Ex-Tory MP Heidi Allen admits regret over backing benefits freeze

Independent Group MP says ‘lack of knowledge’ led her to vote for policy in 2015

Heidi Allen has said one of her biggest regrets from her time as a Tory MP is voting for a four-year freeze on benefits that has left millions of the UK’s poorest families hundreds of pounds a year worse off.

The Independent Group MP, who left the Conservatives last month in part over what she saw as its lack of compassion, admitted she was naive when she voted for the policy weeks after winning her seat in the Commons in 2015.

“It’s my one regret that I voted for it,” she said during a hearing of the Commons work and pensions committee, of which she is a member. “My lack of knowledge let me down.”

Allen said during the hearing with the work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, that the freeze had made life even more difficult for people on already miserly benefits. She asked Rudd: “How can it be right to expect people to survive on subsistence living?”

Rudd, who had hinted during the committee’s December hearing that she would look again at the freeze, refused to say whether she had lobbied the chancellor to drop the the final year of the policy, which MPs confirmed last week would go ahead as planned.

Pressed on whether benefit levels were enough to live on, Rudd said: “That’s what we have assessed, but I understand it is very difficult for them [claimants].” She said she hoped the freeze would end in 2020.

The freeze, imposed by the former chancellor George Osborne, came into force in 2016 and will deliver cumulative savings of £4.4bn this year – about £500m more than anticipated four years ago.

According to the Resolution Foundation, higher than expected inflation means the freeze has amounted to a 6% real-terms cut to benefits, leaving people on already tight budgets struggling to afford food and rent.

It says that despite promises by the prime minister that austerity will soon be over, the April 2019 freeze alone will leave the average low-income couple with children £200 a year worse off, and poorer single parents £250 a year worse off.

The freeze applies to universal credit, child benefit, tax credits, housing benefits, income support and some disability benefits.

Separately, the committee called for a reform of the benefit cap, saying it had heard of “extreme but real” instances where the imposition of the cap had left families with so little cash to live on that their children had been taken into care on the grounds of neglect.

The cap was introduced as an “incentive” to persuade out-of-work claimants to move into work by limiting the amount of benefit they could claim each week to £442 in London (£23,000 a year), and £385 (£20,000) outside the capital.

Although moving into work was the most straightforward way to escape the cap, 82% of claimants were unable or not expected to work, the committee said. These included single mothers with newborn babies and people with serious health conditions. The committee said this group should be exempt from the cap.

Frank Field, the chair of the committee, said: “It would be difficult to think of a more cruel cut. Benefits are being cut with the aim of driving people into work, but four in five people bearing this cut aren’t expected to work. What genius in government thought this one up?”


Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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