Round two of the row over rises in benefit payments is on the way, with Lib Dems and opposition parties tabling a series of amendments to the government’s legislation. I have learned that Lib Dem Andrew George has already laid his proposals for changing the welfare uprating bill, which will return to the House of Commons for the report stage and third reading next Monday.
George’s amendments are backed by four other Lib Dem MPs: and two of them were neither rebels nor abstainers at last week’s second reading vote. While Charles Kennedy and John Leech abstained and rebelled respectively on the second reading, