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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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