Opinion: Jenny Willott is wrong on the Welfare Reform Bill

On Sunday Jenny Willott wrote an article on LDV explaining the reasons behing Lib Dem MPs voting to reject the Lords amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill. However, I’m afraid that, as someone who has been campaigning on this for several months, I am not satisfied with her explanation and think that there are several flaws in her justifications.

For example, to put what Jenny said another way, 4 in 10 people affected by the time limit will lose ESA completely. That’ll be 280,000 people with long term illness or disability that prevents them from working. Those who lose it completely will be those with household savings over £16,000 or with a partner working more than 24 hours a week. Because, you know, we wouldn’t want disabled people’s partners to be allowed to *work* after all. They might be able to get other support but, without ESA, there is no support specifically for the disabled person as they won’t even be allowed to receive Job Seekers Allowance – they, as an individual, will receive nothing at all.

And, given that the assessment system is so broken that even the man who designed it has called it “not fit for purpose”, her assurance that the sickest will be placed in the unconditional support group isn’t worth anything at all. When you get terminally ill cancer patients being found “fit for work” then you know the system is broken – and, while the time limit will start ejecting people from contributory ESA by April, the assessment won’t be fixed until 2015 at the earliest.

And that’s not mentioning that they’re also preventing severely disabled children from ever being allowed to receive contributory ESA and increasing the DLA payments to severely disabled children by less than £1.50 a week while using that as an excuse to take about £40 a week from all the other disabled children.

And there’s also the small matter that most of those receiving contributory ESA will be unable to return to work after one year. And the government cutting Disability Living Allowance by 20% over five years when the fraud rate is just 0.5%.

But more pertinently, Jenny Willott’s article was misleading about one crucial factor: our MPs did not face a choice between two arbitrary time limits. There was the government’s arbitrary time limit and the Lords amendment for a time limit of no less than two years. Neither was ideal but the former was clearly against party policy on time limiting while the latter was not.

Though, when you come down to it, the bottom line is that 280,000 sick and disabled people will lose ESA entirely. And I don’t think that pulling the rug out from under 280,000 vulnerable people is why we entered government. It’s certainly not what conference voted for.

* George Potter is the Secretary of Guildford Liberal Democrats, writing in a personal capacity.

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36 Comments

  • James Sandbach 7th Feb '12 - 7:46pm

    Another issue Jenny didn’t deal with was lib dem support for the Commons claiming “financial privilege” on the Bill to avoid it going back to the Lords – now as lib dems I thought we’ve always been sticklers on constitutional matters. Okay, we think the Lords need democratic reform, but we’ve never argued that they can’t and shouldn’t legitimately act as a constructive revising chamber, or that we would seek to fetter their constitutional right to act as a check and balance on controversial Government legislation.

    Financial privilege only applies to Finance (Budget) Bills, not social policy Bills.

    Then again, given the Party is so adept at side-stepping our own constitutional checks and balances (like policy accountability to Conference), is it any wonder that we disregard all other constitutional checks, balances and conventions in order to service conservative social policy.

  • @ George Potter

    I really commend you for all your hard work and determination to stick up for sick and disabled people.

    It is blatantly obvious to see the hard work and commitment that you given to this campaign.

    The future of politics and probably that of your party lies in the hands of your likes and that of Liberal Youth.

    I would just like to add one tidbit of information to your campaign.

    As you correctly point out, those that are time limited to 12 months ESA and whom have a partner who works 24 hours a week or earns more than £7’500 will lose all entitlement to their benefit.
    Those partners who are unable to work as they care for sick or disabled partners are only able to claim Carers allowance at a pathetic £55.55 a week and that’s as long as they have an income under £100 a week.

    There are thousands of carers out there caring for other family members, who have to work odd hours in order to be able to continue looking after a loved one whilst at the same time trying to improve there own restricted income.

    This government is penalizing the sick and disabled in such a way it is gut wrenching.

    Please keep up your hard work George, although it may seem like an uphill battle, I can assure you, there are many people out there who are grateful to you

  • Barry George 7th Feb '12 - 9:13pm

    Good article George and a noteworthy amendment from James too…

    The question I would ask…. Is anybody listening ?

    Sadly it seems that our members of parliament are not listening to us at all, they are merely occasionally updating us to their point of view but their ears are firmly shut…

    Everyone can see that you are working your socks off to push this issue to the top of the agenda. You even went so far as to draft the motion that was passed at conference. Your hard work is very much appreciated.

    Sadly Jenny doesn’t reply to any comments on any of her articles so we don’t know if you are being heard or not..

    You posted a while back that a meeting was going to take place with senior MP’s and that a follow up post from somebody would be written.

