We must work to understand the interactions with other parts of public policy
The Work and Pensions Committee can help improve the welfare system and keep an eye on future challenges, writes Karen Buck MP
Finding ways to tackle poverty is something that has run like a thread through all I have done since I was elected to Parliament, from serving on this committee to being on the Department for Work and Pensions team on the opposition frontbench.
I helped establish the London Child Poverty Commission and was CPAG campaigner of the year in 2010.
I’ve always regarded the work of select committees as being the best of Parliament. I was on the Work and Pensions Committee when we helped expose the scandal of the BHS pension scheme. Since 2015 I have also been a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
I understand the vital importance of working constructively cross-party, and demonstrated how to achieve this by steering my Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill into law last year.
Governments never stop changing and reviewing social security. This reflects its financial significance – £223bn, or 28% of all public spending; how contested the area is in policy terms; and the fact that the welfare system must be responsive to society as a whole.
Demographic changes mean an ageing population. Women, especially parents, are at work in a way that would have been scarcely recognisable not long ago.
We understand disability to include mental health now in a way we previously failed to, but the system is still not well adapted to it.
The labour market shifts and transforms. We enjoy high employment levels but also much insecure work, and workers having fundamentally different experiences depending on where they live and their skills and qualifications.
“There should be opportunities to improve people’s experience of social security”
We can’t expect the pace of change to slow. A different world of work may await as AI and technology make the next leaps. We need to make the welfare system work better for those who need it, but always with our eyes on the future challenges.
Successive legislative changes have sought to reflect and shape this changing world, with some successes and many failures. The last decade has seen ambitious reforms, such as the introduction of universal credit and pension auto-enrolment. But the constraints of austerity have undermined so much – the objectives of universal credit, and the relationship between disabled people and the state through the experience of the work capability assessment process – and are pushing poverty levels up once more.
Tackling in-work poverty is the new challenge, outstripping poverty in non-working households for the first time.
There should be opportunities to improve people’s experience of social security, from benefit administration to pension planning. The potential is there but there is also a huge digital divide in the country which deserves close scrutiny.
Finally, for social security to be viewed in the context of the real economy and society, we must work to understand the interactions with other parts of public policy.
Too often, changes in one area shift the problem elsewhere and we need to do better. I’d love the chance to chair this committee into the new decade.
Karen Buck is Labour MP for Westminster North