Today was the 2nd reading of the Welfare Reform Bill and, on the whole, it seemed a very constructive, mannerly affair with both sides of the house making reasoned arguments. There seemed to be a genuine desire on both sides of the house to make sure the reforms were fair and any problems resolved.
The main points that came up time and again were those things IDS couldn't confirm, the parts of reform for which details haven't been decided despite them being in the original bill. These include :
-Child Tax Credit will be abolished but IDS cannot confirm what will take it's place One study seems to imply that whilst currently up to 97% of childcare is paid for, this might drop to 70% acting as a disincentive to work.
-We also don't know what will happen about free school meals, passporting of benefits, disability premiums, housing for those on DLA or whether DLA will continue after retirement age. Council tax benefit and elements of support for carers are also unclear. Labour argued throughout the debate that there were far too many details yet to be presented to the house.
-Labour continually pointed out that without work to go to, these reforms would fail and cause hardship and inequality. Jobs MUST be the starting point for welfare reform.
-The savings cap came up over and over again. Members argued that capping savings at £16,000 for those on Universal Credit did not "foster ambition"
- Members on both sides raised concerns over the Work Capability Assessments and reassurance was given that these would be addressed.
It was however, noticeable from the start that by far the biggest issue was sickness and disability benefit reform. It came up over and over again from members on both sides of the house, many waving sheaths of letters from frightened constituents. A HUGE congratulations to campaigners who have worked tirelessly to make sure that MPs were well informed on the issues sick and disabled people face. It showed in every part of the debate that the message had got through.
Questions were asked on DLA and it seems that the government have backed down on scrapping mobility payments for adults in care homes. Liam Byrne pushed IDS for confirmation which wasn't quite given, but it was certainly a stronger concession than was given last week.
For a while it looked as though Labour might back down on time limiting ESA and certainly, many Labour MPs raised this issue as one of the greatest causes for concern. Byrne didn't quite back down, but it seemed to me that this may still be up for debate - a positive sign.
Many MPs also mentioned that DLA was in little need of reform. It was an occurring theme that announcing a 20% cut in the benefit before any assessment had taken place could only be viewed as a cost cutting measure and would understandably cause concern. I wondered if there might be a push to remove DLA from the WRB altogether as too many details were still too unclear? Watch this space.
Concerns were raised over ATOS and the assessment process. IDS was pushed on whether he would reconsider inflicting regular assessments on those who's disabilities were lifelong or degenerative. this was one area he stood very firm on. He saw nothing wrong with assessing ANY benefit regularly.
The Conservative side of the argument was nearly always that benefits were far too complicated and that work must pay. I disagree with neither of those statements and felt that there would be little resistance to changing specific details as long as those two points were rigorously upheld. They mentioned a desire to see real jobs that pay - another desire I can't disagree with
Finally, I'd like to point out that attendance in the house was shameful. A handful of MPs scattered the benches during this, the most important change to our welfare system for 60 years. Along with the NHS proposals, I urge EVERY MP to take his or her responsibility more seriously in our name. They ALL need to be informed on these proposals and surely every constituent has the right to think that his or her MP will give this enormous overhaul their full attention?
Sadly, right at the end when the cameras came in, Chris Grayling, the final speaker, turned the debate into a party political row. It WASN'T like that all the way through. This issue should be above politics. To their credit, most who spoke managed this admirably.
The (Lab) amendment failed by 244 Ayes, 317 Noes. Where were the other 89 MPs? Again, I don't care about excuses. This is too important to miss.
Update : John McDonnell MP (Lab) is tweeting that Ed Miliband told Labour MPs (PLP) to ABSTAIN on the bill, and to only support the amendment. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions on that one. I'm way too deflated.