Many Liberal Democrats will have been choking on their Sunday Corn Flakes yesterday as they read, with horror, David Cameron’s plans to slash benefits even further than this year’s Welfare Reform Bill. If he had his way, there would be no Housing Benefit payable to anyone under 25. The critical part of the reports is, however, this sentence:
Downing Street said they were Conservative plans for after the next general election.
That’s all right then. This rubbish isn’t going to happen on our watch.
Except…..there are lots of young lives that may be even more ruined than they are already if that shower win the next General Election. Everyone who cares about these things needs to be constructing rational, common-sense arguments against such ideas, against the notion perpetuated by the Tories and the right-wing press that being out of work and on benefits is the result of some sort of moral failing.
That’s why it is really important that Nick Clegg – and it has to be him – condemns these proposals in the strongest language imaginable. The very idea that the under-25s could be stopped from claiming Housing Benefit, which costs £2 billion per year, is particularly ridiculous given that unemployment within that age group is still so disproportionately high. Nick Clegg’s £1 billion Youth Contract will help young people get jobs, but that generation is bearing the biggest brunt of the economic crisis.
Not only that, but not all under-25s have a family home where it’s safe for them to stay. What about those leaving care, who are ill, whose parents won’t let them stay at home, who are fleeing domestic abuse? My daughter will be welcome in our home, which is her home and always will be, but it’s not the same for everybody. Cameron clearly doesn’t have the first notion about the realities of life for many young people today. The PM’s plans will create more homeless young people – and you know how tough it is to get a job if you’re homeless. If people can’t provide themselves with a roof over their head, the state has to help them. It’s the right thing to do.
Cameron talked in the Fail on Sunday about the engaged couple who are feeling hard-done-by because they have to live with their parents while some single mother can just have a baby and get a council house. Maybe that engaged couple should just think that they’re lucky to have the sort of family relationship where they can live, comfortably and probably cheaply, at home. They should recognise that not everybody can walk into jobs. They could maybe do with realising that the single mother trapped in a damp, cramped Council flat is not exactly living a bed of roses lifestyle.
I cannot accept the parts of the Welfare Reform Act which take benefits away from sick people, based on the underlying assumption that they are all faking it until it’s proved otherwise. We’ve all heard of people like Karen Sherlock, who passed away after being told by ATOS that they were fit for work.
I felt that, while many Liberal Democrats, including Paddy Ashdown, opposed parts of the Act, there was too much adoption of the moralising Tory rhetoric from senior Liberal Democrats like Danny Alexander. This was, I think, a mistake. We should have taken the opportunity to show our different approach. People who are ill should be supported, but parking people on benefits who could otherwise be happily working is highly illiberal. It’s not good for anyone, least of all those who want to work but can’t because their family would be a lot worse off if they did. The welfare system should not be an instrument of punishment, it should be an instrument of enablement where people are given the help they need, tailored to suit them, to get into work without losing out while making sure that those who can’t work are looked after.
Cameron’s plans give us an insight into what the Tories governing alone would have done if they hadn’t had the Liberal Democrats holding them back. However unhappy many of us are with the changes, we need to, at least, acknowledge that.
I won’t be happy, though, until I hear Nick Clegg say that Cameron’s words are Tory plans, we think they’re wrong and would not support them. As I write, Danny Alexander has made me very cross. Speaking on Sunday Politics, he said he was relaxed about Cameron setting out his party’s agenda, which is fair enough, but then he said that there needs to be further debate about the welfare system once the reforms bed in. This is simply not good enough. Removing a critical benefit from young people without considering their circumstances is just plain wrong and we should not hold back in our condemnation of it.
This article first appeared on Caron’s Musings yesterday.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings