I wanted to take the trouble to set out my position in detail given the media coverage and confusion around the vote, so I apologise for the length of this response.
Let me start by saying that I became involved in politics to seek power to be able to take steps to build a fairer and more equal society and reduce poverty and inequality, and through my surgeries and office I regularly meet and help constituents affected by pernicious Tory policy aimed at the poorest. The fact that the last Labour government’s policies lifted over 1 million children out of poverty is an achievement of which I am proud. I am very sorry that we failed to win the General Election – the consequence of which is the first majority Tory Government to be elected since 1992, and, of course, this Bill. I accept that as an opposition our response to the Tories’ efforts to play politics with poverty in this Bill has not been good enough, and has allowed a misconception to be propagated that Labour MPs didn’t vote against the bill.
To be clear all Labour MPs, including me, voted not to give the Bill a Second Reading by supporting Labour’s amendment which started with the words ’this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Bill’. We lost that vote, just as we knew we would and just as we knew we would have lost the later vote on the Bill receiving its 2nd reading.
There is a perfectly logical argument for Labour to attempt to vote down the sections of the bill that we don’t support rather than vote down the whole bill and lose the things we support, like more apprenticeships. This was the position agreed after debate by the Shadow Cabinet. There was also a logical argument (which a number of my colleagues made) for opposing the entire bill (including things we supported) in order to make a point. In practical terms neither of these approaches made a difference to the outcome. The government has an overall majority, and not a single Tory MP has expressed dissatisfaction with the overall Bill, so it would pass either way. It is a question of how we as an opposition best make our point. I am sorry that in the current situation this was not explained clearly enough, but It is wrong, however, to suggest that Labour provided no opposition to the Bill, as some have tried to do.
There has also been some confusion as to exactly what is contained in the Bill. I will also vote against the cuts to Labour’s working tax credits which will make 3 million low and middle income working families worse off – including many people in Cardiff West. Again to be clear these measures are not in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. They will be in secondary legislation in the autumn. I will oppose them because they will leave some of the poorest families £1000 worse off a year.
There are some things in the Bill which we support which is why the reasoned amendment was put down. These things include 3 million apprenticeships, cuts in council rents, support for troubled families and loans for mortgage interest, some of which were Labour manifesto commitments. I certainly oppose the abolition of child poverty targets, cuts to support for the sick and disabled who are not fit for work (including people who have cancer or Parkinson’s disease) and the two child limit.
If our amendment had passed the Government would have had to completely rewrite the Bill taking out those parts we would not support.
When that didn’t happen we immediately tabled amendments for the next stage in Committee to remove from the Bill the measures we oppose, and to try to make sure that other measures are workable and fair. It is important to remember that Monday’s votes are only the start of the process and do not mean that Bill has been passed. If the Bill is not amended sufficiently, then there will be a vote at Third Reading where we can oppose it.
Here are some of those amendments to the Bill which we have put down for the Committee Stage:
- An amendment to prevent the Government abolishing the targets for reducing child poverty.
- An amendment to prevent the deletion of child poverty from the remit of the ‘Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’.
- An amendment which 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 which 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 which 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 affected by the benefit cap.
- An amendment which 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 which shows 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 that.
- 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 which will require the resources which are being dedicated to helping troubled families to be clearly set out.
- An amendment which 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 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.
- An amendment which subjects the four-year benefit freeze to an annual review subject to changes in inflation.
So far from supporting the Tories’ plans as some people have tried to suggest, we have laid down detailed opposition to what they are doing through these amendments.
I am sorry that in our current post election position, without a leader, this matter has not been handled or communicated well. I would however ask you to look at the full facts, even if you don’t agree with the choice that was made about which votes to pursue in Parliament.
Kevin Brennan MP