Left-wing Liberal Democrat MPs have expressed outrage after the Chancellor, George Osborne, told the BBC that he planned an additional £4bn cuts to benefits. Coupled with the £11bn already announced, this amounts to a cut of 6 per cent of the total welfare budget.
In a remarkable attack on the current system of benefits — and many of the people on them — Osborne said:
The welfare system is broken. We have to accept that the welfare bill has got completely out of control and that there are five million people living on permanent out-of-work benefits. That is a tragedy for them and fiscally unsustainable for us as a country. We can’t afford it any more.
Of course, people who are disabled, people who are vulnerable, people who need protection will get our protection, and more.
But people who think it’s a lifestyle choice to just sit on out-of-work benefits — that lifestyle choice is going to come to an end. The money won’t be there.
It was a marked contrast to Nick Clegg’s muted tone earlier in the day, when he said that tough decisions were necessary, but that these cuts were not “dramatically different” from those planned by Labour.
Three Lib Dem backbenchers have so far expressed their anger, taking issue as much with the aggressive tone of Osborne’s remarks as with the further cuts.
Bob Russell, MP for Colchester, has tabled an urgent question on the extra cuts. He told the Today programme:
Yes, let’s deal with the welfare cheats. But the notion that they are responsible for all the ills of the nation is in fact a smokescreen and it’s not very ethical.
Two other Lib Dems, Mike Hancock and Tim Farron, also pledged to vote against the cuts. Hancock told the Guardian:
This goes right to the heart of the benefit system in this country. He has a lot of questions to answer and this is not the right way to do things.
Farron also spoke out, saying:
The government needs to demonstrate that those who got us into this mess are going to more than bear the brunt and that the most in need will not be targeted. We need to scrutinise where the cuts are made.
It’s not just Lib Dems who will be disgruntled by Osborne’s remarks, either. The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, is engaged in sensitive negotiations with the Treasury over his proposals to spend more money initially to reform the welfare system and create more work incentives.
Osborne’s grandstanding rhetoric — which stopped just short of talking about “benefit cheats” — helps no one.