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David Cameron is bracing himself for a bruising week as his coalition’s welfare and health reforms face all-out attack from peers and MPs.
The prime minister is expecting a swath of peers to vote on Monday against government plans for a £26,000 cap on the total benefits any household can receive, as religious and charitable peers join Liberal Democrats to fight the Welfare Reform Bill.
Mr Cameron is also preparing for his faltering reputation on the NHS to be rocked further on Tuesday as MPs on the health committee issue a report arguing that planned restructuring could jeopardise the service’s chances of achieving its 2015 target of £20bn in efficiency savings.
The report, signed off by Stephen Dorrell, the former Conservative health secretary, will also criticise the legislation for failing to address the need for more care to be provided in the community, particularly for old people, according to a draft leaked to The Observer newspaper.
The bad press over health reforms came as church figures implored the coalition to rethink its welfare plans and exclude child benefit from the overall cap, amid fears that up to 80,000 children could be made homeless by the changes.
Government insiders insisted that Downing Street would not budge.
“We’re standing rock solid on the principle that if someone is on benefit they can’t get more than what you receive after tax if you earn £35,000 a year,” said one No 10 insider. “We’re confident the public are with us on this. The child benefit exemption is just not happening since it would defeat the whole principle of the bill.”
Iain Duncan Smith hit back against critics on Monday morning. The work and pensions secretary said he could “guarantee” that children were not going to be made homeless by the policy. “The reality here is that [on] £26,000 a year, there is absolutely no reason why any family should not be able to be found accommodation and no children should be in any respect plunged into poverty,” he told the BBC.
“I didn’t come into this job to punish people”, Mr Duncan Smith added. “What I have done is said that we need to change the way that people at the moment are living their lives where they’re trapped on dependency.”
But the coalition looks poised to split the upper chamber as Lib Dems rail against the changes. Lord Ashdown said he could not back the bill until proper transition arrangements were in place. “If the government brings into operation those transitional measure that I know Nick [Clegg, deputy prime minister] is arguing for and Iain Duncan Smith [work and pensions secretary] has promised us, that might be different. But in their present form I won’t support them because of the effect I think [it will have], particularly on children,” the former Lib Dem leader said on Sky News.
Labour, mindful of the public mood, said it would not vote against the bill but would be seeking amendments to “bring a compromise between the bishops and the government”. It said: “We don’t think council taxpayers should be hit with a massive bill for homelessness.”
The party was keener to hit out over the health committee’s report. Andy Burnham, shadow health secretary, described the findings as “a damning indictment of the government’s mishandling of the NHS”. He called for publication of the NHS risk register, a Whitehall assessment of the reforms’ impact, which has been kept under wraps despite a ruling by the information commissioner that it should be released.
Nervousness among health professionals around reform is growing. Mike Farrar, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, an umbrella body, said there was now “a sense of sleepwalking into some serious difficulties” as he considered the report’s implications.
The British Medical Association has called a meeting of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and the Royal College of Nursing on Thursday to discuss how more pressure can be applied to the government as the bill approaches its final stages in the Lords. The RCN and the Royal College of Midwives last week followed the BMA in deciding formally to oppose the health bill.