Baroness Celia Thomas writes…Like a WRAG to a bull

What was the issue which caused the House of Lords to defeat the Government so spectacularly on Wednesday? It was George Osborne’s latest attempt to save on the Welfare Bill by cutting sick benefits.

At the moment, if you aren’t well enough to work, having had the Work Capability Assessment, you are either put into the support group or the work-related activity group. In the support group you don’t have to look for work, but if you are in the work related activity group, you are expected to be able to get back into some kind of work eventually. Under the Bill, those in the work-related activity group (the WRAG) will have their benefit cut to align it with Jobseekers’ Allowance.

The Government say that not enough of those in the WRAG are getting into work, so they want to ‘encourage’ them by cutting their benefits, putting some of the money saved into giving this group more specialised support to get into work. However, there are no details about how this will work.

The problem with the Government’s plans is that the WRAG is full of people with quite severe long-term conditions and disabilities, such as those with MS, Parkinson’s, muscular dystrophy, or with mental health illnesses. Many of them are keen to work, so cutting their benefits is not going to change their behaviour. Zahida Manzoor, who signed the amendment, said the Clauses bringing in the changes had no place in a caring and compassionate society, and she urged the Department of Health to start talking to the DWP, particularly about penalising those with mental health problems.

I spoke about what many disabled people in the WRAG currently spend the extra money on, such as transport to interviews, work experience or volunteering, or on extra heating in the winter. By the time the vote was taken, the only Peer who had supported the Government was the new boy, Lord Lansley. He was put firmly in his place by Lord Low, who moved the amendment, saying that he agreed with him that there were lots of things that should be done to help disabled people into work, but cutting benefits was not one of them.

When the vote was taken, 82 of our Peers were joined by 6 Bishops, 44 crossbenchers and 144 Labour Peers to defeat the Government by nearly 100 votes. One of the largest defeats this Government has suffered so far.

What happens now? After Third Reading, the Bill will go back to the Commons for consideration of Lords’ amendments and we may have to fight these cuts again. Watch this space.

* Celia Thomas is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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6 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Jan '16 - 1:39pm

    Alright then so if this is a principled position then why did Lib Dem Lords wave through the bedroom tax, welfare sanctions and all the other cuts in the last parliament?

    I’m quite confused, what do the Lib Dems believe in?

  • Baroness Celia Thomas is correct in opposing this , well done to you and the peers who do so ! Eddie , in the previous coalition , as a result of a crisis , which as someone in small business situation ,I believe you well understood and do so yet, this party aligned to policies , otherwise unpalatable . The so called bedroom tax , I say that as I dislike media described versions of things , legitimised what was already going on , even in good economic times , in the private sector , something we rarely heard . I know , as I was a specialist adviser to unemployed people in the creative industries , some with freelance possibilities as sole traders ,in performing and music , others with micro businesses in , say , arts and crafts . That was pre crash , the mid to later Blair years , many of my clients were on housing benefit , some with families , and even in Nottingham where rents are more reasonable , I experienced some of those benefit claimants have cuts to their benefit , or even be pushed into moving, if their accomadation was a room too large , for example if an older child had moved out . This happened under a relatively reasonable Labour council , the policy effected people in the private sector mainly because social housing rents were lower, anyway ,so councils were more ready to pay benefits . There was a lot of unfairness in the benefit system pre coalition ! Similarly with the disability benefits , Labour introduced the work capability assessment NOT the coalition , Labour brought in the contract with Atos Healthcare , NOT the coalition , the egregious Jim Murphy , as secretary of state even wanted people phoning ” beat a cheat ” hotlines to get a cut of any proceeds saved !

  • Lorenzo, I have always pointed out to people that Labour brought in ESA and ATOS but the coalition brought in PIP and it’s unfair criteria. Clegg cheered in 2010 when it was announced along with other welfare cuts. The coalition also did nothing to make ESA fairer did it? Oh, forgot, the assessors had to smile at you. Because someone else did it does not mean you should! What an excuse! The problem with the bedroom tax is that there are not enough smaller homes in the social sector. What happens is that councils have to pay more in housing benefit for the smaller more expensive private sector homes. Coincidence so many MPs, Lords and donors are landlords?

  • Lorenzo – Labour may have brought in the work capability assessment, but it was the Tory/LibDem coalition that changed the guide lines that ATOS had to follow, making it far more stringent.

  • paul barker 29th Jan '16 - 4:45pm

    A big thank you for this defeat, I am on WRAG & the extra money does make a big difference. Keep it up.

  • Anne you are correct I am sure , on some of what you say ,though cheering would not have been for the specific proposal and I do not believe Nick Clegg is a bogeyman , Malc , not sure whether that is so , one way or another it does not alter what I said. Appreciate this , I would have rather had a centre left coalition , on anything bar economics the later years of New Labour , which I once backed , weren t even that governing on there own , who on earth is surprised it was difficult being in any way leftward at all then with the Tories ?!

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