Anger at government 'manipulation' and 'callousness' on welfare

By staff writers
2 Feb 2012

As expected, the coalition succeeded in using its Commons majority to overturn all Lords amendments to its Welfare Reform Bill at Westminster yesterday (1 February 2012) - including one ameliorating a top-slicing overall benefit cap strongly opposed by charities and churches.

In so doing the government was accused of abuse of parliamentary process and manipulation by opponents, as Prime Minister David Cameron sanctioned the use of relatively obscure 'financial privilege' provisions to ensure that the second chamber cannot effectively block or delay cuts and changes to benefits which critics say will leave hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people and families worse off, exposed, homeless, jobless and feeling betrayed.

'Financial privilege' asserts that only the Commons had the right to make decisions on bills that have large financial implications. It is also likely to be used to stifle dissent on massive legal aid cuts effecting the poorest, and on an NHS bill for England which has been opposed in whole or part by the majority of health professionals.

Legal challenges at domestic and European level are now being discussed, and disabled and sick activists vowed to fight on to expose what they called the government's "callous" and "manipulative" stance on welfare.

Some also believe that cuts which will hit disabled children, abused mothers, cancer patients, the terminally ill, carers, the old, people with multiple disabilities and the vulnerable and many others, breach United Nations standards for the protection of people with disabilities and for children.

Lord Bassam, Labour's chief whip in the House of Lords, said the 'financial privilege' move "fundamentally undermines the constitutional role of the Lords as a revising chamber".

Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a former Lord Chancellor under PM Margaret Thatcher, commented: "The time we have spent coming here and taking part seem to be somewhat of a waste of taxpayers' money at a time of considerable austerity if the whole procedure is useless."

In the voting, only a handful of Liberal Democrats, who could have made a significant difference, rebelled against their Conservative government partners.

The House of Lords defeat over plans to cut payments to disabled children was overturned by 324 votes to 255 – a government majority of 69.

The peers' attempt to prevent the so-called "bedroom tax" on homes was thrown out by 310 to 268 – a government majority of 42.

The Child Support charge amendment, put forward by Lord Mackay and backed by many Conservative peers, was overturned by 318 votes to 257 – a government majority of 61.

An amendment backed by Church of England bishops saying that child benefit should not count towards the £500-a-week benefit ceiling was defeated by 334 to 251 – a government majority of 83.

MPs also voted by 328 to 265, a majority of 63, to require terminally ill cancer sufferers on chemotherapy to undergo assessments to see if they were fit for work.

Huge cuts to Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and the transition to ill-specified Personal Independence Payments (PIPs), which removes a lifeline for around half a million disabled people, were also voted through.

In a passionate speech, Anne McGuire, shadow work and pensions minister, accused the government of talking about "social tenants as a breed apart" and of "attempting to disadvantage those who are already disadvantaged."

She disputed the Department of Work and Pensions classification of 'under occupied homes' and said the new housing benefit policy put people in an "unbelievable bind" because it was "ill-thought-out, it won't achieve its aims... and it will push the poorest people, including those who are working... into even greater disadvantage".

Ms McGuire said it was doubtful whether social housing tenants could legally take in lodgers to make up the £12-14 reduction in housing benefit, as Lord David Freud had suggested, and if they did whether that income would then affect their benefits.

On the CSA charge, she welcomed a reduced fee, but said it was a "ridiculous policy".

Likewise, the cut in support for disabled children would affect 170,000 families and could cost parents £1,400 a year, the shadow minister said. Disabled children would lose £22,000 over the course of their childhood, including those who were profoundly deaf and had Down's syndrome or cerebral palsy.

"In order to pay the most severely disabled children an extra £1.75 a week, children who are not as disabled - and I use the words advisedly - are going to lose their benefits," she declared.

The Welfare Reform Bill now goes back to the House of Lords again, but with little scope for further changes. But the campaign to challenge the legality and morality of what the government is doing will continue, vowed campaigners last night.

* Welfare politics: A 'morally disabled' government, by Simon Barrow - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16221

More reaction and commentary to follow.

[Ekk/3]

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