Disability campaigners went to bed smiling last night after an apparent victory when the government suffered a huge defeat over key policies of the Welfare Reform Bill. Three amendments were passed that would change the new time limit on contribution-based ESA from one year to a minimum of two years, remove the limit altogether for cancer patients, and would ensure that disabled children with no chance to make national insurance contributions would still be able to receive ESA in their adult life.
But Lord Freud did not accept his crushing defeat so easily. Although the debate on the welfare reform bill finished earlier that day, it resumed again around 8.30pm and Freud introduced a vote on amendment 45a that would render the earlier amendments irrelevant.
Earlier in the day Lord Patel’s amendment 45 had removed clause 52 from the bill, which related to children with no national insurance contributions. Amendment 45A rendered amendment 45 useless by re-inserting the content of clause 52 and thus removing future ESA from disabled children. Since amendment 45 had been voted on and passed by the full house, it is against normal procedure to vote on an amendment that contradicts it. Lord McKenzie furiously tried to oppose the amendment but many of those in opposition to the bill had gone home already and so the amendment was passed by 132 votes to 49. It is just speculation but I wonder if Conservative peers were briefed to stay behind. Of the amendment McKenzie said:
“This amendment was in the same group as the amendment on which the Government were defeated but runs contrary to the decision that the House made previously. The assumption is that this matter will not be pressed. Otherwise, the Government give us no alternative but to force a vote on it.”
After his first sneaky win Freud attempted to overturn his other two previous defeats however at this point peers were getting very angry with him. Baroness Hollis said:
“I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, does not wish to appear to be subverting the view of the entire House, which was expressed in the full knowledge that the amendment which we voted on was devised—I devised it—as a paving amendment to a substantive one, so that we could debate it in good time. Most of the population of the House has gone home, believing in good faith that the previous vote has established the principle—as it has. However, the noble Lord is trying to renege on that by forcing a vote despite the late-night keeping of the roster. That would be quite improper and quite unprecedented, and I strongly suggest that he think again.”
Lord Bassam said
“My Lords, this is somewhat unprecedented”
At this point it appears that Lord Freud backed down and did not attempt any further amendments.
This behaviour by Lord Freud and the government is astonishing. It cannot be interpreted in any way other than that the government tried to subvert the will of parliament. The language of Hollis and Bassam is important here. Their phrases “quite improper and quite unprecedented” and “somewhat unprecedented” are strong language when it comes to parliament and translate to something more like “what the hell are you doing”.
This morning Chris Grayling said to Radio 4 that the government will reverse the amendments to the bill when the welfare reform bill returns to the House of Commons. Grayling does not live in the real world on these matters. He talks about children inheriting money and still receiving benefits. This is confusing, since I think very few people outside of the circles that Chris Grayling moves in will inherit that much money, and in any case, this bill doesn’t take benefits away from children who inherit money, it takes it away from ALL of them. Current income related benefits already ask the question about savings and these benefits are not given to people with a few thousand in the bank. Baroness Meacher said on the same programme “The British public do not accept that banks screw up and very severely disabled people pay the bill.”
If anyone had previously thought that the government were simply misguided as to what their policy would do they should revise their opinion. This government is corrupt.
Thank you to Karen Sumpter for helping me get my insomnia-addled brain around all of this before noon.
Live discussion of Welfare reform bill [The Guardian]