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Monday, September 08, 2014

Liberal Democrats seek distance on welfare reform

Having initiated a move towards reforming the bedroom tax last week, the Liberal Democrats have now stepped into a wider debate on welfare reform with a clear attempt to put some distance between themselves and the Tories on welfare.

As with the bedroom tax, the party is relying on an assessment of the impact of how reforms are working so far, as an evident base on which to shift their position. Yesterday's Observer reports that a motion to the Liberal Democrat conference in October states: "Benefit sanctions are hitting those in most need of support, with the 14-day rule leaving people penniless and having to visit food banks.

"There is a growing backlog of assessments for employment support allowance claims and migrations from previous disability benefits, alongside long-standing concerns identified in previous conference motions over the quality of such assessments, notwithstanding the annual reviews which have called for improvements.

"Some system of discretionary hardship payments is required to assist those most in crisis to prevent them from falling into abject poverty."

It also calls for a review of universal credit implementation to address poor administration, information management and data quality issues as well as cliff edges that may disincentivise increased working hours, or leave insufficient childcare or other basic needs support.

The motion also calls for reform of the hardship fund to provide immediate loans to people who have benefit sanctions, which will be repaid, and administered through local government. It says there should be a "different approach towards conditions and sanctions so that they are only used as a last resort in a small number of cases where all other approaches to engagement have failed".

It suggests as a starting point that the DWP should immediately implement the recommendations of the Oakley review that called for a revision of the way the benefit sanctions are imposed in the work programme.

It also calls for the "introduction of a single assessment process across different disability benefits, based on real world tests of capability and functionality, with better allocation into different groups and greater onus and incentives on assessment contractors to collect relevant evidence from health professionals working with those claimants, so that assessment decisions can be right first time and avoid reconsideration and appeal costs."

All of this is very welcome especially if it finds it way into the manifesto. It also chimes with the  mood of the public, who want to see welfare reform but also want the process to be fair and victimless. That is a very difficult demand to deliver on.
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