A promising start on welfare reform risks spiralling into confusion, warns MARGARET CURRAN

 

The groundbreaking Welfare Reform Bill, long hailed as the Tory answer to ending worklessness and benefit dependency in this country, reached its final stages in the House of Commons this week. Given the scale of the change that it represents and the life-changing impact it will have on thousands of people across the UK, it is truly remarkable just how little media coverage it has received.

Maybe that’s because it has been Lansley, Clarke and Huhne that have been falling over each other to grab all the latest headlines, or maybe it’s because Ian Duncan Smith garners a certain degree of sympathy – after all, we all feel a little bit sorry for him given the mauling he got during his time as Tory party leader. Perhaps there is a sense that the Secretary of State genuinely wants to do “good” and has found some of the answers to the questions previous Government’s have long tackled with before him. Dare I say it, maybe some of the changes to welfare that he is proposing are actually the right thing to do.

In fact, I think it’s a little bit of all of these factors.

When in Government, Labour came to terms with the need to reform welfare – both for the good of our Party, and for the wellbeing of our country. We understood that it would be a rolling programme of reform – largely driven though by the leadership of one of our most thoughtful Secretaries of State, James Purnell.

In government, we believed that you can’t tackle deep rooted social problems, poverty, post industrial blight and depressed inner-city estates, without tackling inter generational worklessness and bringing in a strong social contract of rights, responsibilities and conditionality to the welfare state. Past reforms led to some real progress – the process of reassessing the thousands of people on Incapacity Benefit was started by us – but we always knew that wholesale reform had to continue and it had to go further.

With Iain Duncan Smith at the helm, the Tories had the opportunity to take that next logical step. But has he blown it?

Some of the principles of the Welfare Bill are right and some of the promises are welcome. It is right that it should always pay to be in work and we welcome the decision to simplify a system that many people struggle to understand.

But the problem is that the proposals in the bill overreach, they have been cobbled together to meet an arbitrary timeframe of delivery, and the obsession to simplify has produced a framework that may very well serve to undermine many of the admirable goals that they set out to achieve in the first place.

I have been involved in scrutinising the welfare proposals since I was elected to Westminster in May 2010 – initially as a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee and then as the opposition front bench spokesperson for disabled people.  There is no doubt that, along with my colleagues, I have witnessed a clear shift in opinion on these proposals throughout the passage of this Bill; from one of generally positive support, to constructive questioning of the detail, and finally to alarm and concern about its implementation.

Because although we are now at Report stage, there are glaring holes in the Welfare Reform Bill that simply don’t answer key questions for many people: what are the government’s plan for childcare support? What families on Universal Credit will be eligible for free school meals? The answers to these important issues matter as they will determine whether it really does pay to be in work. Furthermore, the once concealed losers of IDS’s reforms are starting to emerge: disabled children will see their support halved, while elderly people in residential care homes are still at threat of losing their DLA mobility.

There is a real worry that many people will pay a very high price for a rushed bill that has lacked the thought, scrutiny and patience that is required in order to get things right.

I’m told IDS works very long hours. I’m not surprised. The bill introduced is half baked with glaring omissions and key elements unanswered. What was meant to be a simplification of the benefits system has the danger of turning into a plethora of cuts and confusion.

Reforming welfare is not easy, but IDS made a promising start.

He told us that he had all the answers to of all of our problems – but he simply hasn’t bought them together in enough time for the passage of this bill.

The Secretary of State will be hoping that he can get through the next week without joining his fellow Tory frontbenchers in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Margaret Curran was an MSP from 1999 until 2011, serving as Minister for Communities and for Parliamentary Business. She was elected as MP for Glasgow East in 2010. Follow her on Twitter at @Margaret_Curran.