The government suffered an extraordinary threefold defeat on its Welfare Reform Bill in the House of Lords tonight (11 January 2012), as campaigners and peers combined to oppose cuts that would hit sick, vulnerable and disabled people particularly badly.
Crossbenchers Lord Patel and Baroness Meacher, and Labour peer Baroness Lister, were among those who fought an expert rearguard action against the coalition, with a few Liberal Democrats also rebelling.
The three amendments passed by the second chamber would retain automatic eligibility for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for young disabled people who are unable to work; reject the government's proposal that ESA claimants be reassessed after 12 months (proposing 24 months instead); and exempt cancer patients from the ESA limit.
The votes are a triumph for Sue Marsh, Dr Sarah Cambell and other disabled activists and researchers who on Monday published the 'Responsible Reform' report, who caused an Internet sensation with their #spartacusreport campaign, and who have galvanised charities, NGOs, politicians from all parties, churches, medical professionals and public figures into lobbying for a substantial rethink on welfare reform.
Peers and MPs were inundated with pleas to stop welfare and disability cuts this morning, with thousands of copies of the report exposing the sham of the government's consultation on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) being sent on to decision-makers and policy experts. The Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, also expressed serious concern.
The House of Commons has the power to reverse the Lords amendments, but it will be under huge political pressure from these defeats not simply to pass an un-reformed Welfare Reform Bill without blinking. Royal Assent is currently timed for March 2012.
In addition to tonight's humiliating defeat, the Conservative Mayor of London has been revealed to have opposed disability cuts; major charities, the TUC, the thinktank Ekklesia and others are calling for a legislative pause; and both the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly are declining to pass the traditional consent legislation for the UK parliament on the WRB.
More Lords votes will take place on similarly controversial issues in the next fortnight, including next week on Disability Living Allowance - the epicentre of the #spartacusreport campaign.
Lord Freud, for the government, is generally agreed to have put in a dismal performance - getting his sums confused, admitting lack of evidence on Work Capability Assessments (which have been plagued by misdiagnoses and appeals), and having no response to detailed case studies and well-researched criticisms levelled by opponents.
Broadly, it was Crossbench and Labour peers plus four bishops who inflicted the defeat on the government, with relatively few Lib Dems rebelling. But some tough speeches were made from various quarters.
Baroness Lister pointed out that 15,000 sick and disabled young people will be affected by the removal of eligibility for ESA. The average cut to their income will be £25 a week.
Lord McKenzie called the government's proposed abolition of the youth condition "spiteful".
Lord Low hit out at the "draconian" nature of the ESA limits being proposed and called on Lib Dems peers (who had been given a non-whipped vote) to "search their consciences" when it came to voting.
On exempting cancer patients, Lord Patel pointed out that the issue was a reduction in savings, not extra funding. His amendment, he said,was not about adding to expenditure but refusing to take £1.3 billion from the most vulnerable.
He declared: "If you are going to rob the poor to pay the rich we have entered a different form of morality", adding that cancer patients are not "not skivers, not benefit cheats".
Tom Clark of the Guardian newspaper commented after the three House of Lords votes: "I can't remember anything like it. I've seen double defeats but can't recall a triple defeat in a single session."
"The victories on crediting in disabled children [and cancer victims] was the kind of detailed measure of principle that the Lords like to get right," and the government will be hard pressed to ignore the Lords vote, he suggested.
Clark added: "The vote on increasing the time limit is different... We could be talking about hundreds rather than tens of millions, an amount which could lead to the government being forced to go back to MPs and ask them to reverse it later down the line. Lib Dems in particular will find that hard to swallow if their friends upstairs have just said no to it."
The coming weeks are likely to see an increasing political struggle led by disabled and sick people against policies that threaten their health and livelihood.
* The report on DLA changes written by disabled people themselves, 'Responsible Reform' is being made available online at Ekklesia and elsewhere. See: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/responsiblereformDLA An easy-read version has been made available by United Response: http://bit.ly/xy0elw
* Please wear the Spartacus twibbon: http://twibbon.com/join/spartacusreport
* Guardian article by Sue Marsh, 'Disabled people listened to on welfare plans? It's a goverernment sham' -
* The Broken of Britain: http://thebrokenofbritain.blogspot.com/
* Diary of a Benefit Scrounger: http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.com
* Press release here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16008
* Show your support by tweeting with the hashtag #spartacusreport and use that tag to follow what is going on
* DLA coverage from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/disabilitylivingallowance