The Tories misunderstand what responsibility between government and citizen means 
Amidst reports of their new relationship with the Tories, there is a test of whether the Liberal Democrats will be serious about starting to stand up for their traditions.
This week the Commons debates crucial changes to disability benefits that risk pushing thousands into poverty, and tomorrow disabled people gather in Westminster to make the point in person. They will echo an idea I have heard all over Britain.
Over the last few months, Labour’s shadow ministers have been campaigning nationwide – but we’ve also just finished the first stage of the biggest listening exercise we have ever undertaken with the British public, as part of the first stage of our policy review.
It’s crystal clear that Ed Miliband’s arguments about the cost of living and the tough challenge now confronting the next generation have struck a chord. And there’s something more we have heard. The thirst for a re-newed ethic of responsibility.
Britain’ remains very firmly a live and let live country. This is not about the nation’s private life. It’s about our public life. Our responsibilities to each other, in politics, business and community life.
It’s about the responsibility of political leaders to set a responsible course for reducing the deficit, help provide jobs and keep communities safe. It touches on sensible, responsible immigration control. But it encircles too the responsibility of each of us to be a good and peaceful neighbour, a good parent, to get a job if we can and pay our taxes like everyone else.
But it’s also about one thing more. Our responsibility to look after each other. And this where is the government’s welfare reform plans are starting to go wrong.
I feel very strongly that Labour’s reform of the welfare state did the right things. We got more people into work than ever before and helped make sure work paid. We said no-one could have a life on benefits if they could take a job, and changed the law to introduce tests for people on incapacity benefit.
But the job of welfare reform doesn’t stop. The challenges just change. The economy never stands still. The pattern of life moves on. The nature of the risks we confront evolves all the time.
Right now we should be helping to cut the deficit by cutting welfare. But we should be cutting welfare by getting the unemployed into work, not pushing disabled people into poverty.
Yet I am afraid this is now the almost inevitable consequence of what the government is now proposing.
This week, there are crunch votes in the Commons on reform of Disability Living Allowance. We support reform. But the government is proposing a big bang approach that slices 20% of the bill without one coherent thought about how the change will happen. Cut now, ask later. Even the most severely disabled will be put through a new test, and then be re-tested again even if they are blind and will never regain their sight. The cost of this new regime? £675 million.
The changes to Employment Support Allowance are so severe that some-one still recovering from cancer will have their contributory benefit cut after just a year. The abolition of the DLA mobility component will leave disabled people as prisoners in their care home. And the halving of disability premium for disabled children risks punishing some of the most vulnerable people in our country. Add to this picture, huge front-loaded cuts to social care services and we have an agenda that will push disabled people into poverty.
How have the Tories got it so wrong on so basic a responsibility? By misunderstanding what responsibility between government and citizen should looks like.
They do not believe we have to match the responsibilities of government with the responsibility of citizens. For example, the responsibility on each of us to get a job and pay tax, comes with a responsibility on government to help get people back to work, protect the vulnerable and offer each of us something back when we need a hand-up in life. That’s why we all pay in.
But, it’s not just on protecting the vulnerable where the government has it wrong.
Right now, one of the government’s back-to-work schemes for young people costs less than the DWP spends on stationery. That is patently wrong. The government should focus its new work programme on getting young people into jobs.
But nor does the government’s vision for a new welfare state say anything about how we restore a sense of a ‘something for something’ deal to deal with the challenges of the future.
Today, most people don’t feel they will get out as much as they put in and the risks we all face are very different now to the days of Sir William Beveridge. People on higher incomes face bigger risks of unemployment. More and more are self-employed. Young families face a new ‘care crunch’ with the costs of child care and social care. The ‘savings life-cycle’ now has to cope with tuition fees, big home deposits, and then a pension. These are the new challenges that welfare reform has to contend with.
The Tories welfare reform plan is stripping back the welfare state to a safety net so thin, that even the disabled will fall through. The Liberal Democrats are proud of their welfare state traditions. This week they have the chance to stand up for them. It’s a first test of the new relationship with their partners in government.