Opinion: Liberal Democrats must stand up for the Welfare State

Welfare reform is an incredibly important discussion and one that we, as Liberal Democrats, must keep re-visiting to ensure we’re upholding those core principles we hold closest to our hearts. The Liberal Democrats are the only party that offered a home to champion the values of promoting a level playing field and protecting the most vulnerable, ensuring they fulfil their potential through equality of opportunities. After all, these are central tenets of a civilised society fit for the 21st Century.

I am proud that our party has largely blunted the blade with which the Tories had brandished to slice our safety net, the treasured welfare state, right in half. But we  must go further. We must ensure that our manifesto comprehensively deals with the issue of welfare. We must be certain the most vulnerable in society are not enslaved by poverty.

As a Liberal Democrat I do not want to see sectors of society forgotten, overlooked and left behind. And let’s be clear, in the aftermath of the worst economic crisis this country has known in generations the numbers of people who must now be classed as vulnerable have swelled.

That’s why James Sandbach and I have ensured that welfare reform will be debated at our Federal Conference. This motion is outlining the need for a package which successfully pinpoints the vulnerable and those that need support, provides that support to ensure they maintain their participation in society and successfully helps them to get back on their feet. The welfare system is has been allowed to become, at best, untidy, and at worst, an absolute nightmare to navigate. Years of maladministration has allowed this happen. Universal Credit goes far to address these problems. But it’s implementation has not been without issues.

This motion calls for a review of the Universal Credit implementation, to ensure people are reaching their full potential by abolishing cliff edges which disincentivise increased working hours and also ensuring that everyone who wants to work is uninhibited from doing so by increasing childcare allowances and other basic needs support. And alongside new benefits, the motion calls for the need to reform the Hardship Fund, in this way we can strengthen the safety net to provide immediate loans to those who find themselves in impossible situations.

After George Osborne’s ‘bash those in poverty’ statement at the Conservative Party Conference, we must stand up for those in abject poverty and make it clear that removing food and shelter is not an option. That’s why the motion calls for a review of sanctions, and the detrimental impact they can have.

It is clear the assessment process needs to be cleared up and made more efficient which in turn will reduce costs. Disability benefits needs to be based on real-world tests of capability and we want assessment contractors to be incentivised to obtain relevant evidence from health officials. This makes sense and means a well rounded picture of each and every case can be built up from an early stage.

Finally the motion will address the truly Liberal idea of ensuring everyone is able to reach their full potential by reforming the Access to Work programme. We’re calling for it to be commissioned at a regional level and we’re asking for enhanced support for ESA claimants with incentives for businesses to provide employment on a flexible basis.

I’m asking Liberal Democrats to support this motion so that we as a party can enter these elections with a clear message: one that says the Liberal Democrats haven’t forgotten you, we’ll help you get back on your feet, we won’t be leaving a single person behind.

* Kelly-Marie Blundell is a member of Federal Policy Committee, Vice Chair of the Social Security Working Group and previous parliamentary candidate

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  • There certainly needs to be a radical overhaul of our welfare system.

    As someone who had worked for full time for thirty years and then had to try to access benefits as a carer I had horrendous experiences.

    The message I got from DWP bureaucrats is ‘its better if you know the system!’

    When I applied for an ESA appeal my union rep told me ‘you have been too honest’.

    The conclusion I came to is that playing the system and lying must be the best approach if you want to get some financial help.

  • After George Osborne’s cruel speech surely it must be time for Liberal Demicrats to support the most vulnerable people in society rather than kick away their crutches . Cruel things are already happening to people who need Disability benefit and there seems to be an assumption that Benefit will not be given except in some very extreme cases.
    The problem is how do we then reduce the deficit? These are extreme times but one group doesn’t seem to be participating in the fight to overcome our debts and that is the very rich. Why don’t we introduce a tax rate of 75% on those with incomes above £100,000 for a limited period only. Those with knowledge of tax revenues will be better able than I am to determine the rate of tax and the period necessary to turn this situation around.
    It is also becoming increasingly obvious that universal benefits like the winter fuel tax for pensioners should be abolished as well as the infamous bus pass . Either pay a decent basic state pension or give these benefits tothose who only have their pension to live on.
    I am no longer able to be active in party politics so these measures may already be part of our manifesto. If so please shout it from the roof tops at conference that we will support vulnerable people rather than expect them to bear the costs of reducing the deficit

  • “I am proud that our party has largely blunted the blade with which the Tories had brandished to slice our safety net, the treasured welfare state, right in half.”

