One of the regular duties of a Work and Pensions minister is to defend his or her programme of reform against criticisms from all sides about how it is administered. At today’s Work and Pensions questions in the Commons, Mike Penning didn’t try all that hard, though, to defend Atos Healthcare and its contract to carry out the Work Capability Assessment. Instead, he described the situation as a ‘mess’ and blamed the last Labour government for the contract.
By contrast, Iain Duncan Smith was quizzed by Labour and Conservative MPs on one reform that needs no defending: the benefit cap. Instead of being urged to drop or make the cap less draconian, the Work and Pensions Secretary was asked by Andrew Turner, the Isle of Wight MP, whether he could lower the cap as it is currently £10,000 higher than the average wage of Turner’s constituents. A Labour backbencher also asked whether there was a case for regionalising the cap.
IDS’ response to both was that the cap was currently working and he currently had no plans to change it. But I understand that serious consideration is being given by senior Conservatives to lowering the cap in some regions of the country as a 2015 manifesto pledge. This would mean that it would remain at £26,000 in London but could be lower in areas where rents are much lower and the cap barely bites workless households.
P.S. Speaker Bercow might be keen on slapping down rowdy MPs at more heated sessions than these departmental question times. But today he received an amusing bit of backchat from the normally very cordial Laura Sandys. Her colleagues were particularly tickled by her reference to ‘behavioural change’…