Priti Patel is an elected Member of the Conservative Party Board, the 1922 Committee’s Executive and the Public Administration Select Committee. She is also a member of the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Witham.
The programme of welfare reform and changes to the benefits system being implemented by Iain Duncan Smith will bring about lasting and positive change to Britain. At the heart of these reforms are the principles of fairness, making work pay and ensuring that those on benefits are not living lifestyles that those in work cannot usually afford. The introduction of the cap on the amount that claimants can receive in housing benefits and other benefits combined has shown hard-working taxpayers that the Conservatives are the only party that takes this issue seriously. The public support welfare reform, and the arguments in favour of change are compelling.
Under the last Labour Government, the concept of welfare went wrong. We saw an extreme culture of dependency on welfare developing where families became trapped – sometimes by deliberate choice and sometimes by accident – in a cycle of dependency in which they were rewarded for not working. This cycle also affected generations of households, which led to the erosion of the basic value of hard work, aspiration and the general desire to want to get on in life.
A welfare system that should have provided a safety net for the vulnerable and those who have fallen on hard times was abused by Labour Ministers. They made conscious decisions to make more people dependent on welfare while failing to take action to help get the long term unemployed back into work. The social housing waiting list grew to almost two million, the number of young people unemployed soared to over one million and millions of households had no-one of working age in work. In May 2010, the current Government inherited a system in which it was far too easy for families to be better off living on benefits and handouts paid for through the taxes of those in work and businesses. The British public wanted to see change to get people into work and off of benefits, and this is what Conservatives have been delivering over the last four years and will continue to do.
Much progress has been made which we can be proud about. Our benefits cap has put our commitment to fairness into a policy that the public understands and welcomes. Reforms to help the long term unemployed and those on disability benefits into work are also yielding positive results. Unemployment is going down, and there are record numbers of people in employment. The number of people aged 16 to 64 living in workless households has fallen below five million, while the total number of workless households dropped to 3.5 million. 2013 also saw a dramatic drop in the number of households where no-one has ever worked – falling by 13 per cent from 340,000 to 297,000. More single parents are also being supported into work, with the lone parent employment rate now at its highest level on record.
Other policies across Government, particularly education and fiscal measures, are helping to create jobs and make work pay. The expansion of the apprenticeship programme is giving young people new opportunities to learn skills to make them fit for the workplace, while Michael Gove’s reforms to restore vigour to the curriculum will see pupils move back up the international league tables. Importantly, our focus on cutting business taxes, including corporation tax and employee national insurance contributions, is making it easier for private sector firms to create new jobs and take on more staff.
We have proven as a Government that you can control benefits and restore confidence in the benefits systems alongside measures which stimulate economic growth and job creation. The Conservative principle of reducing the barriers to job creation is a far better way to get people into work and make people better off than increasing handouts. This is in complete contrast to Labour’s approach, which is based on higher taxes and higher burdens on business to fund more benefits and handouts. Labour will drain investment out of the economy and away from wealth-creators, which will prevent jobs being created, damage the economy and increase welfare bills.
Labour’s failure to get behind long term private sector job creation was demonstrated last week, when it was revealed that their jobs guarantee scheme would only be in place for one year – as that is the period that have modelled it on. Only the Labour Party would pursue an economically illiterate policy in order to introduce a “guarantee” that is barely worth the paper it is written on. While Labour prioritise gimmicks, the focus of Conservative Ministers on long term job creation and private sector growth will create many times more jobs than would be possible under Labour.
Opposition to our reforms and the new controls that we have placed on welfare spending from Labour is unsurprising as they desperately try to score political points. But it is disappointing to see that these policies and the changes to benefits have also attracted criticism recently from church leaders, including the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, and the 27 Anglican bishops who put their name to a letter published in the Daily Mirror.
While it is understandable why church leaders would express concerns about the symptoms of poverty and the use of foodbanks, their focus on blaming the Government’s welfare reforms and emotive claims about a national crisis in hunger and people being left in destitution are misplaced. As the Prime Minister made clear in his excellent response to these criticisms, there is a strong moral case for welfare reform, and it is Conservatives in Government that are addressing the causes of poverty. In the long term, our ambitious programme of welfare reform will transform the life opportunities of millions of families and this is something that should be welcomed.
Just as Margaret Thatcher’s reforms transformed Britain into a property-owning democracy in the 1980s, in the current decade Conservative Ministers will inspire a culture in the UK of hard work being rewarded. Revolutions in attitudes and changes in culture are not instant and take time to evolve – as happened in the 1980s. In this case, the poverty of aspiration and culture of worklessness in some areas runs deep so administering the cure will not be easy or straightforward. But our reforms are putting Britain back on track, and we should pursue these changes with the same commitment and zeal that we are applying to helping people own their own home. This is why we must all campaign hard for a Conservative majority Government in 2015 – so we can continue to help create more jobs, lift more families out of poverty and prevent a return to Labour’s damaging ‘something for nothing’ culture of welfare dependency.