OK, we've dealt with housing benefit, now what about the rest? I have absolutely no problem with trying to get people off benefit, I have absolutely no problem with bringing to book those who are abusing the system, what I have a problem with is the catch all approach. So for those who are genuinely unable to work because of a disability or an illness (did anyone hear that poor desperate man with terminal lung cancer on the phone to Gordon Brown on 5 Live during the campaign, who kept getting forced to go for assessments?) to include them in our attempts to catch the rogues is totally unfair and unproductive. It's a bit like expecting us all to cough up for the tax dodgers, don't see quite the effort going into calling them to account.
The idea that there is enough slack in the system to cut benefits because after all, "we're all in this together" is a total nonsense. What this budget will cost me is a reasonable meal out once a month, what this budget will cost those on benefits will be choosing between eating and keeping warm. Apologies to those of you who have heard this story before, but I will never forget my meeting with the Children's Commissioner in Northern Ireland last year, when we had had that exceptionally cold spell in February. She told the story of a young 17 year old who had come out of the care system and was living on her own. She had gone to her social worker to beg that instead of having £20 a week in food vouchers she could just have £10 in vouchers and the other £10 in cash – because she said "I'd rather be hungry than cold". This was a young woman who had not had the best start in life but was doing her best to try and get a job and make a future for herself despite everything being against her (and let's not forget care leavers are far more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population).
And the moves on DLA are also distressing. Bad enough that you are suffering a disability or debilitating illness, now we will make you jump through all sorts of hoops, even though it will cost us more to do this than we will save! The fact is that for some illnesses (like ME) folk have good and bad days. For those with serious mental illness, they may have long periods of being well, punctuated by crises when they just can't work. Far better to find ways of supporting employment for these people when they are well surely? My sister is one such case. At the moment she is as well as she has been for several years – she is happily volunteering in the church coffee shop and is so appreciated they want to employ her to run it. This would be great and would help so much with her recovery, but we and she know she couldn't take the stress of actually being in charge. But if the church were able to have some back up support, to be adaptable enough to have contingency plans for the days/weeks when she may not be able to work, then this would be a real possibility. And of course, as we all know, work can be a real boost to someone's mental health and sense of well-being and self esteem. If we are serious about enabling people to work, then we have to be serious and far more creative in our thinking about how to support them. Sadly it seems this is not part of the package.
My one tiny spark of hope in all this is that having Steve Webb in DWP will perhaps help ultimately in securing a more humane approach to benefits in general and that having other ministers and MPs like our own brave Lynne Featherstone, who are also anxious about these proposals, may ultimately lead to some sensible amendments. It's a tiny spark, but maybe one that together, we can fan into a flame?