    Did the meeting ever take place ? And if not , do you know why not ?

  • Oranjepan, the reason they stand to be affected is because they’ve been failed by a tick-box approach that doesn’t work properly. That’s the point – I think you’re arguing at cross-purposes. But it’s not enough to have “sought to place extra emphasis” on a better assessment – you have to actually introduce it. If the better assessment isn’t there yet, you vote against the introduction of a one-year time limit and go for something that makes more sense, like a limit of “at least two years” or something.

  • George, where do you get “2015 at the earliest” from, though, as the date by which the WCA will be fixed? I’d always thought it was sooner than that (or could be) – it’s not as if nothing’s happened.

  • The max saving from taking 280,000 people off ESA would be £1.2bn. That assumes that none qualify for any other benefit as a replacement (which is doubtful)

    To put that in context the Gov found another £1.5bn this week to bail out PFI contract afflicted hospitals and an extra £1bn for the Youth Contract. Clearly the money can be found when the will is there.

  • George – OK, I get it now, there are five reviews so up to 2015. At what point does it become “fit for purpose”?

    The second review and the government’s response to it are here. Lots still up in the air.
    http://www.dwp.gov.uk/policy/welfare-reform/employment-and-support/wca-independent-review/

  • very good point, too, that the Lords’ “no less than two years” amendment is closer to conference policy than the government’s one-year one.

  • Sigh… I’m not even going to bother arguing with what you’ve written. Suffice to say that it is littered with inaccuracies, misunderstandings and down right falsehoods. As someone who cares about getting this stuff right it’s depressing that you appear to be seen by people as having a clue what you’re talking about.

    Lib Dem voice editors- why do you continue to allow this guy air time- do you not bother to check any facts before posting things?

    George- I’ve tried to explain the system to you numerous times. This is a comple subject and requires proper and thoughtful debate- something you seem not that bothered about. So- for the last time:

    Stop writing rants online and go and learn the subject matter. The changes to ESA aren’t nice and I have my own concerns over them. But you are peddling fear and that’s something I find unacceptable.

  • Tony Dawson 7th Feb '12 - 11:46pm

    @Hywel

    “…the Gov found another £1.5bn this week to bail out PFI contract afflicted hospitals and an extra £1bn for the Youth Contract. Clearly the money can be found when the will is there.”

    And you forgot Eric Pickles Weekly Bin Collection slush fund! Then there’s the next war we’re going to start, whether in Syria, Iran or Argentina (though funnily enough not Saudi, Zimbabwe or Bahrain). These things seriously undermine the projection of ‘there’s just no money left’. Not to mention the hideous cost of a useless and ill-thought of NHS reorganisation. Big Society man he speak with forked tongue!

    I would warn George and others, however, off quoting these figures of the ‘deserving’ and the ‘fraud rate’ as ‘gospel’. Only today, I and a local councillor friend were comparing stories about our two favourite ‘lead-swingers’, one of which at least can apparently ‘con’ any ATOS examiner going. Meanwhile, of course, ATOS racks up its knock-backs of the totally deserving..

  • Barry George 8th Feb '12 - 12:03am

    Chrome

    As someone who cares about getting this stuff right it’s depressing that you appear to be seen by people as having a clue what you’re talking about.

    Apparently a majority at conference felt likewise and voted accordingly. Are you suggesting that the will of the party as expressed at conference was incorrect and it is you (who presents no evidence at all) that is in fact correct ?

    Please treat my question as rhetorical … My question is aimed more at the thread and I have no desire to encourage the dilution of this thread into a anything other than the excellent article by George.

    If you have a counter argument may I suggest you submit your own article to LDV and I am sure they will consider publishing it. That would be far more productive than merely attacking George and would allow the readers to judge your alternative view on its merits alone.

  • Barry George 8th Feb '12 - 12:29am

    @ George

    ” The meeting did take place ….. I did do my own one, however, which can be found here: ”

    Thank you George, most enlightening…

  • Chrome – I’d be all in favour of hearing further complexities. Why don’t you want to bother?

  • again to Chrome – you said in October that you thought it was worth campaigning on the issue and that you thought the means test for income-related ESA was too low. What, at this point, would you offer in terms of argument/comfort to dismayed party members who would love to be able to argue that it’s not that bad but who aren’t convinced by the “it won’t apply to the sickest and it won’t apply to the poorest” line which is practically all we’ve had from MPs.

  • Oranjepan – not much time to respond, but I haven’t come across anyone involved in the debate who would argue that no reform is needed.

