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Labour's Position on the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill

There has clearly been some confusion about Labour’s position on the Government’s Welfare Bill and what was actually voted on in the House of Commons on 20 July, so it might be helpful if I set out the facts.

The Government drafted the Welfare Bill to lump together things that Labour - and many people - would wholeheartedly support with other policies that we fundamentally oppose. The Tories’ aim was, of course, to try and divide us.

So Labour tabled what is called a 'reasoned amendment'. This is a way of stating which parts of a Bill you oppose and which you support, and our amendment on 20th July - which I voted for - made it clear that we were opposed to giving a second reading to the Welfare Bill because of the parts we disagree with. In effect, therefore we voted against the Bill progressing (a fact largely unreported), but sadly, our amendment was not carried. The Tories have a majority and we cannot defeat them unless Tory MPs vote with us.

The reason we abstained on the subsequent vote was precisely because of the things in the Bill that we do support; ie three million apprenticeships, lower rents for social housing, and more investment in the troubled families programme. It isn’t quite as simple as being against all of the Bill or for all of it.

On the bad things, there are some really terrible policies that will damage not just our community but society too, such as scrapping targets on abolishing child poverty and cuts to funding for people with disabilities or living with cancer or Parkinson's disease or who are declared unfit for work. These I strongly oppose.

There are three more stages that this Bill must now pass through in the House of Commons before it moves to the House of Lords, so there is a long way to go yet.

There has also been confusion about the Tories’ shocking plan to cut tax credits. These proposals are not in the Welfare Bill. They will be introduced later in the year by another parliamentary procedure called a 'statutory instrument' and I will vote against them at that time. The reason why I oppose these cuts to tax credits is that they will make 3 million low and middle income working families – including many families in my constituency - over £1,000 a year worse off on average. That was also why Labour voted against the Budget; George Osborne’s plans are clearly regressive.

On the issue of limiting child tax credits to two children, I am opposed to this as is Andy Burnham who I am supporting for the Labour leadership.

We have now tabled a series of amendments to the Welfare Bill to try and deal with its particular unfairness. These include:

  • preventing the Government from abolishing the targets for reducing child poverty.
  • removing the household benefit cap from people who are responsible for a child under 2 years old, are a carer, or are in temporary accommodation because of domestic violence.
  • new clauses requiring the Secretary of State to report each year on the impact of the household benefit cap, particularly on child poverty, and to review the cap every year, rather than only once in a Parliament.
  • requiring the Social Security Advisory Committee to review the Discretionary Housing Payments fund each year to ensure that sufficient money is available. Discretionary Housing Payments are used to support those who are unfairly affected by the benefit cap.
  • preventing the Bill from restricting Universal Credit for three or subsequent children even when the third child is born before 5 April 2017. 
  • 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; and
  • an amendment which subjects the four-year benefit freeze to an annual review subject to changes in inflation.

I well understand the frustration that many people feel because we now have a majority Conservative Government which is attacking many of the things we hold dear. I feel that too, but the Labour Party is just as passionate about social justice as it has always been. And can I gently say that having a go at us is no substitute for trying to defeat the Conservatives – who are doing all this - at the next election.

Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

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