Opinion: Our Parliamentarians must fight for our benefits policies

It was rather disappointing last week reading Jenny Willot MP’s article on LDV last week about the Harrington report and about the motion on the Employment Support Allowance (ESA) which was unanimously passed at autumn conference.

The article seems to imply that, by accepting the Harrington recommendations, the government is complying with the ESA motion and that a big round of applause is in order. We spotted a problem, passed a motion about it and then our ministers and MPs fixed it. Job done right?

Well, no. Despite that being what the article seems to imply, the situation is far from resolved.

By fully accepting the recommendations of the Second Harrington report this government has taken a step in the right direction and there’s no denying that. But the fact is that implementing the Harrington report is only mere tinkering when you look at the much deeper and endemic flaws in the disability welfare system.

And, while the flawed system we have at the moment is a big problem, that wasn’t the main point of the motion. The main motivation behind it was to get the government to scrap proposals to make a bad situation much worse by arbitrarily limiting to 12 months the amount of time disabled people can claim contributory ESA. And the time limit isn’t something inherited from Labour – its a terrible idea which this government came up with all by itself.

And yet, in the article, the time limit isn’t mentioned at all.

Also unmentioned are the parts where the motion called for disability services to be exempt from the legal aid cuts – as legal aid is pretty much the only thing that allows the CAB to support disabled people going through the appeals process – and criticism of the failure of the assessment system to look properly at time variant conditions – an issue this government has actually taken a step backwards on.

These are issues which affect two million vulnerable people, issues about government proposals that could potentially put 200,000 disabled people into poverty.

The motion makes quite clear that some of the government‘s proposals are unacceptable to Liberal Democrats. Yet, despite the Welfare Reform Bill containing the proposals currently going through the Lords, Jenny’s article is the first time anyone from the leadership has ever publicly acknowledged the existence of the motion.

And even then, Willot’s article airbrushes out the key parts of the motion, not even bothering to mention the time limit, and acts as though, by implementing the Harrington report, the government has listened to the motion.

Well, I’m afraid that’s simply not good enough. Conference unanimously passed a motion which quite specifically called for scrapping the time limit. Scrapping any arbitrary time limit is now party policy. It is the duty of our parliamentarians to fight for that policy. For a senior party figure to not even mention the issue of the time limit when writing about the motion is deeply, deeply disturbing.

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  • Thanks for again telling it as it is George Potter. But every time we think we’ve made progress, the coalition goes and does something more inhumane and cold, like deciding it isn’t fair that oral chemotherapy patients have to take the WCA and IV chemo patients don’t.

    So what has the coalition done to make this more “fair”? They’ve decided to make ALL Cancer patients going through chemotherapy take the WCA: http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.com/2011/12/government-cancer-pr-disaster.html

    When will this cruelty and anti-sick, anti-disabled policies ever end?

  • Did Congress tell them where to find the money?

  • Barry George 3rd Dec '11 - 5:53pm

    Well said George.

    I commend you for continuing to highlight the huge discrepancy between party policy and the lack of any appropriate action taken by the senior party members in Government to present the motion in practice . I hope you continue to pursue this matter relentlessly with the support of grass root members until party policy actually can be seen to be party policy..

    Allowing senior Lib Dems to willingly defy the decisions made at conference is a precedent that would question the validity of the word “Democrat” in “Liberal Democrats”. Such blatant disregard for the wider members of the party is quiet simply shocking….

  • ad asks: “Did Congress tell them where to find the money?”

    This government managed to find £250m to humour Eric Pickles’s obsession with weekly bin collections. It is spending billions on an NHS reorganisation that the medical profession does not want. Earlier this week the Chancellor found another dollop of cash to spend on creating more of Michael Gove’s beloved free schools.

    When the Tory right demands it, money is not a problem. Do the LibDems in government have similar clout?

  • Well done George! You were the one who so successfully brought this Motion on ESA forward to Conference and worked hard with many of us to make sure that it got on to the Conference Agenda. What is the point of Lib Dem Members voting to make Policy only to have them ignored by the Leadership? According to my understanding, it is Party Members who make policy – is it not the purpose of the Leadership and our MPs to put those policies into action? It is no good saying that it was “not in the Coalition Agreement” – many of the things which are being done “in our name” were not in the Coalition Agreement. We must keep the pressure up on this one and support George.

    If money can be found for nuclear weapons and for the projects which John mentions, money can be found for the necessary implementation of legislation to protect ESA and the needs of the genuinely vulnerable sections of our society.

    BTW @ad – We do not have a Congress in the UK, we have a Parliament.

  • Wait a minute- you are annoyed that an article written celebrating the progress made in the Harrington Review doesn’t mention something completely different??!!

    Having read the article, please show me where it suggests that the Harrington review in any way represents ‘job done’ for the Conference motion?!

    Given that you have consistently written pieces on this site displaying no understanding of the ESA system or the time limiting proposals, I would have hoped you would stop posting on this issue until you understood it.

    Also- and let’s be very clear on this- it is NOT the duty of our Parliamentarians to follow a Conference motion, though having bothered to read some of the Welfare Reform Debate it is clear that they are trying to do something to improve the situation. Are you seriously suggesting that a vote of our Party members should have a binding influence on the votes of individual MP’s elected to Parliament? That is a disgraceful attitude no better than those in the unions who think their money should sway the votes of Labour MPs or the hedge fund managers who want to buy Tory MPs. Of course our motions should influence them, and may also provide them with some ammunition to prevent the Tories doing many things, but this does not mean they should have to follow them to the letter and it never has.

    What if we passed a motion opposing something and forced our MPs to vote for it- it would bring down the Government, scare the markets and force an election at which we would be annihilated, and the Tories would win a majority- what do you think that would mean for sick and disabled people, George?

