Government must change direction on welfare, say critics

By staff writers
1 Feb 2012

The House of Commons debates the Welfare Reform Bill for the last time today (Wednesday 1 February 2012) following a record seventh defeat for the government in the House of Lords last night.

The coalition has a 70-seat majority at Westminster and the Prime Minister and his colleagues are determined to ignore the massive weight of opinion against them from parliamentarians of all parties, charities, churches, medical professionals, people living with disability and poverty, children's advocates, academics, researchers, community organisations, faith groups, public figures and many thousands of constituents who have been lobbying their MPs.

A group of charities and NGOs, including the beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia, have called on the coalition to pause their welfare legislation in order to take on board proper research, better proposals and the experience of those who use and need the benefits system.

Pat Onions, who is working to get 100,000 signatures on her e-government petition calling for a review (the number needed to get a debate in parliament), told FalseEconomy yesterday: "Disabled people, their carers and families face a double whammy. Cuts by the government to our vital disability allowances makes it impossible for us to exist, let alone have a life. Cuts to local services mean we become virtual prisoners in our own homes. Any income we should receive as a result of long term illness or disability the government is taking away. They tell us we must work which, for so many, is totally beyond our capability."

She added: "For far too long we have had to put up with the media labelling us as 'scroungers' and 'cheats'. Nothing is further from the truth: through no fault of our own we have to live our lives trapped in broken bodies and minds that can not function as society and the government dictates."

John McConnell MP said: "It's critical that tomorrow we support the Lords amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill to do all we can to prevent this attack on the poor."

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is expected to scale down plans to charge mothers £150 to use the Child Support Agency. He will also pledge to set up a fund to help families made homeless by the £26,000 benefits cap. But opponents say that such concessions, while welcome, are not sufficient.

The government has been defeated a full seven times over amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill in the House of Lords. Critics say over half a million people will be badly hit if it goes through unchanged.

The scale of this opposition in the second chamber is unprecedented in modern times.

The amendments the government is seeking to overturn, and which opponents hope rebellious MPs will defend, are:

• Amendment 1: Protecting benefit payments to children on lower rates of disability living allowance (DLA).

• Amendment 12: Protecting housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have un-needed spare rooms.

• Amendment 36a: Protecting young disabled people's eligibility for contributory Employment Support Allowance (ESA)

• Amendment 38: Raising two 24 months the proposed 12-month limit on claiming contributory ESA.

• Amendment 38a: Exempting cancer patients from the contributory ESA limits.

• Amendment 59: Excluding child benefit from the £26,000 household benefit cap.

• Amendment 62c: Dropping the proposal to charge single parents for using the Child Support Agency.

The late-revised and late-published WRB impact assessment from the DWP suggests in overall terms that £290 million will be saved for the public purse through cuts affecting the most vulnerable.

Critics say that this is not only immoral, but questionable in economic terms. Some analysts claim that the changes could in fact end up costing taxpayers £8 billion more per year, but no effective time has been allowed by government to explore the finances in greater and better detail.

This is because claimants on working tax credit (WTC) or child tax credit (CTC) are exempt from the generic cap; the DWP concede that up to £8.4 billion worth of WTC and CTC currently goes unclaimed; a residual maximum amount can be paid towards rent, and 75 per cent of all new housing benefit claimants since the last election are working but on very low incomes.

The upshot is likely to be an upsurge in working tax credit and child tax credit claims that will more than replace alleged savings. A shift of just 3.4 per cent of those working and eligible would achieve this. A higher level would lead to a net increase in benefits paid out from only one source.

There are also concerns that the entire delivery model for Universal Credit is deeply flawed on practical and technological grounds.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia, which has been involved in the debate and has briefed peers and MPs on Work Capability Assessment-related issues, says: "Morally, practically and economically, the government's current welfare reform programme is hugely flawed and has therefore drawn an unprecedented level of opposition from charities, churches, experts, parliamentarians across the spectrum and, most importantly, disadvantaged, disabled and sick people themselves."

He continued: "It would be extremely unwise to go on trying to ignore this weight of opinion, concern and detailed, well-substantiated evidence. The use of whips and financial privilege can force the Welfare Reform Bill through mathematically, but the legal and political resistance will continue as the government discovers that the true cost of the challenges it is not properly facing, and the problems it is storing up, are measured in human lives, not just misconstrued statistics."

"Welfare does need reforming in Britain. There is no doubt about that. But it needs reforming with, not against, the vulnerable. And it needs doing on the basis of strengthening communities and households so that they can survive, flourish and find a fulfilling place in society. That is why a rethink is both necessary and advisable. Trying to solve the debt crisis by making those who are least able to pay suffer is wrong in principle as well as practice," Barrow concluded.

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* Why the churches disagree with the benefit cap - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16209

* Spartacus Report (#spartacusreport) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/spartacusreport

* Pat's Petition (Stop and review the cuts to benefits and services which are falling disproportionately on disabled people, their carers and families): http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/20968

* 38 Degrees action in disability and welfare cuts - http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/speakout/cuts-to-support-email-mp

* Church Action on Poverty lobby of MPs: http://www.church-poverty.org.uk/its-time-to-close-the-gap/wrbaction/

[Ekk/3]

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