    I think the rest of the population must have missed that.

  • Kelly – any discussion about the welfare reform needs to cover the disaster that is the rollout of the Employment and Support Allowance benefit, which replaced incapacity benefit.

    I’m aware of people in my constituency who are still waiting to be assessed *12 MONTHS* after they applied. This means:

    1 – These people are on the reduced payment of £70 a week instead of the £120 they’re entitled to once assessed. Some are owed over £2000 now.

    2 – Some of these people might be rightly deemed fit for work when assessed. Effectively right now you can claim that £70 a week with just a doctor’s sick note, which is exactly what this system was meant to avoid.

    3 – People that have been assessed have found the whole process dehumanising and degrading – with many decisions being made with incomplete information, resulting in people who are clearly too ill being deemed fit for work.

    This really needs sorting out, its a national shambles that we have presided over – a system that looked good on paper which has been disastrously implemented. To be honest I’m amazed its not had more press coverage.

  • 🙁

  • David Evershed 30th Sep '14 - 3:57pm

    I speak as someone who at the age of 15 cycled to the next town to hear William Beveridge (author of the report which set out our current welfare state system) speak for the Liberal candidate in the 1959 election.

    Given an unaffordable £100bn deficit, we should first decide what is affordable to be spent on the NHS and welfare benefits and then prioritise the spending. It is always easy to advocate spending, but the necessary and hard thing to do is to prioritise what gets done and what does not get done.

  • Matt (Bristol) 30th Sep '14 - 4:17pm

    Kelly, I’m all for the sentiment of this piece, but it’s language is somewhat obscurantist and waffle-heavy (and I speak as a sufferer of that disease myself). Can you link to the motion itself so we can be clear what you are proposing?

  • John Roffey 30th Sep '14 - 5:06pm

    I am very pleased a motion on this issue is being put to Conference – and wish it success. However, unless there is massive support from the members, it will be constrained by :

    “Conference therefore endorses policy paper 121, A Stronger Economy and A Fairer Society, as the basis for constructing the party’s manifesto for the next general election.

    A. Finish the job on the deficit fairly and balance the books so the next generation are not burdened by huge interest payments.”

    Also, keeping in mind the support on LDV for a proposal to spend a great deal more on mental health issues – the NHS budget would need to be massively increased to achieve this end alone.

    Clearly these ambitions cannot be met without additional income passing to the Exchequer. Quite why a more efficient way of collecting tax from the multinationals, who avoid many billions of corporation tax under the present rules, such as a transaction or turnover tax is not championed by the Party – is difficult to understand.

  • John Roffey make some very hood points which I fear the more sheep-like people at our conference will fail,to recognise. There to have been an increasing tendency in recent years for the conference to vote through with huge majorities any old rubbish that comes down from the top of party.

    Kelly-Marie writes — “….After George Osborne’s ‘bash those in poverty’ statement at the Conservative Party Conference, we must stand up for those in abject poverty and make it clear that removing food and shelter is not an option. ”

    I agree with that. But the central logic to such a statement is to stop supporting the Tory Budget. For Danny Alexander to walk out of his Treasury post and say “I have had enough of saying “Me too” to George Osborne — I am going to take a Liberal Democrat stance in future”

    We cannot go into an election propping up Tory budget assumptions and then pretend that we care about the poor and working families who are going to have their benefits cut by the Coalition of Milionaires.

  • @ Kelly-Marie Blundell
    “The Coalition have an obligation to deliver what they have signed up to do – MPs and Ministers have a collective responsibility to do so.”
    The Liberal Democrats are not forced to vote for an Autumn (Now ti be held on the 5th December) which will cover spending plan for the following 5 years. They are also not forced to vote for the final budget in March 2015, 2 months before the General Election.
    The Liberal Democrats do have options. The party will be laughed out of every city and town across the country if they nod through cuts in the Autumn statement/Budget and then produce a manifesto which they campaign on a couple of months which totally contradicts what they did whilst in Government.

