Labour backs majority of government’s welfare agenda


Labour’s new shadow work and pensions secretary has backed large sections of the coalition government’s welfare reforms, but has criticised some of its cuts to disability benefits as “not compassionate”.

In a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research, Liam Byrne suggested there would be no radical change in direction from the former Labour government’s welfare policies.

He said he would back the coalition government when it puts in place “radical welfare reform that works”.

But he warned that the government’s welfare reforms would fail if there were not enough jobs available.

He said: “Without a faster growing economy, the government’s changes won’t push people into a job. They will push them into a corner.”

Byrne said the coalition was “failing the compassion test” with some of its reforms, including removing the mobility component of disability living allowance (DLA) from most disabled people in residential care.

He said this was not compassionate or supportive but was “a punishment for people who need our help”.

And he said that cutting housing benefit by 10 per cent for all those who have been claiming jobseeker’s allowance for a year – which will affect many disabled people denied out-of-work disability benefits – was also “not compassionate” and was a “punishment”.

But Byrne said Labour agreed with more than three-quarters of the “principled and burden-sharing welfare savings and efficiencies” the government was making next year.

He said he didn’t agree with imposing a one-year time limit on people in the work-related activity group claiming “contributory” employment and support allowance (ESA) – the replacement for incapacity benefit – because it “could hit people recovering from cancer”, although he said a two-year limit “could work”.

He also backed the need for DLA reform, although he warned that if it was “driven by a top-down cuts target” it risked denying support for “those in search of a more independent life”.

The government has imposed such a target, saying it wants to cut spending on working-age DLA – and the number of working-age claimants – by 20 per cent by 2016.

The disability poverty charity Disability Alliance (DA) welcomed Labour’s apparent move “away from the simplistic tone of office” and the “helpful” recognition that there must be “genuine work opportunities” available if welfare reform was to work.

DA added: “We believe DWP must develop, in partnership with employers, sustainable employment opportunities for disabled people rather than focus on reducing benefit levels.”

10 February 2011