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25 January 2012
Welfare Reform Bill: Lords confusion exposes limits of campaigners' strategy
By a disabled activist
The House of Lords recently amended the government's Welfare Reform Bill to retain the three month qualifying period for claimants applying for Disability Living Allowance (DLA) when it is replaced by Personal Independence Payments (PIP). The coalition government had wanted to extend this qualifying period to six months.
On its website, The Hardest Hit (THH) campaign hailed this amendment as a 'big victory'.
But given the government's own estimate that 500,000 fewer people will qualify for PIP by 2016 than would have got DLA, a 'big victory' would have been a successful amendment that tried to remove PIP from the Welfare Reform Bill altogether.
Unfortunately, the charity directors and disabled activists running THH, and their allies in the Lords, have never considered outright opposition to this bill as a viable option.
Instead their strategy has been to try to amend the bill in the Lords while giving full support to the introduction of Universal Credit in a naive belief it will simplify the benefits system for the good of disabled people and their families and claimants in general.
When the time-limiting of non-means tested, contributions-based Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) to a year was discussed two weeks ago in the Lords, no amendment to remove this from the bill was put forward.
Baroness Meacher who led the charge against the government even told Tory Lord Freud: "The minister knows that I understand very well the need to reduce the numbers of people on ESA and, most particularly, to reduce the months and years that some people remain on it. We are really of one mind on that."
The aftermath of the three 'victories' achieved then against the government to time-limit contribution-based ESA to a minimum of two years, remove any time-limit for cancer patients and stop its removal from severely disabled young people who have never worked, also illustrates the amateurish nature of the Lords opposition to the government.
The latter 'victory' was overturned in the same evening when a government motion to remove contributions-based ESA from young disabled people (which was published on the order paper) was passed after many oppositionist peers had gone home.
Labour's much vaunted support for the amendments against the government clearly didn't extend to the organisational ability of its Whips Office.
Because the government is confident it can overturn all amendments made to the Welfare Reform Bill in the Commons, it is likely to allow the original 'victory' in support of young disabled people to stand.
But what doesn't help disabled people and other claimants is a disability campaign and Lords peers who believe limited demands, fairness and reasoned argument alone can gain concessions from a hard-nosed government out to make £18 billion cuts in welfare spending.
Those disability groups organising vigils outside the Lords and calling for the scrapping of the Welfare Reform Bill need to call a national demonstration in opposition to all 'welfare reform' for when the Bill returns to the Commons in February or March.
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