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Rhetoric and reality – life on a Bill committee

Given my professional background on social security policy, I put myself forward for the Welfare Reform and Work Bill committee which has now completed its sittings. Information on the Bill, committee sessions and associated evidence papers and amendments is available here.

The Bill committee scrutinised in detail all the provisions of the Government’s plans to axe £12 billion from Department for Work and Pensions expenditure. Ministers wrote to me several times during the scrutiny of the Bill due to their inability to answer questions in committee. Shailesh Vara accused me of ‘trying to make a name for myself’ by asking detailed questions. Intended as a gibe but taken as a compliment for standing up for the people of Bermondsey and Old Southwark.

The contrast between the people I meet and work for in Bermondsey and Old Southwark versus DWP Ministers’ perception of their lives was quite stark. Ministers refused to accept that many of the people receiving tax credits are working, failed to acknowledge the impact of their plans on housing associations’ ability to build new homes and completely misunderstood the means of measuring poverty in the UK.

Tax Credits

David Cameron committed to retaining tax credits in the run up to May’s general election but now plans to axe help for working people across the country, including over 6,000 in Bermondsey and Old Southwark (and 4,000 with children). Tory ‘committee fodder’ MPs did not permit an amendment from Labour that would have prevented working families losing out. They’ve made the Prime Minister a liar and undermined their Party’s pretence of standing up for working people.

Capping and freezing

The Bill committee debated the benefit cap – and the Minister ended up writing to me to try and justify claims that the cap had increased people’s likelihood of moving into work. In Southwark about 500 households were affected by the initial cap, but many of those were then moved onto exempt benefits (like DLA) or into other homes due to council help.

Tories also seemed to misunderstand that freezing certain benefits doesn’t ‘protect’ disabled people (their repeated claim in committee) due to the main components of benefits being uprated below the rise in food, housing and transport costs.

Overlooking poverty

The Bill will also remove proper monitoring of child poverty in the UK, with the Tory Government deliberately omitting any measurement of in-work poverty. The independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation has reported on in-work poverty being the fastest growing group of people in poverty – and in Southwark about 10% of foodbank users (some 700 people this year) are in work already according to the local provider.

Any positives?

More positively, the Bill does provide additional help for the ‘Troubled Families Programme’ and will boost apprenticeships – although the Bill provides insufficient detail on how the new target for apprentices will work in practice and how the Government intends to support employers.

I also secured commitments from Ministers during the Bill scrutiny to: meet Southwark council representatives to examine how to better exempt ‘specified housing’ (eg hostels for women escaping domestic violence) from cuts; meet Disability Benefits Consortium members regarding employment support for disabled people; to explain how the Government will better take account of the impact of changes on disabled people and carers; and to look again at how to best support disabled people who become terminally ill whilst in receipt of Disability Living Allowance.  

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