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 Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.