Benefits are not an easy subject to get your head around: we have a benefits system with enough acronyms, assessments, taper rates and tax credits to make your head spin. That’s why this Government is finally undertaking a hugely important and long-overdue reform of benefits.
Universal Credit will replace the complicated mix of tax credits, JSA, ESA, Housing Benefit and so on with one simple benefit. And the Universal Credit is why the Welfare Reform Bill is so crucial. It will revolutionise the way we support those who are unemployed, disabled, sick or caring for a loved one and is why we have to support the Bill and ensure it becomes law.
However, alongside this important measure, the Bill included proposals to reduce spending on various parts of the welfare budget. Across Government, departments are having to cut their budgets in order to reduce the deficit, and since DWP has the biggest budget by a long way, if we don’t make savings here, every other department would face impossible cuts.
Cutting money from DWP is not easy, as by definition it goes to those most in need. But the Government is trying to protect the most vulnerable from the cuts it has to make and I believe that this means protecting the sickest and the poorest.
The most controversial proposal in the Bill was the plan to limit to one year the length of time someone receives Contributory Employment and Support Allowance.
I want to make it clear that no-one has found this Bill easy and all Lib Dem MPs were acutely aware of the Conference motion rejecting any arbitrary time limit on ESA payments. But I also want to explain why we made the decision to support the Government.
Firstly, let me be clear – the choice before us last week was between two arbitrary time limits. One was just longer than the other. And the Lords’ Amendment would have cost £1.6b a year, money which would have to have been found from elsewhere in DWP’s budget.
To explain the policy itself: the time limit only applies to those in the Work Related Activity Group, who need support but are likely to be able to return to work in the future. The sickest and most disabled people go into the Support Group, and they are not affected by any time limit.
The proposals also do not affect the poorest people. Anyone with savings below £16,000, who has a partner working fewer than 24 hours will still get ESA for as long as they need it. Because of this, 6 out of 10 people will continue to receive some or all of their ESA after the end of their year on contributory benefit.
And those who don’t receive ESA after the 12 months will be entitled to housing benefit, council tax benefit, working tax credits and child tax credits, so many will still receive a significant amount of support.
So, given that these proposals won’t affect the sickest, as they will be in the Support Group, and they won’t affect the poorest, as they will still receive ESA, I think this is the fairest way of implementing a cut that no-one wants to bring in.
For me the most important thing is to make the system fairer; to ensure that people get into the right group in the first place, so that those who need it go into the Support Group with no time limit.
This means making sure that the Work Capability Assessment works, and that is why I strongly support the work being done by Prof Harrington. His first recommendations on improving the WCA have already been implemented and they appear to be making a difference. The Government has promised to follow his future recommendations as well, especially on chronic pain and fatigue. These are often huge barriers to work for many of those with chronic conditions but they are not properly picked up in the assessment.
The Government is also currently consulting on changing the rules for those with cancer, so the presumption is that they should go into the Support Group and as a result receive indefinite support.
I accept that many Lib Dem members are disappointed that we MPs supported the Government on Wednesday. But the Bill has changed in many ways during its passage through Parliament, and we can be proud of driving many of those changes. I hope that you can understand why we voted the way we did and see that it was all with the aim of improving the system and making the cuts as fair as possible.
Jenny Willott was the Co-Chair of the Parliamentary Party Committee on Work and Pensions until last Friday.
* Jenny Willott was the Lib Dem MP for Cardiff Central and chaired the working group on working age social security policy in 2016.