Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:46 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Bakewell Baroness Bakewell Labour 6:46 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, in considering the implications of this Bill for our society, I invoke the judgment of Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations and acclaimed founder of the economic theory that gave birth to economic liberalism and the free market economy, who is a hero in many people’s eyes. Adam Smith was not just an economist; he was also a philosopher. In his work The Theory of Moral Sentiments he expressed concerns that man in society had obligations other than to give free rein to his ambitions and self-interest. He wrote:

“How selfish-soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him”.

From this sprang what is called caring conservatism, a concept already referred today by my noble friend Lady Hollis. It has had a good run for its money, finding expression in Disraeli’s one-nation politics and, in our own day, in David Cameron’s big society.

That very concept is currently being gouged out and hollowed by the cruelties attendant on this Bill. We have been living for some time within a sea change of outlook on the part of our Governments to the public realm and the obligations of the state to care for its citizens. We have seen its impact on civic society. Even the Prime Minister has noticed. In his letter to the Conservative leader of Oxfordshire County Council, he expressed his concern at the cuts to services: elderly day centres, children’s centres, libraries and such. In response, the council leader, a Conservative, wrote:

“I cannot accept your description of a drop in funding of £72 m or 37% as a ‘slight fall’”.

Other local councils are similarly up in arms at the scale of what they are having to cut: libraries, museums, galleries, sports facilities, parks and playgrounds, children’s centres, youth clubs, after-school and holiday clubs, health and safety inspections. All and more are being stripped from the public realm.

Now with this welfare Bill claiming to promote employment we see real cruelty in dealing with people. In the service of whatever ideology or economic imperative these policies are promoting, their scale is now indefensible. This Bill deliberately hits those who are already poor, disabled or young. I ask the Minister to explain in what way this does anything to eliminate the prevailing direction of our society towards ever-greater divisions between rich and poor and how that is defensible in the name of caring conservatism.

Let me now refer to another ideology altogether. I was part of a cultural delegation to China in 1983 when the diktats of Chairman Mao were in full swing, including the one-child family policy. A Chinese friend I met there took me aside and explained that he and his wife had defied the ruling and had two children, for which he had been demoted and financially penalised. Our delegation was scandalised. I little thought that some decades later a Bill before Parliament would be discriminating between the worth of one child and another in the same family. I am equally scandalised today and I am not alone. Faith groups across the country —Baptist, Jewish, Church of England, Church of Scotland, Quaker, Methodist, the United Reformed Church and the Caritas Social Action Network, which is the Catholic bishops—have expressed concerns about Clauses 11 and 12 limiting financial support to the first two children in any family. The government assessment estimates this measure will affect 640,000 families by 2020-21, which will mean at least 2 million children will be affected. We are not China but we are seeking by economic policies to limit family size.

Clause after clause of this Bill attacks the vulnerable. Clauses 7 and 8 lowering the benefit cap will affect 120,000 households forcing—so leaked DWP documents suggest—40,000 children below the poverty line. How can we then reduce poverty and its damning statistics? Clauses 6 and 4 will take care of that, by repealing the existing income-based measures of poverty and replacing them with so-called life chance indicators.

The whole area of disability and assessment, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Low, will need to be carefully scrutinised. While welcoming certain aspects of the Bill’s intentions, Parkinson’s UK is worried, as are many charities, about the impact assessment for Clause 13 to cover the known problems with work capability assessment. We can begin with Clause 1 and ask that the reporting obligations are confirmed.

The Bill flies defiantly in the face of caring conservatism. Its measures, meant to promote employment, need to be scrutinised clause by clause against the damage they will do to the well-being of all our citizens.