The Liberal Democrat perspective on welfare reform that needs to be heard

On Monday, I wrote about the good things Liberal Democrats are doing in Government and also expressed  concern that nobody was out there giving the Liberal Democrat perspective  in a way that would resonate with and encourage members and activists. I know that some of them felt a bit exposed. They were out there on a day when we were under  media pressure, and nobody was giving them any air cover. It’s a balance, of course. There have been times when we’ve complained that our ministers are out there defending things we  feel uncomfortable with. These things can be reconciled, though. We can show we’re about building a stronger economy in a fairer society enabling everyone to get on in  life, that our perspective is different than the Conservatives. After  seeing George Osborne going on about people going to work early in the morning, I was howling in agony. That is not what Liberal Democrats are about and our story needs to be told.

So, in the spirit of being the change I want to see, here’s my take on what we should have been saying.

Liberal Democrats think it’s wrong to trap people who are able to and want to work on benefits

The Conservatives’ rhetoric around people with their curtains drawn in the morning makes most Liberal Democrats wince. This is not what we’re about. We don’t buy in to the scrounger rhetoric. You will not find Liberal Democrats talking like that. If you do, bring them to me and I’ll give them a stern talking to.

We can, though, be quietly satisfied with  changes which free people up to take a job if they are able to do so. These are many people who want to work but couldn’t take a job because it would mean that  their families would be worse off if they did. A system that traps people in poverty is a system that needs sorting, and we’ve said so for a long time. Liberal Democrat fingerprints are all over measures that help the lowest paid, who will be able to keep more of their income because we raised the tax threshold, and 40% of the poorest two year olds will get nursery education.   I fully accept that this isn’t yet enough, but it’s much better than either Tories or Labour would have done alone.

The Conservatives would have gone much further if they were in Government alone

We’ve heard Iain Duncan Smith talk about capping child b cenefit at two children. It’s not happening.

And there was talk of taking Housing Benefit off under 25s, which would have done nothing but led to more miserable, homeless young people. It’s not happening.

I have heard of other things that we have stopped the Tories from doing – for example,

I am certain there are other examples that we don’t know about yet of Liberal Democrats saying “no.”

The reason these things aren’t happening is because Nick Clegg put his foot down. The same way he insisted that benefits rose by  the full 5.2% of the inflation rate last year, against the Tories’ wishes.

However uncomfortable we feel, we have to give some credit for things we’ve stopped.

Liberal Democrats’ first priority is to help those on lower incomes

What were the key tax policies on offer at the last election?

Liberal Democrats wanted to raise the tax threshold to £10,000. That’s been delivered with  24 million people receiving up to £700 each. That can be a couple of months’ rent, or half a year’s Council Tax

Conservatives wanted to raise the Inheritance Tax threshold, benefiting the wealthiest. They also had a notion to give married couples a tax break of around £150 a year. Neither of these has come to pass.

And we’re trying to go further. In recent weeks, Tony Greaves and Eric Avebury have talked of the need for further measures to help the poorest. That’s where our party’s heart is. You don’t find Tories talking about this stuff.

Our MPs would not cut benefits for the sake of it. They find themselves in Government in the middle of the biggest global economic turmoil for 80 years. They know they need to cut the deficit so we don’t end up with high interest rates which would harm businesses and jobs more. It’s not an easy situation to be in and there’s an argument to be had over whether they are getting it exactly right. Having lived through the 80s, though, I know this is very different. Unemployment is lower and there are efforts to boost growth across the country, not just in the south east of England.

While Osborne may go on about vested interests complaining about welfare reform, it’s counter-intuitive for us to have the churches and charities against us. We won’t, however, take lessons from Labour.

What would Labour do?

By their deeds you shall know them. One of their first acts in 1997 was to cut benefits to single parents. They introduced the Work Capability Assessment which has been improved, although not enough, by the Coalition. For all Ed Balls’ whining,  you ask them what they would repeal, or what they’d cut instead, and he has no answer. No doubt we’ll get more bile from them this weekend as the highest rate income tax band is cut to 45%. I don’t think it was particularly clever , but anyone on an income of £150,000 is still paying more in tax than they did for all but a month of Labour’s 13 year rule. Danny Alexander needs to show how he is getting more tax in from the wealthiest in general.

