This post is written by Paul Hindley, Member of the Social Liberal Forum and the Liberal Democrats from Blackpool, and recently graduated from Lancaster University.
A few days ago, Parliament voted on the second reading of a bill, to place a 1% cap on the rise of welfare benefits. A 1% benefits cap will hit the income of the poorest and most vulnerable people in British society. According to the BBC and the DWP, by 2015, over 5 million households could be £150 worse off annually, with a further 2 million households being over £250 worse off each year. That may only amount to a few pounds a week, but at this time of austerity a few pounds a week could have a very real impact on the budgets of poor families. The benefits cap could put into hardship, those families who are on the edge of poverty. This also fails to take into account the cuts to the social services that many poor people rely on and the rising price of food.
Although Britain currently faces many economic difficulties, it cannot be right that we balance the books on the backs of the poorest. This policy will directly take money away from those who most need it. What is almost as bad as this policy is the discourse that surrounds it. The notion of “shirkers versus strivers” is deplorable. It smacks of social division and only seeks to vilify those who fall on tough times. People who claim benefits should not be the subject of our vilification, but of our compassion.
The Liberal Democrats should have no time for any policy that actively seeks to make the poor poorer in real terms. As the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution says; the “Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard” a society where no one is “enslaved by poverty.” We Liberal Democrats should also not forget our historical commitments to social justice. It was after all the social liberal, William Beveridge who first outlined the Welfare State in 1942.
Social Liberals understand that the freedom from poverty is as important as the traditional freedoms such as the freedom to speak or the freedom to vote. It is up to Social Liberals to make the dual case, for the freedom of the individual and social justice. More often than not you cannot have one without the other. The Liberal Democrats should therefore actively try and narrow the gap between the rich and poor, it should certainly not be allowed to get any wider. A 1% benefits cap will widen that gap further. Social justice is needed now in Britain more than ever and the Liberal Democrats should champion its cause.
We must not be afraid to defend our legacy of social liberalism, which is the legacy of individuals such as William Beveridge, John Maynard Keynes and David Lloyd George. If Liberal Democrats do not stand up for the Welfare State from within government who will? A Conservative Party that has no commitment to fairness? A Labour Party confined to the opposition benches? Only the Liberal Democrats can be trusted to promote a free and socially just society. The 1% benefits cap is in itself a social injustice and the Liberal Democrats should waste no time in opposing it.