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By Jonathan Isaby

Last month the Government published its ambitious Welfare Reform Bill and I wrote about it at the time here.

Yesterday the Bill had its Second Reading debate in the Commons and here is a flavour of the warm welcome it got from the Tory backbenches.

Several MPs took the opportunity to expand on the problems of the status quo.

Chris Skidmore (Kingswood)
"I welcome the Bill, which marks a point at which we can send out this message: we cannot continue to spend on welfare as we have previously. Instead, we need to understand that there is no such thing as Government money, free to be given out; there is only hard-earned taxpayers' money, which in these difficult times needs to be spent with caution and care. Over the past 13 years, we saw no evidence of that caution, as the total annual expenditure on benefits mushroomed to £152 billion. Every year, £5.2 billion was lost in overpayments, of which £1.5 billion was lost to fraud. Some £3.5 billion was spent annually on administration costs and paperwork alone. As we have heard from the Minister, other benefits rose, with the cost of housing benefit having increased from £11 billion to £20 billion since 1997. That is simply unsustainable and we must act."

George Hollingbery (Meon Valley)
"There are more than 30 different benefits out there that can be claimed. There are 14 manuals in the Department for Work and Pensions, with 8,690 pages of instructions for officials. There is a separate set of four volumes for local government, with 1,200 pages covering housing and council tax benefits alone. That is an astonishingly byzantine system. One of my constituents, Nigel Oakland, wrote to me: "Nobody at the Jobcentre Plus can explain if it is beneficial if I continue to sign on. The last advice I was given is that I should Google the question." In such a situation, where even the experts at Jobcentre Plus cannot answer the questions that arise, we are clearly in difficulty.

"It is confusing for clients. There is a 30-page form for housing and council tax benefit, including three pages of declarations. Employment and support allowance requires a 52-page form; jobseeker's allowance, 12 online sections, each of five to 10 pages long; and disability living allowance, a 60-page form. Is it any wonder that people become confused and fill in the forms incorrectly and make mistakes? The system is extraordinarily expensive to administer. The DWP spent £2 billion last year administering working-age benefits, and local authorities a further £l billion administering housing benefit and council tax benefit. Even the tiny citizens advice bureau in Bishop's Waltham, a town of 5,000 people in a rural and relatively affluent part of Hampshire, processed 2,176 queries about benefits in 2009-10, advising people how to claim them."

Julian Sturdy (York Outer)
"Over the past 10 years the welfare budget has grown disproportionately, by more than £56 billion. Despite that huge increase, almost 1.5 million people have been on out-of-work benefit for nine of those 10 years. Despite years of economic growth, job creation and increases in the welfare budget, a whole group of people have never worked at all. It is therefore time to review this broken system. After all, the simple truth is that Britain's welfare arteries are clogged up. Too little support is reaching those truly in need and too much is being lost in bureaucratic incompetence-even more worryingly, it is being lost on people who should not be in receipt of such support at all. In essence, the whole culture of our welfare system is wrong; the cost of maintaining it is out of control and the decision-making processes within it are woefully inefficient. The Bill is therefore right to focus on incentivising pathways back to work by ensuring that employment always pays more than benefits. That is fundamental to the Bill and, as a simple Yorkshire man, I feel that it is basic common sense."

"It is a sad but well-known fact that the current system discourages those in low-paid jobs from increasing their hours, as rates of tax and benefit reductions often leave them worse off. This ridiculous situation helps only to dampen aspiration while increasing dependency in the benefits system as a whole. In addition, hard-working, taxpaying families, who are feeling the squeeze in these difficult economic times, should not subsidise the small but still significant number of people in our society who see the welfare system as a career choice. That must stop. By annually capping benefits, withdrawing support from those who refuse to work and increasing the financial incentives for those who do work, the Bill includes specific measures that will make work pay."

 


And then there were those who explained why it is that they particularly welcome the Bill:

Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West)
"This piece of legislation is a seminal Bill. It is one of the reasons that I hold the politics that I do. I am a Wolverhampton Member and Wolverhampton South West is a no-nonsense constituency, full of decent, hard-working folk who say it as it is and always wear their heart on their sleeve. The sentiment that has been repeatedly expressed to me is that the Bill has been a long time coming. Its central ethos is that work always pays. I shall sum it up by recalling my personal experience of my father.

"My father came to this country with less than £5 in his pocket and no idea where he would sleep that night. He took that risk not only because he wanted to live in a country that had choice, freedom and opportunity, but because he wanted to work. Within 48 hours of his arrival, someone tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Do you know you can actually claim benefits?" That was anathema to him; it was not even in his mind. He came with the ethos of working, and working is what he has always done. That story has been replicated by those of scores of my relatives, who came over to work and had the ethos of working hard at their core.

