One topic has really been dominating the headlines in the last week or so. In the newspapers, on the radio, on the television, the changes to Britain’s welfare system are being discussed – everyone’s talking about them.
It’s understandable. The redesign of the benefits people receive, the reassessment of who gets them, and the changes to the way they’re received are genuinely radical steps and are right at the heart of the Government’s programme to help get the country get back on track. Over the course of this month, a cap on the total amount of benefit that working-age people (16-64) can receive will be introduced, changes to Housing Benefit will come in, a new benefit called the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) will replace Disability Living Allowance and the Universal Credit will be gradually phased in to replace a range of other current benefits.
As so often happens, however, the reasons for this are in danger of being lost in translation. Instead of hearing explanations for why changes are being brought in, we’ve been hearing a polarised debate about everything except the fairness and affordability aspects.
The status quo is unsustainable. Simple facts speak for themselves. Under the previous Labour Government, spending on Housing Benefit doubled over a ten year period and hit £20 billion in 2009/2010.
While money is in such short supply we have to put this right and make sure that the support we can give is directed at the most vulnerable.
That is what these reforms look to do - to bear down on the cost and to reintroduce an element of fairness to a system that has spiralled out of all control. They are about making sure that people who need support are actually given the help they need. And crucially, they are about ending the unaffordable cycle of welfare dependency created by the last Labour Government which trapped so many people in poverty and fostered a culture of entitlement.
With Housing Benefit in particular, the aim is that we put an end to the situation where some of those on benefits are living in houses that ordinary taxpayers could only dream of living in. This is a perfectly sensible thing to do. Labour used to agree – a similar reform of Housing Benefit was a Labour Party manifesto commitment at the last election!
When I’m out and about knocking on doors across Ealing and Acton, people agree and have been overwhelmingly positive about the reforms. They like the idea that it pays to work and that those on benefit will not be able to afford better houses than those in low-paid work can afford. This is only fair on taxpayers.
Coupled with this package of new measures is an important change that will reduce the amount of tax we all pay, announced by the Chancellor in last month’s Budget. The amount people can earn before paying income tax - the personal allowance - will rise to £10,000 in April 2014. This tax cut will benefit an estimated 45,814 people in my constituency, Ealing Central and Acton, with 431 people lifted out of income tax altogether. It’s another measure which delivers real support for people who want to work hard and get on.
I’ve arranged for a Government Minister and one of the Senior Civil Servants responsible for bringing in the reforms to come to Ealing later this month and talk about the changes to a range of local community groups and charities. It’s really important that everybody is aware of the reasons we’re introducing these reforms.