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The need for a proper Labour response to Welfare Reform

Hull North MP Diana Johnson writes on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill that received its Second Reading in the House of Commons on 20 July.
 
Like many people in Hull I am concerned about the effect that parts of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill will have on people who rely on benefits – particularly Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Child Tax Credits. 
 
There is no doubt that this Bill, if not substantially amended, will increase poverty in Hull and elsewhere - particularly child poverty. 
 
The Welfare Reform and Work Bill is part of a package of measures announced in the Summer Budget 2015, which Labour voted against on 14 July 2015. I spoke about the Budget, and what it meant for Hull and those in poverty, in the Budget Debate on 9 July 2015. My speech can be read here:
 
 
It can be viewed here:
 
 
This is a Bill that has been introduced by the Conservative Government and because they have a majority in the House of Commons, after winning the General Election, they can force through regressive legislation on areas such as welfare reform. 
 
Labour does not support the Welfare Reform and Work Bill as a whole and the severe cuts it introduces, particularly the cuts to Child Tax Credits and ESA. 
 
However, there are elements of the Bill that we support – such as the creation of three million apprenticeships. 
 
Monday 20 July 2015 was the first opportunity the Commons had to debate the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. This was an opportunity to vote on whether the Bill should be allowed to proceed to the next Parliamentary stage. 
 
Labour tabled what is known as a “reasoned amendment”. This stated that while there were elements of the Bill that we supported, we did not support the cuts to Child Tax Credits, the removal of maintenance grants for students or the cuts to ESA. Therefore we would not be supporting the Bill. 
 
I voted for this reasoned Labour amendment, which expressed my opposition to the Bill - but we were defeated. 
 
The SNP did not vote with Labour on our reasoned amendment and UKIP’s MP actually backed the Tory Bill.
 
The next Parliamentary Stage is Committee Stage where we will get to debate individual clauses of the Bill and table and vote on amendments. At this stage Labour will be opposing the cuts to Child Tax Credits, ESA, maintenance grants and numerous other clauses. 
 
At the bottom of this article, I have listed some of the amendments Labour has already tabled at Committee Stage, showing how we will attempt to oppose large chunks of the Bill and improve the sections of the Bill we do agree with. If we are unsuccessful at getting these amendments passed we will vote against the entire Bill at Third Reading. 
 
This is the point at which Parliament decides whether to pass the legislation - not whether to simply allow it to go forward for debate. 
 
I appreciate that some politicians have suggested that by supporting a reasoned amendment on 20 July, rather than simply voting against the whole Bill, this is tantamount to supporting the Bill - or allowing it to pass. 
 
It may suit certain politicians, including some in the Labour Party, to suggest that this is the case - but this is highly misleading. This vote was not about passing the Bill as it is now. It was about allowing the Bill to be debated and amended. The process of tabling a reasoned amendment is normal procedure when the Opposition support some elements of a Bill and opposes other parts. 
 
Labour adopted the same process in relation to the Welfare Reform Bill introduced in the last Parliament under the Coalition between the Tories and Lib Dems. Labour tabled a reasoned amendment at Second Reading laying out our Opposition to certain elements – such as the Bedroom Tax, welfare cap and changes to ESA. We tried to get these elements of the Bill changed. When the Tories and Lib Dems refused we voted against the Bill at Third Reading. 
 
The Conservative Government have made the Welfare Reform and Work Bill a very broad Bill in order to be able to claim Labour is opposed to all welfare reform and its more progressive parts, such as the creation of apprenticeships. Simply voting against this Bill at Second Reading would allow the Tories to claim that Labour opposed the creation of three million apprenticeships. There are other elements of the Bill Labour supports – such as the changes to mortgage interest benefit, help for troubled families and the cuts to rent for social housing tenants.  
 
What I, and my Labour colleagues, are concentrating on are the most pernicious elements of the Bill – cuts to ESA, Child Tax Credits and maintenance grants. These and other issues are highlighted in the list below. By focusing on these issues we have a better chance of building pressure for change and influencing what some Tory MPs and members of the Lords do in later stages of the Bill. 
 
Having said that, it is still important to note that the Conservatives have an overall majority in the Commons and if they so wish can still force legislation through.
 
A summary of some of the Labour Amendments to the Welfare 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 effected by the benefit cap.
 
An amendment that 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 showing 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 the term.
 
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 that will require the level of resources being dedicated to helping troubled families to be clearly set out.
 
An amendment that 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 that has deemed them unfit 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 that subjects the four year benefit freeze to an annual review subject to changes in inflation.
 
The above sets out in some detail the approach the Labour Party has adopted in dealing with the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.
 
It is a mature and sensible approach and not the futile gesture politics that some want Labour to pursue. 
 
For my part, early in the Autumn I will be surveying constituents across different parts of Hull North to seek their views on various aspects of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill – from apprenticeships and council rents to Tax Credits and benefits for people living with disabilities. 
 
The response I receive will help inform how I approach the further stages of this Bill in Westminster this Autumn.
 
Diana Johnson
MP for Hull North
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