Hannigfield In the first of a series, Lord Hanningfield, the Conservative leader of Essex County Council, calls on power to set benefits to be devolved.

Should the Conservatives win the next election, Essex County Council looks forward to using the power of general competence the recent decentralisation paper promises. In the meantime, however, local government has been given the opportunity – through the Sustainable Communities Act to make proposals to government on powers it would like to exercise.

I will be outlining on Conservative Home our six proposals which we believe offer real, practical localism – tackling local economic, social and environmental issues in Essex.

The Sustainable Communities Act challenges councils to be innovative, to be radical – to seek from government the powers it believes could deliver better results if exercised at the local level.

The Centre for Policy Studies reported last week that a quarter of all government spending is on benefits. This is unsustainable; the system as it currently operates is not working. We believe it needs to change – and we are using the Sustainable Communities Act to try to effect this change.

Should the government give the green light to our proposals the Secretary of State of the day would devolve to ECC the power to set eligibility criteria and payment rates for all working-age benefits within the county.

In using these powers we would be able to tailor benefits to fit better with the Essex economy and the work, training and skills programmes we are already running in the county. ECC would be able to decide who was eligible and for how much, instead of the crude, nationally set policies currently in use.

When setting the benefit rates, Essex County Council would bring a much better understanding of local economic conditions than any national government could ever do.

Our proposal is primarily focused on how we tackle unemployment and, as such, relates to benefits such as Job Seekers Allowance, Income Support and Employment Support Allowance. It may, of course, become necessary to alter other, related benefits. For example, recipients of Income Support are automatically eligible for Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit.

This would greatly strengthen the impact of other initiatives designed to help people back to work and, thus, help to improve local economic sustainability. ECC has already put programmes in place to help our residents back into work – and we are designing and deploying more. However we are limited by take-up where the benefits system provides a viable alternative lifestyle for too many of our residents.

Parking people on benefits, especially during a recession, is not only financially unsustainable, it also damages the lives of the people concerned and denies them their own potential. We see this proposal as an important step in combining the knowledge ECC holds about Essex, with our desire to make the county the best place to live in Britain.

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