House of Lords, Speeches, Welfare Reform

Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill

Posted by LordSheikh


My Lords, I welcome the Bill as it will restore fairness and simplicity to the process of social security payments. It will also deal with the question of affordability. It is important for a Government of any persuasion to show that they empathise with taxpayers who are essentially paying for welfare handouts. The concept of fairness is one of the reasons for proposing this Bill. It is worth remembering that the coalition Government inherited the biggest budget deficit of any country in the developed world. It is estimated that capping social security benefits in this manner will save the Treasury £3.7 billion in 2015-16 and that, thereafter, there will be permanent savings each and every year in our welfare spending.

Welfare spending increased by 60% under the previous Government but this did not produce the intended result of helping individuals to return to work. If we can get more people in work, some of them will receive salary progressions and improve their standards of living. In the years 1997 to 2010, when average earnings increased by 30%, tax credit spending increased by 340%. One of the aims of this Bill is to tackle the lack of aspiration and ambition among a number of those who have been trapped in poverty. I believe that the 1% uprating stipulated in Clauses 1 and 2 will improve incentives to work.

It is true that the welfare debate has been described in overly simplistic terms in certain quarters. However, it is a fact that a culture of dependency exists in some areas. Previous Governments have tried to tackle this issue with the best of intentions but the complexity and scope of the problem has often meant that past strategies have not been successful in addressing the matter. Children and young people who live in households where adults do not engage in any form of employment are not only the most deprived in our society but are most likely to follow this path once they leave full-time compulsory education. This generational cycle of worklessness is a key factor in the rising levels of welfare dependency and poverty in our communities.

I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that work gives people pride and confidence. Unemployment sometimes creates depression and has an adverse affect on people. Work is good for people’s mental health, their physical health and their general well-being. These benefits have been demonstrated repeatedly. Dependency is not liberating; it constrains people and prevents them achieving their ambitions.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way for a moment. Would he not agree that, on the contrary, what welfare benefits such as tax credits have done, and what universal credit proposes to do, is to make work pay and thus get people back into the labour market, exactly as he wishes?

Lord Sheikh: I still feel there is a culture of dependency. Obviously, we would like to get more people into work and incentives must be given to people to go to work. People have become trapped in our welfare system and they need to be freed. This Bill will make a great contribution to their liberation.

The Government deserve recognition for trying to ensure that we have a fair welfare system to support those in genuine need. Social security should be for people who find themselves out of work and are trying to get back into employment. This House recently debated the success of the Asian community who were expelled from Uganda and came to settle in this country in 1972. My family was among those people who were expelled by General Amin and who came here. A number of these Asians came here penniless and were initially housed in Army camps. At the outset they received state benefits but they came off those benefits, and started to work and established small businesses. They have been successful and now offer employment to others, pay taxes and create wealth for the country. It is unfortunate that some people have chosen not to make a contribution to society and have opted to receive benefits as a way of life. The welfare system was created to ensure that people were not left destitute if they lost their jobs. It was viewed as a matter of support for those who were down on their luck. It is unfortunate that the original purpose of this safety net has been distorted.

I wholeheartedly support the Government’s decision to retain the uprating of long-term disability benefits at the rate of inflation. I also support the triple-lock guarantee for basic state pensions, which means that pensioners will receive an increase of at least 2.5%. A compassionate society is one that shows respect and understanding to the most vulnerable. I am proud that the Government have taken these steps as they are both a moral and civil duty. Further to erroneous reports about these measures, I would be grateful if the Minister could inform your Lordships’ House of the steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to ensure that people are well informed and reassured about policy regarding disability and pension provision.

It is neither prudent nor fair to distribute welfare payments or benefits without question or regard for our economic situation. The uprating measures in this Bill will show considerable savings by 2015-16 and for years after that. This is essentially about taxpayers’ money. We have a financial deficit that we need to rectify and we need to put the country on a sound financial footing. We can achieve this by reducing our spending, applying appropriate taxes and undertaking more business at home and overseas. I have spoken on the latter point in your Lordships’ House previously. We cannot afford to continue paying welfare benefits as in the past.

The Government have reduced the deficit by a quarter since they came to power in 2010. Obviously, this is to be commended. More than 1 million jobs were created in the private sector in the same period. The FTSE 100 index has risen above 6,300 points for the first time since May 2008. If we can achieve more growth we will create more jobs, and if we can encourage people to work rather than be dependent on the state, more people will be gainfully employed. I support the Government on getting the economy right and we must be firm and keep on the right track. It will indeed cause pain to some people but, of course, if a person is ill it is necessary to take strong medicine. We should not borrow our way out of the current financial crisis. Borrowing is the easy way but it is the wrong way.

There are wider social implications at the heart of this debate. We cannot ignore the resentment and anger felt by hard-working families who see others making a conscious effort not to work being rewarded handsomely by the state. Failure to address this issue may cause tensions within communities. I am sure that some of us have heard the expression, “I cannot afford to go to work”. This is an absurd situation and we are perhaps the only country where people are better off not working.

The measures in the Bill are necessary to remedy the culture of dependency that is blighting some members of our population. The Bill is a sign of the Government’s commitment to ensuring that we live in a fair society. The fact remains that since the economic downturn salaries have risen on average by 10%, whereas payments for some individuals in receipt of benefits have risen by 20%. We need to look at all areas of expenditure for our well-being, which will of course include the welfare benefits. The present state of affairs is simply not sustainable. I am supporting this Bill as it is a step forward in dealing with issues relating to affordability and fairness.

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