Red bench dividing lines

Steve BassamSteve Bassam outlines Labour Lords upcoming legislative battles on poverty pay, cuts to benefits and protecting employment rights 

There is something profoundly distasteful about seeing vested interests seriously at work in politics. Last month, five Tories all with interests in land and farming led the charge for the government in arguing for the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB). Their case was simple: trust us, we know how to look after our workers and we pay above the current rate, so it’s safe to scrap this old piece of minimum wage protection. 

The Tory landowners’ arguments begged the question: why are they doing this?

The answer is tucked away in the related impact assessment. Over the next few years there will be a ‘saving’ to the economy of £250million. That ‘saving’ can only come from one place – the wages of those employed by farmers. In other words, a wage cut. Remember, these are not well paid employees in the first place. They are low paid, just above the minimum wage, with some on what we now term the living wage. 

Many of Britain’s 150,000 agricultural workers will be the same people who will be hit by cuts to tax credits, child tax credits, housing benefit and council tax benefit on April 1st. A multiple set of whammies, not a single one of them good.

Living standards are being squeezed as never before, both for those in work and for those affected by worklessness. The Child Poverty Action Group estimate that by 2017 all the gains made by the last Labour government for those on low incomes will have been wiped out, with children suffering the most. Even the Tory minister for equalities concedes this point, having recently revealed that 200,000 children would soon become defined as living in poverty – taking the total of children pushed into poverty by the Coalition to 1 million.

So, we’re about to see the fruition of many of the government’s legislative plans that will see cuts to the incomes of the poorest in our country. In a peculiar coincidence however, the parliamentary timetable has produced a series of key votes that enable Labour Lords to highlight our opposition to poverty pay and poverty living. 

First up we have the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill, which our Peers have already done a forensic job on, pulling it apart at Second Reading earlier this week. And through the Committee and Report stages, we will continue to take a principled stand against the 1% annual increase (actually a real terms cut) that applies mainly to those who get benefits to supplement their low incomes, ie ‘in-work benefits’. Indeed, parallel to this tax on strivers’, the government is handing 8,000 millionaires a tax kickback worth £107,000 a year. It is a slap in the face for hardworking families struggling to make ends meet.

Second is the range of welfare regulations that will introduce many of the cuts to be implemented after the passing of last year’s Welfare Reform Act (legislation that received a real drubbing while in the Lords). Labour has set aside a whole day of Lords business to deal with this. 

Third, the Report stage of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (ERR) Bill in March will see a debate and major vote on the scrapping of the aforementioned AWB – something we will defend robustly. 

Finally, there are a series of measures which seek in various forms to further deregulate Britain’s labour market, contained elsewhere in the ERR Bill but also in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill (such as George Osborne’s much ridiculed ‘shares for rights’ proposals). The principal objective is to make it harder for workers to retain leverage over pay and conditions.

Taken as a whole, the government’s package represents a major assault on people’s pay and conditions. It seeks to cement poverty pay levels and undermine the value of out of work benefits. We know from impact assessments, comments from critics and, ironically, from the honest words of some Ministers themselves, that people in our country will be poorer as a result. 

These upcoming battles are important and it is vital that Labour Lords make a strong case. The cuts to pay and income support speak volumes about the character of David Cameron’s government and its priorities; and our opposition says a lot about campaigning for dignity in work and decency in employment. 

Our group on the red benches will make case after case against poverty pay and the reducing of families and children further into the poverty trap. As we have done since the general election, we will use every parliamentary means to challenge and change pernicious legislation – something illustrated by the 65 (and counting) Coalition defeats in Lords votes. Along with the many amendments to legislation that Ministers have accepted without a vote.

That is not to say it will be easy – far from it. We almost always face a unified Tory/LibDem front. But we will campaign to win these battles over pay, benefits and rights; and seek to take the broad base of opinion with us – not just in Parliament but in the communities most dramatically affected.

Lord Steve Bassam of Brighton is Labour's Chief Whip in the House of Lords

Published 12th February 2013

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