Debates on the Welfare Reform Up-Rating Bill

The coalition government in Westminster successfully defeated amendments to the Welfare Reform Up-Rating Bill this evening, despite the passionate debates by all sections who oppose it. The bill now proceeds to the House of Lords committee stages, after being rushed through parliament in quick time against criticism that this was done to avoid public scrutiny.

The Up-Rating Bill basically caps any welfare payment rises households in most benefits to 1% for 2014-15 and 2015-16. With a 1% cap increase already planned for in 2013-14, it commits the UK government to a 3 year cap on welfare, breaking a tradition to ensure that welfare benefits keep pace with the real costs of living for the most vulnerable in society including children. And no doubt! teasing the Labour party into debates about repealing the measure, during the election of 2016.

The main amendments were registered by the Labour Party who sought to have the 1% increase withdrawn, the Green Party, Caroline Lucas who made an impassioned plea for reinstating the link to the retail prices index (RPI), and of course a handful of Liberal Democrat MPs who suggested that any increases be linked to earnings, while raising concerns about the uncertainty of the effective future forecasting for the three years.

The bill impacts on both working and non-working people struggling on benefits and low wages. The effective cut in real terms estimated to be around 4% p.a. is a blow for common decency and compassion for people struggling in a very harsh economic climate and a punch in the belly of the poorest in our society at a time when the essentials of maintaining a roof over one’s head, keeping warm, clothed and fed, are rising dramatically. The measure plans to take another £3.5 billion out of the pockets of struggling people whom spend the majority of their income in local communities with the inevitable corresponding effect on local business and the very entrepreneurs that need support.

Much was made of Child Poverty Action who cite that more than 200,000 children will be forced into poverty by this single measure alone, with the accumulated impacts of wider Welfare Reform effecting 1million children by 2016, breaking a coalition commitment to end child poverty. However many commentators believe the figure could be even higher and rather than ending child poverty, its policies are increasing it.

MPs opposing the bill made much of the government’s fur coat handout in the summer (my analogy) to the richest 8,000 who received a £2,000 per week tax break, comparing the harsh cost the poorest are paying to the richest that again succeeded in making a mockery of the Prime Minster’s specific stance that “we are in this together”.

In the oppinion of tenants rents in Wales have risen quicker than their incomes, with a 45% increase for local authorities between 2003-4 and 2010-11, while housing association rents have increased by 40% between the same period. The welfare cap will of course impact on housing benefit and the future ‘housing credit’ awarded under Universal Credit. With rents being set for 2013-14 at 4.6% to support rent convergence and 3.6% for HA’s in Wales, the shortfall will be of concern for tenants and indeed landlords in Wales.

If you think the Labour Party (UK) would do better, think again! as any future respite appeared to have been quickly pounced on by Labour head office when shadow welfare minister Stephen Timms seemed to suggest that “we [Labour] would increase future welfare in line with inflation, as it always was in the past…” but the labour party has responded stating he was referring to what the policy was, not what the policy is. This seems to indicate they would not commit to a return to RPI if they were successful in the 2015 general election. Either way, it would appear that at least today! we cannot rely on the current mainstream party’s to redress the situation. Let’s hope that there is more opposition in the House of Lords as it proceeds to committee stage there.

On a date that is commonly referred as ‘Blue Monday’ due to the depression that many people feel as they receive their credit card bills following Christmas, for welfare claimants, it will be remembered as ‘Grey Monday’ where any faint light of compassion was finally snuffed out in parliament by the coalition government.

Liam Byrne, shadow secretary for works and pensions summed up the mood of MPs opposing the bill, and the manner in which it has been rushed through, when he stated “Never has so much been taken, from so many, so fast”.