06 DEC 2013

Simon Hart MPs thoughts upon benefits reform

It's funny how a spontaneous comment on Facebook can get picked up and played back, but that is what happened to a few words of mine about benefit reform and its impact on Pembrokeshire. And I am glad that it did.

In a thread of comments responding to the local charity PATCH I said that "no Government or Party has a monopoly of wisdom or compassion, and that none were evil either". I then thought no more about it but thanks to the Herald, I am now.

One of the things that I find frustrating about my job are the claims that there is only ever one cause of the nations concerns (them) and only one solution (us politicians?). If only it were so easy. The reform of the benefit system was largely seen as essential by all parties, but we differed on the detail. For me benefits are there for people in need; for that time when life goes wrong, when you lose your job or your health; for old age or some other unexpected hardship. They should not be a lifestyle choice, or a cosy alternative to work if work is available.

And I think it is right that the way in which benefits are handed out are as fair to the people paying for them (you and me) as they are the recipient. If that means being reassessed from time to time then so be it. This is taxpayers money and billions of pounds of it.

Did you know that if over your lifetime you earn on average £32,000 or less per year you actually take more out of the state than you put in? I didn't either, nor did I know that 30% of the UK's income tax comes from just 1% of people paying it. What this means is that every working family is spending a huge proportion of their cash on benefits for other people – we are all happy to do that if we know those benefits are vital for that person's quality of life.

By reforming the system like this we get other advantages too. Health and social problems, as well as crime can often be associated with a workless environment or extreme poverty. By changing the system to enable more people to get back to work and stay there we take huge pressure off our NHS, Police, and other services. And the numbers really are looking up. We have more jobs on offer in the region, lower unemployment and lower youth unemployment. Treatment for drug addiction is getting better (what proof?). And as for housing I see nothing fair in keeping families in overcrowded conditions if their next door neighbour has two empty spare rooms. Surely we owe it those families to make better use of our housing stock?

Nevertheless I recognise one flaw in this otherwise positive picture. How can we apply these 'one size fits all solutions' to a nation which is clearly not one size? How can we make assessments as fair for someone with a mental condition as we do for someone with a limited physical one? Or encourage people to opt for a smaller house if no such houses are available?

This is where fairness comes in and where the nucleus of the problem lies. To be honest I think the Work Capability Assessment has fallen well short of expectations, especially for mental health sufferers. I have highlighted this point in Parliament – but I support the overall aims. The spare room subsidy is perfectly fair, but I regret that we did not have a longer transition period for Councils to work within. (It is of interest that in some councils the "discretionary housing fund" - used to help those facing a spare room subsidy cut - is denied to anybody with a Sky subscription or who smokes)

And it is a source of profound concern that anyone should genuinely face a choice of feeding their families or heating their house or flat. But I support the plans to move, by lots of carrot or a tiny bit of stick, people out of a benefit-dependent lifestyle.

Here in Westminster we mix with members of other Parties much more than the press would ever have you believe. I know and respect my opposition colleagues and in the main our differences are not as pronounced as all that. Strange though it may seem, we all strive to make our home areas? that little bit better. The idea that there are any sections of society, young or old, rich or poor for whom we have nothing but hatred or contempt is simply not the case.

This is why MP's are entirely non-judgmental when it comes to our constituents. You can love us or loathe us, you can vote for 'us' or 'them' or for no one at all, but in the end we are here to represent you and to use our judgment in doing so. We don't always get it right, which is why I used those Facebook words in the first place.

Published in the Pembrokeshire Herald 6 December 2013

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Simon Hart MP
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