Some people have asked me on Twitter what happened at today’s voting on the Welfare Reform Bill, when the Government blocked Labour’s amendment on the benefit cap. I’ll try to explain…
When we deal with amendments in the Commons the Speaker and his clerks will meet the morning of the debate, look at all the amendments that have been tabled and come up with what’s called the Speaker’s Selection. We often don’t get this until just before the sitting, i.e. at the start of oral questions and an hour before the debate on the Bill could start.
Sometimes there are hundreds of amendments tabled. Today’s Selection was fairly simple. Some amendments were grouped under the heading ‘Employment Support Allowance’, some under the heading ‘Benefit Cap’ and then there was a miscellaneous group. Not all amendments are selected for debate. Whoever has tabled the amendment that heads the group – i.e. the first one listed – gets to open the debate. The movers of the other amendments grouped with it then try to pile in.
Usually the Speaker will also impose ‘knives’ in the debate. I think this term is probably linked to the ‘guillotine’, which would signal the end of the debate; knives come at intervals, and mean that you have to end the debate on that group of amendments by a certain time and vote on them. So in today’s debate which started at about 12.45, there was a knife at 2.30pm on ESA, another one at 5pm on the Benefit Cap, and then the remainder to be finished off by the usual Wednesday end time of 7pm.
It’s a matter for whoever is in the Chair to decide how many votes to allow in each group. If we’d voted on everything tabled on ESA for example, at roughly 15 minutes per vote we’d have got to 5pm without even starting on the benefit cap. So the front benches and whips and clerks and the Chair talk to each other, and there’s sometimes a bit of wrangling, but there will be one, two, maybe three votes at the most.
In today’s Selection there weren’t just amendments but also Government-tabled Motions to Disagree. This is because the House of Lords defeated the Government on various votes in the Welfare Reform Bill, so it has to come back to the Commons, where we vote to Disagree (or, in Labour’s case, Agree) with the Lords.
The Motion to Disagree on the benefit cap was first in that grouping of amendments. Labour’s amendment, which accepted a cap but with regional variations so that people in London, for example, wouldn’t be hit hard, was in the same grouping. But because they were still talking on the Motion to Disagree when we got to 5pm, Labour didn’t get a chance to move its amendment. This explains why Labour MPs Andy Slaughter and Kate Green both did brilliant speeches in less than 3 minutes and why the Gloucester Tory Richard Graham waffled on for ages talking about nothing. Labour wanted to get onto our amendment, the Tories didn’t. So – Labour’s amendment fell, because it wasn’t moved. If we’d snuck in at 4.59, we’d have been fine. But we were basically filibustered.
This has very cleverly now put the Tories (and most of the Libs) in the position where they can say Labour voted against the benefit cap, Labour wants to give lazy good-for-nothing workship people on benefits more than hard-working families, etc, etc. And we can’t say – yes we did, because it would have grossly unfair consequences on some families, but we also recognise that people don’t think people should be better off on benefits than in work and we had tabled an amendment to address that.
Some might say this isn’t a very democratic way of doing business….
As for the other votes, I counted 8 Lib Dems in the division lobby with us on ESA for cancer patients, and later on I even spotted a Tory, but the Government’s usual majority is around 79/ 80 so it takes more than a handful of rebels I’m afraid for us to be able to emulate their Lordships and give the Government a bloody nose.