“An ideologically motivated attempt to alter the very nature of the welfare state?”

A fascinating discussion about the Welfare Benefits up-rating bill (which can be found here) took place on 5th March (many thanks to Adrian Sinfield for making me aware of it).

Baroness Lister began the discussion by ‘moving an amendment’ (I think I’ve got that right) to place a duty on the secretary of state to assess ‘the adequacy of the social security benefits’ and the principles by which they would be up-rated, in the future. Baroness Listers’ amendment is, she notes, partly inspired by a contribution from the Bishop of Leicester at a previous reading of the bill. He suggested that the bill ‘looks like part of an ideologically motivated attempt to alter the very nature of the welfare state’. [Official Report, 11/2/13; col. 469.]

The discussion that follows is a fascinating account of the adequacy of benefits (‘It is a misconception that benefit rates in the UK are based on some regular, systematic estimate of minimum needs’ and ‘no government has … attempted any official empirical study of adequacy’), how one might measure adequacy (‘I do not believe that minimum income standards provide an appropriate comparator when considering the adequacy of benefit rates‘) and what the government sees benefits as being ‘for’ – Baroness Stowell is obliged, after an intervetion by Baroness Lister, to clarify her statement that ‘it has never been the intention to alleviate poverty through benefit payment’.

One particularaly interesting point in relation to the discussion is Baroness Stowell’s attempt to suggest that because ‘Minimum income standards are informed by public perception so can change even if prices do not’, they should not be used in relation to the setting of benefits. However, as many people will be aware, the recent ‘better’ measures of child poverty consultation was very explicit in it’s desire to ‘reflect public opinion’ in the creation of a new measure. I can’t be the only one to spot a slight contradiction here….

Baroness Sherlock of Durham makes a number of interesting contributions and moves an amendment that the government should publish a report assessing the impact of the bill on the number of children in poverty. She states that the reason for this is simple:

It is to force the Government to face up to the consequences of their actions and to come clean about the impact of these measures on child poverty. I am sure that the Minister is closely familiar with the coalition agreement. I know that I read it regularly, so I expect no less of him. My favourite bit is paragraph 14, the first bullet point of which reads: “We will maintain the goal of ending child poverty in the UK by 2020”. That is rather lovely and has a beauty in its simplicity. I will repeat it: “We will maintain the goal of ending child poverty in the UK by 2020”.

Again, a fascinating discussion follows about the impact of coalition policies on poverty, what constitutes poverty and what its effects are. In relation to the recent consultation and echoing a request, articulated by Baroness Lister, by Professor Adrian Sinfield for responses to the consultation to ‘be made publicly available so the government’s own summary of the views can be subject to scrutiny’ the following exchange takes place, including an ‘assurance  by Lord Newby:

Lord Newby: The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked a number of questions about the work that we are doing on defining poverty and on the consultation. The consultation is finished. She is quite right that a number of people have been very critical of what the Government are proposing and we are now considering how we respond to those criticisms. It is not the case that the Government have made up their mind about the outcome and are going to ignore everything that has been said-that would be ridiculous. I can give the noble Baroness an assurance that we are analysing all the submissions, of which there have been a number, and we will produce our response to the consultation in the summer

Baroness Lister of Burtersett: I am sure that the Minister is about to say this, but the assurance that I was seeking was that all the responses would be published on the web. I do not question the fact that the Government are analysing them all-I am sure that they would not ignore any of them-but the public need to know what people were saying about it.

Lord Newby: I am happy, I think, to give that assurance. I say “I think” only because I have not talked to officials. That is the standard practice and, unless somebody for a reason that I cannot immediately think of has said that they do not want their comments to be published, I would expect the department to publish all the comments and representations that we have received. I want to clarify a few matters that have been put to us on several occasions by noble Lords. First, the Government are committed to the Child Poverty Act; secondly, we are committed to eradicating child poverty; and, thirdly, we strongly believe that income matters and will remain a central part of any new measures of child poverty. Our discussion is about what else one needs to do both to measure and deal with child poverty so that all children have a better opportunity when they are living on very modest means.

There are many more insightful comments and I could go on, but it really is worth having a look yourself. Here is the link again. I think we have room for just one more comment – a very powerful one about the current direction of travel with regards to child poverty figures – by Baroness Sherlock, with emphases added by me:

Baroness Sherlock: “It is also worth coming back to the idea that it is not just about money-but it is also not not about money, a point made very clearly by my noble friend Lady Farrington. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, said that the fact that the Labour Government did not meet their target for child poverty reduction means that the measure does not work. I do not think that it means that at all. I pick up again a point that the Minister made. I fully accept that no forecast is a precise measure and no measure is precise, but one reason for keeping a long-term target of 2020 is that what really matters is direction of travel. Over time, how does the income of the poorest relate to the income of the country as a whole? On that, I am proud that our Government lifted 1.1 million children out of poverty. If I had to stand up and say that we had pushed 1 million children into poverty, I would be ashamed of that, and I am very glad that I am not in that position.”

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