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.

Show Hide image

The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.