AS I write this, I am in Westminster waiting to vote on the Welfare Reform Bill, which is a piece of proposed legislation put forward by the Government to change provision on benefits.
How the country provides benefits for people considered to need help, the level of those benefits and for how long people can continue to claim those benefits naturally exercise a lot of people.
I think I share the view of most people in the town: the welfare state is an important symbol of our country’s decency and concern for society as a whole, especially the vulnerable.
If a person finds themselves out of work, or is sick or disabled, I think the state should play a part in assisting them in the costs of living. I wouldn’t want to go back to a situation, which we certainly had in the past, where people starved or were sent to the workhouse once they found themselves out of work or became old.
But, equally, I wouldn’t want to see people or families living on benefits for years at a time, or across the generations. There are a number of reasons for this: first, because people on benefits have a lower standard of living, and I believe everybody should have the opportunity to improve their quality of life.
I also think, good old-fashioned puritan that I am, that hard work is good for the soul. I was brought up by my parents and grandparents to feel a sense of achievement from a job well done or to feel satisfied at the end of a hard day’s work. I’m not suggesting for one minute that my job is hard physical work like a manual worker or someone going down the pit. But I do feel better about myself when I have worked hard.
I also live in the real world and I know full well that people often feel very aggrieved when they see people who flout the system.
There are many hard working people in Hartlepool, who rise early in the morning, often have two or three jobs to make ends meet, go to bed late at night exhausted and don’t ask for any handouts.
They often see people living in the same street who don’t work but seem to have a great standard of living.
I think often benefit scroungers are portrayed in the media as being far more widespread than they actually are, but they do exist and the whole notion of the welfare state breaks down when hard working taxpayers feel that their taxes are misused.
This is the context in which the Government is bringing forward its Welfare Reform Bill.
The House of Lords has inflicted a series of defeats on the legislation and now that today it has passed back to the Commons I will be voting to agree with the Lords.
This is because I don’t think the Bill tackles the problem properly. I believe unemployment is the biggest problem facing Hartlepool at the moment and the Bill does not contain one single provision to help people into work.
It seems ludicrous to me that the Government cuts demand, reduces expenditure and forces unemployment up to its highest level for 18 years, and then cuts the level of support available for people who have been made jobless.
I want to see the Government concentrating on creating jobs. The Bill is also mean-spirited and vindictive towards people who are the most vulnerable in society and who are suffering from the most horrific illnesses.
It cuts off Employment and Support Allowance after just 12 months for people recovering from cancer and mental health problems.
It also cuts in half the support for disabled children. In a supposedly civilised society, that surely can’t be right.
I don’t oppose the need for welfare reform.
But this is not the right type of legislation, and the Government’s priorities, in the week when it agreed to Stephen Hester’s bonus of nearly £1m at the same time as taking support from disabled children, seem simply wrong.