Thursday, 2 February 2012

What Lib Dem MPs did yesterday

This is something I wrote this morning for a Lib Dem facebook group and which should be published here later today automatically:


Okay, so I've taken several deep breaths and am going to do my best to stay calm and rational. I want to explain what happened with our MPs and the welfare reform bill last night and why I think it was wrong.

I've been campaigning on this for well over six months so it's easy for me to forget that not everyone knows as much about this as I do or feels about it as strongly as I do. I know that many of you know, like and respect our MPs. So did I until last night which is why I know how hard it might be to believe all this. So I'm asking you to just read this and to read all of it before coming to a conclusion on it all. I'm not going to lie, I'm not going to use hyperbole. I'm going to tell the whole truth and, if you doubt what I say, then you can easily verify it. I'm purposely not going to talk about the benefits cap here. I disagree with it for several reasons but the government did make some concessions on it and it's not something I've campaigned on so I'm going to avoid talking about it so that it doesn't muddy the waters when it comes to the issue of disability benefits. If you want to discuss it, please discuss it somewhere other than the debate on the cuts to disability benefits - otherwise the good arguments about both issues will be drowned out by the noise.

Yesterday the House of Commons voted on the House of Lords' amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill.

These amendments were as follows:

• Amendment 36a: Protects young disabled people's eligibility for contributory Employment Support Allowance (ESA)

The government wished to end the practice of treating children who were too severely disabled to work, and therefore unable to accumulate NI payments, as being treated as though they had made NI payments and therefore giving them access to the higher rate of support called contributory Employment Support Allowance. The government's plan would have instead meant them going on to the means tested version of ESA where the cut off point for receiving benefits is a household income of £7,500 or £16,000 in savings - this change would save £10 million a year. The arguments in favour of the government's plan was that otherwise disabled children could potentially inherit large amounts of money and yet still receive benefits and that a european court of human rights ruling meant that it might also allow people who could claim they had a link to Britain to receive the benefit even if they lived abroad.

The House of Lords collectively felt that these arguments and savings did not justify the blanket ending of the practice, especially as the human rights ruling was being challenged and had consequences far beyond this particular practice, and because the means test threshold was so low that it would effectively limit severely disabled children from being able to ever live with a partner or save for old age without being penalised and therefore the Lords passed this amendment to prevent this change.


• Amendment 38: Raises to 24 months the proposed 12-month limit on claiming contributory ESA.

Contributory ESA is a higher rate of benefit for those who have made sufficient National Insurance contributions. ESA itself is the successor to Incapacity Benefit. The people who receive it are those who are assessed as being potentially able to return to work at some point in the future as opposed to have a condition so severe that they can never work. The government wanted to limit the amount of time claimants could receive contributory ESA to a maximum of 12 months, coming into effect retrospectively from April when the bill is due to be signed. However, the argument against this change is that the majority of contributory ESA recipients take substantially longer than a year to return to work, indeed, when the benefit was set up it was imagined that most recipients would take 2 to 5 years to return to work. Those who reach the end of the time limit would be moved onto income related ESA which has the same means test as above of a maximum of a household income of £7,500 or £16,000 in savings before it is taken away completely. This could potentially penalise families where one partner is working as it would make the family financially better off by splitting into two households or by the working partner giving up work.

The other argument against the change is that the work capability assessment (WCA) that determines whether people should receive contributory ESA as opposed to unconditional ESA is deeply flawed and has an appeals system which is costly and where 40% of appeals at tribunal are successful. The government is reforming the WCA through a series of annual report but the changes won't be fully implemented until 2015 meaning that, at the moment, many of the people affected by the limit will include those suffering from degenerative conditions such as Parkinsons or cancer and who cannot be reasonably expected to work and that this would mean a three year window where people were affected by a time limit despite the fact that the assessment system which put them in the time limit was broken and described by it's designer as "not fit for purpose".
The lords’ amendment raised the time limit to a minimum of two years as it was felt that this would reduce the number of people caught by the cap and give those affected more time to be able to return to work.


• Amendment 38a: Exempts cancer patients from the contributory ESA limits

This is fairly self-explanatory. This amendment would have stopped cancer patients from being affected by the contributory ESA time limit and the associated Work Capability Assessment. Personally I think this should apply to other severe conditions, such as Parkinsons, but that's just me.


• Amendment 1: Passed last night, this drops proposals to cut disability living allowance payments by up to £1,400 a year for around 100,000 children.

