Government narrowly avoids a fourth Lords welfare reform defeat

By staff writers
17 Jan 2012

Conservatives leaned heavily on Liberal Democrat support in the Lords last night, avoiding another humiliating Welfare Reform Bill report stage defeat by only 16 votes.

The rejection of a proposal to delay the full introduction of new, severely reduced disability payments is a disappointment to campaigners, but still leaves the coalition government in a very difficult position.

With charities, public figures, parliamentarians, community organisations, faith groups and medical professionals highly critical of many of the changes they are proposing, Lord Freud was forced to make promises and concessions before the vote. And even then, just nine peers voting differently would have inflicted another defeat.

Backers of the Spartacus Report, which exposed the deeply flawed official consultation on the Disability Living Allowance, vowed to keep on campaigning.

Sue Marsh, co-author of the headlining 'Responsible Reform' report, commented: "Lord Freud had to concede almost everything called for in amendment 50E to win a vote. A PR win for the government - one they were clearly desperate for - but an actual win for disabled people."

Peers defeated an amendment tabled by Lady Grey-Thompson, the acclaimed paralympian, by by 229 to 213 - but only after Lord Freud had claimed, on the basis of an unsubstantiated 'estimate', that a delay would cost £1.4 billion.

The Work and Pensions select committee has criticised government statistical sleights of hand before, and this figure is sure to come under intense intense investigation.

Peers had also had virtually no opportunity to examine the the proposed points thresholds for getting a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) award, the benefit replacing DLA, because the Department of Work and Pensions only published them yesterday.

Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, promised to test the operational processes of the new payment system and additionally said the government would hold two biennial independent reviews in the first four years of the new PIP system. He also acknowledged sharp comments about the involvement of GPs and other experts, but refused to give a statutory guarantee on this.

Lady Grey-Thompson withdrew her first amendment to give a role to an individual's GP in PIP assessments on the strength of government promises, which will face fierce scrutiny.

Privately, senior government figures recognise that they have lost the trust and goodwill of disabled people, but still believe they can "tough out" the tides of criticism simply on the basis of arithmetical majorities in both Houses.

Grey-Thompson stressed that it was important to introduce pilot schemes for PIP because of serious and widespread doubts about the impact of the reforms. She declared: "There is huge concern about the effect of DLA reform. The thresholds for the new benefit were only announced yesterday [Monday]. The modelling suggests that the second draft woud produce a 2015 – 16 caseload of 1.7 million people receiving PIP. Without introducing a new benefit we would expect the number of 16 – 64-year-olds claiming DLA in 2015 – 16 to be 2.2 million. That is a reduction of half a million people who will not receive any help with the cost of disability who would have been receiving DLA.

"I just don't believe there has been time to analyse who will lose out ... with the threshold only being published yesterday it is impossible to look in detail at who will lose out. Without it, it is almost impossible to have an informed debate about this part of the bill.

"So why an independent review and trial period? Some early analysis has suggested that one of the groups who may lose out would be those with mental health conditions who currently receive the lower rate of mobility. Many people with a mental health condition find it impossible to use public transport. They frequently use their DLA to pay for taxis. If they are unable to get out it is likely to make them more socially excluded and push them further from the job market. This is just one possible unintended consequence. there needs to be careful scrutiny of who will be affected by these changes," she said.

Lord Low of Dalston, the vice-president of the Royal National Institute for the Blind, reading from braille, said: "This amendment is every bit as important as those we passed last week. People are looking to us to ameliorate the worst excesses of this welfare reform bill. Though it has some very sensible and progressive things at its core, in the shape of the universal credit, nevertheless it goes too far to most people's consciences in the way in which it takes vital support away from some of the most needy in our society."

Among those voting for the amendment was an unlikely alliance of Lord Harries of Pentregarth , the former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, and the Rev Ian Paisley, now Lord Bannside

Lord Newton of Braintree, who served as social security secretary under Margaret Thatcher and John Major when DLA was introduced, backed the government and seemed irritated amount of critical correspondence he had received from disabled people.

After the vote, Guardian journalist and commentator Patrick Butler observed on his live blog: "Campaigners will note that [Lord] Freud, not previously known a man known for his enthusiasm for 'co-production' has had to emphasise strongly how integral the voice of disability campaigners will be in the design and implementation of PIP to ensure it works properly. He may have to work a lot harder than he has done hitherto to win their trust, however."

"There will also be serious worries over the still unexplained matter of who will lose their disability benefit under PIP. The government says 500,000 people will see their payments axed over the next three years. In this sense disability campaigners still have a lot to play for, he added.

Social network activist Anthony McCann summed up the feeling of many who had lobbied the Lords: "The Welfare Reform Bill debate has been a major consolidating force in disabled advocacy across social networks."

Charities and NGOs are intending to continue to push the government hard on its plans in the light of issues raised by the Spartacus Report and the Welfare Reform Bill debates.

Estimates are that the government's welfare cuts will cost the sick, disabled and vulnerable more than £2 billion, while around 500,000 will lose support through the ditching of Disability Living Allowance.

* Hansard on the Lords Division: who voted for what - http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/business-papers/lords/lor...

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