Cuts to sickness and disability allowances were resoundingly rejected by the Lords last night, as government proposals faced three embarrassing defeats.
As my colleague George Eaton blogged yesterday, Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reform bill would restrict the period that the sick and disabled could receive Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) to just 12 months, and would means-test it.
The amendments, brought by crossbench peers Lord Patel and Lord Listowel, mean that:
- Young disabled people who are unable to work are automatically eligible for ESA (this was passed 260 to 216)
- Claimants are reassessed after two years, not 12 months (234 in favour)
- Cancer patients are exempt from the time limit between reassessments (passed 222 to 166)
This marks the fourth defeat for the government on the flagship legislation, following a vote before Christmas on housing benefit cuts. It is a big success for disability campaigners, who have been lobbying hard against the changes.
So, what next for the welfare reform bill? The government maintains that the changes are necessary in order to meet its targets on bringing down the deficit. Welfare Minister, Chris Grayling, was defiant on the Today programme this morning, signifying that this is not the end of the road:
We have said very clearly that we will seek to reverse the amendments in the Lords when it comes back into the Commons. We are dealing with some extraordinarily difficult economic times financially.
It is difficult to see exactly how the government will get its way after three heavy defeats in one night, but it is likely that ministers will fight hard for the 12 month time limit. Officials claim that extending the limit from one year to two would cost £1.6bn over five years. Lord Freud argued that the one year time limit strikes "a reasonable balance between the needs of sick, disabled people claiming benefit and those who have to contribute towards the cost".
Yet, clearly, the counter-argument -- that the books must not be balanced on the backs of society's most vulnerable -- prevailed in the Lords. Patel said:
If we are going to rob the poor to pay the rich, then we enter into a different form of morality.
All of this suggests that peers are willing to fight, and bodes well for upcoming votes on further controversial measures such as changes to disability living allowance. The vote is not the end of the road on the battle for welfare, then, but was a significant victory for fairness and compassion.