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.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.