On 19 February, I posted a short blog about a report from the Centre for Welfare Reform called ‘Counting the Costs’ and mentioned that on 27 February 2014 there would be a debate in the House of Commons about this and the demand for an independent impact assessment of the cuts on disabled people.
This debate took place under the ‘Backbench Business’ agenda from 11.22 am to 2.29 pm on the 27th of February and you can read a transcript of it in Hansard. The debate starts towards the end of that page and then continues on the next 2 pages (or sections) of the transcripts for that day.
The motion put before the House read as follows:
That this House calls on the Government to commission an independent cumulative assessment of the impact of changes in the welfare system on sick and disabled people, their families and carers, drawing upon the expertise of the Work and Pensions Select Committee; requests that this impact assessment examine care home admissions, access to day care centres, access to education for people with learning difficulties, provision of universal mental health treatments, closures of Remploy factories, the Government’s contract with Atos Healthcare, IT implementation of universal credit, human rights abuses against disabled people, excess deaths of welfare claimants and the disregard of medical evidence in decision-making by Atos, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Tribunals Service; urges the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Education jointly to launch a consultation on improving support into work for sick and disabled people; and further calls on the Government to end with immediate effect the work capability assessment, as voted for by the British Medical Association, to discontinue forced work under the threat of sanctions for people on disability benefits and to bring forward legislative proposals to allow a free vote on repeal of the Welfare Reform Act 2012.
And who debated it?
First of all, it’s a real victory that this debate happened at all. It was put on the agenda for backbench business because over 100000 people had signed a petition asking for it to be debated in the House of Commons.
Of course, and because it is backbench business, it’s not a legislative proposal.
The debate was time limited but nonetheless the fact that it had just over 3 hours of time is a good thing and it is important to note that quite a number of MPs participated.
In total, 28 MPs (excluding the proposer of the motion, John McDonnell (Lab) and the Minister for Work and Pensions, Mike Pinner (Con)) spoke. 13 of them spoke once, 3 spoke twice, 5 spoke three times, 3 spoke four times and 3 spoke more often.
The first speaker, and one of the ones who contributed significantly to the debate with 5 interventions, was Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton and Hove. Like many of the others who contributed, she referred extensively to specific cases from her constituency of people with disabilities who had suffered because of welfare cuts. In fact, the whole debate focused on the impact of real people personally known to the MPs from their constituencies, and is for that reason an immensely powerful debate.
It is, however, interesting to note that by far the majority of MPs who spoke were Labour; only one Liberal Democrat spoke and only 4 Conservatives (excluding the Minister). So this appears to be a debate and thus an issue that the backbenchers of the government parties are not particularly interested in. If they serve your constituency maybe that will give you food for thought prior to the next general election.
Other key issues
Apart from speaking of the real suffering of real people, MPs also talked at length about two other specifics raised by the Motion:
The suitability of the Work Capability Assessment: speaker after speaker outlined the enormous deficiencies in this system and the high level of decisions coming out of this system that are overturned on appeal. Caroline Lucas was one who cited figures from her constituency where 72% of appeals (in a sample of 25 cases) had been overturned. A system of assessment and decision-making that is this vulnerable to challenge must be in need of serious change.
The intervention of one of the Conservative MPs was a lengthy defence of the Work Capability Assessment which concluded as follows: ‘No test is ever perfect, but the WCA has been designed with considerable rigour and is subject to a process of continuous improvement.’ There is some reason in the statement in principle, no test is ever perfect, but one that has an above 50% rate of failure on being challenged can’t be said to be fit for purpose.
The defence of the Work Capability Assessment did not only come from the few Conservative MPs taking part in the debate; there was also a defence of it from some Labour MPs, for example Kate Green, MP, Lab, who said:
‘However, I do part company with the motion in its call for the WCA to be scrapped. I know that will disappoint many disabled campaigners listening to the debate. In my view, the assessment should be the first step in a process of identifying and assembling the right support, including financial support. I say to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) that I have never thought there should be no assessment or reassessment, and I do not think it now. Justified criticisms were made of people being left for years on incapacity benefit without any support or any check on their progress or the deterioration of their condition, and we should not go back to that.’
But whilst it is appropriate to assess people’s capability to work and to reassess it from time to time, to do so with an instrument that is not fit for purpose is not really a defensible position.
Are welfare reforms a way of making savings in response to the austerity programme or not: and here again, one of the interventions from a Conservative MP, Guto Bebb, is very illuminating:
‘This issue and this debate are framed in the context of the idea that changes to the welfare state are being undertaken in response to the need for austerity. I would argue that the issue is far more important than that; it is very important that it is dealt with, not because of austerity but despite it, because we have a failing welfare system. Anybody in this Chamber who argued that, prior to 2010, we had a system that we could be proud of would be very brave indeed. It is to the credit of the Government that the welfare reform agenda is being implemented not primarily to save money, but to ensure that the system does not trap people in a way that is unproductive and unfair.’
We can have a debate about whether or not the system that was in place before worked or indeed was one to be proud of. But to argue that the cuts in benefits are not about making savings in order to recover from the massive bank bailouts that have plunged the Government (and that means, the country) into massive debt is living in another world. The rhetoric of this government has been about making savings, savings, savings, and more savings ever since they came into power. No, they don’t admit that it was the big financial hole opened up as a result of the bank bailouts, but the evidence shows something quite different.
The following graph shows the UK Government debt as a percentage of GPD (Gross Domestic Product) for the period 1995 to 2012. The figures are taken from Eurostat.
Given what happened in 2007/8 and the consequences for the economy as a whole, this picture tells a fairly straightforward question.
To suggest that any cuts, any attempted changes in the benefits system which are intended to save money (or, as the Government would put it: make people more independent) in the context of this situation, must be seen as part of the austerity programme.
And of course, the people who are suffering most – disabled people, as the Centre for Welfare Reform report shows – have nothing to do with the causes of the economic crisis. They are just the most vulnerable and the ones with least resources to defend themselves. So Mr Bebb’s rather glib statement should be seen in this context.
So where to from here?
Hansard records that at the end of the debate the question (or the motion) was put and agreed to and then restates the text of the motion introduced by the words: resolved that.
So what next? Interestingly, it is difficult to find out what happens to resolutions passed in such backbench debates. Chances are: not very much in general.
But here is a case where the debate happened because there was a public petition for it to happen.
So should there not be pressure put on the government to take note of this resolution and to act on it. I certainly think that there should be.
I will be writing to my MP to ask her whether she could ask the Secretary of State for Works and Pensions whether he is aware of the resolution and what he is proposing to do about it.
The more people do this, the more likely it is that an independent enquiry will happen. It’s only a year to the next general election. Check if your MP participated in the debate; ask them to press the government to do something about the demand for an independent enquiry; and make sure they know that your vote may depend on this.
 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm140227/debtext/140227-0002.htm, 27 February 2014, column 431
 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm140227/debtext/140227-0003.htm, 27 February 2014, column 468
 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm140227/debtext/140227-0002.htm, 27 February 2014, column 442