THE Government’s abolition of the legally binding targets on child poverty are "the final nail in the coffin for compassionate Conservatism", Stephen Timms, who chairs Christians on the Left, said on Monday.
Mr Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, led his party’s response to the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill, tabling a "reasoned amendment" to decline it a Second Reading, before eventually abstaining on the vote.
The Bill was passed by 308 to 124, even though 48 Labour MPs defied the whip and voted against it. The Liberal Democrats voted against. Their new leader, Tim Farron, described it as "unfair, unwise, and inhuman, and anything but economically necessary".
Mr Timms’s amendment affirmed "controls on and reforms to the overall costs of social security", and described the Government’s benefits cap as a "necessary change", but said that the Bill would "prevent the Government from continuing to pursue an ambition to reduce child poverty in both absolute and relative terms".
It was also critical of the proposal to reduce support for those on employment support allowance, as "an unfair approach to people who are sick and disabled".
The Bill reduces the benefits cap from £26,000 to £23,000, and £20,000 outside London, abolishes the existing child-poverty targets, and makes cuts to child tax credits, employment and support allowance, and housing benefit for young people.
It also sets a target to deliver full employment and three million new apprentices, lower rents for social housing, and increase investment in the "troubled-families" programme. Mr Timms said that the Government was "interested not in stopping child poverty, only in stopping people talking about it". His amendment was lost by 208 votes to 308.
The Child Poverty Action Group has voiced concern that "many of the proposed changes in the Bill will either push more children into poverty, or limit the Government’s ability to properly monitor levels of child poverty across the UK."
The Bishop of Doncaster, the Rt Revd Peter Burrows, accused the Government of not listening to the poor.
"Even expert organisations such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Oxfam, and Save the Children, appear to be ignored, or their views side-lined, because it doesn’t cohere with what the Government want the general public to hear and believe," he wrote on the diocesan website on Tuesday. "It can’t be right in a fair and just society that we constantly appear to pick on the most deprived and vulnerable."
Introducing the Bill, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, said that the Bill, alongside other welfare reforms, would "improve the life-chances of people and the numbers in work". He argued that households subject to the benefit cap were more than 40 per cent more likely to go into work after a year than similar uncapped households.
Writing on Conservative Way Forward website on Monday, David Burrowes, a member of Christians in Parliament and the Conservative MP for Enfield, suggested that his party could be “proud” of its record on protecting the vulnerable, pointing out that “Conservative ministers in the last Parliament increased spending on sickness and disability benefits by £7 billion, despite cutting the deficit by a third. . . We need to rebut negative perceptions of how our policies affect the vulnerable.”
But he suggested that the Government should create a separate welfare budget for the sick and disabled, "with a different name, and with different priorities, so that when we do need to make savings and get the fit-to-work unemployed back into jobs, the vulnerable and the sick aren’t terrified by point-scoring Labour politicians into believing they’re about to have their incomes snatched away.”