Winning the ratings battle


Maeve Sherlock on plans afoot in the Lords to amend the worst of the government’s Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill

You'd think it would be a no-brainer. Who needs help most: 13,000 millionaires or millions of families struggling to make ends meet? Yet amazingly the Coalition government is choosing this moment to give a tax break worth £2,000 a week to 13,000 of the highest earners in Britain, and they want to pay for it by cutting the value of the much-needed benefits and tax credits paid to those on low or average incomes. 

The vehicle for this attack on living standards is the Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill, which would cap annual increases in benefits and tax credits at just 1% until 2016 – no matter what happens to inflation. On Tuesday, the Bill reaches Report stage in the Lords, with Peers set to consider five key amendments – most or all of which are likely to go to a vote, unless Ministers see sense. 

Among them is an amendment from my colleague on Labour’s Work and Pensions team in the Lords, Bill McKenzie, which seeks to remove the figure of 1% from the legislation, with Ministers instead deciding each year (as they do now) how to uprate benefits and tax credits in light of inflation at the time. 

Then there is an amendment tabled by the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds and backed formally by, among others, Labour backbencher Don Touhig, which aims to protect the main benefits and credits for children from the scope of the Bill. (The backdrop to this is last weekend’s widely-reported letter from the new Archbishop of Canterbury and 42 other Bishops highlighting the impact of the proposed legislation on children and others.)

That will be followed by an amendment tabled by Crossbencher Lord Low which would remove Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) from the scope of the Bill, and make a reality of an earlier claim by Ministers that they are protecting disabled people from the effects of their plans.  

There is also an amendment tabled by Lib Dem backbencher Lord Kirkwood which would in effect ensure the Bill does not apply if inflation exceeded 3%. 

Finally, I have tabled an amendment to exempt Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) from the plans. I did this for two reasons. First, the relentless stream of Coalition cuts that affect families with children, especially new mums. The Children's Society says that a working couple about to have their second child in 2015 could be over £7,000 worse off over the subsequent two years. Second, when George Osborne announced this Bill, he claimed it was necessary to be “fair to the person who leaves home every morning to go out to work and sees that their neighbour is still asleep, living a life on benefits”.  Yet 60% of those affected by this legislation are in work – something Osborne must surely have known. 

Indeed, it is shocking that this Bill affects SMP – a contributory benefit only paid to women who have been in work for a set period above a certain income level and who are stopping work in order to have, or to care for a baby! According to The Daily Telegraph, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said it was “a personal choice” for parents to decide whether to return to work after having a child or to stay at home. That of course, is only true if you can afford it; and we will push Ministers to stop hitting new mothers so hard. 

The Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill is the moment when David Cameron’s government showed its real priorities. On Tuesday afternoon and evening, Labour Peers will be doing all we can to stop the worst of it and hope Peers from across the Lords join us in that task.

Baroness Maeve Sherlock is a Shadow Work and Pensions Minister in the Lords

Published 17th March 2013

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