MPs in the Westminster House of Commons are debating the Welfare Reform Bill from 12.30pm on Wednesday 1 February 2012, one day after the House of Lords final debate. There are vital issues at stake for disabled people, including the young disabled and those with cancer, for people on housing benefit, for lone parents, vulnerable women and larger families.
The LRC (http://l-r-c.org.uk/ ), a broad alliance of campaign groups and trade unions, has produced a useful summary of the key amendments passed by the Lords, setting out briefly the points that those talking with their MPs may want to make. These are reproduced here with grateful acknowledgement. We have added the latest (Amendment 1, 31 January) and made some small sub-editing changes.
Amendment 12 - Protecting Housing Benefit.
The amendment seeks to prevent a change to the definition of under-occupation currently used by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The Bill paves the way for a much tougher test than at present, with a hefty under-occupation penalty - a cut to the housing benefit - for those whose accommodation fails the new test. This amendment has been supported by housing charities as it penalises people with extra bedrooms. This means, for instance, that someone who becomes unemployed who lives alone and has two small bedrooms will be driven further into debt and may face homelessness. In many parts of the country there may not be a supply of one bedroom flats for people to live in. As an alleged social evil under-occupancy has only really been trailed by the government since the summer, there has not been any period of research and debate about what the effects of these measures may be.
Amendment 36A - Protecting young disabled people.
To ensure young people who are very severely disabled and who are assessed as qualifying for the support group continue to be entitled to contributory employment support allowance (ESA) in the future. This is an important social object as this specific benefit gives independence to young disabled people. Stopping this benefit would not save much money but would wreck lives. The typical disability would be a young person who has learning difficulties. Having contributory ESA makes people much less vulnerable to exploitation. Many will go onto means test ESA instead and will require greater support to do so as a result of the greater complexity instead with barely any saving (as the means tested benefit will be for the same amount for most people) to the public purse.
Amendment 38 - oppose the introduction of a 12-month limit on which those in the work-related activity group (WRAG) are able to claim contributory ESA.
A 12-month limit on contributory ESA will cause much more poverty as after one year the benefit will become means-tested. A couple living in the same house, one working just above the minimum wage the other on contributory ESA, the salary of the worker is not taken into consideration BUT once it becomes means-tested it will. Therefore it will increase poverty and takes away independence. Particularly affected will be claimants who have a low paid working partner. Ironically, in the view of the policy objective of making sure work pays, if partners of contributory ESA claimants move back into work they will be worse off under the government’s proposal. If some move back into work while their partner is on contributory ESA then the ESA is unaffected and the household gets a clear increase in income. If the contributory ESA is replaced by a means tested benefit, any income from a start in work will be drastically reduced by the tapers that exist in the means tested regime.This tapers will become much steeper with the introduction of Universal Credit.
Amendment 38A - Protecting those with limited work capacity due to cancer
(a) where a person is receiving treatment for cancer when entitlement shall continue for so long as the person has (or is treated as having) limited capacity for work; or
(b) the person has (or is treated as having) limited capacity for work as a consequence of a cancer diagnosis.
When people are fighting cancer they need support, not being bullied by the state to find work. People with their jobs being held open for them until they get better will be unable to claim JSA as one of the conditions of entitlement of JSA is that you do not have a job. Again, the irony is that people will be asking their employers to dismiss them for incapacity in order to have food to eat! Some people will be forced from work and on to long term benefits by this measure. It will also force people into pointless job searching to comply with the JSA rules when they should be concentrating on getting better.
Amendment 59 - Exclude Child Benefit from the benefit cap.
The arithmetic does not make sense. A household with an earned income of £26,000 will be getting the full amount of Child Benefit for the children within it. The important social policy objective of giving women independence within a relationship will be lost. The children will suffer if a male claimant holds back money from his female partner. This does happen in abusive relationships. It also makes escaping domestic violence much more difficult for women in abusive relationships also caught by the benefit cap.
Amendment 62C - Oppose government proposals to charge single parents for using the Child Support Agency.
Most women caught in poverty do not have the resources to pursue absent partners. Whether they are on benefit or balancing work with being a lone parent, they are not often in a position to deal with getting money from an unwilling or an impecunious absent parent.
Amendment 1 - Protect disabled children from cuts.
Passed on 31 January 2012, this drops proposals to cut disability living allowance payments by up to £1,400 a year for around 100,000 children.
The government's Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is offering just three concessions, which critics clearly regard as inadequate:
• Families affected by the £26,000 welfare cap will be given at least nine months "grace period" to adapt to the loss of benefits, by fiinding a job or moving house.
• A discretionary fund will be established for local authorities to use in "difficult cases" - such ensuring a family is not forced to move when a child is at a critical stage in its schooling.
• The lowest income single parents seeking support from the Child Support Agency will not be charged a fee (the current plan proposes a £50 fee for parents on out of work benefits)