Benefit claimants will be on the receiving end of more stick than carrot under current plans. Time is running out for campaigners.
The coalition's narrative is a simple one: New Labour's attempts to help the poor resulted in the benefits system becoming more and more complicated. Eventually, many faced a situation where it wasn't really in their interest to return to employment. Work didn't pay. So now the system is to be fundamentally overhauled. Labour's myriad benefits and pay-outs are to be simplified into one straightforward universal credit. Work will become worthwhile once more.
"I want to see us focusing on the big wins of what we can do to make life better for people and make an incentive to work," says Debbie Stedman-Scott, chief executive of Tomorrow's People. Her charity helps those who are out of work get back into the workplace, and stay there. She points out the simplification of the system, workers being able to keep 35p in the pound and the transitioning off benefits as "good things".
"I want to see us focusing on the big wins of what we can do to make life better for people and make an incentive to work," she insists.
There is much to applaud. But as some campaigners are pointing out, there are also real dangers contained within the clauses of the welfare reform bill.
"It's grossly unacceptable," says Helen Longworth, head of policy for UK poverty at Oxfam UK, "and it flies in the face of any level of human dignity."
She's talking about the three-strikes-and-you're-out rule being imposed on those the tabloids write off as 'benefit scroungers'. George Osborne made much of this policy when in opposition. The idea has changed very little since then: those who persist in refusing to accept work or otherwise flaunt the rules will have their benefit payments suspended for a three-year period.
It's the idea of destitution as a policy tool which so outrages Oxfam. "To threaten to leave people with nothing is absolutely unacceptable, no matter what they've done," Longworth insists.
The government has argued the step will only be used in extraordinary circumstances. Campaigners fear the reality won't match this. Governments do have a habit of letting people down on this. The £9,000 cap on tuition fees was only supposed to be used very rarely, but over half of higher education institutions will be using it for at least some of their courses. Emergency legislation which was supposed to be only for anti-terror laws was used to rush through Michael Gove's Academies Act last summer. As Longworth asks: "If it would only need to be used so rarely that it's almost tens of people, rather than hundreds, why put it in the bill at all?"
There are other problems with the proposals, too. Under current plans the universal credit will be paid to one person within each household. This appears to ignore the risks of financial abuse taking place. Recent research by Platform 51 found one in three women had experienced this kind of abuse. This can lead to women going without a meal to ensure their children can eat or pay the bills.
Then there's the childcare factor. Going out to a poorly-paid job might, taken by itself, make financial self. But when there's the extra factor of having to pay for childcare to take into account, that situation could change. The Department for Work and Pensions says it's going to match the money spent in the old system. But money may have to be diverted from those working full-time to support its aim of making work pay for those who want to work shorter hours.
And finally there's the conditionality issue — the fundamental requirement that claimants will be only eligible for benefits if they play by the rules. Oxfam is worried that the process is more of a collaborative process rather than just being rule by diktat. "If you do something by choice, rather than force, it'll be much easier," Longworth explains. If claimants get the ability to influence what kind of work constitutes reasonable employment, she suggests, the overall results will be more effective.
Baroness Stedman-Scott, a new Conservative peer whose Tomorrow's People charity has made a big success, acknowledges that there are controversial elements within the legislation. She hopes ministers will agree to make some changes. But her view is that the package as a whole is a worthwhile one. "It's never going to be to everybody's liking," she says. "That's one thing I've learned since I've been here."
Longworth is more depressed about the reforms. "It seems to be all stick," she says. "The rich get given carrots and the poor get beaten with sticks."
MPs will debate the legislation today and on Wednesday, before the bill heads to the Lords. Time is running out for campaigners to persuade ministers that they need to do more to protect society's vulnerable.