  • This government managed to find £250m to humour Eric Pickles’s obsession with weekly bin collections.

    A fiver from everyone in the country. Peanuts.

    It is spending billions on an NHS reorganisation

    You want the government to abandon its changes, cut NHS spending by billions, and spend the money on the welfare system? Well if you get your wish, do not complain when everything that goes wrong in the NHS is blamed on you.

    Earlier this week the Chancellor found another dollop of cash to spend on creating more of Michael Gove’s beloved free schools.

    So now the LibDems should demand that the government should spend less money on setting up new schools? Sounds like a real vote winner…

    Seriously, if congress is going to demand that vast sums of money must be spent on something, can it at least demand that the money be spent on something that the majority of the electorate does not hate and despise?

  • Simon Bamonte 4th Dec '11 - 4:47pm

    Chrome “What if we passed a motion opposing something and forced our MPs to vote for it- it would bring down the Government, scare the markets and force an election at which we would be annihilated, and the Tories would win a majority”

    Well, is that not more democratic, though? Why is the needs of the markets or the survival our MPs in the Commons more important than the wishes of the party as a whole, or for that matter, disabled people who gave us their votes when we said we’d protect them from the harshest cuts? I am appalled at the way this government has treated disabled people and saying “the Tories would be worse on their own” is a pretty damning indictment of what we’ve allowed them to get away with, isn’t it?

    And it is not guaranteed that the Tories will win an outright majority. Based on current polling, Labour would have around a 30-seat majority. And, yes, we will probably be wiped out, but won’t we have our own selves to blame anyway? Further, if the economy has not recovered by 2015, and it looks like it won’t, we will be wiped out then also, but probably in larger numbers than we would lose if an election was held now.

    The fact that many respected institutes like the IFS confirm our policies hurt the poorest the most should be a source of great shame for all of us who identify as Lib Dems.

  • Simon Bamonte 4th Dec '11 - 4:53pm

    @ad: Seriously, if congress is going to demand that vast sums of money must be spent on something, can it at least demand that the money be spent on something that the majority of the electorate does not hate and despise?

    Just because a majority of the country may not like their money going to support people who our economy refuses to employ or who are simply too ill to support themselves does not make it right to cut the most from these people. If a majority of the country don’t want to support disabled people with their taxes, so they can live, and if a majority of businesses won’t employ them or make reasonable changes, then it is right the state supports them. Otherwise we will return to what we saw in Victorian times: disabled people begging on the streets, workhouses and major exploitation of vulnerable people.

    That’s not something anyone with a heart should want to happen. Just because something is “popular” does not make it right. In the 1950s a majority of people were probably far more racist than today, but it didn’t make it right any more than leaving the disabled to suffer would be right simply because Tories and the Daily Mail crowd would support it..

  • In response to ad’s comments above:

    Ad asked where the money would come from to implement the Conference proposals. I’ve given three examples where the government have been able to find funding to implement policies that fit with Conservative ideology. I’m sure there are plenty more.

    As regards the NHS, I am NOT proposing cutting NHS funding, but rather not spending billions on a reorganisation that has been criticised by the medical profession, is unpopular with the public and was in neither coalition partner’s election manifesto. Where is the evidence that these complex and costly plans will improve patient outcomes?

    And to echo Simon’s point, just because something is “popular” doesn’t make it right, and vice-versa. In any case, as I understand it, the proposers of the motion aren’t against needed reform of the disability benefits system, they simply oppose some damaging elements of the reform package (such as the arbitrary one-year time limit).

  • James Sandbach 5th Dec '11 - 5:27pm

    I don’t think anyone is saying that lib dem ministers must be legally bound follow conference motions to the letter in developing and delivering Government policy, but they should at least take account of the full range of lib dem policy positions and demonstrate to party members and their own local electorates how they are trying incrementally to reach those distinct policy objectives and aspirations, rather than ‘picking and mixing’ on everything (or pick and spinning) with the Tories and performing volte-faces on party policy priorities.

    It’s this pick and mix approach that’s led to some strange and misleading assertions about the lib dem manifesto setting all Government policy etc whilst in fact the so many of the achievements we’ve showcased such as pupil premium and tax allowance for the low paid were in the Tories manifesto also, whilst all the radical and progressive stuff in our policy platform gets discarded altogether.

    So the real question here is what steps have our Ministers taken to ensure that (i) time limiting provisions for ESA do not result in people with very severe degenerative conditions loosing their benefits and all other support when their health cinditions and capacities are getting worse rather than better, and (ii) there are sufficient measures taken to ensure that claimants treated unfairly or unlawfully by decisionmakers and medfical assessors can have access to appropriate expert and independent advice to obtain redress.

    I fear that the answer to this is that they have done nothing on either front – we’ve scarcely heard a murmer of dissent from our frontbenchers in their handling of both the welfare reform and legal aid Bills in Parliament, not even hint that concerns about these issues have been raised behind the scenes, and standard defensive lines and scripts being trotted out all the time by our people.

    Having campaigned on both issues for over a year now both within the party and beyond I find that depressing and disappointing.

    Conference motions should be used by our spokesmen more as ammunition in arguing policy with the tories – they tend to be drafted and delivered by subject experts within the Party who’ve crunched all the data and evidence, really know their stuff and are able to approach issues laterally in the way that Whitehall can’t. Conference motions are also rooted in the Party’s values and giving effect to those values.

    George is right – we must do better on these issues – treatment of disabed people is a values issue; we really are talking here about THE MOST VULNERABLE in our society, and the most powerless and voiceless – if we’re going to operate with integrity and principle within the coalition then its this party’s duty to give the most vulnerable a very loud voice indeed. Alas I don’t hear it.

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