Many local people have contacted Toby in recent days regarding the vote on the Welfare Bill on Monday night. Below he blogs about the vote and how he voted.
Understandably there has been considerable interest in the bill and what the response to it by Labour says about us as an opposition.
Let me start by saying that I am in politics as a Labour MP to help us get into power so that we may take steps to build a fairer and more equal society and reduce poverty and inequality. I am very proud of the last Labour government’s achievements in lifting over 1 million children out of poverty.
It was no coincidence that the Conservatives should choose the final week of parliament before Labour’s leadership election to bring forward a bill of this nature. They knew that it would pose political problems for the Labour Party, sadly the inadequacy of our response as an opposition has turned a tricky situation into a shambles.
The first misconception that has been allowed to be propagated by the confusion of our response is that we didn’t vote against the bill – we did, I did. By proposing what is known as a reasoned amendment we voted to scrap the Welfare Bill. The reasoned amendment listed the parts of the bill that we supported (see details below) but also said that on balance we were declining to support the bill because of the things that we opposed.
Of course we lost that vote, just as we knew we would, just as we would have lost a vote on 2nd reading. There is a perfectly logical reason for us to attempt to vote down the sections of the bill that we don’t support rather than vote down the whole bill and lose the things we support. There was also a logical argument (which many of my colleagues made) for opposing the entire bill (including things we supported) in order to make a point. In practical terms neither of these would have made a difference, the government has a majority and not a single Tory MP has expressed dissatisfaction with it, so it will pass either way, it is a question of how we as an opposition best make our point.
What’s in the Bill
When I first looked through the Bill it was abundantly clear what the government was up to. They had lumped together measures that Labour – and most people in Chesterfield – would support with other policies that we would obviously oppose. Their goal was to cause political damage to Labour, particularly during our leadership contest. The Tories know that they benefit when the Left is divided, and so that’s what they use the tools of government to try and achieve.
On the issues that I support in this Bill, the three most significant are the creation of three million new apprentices (many are the higher and advanced ones included in the last Labour manifesto); lowering of rents for tenants in social housing; and more investment into the ‘troubled families programme’ which has its origins in the early intervention policies of the last Labour government.
In my judgement each of these three measures would directly benefit the constituents I was sent to Parliament to represent. Voting against the 2nd reading of the bill would have meant voting against these measures (and you would hear the Tories on the TV saying “Labour voted against increasing apprenticeships and cutting rents for social tenants” for the next five years), which was a key reason why the party leadership decided not to oppose the 2nd reading of the bill.
But then there are the other measures like the abolition of child poverty targets and cuts to support for the sick and disabled who are not fit for work – this includes people who have cancer or Parkinson’s disease.
Only a Tory government could propose removing the legal duty for the government to tackle child poverty (introduced by the last Labour government. Only a Tory government could propose reducing the welfare budget that goes to terminally ill cancer patients. We should always remember that it is Cameron’s Conservatives who came up with these ideas and brought them before Parliament.
It should go without saying that these are terrible policies which I wholeheartedly oppose, and our reasoned amendment (see more below) did oppose them.
What’s not in the Bill
Lots of people have raised with me the issue of cuts to tax credits, particularly for those families with more than two children. Tax credits were a great achievement of the last Labour Government which helped to lift 1 million children out of poverty. But let me be absolutely clear – cuts to Tax Credits were not a part of the Bill presented to the House of Commons this week.
The government have made it clear that they intend to cut Tax Credits, but this will be introduced later in the year by another parliamentary procedure called a ‘statutory instrument’ and Labour will oppose them then.
I’ve met many local Council tenants struggling with arears at my weekly surgeries. I stood on a manifesto in May to create more apprenticeships. I have seen the success of early intervention programmes in addressing long term youth unemployment. Whilst our amendment would have had the effect of killing the bill, our amendment at least put on record our support for these measures.
This does mean that by supporting Labour’s amendment I voted against cuts to support for disabled people and abolition of the child poverty targets.
What happens next
There are three more stages that this Bill must pass through in the House of Commons before it moves to the House of Lords.
The next is Committee Stage where a smaller committee of MPs can scrutinise the Bill line by line and table amendments to each section of it. Labour have already published some of the amendments we will seek to introduce at this stage and I’ve included them at the bottom of this blog so you can see the approach we will take at this stage.
