When I was elected in 2010 I always said, and I have continued to repeat, that I will be open and honest with people about the decisions I take in Parliament. On issue after issue after issue, that hundreds of people contact me about on a daily basis, I respond with as full and open an answer as I can.
Politics requires people to make difficult decisions. You have to weigh up all the arguments, come to a judgement and then justify that judgement. All of this within an environment where your opponents are trying to trip you up at every stage.
You will never get every decision right. If you were to then you wouldn’t be human. But equally, it is not always possible to get everyone to agree. The Labour party is a broad church and so it should be. A party where everyone agrees all the time is, in my view, not a healthy party.
The social security system (we have all fallen into the trap of calling it “welfare”) is in trouble. Attacked by the Tories, pilloried in the press and under strain from an ageing population, it is sometimes hard to see the course we should take to make sure that it will survive, as everyone in the Labour Party wants it to.
We must be proud of our social security system. It supports the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled and the poor. We should be proud of the fact that the last Labour government took 800,000 children and 2,000,000 pensioners out of poverty and we continue that mission.
Debates around social security are fierce precisely because the stakes are so high, and so they should be. And it’s no surprise that the Tories’ latest round of welfare reform has provoked a rightful outcry.
I want to set this straight. Last night I and Labour voted for our amendment “not to give the Bill a second reading”. It says that in the amendment itself. Unfortunately it didn’t pass because the Tories have a majority in the House of Commons. We then abstained on the bill as a whole. Why? Because while there is much in the bill that we disagree with, there are policies which we support. Many of which the Tories have taken from us.
This bill contains provisions for three million apprenticeships, cuts in council rents, and support for troubled families that we would not oppose. However, as our amendment set out, the Tories’ attacks on child poverty targets and cuts to support for the sick and disabled are measures we fiercely oppose.
The measures which we support include:
- Three million apprenticeships
- Cuts in council and social housing rents
- Support for troubled families
- Loans for mortgage interest
The measures which we oppose include:
- Abolition of child poverty targets and the removal of these from the Social Mobility Commission
- Cuts to support for the sick and disabled who are not fit for work – this includes people who have cancer or Parkinson’s disease.
- Freeze on benefit levels
That’s why immediately after the vote last night, we tabled a raft of significant amendments for the next stage which would remove the worst parts and keep in place the provisions we agree with, such as those on apprenticeships. We will keep working through the next stage of the bill to get the improvements we want and will look at it again when it returns for its final stage in the House of Commons. Some have been designed in conjunction with third sector and charitable organisations.
It might be helpful to set out that the Welfare Reform and Work Bill does not contain the changes which the government are proposing to tax credits – they will be introduced in separate legislation. I can assure you we will oppose them vociferously. The Chancellor’s changes to tax credits are regressive and will cut tax credits for millions of working families making them poorer whilst they are doing the right thing in work.
Some people are claiming that the bill would have been defeated last night if everyone voted against. This is not only wrong to claim, but those who are claiming it know it to be wrong. You can’t defeat a Government with an absolute majority on a major piece of their legislative programme. To suggest otherwise is wrong. Those who should know better taking to social media to perpetuate this myth are either peddling untruths or they simply do not understand the parliamentary process.
These issues are not easy, but the truth is that we need to have a big debate about how we preserve the social security system for future generations. At the election in May, Labour put forward the ideas we thought would best achieve that. It was honest about the challenges we faced, but also about our responsibility to support our society’s most vulnerable people.
The SNP and Liberal Democrats had their own amendments last night too but these were not selected for debate. The problem is that they have been trying to look both ways on social security for years. So last night we had SNP MPs attacking the benefit cap, but less than two weeks ago John Swinney told the BBC that “there is a role for a benefits cap.” During the referendum, Nicola Sturgeon promised a social security system that went beyond what was on offer inside the UK, but was never once able to explain how she would pay for it.
The debate about something as important as the survival of the social security system shouldn’t be reduced to arguments about parliamentary tactics. It demeans the importance of the decisions we need to make and dilutes the serious debate.
A link to the bill is here for information http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2015-2016/0051/16051.pdf
A link to our raft of amendments is here for information http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2015-2016/0051/amend/pbc512007a.pdf
We will immediately table amendments to the bill for the Committee Stage. They will include:
- An amendment to prevent the Government abolishing the targets for reducing child poverty.
- The Government are also trying to delete child poverty from the remit of the ‘Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’ so that it becomes just the ‘Social Mobility Commission’. An amendment will prevent that taking place.
- An amendment which will mean that the household benefit cap would not apply to persons who are responsible for a child under 2 years old, are a carer, or are in temporary accommodation because of domestic violence.
- A new clause which will require the Secretary of State to report each year on the impact of the household benefit cap, particularly on child poverty.
- An amendment which will require the level of the household benefit cap to be reviewed every year, rather than only once in a Parliament. The review would be based on the new clause above requiring the impact of the benefit cap on child poverty to be assessed each year.
- An amendment which will require the Social Security Advisory Committee to review the Discretionary Housing Payments fund each year to ensure that sufficient resources are available. Discretionary Housing Payments are used to support those who are unfairly affected by the benefit cap.
- An amendment which will set the target of full employment as 80 per cent of the working age population – in line with the Labour Government’s definition and recent research which shows that this would be an ambitious target. The Bill includes a process for reviewing progress towards ‘full employment’, but does not define what is meant by that.
- An amendment to require the UK Commission on Employment and Skills to assess whether the Government’s target for apprenticeships is being met, so that the Government can be held to account. There is significant concern among businesses and others that the quality of apprenticeships is being watered down in order to increase the numbers.
- An amendment which will require the resources which are being dedicated to helping troubled families to be clearly set out.
- An amendment which will ensure that interventions to support troubled families are focused on helping people into work.
- An amendment to prevent the Bill restricting Universal Credit for three or subsequent children even when the third child is born before 5 April 2017.
- A new clause preventing the restrictions to tax credits applying to three or more children where a third child is born as a result of a multiple birth, where a third of subsequent child is fostered or adopted, where a third child or subsequent child is disabled, or where a family with three or more children moves onto tax credits or universal credit in exceptional circumstances – including but not restricted to the death of one member of the family, the departure of one parent or loss of income through unemployment – which would be set out by the Social Security Advisory Committee. It also sets up an appeals process for all cases covered by this clause.
- An amendment preventing cuts in the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for the WRAG group of around £30 a week. People who are in the WRAG group have been through a rigorous test which has deemed them not fit for work, for example because they have Parkinson’s or are being treated for cancer.
- An amendment requiring the Government to produce a plan to offset the impact of lower social rents on housing associations. Labour supports the reduction in social housing rents, which will help low-income families and bring down the housing benefits bill. However, we must protect against impacts on the ability of housing associations to build new affordable homes and maintain their existing properties.
- An amendment which subjects the four-year benefit freeze to an annual review subject to changes in inflation.