Currently poorer families with a child getting Disability Living Allowance can get a payment of £53.84 a week via the "disabled child element" of the Child Tax Credit. Those with children with the highest care needs get an additional £21.73 a week. Under the new Universal Credit, the government proposes that those on the higher rate will get £77 a week - £1.43 more than currently. Children on the lower rate would get £26.75 a week, a weekly reduction of £27.09. In effect, this means giving a slight increase in support to severely disabled children whilst cutting it significantly for those with "medium" disability. The lords amendment sought to alter the bill so that the lower rate of disabled child benefit would be no less than two thirds of that of the higher rate.

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Every single one of these amendments (as well as others relating to child benefit and the benefit cap) were voted down in the House of Commons with the overwhelming support of Lib Dem MPs. About a dozen or so Lib Dem MPs abstained or voted against the rejection of some or all of the Lords' amendments. The government has also stated it's intention to declare the Welfare Reform Bill a "money bill" which would enable it to go to royal assent without returning to the Lords.

Now, our autumn conference unanimously passed a motion against the one year time limit to contributory ESA and made it party policy to oppose any arbitrary time limit - something that was a key point of the motion and my original purpose in writing it.

The argument made in the Commons by Jenny Willott was that since policy was that the two year time limit was just as arbitrary and should therefore the one year time limit should be supported. I disagree with this fundamentally as I think that a) the lords amendment was for a MINIMUM of two years and b) it was a damn sight better than what the government proposed and was for more in keeping with the spirit of the motion passed at conference.

Basically, I think that the way our MPs (and our peers before them, as they overwhelmingly voted against these amendments in the Lords) is disgraceful as the bottom line is that vulnerable sick and disabled people will suffer. The argument made time and time again by the government, when pushed to the wall, was that these amendments should be rejected as they would disrupt planned savings. I don't think we should balance the budget by cutting support to the most vulnerable for no reason other than to save money. The IFS today said that Osbourne has room for £20 billion of tax cuts due to lower than expected borrowing costs. The total savings the government intends to make from disability benefits is £3 billion - and these amendments don't even touch one of the major savings which was cutting DLA by an estimated 20% whilst also introducing a new assessment system at the estimated cost of £545 million.

In the long term, universal credit and the improved WCA will counter some of the most harmful elements of the changes but, over the next three years, sick and disabled people will be caught in the three year gap of the implementation of universal credit and the new WCA. Human beings will suffer unnecessarily through no fault of their own.

Danny Alexander said that we shouldn't balance the books on the back of the poor. But that's exactly what I view this as doing.I think it goes against everything our party should stand for, especially as these changes to disability benefits weren't in the manifesto of either coalition party or in the coalition agreement.

I've emailed Tim Farron and Jenny Willot asking for an explanation for the way they voted but I have yet to receive a reply.

14 comments:

  1. I too was invited to email Tim Farron for an explanation, and I too am waiting to receive one.

    I'm not sure how they can justify classing this as a money-bill, as they made no indication of that intent when presenting the bill to the Lords in the first place.

    I'm truly ashamed to have been a Lib Dem voter. Unless the parliamentarians grow a spine, that will remain in the past tense. They'll go alongside "Tory" as "unvotable".

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  2. I don't mean this in a dismissive way, but if you really are against austerity savings, have you considered a party like the Greens? It seems to me you are very unhappy in the Lib Dems...Not entirely sure why you'd stick around to be honest.

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    1. Freud said this isn't about deficit reduction. Many have suggested that this bill is actually going to cost more money than we already spend, thus not being a cut - a lot of this will be through creating new IT systems, and of course the WCA-style assessment contracts the likes of which ATOS now enjoy.

      This wasn't about austerity savings at all.

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    2. From what I understand, Universal Credit, which has a large income disregard for households with a disabled person who qualifies for PIP (the DLA replacement) will only be effective here if we push for and obtain proper, decent testing procedures and criteria for the PIP.

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    3. Don't worry Valerie. I am currently going through the draft criteria for PIP. It will be very effective at removing people from disability benefit.

      "Bathing" now just means washing your armpits, face and torso above the waist. Seemingly hygiene isn't too important if you are disabled.
      Someone needing help washing and getting dressed doesn't qualify for benefit.
      Someone who can walk around 50m with crutches or a walking stick but otherwise needs a wheelchair doesn't qualify for high rate mobility.
      Someone who can't walk more than 200m with crutches or a walking stick doesn't get any mobility benefit at all.

      Want people off disability benefit? Just redefine what it means to be disabled.

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    4. Andrew, I supported going into coalition. I'll blog about this in detail tomorrow but I've always thought that by being I'm coalition we were, broadly, doing the right thing and doing good. I've supported austerity and I still support it. But we have a choice what to cut and, by voting to cut support for those unable to support themselves, I think we have done a terrible thing that betrays all our fundamental values. I don't see how any liberal could possibly view this as acceptable and I'd be very interested as to what your thoughts are on last night.

