Anger as UK Welfare Minister avoids Scottish scrutiny

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By G.A.Ponsonby
 
UK Welfare Minister Lord Freud has provoked anger after refusing to appear before the Scottish Parliaments Health and Sports Committee.  The Tory peer, who became a Lord in 2009, has insisted that a junior official be allowed to attend instead.

The Holyrood committee is currently scrutinising the UK coalition government’s Welfare Reform Bill which is designed to simplify the UK’s welfare system.  The proposed changes have led to claims that those on low incomes will have to rely on family and friends in order to survive.

Responding to the Committees’ convener, Labour’s Duncan McNeil who wrote to the Tory Peer requesting his attendance, Lord Freud replied: “I genuinely do believe it would be more constructive and helpful for your committee if you were able to have Neil Couling, DWP working age benefits (director) and senior responsible officer for the Welfare Reform Bill, in attendance to give evidence on behalf of DWP’s ministerial team.

“Neil will be able to attend in person and has been heavily involved in the policy development of all aspects of the Welfare Reform Bill.  I am confident he will be able to provide you with the detail you require.” He added: “I look forward to reading the outcome of your deliberations.”

Mr McNeil said: “The committee was extremely keen to hear from DWP Ministers directly as only they can answer questions about the political decisions underlying the UK Government’s proposals for the reform of the benefits system.”

Leaders of local government body Cosla have already given evidence to the committee in which they claim the Bill could cost Scotland’s economy up to £600 million each year.

SNP MSP and Deputy Convener of the Health Committee, Bob Doris, has said UK Welfare Ministers must come to the Scottish Parliament to answer questions on the bill.

Commenting on the decision of Lord Freud to dodge the committee – despite being offered the opportunity of giving evidence by video link, Mr Doris said:

“The respect agenda seems to be wearing thin for UK Ministers.  Trying to dodge responsibility for the biggest and potentially most damaging changes to the welfare system in decades is simply not acceptable.

“Lord Freud knows that the UK Government do not have answers to the very serious questions being raised in this committee so is sending an official to face the music instead of standing up for his Tory government’s policies himself.

“This bill could have a serious impact on the lives of people across Scotland.  It has been put forward by a Tory/Lib Dem government who are now unwilling to answer Scottish questions on the subject.

“The UK Government should reconsider, send a minister and give us some proper answers to Scotland’s questions.”

A recent report by Sheffield Hallam University warned that welfare reforms being proposed by the UK coalition could impoverish huge numbers of people.

The study found that the Tory/Lib Dem reforms would see six hundred thousand people taken off the benefits system and many would have to rely on family and friends in order to survive.

Researchers from Sheffield Hallam University said Scotland, Wales and the north of England would suffer most from the changes to be introduced by 2014.