17 Jan 2012

Government narrowly avoids welfare bill defeat

The amendment to hold an independent review of the welfare reform bill has been defeated by 229 to 213, Government majority 16.

The vote in the House of Lords by such a slender margin in what represents a huge blow for disability activists, who had urged peers to reject government plans to change disability benefits or risk forcing 500,000 people into poverty.

The Government avoided a further embarrassing defeat in the House of Lords after announcing concessions over its plans to introduce a new disability allowance.

Paralympian Baroness Grey-Thompson’s move to force ministers to hold trials before rolling out the replacement for disability living allowance (DLA) to all two million claimants was defeated by 229 votes to 213, Government majority 16.

The independent crossbench peer called for an independent review of the assessment plans and a trial period before the new process is fully implemented.

The Welfare Reform Bill brings in a new personal independence payment (PIP) that will replace DLA, and Lady Grey-Thompson argued there should first be a review of the assessment plans and a trial period.

“There needs to be careful scrutiny of who will be affected by these changes,” she said. “For me there’s a real concern about whether it could lead to a deterioration of people’s health.”

An earlier Lady Grey-Thompson amendment, in which she argued reports from doctors should be a mandatory part of the PIP assessment process, was withdrawn without a vote.

Sixteen leading disability charities had raised concerns that plans to replace the disability living allowance (DLA) with personal independence payments (PIP) are based on “incomplete” and “misleading” information.

The government proposed to reduce expenditure on DLA by 20 per cent by introducing a new benefit that involves a tougher face-to-face test, so that half a million fewer disabled people will receive it by 2015 to 2016. They say that without reforms, the number of people claiming DLA would rise by around 150,000 by 2015/16, with the total number of claims rising to 3.5 million.

But ministers have now avoided defeat when the bill was put to the vote.

Previous defeat

Last week, peers rejected proposals to means-test employment and support allowance (ESA) payments after a year of receipt. They also defeated plans to time limit ESA for those undergoing cancer treatment, and to restrict access to ESA for young people with disabilities or illnesses after Lord Patel, a former president of the Royal College of Obstetricians, said this would “enter into a different form of morality” by robbing “the poor to pay the rich”.

Independent surveys have shown that cuts to DLA will force disabled people into poverty. Charities statement

On Monday, the government also said it had shelved plans to increase the qualifiying period for the new PIP from three to six months.

A statement, signed by charities including the Papworth Trust, The National Autistic Society, RNIB, Sense and the MS Society, said the government’s plans “may have been based on incomplete or misleading data about the reasons for growth in DLA”.

“Independent surveys carried out by some of the signatories to this letter have shown that cuts to DLA will force more disabled people into poverty, which is likely to increase the burden on the NHS and social care system in the long run,” it added.

The charities have urged peers to support an amendments to pause the legislation “that will affect so many people’s lives“.

Responsible reform

Director of operations for the Papworth Trust, Matthew Lester, said the peers needed “all the information, so we are calling on them to pause the [Welfare Reform] Bill for now.”

Last week’s defeats followed the release of the report, Responsible Reform, by disabled activists.

In an indication of strength of feeling against the changes, the report, soon known as the Spartacus report, soon became the top-trending Twitter topic for most of the day.

Among those criticising the changes is London Mayor, Boris Johnson, who wrote a detailed six-page argument in which he said that reform, while needed, was at risk of being driven solely by a cost-cutting agenda which fails to recognise needs.