"I have actually been poor. I was brought up in poverty. I say this to Opposition Members-to all Members, actually: there is no nobility in poverty. It is something one strives to escape from. I went to a state school. My friends divided into two camps: those who had the ambition to move on, and those who, even then, in the late '70s and early '80s, would tell me to my face that they envisaged that the rest of their life would be on benefits, and that they were quite happy to live that way. The Bill, through its ethos of making work pay, tackles that problem head-on."

Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove)
"This Bill is important for many reasons, and it goes to the heart of the kind of society that we want to be. Do we want to be an opportunity society that rewards people for hard work, believes in equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome, and believes that we should have a welfare state that stands behind people to cushion them if they fall, not one that stands in front of people and stops them progressing and reaching their ambitions and aspirations? That is the essence of the Bill. If one believes in an opportunity society, one believes in this Bill.

"The universal credit is the most important part of the Bill, because it will ensure that everyone is better off in work than out of work. The taper relief, at 65%, strikes a good balance between budgetary pressures and giving the right incentive to work. However, I hope that in the longer term, Ministers will look again at that rate with a view to reducing it. I caution that in implementing the universal credit, Ministers should look carefully at the IT systems, because they will have to work with other agencies, including Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. Many previous Governments have bungled new IT systems in terms of time or cost. This therefore has to be considered carefully. So does the passporting of benefits, to ensure that the nature of the taper relief is maintained and there are no cliff edges."

Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock)
"I firmly endorse the benefit cap. Far too many of my constituents work hard and pay taxes, only to see their near neighbours enjoy a comfortable lifestyle living on benefits. I also welcome the obligations placed on claimants. As condition of receiving benefit, people should surely do everything they reasonably can to find work. For many people that will be empowering. For someone who has been in the same job for many years and suddenly finds themselves workless, the loss of confidence can be considerable. The support that they will get from the Work programme to gain new skills will help them and give them the confidence to go back into the world of work. That will be empowering.

"That is equally true of incapacity benefit claimants. Because a claimant is no longer able to do the job that they were doing before does not mean that they cannot retrain and do a different job. The support they will get from the Work programme will enable them to do that, and it will be empowering. The Bill is radical. It is brave, and it is necessary if we are to tackle the endemic culture of benefit dependency that exists in our country."

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth)
"I like the conditionality in the Bill, which underscores the principle of the contract that people in our society have. It is built on the clear and settled view that as British people, we are all responsible for ourselves and our families. Just as importantly, it is also our responsibility to care for our neighbours and our communities to the extent that we can. We are each responsible for doing all we can to provide for our own needs and those of our family and community.

"Our social contract is also built on an understanding that not all people are able to look after themselves at all times throughout their lives. Sometimes individuals and their families need emotional and practical support to meet their needs, including financial support. That contract has made us a progressive society. However, over the course of my lifetime, as overall standards of living have risen considerably, I have seen well-intentioned but unwelcome consequences of the development of that fundamental social contract into a welfare state. For too many people it has created a culture of dependency and robbed them of a sense of worth, well-being and good health. It has also brought into question the fundamental principle of fairness that is so characteristic of Britishness."

Priti Patel (Witham)
"I make no apologies for viewing the welfare system as a safety net. Welfare should be available to help those who have fallen on hard times and need support in getting through difficulties, illnesses or disabilities. However, this has not always been the case. Many Members who have spoken in the debate recognise that our constituents have gone through many bureaucratic processes, obstacles and hurdles in getting the support to which they are entitled. They face a lot of stress and anxiety in going through appeals processes and tribunals, and many go through terrible trauma, which is why they end up in our surgeries, when we have to intervene. The reforms outlined in the Bill must therefore ensure that such mistakes, bureaucracy, regulation and hurdles are reduced, and, importantly, that we restore confidence in the system to support those who are in need.

"There must be three components in any programme of measures introduced by Government to get Britain working, take people away from benefits and get them back into employment. First, we need pro-business policies that promote growth, enterprise and wealth creation. Secondly, strong measures need to be in place to get people into work and to complement the measures in the Bill to reduce benefit dependency. I therefore welcome the introduction of the Work programme, which is long overdue. It is not covered by this Bill, but has to be viewed alongside it as a complementary measure. The Secretary of State should be congratulated on promoting the role of welfare-to-work providers in getting people into work, and recognising the opportunities that they will create for the unemployed. That is the best approach to take, and the sooner the Work programme is fully functional, the better. Finally, there must be a benefits system that is fair both to taxpayer and to those who need benefits. I therefore welcome the measures in the Bill that will get people out of the benefits trap by making work pay and removing complexity with the introduction of the universal credit."

The Bill got its Second Reading by 308 votes to 20, with only a handful of Labour, Green and Nationalist MPs voting against it, after a Labour reasoned amendment failed to be passed.

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