BENEFIT claimants are being made to feel like they are spongers on the state under proposed welfare reforms, the chairman of a Tynwald scrutiny committee told the Social Care Minister.
Brenda Cannell MHK, chairman of the social affairs policy resource committee, said that feedback from the consultation over the reforms showed that the public were ‘extremely concerned’.
‘Many people who rely on us for financial support are beginning to feel like spongers on the state. There’s a perception that people are sponging on benefits when there is no evidence, only anecdotal evidence that the system is being abused.’
Social Care Minister Chris Robertshaw insisted this was not the focus of the reforms which instead aimed to target resources more effectively by greater use of means testing. He said removing universal benefits could save £20m to £30m.
‘We can’t go on spending money on the better off. It has nothing to do with sponging. This isn’t some right wing attempt to bring difficulties or harm to individuals. Nothing could be further from the truth.’
The Minister said 800-plus responses had been received already to the social policy consultation and a range of opinions had been expressed. ‘We are in a debate and exchange of information mode. We can’t go on as we are as it’s unsustainable,’ he added.
Social Care has the largest budget of any in government at more than £300 million and about £1 million was paid out in benefits and pensions every week.
Chief executive Chris Corlett, giving evidence alongside the Minister, confirmed he was seeking an increase in the budget from the Treasury.
Asked about reciprocal benefit agreements with the UK, Mr Robertshaw said it was his ‘ultimate desire to maintain them going forward’ although they may have to be adjusted in response to changing circumstances.
He said there was no intention ‘in the immediate future’ to make any changes to the Manx pension supplement and the government here would wait to see how UK proposals to introduce a universal state pension of £140 to £160 per week would pan out.
‘The pension supplement could be changed [but] the UK must firm up its own position. It would be highly premature to adopt a position at this stage.’
The two witnesses were questioned over the introduction here of the UK’s Employment Support Allowance, which is paid to people who are unable to work because of an illness or health condition but has been criticised over difficulties people had faced in qualifying for the benefit. The island had originally opted not to adopt it but has now decided to bring it in, with a pilot currently under way.
Mrs Cannell suggested it was simply a cost cutting exercise. Mr Corlett said the aim was to help people get back into work where they can: ‘The snag with assessing someone as not able to work is we are attaching a badge to them, deterring them from seeking work.’
‘It’s all very well if there were jobs out there for people to take,’ retorted Mrs Cannell.
Wednesday’s hearing ended after more than an hour and a half, with the chairman saying they were only a third of the way through their questions. The two witnesses agreed to return at a later date.
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