While much public and political attention is being directed to the health and social care bill and the legal aid bills currently going through the Lords, an equally determined scrutiny of another far-reaching bill – on welfare reform – is taking place in an upstairs corridor of the Lords. This ‘rewriting of Beveridge’, which will have dramatic effects on our system of social security, is sadly getting less public attention than its more popular siblings. This despite a herculean effort led by the redoubtable (Lord) Bill McKenzie whose forensic skill and font of knowledge have the Tory minister (Lord) David Freud almost on the ropes.
Bill leads a formidable team of baronesses from across the House, including: Conservative Angela Browning (herself a carer of an autistic son), crossbenchers Molly Meacher, newly ennobled Sheila Hollins (another carer as well as professor of psychiatry and consultant psychiatrist), disability living allowance recipients Baronesses Thomas, Wilkins, Campbell and Olympian Tanni Grey-Thompson (with whom even athletes wouldn’t do battle) and long-standing campaigner Baroness Masham. Just in case any of them give the minister a second to breathe, in come professor of social policy Baroness Ruth Lister, former chair of the Pensions Delivery Authority Jeannie Drake, former head of ACAS Rita Donaghy, former minister and housing guru Patricia Hollis and trade unionist Muriel Turner. This lot frighten me – and would have me feeling sorry for David Freud if it wasn’t for what he and his government are up to with the bill.
Now it’s true that the bill comprises good, bad and indifferent (or unknown) parts. In its favour is the attempt to bring together in-work and out-of-work benefits to remove disincentives to work, and make the transition from benefits to work both smooth and financially rewarding, so that there is no longer the ‘cliff edge’ of losing so much income on entering the work force. Furthermore, the bill contains a welcome acknowledgement of the need for help with childcare costs even if working fewer than 16 hours a week.
But we soon reach its shortcomings – such as reduced incentives to save, or have a second earner bringing in money to a family on benefits.
And then its really bad bits, such as a brand new penalty on benefit claimants deemed to be under-occupying their social housing. One spare bedroom and that’s over 10 per cent off your benefit! Two and you could lose a quarter of your benefit. This despite it never being a ‘crime’ to have such spare beforehand and, even more, when no local authority has anything like enough one or two bedroom homes in which to move families caught by this new rule. So families will either have to take the hit on their income, or move out into private rented accommodation – at enormous cost to themselves and perhaps also the local authority. Then there’s the benefit cap, which will hit large families in London where rents – through no fault of their own – are high. What do they do? Move to cheap areas of the country where there are few jobs, and away from friends and family who no doubt help with child care? Or just give the kids less food?
Finally, there are parts of the new legislation which are still ‘in development’ – such as how many disabled people currently getting DLA will in future get the replacement benefit (personal independence payment) and thus how many of those caring for them will qualify for carer’s allowance. We don’t know which families will qualify for free school meals. And we don’t know how childcare costs are to be apportioned.
I have no problem with encouraging responsibility and independence for as many as possible, but surely we also have responsibility for those among us who struggle for whatever reason with day-to-day living. If we no longer care for them, as a society, we will be back with Mrs Thatcher’s view that ‘there is no such thing as society’.
Finally, a personal note: I’m delighted to see renowned authors’ and actors’ interest in saving libraries. But wouldn’t it be good if some others with famous names used their equally loud and effective voices to campaign for the poorest and most disabled – some of whom can only dream of visiting a library – who are vulnerable under this bill?
Dianne Hayter is a Labour peer and former chair of the NEC
Photo: UK Parliament
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