      Despite what you might think, I am a liberal and I don't see why I should leave my party just because some of our MPs have apparently forgotten their principles. Conference unanimously backed my motion and my views on this are the majority within the membership judging by the voting at conference in september.

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    5. As you know George, I respect your right to be in the party, and respect your right to fight for what you believe to be right. My point was that, and i've always thought, that if a person disagrees with more policy than they agree with, should they be in the party? I get the impression you disagree with more than you agree.

      As for cutting, well, look at the balance of power and votes recieved...I dont think we have a huge lot of choice, we know the inevitable if we bring the government down is we pick up a few hard left politicos who'll applaud us, but most ordinary people will crucify is for the inevitable financial instability.

      So we are left in trying to make cuts as fair as possible but inevitably supporting stuff we don't like, but that which the country voted for. Tories regardless of whether it was in their manifesto are widely known for being tough on welfare and benefits and the country supported that too.

      As for MPs forgetting their principles...That's a whole new debate but i Obviously disagree.

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    6. Andrew, I agree 100% with party policy - it is the way our MPs are behaving that I disagree with. On this very issue, they went against party policy. So the problem is not my view of party policy but their view of party policy.

      On this issue you can't make that argument about how few MPs we have. We entered government to bring fairness whilst also fixing the economy. This was a prime test of that goal and we failed. We were willing to stand up to the tories on things like the euro veto and AV and wind farms and trident and nuclear power so why couldn't we have stood up to them on this.

      The country did not support these reforms because they were in no one's manifesto. And polling shows that the vast majority are opposed to the government'' changes to disability benefits.

      I'm not saying we should bring down the government but nor should we not even attempt to fight for our principles, our policies and the disabled. I'm sorry to say this but you seem to be adopting a somewhat blinkered loyalist attitude where everything bad is no fault of our own and our leadership is perfect.

      Well this is our fault. We may or may not have been able to stop it but as we never even tried the blame is entirely on us. We have just alienated the 3 million disabled people in the benefits system and sent them back to Labour after many of them had come to see us as the only party which cared about them.

      We are spending £48 billion, for example, on HS2 and it won't start until well into the next parliament, but we aren't willing to find a fraction of that to protect the sick and disabled.

      Please tell me, how the fuck can that be right?

      I love my party and I love the people in it. But right now I think we have been utterly betrayed on this issue. Fees, the NHS, they all pale into insignificance next to this.

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    7. George,the more people like Andrew,that want,ask you to leave.Proves you are having a impact.
      You are a man of conscience,in a world of my party,right or wrong.
      Winston Churchill,who became a leader of this country,was at one time,disliked by his own party.
      People who stand up for what they believe in,fight when cowards shrivel away are a rare breed.
      You can,and I am sure will,one day make a difference.Just because you never,give in.
      You have gained much respect,across parties,because you are true to your own beliefs.
      You do not change your opinion just to be popular,you stick to your guns.
      The grass roots of the LibDems,I am sure,think highly of you.Those in high office would be glad to see the back of you.
      That is exactly the reason you should stay.You are the next generation of LibDems.And from what I have seen,and read in blogs like yours George.These young LibDems,might just one day,make a difference.
      That is why you should stay.And I hope you never change my young friend.

      Peter Benson.

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    8. Spoonydoc - I agree, the draft criteria for PIP are outrageous. When I said "if we push for and obtain proper, decent procedures and criteria" I meant "decent" in the way you or I would understand it. And the push to get such criteria/procedures will have to be an almighty great one.

      Disabled people and organisations made an almighty great push before the WRB. But there was, infuriatingly, far too little awareness and activity outside those groups - among Lib Dem members, for a start. *If* more people can show that they are aware of the issues and determined not to let the PIP tests be the same indecent charade as the WCA, and we add to the pressure, we could - maybe - end up with such criteria. But I'm under no illusions as to what a challenge it is.

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  3. I'm not going to prescribe who you should be joining, but you really need to leave the Liberal Democrats.

    What took place here is reprehensible, but you should also understand that as long as the Government exists, and it will go on, the situation is also sadly unsalvageable, both in terms of policy and electability.

    The Lib Dems do not have the guts to end either their leadership, or the Government.

    Your energy is far better spent building elsewhere.

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  4. I'm sorry George but your 'unbias' analysis is, once again, simply wrong on a great many levels.

    First of all- let's get one thing very clear: The DWP is like any other Government Department- it has an agreement over it's budget with HMT as part of the defecit reduction stratergy. IF you support reducing the defecit, as you say you do, then you have to support cuts in every department- unless you're proposing abolishing DCMS, DEFRA in order to keep spending the same in the DWP. By definition any cuts in DWP hurt those who need support- the question is making sure you cut things for those who have another means of support- it's not nice but it's frankly the only way you can do things.

