Nine Lib Dems rebel as Osborne's welfare bill clears another hurdle

Charles Kennedy, Sarah Teather and seven others vote against bill capping benefit increases at 1 per cent for each of the next three years.

The coalition's Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill (artfully renamed by Andrew Rawnsley as "The Make Labour Look Like the Party for Skiving Fat Slobs bill"), which introduces a 1 per cent cap on benefit increases for each of the next three years, comfortably made its way past the Commons last night, with MPs voting by 305 votes to 246 to give the bill a third reading. 

When MPs first voted on the bill earlier this month there were six Lib Dem rebels. Four of the party's 57 MPs - Julian Huppert, John Leech, Sarah Teather, David Ward - voted not to give the bill a second reading, while Andrew George and Charles Kennedy formally abstained by voting in both lobbies. Last night this total increased to nine. Below, I've listed those who voted against the bill and, where applicable, have included how far up they appear on Labour's target list of 106 seats. The Conservatives intend to target 20 Lib Dem seats at the general election but have yet to release a full list. 

1. Andrew George (St Ives)

Majority: 1,719

2. Martin Horwood (Cheltenham)

Majority: 4,920

3. Julian Huppert (Cambridge)

Majority: 6,792

Labour target 103

4. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber)

Majority: 13,070

5. John Leech (Manchester Withington)

Majority: 1,894

Labour target 31

6. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute)

Majority: 3,431

Labour target 64

7. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

Majority: 4,078 

8. Sarah Teather (Brent Central)

Majority: 1,345

Labour target 23

9. Mark Williams (Ceredigion)

Majority: 8,324

The most notable moment in the debate came when Labour's shadow employment minister Stephen Timms was asked whether it was his party's policy that benefits should be uprated in line with inflation, rather than by 1 per cent (a real-terms cut). Timms replied: "Uprating should indeed be in line with inflation, as it always was in the past." He later added: "We reject the proposal to restrict the uprating of social security and tax credits to 1% in our view, as I have already said uprating should be in line with inflation and it should be assessed as it always has been at the end of the preceding year." 

Timms's words were significant because, as I noted yesterday, Labour's amendment to the bill simply called for the cancellation of the 1 per cent rise, rather than for benefits to rise in line with the Consumer Price Index as normal. The Tories leapt on his statement as proof that Labour was committed to inflationary rises in benefits for the next three years. The party's Tiggerish chairman Grant Shapps commented: "Labour have committed to pay for more generous benefit rises with more borrowing and more debt. That’s exactly how they got us into this mess in the first place. Labour haven’t learnt and would do it all over again."

But Labour has since argued that Timms's words only reflected the party's existing position of increasing benefits in line with inflation this year (2013-14) and did not amount to a commitment to do so in 2014-15 and 2015-16. As the BBC's James Lansdale notes, on 6 January Ed Balls told Sky News: "The normal thing is to index and the government would normally have indexed in line with inflation and to be honest, I think that would be fair." He added: "It's not responsible for me as a shadow chancellor to come here two and a half years ahead and tell you what we can do about taxes or spending or benefits."

So, in other words, nothing has changed. But expect the Tories to continue to challenge Labour to give a much clearer indication of how it would behave in 2015. 

Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy was one of nine Liberal Democrat MPs to vote against the Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.