by Daphne Liddle
THE CON-DEM Coalition government faced a series of defeats in the House of Lords on its welfare Bill following attacks from bishops, former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown and former Tory Cabinet members Lord Mackay, who all challenged different aspects of the Bill.
The right-wing press and other media in this country are backing Cameron with a campaign to demonise benefit claimants as “scroungers” that has succeeded to some extent in winning popular support for the cuts.
Yet hundreds of thousands of workers and people who think of themselves as middle class are facing the very real possibility that at any time, through Cameron’s policy of cuts and the failing economy, they could overnight find themselves among the ranks of the jobless and homeless “scroungers”.
Meanwhile the City fat cats are rolling in ever more money, dodging taxes and causing havoc in the economy.
The Government intended to cap total household benefits at £26,000-a-year for working age claimants. Cameron argued that £26,000-a-year is the average wage and those depending on benefits should not get more than this, whatever their circumstances.
The cap includes Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Support, and Employment Support Allowance, Housing Benefit, Child Benefit, Child Tax Credit and Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit.
A few benefits are exempted: Working Tax Credit, Disability Living Allowance or its successor Personal Independence Payment, Constant Attendance Allowance and war widows and widowers.
The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, the Rt Rev John Packer, pushed through a successful amendment that would exclude child benefit from the overall cap.
He said: “Child benefit is a universal benefit. I believe that it’s wrong to see it as being a welfare benefit. It’s a benefit which is there for all children, for the bringing up of all children and to say that the only people who cannot have child benefit are those whose welfare benefits have been capped seems to me to be a quite extraordinary argument.”
This amendment was passed by 252 votes to 237. The Government claimed this would make the cap pointless as it would raise the effective cap to £50,000.
Currently child benefit is a non-means tested benefit paid to all families with children. The Government argues that paying this to wealthy families is unfair.
But making the benefit means-tested would multiply administrative costs many times over and discourage eligible claimants. It is more economical to pay it to all and recover from wealthy families through income tax.
The benefit cap would save the Government £290 million a year but would cut the income of 67,000 families by £83-a-week. The Government claims this will drive people to find jobs — at a time when unemployment is rising dramatically.
A Labour amendment would have exempted people who would be considered “threatened with homelessness” under the cap — and obliged to be rehoused by their local council, pointing out that in the long-run this would cost taxpayers more. But that amendment fell.
Paddy Ashdown voted in favour of the bishops’ amendment, breaking ranks with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg for the first time and raising the possibility of further rebellions for Lib-Dem backbenchers in the Commons.
Ashdown said he would vote for the amendment again if the £26,000 cap was restored to the Bill in the Commons. Other Liberal Democrat peers also voiced concerns about the Bill.
And then Lord MacKay, former Lord Chancellor in Margaret Thatcher’s government, joined the rebels and posted an amendment to the measures to force single parents, who want the Child Support Agency to enforce maintenance payments from their absent former partners, to pay a fee up front for the service and have 12 per cent of the money recovered deducted to pay for the process.
The Government claims this will put pressure on divorced and separated couples to reach independent voluntary agreements on maintenance.
But it is more likely to let absconding parents off scot free, knowing their former partners are too poor to pay the CSA to chase them.
Almost all those who access the CSA are women chasing errant fathers to pay for their child’s care.
“This is about fairness,” said McKay. “It’s unfair for a lady who has done all she can for the chap to come along and pay and then get told here’s a charge and you don’t get in without paying. After all, this is money for the child.”
If the Government really wanted to reduce the cost of benefits there are measures they could take to do this fairly: stop cutting jobs and start creating some; cap rents, not housing benefits; build more council homes to let at reasonable rents — especially in inner cities; cap domestic fuel prices — and raise wages generally.