So, here are four key messages I think we need to get out there. Otherwise an inaccurate and unfair narrative will become embedded in people’s heads.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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33 Comments

  • Easy to justify backing kicking the poor an say oh well Tory’s would have done worse, wrong appose if wrong simple
    to help people back into work is not to starve them in to poverty paid jobs it to offer them jobs keep paying benefit till first wage comes in (which system never done u start job today not paid for month JSA stops then they say go get advance off company which most don’t and if did would put u behind from the start ) so support until first payday the biggest barrier besides no jobs about

  • Allan Heron 3rd Apr '13 - 1:47pm

    I am as comfortable as I can be with most of what you saying but would want to make a couple of points;-

    Firstly, we made a big thing of ensuring that the benefit uprating for last year was met in full at 5.2%. Now having locked ourselves into a 1% rise for the coming three years is somewhat contradictory as I don’t believe the reasons why meeting the uprating in full is any different now than it was then.

    Secondly, I’ve heard Danny (and others) talk about how we’re taking a higher slice of tax from high earners than Labout ever did when all the tax changes are taken into account. I’d like to see some stats to back this up and might then be somewhat more convinced that we are indeed being more even-handed than the noise would have you believe. (For a party so devoted to these damned infographics, I would have though this should have been shouted from the virtual rooftops long before now. If I’ve missed it, then we’re missing a trick. If we haven’t, then I can only begin to wonder why.

  • A Social Liberal 3rd Apr '13 - 2:12pm

    Caron

    You cannot use the excuse that the Tories would go further and faster to validate the position the Lib Dems have taken on this. You are still mistreating the countries disabled by going along with the measures that you are passing. You are still forcing families out of their homes, you are still placing more and more people into poverty. Nor can you reason that Labour are not saying what they would be doing so the coalition must be getting it right.. THE LIB DEMS are taking an active part in turning back the way we treat those unfortunate enough to need benefits to the bad old days of the last century, something I never thought I would see.

    If you have judged the situation correctly how come the experts in disability are speaking out against you, how come the combined churches have taken the extraordinary step of going to the papers. How come some of the most natural supporters of a right leaning government, the ex-servicemens charities, are so very concerned about this government getting it so badly wrong. I could mention all the other charities that are up in arms about the short shrift given to those who need help, the housing charities, the mental health charities – even the CAB.

    Forgive me if I seem to be blaming you personally, I do of course mean the Liberal Democrats around the cabinet table.

  • @Caron

    “The Conservatives’ rhetoric around people with their curtains drawn in the morning makes most Liberal Democrats wince. This is not what we’re about. We don’t buy in to the scrounger rhetoric. You will not find Liberal Democrats talking like that.”

    With all due respect Caron, Liberal Democrats have used language like that. Nick Clegg has used the term We are on the side of “alarm clock” Britain on several occasions.

    It is pointless to keep pointing to what would Labour do differently. Labour are not in government they are in opposition. Labour will tell us of their position in their next manifesto when elections begin. How can Labour say what policies they will keep and which ones they will repeal 2 years before the next election. Labour needs to wait and see what devastating consequences the coalition policies has had on not only the poorest people in society but the damage that is done to the economy as a whole, then put “their” policies to the electorate detailing how they would go about fixing it if they where voted into government.

    Whilst I welcome there has been a large voice on LDV this last few days, condemning the welfare changes. The Cynic inside me is wondering, how much of this is down to the fact that we have local elections coming up next month and Liberal Democrats are starting to worry about getting a hammering.

    The damage has already been done, the policies have been implemented, supported by the Liberal Democrats. Danny Alexanders language and articles that he wrote in the sun newspaper embraced these policies as part of the liberal democrats.
    It’s time to man up and take responsibility for the actions taken by the party and for them to be judged by the electorate. That’s “democracy”

  • mike cobley 3rd Apr '13 - 2:35pm

    “Liberal Democrats’ first priority is to help those on lower incomes” – Caron, as I’m sure you know there is a considerable number of people in the UK scraping by (or not) on minimal incomes which have always fallen below the minimum tax bracket, and others totally dependant on the benefit system – yet apparently alleviating their conditions is not our party’s first priority. Our focus appears to be on those likely to benefit from our flagship tax threshhold policy; our moral sympathies appear to exclude those further down. Did I get that right?

