Victory for sick and disabled as Lords reject welfare reforms

Peers have voted against reducing support for cancer patients and young disabled people. Where next

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.

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Has Arlene Foster saved power-sharing in Northern Ireland?

The DUP leader's decision to attend Martin McGuinness' funeral was much more than symbolic. But is Gerry Adams willing to make a deal?

After some prevarication, DUP leader Arlene Foster chose to attend the funeral of Martin McGuinness in Derry today. Her decision to do so cannot have been an easy one.

A substantial part of her loyalist base has noisily resisted attempts to memorialise the late deputy first minister as anything other than an inveterate killer. Foster herself notes in today’s Belfast Telegraph that the former IRA commander was responsible for the deaths of “many neighbours and friends”. And in 1979 – aged just eight – she bore witness to the bloody aftermath of an IRA attack in her own home: her father, a reservist police officer, was shot in the head by a gunman later eulogised by McGuinness.

Her attendance at today’s funeral is thus noteworthy and has been the subject of due praise. She was twice applauded by the congregation: as she took her seat, and after Bill Clinton singled her out in his eulogy. It is, however, much more than the symbolic gesture it might appear.

Last month’s election, which saw the DUP lose 10 seats and unionist parties lose their Stormont majority for the first time in nearly a century, proved Foster to be damaged goods. She was – and remains – tarnished by the RHI scandal but also by her crass behaviour towards the nationalist community, particularly on Irish language issues.

Her carelessly won reputation as a truculent bigot will therefore not be easily lost. Her departure remains a red line for Sinn Fein. But with just four days until the deadline for a new devolution settlement, Foster’s presence at McGuinness’ funeral is the clearest indication yet of the DUP’s carefully calculated strategy. It isn’t quite a resignation, but is nonetheless indicative of the new manner in which Foster has carried herself since her party’s chastening collapse.

She has demonstrated some contrition and offered tacit acknowledgement that her election shtick was misjudged and incendiary. Her statement on McGuinness’ death was delicately pitched and made only oblique reference to his IRA past. In the absence of a willingness to allow Foster to step down, the decision instead has been taken to detoxify her brand.

The conciliatory Foster the DUP will nominate for First Minister on Monday will as such at least appear to be apart from the dogwhistling Foster who fought the election – and her attendance today is the superlative indication of that careful transition. There has been talk that this increases the chance of a deal on a new executive. This is premature – not least because the onus is now almost entirely on Sinn Fein.

Theirs is just as much a mandate to reject Stormont as we know it as it is to return and right the DUP’s wrongs. Gerry Adams, the last member of the Armalite generation standing, has made this abundantly clear – and has hardened his line just as Foster has made sure to be seen magnanimously softening hers. He said last night that he would not tolerate any extension of power-sharing talks beyond Monday’s deadline, and called on Dublin to prevent the UK government from re-instating direct rule.

Though Adams also maintained a deal was still possible in the coming days, his statement augurs badly. As the former UUP leader Lord Empey told me on the day McGuinness died, the Sinn Fein president – the ideologue to McGuinness’ Stormont pragmatist – is now entirely without equal within his party. Though he has set the transition to a new generation of female leaders in train, he remains in total control. His demand for Dublin’s involvement is also telling: as the leader of the third-biggest party in the Dail, his is an all-Ireland long game. Enda Kenny will soon depart, offering Fianna Fail – riding high in the polls – a useful pretext to renegotiate or scrap their confidence and supply arrangement with his minority government. Sinn Fein are on course to make gains, but implementing Brexit and austerity as partners in a Stormont executive would undermine their populist anti-austerity platform.

As such, Empey predicted McGuinness’ death would allow Adams to exert a disruptive influence on the talks to come. “I don’t think it’ll be positive because for all his faults, Martin was actually committed to making the institutions work,” he said. “I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed – and it was obvious from the latter part of last year that Gerry was reinstating his significant influence in the party. For that reason I think it will make matters more difficult.  I hope I’m wrong, but that’s my sense.”

He is not alone. There was, earlier this week, growing confidence in Westminster that some fudge could be reached on the most contentious issues. It isn't impossible - but Adams’ renewed dominance and rejection of the extended timeframe such negotiations would undoubtedly require suggests a new executive is as unlikely a prospect as it has ever been. With Foster quietly reinventing herself, the DUP could be the big winners come the next election (which could come this year and reinstate a unionist majority) – and the resurgent republicans might well rue the day they squandered their big chance.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.