A disabled MP has become the first elected chair of the influential committee that will hold the government to account over welfare reform.
The Labour MP Anne Begg said the economic climate would make her job as chair of the work and pensions select committee “challenging”.
She warned that the Department for Work and Pensions – which is responsible for spending on benefits – was “bound to face a lot of cuts” as it was the largest-spending department.
She told Disability News Service: “It’s not one of the sexy frontline services and nobody is saying they will protect the welfare budget.
“One of the things about welfare is that it is quite easy to save money. You just stop paying it to people: you change the criteria, or freeze or cut the benefit.
“But the consequence of that is the cost to society of those who fall [through] the safety net and end up homeless or on the street or in the black economy.”
Begg said she was concerned that the tough messages coming out of the new coalition government on welfare reform and its new single work programme could mean that “basically what we end up with is all of the stick and none of the carrot”.
As the other members of the committee have yet to be selected, she could not say which areas they would focus on.
But the committee is likely to examine the government’s plans to reassess those disabled people still receiving old-style incapacity benefit (IB) through the tough new work capability assessment.
She said she was concerned about what would happen once the DWP started to reassess disabled people who have been receiving IB for up to 20 years, as the new test used to test people’s readiness for work was “already too tight”.
Begg said her personal experience as a disabled person would mean she was working “from a position of understanding”, while the knowledge that she and other select committee chairs had been elected by fellow MPs would “strengthen our hands”.
And with all committee members elected by their own parties for the first time, this might also “embolden” her committee colleagues, she said.
Begg said one of her strengths was bringing people together to “gel” as a team.
She said: “The best select committees are the ones that hunt as a pack. That’s my aspiration for the work and pensions select committee.”
But she warned: “Select committees are powerful but they are not that powerful.”
News provided by John Pring