Jacob Rees-Mogg: Benefits are not an insurance scheme

Jacob Rees-Mogg in Downing Street, London, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson reshuffles his Cabinet to appoint a
Senior Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg said benefits are not "an insurance scheme" (PA Images)

A senior Conservative MP has said benefits should not be seen as an "insurance scheme" for the most vulnerable

Speaking at the Conservative Party conference, Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, said during a discussion on cuts to Universal Credit that benefits are a "safety net" at most.

The government has come under fire in recent months, including from some in their own party, over plans to scrap a £20 weekly COVID boost to Universal Credit amid soaring energy bills, inflation, and national insurance rises.

Some estimates suggest up to 800,000 people could be pushed into poverty when the uplift ends, and that it will knock more than £1,000 off claimants' household income

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Cuts to Universal Credit have been consistently presented as a work incentive by the government, despite the fact that around 40% of those claiming the benefit are already in work and many people unable to work also claim it.

Rees-Mogg acknowledged that many people who claim benefits are in work and have paid taxes most of their lives. He also accepted that people also pay indirect taxes like VAT.

"There is a duty from the state to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves, and it's something for which we pay our taxes," he told a TaxPayers' Alliance event in response to a question on whether it is appropriate to refer to benefits as "handouts".

Jacob Rees Mogg answering questions in the House of Commons, London, during a motion on parliamentary proceedings during the pandemic. The motion sets out the need for MPs to vote in person again during the ongoing coronavirus disruption.
The Leader of the House said the government have an obligation to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves (PA Images)

However, he said benefits were not "an insurance scheme."

"I'm very pleased we’ve got a more individualistic system which is not an insurance scheme, which you asked specifically, it isn’t designed like that – it is designed to be a safety net."

The work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey came under fire last month after she falsely claimed that those losing the £20 uplift introduced at the start of the pandemic would only need to work an extra two hours to make up the loss.

Labour's shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds lambasted the claims.

“The secretary of state’s comments... were an insult to hard-working families facing this cut," he said.

A person visits the Government Gateway website to apply for Universal Credit online. Picture date: Friday March 27, 2020. Photo credit should read: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment
Cuts to Universal Credit could push up to 800,000 people into poverty (PA Images)

When asked about how people unable to work fit into the government's narrative around Universal Credit cuts encouraging people to get into work, Rees-Mogg said it was important to focus on what people can do rather than what they can't.

"I think specifically, in relation to the disabled, one of the great objectives of policy is to see what people can do rather than what they can’t do – and to be positive about it," he said.

"I’ve had the most amazing people come to my constituency at work who want to do things and want to maximise their abilities and there are supports within the state system to help them get jobs.

"This is terrific – because it’s almost about what people can do, valuing everyone as an individual, and not just lumping people in broad categories and then proceeding to write them off with a little bit of money. I don’t think that’s the answer."

Coffey, who was also speaking at an event at the conference, echoed this.

“Instead of our system basically trying to encourage people to show how they really cannot do any work at all, to actually flipping that and see what is it that you can do and we can support you to," she said.

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey arriving in Downing Street, London, for a cabinet meeting the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on people to stay away from pubs, clubs and theatres, work from home if possible and avoid all non-essential contacts and travel in order to reduce the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said she was 'entirely happy' with cuts to Universal Credit (PA Images)

“It is about the agenda being positive, an escalator, trying to help people, it is there as a welfare net rather than a welfare trap.

"And that will continue I believe to be the agenda.”

However, concerns have been raised in recent years that many disabled people are being let down by the benefits system.

Read more: Universal Credit: 'I can't afford to live without cutting back on food'

Earlier this year Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddlewoth, called for a review after one woman declared fit for work was found "dead in her hat and scarf in her freezing flat after her benefits were cut."

And in 2015, data from the DWP revealed that more than 2,650 people died six weeks after being declared for fit work between December 2011 and February 2014 alone.

Watch: Therese Coffey is 'entirely happy' with cuts to Universal Credit