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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.