Comment: Cameron’s ‘moral’ welfare reform doesn’t bother with the wreckage it leaves behind

By Liam Crosby

"It doesn’t seem like they really want to help people at all."

"They have their own ideas about [these] people."

"What do they care? There's no sympathy at all."

These are quotes from users of our advice service in Canning Town, east London. For many of the people coming through our doors, it's hard not to feel frustration at the impact and delivery of the government’s welfare reforms. And it's hard not to feel like MPs are passing down drastic and often devastating changes without properly considering their impacts.

Yesterday MPs had to sit up and consider them. A Commons debate on the need for a cumulative impact assessment of welfare reforms saw MPs from across the country sharing stories of how the changes affected people in their constituencies. These stories highlighted how the combined impact of different reforms was leading to terrible situations. The woman in a coma who received a letter telling her to look for work was one of the more harrowing examples. She had been hit by changes to council tax at a time when her new experience of the work programme was already proving incredibly stressful. The combined effect was enough to get her sectioned.

By discussing such examples, MPs began to highlight the reforms' very human impacts – something not captured in the various econometric models published by think tanks and others.

The debate came a year to the day since a last-ditch opposition attempt to halt the bedroom tax and followed an opposition debate on the bedroom tax on Wednesday. It came at a crucial time for the government to defend its corner on welfare reform. The contributions of the Archbishop of Westminster, 27 other bishops and 16 further faith leaders, compelled the prime minister to set out his record on what he agreed was a "moral" issue.

Yesterday coalition MPs were, not surprisingly, quick to make the case for the morality of the reforms, arguing that they brought back the "core principles" of the welfare system and were about "making things right and proper".  Most would agree that the reforms' ultimate aims – to simplify the welfare system and "make work pay" – are laudable. But indicative evidence has suggested that, in some cases, reforms may be failing to meet their aims. Take the work programme: several studies have suggested it is failing those furthest from the labour market, including the homeless and people with drug or alcohol problems. The first in-depth evaluation of the popular benefit cap, carried out by the Chartered Institute of Housing, similarly found it was failing in its intention to encourage people towards work and into cheaper housing stock.

In order to really judge the 'morality' of the reforms, or their success in achieving their objectives, we need to properly understand the impact they are having on people's everyday lives. Two years have passed since the Welfare Reform Act was made law, bringing about the widest-ranging changes the UK's welfare system has seen in decades—a total of 39 individual changes to benefit levels, eligibility and conditionality. And yet the government has thus far made no plans to thoroughly assess the impacts of the reforms on some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

In spite of agreement across the benches yesterday on the need for a more in-depth undestanding of the welfare reforms' impacts, coalition MPs continued to rebuff calls for a full investigation, arguing that such a task would be too complicated. Closing the debate, minister for disabled people Mike Penning stated that a cumulative impact assessment would be "very complex". Another argued that understanding the "wide range of contributors" involved in welfare reform would make such an assessment "extremely complex … an enormous task".

But it is precisely these complexities which some of the most vulnerable people in our society are forced to navigate every day. For many of the people Community Links works with in Newham, it is the combined effects of different reforms, rather than any one individual change, which make situations unmanageable. As a mother-of-two affected by the bedroom tax and changes to council tax benefit recently told us: "[There are] too many things going on. And you have to do it alone, nobody cares."

A more detailed look at the personal, experienced, human impacts of welfare reform is urgently needed, not just for sick and disabled people but for all those in poverty. The people we work with are constantly crying out about their experiences: "It's a terrible situation. It's like I'm shouting but nobody hears" one said recently. That's why at Community Links we are finalising a piece of research looking at these cumulative impacts in Newham, which we will launch next month.

This time last year a challenge to the bedroom tax was defeated. This time next year we'll be in the run-up to an election in which welfare will undoubtedly be centre-stage. Right now, the government must look cumulatively at the impacts of its reforms and whether they are succeeding in their stated aims, or even in the basic objective of providing a safety net for those who need it most. Yesterday's debate started to shed light on some of these impacts. But we need a thorough assessment, one which is removed from the partisan politics of Westminster palace and can help us to shape a social security system that works for all.

Liam Crosby is policy and public affairs officer at Community Links, a charity providing advice and employment services in East London. Follow him on Twitter.

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