16/01/2012 – Reaction to reform
A slightly belated Happy New Year to you all, let's hope that 2012 delivers some good and positive experiences for everyone amidst the on-going backdrop of economic difficulties around the world. I'm looking forward to helping steer Lasa staff and our clients through these stormy waters and I'm confident that we'll see exciting new services being developed as we react to changing needs of a cash-strapped voluntary sector.
What stood out for me last week, however, were the momentous events in Parliament, as the government suffered 3 defeats in votes on its flagship Welfare Reform Bill. Promising the most radical revision of the UK welfare system since Beveridge's original blueprint published in the 1940's, the Bill aims to make wide-ranging changes to employment and support allowance (ESA), disability living allowance (DLA), housing benefit (HB), as well as heralding the introduction of universal credit.
The Bill's passage through the House of Commons was fairly trouble-free, with apparent consensus across all political hues about the need for deep-rooted reform of welfare. Indeed, it does appear that there is also wider support for reform amongst the general public, although I do feel that much of this sentiment is fuelled by some frankly irresponsible reporting in sections of the media. Indeed, Chris Grayling, the employment minister, was reprimanded last year by the Chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee for misrepresentations of statistics about benefit claimants.
However, as the Bill moved into the House of Lords, lobbying activity was stepped up again from a variety of fronts, including disabled people who would be directly affected by the proposed cuts. Of particular note is a report published last week, Responsible Reform, which was entirely written, researched, funded, and supported by sick and disabled people, their friends and carers. The report is a comprehensive presentation of the most relevant evidence available on DLA and proposals to replace it with a new benefit, Personal Independence Payments (PIP). More than 500 group responses to the Government's Response to Disability Living Allowance reform were analysed and the report challenges the consensus on the level of support for reform.
Of particular note were findings that 74% of respondents were against proposals for PIP, and that claimed increases in the number of DLA claims were overstated. As well as generating a buzz of activity through social media channels such as twitter (you can search for #spartacusreport), we even had the unlikely scenario of the Daily Mail expressing support for opposition to the Bill. In fact, the votes that the government lost were in relation to ESA, not DLA, but all the same, it was encouraging to see some alternative views and opinions being aired. A coalition of Labour, Liberal Democrat and cross-bench peers outvoted the government peers by a substantial majority on each of the three amendments. The Lords challenged plans to time limit ESA for people who have paid national insurance contributions, as well as voting for amendments related to scrapping ESA for disabled young people and putting time limits on on claims for people diagnosed with cancer.
The government's response was immediate, saying that they would look to overturn these amendments when the Bill returns to the Commons sometime during February. Lord Freud, leading the Bill through the Lords, was also accused of introducing a series of late night amendments that would have overturned the crossbench amendments, and trying to force through a vote when most cross bench peers had left the chamber. With a number of significant elements of the Bill still to be debated, including the DLA/PIP changes and the introduction of overall benefit caps, it seems certain that the possibility of further amendments is becoming ever more likely. The government has already backed an amendment halving the time seriously ill or disabled people will have to wait to be eligible for PIP. There are also predictions from the Telegraph that the Legal Aid Bill will be amended to bring welfare benefits back into the scope of free legal advice.
We'll be following the debates and decisions closely here at Lasa, and working with colleagues on the London Advice Forum and the Disability Benefits Consortium to try and bring about positive changes for the good of vulnerable people needing basic financial support. I hope that you'll join us and I wish you all the best for the year ahead.
Posted by Terry Stokes