    I am still waiting to see Joe Ottens analysis of the Tories and the Chancellors conference speech, I thought a party that believed in plural politics would criticize both of the other parties conferences and spending plans?
    it would not appear so for people trying to drag the party to the right

    @John Tilley

    “We cannot go into an election propping up Tory budget assumptions and then pretend that we care about the poor and working families who are going to have their benefits cut by the Coalition of Milionaires.”

    Absolutely spot on

  • @JohnTilley +1
    @malc +1

    It seems to me a far more effective way of “blunting the Tory blade” as Kelly-Marie put it would have been not to go into coalition with them.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Oct '14 - 11:48am

    Thanks to what the Tories under Margaret Thatcher did in the 1980s, we are having to pay huge amounts in Housing Benefit which go straight into the pockets of private landlords. If we do not do this, what are we to do with people who have nowhere to live and cannot afford market prices? Hygienically dispose of them? The idea used to be that there would be sufficient housing let out at cost price only to ensure they would get housed. Margaret Thatcher decided to sell it off at cut price. Good for the tenants back then, who had already benefitted from low rent secure housing, not so good for the next generation, who then had neither the low rent secure housing, nor the opportunity to buy it and sell it off at a profit.

    What is happening now in terms of the booming “welfare bills” that leads to was entirely predictable then. Those who voted Tory then should accept, higher taxes now are the inevitable consequence if what they supported then, unless they really do think the hygienic disposal route is acceptable.

    We should stop anyone who puts across the idea that this “welfare” goes to the tenants. The tenants don’t benefit from it, and would far rather be “receiving” the much lower amounts that would be nominally theirs if they were living in council housing. If you have money to invest in buy-to-let, you can get rich at the expense of those who don’t have that money. You can buy up the ex-council housing, and let it out for three or four times what it would have been let out at, and the taxpayer guarantees you the rent income. It is no real bother, because there are agents who will do all the work, you just sit back and get the money. That is at the heart of what the Conservative Party is all about: it is the non-workers’ party, the party that thinks money obtained just by being rich and doing nothing is the most noble form of money and so should be protected above all else.

  • jedibeeftrix 1st Oct '14 - 11:58am

    Or perhaps they should accept the problem lies in too much population growth with a declining house building programming…

  • John Roffey 1st Oct '14 - 12:13pm

    @ Kelly-Marie Blundell

    Matt has pointed out why the coalition has effectively ended [apart from perhaps supporting a few measures agreed to in the past]. There is no need now for the Party to have any ministers in the government – and to keep them there simply restricts the Party from facing its new challenges – UKIP & the Greens. By not doing so – there is a real possibility that these parties will take so many votes that even the most popular MPs will struggle to hold their seats in May.

    The key suggestion that I made in my post was that measures are included in the Party’s manifesto to increase the tax gathered from the multinationals – who use the many loopholes provided by Osborne to pay little or no corporation tax – either through the use of a transaction or turnover tax.

    By collecting billions of extra tax from these corporations there would be a significant sum of money available to soften the impact of the austerity measures by, for example, improving welfare and mental health care. Such an approach would be unacceptable to Osborne.

  • @ Kelly

    Yes I’ve read the motion and appreciate it notes the issues with the backlog of ESA assessments, but it says nothing about how we’re going to tackle it, other than the introduction of a single assessment process which I support and will help in the future.

    The problem is we need to tackle this massive backlog and its effects immediately. Recent figures show only 28% of claimants on ESA have actually been assessed – with the rest still waiting on the £70 rate or had their ‘case closed’ (I assume that means they got better or just gave up). We should be calling for:

    1 – An immediate injection of funding and resources to hire more staff to tackle this backlog
    2 – Anyone who has been waiting more than 6 months should automatically have their benefit raised to the £120 rate from the £70 rate. Those on the waiting list currently are missing out on over £200 a month, every month through absolutley no fault of their own.
    3 – In the longer term look at streamlining the assessment process so we can get more people through the system (which I hope your proposal for a single assessment process would achieve)

  • I really would like to hear from someone from the Liberal Democrats, What is their position going to be on the £25 Billion pounds worth of cuts that has been announced for 2015/16
    These have obviously being decided by the wonderful wizards of Quad and will be announced in the Autumn Statement.

    Is Nick Clegg and Alexander agreeing to these massive cuts to departments which no doubt will disproportionately fall on welfare departments and services that the poor and vulnerable rely on?

    We need to know.

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