Why the social security policy paper should be rejected

On Monday at Liberal Democrat conference, party members will have the chance to debate policy motion F31 which endorses a new Liberal Democrat welfare policy paper, Mending the safety net.

However, as one of the members of the working group which wrote the paper, I strongly urge all members at conference to vote against the motion.

My reasons for saying this are simple: although the policy paper is called ‘Mending the Safety Net’, what it proposes is nothing of the sort. In fact, it actively endorses the current welfare system which is failing so badly that over a million people in the UK don’t just live in poverty but are actively destitute.

This is undoubtedly one of the greatest social challenges facing our country – even if you set aside the human suffering it creates, poverty costs the UK £78 billion a year, blighting our national prosperity.

When set against that backdrop, the welfare policy motion is a failure.

In my opinion it lets down some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society by failing to offer real solutions to the problems they face, it spectacularly misses the opportunity to define a real and distinctive alternative approach to welfare for the Liberal Democrats, and, crucially, it cannot be made fit for purpose even if all the amendments to it on the agenda are passed.

That’s not to say there’s nothing good in the paper. There are several changes proposed that are very welcome indeed. But when you look at the paper as a whole, all of these amount to little more than fiddling around the edges instead of tackling the big issues facing the welfare system.

Here are some of the ways in which the paper tinkers round the edges rather than actually fixing our broken safety net:

  • It proposes keeping benefit sanctions which can see benefit claimants left destitute and unable to afford to eat for ‘crimes’ like being 2 minutes late to an appointment – while it proposes new ‘safeguards’, these are little better than the safeguards which have already failed in the current system
  • It perpetuates the notion that claimants should have to “prove” they’re looking for work by jumping through bureaucratic hoops if they wish to receive any support from the welfare system – and the best it offers to deal with the fact that many deserving people are unable to jump through these hoops is to promise £10 a week extra to those who do really well at proving they’re looking for work
  • It proposes keeping unfair disability benefit assessments that have seen many severely disabled people (including paralympians) lose vital support and equipment such as mobility cars and does very little to help carers
  • The biggest change it proposes is to introduce opt-out income protection insurance policies for people in work – a helpful addition to the safety net but one which only relatively well-off earners will be able to afford to pay for and benefit from
  • It fails to offer more than tokenism in tackling child poverty – giving the poorest families £5 a week extra and telling the second adult in a household to get a job will barely make a dent in the number of children living in poverty

But worst of all, at a fundamental level, the paper buys into the shared Labour and Conservative viewpoint that there are “deserving” and “undeserving” poor and that a social safety net should only be provided for the former.

For me, and many liberals, the role of the welfare system should be to provide a safety net for everyone. In the same way that we guarantee everyone access to healthcare via the NHS and education via state schools, we should be guaranteeing, at the very least, that no one in one of the wealthiest countries in the world is left homeless or unable to afford to eat.

The challenge of how to provide this is what the paper should have been trying to answer. In the process it could have given us a distinctive and utterly different policy that would have made the Liberal Democrats stand out and given us something to fight for with pride.

With the party on just 8% in the polls we can’t afford to have bad or timid policy. We need radical, innovative policies which will grab attention and which offer a compelling vision for a better future for everyone in society.

Unfortunately, while amendments were submitted to the motion which could have made some real changes, the only ones selected for debate by Federal Conference Committee (FCC) simply don’t go far enough to be able to fix the problems at the heart of the paper.

To make matters worse, under FCC rules, once a topic has been debated at conference it can’t be debated again for at least another two years – meaning we’d have to wait until 2018 to revisit the issue.

So, sadly, voting the motion down is now the only realistic option. No new policy on welfare would be better than conference approving bad policy – especially since our existing policy already commits us to opposing the Tory welfare cuts – and, by voting the motion down, members would create the opportunity for something better to be brought to next conference.

Editor’s Note: Jenny Willott, who chaired the Working Group, wrote a piece introducing it here

* George Potter is a councillor in Guildford

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  • Eddie Sammon 15th Sep '16 - 7:47pm

    My commenting less policy isn’t going very well, but anyway, I’d like to follow these thoughts through:

    If we have a generous welfare policy (some would say very generous), we have open borders, then this creates a massive draw to come to the UK, via legal or illegal routes.

    The only way I see it working is if other countries do similar, or if not we massively increase overseas aid to reduce the incentive to flee (but remember, economic reasons are only part of why people migrate).

    The electorate, and me myself, would have this fear that it would be the dismantling of Britain because it would be so expensive.

