

As the political row over the coalition's cuts and changes to welfare provision continue, with the possibility of an unprecedented sixth and even seventh defeat in the House of Lords, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is also being accused by critics of political spin rather than proper civil service neutrality.

Further second chamber debate and votes are taking place this afternoon on the report stage of the Welfare Reform Bill (WRB), with amendments aimed at removing charges for people using the Child Support Agency (CSA) and protecting the Social Fund for emergency payments - which the coalition wants to axe.

Stung by criticism from senior Anglican bishops, as well as charities, medical professionals, public figures, academics politicians from all parties and thousands of members of the public, the government's tabloid ally the Daily Mail today wheeled out former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey to defend their cuts to the most vulnerable, and to say that deficit reduction must take priority over welfare spending.

Lord Carey also reinforced popular prejudices, rebutted in detail by experts, about 'scrounging' and dependency, in an article which one Church figure described to Ekklesia as "sad, misinformed, misguided and lacking in Christian charity."

Earlier today, government ministers confirmed that they are rejecting an amendment to the bill laid down by Tory peer Lord Mackay which would exempt mothers from a £100 charge to access child maintenance payments from their ex-partner.

Gingerbread, the charity for single parents, has written to all Peers with a response to the government's letter rejecting Lord Mackay's amendment exempting parents who have no other option but to use the Child Support Agency, meaning their ex-partner has resisted all attempts to persuade him to pay child maintenance.

The charity declared: "Lord Freud argues that the amendment would require the government 'to establish where the fault lies for parents' failure to reach a collaborative agreement'. He argues the government would have to 'become involved in whether one parent was to blame'. This is far from the case."

Gingerbread continued: "Lord Mackay's amendment is not about the government seeking to apportion blame as to who is wrong and right when couples split up; nor is it about trying to decide who to blame for maintenance not being paid. This is about the continuing financial support of children after relationships end, and the obligation on the non-resident parent to contribute – however the couple broke up and regardless of the feelings of the parents towards each other."

It added: "It is not difficult or costly to decide whether or not a non-resident parent is meeting or is prepared to meet his financial responsibilities towards his children: that can be decided by his record and behaviour in setting up proper payment arrangements. The government is right to take steps to make it easier for parents to get help in setting up their own private maintenance agreements, and to encourage more non-resident parents to pay towards the costs of raising their children voluntarily; but ultimately the government owes it to the children involved to step in and ensure that parental responsibilities are met."

Meanwhile, the coalition proposes to abolish the Social Fund, first cutting it by 39 per cemt, then dispersing the remaining £178 million to local authorities in a way that is not ring-fenced - meaning that it can, and probably will be, spent elsewhere.

Guardian journalist and welfare specialist Polly Toynbee has described the Social Fund as "an awkward lump in the social security system, small potatoes, yet a last lifeline for the utterly destitute."

Charities point out that the abolition of the Fund will throw many poor people on the mercies of private loans sharks charging interests rate of several thousand percent, and that the money saved will be negligible.

As in other areas, the government face arguments that its cuts are also financially counterproductive, resulting in escalation of costs elsewhere and a massive increase in judicial review, which they are seeking to head off by slashing legal aid.

* Lord's welfare amendments on CSA and emergency payments - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16152

[Ekk/3]

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