Liberal Democrat councillors have warned deputy prime minister Nick Clegg they want to disassociate themselves from his government’s welfare reforms, warning of a potential “car crash” when universal credit is introduced.
Speaking at an LGA executive meeting on Thursday, Watford mayor Dorothy Thornhill (Lib Dem) said the party’s group leaders from across the country had met Mr Clegg to discuss welfare reforms.
“Leaders in principle would have wanted to accept their legal and moral duties but [they] were actually saying to the government, hang on, this is your car crash - you should deal with it and stop trying to fob us off with picking up the pieces and being the front line and the PR for you”, she said.
She added that some Liberal Democrats in local government wanted to be allowed to disassociate themselves from the introduction of universal credit, rather than playing a role in the new system.
“Some of our leaders would not want it to be compulsory what they did - they’d want flexibility”, she said. “It’s because they fear it’s not going to be good.”
Ms Thornhill said Liberal Democrats were worried about the way welfare changes were being implemented, “regardless of what they feel about the reforms”.
Her concerns were echoed at the LGA meeting by council leaders from across the political spectrum.
Peter Fleming (Con), leader of Sevenoaks DC, urged the LGA to “take a far more robust line on welfare reform” because there was too much uncertainty about how the new system would work.
He said a framework setting out councils’ role in the new system, published this week by the LGA and the Department for Work and Pensions, “leaves everything unanswered”.
“It leaves the funding issue unanswered, it leaves the timescale unanswered and it leaves the issue of what councils are actually going to deliver on the ground unanswered”, he said.
“We need to know sooner rather than later what our role is, how many staff are going to be employed to do it, and how we’re going to finance it”.
Cllr Fleming also said he was concerned that the DWP was “peddling the message that 70% [of claimants] will be able to do it online, when we know it’s not true.” He added that it was “frankly ridiculous” to have DWP managers “holding the purse strings” for local support services for universal credit claimants.
Lewisham LBC mayor Steve Bullock (Lab) also raised fears about the new system. “By the time we introduce universal credit I suspect we’ll be in a situation where the system is in chaos”, he said, warning of a “risk of unintended consequences on a scale we haven’t seen in any of our working lifetimes.”
Sir Steve said he anticipated “a dramatic acceleration of the situation where families in London will be driven out as they simply won’t be able to pay the rent.”
He said: “We can’t simply allow vulnerable families to pop up all over the country. That’s what’s going to start happening in a few months and we need to be on top of it.”