Ex-minister attacks 'playground politics' of benefit changes

Sarah Teather The former education minister left the government in last autumn's reshuffle

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A former minister has accused the government of indulging in "playground politics" over its welfare policy.

Sarah Teather said using terms such as strivers and scroungers to justify cuts to benefits was "unworthy" of the coalition and risked creating "envy and division" between different groups.

The Lib Dem MP is to vote with Labour - against the coalition - to oppose a planned 1% cap on some benefit rises.

The government says benefits should not be increasing faster than wages.

MPs will debate plans for the new three-year 1% benefit cap on Tuesday - announced by Chancellor George Osborne in his Autumn Statement last month.

Government ministers have challenged Labour to support the move, saying it is "bizarre" that they should support a 1% cap on public sector pay increases but not a similar limit to annual increases in most working age benefits.

'Deeply anxious'

But Ms Teather said she could not support the government and would be joining Labour in the division lobbies as she was "deeply anxious" about the impact of the cap on the poorest families in her constituency.

Start Quote

To try to set these two groups up and drive envy and division between them, I don't think is very helpful for the country and it is not very enlightening for debate”

End Quote Sarah Teather Former education minister

"We have a huge problem with in-work child poverty and we are only going to make this significantly worse by affecting those who are at the bottom end of the income spectrum," she told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.

Mr Osborne has been criticised by Labour for some of the language he has used over welfare - particularly when he sought to draw a distinction between those going to work early in the morning and others whose "curtains were closed".

Labour has said it is working families on low incomes which will be most affected by the benefit cap and other austerity measures such as curbs on tax credits and housing benefit.

"One the the things I feel particularly uncomfortable about is the setting up of these two groups - the supposed strivers versus scroungers," Ms Teather added.

"It's playground politics. I don't think it is really worthy of us."

"To try to set these two groups up and drive envy and division between them, I don't think is very helpful for the country and it is not very enlightening for debate.

'Consistent'

Ministers say the incomes of those on out-of-work benefits have risen "twice as fast as those in work" over the last five years and that this cannot continue.

Speaking at the launch of the coalition's mid-term review, Mr Clegg said it was not helpful to "portray" proposed changes to the welfare system as pitting "the deserving poor against the undeserving poor and the in-work against the out-of-work".

But he defended the 1% cap, saying it was "consistent with similar restraints on public sector pay and Labour needed to say where they would find the billions in alternative savings needed to reduce the deficit.

"It is time for Labour to stop indulging in opposition for opposition's sake and be more consistent," he said.

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