Mending the Safety Net: how to improve our welfare system
Up for debate at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton will be a new policy paper on social security. Here the chair of the working group which produced the paper, former MP Jenny Willott, explains the ideas behind it.
After almost a year of hearing evidence from experts, the views of hundreds of Lib Dem members and supporters through survey results, written submissions and a number of consultation sessions, umpteen evenings of discussions and a Sunday spent in Lib Dem HQ, the social security working group finished our policy paper Mending the Safety Net.
The remit was vast covering all of social security, except for pensions and the challenge was to update party policy within the 2015 social security budget. We looked at the system entirely from scratch and considered proposals ranging from small tweaks to total redesigns.
We have tried to focus in our conclusions on protecting the most vulnerable in society, making the system more flexible and tackling the stigma faced by those receiving benefits.
At the heart of our paper is reducing child poverty: the effects of growing up in poverty can be permanently damaging so we felt this had to be a priority. The majority of children growing up in poverty now have at least one parent working. One of the most effective ways to reduce the number of children living in poverty is to make it more affordable for both parents to work. We therefore propose to introduce a Second Earners’ Work Allowance to Universal Credit, so a second parent keeps more of the money they earn, which increases household income. We also want to increase the child element of Universal Credit by £5 a week over time for the first child in a family.
We also wanted to do more for young people as they move into adulthood. The current benefits system discriminates against under 25s in various ways and we want to treat young people more fairly by reinstating housing benefit for 18 – 21 year olds and increasing the rates of Job Seeker’s Allowance and Universal Credit for those aged 18 – 24 in line with increases in minimum and apprentice wages for that age group.
We heard from those who have experience of claiming benefits and looked at how people are treated. We heard particular complaints about the work capability assessment (WCA) and how sanctions are applied. Claimants should be treated with fairness and respect and it was clear that many of those who have undergone a WCA felt that this standard was not being met. We came to the conclusion that the WCA in its current form is not fit for purpose. We therefore propose scrapping it.
Benefit eligibility will still need to be assessed but we believe it would be better done locally. We would also change the assessment dramatically, so that it would include a “Real World Test”, considering whether are jobs available nearby that could be done by a claimant as part of judging whether they are fit for work.
The sanctions regime also clearly falls short of treating claimants with dignity and respect. Fixed sanctions can impose set punishments on claimants for technical infringements of the conditions of their benefits without any scope for considering the context of the breach or the claimant’s circumstances. This particularly affects those with mental health conditions. We would therefore scrap fixed sanctions, add more flexibility and introduce a basic income below which a claimant cannot fall, protecting housing and child benefit.
We also want to make it easier for people to protect themselves from the financial impact of unemployment and illness. In other Western countries it is normal to have top up insurance and we want to make it easier for that to happen in the UK.
This is a quick summary of the key policies, and I am looking forward to debating at conference the whole package that we are putting forward, which aims to treat claimants with more fairness and dignity and reduce the number of children growing up in poverty.
I am particularly pleased to see the point in the penultimate paragraph about making self-insurance easier as it was something I pushed during the drafting of the paper. Making it easier, simpler and safer for people to make financial choices is a vital part of giving people more power over their own lives. It is also a way of helping people without having to spend state money – and therefore makes it possible to keep the poorest as a priority for extra funds whilst also helping people who are not amongst the very poorest but whose lives are not all pampered luxury either.