Nick Clegg under pressure from Lib Dem activists to water down Coalition’s welfare reforms

Fear that vulnerable people are ‘falling through the safety net’

political editor

Nick Clegg is under pressure from Liberal Democrat activists to water down the Coalition’s controversial welfare reforms because they fear that vulnerable people are “falling through the safety net”.

Grassroots Lib Dems want the “bedroom tax” changed or abolished, and are demanding emergency government cash help for food banks.

They believe the huge rise in the number of people in “food poverty” is due partly to tighter benefit penalties on the unemployed, delays in paying benefits, and the £26,000-a-year cap on welfare payments for each family.

The Social Liberal Forum (SLF), the biggest left of centre pressure group inside the party, is pressing Mr Clegg and other Lib Dem ministers to make changes after a wholesale review of the Coalition’s approach to welfare.

The move comes as the party braces itself for a voter backlash in next week’s European and local elections.

The SLF will discuss welfare and food poverty at its annual conference in July. It will also call for changes at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow in October, which will approve the outline of the party’s general election manifesto.

Gareth Epps, the SLF’s co-chairman, told The Independent the group accepted the need for welfare reform, but argued that it was being implemented in a way that caused hardship.

The review should also include disability and carer benefits, he said.

“The so-called ‘bedroom tax’ should certainly be reviewed, and the evidence I have seen supports radical reform if not outright abolition. The priority must be to meet housing need by building enough new homes, not by attacking those who suffer the consequences of Britain’s housing crisis,” he said.

The SLF is worried that the Coalition’s welfare policy is pushing people to food banks at a time when cuts to local authority budgets mean they can give less help to charities.

The Trussell Trust, the biggest charitable provider, reported  last  month that it handed out 913,000 food parcels in the previous 12 months, up from 347,000 in the 12 months before that. It said benefit payment delays were the main cause for the increase.

Kelly-Marie Blundell, the Lib Dems’ prospective parliamentary candidate in Guildford, said: “There is absolutely no excuse, no reason for people to go hungry, especially not in a First World country. People need to know that anyone being in food poverty is simply unacceptable. We must tackle it.”

Ros Kayes, who will fight  West Dorset at the general election, said: “The Government should certainly be providing grant funding to food banks... until the review has been undertaken and  the necessary measures taken to address the impact of benefit sanctions and caps on food poverty.”

A Lib Dem spokesman said: “The Liberal Democrats are very proud of our democratic policy-making process and all the issues here have been debated at our recent conferences.

“A review of the spare room subsidy [known as the ‘bedroom tax’] is now happening in government. On top of that, Lib Dems in the Coalition have ensured that there is £180m of hard cash available to councils to help with hard cases.

“On food banks, the party also passed a motion at our recent spring conference, which praised the great work food banks do in helping people in a range of difficult circumstances, and acknowledged the need for people accessing food banks to be made aware of the hardship support available to them by the state through bodies like Jobcentre Plus.”

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