Social security paper has practical suggestions for helping the vulnerable

I reckon that I’ve been to over 30 Lib Dem conferences in my years as a member, so missing the odd one usually isn’t a hardship. But I am absolutely gutted that I am missing this one in Brighton. I really wanted to be there to support the excellent Mending the Safety Net motion that stems from the policy working group I was a member of.

It was a first time for me to make the commitment and apply to join a working group but as someone who has spent my whole professional career working with people in hardship, for the last eight years at Citizens Advice, I felt I could add something to the party’s thinking. It was a great experience and I would recommend people to put themselves forward if they think they can add something to these things.

The group, under Jenny Willow’s great chairmanship, was far more involved than I imagined. We met almost weekly for months, took direct evidence from 22 experts in the field, read through 786 pages of written evidence, ran an amazing consultative session at York with 80 delegates and received over 500 online responses from members. The report is a large, detailed and costed proposal on how practically we could turn around the lives of the most vulnerable in society.

It’s a hugely ambitious document, which proposes among other things, bringing back child poverty targets, puts more money into parents’ pockets, opposes the removal of benefits from young people, ending the benefits freeze, scrapping the hated work capability assessment and freeing up job centre staff from central control and letting them have some humanity about sanctions.

I am particularly proud of the innovation of proposing state regulated Payment Protection Insurance to encourage working people to have money to support themselves if they lose their job. Liberal governments have always been about helping people to help themselves. Like National Insurance did for unemployment and old age in the twentieth century, I see this policy as being as important for helping people cope with the world of short term contracts and the end of the job for life that we see in the 21st century.

So I am absolutely gutted to see people criticising it for not going far enough. The main objection seems to be that we have not proposed ripping up the benefits system and starting again. In the real world, people in poverty need a massive upheaval like that like a hole in the head.

On the frontline people are still helping people come to terms with the Labour government’s welfare reforms, let alone the Tories’. What people need is not another top down total reorganisation of the benefits system. What they need is to get it to work better and more humanely. Maybe not as sexy but we should do what is right by people not which is theoretically pure.

The working group looked in detail at the concept of a Citizens Income/Negative Income Tax. I believe it would be reckless to propose that the UK adopts a completely untested idea that has merits but to be affordable would end up actually reducing the benefits of the poorest in society while giving hand outs to people who don’t need it or deserve it.

I can’t be there on Monday but I would urge all who are to back our proposals, which reform the system to introduce humanity for the most vulnerable. The alternative is 18 months plus of us having no practical policies to counter the Conservatives’ shocking attacks on the most vulnerable in society.

* Neil Bradbury is a councillor and former parliamentary candidate from Blaydon.

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  • Your absolutely right that negative income tax / basic income schemes ends up hurting some of those most in need – because at heart they are designed to treat everyone equally, but we’re not all equal. Some people have much greater needs than others:

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Sep '16 - 3:24pm

    Neil, a passionate defence of your commitment to the worst of financially . So far so good.

    If , as you say the wretched work capability assessment is going , can you better explain what is replacing it ?

    Similarly , can you say how the policy proposals put individual claimant responsibility , dignity,and autonomy ,ahead of job centre staff or government hegemony ?! This is at the heart of the desire for a basic income , a desire I am not yet convinced on , but could be , if the concerns I have are not met , and if the mediocrity of DWP and all their works ,and or, all who sail in them , so to speak , is not dealt with !

  • George Potter 18th Sep '16 - 7:09pm

    A few points in reply to the article:

    1. I was also on the working group – we definitely didn’t meet weekly.
    2. The number of responses to the consultations and survey was definitely impressive – too bad we never really paid any heed to what the responses said.
    3. I feel you’re severely overselling how much the motion will do if its recommendations were enacted in government – we both saw the same stats and at best it will alleviate some of the worst aspect of the current system. It will definitely not make even a significant step towards ending poverty.
    4. There are more alternatives to the status quo than NIT/Citizen’s Income – and it’s appalling that we never even gave conference the option of providing a minimum level of unconditional support to anyone in need.

  • George Potter 18th Sep '16 - 7:13pm

    @Mark Pack

    Your article says we shouldn’t support any policy which benefits people like you (ignoring the fact that we all benefit from a social safety net because it’s there as a backup if we don’t need it).

    In that case, why do you support a welfare motion who’s principle proposal is to introduce income protection insurance schemes which only people like you will be afford to shell out for?

    How many people on the minimum wage can afford to pay £50 a month for an insurance policy in addition to NI, income tax and a workplace pension scheme?

  • Little Jackie Paper 18th Sep '16 - 9:58pm

    George Potter – ‘How many people on the minimum wage can afford to pay £50 a month for an insurance policy in addition to NI, income tax and a workplace pension scheme?’

    Isn’t this really the problem though? Probably very few on the minimum wage could do all that (let’s leave the knotty issue of wealth v income aside here). But they should be able to.

    What we really are talking about on a great many subjects is the devaluation of labour. We can argue about what should be done about that particular trend – but let’s at least acknowledge it if our case study is someone on minimum wage. This isn’t about basic incomes or sanctions or administration of benefits. It’s about labour being devalued.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Sep '16 - 10:58pm

    As there are private income protection schemes, how does this differ ?

    George Potter seems genuinely disgruntled about this process and its resultant proposals.

    I think we need more information to say how we would react.

  • Neil Bradbury 18th Sep '16 - 11:37pm

    A few points. Just because one member of the working group is disgruntled don’t forget there were a large number of members. The payment protection proposals will help low to middle earners but crucially at little or no cost to the taxpayer. I don’t support a citizens income policy that helps middle class people out of work with savings and no desire for working but that doesn’t give enough to say a disabled family. Immoral and very very unpopular. In answer to George’s answers. At times we did meet weekly and discussions took place more frequently. We paid massive attention to the feedback both of the membership and of the experts. I did anyway. Relative poverty will never be eradicated by the state but I think these proposals would make a big difference to hundreds of thousands of people. As for giving unconditional benefits to those in need, I think the only ones in need who would be excluded at all under our plans would be a much smaller number of non disabled people who have no children who refuse at all to look for work, which as I say would be lower than the current sanctions regime due to our proposals. It’s good we are having this debate though but short of a ban to any sanctions on benefits claimants or a total overhaul and move to citizens income bringing about a potential massive cash transfer from the needy to the more affluent, I don’t see any alternative proposals.

  • I think George makes a good case against “state regulated Payment Protection Insurance”. Also Unemployment benefit (now Jobseekers Allowance) was meant to be this and not linked to any activities. If someone has this new insurance is it replacing the NI contribution based Jobseeker Allowance which is not means tested? For those receiving means test allowance will the amounts be reduced by the amount received from their insurance? The benefit system should be for everyone and not just the poorest. This is why a Citizens Income appeals, everyone received it, it is universal. This is why we have to include increasing taxation to pay for a Citizens Income and I think it should be those earning more than £42,004 a year via the higher National Insurance rate. I accept the need for means testing for housing costs and an extra amount for those with disabilities to meet their extra needs. We need to recognise that we can replace the personal Income Tax Allowance with a Partial Citizens Income as a start.

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