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Welfare reform, opposition and the inadequacies of Liam Byrne

Last night, the Welfare Reform bill received its second reading, with a Government majority of 288. Labour abstained on the final vote. Only 12 Labour MPs opposed it in that vote. That small rebellion seriously under-represents the unhappiness on Labour benches — including many front-benchers who voted for Ed Miliband — about Labour’s decision to abstain, but the public can’t be expected to know about that or the major effort that was mounted to persuade them not to rebel.

Based on the almost invisible coverage in the morning’s press, nor can the public be expected to know that MPs’ inboxes are full of pleas from distraught constituents who are, as Channel 4 put it, “terrified” by the proposed changes. This bill is a massive attack on the poor, on disabled people, on women, at a time when there are far too few jobs even for able-bodied recent graduates from top universities. What will those under attack think? Small wonder that Sue Marsh, whose excellent blog Diary of a Benefit Scrounger has illuminated the blogosphere in recent months about what its really like being on disability benefits, said last night she’s simply “too deflated” to comment.

The fact is that the Labour Party decided that defending the record of New Labour in government and the message that it was still committed to “benefits reform” was more important than speaking up for the poor, for disabled people and for women, for people who also happen to be many of its core voters. That’s why the BBC summarised Labour’s position as:

Labour said they supported aspects of the proposed legislation but had reservations about its overall impact.

And who decided this: step forward, Liam Byrne, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, über-Blairite and the arch-tactician who left a note for his successor, David Laws, saying: ‘I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left.’

But you might say, didn’t Ed Miliband appoint him? And so he did. And at the time, the Left was so relieved that he had appointed Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor that our complaints were muted at the simultaneous promotion of three New Labour continuity advocates, Douglas Alexander, Tessa Jowell and Liam Byrne though we did say:

Liam Byrne has done well to retain his policy review role as well as leading opposition to IDS’s review of welfare — which might cause the left some concern.”

Liam Byrne was, however, an abysmal appointment to a post critical to the needs of the poorest at a time when the Tories had indicated their intention to undertake a radical reform of benefits alongside its massive cuts programme and the worst economic crisis for almost a century. Whilst some effort to appease the party’s right is understandable in a parliamentary party in which Ed Miliband does not necessarily command a majority, at the time of Alan Johnson’s replacement with Ed Balls, this was more than a step too far.

No doubt Mr Byrne and the Whips who sought to diffuse the rebellion will argue that their amendment was a sufficient indication of their opposition. It read as follows:

This House, whilst affirming its belief in the principle of simplifying the benefits system and good work incentives, declines to give a Second Reading to the Welfare Reform Bill because the proposal of the Universal Credit as it stands creates uncertainty for thousands of people in the United Kingdom; because the Bill fails to clarify what level of childcare support will be available for parents following the abolition of the tax credit system; because the Bill penalises savers who will be barred from the Universal Credit; because the Bill disadvantages people suffering from cancer or mental illness due to the withdrawal of contributory Employment Support Allowance; because the Bill contains no safeguards to mothers in receipt of childcare support; because it proposes to withdraw the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance from people in residential care and fails to provide sufficient safeguards for future and necessary reform; because it provides no safeguards for those losing Housing Benefit or appropriate checks on the Secretary of State’s powers; because it fails to clarify how Council Tax Benefit will be incorporated in the Universal Credit system; because it fails to determine how recipients of free school meals and beneficiaries of Social Fund loans will be treated; and because the proposals act as a disincentive for the self-employed who wish to start up a business; and is strongly of the opinion that the publication of such a Bill should have been preceded by both fuller consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill.”

You can judge for yourselves. I don’t think there’s much doubt, however, that the poor, the disabled people and the women who are attacked by this Bill would have understood outright opposition more easily. For the record those who voted against the bill’s second reading were:

Campbell, Ronnie
Clark, Katy
Connarty, Michael
Corbyn, Jeremy
Cruddas, Jon
Havard, Dai
Hopkins, Kelvin (Teller)
James, Siân C.
McDonnell, John
Sheridan, Jim
Skinner, Dennis
Wood, Mike

Long, Naomi (Alliance)
Lucas, Caroline (Green)
Hosie, Stewart (SNP)
MacNeil, Angus Brendan (SNP)
Robertson, Angus (SNP)
Whiteford, Dr Eilidh (SNP)
Durkan, Mark (SDLP)
Edwards, Jonathan (PC)
Llwyd, Elfyn (PC)
Williams, Hywel(PC) (Teller)

One Comment

  1. Éoin Clarke says:


    I and three of my coleagues spent months developing a 5,000 word policy document that we had hoped to submit to the Labour Policy Revie [read Liam Byrne].

    I tried submitting it to him. I can confirm that he read it but he point back refused to respond, or officially accept it.

    We are all Labour Party members, and among the four of us can count 2 Doctors [1 psychology, one a gender historian, 1 Special needs SENCO, and one person who works in the Nuclear industry].

    The process was inclusive and deliberative and yet Liam Byrne thought of efforts did not even merit a response.

    Perhaps it is because non of us are Blairites?

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