A Fairer Share for All – a missed opportunity

At our Conference next month we will be discussing the policy motion and paper A Fairer Share For All.

What I particularly like is the policy to have “a £50 billion capital Rebalancing Fund to address the historic investment disparities between our regions and nations”. (I proposed a motion on poverty last year and it included a Rebalancing Fund but it was rejected by Federal Conference Committee.) 

The policy paper is not radical enough. It does not call for the end of relative poverty in any timescale. Also it does not include all of our existing policies as set out in our 2017 manifesto, such as reversing the cuts to Employment and Support Allowance for those in the Work Related Activity Group; 

It is unclear about what it wants to increase the benefit levels by. Existing policy is to increase benefits by the CPI rate of inflation each year, but the policy paper only states we would consider this “if more needs to be done (2.2.15 and 2.2.16). Other policies in this category are restoring the benefit level to its 2015 real value and increasing it by the increase in median earnings if higher than the CPI rate of inflation (2.2.16). 

To be radical it needs to restore the benefit level to its 2012 real value and at least increase it in line with the CPI rate of inflation or the median earnings increase whichever is highest. I would go further and commit us to increasing the basic benefit level to the relative poverty line excluding housing costs within a set time. 

The policy paper does not reverse the other cuts we made while in government in 2012. I think it should. These are to restore the LHA to the 50th percentile of local rents not 30th and to restore the national Council Tax Benefit scheme.  

To be radical it needs to try to meet Shelter’s target of 3.1 million new social homes in 20 years. The policy in the policy will not even provide 2 million in that time. 

It also does not completely address some of the issues raised by Philip Alston the UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty. Namely people having to pay over 40% of their benefits back to the DWP to repay loans, having to access Universal Credits digitally, being assessed every calendar month rather than fortnightly, and not being able to receive their benefit split between them when they are a couple. 

The “A Fairer Share for All policy paper should have built on our existing welfare policies but it doesn’t. It could have built on our 2017 manifesto which was recognised as the most comprehensive of the three main parties with regard to rebuilding the welfare system but it doesn’t.  

* Michael Berwick-Gooding is a Liberal Democrat member in Basingstoke and has held various party positions at local, regional and English Party level. He posts comments as Michael BG.

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  • David Warren 28th Aug '19 - 3:54pm

    Couldn’t agree more Michael.

  • Katharine Pindar 28th Aug '19 - 5:36pm

    A much-needed so very welcome article from Michael, which I certainly hope will result in amendments from him being accepted for debate at the Conference, where I trust the radicalism of our members may lead to their acceptance.

    Lorenzo is right that there is a fair amount of tinkering in the motion. One aspect of it which I trust Michael will address in his amendments concerns 1 c. in the section, Conference calls for measures. It reads: “Introduce a system of incentives, rather than ineffective sanctions, to encourage people into work, and pilot a secure income guarantee to test the impact of introducing an unconditional element to the benefits system.” To which my first reaction on reading it was, “What? We don’t call sanctions ‘ineffective’, as if that was the main issue. We call sanctions out for what they are, a system that has done great harm to vulnerable people, and still is doing so!” There was a recent article in the Guardian about a woman who had many weeks of payment docked because she failed an appointment – she had to, because she had just had a miscarriage!

    Beyond this, can anyone say what ‘a system of incentives’ may mean? Are people to be given extra cash for taking a job, any job, however miserable and short? Somewhat unlikely! To cut to the chase, I don’t see that this particular suggestion, 1 c., is as good as our existing policy, passed in 2016 in the Mending the Safety Net debate. That reads (2 b): “Scrapping fixed penalty sanctions and instead implementing flexible guidelines with added safeguards so no one can fall below a minimum income.” I suggest it would be better to reaffirm this policy (passed in an excellent debate which I remember ) than to try the new suggestion, which also would take us vaguely in the direction of Universal Basic Income. We surely only want two things stated in this bit of the motion – 1. Scrap harmful sanctions. 2. Make sure no-one on benefits can fall below a minimum income.

    Incidentally, I make no apology for raising a detailed question here, because it may allow some members unable to attend Conference to air their views, which those of us lucky enough to be able to attend can take account of.

  • @ Michael & Katharine Good luck at the Conference and do try to have a personal session with Tim.

    Don’t be put off by the outrageous Johnson chicanery. Poverty and inequality is awful in the UK before Brexit… it will be even worse after it.

    Courage mes braves !!

  • Dave Page,

    I have a draft amendment which would address the issues which I raise in the article.

    Lorenzo Cherin,

    The Policy Paper states in 2.2.2, “However, scrapping it (Universal Credit) and starting again when millions of people have now moved to the new system is impractical and would see more money spent again on administration rather than supporting people. This would hurt the people who most depend on a well-functioning benefits system. Using the basic concept of streamlining multiple benefits into one, we would fix existing problems and construct a new benefits system which provides dignity and respect.” I have decided not to challenge this. Perhaps someone else will submit an amendment doing so. I suggested during the consultation stage replacing Universal Credit with a new benefit for those in work based on it and keeping the existing benefits, but this was rejected by the working group.

    Thank you, David Warren and David Raw for your support.

    Katharine Pindar,

    Perhaps the SLF will be submitting an amendment to replace 1c.

    A system of incentives would mean that a claimant would be paid extra benefit for those things which they could be sanctioned for now. Examples would be a meeting at the Jobcentre, or to attend an interview.

    The policy, to which 2b of Mending the Safety Net motion refers to, keeps sanctions (2.4.1) and just ensures that no one has their benefit reduced to less than of £5 a week (2.4.4). What the existing 1c in the motion does is to re-affirm our existing policy to scrap sanctions. Then give people incentives for good behaviour rather than financial penalties for not complying. I think that is the liberal way. It is more humane. It also gives hope to those who support a UBI and tests what people would do if they received benefits with no conditions. I welcome the pilots. I believe a UBI is a liberal idea, but the time is not right yet to introduce it for everyone, because the more pressing issue is to ensure no one in the UK lives in relative poverty.

  • Lozenzo Cherin,

    I believe that Tax Credits are applied for once a year, and some changes have to be notified within one month, but there is an income flexibility built in of £2,500 a year. The policy paper includes with regard to the self-employed this: “We would make sure that the system supports these people by extending the “Minimum Income Floor” exemption period and ensuring the self-employed aren’t penalised for fluctuating incomes “(2.2.17). I had never heard of the “Minimum Income Floor”. It means that if your earnings are less per hour than the minimum wage your income will be calculated not as how much you earned but how much you would have earned if you received the minimum wage. It normally applies after a person has been self-employed for 12 months. Why are we not just scrapping it and applying the Tax Credit rules instead?

  • Sue Sutherland 29th Aug '19 - 1:14pm

    I can’t get to Conference and my poor concentration doesn’t allow me to get to the nitty gritty arguments like this, so I wish all of you who are going to Conference the very best of luck as you stand up for the poorest in our society. Maybe this will give members an opportunity to show where their political heart lies and Tim the chance to do one of his barnstorming speeches and show what we think of Tory misrule.

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