12 Jan 2012

Government urged to drop welfare reforms

Disability campaigners have urged the government to scrap many aspects of planned welfare reforms after several defeats in the Lords.

Job centre - Getty

Planned restrictions on employment and support allowance (ESA) affecting cancer patients and the disabled were overturned by peers considering the welfare reform bill.

The Lords also rejected a proposed one-year limit on ESA claims.

Disability campaigners who have been calling for changes to the government’s plans, have welcomed the votes. In a blog post, one commented:

“No Government is defeated on the scale we saw last night, with the very strong majorities we saw, by accident. It was the undeniable injustice of the Government’s plans that convinced the Lords.”

Labour said the coalition had been defeated for trying to “cross the basic line of British decency” and advised ministers not to try to reinstate the measures in the Commons.

The government was defeated by 234 to 186 over a plan to limit to one year the time people can claim ESA.

Peers agreed a move to replace the one-year cap with the ability for the government to specify a limit of no less than two years.

Welfare reform - why disabled people are worried

The government was also defeated when peers voted by 222 to 166 to accept an amendment by Lord Patel removing the time limit on contributory ESA payments from people receiving treatment for cancer.

Peers defeated the government by 260 to 216, majority 44, to allow young people unable to work because of disability to receive the ESA.

Putting forward the amendment, independent crossbencher Baroness Meacher said the government’s plan would mean disabled children who could never work would never be entitled to the benefit. She said it would leave them dependent on means testing and they would receive no income at all if their partner was earning.

Lady Meacher told peers: “It really puts them in a completely different category from other people who grow up, are able to earn, able to build up capital, able to gain contributions. They are surely in a category of their own.”

New benefit system dogged by ‘endless appeals’

The government faces many more such battles in parliament

The passage of the government's controversial welfare reform bill through the Lords was never going to be smooth writes Channel 4 News Social Affairs Editor Jackie Long, but three defeats? That took even disability rights campaigners by surprise.

And it was the strength of those defeats too.

In the vote on Lord Patel's amendment, which removed a time limit on contributory ESA payments from people with cancer, there was a majority of 56.

Labour and crossbench peers took the lead but it was the support of Liberal Democrats which will cause the government most concern , not least because it faces a raft of other critical votes on welfare reform in the Lords over the next couple of weeks.

First up on Tuesday the 17th is the hugely contested decision to replace Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Plans. Campaigners say it'll see disabled people losing out on vital financial support and will have a devastating effect on many families.

On January 23rd the Lords will debate amendments challenging the £26,000 benefit cap on families, irrespective of how many children they have, or what living costs they face.

And two days later, on 25 January, the Lords will hear amendments on the decision to allow local authorities to charge lone parents who need help getting ex-partners to pay child maintenance.

More defeats are expected, but the real crunch will come when the bill returns to the Commons.

The Liberal Democrats will be key here too. Some MPs are said to be as uncomfortable as their colleagues in the Lords about being seen to cut benefits to some of the most vulnerable in society. But under the coalition agreement they're committed to tackling the deficit.

Campaigners are hopeful they'll win concessions before then.

But in the meantime, the Lords debates make uncomfortable listening for the government, with crossbenchers like Lord Patel accusing them of a strategy that will make "sick and vulnerable people.. even more miserable."