Time to reward hard work over dependency on state
No amount of tinkering will fix the welfare system. Only root and branch reform will work, says Owen Paterson
I am meeting Northern Ireland church leaders with Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud today to discuss the most radical changes to welfare for 60 years.
Our objectives are clear. We are determined to end the welfare dependency that leaves many families trapped in poverty. We need to challenge the 'something-for-nothing' culture that grew up under Labour.
Throughout the UK, around five million people are currently on out-of-work benefits. In Northern Ireland, one-in-10 of the population is on disability living allowance.
The previous government shifted billions of pounds around the tax and benefits system in an attempt to address poverty. Yet this had the perverse effect of trapping thousands of families on benefits, while income inequality increased to its highest-ever level.
Every working family in the UK is paying £3,000 a year to support this benefits system. This is unsustainable.
The entrenched poverty and worklessness that we see in too many parts of our country is bad for benefit recipients, bad for communities and bad for society as a whole. It frequently leads to higher levels of debt, family breakdown, alcohol and drug addiction and crime.
There is nothing moral about abandoning people to a lifetime on benefits. Yet that is precisely what the current welfare system too often encourages.
As an MP, I constantly see cases of people who want to work, but who would be much worse off if they took a job.
No amount of tinkering will deal with this. Only root-and-branch reform will do.
So, from 2013, we will introduce one benefit, a Universal Credit. It will combine jobseekers' allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit, working tax credit, income support and employment support allowance. The system will be hugely simplified.
And the Universal Credit will make work pay, particularly for the poorest. It will ensure that people are consistently and transparently better-off for each hour they work and for every pound they earn.
People in work tend to live longer and are better able to provide for their children. So there's a moral imperative to what we are doing.
The state will also introduce a welfare cap. It's not fair that households on out-of-work benefits should receive a greater income from the state than the average working household receives in wages.
So a cap, linked to average weekly earnings, will limit the amount of benefits a household can receive.
We are reforming housing benefit, withdrawing child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers, replacing disability living allowance, cracking down on fraud and bringing in a new claimant contract for all those on benefits.
These changes will make the system fairer and more transparent. Those too sickto work will continue to receive unconditional support from the state, as they should.
I understand the concerns of those who ask where new jobs are to be found. That is why we have embarked on the largest welfare-to-work programme the UK has seen since the 1930s, replacing Labour's patchwork of ineffective initiatives.
Our work programme currently operates in England and I have met Executive ministers to see how it might be applied in Northern Ireland. We are also looking at ways to boost the private sector here.
The Government's reforms have been subject to much misrepresentation. Far from the "savage cuts" that have been portrayed, the Welfare Bill will actually rise in the short term, although we should see significant savings down the road.
Our plans are fair, compassionate, morally justified and in the best long-term interests of our country. They should be welcomed.