  • Adam Bernard 15th Sep '16 - 8:06pm

    I agree. This motion seems to take the starting point that the current system is basically fit for purpose and could be perfected with a few tweaks here and there.

    The reality is, if we were asked to design a humane, liberal, and equitable welfare system, it would look nothing at all like this. Our task should be first: to start by working out where we want to be, and second: to work out how to get there as smoothly as possible from where we are now.
    We aren’t in government, we don’t need to pre-compromise our policies, we should be thinking big and setting out what we believe the future should look like.

  • George Potter 15th Sep '16 - 8:14pm

    Just because we offer something to our own citizens doesn’t mean we have to offer it to the world. For instance, every Briton has the right to vote but we don’t automatically give full voting rights to everyone who arrives in the country.

    Similarly, if we were to offer a universal minimum level of support to all our citizens that doesn’t mean that we’d have to offer it to anyone who came to the country. For instance, you could make all benefits dependent on being resident in the country and on having X years residence prior to claiming if you’re an adult.

    So please let’s dispel this myth that not allowing people to starve or go homeless somehow means we’re inviting national ruin.

  • Graham Evans 15th Sep '16 - 8:41pm

    @ George Potter If you are proposing to limit generous welfare support to British citizens, are you also proposing to limit access to social housing based on need for those who are not citizens? Moreover, would you remove entitlement to welfare payments from Commonwealth citizens living here who have not taken out British citizenship, and in particular from their dependent relatives? Your reply to the accusation that universal benefits would not be a magnet for immigrants may sound superficially possible, but less so in practice.

  • George Potter 15th Sep '16 - 8:45pm

    It’s not a proposal, melt

  • George Potter 15th Sep '16 - 8:49pm

    *It’s not a proposal, merely just pointing out that if providing people with the bare minimum needed not to starve (hardly a life of comfort) did result in millions of people flooding into the country then there are things that could be done to prevent it. Personally I doubt they’d be necessary at all given how stingy our system is compared to other countries.

  • Some of us are thinking that what we really need is a welfare state for the 21st century.
    As far as I can tell such an ambition is completely lacking from the paper.
    The wording around the benefit sanctions is odd. It appears to be against them, but actually is in favour. It tries to imply that such a policy will not increase poverty, destitution and ruin people’s lives, often unfairly, but does not say how else a sanctions regime would work that would fail to do so.
    I would prefer to refer it back and have a new working group start again.

  • Stevan Rose 15th Sep '16 - 9:08pm

    But if I recall correctly George you want a Basic Income strategy that’s impractical and unfundable.

    Benefits sanctions as applied for petty breaches are appalling but there needs to be some stick as well as carrot. A points system might be better. If you don’t have to prove you’re looking for work then people will take the pee. But again it needs realism – it’s easy to word an application to ensure a rejection. Disability assessments need to be done by specialist doctors employed by the NHS, with no targets. I like income protection a lot. There needs to be separate provision for child poverty but define please – what is deemed poverty?

  • nvelope2003 15th Sep '16 - 9:10pm

    Curious that in a Europe that has some of the most fertile soil in the world so many people are happily contemplating covering it with houses when the population is rising and food sources are not. We should try to encourage people to stay where they are if possible, and move the jobs to those places which are not so fertile.

  • Stevan Rose – we can only vote on what is in front of us. If you are against benefit sanctions then please vote that way.
    The important point is that benefit sanctions was a Tory policy to fit the Osborne narrative that poor people should be demonised, which in turn justified welfare cuts that made people destitute and ruined their lives. The paper does not explain what was wrong before that sanctions are now needed. Previously if I forgot to sign on, my payments would be delayed accordingly – that is surely punishment enough? People on benefits are on subsistence levels of payments to begin with, so “sanctions” will make people destitute. This is unacceptable and I am shocked to see it in the policy motion and the paper.

  • Conor McGovern 16th Sep '16 - 12:27am

    What we need is a universal basic income. Much of that would replace existing benefits in the way of costs, on top of savings made from abolishing means testing and red tape. The question is what the remaining cost would be, but I don’t think we can afford to go on as we are as we move further into the 21st century and work and the economy are becoming less and less secure.

