Last night I abstained on a vote for the Second Reading of the Welfare Bill. I did this after a lot of thought and I want to explain why. There's already some myths about what was being voted on last night and also misunderstanding of parliamentary procedure and I want to tackle all these issues, too.
When I first read the Bill it became abundantly clear what the government was up to. They had lumped together measures that Labour - and many of you - would wholeheartedly support with other policies that we would rightly hate. These are the games they are playing simply to divide the left - that's right, they're playing games with welfare simply to get one over on us.
On the issues that I support in this Bill, the three most significant are the creation of three million new apprentices (many are the higher and advanced ones included in the Labour manifesto); lowering of rents for social housing; and more investment into the 'troubled families programme' which has its origins in the early intervention policies I worked on in 2006 and 2007. Each of these measures would directly benefit us in Hove and Portslade and I want them as soon as possible.
Then there are some really terrible policies that will damage not just our community but society too, such as scrapping targets on abolishing child poverty, and cuts to funding for people with disabilities or living with cancer or Parkinson's disease, or are declared unfit for work. These I obviously oppose with all my heart.
So you see my predicament: people have suggested to me that it is a matter of principle that I should have voted against this Bill. But for me, as someone who has worked so hard to end youth unemployment, it is also a matter of principle to vote for the very apprenticeships that will help me honour my pledge to you. To vote against that part of the Bill would mean I also vote against my principles. I also see the suffering of people in arrears in social housing, it would have also meant breaking my principles to vote against help for them, too.
So, as a way forward, Labour tabled what is called a 'reasoned amendment'. This is a way of stating which parts of a Bill you oppose and which you support when you abstain. It enabled me to not vote for or against the overall Bill, but instead make a public statement about why that course of action was taken and which parts I supported and opposed.
And there's more. There are three more stages that this Bill must pass through in the House of Commons before it moves to the House of Lords. The next is Committee Stage (which is what I just sat on for the Education and Adoption Bill) where you can scrutinise the Bill line by line and table amendments to each section of it. Labour have already published some of the amendments we will seek to introduce at this stage and I've included them at the bottom of this update. Each one of these will have to be voted on by MPs and you should all lobby the MPs who are on this committee to support them. All it would take is for two or three Tories to do the right thing and the amendment will become law.
Then the Bill returns for its Report Stage, and finally it's Third Reading. At these points it is still possible for me to vote against the entire Bill if I believe that is the only course of action left. After that, the Bill passes to the Lords where the government lacks a majority and the Labour team there can try to bring further influence.
Some people have said on social media that I am now supporting cuts to Tax Credits which contradicts an interview I gave to the Argus recently, so let me clear this up: cuts to Tax Credits are not included in this Bill, they will be introduced later in the year by another parliamentary procedure called a 'statutory instrument' and I will vote against them. The only time I will vote for cuts to tax credits is when wages are already at a level at which they are no longer needed, not before, as the government are doing
There's one more myth doing the rounds that I'd like to debunk: Labour could not have won the vote last night because not a single Tory voted against this Bill. Some people are suggesting that because not every Tory voted last night, we could have beaten them. The truth is that if it had looked like we were going to vote against the Bill the government would have simply forced all the ministers and cabinet to break free of meetings to come and vote. It is a heartbreaking truth but because we lost the election we cannot beat the government unless Tories vote with us.
I won't pretend that this has been easy for me because it hasn't. Because we lost the election we don't get to choose the battles we fight or the battleground. The Tories chose to put all these conflicting policies into one Bill to make it difficult for people like you and me. They are hoping that the general public's lack of awareness of the intricacies of how laws are made will force the left to split and for Labour to crumble yet further after our defeat.
I told you during the campaign when I wrote about other tough issues like my Israel / Palestine visit that I would not dodge difficult decisions but I would always be available to explain myself, to listen, and to learn from your perspective and experiences. I didn't reach the conclusion to abstain simply because the whips told me to. For me, it was the only way I saw of moving forward while being true to my principles even though I knew a lot of people would be shocked and concerned upon reading the headlines. Believe me, I'd rather that hadn't been necessary.
I want to get going and solve the tough challenges we face, like youth unemployment and the cost of housing and families that need support, and I want to oppose the vindictive nature of the way this government are using welfare reform to demonise the poor and vulnerable. I will do both with all the strength I have, even though sometimes it will mean taking difficult decisions that risk upsetting the very people I have gone into politics to help. I knew this job would have its difficult moments and this is one of them. I'm doing the best I can to deliver positive change on your behalf even though it is the Tories who are dealing the cards in parliament.
I've had my say now, and I'm really looking forward to hearing what you think, so please post and share your thoughts and experiences and I'll do everything I can to respond to as many as possible. All the best, Peter
Here are some of the amendments Labour will try to have included in the Bill:
- An amendment to prevent the Government abolishing the targets for reducing child poverty;
The Government are also trying to delete child poverty from the remit of the ‘Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’ so that it becomes just the ‘Social Mobility Commission’. An amendment will prevent that taking place;
- An amendment which will mean that the household benefit cap would not apply to persons who are responsible for a child under 2 years old, are a carer, or are in temporary accommodation because of domestic violence;
- A new clause which will require the Secretary of State to report each year on the impact of the household benefit cap, particularly on child poverty;
An amendment which will require the level of the household benefit cap to be reviewed every year, rather than only once in a Parliament. The review would be based on the new clause above requiring the impact of the benefit cap on child poverty to be assessed each year;
-An amendment which will require the Social Security Advisory Committee to review the Discretionary Housing Payments fund each year to ensure that sufficient resources are available. Discretionary Housing Payments are used to support those who are unfairly affected by the benefit cap;
- An amendment which will set the target of full employment as 80 per cent of the working age population – in line with the Labour Government’s definition and recent research which shows that this would be an ambitious target. The Bill includes a process for reviewing progress towards ‘full employment’, but does not define what is meant by that;
- An amendment to require the UK Commission on Employment and Skills to assess whether the Government’s target for apprenticeships is being met, so that the Government can be held to account. There is significant concern among businesses and others that the quality of apprenticeships is being watered down in order to increase the numbers;
- An amendment which will require the resources which are being dedicated to helping troubled families to be clearly set out;
- An amendment which will ensure that interventions to support troubled families are focused on helping people into work;
- An amendment to prevent the Bill restricting Universal Credit for three or subsequent children even when the third child is born before 5 April 2017;
A new clause preventing the restrictions to tax credits applying to three or more children where a third child is born as a result of a multiple birth, where a third of subsequent child is fostered or adopted, where a third child or subsequent child is disabled, or where a family with three or more children moves onto tax credits or universal credit in exceptional circumstances – including but not restricted to the death of one member of the family, the departure of one parent or loss of income through unemployment – which would be set out by the Social Security Advisory Committee. It also sets up an appeals process for all cases covered by this clause;
- An amendment preventing cuts in the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for the WRAG group of around £30 a week. People who are in the WRAG group have been through a rigorous test which has deemed them not fit for work, for example because they have Parkinson’s or are being treated for cancer;
An amendment requiring the Government to produce a plan to offset the impact of lower social rents on housing associations. Labour supports the reduction in social housing rents, which will help low-income families and bring down the housing benefits bill. However, we must protect against impacts on the ability of housing associations to build new affordable homes and maintain their existing properties;
An amendment which subjects the four-year benefit freeze to an annual review subject to changes in inflation.