The front page of today’s Guernsey Press carried the news that Deputy John Gollop and I dissented from one proposal in the Committee for Employment and Social Security‘s annual policy letter on Benefit and Contribution Rates. For the avoidance of doubt, we fully support all the other proposals in the report (and, of course, I’ll blog on them in due course). The full statement I gave to the Press, explaining my position on this issue, was as follows:
Proposition 23. To introduce a 5 year residence requirement as a condition of entitlement to the supplementary benefit rent allowance and personal allowance for people living in Part D Houses in Multiple Occupation.
Statement: There are two things to bear in mind. First, the Committee for Employment and Social Security already has rigorous criteria – administered by an excellent staff team – as to who can access Supplementary Benefit and when, and what we expect of the people who claim it. Our track record on moving people into work is exemplary, with an unemployment rate less than half that of Jersey’s, and more than 700 people placed into work through the Job Centre last year. Through the new ‘SOHWELL’ project, we are also improving access to work for people who have previously struggled due to significant health conditions.
Second, the States has just spent four years developing a new Population Management regime. They have decided where, when and why people can live in Guernsey. It’s not perfect, in my view – but members of the last States had plenty of opportunity, across at least five debates, to introduce the controls they wanted to see. All the people who will be affected by this new restriction are people who would be living in Guernsey perfectly legally under the approved population management regime.
In my view, there was simply insufficient evidence to justify the restriction on access to Supplementary Benefit. I couldn’t see evidence of a surge in people coming to Guernsey to claim benefit: in any event, the combination of the population management regime and ordinary market forces – such as the availability of rooms within this restricted sub-set of the Open Market – would keep any such behaviour to a minimum.
Supplementary Benefit is a benefit of last resort. It is payable to people who face significant financial hardship and have nowhere else to turn. As an island community, we should think very seriously before placing restrictions on it that have nothing to do with a person’s financial situation, need, or ability to work. Given the Committee’s wider mandate for equality and social inclusion, placing such a restriction on a sub-set of our population, who are living here entirely legally, seemed unconscionable to me.
The reality is that most people who come to this island from outside come here to work. They are net contributors, not a drain on our resources. We’ll need them more and more as our population grows older and, if they fall on hard times, we should treat them decently, as we would any of our citizens. As a government, we have plenty of real problems to fix; but I wasn’t persuaded that this was one of them, and could not in good faith put my name to the recommendation.