Opposing the Welfare Reform & Work Bill

The Tories’ Welfare Reform and Work Bill came before the House of Commons on 20 July. This article outlines my position on this Bill, and why and how I opposed it, and the measures that I and other Labour MPs are taking to do so.

Welfare Reform and Work BillFirstly, I am aware some reports have suggested the Bill contained measures to cut tax credits for working families. To clarify, those Conservative measures are not in fact included in this Bill, but will come before Parliament later this year in separate legislation. I will oppose these cuts, just as I voted last week to oppose the Conservative Budget.

Moving to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill itself, Labour tabled what is known as a ‘Reasoned Amendment’ to it. This is a Parliamentary measure which opposes a Bill going to its next stage. It allows you to set out the reasons why you are opposing the entire Bill, even when there are things in it that you support.

This was needed because the Tories had included in the Bill a series of things that Labour supports, such as cuts in council rents, support for troubled families and the big increase in apprenticeships which I expect to provide a boost for south Bristol’s young people. And it contained other measures I definitely do not support, including the removal of child poverty targets and cuts to support for sick and disabled people who are not fit to work, including people with cancer or Parkinson’s disease.

Below I have copied Labour’s amendment in full:

That this House, whilst affirming its belief that there should be controls on and reforms to the overall costs of social security, that reporting obligations on full employment, apprenticeships and troubled families are welcome, and that a benefits cap and loans for mortgage interest support are necessary changes to the welfare system, declines to give a Second Reading to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill because the Bill will prevent the Government from continuing to pursue an ambition to reduce child poverty in both absolute and relative terms, it effectively repeals the Child Poverty Act 2010 which provides important measures and accountability of government policy in relation to child poverty, and it includes a proposal for the work-related activity component of employment and support allowance which is an unfair approach to people who are sick and disabled.

By tabling and voting for this amendment, Labour MPs, including myself, were opposing this Bill. Unfortunately, whilst Liberal Democrat MPs supported it, the Tories opposed it (as you would expect). Disappointingly the SNP failed to support it, choosing to instead abstain on the vote.

Our amendment was defeated, and so the Bill in its original form was put to the vote. Along with the large majority of Labour MPs, I abstained because Labour’s approach to this Bill is to oppose individual elements that we are against when it returns for its next Parliamentary stage in the autumn. The amendments we have tabled 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 two 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.

I and my Labour colleagues will do what we can to make these amendments succeed. But we must, of course, face the fact that because of the general election result there is a majority of Tory MPs in the Commons. The Parliamentary maths are in the Tories’ favour.

I have explained this at length not just because it is important that people understand my position but also because the type of reporting ‘shorthand’ that is usually understandably favoured by most of the media tends to leave out what are, by necessity, detailed arrangements centring around Parliamentary procedure.

Karin Smyth MP