I have been contacted by many of my constituents regarding the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which had its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday 20th July 2015. I wanted to share with you my position.
The Bill contains some of the cuts to welfare which the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced in his Budget on Wednesday 8th July 2015. However, other cuts, most notably the cuts to tax credits which will make 3 million low and middle income working families over £1000 worse off, are not included the Bill and will be dealt with as secondary legislation. I can assure you that when these changes come before Parliament, my Labour colleagues and I will oppose them for we will not allow the Government to make life harder for working families.
Although I am concerned about some of the proposals in the Bill, there are measures which Labour supports. Labour agrees with the introduction of annual reporting measures. These would require ministers to report the progress they have made, and measures they have implemented, in achieving full employment and delivering a Troubled Families Programme which assists and supports those with complex needs. Labour also agrees with the creation of 3 million apprenticeships which the Government committed to in their 2015 election manifesto. These measures will encourage greater transparency and make it easier for both MPs and constituents to hold the Government to account.
Labour believes it is essential that work pays and that is why the Party agrees with the principle of the household benefit cap, which ensures that claimants cannot receive more in benefits than in work. In fact, our 2015 election manifesto stated “We will keep the household benefit cap and ask the Social Security Advisory Committee to examine if it should be lower in some areas”. However, we must continue to maintain a responsible and fair social security system; one which rewards contributions but also protects those who cannot work or cannot earn enough to support themselves and their families.
Labour also believes that the Government’s proposals to reduce social rents by 1% for each of the next 4 years will be welcomed by those who rent their home from the council and housing associations.
That said, there are numerous measures in the Bill which Labour firmly opposes. We are deeply concerned by the Government’s proposed changes to the Employment and Support Allowance, which could cut support for the sick and vulnerable who are not fit for work, including people who have been diagnosed with cancer or Parkinson’s disease. Labour also totally opposes the abolition of child poverty targets which could threaten the living standards of millions of children across the UK. I also concerned about the impact of freezing certain benefits and tax credits for four years.
However, we cannot, and should not, oppose this Bill for the sake of opposing the Government. It is essential that we recognise the positive aspects of the Bill and seek to mitigate its worst measures. That is why I supported a reasoned amendment to the Bill on Monday night, which allowed my Labour colleagues and I to highlight the elements of the Bill which we support, whilst outlining those we oppose and will seek to have removed. When the reasoned amendment fell, Labour chose to abstain from the substantive vote on the second reading because by voting against it and assisting in defeating the Bill, we would not only have lost the unfair parts of the Government’s Bill, but also the positive aspects which could ensure that work is the best route out of poverty and improve the transparency and accountability of Government.
My frontbench colleagues have already tabled 24 detailed amendments to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill which we will push hard during the Bill’s committee stage in autumn to ensure that it is workable and fair. These 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.
Should these amendments not be made to the Bill during the committee stage, Labour will carefully consider its position when the legislation returns to the floor of the House for its report stage and third reading.
I appreciate you may still have wished me to vote unequivocally against the Bill but for the reasons outlined above, I was not convinced this was the right thing to do and I hope I have given you a good enough argument as to why.
However, if you would like to meet with me to discuss this matter further, please do get in touch with my office by telephone on 01325 321603 and my staff will be happy to arrange this.