  • Peter Watson 3rd Apr '13 - 2:49pm

    @Caron “I am certain there are other examples that we don’t know about yet of Liberal Democrats saying “no.””
    One of the first rules of negotiating – whether it’s selling a house or bargining with a coalition partner – is to ask for more than you want. Then you can compromise on something that you’re happy with.
    It is pointless to make claims about what the nasty tories might have gotten away with if it wasn’t for those pesky Lib Dems based upon what some conservatives said they wanted. They did not have a majority government and might have failed to realise many of those ideas even if they had one. And anyway, who can say for certain that a consistent set of policies, tory or otherwise, would not have been more successful than a sequence of inconsistent coalition compromises?
    Instead, look at what Lib Dems have done, what they have enabled, what they have voted for or let happen by abstaining. Is that something to be proud of? Because that is what the party will have to campaign on in 2015, not on the basis of an alternative universe in which we were not in government.

  • Tony Dawson 3rd Apr '13 - 3:09pm

    All these calculations appear to assume that the reduced benefits are actually getting to people when they should be. But we are employing a very nasty firm (at great cost and profit) to either grossly misinterpret their brief on a huge swathe of genuine claimants who then win appeals or, perhaps, more worryingly, to implement a hidden secret real policy. We have queues for benefit tribunals taking many months after internal reviews meaning that sometimes a benefit claimant does not manage to get restoration of their due benefit for over a year after they had this stopped – or, in rarer occasions,until after they are dead.

    I agree with Allan Heron. Where is the beef on the ‘real cuts in income’ to the very rich. Where are the Coalition’s Gini Index figures?

  • “The reason these things aren’t happening is because Nick Clegg put his foot down. The same way he insisted that benefits rose by the full 5.2% of the inflation rate last year, against the Tories’ wishes.”

    So the 1% cap is proof of Nick’s declining influence over Government policy?

    Your list illustrates the paucity of achievement. Neither bedroom tax not changes to Council Tax support are serious defecit cutting measures (Bedroom tax will probably net out at £150-200 million, CT Support is just a case of passing the cost on to local government. In the meantime we’ve found £400 million for the advance work on the Communications Data Bill.

    Tony Greaves and Eric Avebury have both made excellent comments – but how can we portray them as the true voice of the party when they keep finding themselves in the opposing lobby to our leaders

    Then their was the final symbolism of Nick Clegg – on the weekend this all came in – fighting his corner from a ski holiday in Davos and emailing party members – many of whom are fighting elections – telling us all to enjoy our holidays.

  • Emma Burnell 3rd Apr '13 - 4:50pm

    Point 1: we’ve raised income tax threshold (not a welfare measure).
    Point 2: Hey. we’re not Tories!
    Point 3: Did I mention the tax threshold??!!!
    Pont 4: Hey we’re not Labour either – the rotters!

  • Caron,

    Nick Cleggs speech on welfare just before Christmas spelt out the rationale for the libdem position on welfare reform
    Nick Clegg defends Lib Dems’ record as he marks five years as party leader . He reiterates your point that the party has prevented Tory right imposing draconian welfare cuts, pointing out that in the autumn statement he had agreed to only £3.8bn of the £10bn cuts sought by “the siren voices on the Conservative right”.

    He repeatedly used the example of welfare, including the introduction of welfare benefit caps, to illustrate his belief that the party combined the need for responsibility with the need for opportunity.

    Embracing the reforms, he said: “Some of our critics believe either that the Liberal Democrats in government did not want to reform welfare or were powerless to stop the Conservatives from doing so. The truth is this: yes, welfare reform has been painful and controversial at times but it was in our manifesto and on our agenda right from the start.”

    Clegg said Labour had bequeathed a system that was unaffordable and did not make work pay. He said: “When two-thirds of people think the benefits system is too generous and discourages work then it has to be changed or we risk a total collapse in public support for welfare existing at all.”

