This week saw the Conservative Party hold its annual Party Conference – the last before the General Election. All Cabinet members gave speeches for their respective portfolios but benefit reform and employment were high on the agenda, with both Prime Minister David Cameron and Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith clearly placing them at the centre of their speeches. NHS funding also featured prominently with Cameron announcing a continuation of the ring-fenced budget in real terms and linking spending to balancing the budget, a point echoed by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith defended the Government’s record on welfare policy in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference, arguing that this Government has fixed numerous problems created under the Labour administration.
Announcing new welfare policies, Duncan Smith said that he was testing pre-paid cards, onto which benefits payments would be made, clarifying in an interview after his speech that these could only be used in certain shops, to ensure money goes to the needs of the family and “not to feed their destructive habits”.
Commenting on the announcement, former Employment Minister Mark Hoban raised scepticism on the use of such cards, stating that they might create certain legal problems.
Also putting the emphasis on benefits, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a welfare cap of £23,000 a year for families and a ban on school leavers from claiming unemployment benefits. The benefit cap now stands at £26,000 and will be reduced by £3,000 in the event of a Conservative victory in May.
Chancellor George Osborne announced a two-year freeze in working benefits, which would include Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Support, Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit, Child Benefit and Employment Support Allowance. The freeze is expected to save £13 billion from the budget.
Iain Duncan Smith defended the introduction of the claimant commitment that jobseekers now have to sign, as having a “transformative” effect while praising the Work Programme for finding employment for 600,000 people, as well as the “Disability Confident” campaign that has improved employment prospects for people with disabilities.
Elaborating on his announcement for lowering the benefit cap, David Cameron added that the £300 million expected in savings will be invested towards increasing the number of apprenticeships from 2 million to 3 million during the course of the next parliament. He went on to add that young people aged 16-21 will be forced to do community work to continue claiming benefits after having claimed for six months.
His announcement was echoed by Iain Duncan Smith who also stated that jobseekers aged 18-21 years who have not found a job within six months will now have to start an apprenticeship, traineeship or do community work in order to receive an allowance. Delivering a speech that was clearly geared towards youth unemployment, Duncan Smith also stated that Jobcentre advisors would now be visiting schools to speak with students at the age of 15, with a focus on those who are most at risk of becoming NEETs, to assist them so that they do not “end up with a terrible wage scar”.
The Work and Pensions Secretary defended Universal Credit and announced that the scheme would be accelerated, with plans now in place to roll out the scheme to all Jobcentres and local authorities across the country from early next year.
The DWP has also announced that Universal Credit will get a new project leader –the seventh in two years -, with external appointee Howard Shiplee replaced by DWP Work Services Director Neil Couling. Couling is currently responsible for the running of Jobcentres and implemented the Claimant Commitment.
Meanwhile, the BBC has reported that Scottish Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has called on the Government to halt the roll-out of Universal Credit in Scotland but her proposal has been rejected. Sturgeon suggested that the scheme would render moot any discussion on devolving housing benefit to Scotland, as it groups it together with a number of others.
As expected, Cameron used his speech to announce that a Conservative government would ring-fence the NHS budget in real terms, with the budget rising with inflation, whilst asserting that the delivery of a successful health service was closely tied to strong economic performance. The announcement has been viewed by some as a direct response to Labour’s efforts to increase the political profile of the NHS in the run up to May, as Cameron is unwilling to concede that labour have dominance over the current debates in healthcare policy.
Elaborating further on health policy, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt used his speech on health and social care to announce plans to provide patients with seven-day access to GPs by 2020, with appointment hours extended to 8am-8pm. In order to make this a reality, he also confirmed plans to train and retain an extra 5,000 GPs. The proposal will likely feature in the Conservative Party election manifesto.
Discussing funding, Hunt said that NHS spending had increased more – in real terms – since the Coalition came to power in 2010 than by the £2.5 billion spend outlined by Labour Leader Ed Miliband at the Labour Party Conference last week. He warned against significant extra funding at the expense of balancing the budget, noting that “you can’t fund the NHS if you bankrupt the economy”.