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Why I Would Back a Benefits Cap

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This afternoon, the Lords will vote on the proposed benefits cap of £26,000 per household per year. Many in my own party - the Liberal Democrats, including people like Paddy Ashdown - are expected to vote against the changes.

If, instead of being plain old Stuart Bonar I was swiftly ennobled to Lord Bonar of [my home city] Plymouth, I wouldn't vote alongside Paddy later today, I'd be backing the coalition.

This wouldn't be based on mindless party loyalty (after all, I'd be in the Lords, so the whips would have no real power over me), but on a fair assessment of what is proposed. After all, these are changes supported by the Independent newspaper, hardly a bastion of the Right.

When I stood for parliament at the last election one thing that kept coming up on the doorstep time and again was a resentment amongst working people - often people earning not very much - that they had to work, 9 to 5 (or longer), whilst some of their neighbours were living just as well on benefits.

At first, I confess, I was a little sceptical. I thought that this was just someone repeating what the tabloids had been saying. But I decided to look into it, and to be honest I come to the same conclusion as them. And having spoken to a few people who were the resented recipients of benefits, they themselves were often resentful of the situation they were in, which did not incentivise them to seek work.

Benefits should of course be there to ensure that those who fall on hard times do not suffer unduly, but work should always be the more rewarding track. And the coalition government is starting to make that so. They are, for example, implementing the Liberal Democrat policy of lifting a million working people out of paying income tax altogether and cutting income tax for a further 23 million working people. Left to themselves, remember, the Conservatives were intending not on cutting income tax for the poorest but on cutting inheritance tax for the richest.

And right now, in parliament, they are trying to reform benefits, and that's what is before the House of Lords today. These reforms would ensure that families on benefits would continue to receive as much money as a household with an income of £36,000 before tax, £26,000 after tax (equivalent to £500 per week). That is hardly stingy, and more than a great many working people earn.

And, yes, people are right when they say that this may price benefit recipients out of certain areas, particularly the most expensive areas of London. But working people are priced out of those areas too. I can see that the State has a responsibility to ensure that people in need get housed and fed and clothed, and all that, but they don't have the right to live wherever they want, even in the priciest neighbourhoods in the land.

Work should be rewarding, and the coalition government is trying to make that so. Not just with income tax cuts for the poorest working people, but with measures like the Youth Contract, which will help get people into work. A cap on the maximum income a family can get in benefits complements this approach perfectly, and certainly when it's set at a rate that is generous but which draws a line under being a disincentive to work.

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