Will the Lords come to the defence of the poor and disabled?

Coalition may be defeated on plan to remove support for 7,000 cancer patients after 12 months.

The Lords will vote later today on the coalition's plan to time-limit the Employment and Support Allowance (formerly known as Incapacity Benefit) and there's a chance that the government will be defeated on at least one aspect of the policy.

Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reform bill would restrict the time that the unwell and disabled can receive the Employment and Support Allowance to 12 months and only those whose partner earns less than £7,500 will qualify for the means-tested version. The rest, including an estimated 7,000 cancer patients, will be left reliant on their families and charity as they lose up to £94 a week.

However, one amendment, tabled by Lord Patel, the crossbencher and former president of the Royal College of Obstetricians, would extend the eligibility period for ESA to two years, while another would exempt cancer patients from the time limit. There's a good chance that at least the latter will pass.

A further scandal is that the bill does not account for those young people who are severely disabled and who have had not had a chance to build up national insurance contributions in order to receive ESA. An amendment tabled by crossbench peer Lord Listowel would ensure that they are still able to claim.

Since proposing the reforms, the government has come up with no justification other than "we can't afford it". As the Prime Minister's spokesman said:

The government had to tackle a record deficit and has set out plans to do that over the course of the parliament. One of the things we have had to look very hard at is the welfare system.

But it should be a matter of shame that the seventh richest country in the world is unwilling to ensure a decent standard of living for its most vulnerable citizens. Let us hope that the Lords do their duty today.

Update: In a serious defeat for the coalition, an amendment to protect the automatic right of young disabled people who are unable to work to qualify for ESA has been carried, by 260 votes to 216.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.