    “Politicians of the centre ground, who believe in a benefit safety net, have an absolute duty to be tough on those few who abuse, or try to abuse, the generosity of taxpayers and exploit our benefits system. And an absolute duty to make sure the system as a whole is and appears to be fair.”

    “We know from experience now: if you protect the health and schools budgets, as we correctly did, you cannot oppose every reduction in the welfare budget.If you want to protect welfare as well, you’ve got to accept that you will end up gutting the crime budget, or the BIS [Business, Innovation and Skills] budget, or local government. We get that now. We’ve learned to live with a host of invidious choices.”

    He also defended the overall economic strategy, saying: “We have to cut expenditure to bring down the deficit. Otherwise we put ourselves in hock to the bond markets, drive up interest rates and impoverish future generations.”

    But he insisted the government had taken steps to drive demand, such as “putting money back in the pockets of the low- and middle-income families we know are most likely to spend it with our income tax cut”.

    “We have resisted the false choice between a state that steps in and assumes control, and a state that backs off and washes its hands,” he said.

    This program of reform that Nick Clegg has outlined can and should be delivered but it is essential that it is delivered without exacerbating the highly vulnerable position of those at the lower end of the income scale i.e. those earning the miniumum wage or less. That requires paying a great deal of attention to detail and coordination of the distributional impact of changes to social programs across tax, welfare, housing, health and education.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 3rd Apr '13 - 6:15pm

    @allan I would rather we had gone for benefits for higher paid pensioners – like the Winter Fuel Allowance that I’m always furious that we qualify for – and raised benefits by inflation. However, Osborne wanted to freeze them for 3 years so it’s holding them back of sorts.

    I think there are a few infographics floating around the place on taxing the wealthy. There are some in here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/105942116/What-Have-the-Lib-Dems-Done

    @matt I loathed the Alarm Clock Britain stuff too – the big difference with that from the Tories’ rhtetoric, though, was that rather than set people against each other it was an entirely positive attempt to reach out to a group of people who felt that nobody was doing anything for them. It’s not the same.

    @Mike – when the Coalition took office, the people who were poorest were actually those just above the threshold to qualify for any help with things like Housing or Council Tax benefit. I’m not saying those on benefits were not poor, but there were people who were worse off. We’ve at least tried to help them with extra tax threshold, tax credits and childcare support. The latter, though doesn’t apply in Scotland because the SNP don’t consider it a priority – not this side of independence anyway.

    @Emma – you forgot the tapering off of the benefits rather than just losing them all when you find a job – to make sure that nobody can be worse off in work than on benefits.

    @Hywel You know by bringing up the Communications Data Bill, you are going to make me howl and foam at the mouth. It’s not pretty.
    I don’t like the Welfare Uprating stuff any more than you do, but I can at least see where Steve Webb – I mean, this is Steve Webb – was coming from when he talked about how much less earnings had gone up than benefits. I don’t agree with him, but I can see a little bit of what he’s on about.

  • Yellow Bill 3rd Apr '13 - 7:05pm

    This is what I hate about this coalition.

    Benefits have gone up faster than earnings – indeed they have, if you look at it in percentage terms. Look at the actuality and you find that one gets pence as a rise per week, and the other gets pounds.

    Smoke and mirrors. Unfortunately Lib Dem smoke and mirrors

  • “@Hywel You know by bringing up the Communications Data Bill, you are going to make me howl and foam at the mouth. It’s not pretty.”
    Well as a good campaigner I can work out where the buttons are to push… . 🙂

    “I don’t like the Welfare Uprating stuff any more than you do, but I can at least see where Steve Webb – I mean, this is Steve Webb – was coming from when he talked about how much less earnings had gone up than benefits. I don’t agree with him, but I can see a little bit of what he’s on about.”

    From a pure politics point of view the problem is consistency – one year we claim a triumph by getting a big benefits uprating – the next we say it’s desperately important to keep them restricted. It doesn’t allow you to frame a consistent message.

  • Tony Dawson 3rd Apr '13 - 8:07pm

    @JoeBourke :

    “Nick Clegg….. reiterates …..that the party has prevented Tory right imposing draconian welfare cuts, ”

    This is not a true statement. The arithmetic of the House of Commons prevents there being any chance whatsoever of such cuts. Unless, of course, Lib Dem or Labour MPs chose to vote for them.

