The government has been accused of using parliamentary procedure to avoid scrutiny of the Welfare Reform Bill in the House of Lords. The bill, which makes radical changes to the benefits system, has been condemned by disabled people's organisations.
Such a hotly contested bill would normally be considered by a “Committee of the Whole House”, which allows any peer to participate in a clause-by-clause investigation of the bill and to vote on amendments. But peers narrowly voted yesterday (14 September) to refer it to a “Grand Committee” consisting of a much smaller number of peers.
The committee will not be able to vote on amendments. Disability rights campaigners also are also angry that the committee is likely to meet in a relatively small room, giving little space for members of the public, particularly those using wheelchairs or accompanied by assistance dogs.
There was a controversial debate in the Lords at the second reading of the bill yesterday. Campaigners say they were taken by surprise when the government proposed referring it to a committee. Peers voted to do so by 263 to 211, with the majority of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voting in favour and most others against.
Disability rights campaigner Kaliya Franklin said that the government's behaviour shows that "they are clearly concerned by the levels of query and opposition to the bill and wish to quietly sideline it to Grand Committee where they hope it will pass with less opposition”.
If the Welfare Reform Bill passes without amendment, it is expected to remove benefits from large numbers of people. It will bar all residents of state-funded care homes from receiving a mobility benefit that is often spent on taxis or specialist wheelchairs, allowing recipients a greater measure of freedom.
The bill would replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with a Personal Independence Payment. Ministers have stated that they wish to cut the number of people entitled to receive this by 20 per cent. Supportive newspapers have encouraged this notion with anecdotal stories about benefit fraud. But disabled people's groups are quick to point to a study by the Department for Work and Pensions, which found that the fraud rate for DLA is only 0.5 per cent.
“This bill affects every one of us,” said Franklin, “Just because one is not yet sick or disabled does not mean that one day protection from the state will not be required”.