  • Jane Ann Liston 16th Sep '16 - 1:14am

    I speak from bitter experience. One of the problems with the existing system is that, because the emphasis is on proving one is looking for work, activity, no matter how ineffective or in efficient is encouraged. Thus 10 mediocre applications are regarded as ‘better’ than one really good one, although the latter strategy is more likely to be successful. The whole emphasis is on activity, and occupying (dare one say ‘wasting’?) time, hence the attempts to force long-term unemployed to prove they are spending 35 hours a week in ‘work-related’ activity. It’s generally accepted that the fact most likely to get somebody a job is for them to already have one and if they do, it is extremely unlikely that they will be spending 35 hours a week looking for one! The initial premise, apart from the assumption that claimants are all cheating the system and/or lazy, seems to be that because there are lots of jobs available, any unemployed applicant who is unsuccessful in getting one must have done something wrong, whereas the highly significant individual likes/dislikes/sheer caprices of employers, which cannot be controlled for by the DWP, are ignored. In fact the system is very good at setting people up to fail, leading to demoralisation and even less chance of getting that elusive job. I got fed up jumping through all the hoops and banging my head against a wall simply to get my NI credits for 4 years and signed off just over a year ago, even although I still don’t have a job. I think I now have more chance of actually getting one, though.

  • I agree with George Potter and hope conference will reject this paper.

    Hopefully most of us recognise that the conditions to receive Jobseekers Allowance are a de-motivating tick box exercise that reduces a claimant’s self-esteem, individualism and liberty. They working group wish us to agree conflicting views – accept a new unspecified guideline based sanction regime (2.4.2 p 24) that will reduce benefits to a person’s “housing benefit and child tax credits” (2.4.4 p 25) with only £5 of the amount they need for themselves (and maybe their partner [this is not very clear]) while stating that “Benefit assessments are designed to determine how much a family needs to live on. If this amount is then arbitrarily reduced … by definition this means the family is getting less than they need” (2.2.8 p 18). If we believe that the level of benefit is set at a level to meet a person’s needs and it is wrong to arbitrarily reduce it, then we must also see that it is wrong to reduce it by applying sanctions.

    A radical approach would be to abolish the conditions for Job Seekers Allowance set at the level needed to live on and then give the extra payments not for “exceptional effort” but for meeting certain conditions, e.g. attending a meeting, having a job interview, applying for more than 10 jobs a week.

    The working group wish to move “employment support delivery” to “upper-tier authorities or, where good governance and clear accountability can be demonstrated, to combined authorities”, which is not at the lowest level, which I believe should be to district and unitary authorities. When I was a councillor it was the district council that was involved with economic development of the local area not the County Council.

    The working group think “relevant health, skills and employment interventions” should be “linked” (3.3.4 p 30-31). However they failed to recognise the emphasis should be on enhancing wellbeing for all citizens who access the linked services tailored to each individual desires and not a perceived need to get a paid job.

  • The working group advocate introducing “a Second Earner’s Work Allowance for couples with children. Equal to the minimum of the main earner work allowance (around 40% of the maximum main earner work allowance)” (4.6 p 35) funded “by abolishing the marriage tax allowance and removing certain benefits for Pensioners” (4.7 p 35). It would have been much better to have simplified the system to allow a single person to keep the first £30 a week, a couple or single parent £60, plus £30 for each child. Also if we were keeping Universal Credit (and I am not sure we should be) we should be discussing changing the taper to ensure work always pays.

    The working group rejected the Citizens’ Income because it “would be unable to cope with the diverse and complex variations in benefit needs existing in the UK, in particular the huge variation in housing costs within the country and support for people with disabilities” (1.3.3 p 11). They also rejected a hybrid scheme because “means-tested benefits continue to be paid alongside the flat rate payment” and so “savings cannot be realised and again the scheme rapidly becomes prohibitively expensive” (1.3.7 p12). However they should have been able to consider increasing the National Insurance rate for those earning more than £43,004 pa, and setting a partial Citizens Income initially equal to the Income Tax personal allowance rate.

    @ Eddie Sammon
    “a massive draw to come to the UK”

    With Britexit we can ensure that the benefits system and the Citizens Income can only be claimed by UK citizens.

    @ Graham Evans
    I don’t understand why Commonwealth citizens should be entitled to welfare payments without a period of residency. I don’t understand why someone coming to the UK to work should be earning so little that they would qualify for social housing. Refugees and asylum seekers of course will need to be included.

    @ Geoffrey Payne
    If referred back it must be able to include reforming Income Tax and National Insurance.

  • I also agree with George Potter and Michael BG.

