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Following three defeats and one almost-defeat in the House of Lords in the past fortnight, the Report Stage of the controversial Welfare Reform Bill continues this week and then comes to the Lords one last time on 31 January 2012 before passing to the Commons and on to Royal Assent.
The full process is outlined here: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2010-11/welfarereform.html
Campaigners working on children's, welfare, disability, mental health, sickness and related issues are lobbying crossbench peers, Labour supporters, Liberal Democrats and bishops hard. You can catch up with developments on Twitter (hastags #wrb and #welfare) and on the Guardian newspaper's excellent live blog (http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/blog/2012/jan/23/welfare-reform-bill-ho...). The BBC has a briefing (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-16591457) which is generally helpful, but fails to mention the key role disabled and sick people played in challenging the government on 17 January and on 24 January.
There are a number of key amendments today. The biggest, backed by the Lords Spiritual and a number of crossbenchers and Lib Dems, are:
* a proposal to take child benefit out of the benefits cap calculations;
* a proposal to give households a "grace period" of exemption from the cap should a family member be made unemployed;
* a proposal to exempt homeless families in temporary accomodation from the benefit cap.
* amendment 62A will ensure that jobcentre and local authority officials do not punish welfare claimants with sanctions and penalties, nor enforce overpayments made in error by officials, when they know there is good reason not to, by requiring officials to examine the facts and circumstances of each case;
* amendment 62ZC will retain the current legal prohibition on enforcing overpayments of welfare against claimants which are made in error by officials.
The government only published its impact assessment on the housing benefit cut this morning, giving peers virtually no chance to examine it in detail and respond. A similar tactic was used last week, when the Personal Independence Payment process for assessment and allocation was only put on the table at the last minute.
The government had to revise upwards its estimate of how many would be impacted by the cap this morning, after being challenged.
Polly Curtis has done a 'FactCheck' on 'Will the benefits cap force more children into poverty?' (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/...).
Gail Ward notes: The government have updated their Benefit Cap impact assessment by removing three sentences from the original. The new version says: "The cap is likely to affect where different family types will be able to live. It is not possible to quantify these costs because they are based on behavioural changes which are difficult to assess robustly."
And this is what the previous version said, in the same space. "The cap is likely to affect where different family types will be able to live. Housing benefit may no longer cover housing costs and some households may go into rent arrears. This will require expense and effort by landlords and the courts to evict and seek to recoup rent arrears. Some households are likely to present as homeless, and may as a result need to move into more expensive temporary accommodation, at a cost to the local authority. It is not possible to quantify these costs because they are based on behavioural changes which are difficult to assess robustly."
(The three embarrassing sentences in the middle have been deleted from the new version, in what critics suggest is a further attempt to spin the debate and vote.)
On Wednesday 25 January 2012 peers will be returning to debate the proposed axing of the Social Fund - which provides emergency payments for people in desperate need. Also important amendments related to disability issues.
As previously reported on Ekklesia, the TUC's conference on disability and welfare is taking place today - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15959
As part of a propaganda war actively fed by ministers and DWP officials, say critics, the Daily Mail has announced a YouGov poll today which purports to show that 76 per cent of the public are in favour of the benefits cap, and that 36 per cent want still tougher measures. But the questions do not set out any consequences and use abstract global figures. The contrary evidence is that when people have the issues explained to them, or when it is put that the most vulnerable will lose out, they oppose what is being done.
Tabloids like the Mail have sought to frame the welfare benefit and capping issues in terms of 'scroungers' and 'cheating', highlighting individual examples and not revealing the very low levels of fraud involved in, for example, DLA (0.5% according to official DWP statistics).
The housing benefit cut is being advocated with virtually no attention to the real problem - the absence of adequate rent controls, allowing some private landlords to lift money off the taxpayer.
* More on Ekklesia about WRB: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/6894Tweet