Welfare Reform Bill

Part of Tied Public Houses (Code of Practice) – in the House of Commons at 2:45 pm on 9th March 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Liberal Democrat, Cardiff Central 2:45 pm, 9th March 2011

I welcome the Bill, especially the introduction of the universal credit system. It is a huge improvement on the current over-complicated and burdensome benefit system, which has spiralled out of control under a number of previous Governments. I think that several elements of the Bill require further work, and I look forward to their being discussed today and during the Bill’s later stages, but I do not consider that a good enough reason not to give it a Second Reading.

I am glad that a couple of earlier proposals have already been reconsidered. Both have been mentioned by other Members. I am delighted that the Government listened to Liberal Democrats, the Select Committee and others throughout the United Kingdom who called for the proposal for a 10% cut in housing benefit for those who have received jobseeker’s allowance for a year to be dropped, because it was unfair. It is very good news that the proposal has indeed been dropped, and I am sure that Members on both sides of the House welcome that.

I am also glad that the Government are listening to those who are concerned about the removal of the mobility component of disability living allowance from those in residential care. A number of Members have mentioned that today, and I expect that it will be mentioned again before the end of the debate. I am pleased that the proposals have gone back to the drawing board, and I hope that the Government will take account of the serious concern that many Members have expressed and will, I am sure, express again during the Bill’s subsequent stages.

I welcome wholeheartedly some measures that are in the Bill, as well as the absence of some measures that are not. As I said earlier, those that I welcome include the introduction of universal credit, which will finally end the absurd circumstances in which people can be better off on benefits than in work. I am sure that many Members have met people who are frustrated and desperate because they know that although their lives would be better if they were in work, financially they would not be better off in work. I think that everyone should welcome the fact that universal credit will put right that wrong.

A number of Members have expressed concern about the changes in employment and support allowance. As Dame Anne Begg pointed out, and as the Secretary of State acknowledged earlier, there is particular concern about the decision to time-limit contributory ESA. I hope that during the Bill’s passage the Government will consider, for instance, whether the period before the cut-off should be longer than a year, whether it is appropriate to include the 13-week assessment period in the calculation, and whether those with certain conditions could either be entirely exempt from the cut-off or be allowed extensions at the discretion of Jobcentre Plus staff. A good many people will be affected by the limit, especially if, as is currently planned, it is applied retrospectively.

I mentioned the controversy surrounding disability living allowance. As I have said, I am delighted that the proposals affecting those in residential care are being reconsidered. However, concern remains about the increase from three months to six months of the period before people are eligible to apply for the allowance. I understand the logic of trying to ensure that it is given only to people with long-term conditions, but in the case of sudden-onset conditions such as cancer, strokes or accidents, the greatest financial need is at the start. I hope that thought will be given to whether people in those circumstances can be helped to deal with the serious financial implications of such conditions.

I agree with the hon. Member for Aberdeen South that a huge number of issues could be raised in relation to the Bill, but today I can focus on only a few of them. The last issue that I want to raise is the total cap on benefits. Again, I understand the rationale. Many working people with low incomes find it very difficult to see others receiving more money from the state than they themselves can earn, and I understand their frustration and resentment. However, we have yet not been given enough detail to establish the precise impact of the Government’s proposal.

Some people also resent the fact that families, particularly large families, are living on benefits, but the choices made by parents are not the fault of their children. By the time the Bill has completed its passage, we must ensure that any cap has been set at an appropriate level, that there is no prospect of children being pushed into poverty, and that families—especially in London, where housing costs are so high—will not be disproportionately hit. Given that the housing benefit cap is £400, a total benefits cap of £500 could leave a large family with just £100 a week to cover all their other living costs. I hope that the Government will consider excluding housing benefit from the calculation, or, preferably, excluding child benefit. Given that child benefit reflects the size of families, that could have an impact on child poverty. I am very concerned about the implications of that policy, and we will need to know the impact on children, in particular, before I can agree to support it.

Most of the Bill is well thought out with a strong sense of principle, and I wholeheartedly support the overwhelming majority of its measures. I welcome the moves to simplify the benefits system and to create a more individually tailored welfare system, but I also have concerns, and I hope the Government—