What’s Going On… with the Welfare Bill

Ok, I’ve been doing shadow FCO things for a couple of hours, (team meeting, prepping for tomorrow’s FCO questions, Douglas Alexander speaking at the PLP on Europe).

I’m now about to head into the Chamber for the Welfare Uprating Bill but thought it might be as, if not more, useful to do a quick blog post explaining what’s happening right now in the Commons Chamber. I’m in my office, following it on the telly…

This is a very short Bill – only 3 clauses – and some might say we don’t actually need primary legislation to enact the key provisions but that the Government is simply doing it to put Labour in a position where they can say we’re on the side of the so-called ‘shirkers’ rather than the ‘strivers’ – i.e. that whereas we accept the need for some public sector pay restraint, we’re happy to give people on benefits a bigger rise. So they’re introducing a Bill to keep the uprating of benefits and tax credits to 1% for the tax years 2014-15 and 2015-16. Two points to note: firstly, that two-thirds of those in receipt of the so-called ‘shirkers’ benefits are in work (and many more would be if they could find work or were physically/ mentally healthy enough to work), and secondly, that this measure will put another 200,000 children into poverty. From a Government that signed up to the Keep the Promise pledge from the End Child Poverty campaign before the 2010 election.

But plenty has been said about that elsewhere. I just wanted to explain the procedure today. Normally a Bill would go off to Committee for consideration by maybe 15-17 people, and might be amended, and would then come back to the House for Report Stage where further amendments could be tabled. Because this is a short Bill, and because there isn’t much else in the way of legislation for us at the moment, it’s all being done in the Chamber – what they call a ‘Committee of the Whole House’. That’s why it’s a Committee Chair taking the debate, rather than a Speaker or Deputy Speaker up in the Speaker’s Chair.

A number of amendments and new clauses were tabled. The key ones are deleting the 1% from the Bill, for benefits, ESA and for tax credits; assessing its impact on chld poverty; and an amendment tabled by former Housing Minister John Healey on housing benefits.

After these amendments are tabled, we get what is called the ‘Speaker’s Selection’ – ie which amendments and new clauses he has chosen for debate. The others fall by the wayside – but they’re usually ones that are only loosely related to the main subject matter of the Bill. Sometimes very loosely related! We don’t find out what’s been selected till the day of the debate itself.

The Speaker also groups the amendments by subject, ie all those on tax credits together. Sometimes he will insert what are called ‘knives’ into the running order, so that the first group of amendments has to be dealt with by 6pm or within 2 hours of the debate starting, whichever is later, and the next group by 8pm, and so on. He hasn’t done that today. So that means the first group of amendments could run till the end of the debate at 9pm and it looks like that’s what’s happening now.

The other thing to note is that we had a statement from the Prime Minister on Algeria today, which meant that instead of starting the debate at 3.30pm after Education Qs, we didn’t get started till 4.50pm. The Third Reading is at 9pm, so that means four hours to debate all the amendments and new clauses. We will vote at 9pm, and if there are several votes – which each take 15 minutes or so – there will be very little time for the Third Reading debate, on the overall Bill, as we have to finish at 10pm.

At present – 8pm – we are still on the first group of amendments, which deals with the 1% uprating to certain benefits. The next group of amendments is on ESA, the next on tax credits, and almost at the end we get to look at the new clauses.

I really want to talk about Labour’s New Clause 1, which calls for the Secretary of State to publish and lay before parliament a report assessing the impact of the Bill on the number of children living in a) relative low income, b) combined low income and material deprivation, c) absolute low income and d) persistent poverty, as defined in the Child Poverty Act 2010. But we’re not going to get to that. 200,000 more kids in poverty and no debate.

By the way, the 200,000 more kids in poverty is just the number that will result from this particular measure. It’s estimated that 1 million more could be pushed into poverty as a result of this and everything else the Government is doing. An Eton-educated Tory MP – Kwasi Kwarteng – is currently on his feet denouncing socialism. Actually now it’s Frank Field, saying it’s a ‘terrible Bill’. I’m heading down to the Chamber…

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