How MPs are trying to protect the poor from Osborne's welfare cuts

Lib Dem rebels table amendment to Welfare Uprating Bill calling for benefits to increase in line with average earnings, rather than Osborne's 1 per cent.

The coalition's Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill, which will enshrine in law George Osborne's plan to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for the next three years (a real-terms cut), returns to the Commons today for its report stage and third reading.

Earlier this month, when MPs voted on the bill for the first time, I gave four reasons why it deserved to be defeated: it will force even more of the poorest families to choose between heating and eating; it will damage the economy by reducing real incomes; low wages aren't a reason to cut benefits (contrary to the government's claims) and there are fairer ways to reduce the deficit.

In view of such objections, opposition MPs have tabled a large number of amendments to the bill to protect the poorest. Here's a summary of the key proposals.

Labour: cancel 1% rise and offer a jobs guarantee to the long-term unemployed

Labour has called for the reference to a "1% rise" to be removed from the bill, suggesting that it believes benefits should continue to be increased in line with the Consumer Price Index.

In addition, reflecting its argument that the best way to reduce the benefits bill is to increase employment, it has called for the government to introduce a jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed. The amendment reads:

This Act will not come into force until a guarantee has been introduced that anyone who has been in receipt of jobseeker's allowance for two years will be offered a job suitable to their circumstances paying at least the rate of national minimum wage for 25 hours per week together with job-search support.

Highlighting the coalition's decision to cut the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p this April, a move worth an average of £107,500 a year to the UK's 8,000 income-millionaires, Labour has also tabled an amendment stating that "This Act will not come into force if, on or before 6 April 2013, the highest rate of income tax is reduced from 50%."

Lib Dem rebels: increase benefits in line with earnings

Six Lib Dem MPs, including Charles Kennedy and Andrew George (both of whom abstained at second reading) have tabled an amendment calling for benefits to increase in line with earnings, rather than 1 per cent. Since average earnings are forecast by the Office for Budget Responsiblity to rise by 2.2 per cent this year, 2.8 per cent in 2014 and 3.7 per cent in 2015 this would shield the incomes of the poorest from inflation, which is expected to increase at a slower rate than earnings from 2014.

It's also a neat way of skewering the government's complaint that benefits will increase by more than wages this year.

Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru: increase benefits in line with RPI inflation

Caroline Lucas, Hywel Williams (Plaid Cymru) and Dr Eilidh Whiteford (SNP) have signed an amendment calling for benefits to rise in line with the Retail Price Index (RPI), rather than 1 per cent. After Margaret Thatcher's government broke the link between benefits and earnings in 1980, welfare payments were calculated using this measure. But in his "emergency Budget" in June 2010, Osborne announced that benefits would instead be increased in line with the Consumer Price Index, rather than the (generally higher) RPI (see James Plunkett's Staggers blog on the coalition's "£11bn stealth cut"), a move that will cost the poor hundreds of pounds by the end of the spending period.

Based on the OBR's forecasts for RPI, benefits would rise by around 3 per cent this year, 2.6 per cent next year and 3.1 per cent in 2015 under this proposal. But since earnings are expected to outstrip inflation from 2014, a more progressive option would be to stipulate that, depending on which is highest, benefits will either increase in line with RPI or average earnings.

Update: Caroline Lucas has been in touch to say that she agrees that benefits should either rise in line with earnings or inflation, depending on which is higher. She added: "Essentially was trying to table amdt which Lab might have supported (ie RPI) - but ideally earnings shd be there too".

George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street on January 7, 2013 in London, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.