Last week the controversial Welfare Reform Bill - that aims to make the benefits and tax credits system fairer and simpler - successfully cleared parliament and is well on its way to becoming an act of law. Decision-makers in government now face the task of drafting guidance for how the proposals in the Bill should be implemented in practice. I urge them to take this opportunity to ensure that their decisions do not impose an unmanageable burden on the poorest and most vulnerable children and their families.
For Barnardo's, the battle to safeguard the poorest's financial security is by no means over. Whilst I am supportive of many of the principles that sit behind the government's welfare reform agenda - in particular proposals to improve work incentives through the introduction of Universal Credit - I believe that some plans could have huge unintended consequences that will mount even greater pressure on mums and dads who are already struggling to make ends meet.
For the past 12 months, we have been lobbying hard against some proposals in the Bill. We've said that the proposal to force lone parents to pay upfront and ongoing charges on the child maintenance they receive from their ex-partners is unacceptable. We've maintained that to remove the central, ring-fenced administration of the Social Fund - a financial safety net for the poorest - would have devastating consequences on families, many of whom are stuck in a vicious cycle of debt. We've spoken out against the so-called 'spare bedroom tax' because we believe that certain groups have a legitimate need for extra space, such as families with disabled children or foster carers, and that they should be exempt from the 'under-occupancy' rule. These are some concerns, among many others.
Our efforts have not been in vain as the government has made some significant concessions in light of calls from Barnardo's and other voluntary organisations. Upfront charges on child maintenance have been lowered from up to £100 to £20; extra funding has been provided to keep families who have a legitimate need for extra space from having to move into smaller accommodation as a result of the tax on spare bedrooms; extra funding for childcare has been provided to ensure that work does pay for as many families as possible.
We welcomed these concessions from the government as steps in the right direction yet we are aware that the devil will be in the detail. It is not insignificant that despite much debate and scrutiny in Parliament, the small print of the government's plans remains to be seen.
So, as government ministers begin the process of fleshing out how welfare reform will work in practice, I would urge them to consider this final stage - the process of drafting regulations - as an opportunity to truly think through and where possible to ameliorate proposals that could levy a heavy burden on those families who have the quietest voice and who are easiest to ignore.
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