  • That little petition against your Government pal IDS defending bullying the poor, has just gone through 400 000. Over on ConHome, they discussing the best time to pull the plug on you. Instead of all the piffle, is it not the time the LibDems pulled the plug on the Tories?

  • BBC story from June 2010: ‘The cost of fighting and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan has passed £20bn, UK government figures show. Of that, £18bn was spent on military operations, on top of the defence budget, while hundreds of millions went on aid and security for UK officials. The final cost, which does not include troops’ salaries or care for the wounded, is expected to be much higher.”

    That could’ve funded a few NHS operations and benefit payments.
    Scrap Trident, save billions more. is perhaps another line to ‘push’. Tories and Labour both keen to pour money into Cold War technology.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Apr '13 - 11:55pm

    No no, don’t scrap Trident – have you been watching the news recently? Some liberals need to get it into their heads that we don’t live in a fluffy world and you get nowhere by being a pushover. I’m not saying be a war monger, but I am saying be firm and proportionate.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Apr '13 - 12:02am

    Eugene, the public have got better things to do than have to put up with another general election – the Tories won more support than any other party in 2010 so respect their wishes, grow up and do the job we have been put here to do.

    I have no time for people who can’t stand being in government with the Tories. If you do not like Clegg then fine, vote against him in the next leadership election.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Apr '13 - 12:13am

    I think we could use it as a first strike weapon and I think second strike capability is still important. I think if anything with global warming and the slow depletion of fossil fuels there is a risk the world could slowly become more violent.

    I was hanging on as a Labour supporter at the time of the 2010 election and I remember Clegg’s talk about scrapping Trident put me off as a potential voter. I think most of the public are also behind this.

  • Remember this:
    “We will introduce arrangements that will protect those on low incomes from the effect of public sector pay constraint and other spending constraints.”

    Thats from the deficit reduction section of the Coalition agreement.

    I’ve re-read the whole section of jobs & welfare. It contains nothing that provides a mandate for bedroom tax/Council Tax benefit reduction.

  • Tony Dawson,

    “Nick Clegg….. reiterates …..that the party has prevented Tory right imposing draconian welfare cuts, ”

    “This is not a true statement. The arithmetic of the House of Commons prevents there being any chance whatsoever of such cuts. Unless, of course, Lib Dem or Labour MPs chose to vote for them.”

    I believe Steve Webb accurately portrays the situation when he states “all governments would have to be making these sorts of changes” and claims critics “aren’t being honest.” In an article on this site in February he advised – “The vigilant among Lib Dem campaigners will notice several measures speculated on in the press have been left out of the Bill. In particular, I am pleased to say that Housing Benefit is not going to be cut after one year for JSA claimants as was suggested. The Government listened to calls from Liberal Democrats and others and these changes show the significant impact that we are having on government policy at the highest levels.”

    Concern over the potential impact of particular welfare reforms should not serve to diminish the real achievements of Libdem ministers in mitigating the impact of these reforms in important areas and addressing issues arising from there implementation.

    The update on welfare reform as of April 2012 notes some of the key areas Jobs and Welfare

     Giving a £550 income tax cut each year to 23 million people, ensuring work always pays
     Introducing the Work Programme to help the long-term unemployed get back into work
     Simplifying benefits by replacing 30 different benefits with the new Universal Credit, which will make it easier to administer, end the ‘cliff-edge’ withdrawal of benefits so that work always pays and lift 600,000 people out of poverty
     Reassessing all current claimants of Incapacity Benefit for their readiness to work and giving those who are unable to work full support
     Developing local Work Clubs, where unemployed people can meet to exchange skills, find opportunities, make contacts and provide mutual support
     Helping the unemployed to start their own businesses by introducing the New Enterprise Allowance, which offers guidance, advice and up to £2,274 of financial support.

    To be sure several of these areas remain a work in progress that are in need of refinement and improvement. Nonetheless, the stated objective of a welfare system which supports the needs of individuals, not one that traps people in a cycle of claiming benefits is one worth pursuing. A system where everyone who wants to work is given the help they need to find a job, and where people are always financially better off for working than if they had stayed on benefits is progress from where we have been.

