Thursday, 12 January 2012

Welfare Reform Defeat for the Government in the Lords

Yesterday was a interesting day for me.  It was the day that the House of Lords was voting on amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill.  I decided that I had to know what was happening, as it happened, so I watched via Parliament TV, the live debate.  You can read the transcripts of the debate here, the debate started at 3.44pm.

Watching the Lords do their work yesterday was illuminating.  When we get letters from the DWP or see news reports, telling us things are changing, we always think of it as a "done deal".  We learn about the changes after they have happened.  This was the first time I think I've been aware of changes while they are happening, and been part of a process of fighting those changes.

I have to confess, that I found out things during the debate that I hadn't previously understood.  Here, Lord Patel opens his speech with a clarification of how his amendment would change things:
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 38A and 39A. These amendments oppose the introduction of a 12-month limit on the amount of time in which those in the work-related activity group, or WRAG, are able to claim contributory employment and support allowance, or ESA.
I had been worrying about my own loss of benefits after 12 months, which I did not need to do as I have now been placed in the Support Group.  The Support Group, does not have a time limiting factor on it, under the new legislation. 

This was an enormous relief for me personally, but does not change how important, at the very least, extending the time limit for people who are told they are fit to perform some work related activity.  The thought of becoming blind or losing a limb and being told that I am fit for some sort of work and being told to find work and learn how to adapt to my changed circumstances, at the same time, fills me with horror.  When the Government is busy telling us that these people won't be left without financial support, they are stretching the the truth somewhat.  In my eyes £7,500, which is the maximum your partner or parent is allowed to earn before aid is removed, is not really enough to live on, even if you are fit and healthy. 

The amendment relating to the time limiting factor of ESA is:

Amendment 38: Proposed by LORD PATEL & LORD MCKENZIE OF LUTON
Page 36, line 34, leave out “365 days” and insert “a prescribed number of days which must be at least 730”
Lord Patel was very eloquent and moving in his speech. Many fellow peers waded in, supporting him and demolishing the objections.  It really moved me to see these men and women fighting the House of Commons on matters of how the worst off in the UK get treated.  I think the comment by Lord Strasburger summed it up best for me:
My Lords, I fully support the Government's efforts to address the huge deficit which they inherited. However, my noble friend the Minister needs to explain why I should support this attempt to penalise some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society for the greed of the financial services industry and the incompetence of the regulators. Do these sick and disabled people have the broadest shoulders, which we keep hearing about, to carry the burden of the cuts?
These peers actually understand the the details of how this Bill is going to affect the sick and the disabled people who have to live with the consequences of this debate.  Many peers quoted from letters they had received or articles they had read relating to individuals and how this would affect them.  I really felt like these peers cared enough to work hard to discover what would be the right thing to do, rather than the political thing to do.

The results of all the hard work and convincing debate were 234 Contents and 186 Not Contents.  Basically this means that 234 were "Content" to proceed with the amendment and 186 were "Not Content".  This means that it takes out of the Bill that 12 months is the limit for receiving ESA in the WRAG.  It means that the phrase "not less than 730 days" is put in instead.  This means that the lowest time limit can be 2 years and that should the Government (whoever was in power) choose, they could take away that limit altogether without rewriting legislation.

I was stunned to see that the Lords agreed with me, that people who are declared fit for work, should be given enough time to adjust to their changed circumstances before support is withdrawn.  I still believe that having an arbitrary limit on finding work if you are sick or disabled is wrong.  I will continue to believe it is wrong until all employers actually look at a candidate without looking at their physical or mental challenges and only look at their skills and qualifications.  The day this happens, is the day when a time limit should be applied to ESA for people in the WRAG.

I really hope that yesterday's loud statements from the Lords is actually heard by the Government, but I sincerely doubt it.  I can live in hope though, because one thing this whole campaign has taught me is that anything is possible.

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