Former Work And Pensions Secretary Urges Rishi Sunak To Protect Benefits For "Most Vulnerable”
Rishi Sunak is being urged to "protect the most vulnerable" with his Autumn Statement next week (Alamy)
Chloe Smith, who served as Work and Pensions Secretary this autumn, has urged the Prime Minister not to undo her work “to protect the most vulnerable” when announcements on pensions and benefits are made in next week’s Autumn Statement.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is due to set out his economic plans on 17 November after the economy was weakened by his predecessor Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous "mini-Budget".
It is expected that alongside tax rises, government spending could be cut, with departments told to find billions in efficiencies while still delivering vital public services. On Friday Hunt warned of a "tough road ahead" as ONS figures indicated the UK is heading for recession.
One particular area of contention has been whether the government will stick to its previous promise to raise most benefits in line with inflation, as well as maintaining the so-called “triple lock” on pensions.
It has been suggested that with inflation running at record highs, that instead the uprating for the coming year may be pegged to the increase in earnings, which is much lower, meaning millions of people would see a real-terms cut.
Smith, who led the Department for Work and Pensions in Liz Truss's government, before being sacked by Rishi Sunak when he became Prime Minister has said that while she believes the government must prioritise “fiscal sustainability”, it cannot come at the expense of those least well-off.
She told PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown that she had begun the work on the annual statutory review that the secretary of state conducts every autumn, which is now being completed by her successor Mel Stride.
“The clear principle that you have to go into this with is how to protect the most vulnerable, that is what the state pension does, and that is what the benefit system does,” Smith said.
“That's an absolute foundational principle, and it's certainly one that I was applying, and again, it's one that I'm glad that Mel and Rishi have also spoken about, and emphasised. That's really important.
“But of course, that is but one of a very tough set of decisions. I can't pre-empt what they will decide, obviously, but I think it is right that they try to blend that principle of supporting the most vulnerable with the fiscal sustainability and the stability in the public finances that is going to be needed in order to create a strong economy that endures and supports everybody.”
With Hunt said to be looking to find around £40bn to fix a so-called “fiscal black hole”, Smith said “the golden thread” that Conservative MPs are looking for in the Autumn Statement on 17 November “is a way that we can have stability in the public finances, that we can get debt falling, but that we can continue to look towards growth, because actually, that is what creates opportunity for people”.
She felt the government is facing “some extremely tough decisions” in the face of some global challenges, with interest rates set to continue to rise into next year, sending people’s mortgages up as the country slips into a recession.
Smith said that although Sunak chose not to keep her on in Cabinet, she has “every good wish for what he will be able to achieve", calling him a “diligent, compassionate, creative” politician.
- For the full interview with Chloe Smith listen to this week's episode of The Rundown, out Friday
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