  • Richard Shaw 8th Feb '12 - 9:02am

    Jenny Willott MP said in her article : “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.” Am I right in assuming that this means anyone with savings over £16k AND a partner working over 24 hours will lose ESA after 1 year, but anyone meeting either one or none of those criteria will not lose ESA after 1 year. Is my interpretation correct?

    George, your piece seems entirely based on the stat that 40% (280k people) will lose ESA after 1 year based on the above criteria and that this is to be opposed because fewer people will receive money. However this statistic is meaningless unless the following is considered (among other considerations too):

    Do all these 280k people actually *need* it?

    Welfare is supposed to supposed to be a safety net that catches those most in need. As I commented on Jenny’s article £16,000 in savings is a lot of money (a year’s wage to a lot of people) and I would expect that people spend their own money before the state steps in. Welfare isn’t there to remove the need for people to save or to use their savings. To waive the principle that money should go to those who don’t have any, to grant funds based on someone’s status as disabled rather than being poor, should be regarded in the same way as Peter Stringfellow receiving Winter Fuel Payments because of his age rather than income.

    I’m broadly in agreement with Oranjepan so I won’t restate what he said, other than to add that using the 4/10 stat by itself as justification for opposing the bill is akin to certain tabloids a few weeks ago using the headline number of foreign nationals claiming benefits to bash immigrants.

  • I wouldn’t doubt that the huge detail of all this is important, and that anything as complex and contentious as benefit / tax policy is incapable of reform, but surely the problem for our parliamentarians is that they locked themselves in very early to the “panic” situation the Tories had bought (“as bad as Greece”, “no money left” etc), in total opposition to what we had previously correctly argued. Even then, we had a way out – we could have said the vulnerable need an absolute protection in times of economic stress, we can propose higher income tax and targeted wealth taxes to start to close any perceived gaps (“the deficit”). But the leadership listened to the tabloid baying for welfare cuts, instead of following our long term principles, and then quietly went about supporting such benefit cuts, with a consequent need for excuses as have recently been posted. Let me state immediately that Universal Benefit IS a good idea, but it will depend, like all other benefits, on the conditions, and crucially the amount of money put in.

    Those who argue, like Oranjepan, that reform is a matter of making vulnerable people more self reliant, “freeing them from cotton wool”, should see what actually goes on, the great work that is done by many individuals and disabled people themselves to do just that. Let’s recognise that people love their own individual prejudices, and that much of the media has a tendency to validate common prejudices in this area (isn’t that what the Leveson Inquiry looking at at present?). As liberals, and Lib Dems, it is our responsibility to take on prejudice, not to weakly give in to incorporating it in our social policy.

    Well done, George, keep on doing what you are doing. The rest of us are put to shame by your energy and commitment to this.

  • @George Potter
    Again a great addition to this debate. Keep up the pressure.

    @Chrome
    What everyone else said, if you have facts or sources, or indeed a thought through argument please share.

  • Richard Shaw – “Welfare is supposed to supposed to be a safety net that catches those most in need.”
    This seems a very US or early Poor Law way of looking at things. Not a view we in the Liberals or Lib Dems have traditionally taken, I don’t think. Benefits are supposed to be part of our national insurance policy to ensure people with various disadvantages have them at least partly compensated for, surely.

    I have always thought that so-called “trickle down” theory from the Reagan Thatcher period of economic and social policy was a no-no in this party, and that was a key reason why we have always, and through our constitutional Preamble (drafted in the Thatcher period) opposed such ideas. Now it seems we have much of that thinking deeply embedded in the party. Sickening.

  • I strongly support this article…..As Rudolf Rickes observed, “If one considers the observation that the worth and dignity of a civilization is judged by the way it the treats its weakest members, we cannot help but look back in shame at our past”……..
    We appear to be moving ‘forward’ to that same shame.

  • Richard Shaw 8th Feb '12 - 1:38pm

    @Tim13

    It’s disappointing that a single line in my reply is used to accuse me or others of Reaganomics, Thatcherism, supporting trickledown economics and question my “LibDemness” to point that I am somehow “sickening”. Why don’t you go the whole hog and just call me a heretic?

    I’ve supported the party for many years but finally joined a couple of months before the last General Election. I then embarked upon a programme of learning as much about LibDem policies and thought, reading several publications by ALDC, the LD LGA Group, the manifesto and coalition agreement and recently The Orange Book. I became involved in my local party and was honoured to be selected as candidate for this year’s local elections. I freely admit not knowing everything about everything LibDem, hence the reading. I don’t particularly identify either solely a social- or economic- liberal, willing to consider all ideas and views, never dogmatically rejecting ideas of other members out of hand. Based on what I know so far I seem to be firmly Liberal.

