Monday, 13 February 2012

Gone to Sheffield

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t believe that any family should be better off on benefits than in going to work. That is one reason why Labour introduced Working Families Tax Credit – to give additional support to families on low wages. Together with increases in Child Benefit, it was one of the major reasons why child poverty dropped dramatically under the last government.

In cash terms, relatively few families are better off on benefits than from working. The biggest group are those living in private tenancies in very high rent areas – mainly inner-London. Despite all the government’s claims to the contrary, market rents have continued to rise far in excess of inflation.

But, instead of tackling unjustifiable rent increases, the government has decided to address the issue through a benefit cap. What they have forgotten – but what is shown in their own statistics – is that a high proportion of those affected are not permanently in receipt of benefits, but are families in short-term jobs, who go in and out of benefit.

All this makes the government’s decision to cut Working Families Tax Credit look ridiculous. Official figures show that nationally 212,000 households, containing 470,000 children, could lose the £3,870-a-year credit as a result. Thousands of working families in our area will be hard hit.

But, the cuts in WFTC are not the only ones being implemented over this next 12 months. I think most families have not realized the scale of the impact on them.

Last week, there was a major debate and a series of votes on some of these other cuts. They included cutting the housing benefit of families who are deemed to have a spare room – so grandparents are effectively penalized for having a bedroom where their grandchildren can stay with them, and cuts to employment support allowances – where those who are unable to work because of their treatment for cancer are going to be badly hit.

Now it has been revealed that Liberal Democrat Children’s Minister is totally opposed to these cuts. But, in what was a three-line whip – that is, every MP is told to be present to vote – she was absent. We now learn that David Cameron gave her special permission to visit Sheffield on that day, so that she could avoid the vote. Of course, voting against the government in line with her beliefs would have required her resignation. She chose a Ministerial salary instead.