Steve Webb MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Work & Pensions Secretary

Q. What inspired you to become an MP?

In the ‘80s and early ‘90s I was working as an economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies thinktank, looking at issues relating to poverty and social policy. I tracked the gap between rich and poor as it widened and watched more and more people falling into poverty due to government policies. On a personal level, when the Conservatives won the 1992 election, I was so dismayed that I felt that I could no longer report what was happening from the outside. I wanted to get on the inside and start influencing policy and changing the direction that the country was going. I joined the Liberal Democrats as I believed that their philosophy best reflected my own, and was selected for the seat of Northavon near Bristol in 1995. I won the seat from the Tories in 1997.

Q. A lot of vocal criticism has been expressed organisations such as Mind about the Government’s welfare reform proposals as failing to understand the nature of mental health problems and the support need? What is your opinion on these proposals?

I have been highly critical of the Government’s heavy handed attempts to move people off benefits in bulk. The result is that the new Work Capability Assessment for the Employment and Support Allowance has been deeming virtually everyone fit for full time “work”, regardless of their underlying conditions, which may fluctuate or require specialised support.
Liberal Democrats believe that people must be supported back into work where this is suitable for them, and at their own pace, but we certainly do not believe in coercion. We favour a ‘partial capacity benefit’ that would allow people to do some work when they were able to, without losing benefit entitlement, as a much fairer way of supporting those with fluctuating conditions, ‘invisible’ disabilities such as autism, and mental health conditions .

Q. What is your opinion on the welfare reform proposals of the Conservatives?

The few policies that the Conservatives have so far revealed for the next Parliament are a clear demonstration of their tendency to slash benefits and cut services. Their welfare reform proposals assume that unemployment is simply about the work shy claiming incapacity benefit and nothing to do with the recession, and I am deeply concerned by their gung-ho attitude towards benefit sanctions, particulary for those with drug and alcohol addictions.
Q. During the time that New Labour has been in office poverty has increased amongst working age adults? In your opinion what needs to be done to reverse this worrying trend?

Despite Labour’s mantra that ‘work pays’, a recent study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that work is not a guaranteed route out of poverty.

Part of the problem is that the benefits system cannot keep up when people keep moving in and out of work. Jobcentre Plus is far quicker to stop someone’s benefits – including housing and council tax benefit – when they find a job than it is to reinstate them when that job comes to an end. This system needs to be reviewed so that there is more flexibility in the system for people doing temporary, part-time jobs. A partial capacity benefit would also help.

Labour’s flagship tax credit system is constantly making overpayments and underpayments so that more than two million families have been overpaid their awards at least once, and more than a hundred thousand have been overpaid more than three times. This means that, far from offering stability, families find themselves on a financial rollercoaster, never knowing if or when the Government might demand their money back. As well as restricting the number of people entitled to tax credits so that higher earners no longer receive them, we will return to a system of six month fixed payments to remove the fluctuation and uncertainty.

However, poverty goes beyond income. People need opportunities to allow them to play their full part in society. We need to do more to tackle educational inequalities, get ‘hard to reach’ groups back into employment; deal with the dramatic shortages of affordable housing; and strengthen the pensions and benefits safety net.

Q. What would define a Liberal Democrat government in terms of its approach to Welfare Reform?

We champion the dignity and wellbeing of the individual, and do not believe that those who have mental health problems or have been out of work for many years should simply be strong-armed into employment. The DWP’s own research suggests that such threats and sanctions are ineffective in forcing people to change their behaviour long-term. Instead, positive incentives to encourage people to engage with treatment have been shown to work better, and they also offer dignity to people who may be at their lowest ebb in terms of hope and self-esteem.

We want to see jobcentres that are able genuinely to tailor their support to meet the different needs of the individuals passing through their doors. We would focus on getting young people into work and have put together a package to offer them the support that they need to gain new skills, qualifications and work experience.

Liberal Democrats are committed to fighting poverty and promoting opportunity to encourage people from all walks of life to fulfil their potential.

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