Then the Bill returns for its Report Stage, and finally it’s Third Reading. At these points it is still possible for me to vote against the entire Bill if I believe that is the only course of action left. After that, the Bill passes to the Lords where the government lacks a majority and the Labour team there can try to bring further influence.
Defeating the government
Some people have contacted me, and posted on social media, that Labour could have won the vote on Monday because not every single Tory voted. What actually happened was that, because the Conservatives knew we were going to abstain, they allowed some of the MPs to go home, or for ministers to attend meetings rather than vote. If we were going to vote against it they would have got all of their MPs out to vote to defeat us – exactly as they were able to do with the reasoned amendment.
It’s difficult to deal with, but the truth is that now the Conservatives have won an outright majority we cannot ever defeat the government unless some Tory MPs vote with us, and on Monday not a single Tory MP broke ranks to abstain or vote against the Bill.
The Tories chose to put all these conflicting policies into one Bill deliberately to divide us and create powerful dilemmas for Labour MPs. It is imperative that once we have a new leader in place we start to offer credible united opposition of a sort that I am afraid was sadly missing on this occasion.
I personally think the approach the leadership attempted to carry out was the best response to a difficult situation.
I appreciate that other people will take a different view and respect this. Some will argue that we should oppose everything if we disagree with anything, others that our course of action on this occasion was right, there are strong arguments for both approaches.
Either way, a disorganised and disunited opposition only makes the government’s job easier and I apologise that as a group we failed to provide the sort of unified and coherent opposition the country deserved.
If you would like to meet to discuss this further I would be very happy to do so. Simply call 386286 to make an appointment.
Here are some of the amendments Labour will try to have included in the Bill:
- An amendment to prevent the Government abolishing the targets for reducing child poverty;
- The Government are also trying to delete child poverty from the remit of the ‘Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’ so that it becomes just the ‘Social Mobility Commission’. An amendment will prevent that taking place;
- An amendment which will mean that the household benefit cap would not apply to persons who are responsible for a child under 2 years old, are a carer, or are in temporary accommodation because of domestic violence;
- A new clause which will require the Secretary of State to report each year on the impact of the household benefit cap, particularly on child poverty;
- An amendment which will require the level of the household benefit cap to be reviewed every year, rather than only once in a Parliament. The review would be based on the new clause above requiring the impact of the benefit cap on child poverty to be assessed each year;
- An amendment which will require the Social Security Advisory Committee to review the Discretionary Housing Payments fund each year to ensure that sufficient resources are available. Discretionary Housing Payments are used to support those who are unfairly affected by the benefit cap;
- An amendment which will set the target of full employment as 80 per cent of the working age population – in line with the Labour Government’s definition and recent research which shows that this would be an ambitious target. The Bill includes a process for reviewing progress towards ‘full employment’, but does not define what is meant by that;
- An amendment to require the UK Commission on Employment and Skills to assess whether the Government’s target for apprenticeships is being met, so that the Government can be held to account. There is significant concern among businesses and others that the quality of apprenticeships is being watered down in order to increase the numbers;
- An amendment which will require the resources which are being dedicated to helping troubled families to be clearly set out;
- An amendment which will ensure that interventions to support troubled families are focused on helping people into work;
- An amendment to prevent the Bill restricting Universal Credit for three or subsequent children even when the third child is born before 5 April 2017;
- A new clause preventing the restrictions to tax credits applying to three or more children where a third child is born as a result of a multiple birth, where a third of subsequent child is fostered or adopted, where a third child or subsequent child is disabled, or where a family with three or more children moves onto tax credits or universal credit in exceptional circumstances – including but not restricted to the death of one member of the family, the departure of one parent or loss of income through unemployment – which would be set out by the Social Security Advisory Committee. It also sets up an appeals process for all cases covered by this clause;
- An amendment preventing cuts in the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for the WRAG group of around £30 a week. People who are in the WRAG group have been through a rigorous test which has deemed them not fit for work, for example because they have Parkinson’s or are being treated for cancer;
- An amendment requiring the Government to produce a plan to offset the impact of lower social rents on housing associations. Labour supports the reduction in social housing rents, which will help low-income families and bring down the housing benefits bill. However, we must protect against impacts on the ability of housing associations to build new affordable homes and maintain their existing properties;
- An amendment which subjects the four-year benefit freeze to an annual review subject to changes in inflation.