  • What is not being mentioned (and is not referred to in the paper) is Workfare, or the Work Programme. This involves an Orwellian misuse of language, requiring “unemployed” people to “work for their benefits” for 30 hours per week for up to 6 months. (The obvious contradiction is in defining people working for 30 hours per week as “unemployed”.) People in these programmes are denied the minimum wage and other employment rights under an “emergency” law passed in the wake of the Cait Reily case. We must state unequivocally that there must be no workfare – all work (unluss the worker actively volunteers for it or is serving a community sentence) must be paid at least the Mimimum Wage (or National Living Wage). Forcing people to work under threat of sanctions is not only immoral, but might reinforce any negative attitudes to work, or create them when they did not exist!

  • Adam Bernard 16th Sep '16 - 11:24am

    My experience agrees with Jane’s. There’s a lot of focus on number of applications made, even if you’re, as I am, in a specialist academic field of work where a) a suitable vacancy will come through very rarely, b) an application for something that’s nearly, but not quite, appropriate will make one look foolish and damage one’s credibility c) it’s appropriate to spend several days working on a single application and doing it properly versus a scattergun approach.

    Friends who are involved in hiring people say that the flip side of this is wasting vast amounts of their time in rejecting unsuitable applicants. No-one wins.

  • Another Mark 16th Sep '16 - 6:23pm

    “there needs to be some stick as well as carrot.”

    No, there doesn’t. That attitude treats people like naughty children who have to be watched over all the time, makes them resentful and anxious and pushes them into performing meaningless activities just so that it looks like they’re doing something.

    In addition, the introduction of conditionality to unemployment benefits has had a disastrous effect on the creative industries. People such as musicians and actors, who in the past used a period of being on the dole to develop their talents, now have to spend their time jumping through the DWP’s hoops, unless they’re rich enough already not to need to claim. The person who might have been the next David Bowie is probably stacking shelves on a workfare scheme somewhere.

  • Another Mark 16th Sep '16 - 6:40pm

    Forgot to mention I’m quite positive about the idea of an income protection scheme, if it’s a way to get out-of-work benefits up to a civilised level.

    Denmark operates an opt-in scheme for unemployment benefits, where you pay into a fund run by the trade union responsible for your area of work. The benefits used to last 4 years, but the last government reduced that to 2 as an austerity measure.

    Last time I looked the cost was between £50 and £100 a month depending on what sort of cover you wanted, so if such a scheme were to be set up in the UK I think it ought to have some way of subsiding people on low pay who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Sep '16 - 3:15am


    Nobody has ever responded to me on this subject when I have asked , how do you get onto a working group? I have experience and knowledge of this area of policy and would have liked to contribute it and would like to in future?!

    I respect the staunch criticism of the current awful system , George , and other colleagues make.It needs far more than tinkering, it needs radical reform . The irony of DWP staffed so called job centre advisers, and though some are good , many are terrible, people with few skills often, and fewer reasons to be in the job sometimes, having a job, that involves telling others they must find a job , and punishing them if they do not do as they are told by the self same obviously unsuitable , at times , staff, is hilarious and outrageous !

  • George Potter posted “when the working group (which I was a member of) surveyed party members 56% of them backed Basic Income or Negative Income Tax. Only 24% backed the approach which the policy paper has adopted” on 24th August. It therefore seems strange to me that neither a Basic Income nor Negative Income Tax has been included as an option even if the working group was against it. I do remember in the past working groups presenting options in their papers and in their motions to conference.

  • Nonconformistradical 19th Sep '16 - 9:24am

    @Another Mark

    ‘“there needs to be some stick as well as carrot.”

    No, there doesn’t. That attitude treats people like naughty children who have to be watched over all the time, makes them resentful and anxious and pushes them into performing meaningless activities just so that it looks like they’re doing something.’

    I think you’d have a lot of trouble convincing Daily Fail readers that there are not some people milking the system – there do need to be sanctions but the issue is how and when they are appled. I agree with you about the ‘meaningless activities’ – the current system concentrating on number of job applications made and apparently ignoring quality of applications seems useless as far as getting people into sustainable employment is concerned.

    ‘In addition, the introduction of conditionality to unemployment benefits has had a disastrous effect on the creative industries. People such as musicians and actors, who in the past used a period of being on the dole to develop their talents, now have to spend their time jumping through the DWP’s hoops, unless they’re rich enough already not to need to claim. The person who might have been the next David Bowie is probably stacking shelves on a workfare scheme somewhere.’

    Perhaps those who have made a pile in any of the creative industries might reasonably be expected to contribute financial support for potential creative talent – and I suspect that DWP shenanigans are far from the whole story. There will be other obstacles such as fewer venues offering opportunities to musicians to play live etc.

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