  • Ministers defending things Im uncomfortable with is sheer bliss compared to them defending things I wholeheartedly oppose.

  • jenny barnes 4th Apr '13 - 8:50am

    Clegg ” if you protect the health and schools budgets,”…but there’s a problem with where that money goes. It looks like A&E departments are going to/ already are restricting access, NHS privatisation is under way, as is education privatisation. If those budgets are funding private profiteers, rather than health & education for the people, is it such a good idea? I know orange bookers think “private good & efficient, public bad etc”

  • Has anyone told Sarah Teather what to think on the LD position ?

    She has said today :

    “The cumulative impact of the welfare changes prompted a former Lib Dem minister, Sarah Teather, to urge the coalition to review its reforms. She said: “My concern is that some families are being targeted over and over again.”

    The MP for Brent Central added: “Hitting the same people repeatedly means it adds up to a very significant cut in income. I am not sure how they are supposed to manage, where they are supposed to live, or whether the government has looked at the cumulative impact.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/apr/04/families-lose-welfare-double-whammy

    Some of these cuts are just wrong & it’s good to see at least one LDem has the guts to say so – pity she waited until the bill was passed though.

  • Simon Bamonte 4th Apr '13 - 4:50pm

    @Eddie Sammon: “I have no time for people who can’t stand being in government with the Tories. ”

    Really? There are millions of people out there whose lives are being made worse by this government who had no part in creating the financial situation we are now in. If I may hazard a guess, you yourself aren’t being told to move out of your home or pay more towards council tax when you can’t afford the basics. You’re not being told by ATOS and the DWP that you’re fit for work against what your GP and specialists say. You’re not having to choose between heating your home or paying for food. You’re not desperately looking for work in a place where there are 50 applicants for every vacancy.

    Of course you have no time for these people who are being hit and cannot stand this government. You, like so many other LibDems, don’t seem to want to face up to the chaos you are creating or the anger that those on lower (or no) incomes feel. Judging from your posts, it’s all about positioning and power to you – a game – rather than deeply held principles and a desire to protect the vulnerable, which used to be top LibDem priorities.

  • “You’re not desperately looking for work in a place where there are 50 applicants for every vacancy. ”

    The figures from Nov 2012 were 4 vacancies advertised in job centres for every person on JSA. That was – out of interest – the same ratio as in Nov 2006

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Apr '13 - 6:06pm

    Let me rephrase what I said Simon, what I meant was I have no time for people who want us to pull out of the coalition. I can understand entirely people being uncomfortable about it but not those who want to pull out. We have a duty to the public to govern.

    I don’t know where you stand politically but the only answer the hard left can come up with is to tax and borrow more, which would just send the country into a downwards spiral into bankruptcy.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Apr '13 - 6:08pm

    And I’m not talking about marginal increases in tax and spending, I can think of lots of tax increases I would be in favour of, and perhaps increases in borrowing for the right investments.

  • Hywel,

    “The figures from Nov 2012 were 4 vacancies advertised in job centres for every person on JSA. That was – out of interest – the same ratio as in Nov 2006.”

    I think you will find this is the other way round i.e. 4 jsa applicants for every vacany advertised in job centres.
    UK unemployment: are there enough jobs to go round?

    The UK has around 400,000 jobs on offer. Between October and December, employers were looking for 463,000 new workers – though this is some 18,000 fewer than a year before. The official count of unemployed people – anyone who is actively looking for work and is available to start immediately if hired – is 2.68 million. That is around six people for every vacancy in the country.

    There are wide regional variances from a low ratio of 111 claimants against 433 vacancies in the City of London to a high of 260 claimants against 5 vacancies in the Orkney Islands.

    Double digit hotspots include several London Boroughs and the Northeast as well as much of Scotland, the Welsh Valleys and Northern Ireland.

  • Ed Shepherd 4th Apr '13 - 11:07pm

    Going on my experience of job centres, many of those jobs will be low-paid or commission only or with low hours or with dodgy companies. Not many of them will be permanent, well-paid jobs that will last.

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