The welfare reform bill will affect millions of lives at their most vulnerable point – isn't that worth proper scrutiny?
By Kaliya Franklin
The government is guilty of attempting to suppress welfare reform bill opposition in the Lords.
The welfare reform bill debate held in the House of Lords on Tuesday was in complete contrast to the bill's passage through the Commons - constructive, eloquent, well attended and informed. Over 50 peers were scheduled to speak; the interest and strict time limits reflecting the levels of concerns across the House. Even those Lords who in principle fully support the bill had serious questions they wanted answered before the bill was passed.
Whilst the main thrust of the welfare reform bill is to move the majority of welfare benefits into one universal credit there are far more contentious proposals. The support system for sick and disabled people is being radically altered in a way the public are unaware of. Most people pay tax and national insurance somewhat grudgingly, but in the expectation that a proportion of it goes to protect the most vulnerable and insure themselves against a time they too might become vulnerable. The bill has been touted as always 'making work pay' and spun in an impressive manner to make it appear to be for the benefit of us all.
Included in the bill are proposals to remove the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance from state funded care home residents, the most vulnerable of all. In such circumstances mobility allowance is used to fund accessible transport. This could be a motability car, but is often accessible taxis or specialist wheelchairs. Removing this payment would see care home residents virtual prisoners and those who use wheelchairs confined to bed. This is a long way from protecting the vulnerable.
Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) was New Labour's answer to the perceived Incapacity Benefit 'problem' widely reported to have serious failings as an assessment process. It has already left people without benefits whilst they are terminally ill. The method of assessing people for ESA, the Work Capability Assessment is to be continued, despite over 40% of claimants appealing against the decision and 70% of those winning their appeals with representation.
The bill proposes an arbitrary time limit on contributions based ESA of 12 months, meaning unless the claimant is entitled to means tested benefits ESA will cease regardless of their health condition. Time limiting ESA is effectively a tax on working families as many will simply not be able to continue working without additional funds for transport, treatment or care and consequently will be forced to become fully reliant on the welfare state.
The bill also proposes to scrap Disability Living Allowance and replace it with a Personal Independence Payment of which the stated aim is to reduce eligibility by 20%. The Department of Work and Pensions' own statistic report that Disability Living Allowance has a fraud rate of 0.5% makes a mockery of government claims that this is about reducing fraud.
For a bill of this size and importance convention dictates that the next stage should be kept in the main chamber of the House of Lords for debate, but on Wednesday at 3.30pm the Lords voted in favour of a government motion to move the bill to a 'grand committee' stage. It may seem pedantic to make a fuss about where a debate is held, but the welfare reform bill will affect millions of lives, typically at their most vulnerable point, during childhood, old age, sickness, disability or unemployment and to break with tradition indicates that the government are worried their bill will not stand up to full scrutiny.
Parliamentary procedure dictates that important controversial legislation be referred to a committee of the whole House. Whilst far more attention has been paid to legislation affecting the forests, planning laws or student fees the welfare reform bill is set to have a wider impact than all those issues. Those affected by its 'reforms' are already dually disadvantaged by the circumstances which have led them to be reliant upon welfare and the media fuelled perception of all welfare claimants as scrounging, fraudulent scum.
Perhaps banking on this lack of interest there had been no media questioning or even awareness that the government intended to break with tradition and force the bill into 'grand committee' so it came as a shock to campaigners on Wednesday morning. There are issues of space and access with moving the bill to grand committee stage, unlike the main chamber of the Lords there is very limited space for public observers in the smaller committee rooms. The rooms are wheelchair accessible but strictly limited due to space, and worryingly none of the committee rooms are large enough to accommodate the number of peers wishing to attend. There are also unanswered questions as to whether all of the grand committee stage will be televised on parliament TV, allowing observation by the public in an accessible manner.
What's most disturbing is the difference in the way peers will be able to scrutinise the bill. If a bill passes through the main committee it involves detailed, line by line examination, every clause of the bill must be agreed to and votes on amendments take place. However, in a grand committee there is no voting on amendments and the committee must agree unanimously, which leaves room for just one peer siding with the government to derail the process.
Amendments and committee stages are dull, dry politics, far removed from the more entertaining to observe public schoolboy buffoonery of the Commons. That the government were so determined to have the bill moved to grand committee shows they are clearly concerned by the levels of query and opposition to the bill and wish to quietly sideline it to grand committee where they hope it will pass with less opposition. This bill affects every one of us, whether we realise it or not; just because one is not yet sick or disabled does not mean that one day protection from the state will not be required, a protection most people naively but understandably assume will always be there. After all David Cameron has repeatedly claimed – "If you are elderly, if you are frail, if you are poor, if you are needy, a Conservative government will always look after you".
If the prime minister were true to his own words and confident in the efficacy and justice of his government's proposed legislation he too would be determined to keep the bill's passage in the main chamber of the Lords through the committee stage. Then the government could prove to those concerned by the bill that their fears are misplaced. Acting in such a secretive manner to force the bill into grand committee stage where it cannot be fully scrutinised or voted for clearly indicates that the government have something to hide.
Kaliya Franklin is an experienced disability rights writer, blogger, campaigner and founder of The Broken of Britain a non partisan campaign against the welfare cuts.
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