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.
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.