This is the third update on how my meeting with Jenny Willott went and, given that the meeting took place over a week ago, I’m sorry for the delay in getting this up. This was meant to be the last update but it’s grown so long that I’m going to have to do a fourth update covering what I see as the failure by Lib Dem MPs to communicate properly with the public and with members over the Welfare Reform Bill.
But in this post I just want to focus on the political dimension of what’s happening and my impression of it which I took away from the meeting.
The fundamental thing I took away from the meeting is that parliamentarians live in a completely different reality.
Now, something that I can’t emphasise enough is that the meeting did convince me that Jenny, and her researcher Giles, and the other Lib Dem MPs are still decent people at heart – they’re not supporting the welfare reform bill out of spite or callousness or disregard for the impact it’ll have. They’re trying their hardest to ameliorate the effects of the bill wherever possible but are trapped by the fact that it’s simply not possible to do that much to change the welfare reform bill.
When Jenny and Giles told me that they simply couldn’t get any more money out of the treasury to protect disability benefits – that it’s not possible to make any radical changes without fatally destabilising the coalition and doing more harm than good –they weren’t lying. They genuinely believe that and have tried their hardest but haven’t been able to get anywhere. Jenny and Giles certainly seems to have spent months looking at ways to find the money from elsewhere in the DWP but haven’t been able to and have thus come to the conclusion that it’s better to take support from those disabled people with an alternative household income than it would be to top-slice Job Seekers Allowance, for example.
But the thing to remember is that they say that because they genuinely live in a different reality to the one I live in. For them the political realities are rock solid – the Treasury refuses to give up any more money, and there’s no force on earth that can persuade the Treasury to do otherwise, and it’s simply not possible to take money from other departments – and even if it was it would only mean sacrificing money from other important projects and would also hit vulnerable people – and so the best that Lib Dems can do is to make the saving of money within each department as fair as possible while taking the opportunity to make things actively better in the areas that the coalition agreement allows us to do so in. And, in fairness, if you are forced to take money either from a severely disabled, completely crippled person, and one who is very poorly but who is possibly going to be able to re-enter work in the future and who has a partner earning at least a little money, then taking it from the latter is the least worst option – which is the position Jenny seems to find herself in.
But I don’t really believe the reality is actually like that. I mean, okay, when Jenny said that it’s not possible to find the £1.6 billion to prevent time limiting from anywhere else in the government’s budget - because it would mean tearing up the comprehensive spending review, and making the tories dig their heels in - then she’s probably right. Even if that does beg the question of why such large cuts were allowed to be made to the DWP budget in the first place. And yes, the Lib Dems are the party with less MPs and therefore will be forced, at times, to tolerate the tories being their despicable selves in some areas because the only alternative is to bring down the coalition, causing economic instability and even more misery than will be caused by the bad things the Lib Dems are forced to let through.
But that doesn’t explain why our MPs couldn’t have tried – for example, to put forwards a compromise on the time limit. To have found perhaps some of the money needed from the other departments where there are Lib Dem ministers, taking it from projects and policies which, while important, aren’t as vital as protecting the disabled and where some money can be taken without causing too much money in the long term.
I pointed out that Nick Clegg has publicly called for the abolition of higher rate tax relief for wealthy pensioners in order to pay for tax cuts for the poorest and I asked why we couldn’t have been calling for this saving to be made months ago in order to pay for preventing the time limit instead. Jenny’s response was that this wasn’t possible because pensions and tax were all within the Treasury department rather than the DWP and it wasn’t possible to take money out of one department to pay for another when the budgets for all the departments were agreed in the comprehensive spending review. But why not?
Just because that’s the convention doesn’t mean that we should abide by it. Our MPs or leadership could at least have publicly asked for it to be considered – even if the tories refused to countenance it then at least we could have held our heads up high and said we’d tried.
And if £1.6 billion is too huge a sum for that to be worth contemplating then how about something smaller? For the sake of saving the insignificant (in overall budgetary terms) sum of £11 million a year, this government is going to stop treating severely disabled children whose conditions will prevent them from ever working as having made NI contributions – a practice which originated in order to allow them to receive contributory ESA which they otherwise wouldn’t be eligible for.
Jenny said this would cause an unfair situation where disabled children could receive the higher rate from the age of 18 and would therefore receive it longer than those who became unable to work later on in life, and she apparently didn’t see anything wrong with making them rely on income-related ESA - despite the fact that this has a cut off threshold as low as a partner earning £7,500 a year and that this will financially penalise those few who are lucky enough to find a partner instead of being dependent on their parents all their lives.
But I’m afraid that I can’t see her arguments as a sufficient justification when Jenny had been saying that if they’d had the money to avoid the time limit then they would have. The fact is that stopping treating severely disabled children as having made NI contributions is just as much about saving money as the time limit is. And, while I can reluctantly accept that £1.6 billion might be impossible for the Lib Dems to find, £11 million a year over five years isn’t.
If Eric Pickles can find £250 million in his department to bring back weekly bin collections then there’s no reason that a Lib Dem minister – or Lib Dem ministers working together – couldn’t have found £55 million from their own departments in order to pay for this over the next five years until the government finances have improved. Both Jenny and Giles told me separately (Giles when he was helping me find my way to the exit after the meeting and I asked him about it again) that this simply wasn’t possible.
And that’s why I’m convinced that Jenny and other Lib Dem MPs aren’t living in the same reality as the rest of us. Because the fact is that a sum as small as £55 million could be found if the political will was there to do it. Which means that they are choosing not to put the political effort in. But these aren’t cruel or callous people, they’re MPs who entered politics to make the world a better place, who see the impact of disability and illness in their own constituencies, who might well have relatives affected by this. So they’re doing this because they genuinely believe they have no other choice.
I, and quite a few people like me, disagree. We think that it is possible to do something to at least make things a little bit better even if it might not be possible to make things completely better. That Lib Dem MPs don’t think that indicates that both us and them are living in different worlds. It might be because they live in the Westminster Bubble, with an entire culture and fundamental belief all around them that certain things can’t be done – in turn convincing people like our MPs that it’s impossible to even try. Or it could be that they’re the ones living in the real world and people like me are just naïve dreamers who keep on asking for the impossible out of a misguided belief in what the world should be like rather than what it is like. Or it could be a combination of the two.
So that’s why I’ve come to the conclusion that, though I’m sure our MPs are genuinely doing the best they can, and that they’re fundamentally decent people, I’m going to do all I can to fight them on the cuts to disability benefits.
Because, fundamentally, what is happening is just plain wrong. It is not justifiable, it is not excusable, it is not absolutely necessary, and it is not what we entered government to do.