    @George Potter

    Thank you for taking the time to reply and clarify the rules; I don’t know everything to do with the NHS and Welfare Bills and while I would love to discuss them on LDV I do get put off sometimes by the prominence of shroud-waving and lack of indepth stats and figures that make such discussion meaningful. I’m certainly not advocating keeping people in poverty. My present attitude is that we should help people overcome the barriers preventing them from leading “normal lives” rather than relying solely on state-based charity to give them that life. The NI Contributions = Benefit Entitlement model is going to face issues, broadly similar to what’s happening with pensions. The model works as long as there are enough people paying in to fund those drawing out. Eventually the ratio of contributors to withdrawers will decrease from the current 5:2 ratio to 2:1 and eventually it becomes unsustainable. Some may never contribute NI but still require help so it does not seem realistic in the long run to maintain the idea that “even if they don’t need it in order to avoid starvation they should still be entitled to it”. I was quite interested in Chapter 10 of TOB where it suggested three pillars to pension provision: Income-based Contributory, Compulsory Self-funded saving, and voluntary private provision. Could this be something to look at for disability/sickness care too?

    p.s. No one expects the LibDem Inquisition! 😉

  • Pete Benson 8th Feb '12 - 2:35pm

    To a lot of you this is just politics,to some of us this is a very personal issue.

    Calling anyone that is sick or unemployed a benefit scrounger is going to make that person resentful,harangued,lower than the low.

    This will contribute to many more people having mental health issues.While people with mental health issues being kicked of ESA by people such as Atos.You are going to have a ever increasing amount with mental health problems walking the street.People like this are at a greater risk of becoming homeless.The new Housing Benefit Rules will make Homelessness increase.People with mental health issues often turn to drink or drugs,to blot out there misery.I know,I am a none drinking Alcoholic.I am still a Alcoholic because if I have a drink I will be drunk for the next 6 months at least.And at times like this,boy do I need a drink.If I was a drinking alcoholic,from reading in the press,I would be entitled to a lot more money.So am I benefit scrounging scum or not by trying not to drink.

    So we have a increase in homelessness,increase in drink and drug taking.What happens next.Well alcoholics and drug addicts have to pay for there habits.So yes,a increase in crime.At a time when the Police numbers are being reduced,when prisoners are given early release because the jails are full.So we head for chaos.

    To combat this problem,you will need more jails,more Police,higher insurance because of burglary,vehicle theft,criminal damage etc.

    So at the end of the day,when society is significantly worse of than before.Because you dare not go out because the chances of getting mugged have greatly increased.Will the cost of welfare reform be worth it.Will the price of this reform really save one penny.

  • martin sweetland 8th Feb '12 - 5:42pm

    George , an excellent article , and having spent a great deal of time trawling the net , i would say you are spot on. CHROME , you obviously need a polish.
    My wife is one of the 280000 that will lose all their ESA , and will get nothing until she “retires” in 2015. Laughably (almost) the jobcentre sent her a letter last week to advise that her ESA would increase on April 12th. Only problem is , they already advised her it will stop on April 1st. When she advised the jobcentre that she would never be fit for work again they said “we know , we have it on record that you are unable to work , but you are automatically placed in the return to work group because you are not terminaly ill”!.
    Over the past few months i have spoken to a large number of people about the ESA issues , with most admitting to finding the outcome horrifying , and many had not even realised what was proposed . Somewhat interesting is that many of these people are/were Liberals. NOT ONE OF THEM WILL VOTE LIBERAL AGAIN ! Amongst those are family/friends who had for many years supported the party , and now feel totally disenchanted . I understand why. Keep up the good work George , but i fear your efforts are in vain.

  • Richard, yes the Lib Dems are a “broad church” like other major parties. I apologise for my ambiguous use of the word “sickening” – it wasn’t meant to be aimed at you, but about the thinking it represents. I did not just deduce views through the one sentence I quoted, by the way. I, like George, feel very strongly that the line used by the Tories and our leadership, about “liberating those on benefits” (by cuts, mind you!), and more especially at a time of economic hardship, is not liberal.

  • The above links provided by Mo Stewart are a valuable resource of information.

    People on this board who have been highly opinionated in defending the welfare cuts and the disability reforms would do well to read the links and arm themselves with the facts.

    To many people come to the conclusion that what charities and campaign groups are doing is just hyperbole and scaremongering. When in fact what they are saying is true.

    Read the reports, Especially those that show ATOS are deeply involved with lobbying and government policy on Welfare Reform. There are so many conflicts of interest which clearly shows how corrupt this welfare reform bill is

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