There were no serious doubts the Coalition Government’s Benefits Uprating Bill — pegging increases in welfare payments at a below-inflation 1%, the same as public sector wage rises, for the next three years — would be approved. The only question was the size of majority and how many Lib Dems would rebel (I’ve been keeping a running tally here this afternoon).
There were two votes tonight. First, a Labour amendment to the Bill, defeated by 321 votes to 262, a government majority of 59. Then a vote on the unamended second reading, which the government won by 324 votes to 268, a majority of 56.
[Edit 7.30am, 9 Jan: originally I stated six Lib Dem MPs voted against. In fact, 4 voted against and 2 formally abstained, as follows...]
Six Lib Dem MPs rebelled on the second reading. Four voted against:
- Julian Huppert
- John Leech
- Sarah Teather and
- David Ward
A further two — Andrew George Charles Kennedy — formally abstained by voting both for and against the Bill. Adrian Sanders indicated on Twitter that he planned to abstain, and there is no vote recorded for him.
Sarah Teather (Brent Central) (LD):
People who come to my constituency office these days for help with some kind of error in their benefits often spend the first few minutes trying to justify their worth. They usually begin by trying to explain their history of working and that they have paid tax. They are desperate to get over the point that they are not like other benefit claimants—they are not a scrounger. It is perhaps a feature of the way in which the term “scroungers” has become so pervasive in social consciousness that even those on benefits do not attempt to debunk the entire category, only to excuse themselves from the label.
Language matters. Politicians in this place know that, because all of us spend a good deal of time worrying about how everything we say will be reported by the media, just as journalists pore over every fact, comma and noun we give to look for power shifts and personal divisions. Any modern political party devotes considerable money and effort to testing messages with focus groups to see how they would influence voting patters. However, I am afraid we often spend less time considering how our language actually affects people’s lives, choices, values and sense of worth, how they rub up against their neighbours and how society itself functions.
In an atmosphere of uncertainty and limited resources and where every family in this country is struggling, there is a natural tendency to try to find someone to blame for our woes. A fissure already exists between the working and non-working poor. Hammering on that fault line with the language of “shirkers” and “strivers” will have long-term impacts on public attitudes, on attitudes to one neighbour against another. It will make society less generous, less sympathetic, less able to co-operate. The marginalisation of the undeserving poor will place one group outwith society entirely over time and leave them less able to make choices about their lives and to participate. That fragmentation of society, for me, is the spectre of broken Britain, and it is one that we hasten at our peril.
For those of us in this place who care about social justice, long-term changes in public attitudes to poverty should give us other causes of concern, because it will make it more difficult for any politicians who come after us to argue for any option for the poor, because public opinion will simply not support it. The irony, of course, is that, as many have said, many of those affected by the Bill are actually in work; many are the same group who have already had a negligible pay rise and are already bumping along at the bottom of the poverty threshold. For me, that is the first of a number of disingenuous comparisons used to argue for the fairness of the Bill. The first is that those affected are out of work, when many more are in fact in work but on low pay. As the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) mentioned a moment ago, many of those are part of the group of people who cycle in and out of work all the time; I see that in my constituency.
The second disingenuous point is about percentages themselves, which fail to take into account the cuts to housing benefit that families in my constituency will be experiencing in the next six months or so as the changes filter through. There are also the changes in April to council tax benefit; they will affect the same families affected by the uprating provisions in the Bill.
The third point is whether percentages mean anything at all. Whatever goal posts are used to measure the percentage change in benefit across time, it is clear that the monetary value of rising average wages is significantly more than that of benefits. Percentages do not buy milk, bread or school uniforms—pounds and pennies buy those things, and it is in pounds and pennies that people will experience a cut.
The fourth disingenuous point is probably that cutting the incomes of those at the bottom of the income threshold will help boost the economy. All the evidence says that money put into the pockets of those at the bottom of the income spectrum is most likely to be spent. That is precisely why my party argued so hard during negotiations to ensure that we raised the threshold of tax on the lowest paid.
I do not enjoy voting against my own party, and I cannot vote for the Labour amendment, but with a very heavy heart I shall be voting against the Second Reading of the Bill. I hope that I, and any others who choose that course of action, will give the Government some cause for thought and reflection.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.