    That's why Contributory ESA for those in the WRAG is one fo the very few things you can seek to cut- because the sickest will not be affected (in the Support Group) and neither will the poorest (who will get Income Related ESA). This change alone saves £1 billion PER YEAR- that's after you factor in the increase in the number of people getting Income Related ESA- the gross savings are £2.7 billion a year by 2016/17. So- if you don't agree, please let everyone know where YOU would cut £1 billion a year from the DWP budget- would you reduce pensions? Would you cut the rate of benefits across the board? Would you cut (and I mean actually cut, not restrict the growth) DLA by 40% or so?

    On that basis, I think that cutting here was one fo the few places you could make savings in DWP.

    Of course- the major point to be made is that our MPs are part of the Government, and are REQUIRED to vote with the Government line. Voting against these amendments would have likely led to the collapse of the Bill, which in turn, would lead to the collapse of the Government. If you think a Tory only Government would not have done everything above- but without things like exempting people inthe Support Group from ESA, or reforming the WCA process, or ensuring disabled people in care homes still recieve DLA then frankly your insane.

    Of course- whilst you're focused on your own, poorly thought out conference motion (as I've said to you before- any time limit is arbitrary), our MPs have been supporting a Bill which will impliment Universal Credit. This will mean £4 billion a year more going to the sick, the disabled and people on low incomes. It will improve means testing for ESA- which will massively help the vey people we're talking about here, and also mean that people finally get what they deserve. Voting agains the motions last night would have meant not getting Universal Credit- I know which I think is the msot important to vulnerable people.

    In addition- on some of the other issues you mention:
    - The ESA Youth stuff: It's not their household income, it's their partners income, and pensionable savings are only partially counted in the means test.

    - On the disabled children's premiums- you've totally missed what the Government is trying to do. At the moment severely disabled adults get far far less than severly disabled children- so when someone turns 17 they see a huge drop in their income. The Government is trying to correct this cliff edge. So, in order to do so, it's reducing the 'less disabled childrens' payments to the same rate at the 'less disabled adults' rate and ptting all the money back into the severely disabled adults part of the equation. This means people won't see huge changes in what they see. It's a judgement call whether you think that's a good thing, but I for one think it's better you support those in most need.

    Look- I know you care about this stuff, and that's great, but I really don't think you are seeing the whole picture. I think our MPs have got a lot of good changes to things that would have happened anyway by being prepared to work with the Tories rather than throwing their toys out the pram.

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  5. George,

    I, like a lot of my friends, voted Lib Dem last time round and unseated a Labour MP, who was replaced by a Tory. We did not expect that our vote would be used to support being mean and spiteful to the poor, the disabled and the dying. There is comparatively little money in this and a very low abuse rate - it is just mean spirited and vindictive, especially when their are bigger targets to tackle. We did not expect that our vote would be used to firesale the NHS to the private sector, or to triple tuition fees (the MPs signed a pledge for goodness' sake). A lot of us wish we could have our time again and vote the other way and feel at least as let down as you seem to. If the Lib MPs thought as you do and hadn't sold out your party then none of the above would happen. No one is going to vote Lib next time as they colluded with the Tories in doing the above. When the Libs are wiped out at the next election a coup by someone who thinks like you might be too late. I hope not.

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  6. I'm not a Lib Dem because although I voted Lib Dem at the last election I cannot agree with their spinelessness in the coalition. I guess that's what you'd expect as I'm a disabled person! But I have one very good idea for where cuts should be made in the DWP - stop paying the winter fuel allowance without any means-testing. There's a big clue as to the inappropriateness of this - it is now fashionable for celebrities to make a big noise about which charity they're giving theirs to! As a country, we do NOT have the money to pay a winter fuel allowance to everyone of pensionable age regardless of wealth. A much better plan would be to put a big effort into increasing the take-up of guarantee pension credit and restrict the winter fuel allowance to those receiving that benefit. Then the government would have more money available to ensure that disabled people of working age can have enough money to lead a reasonably dignified life and not to be dependent on their family or partner for everything.

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I'm indebted to Birkdale Focus for the following choice of words:

I am happy to address most contributions, even the drunken ones if they are coherent, but I am not going to engage with negative sniping from those who do not have the guts to add their names or a consistent on-line identity to their comments. Such postings will not be published.

Anonymous comments with a constructive contribution to make to the discussion, even if it is critical will continue to be posted. Libellous comments or remarks I think may be libellous will not be published.

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Oh, and if you persist in repeating yourself despite the fact I have addressed your point I may get bored and reject your comment.

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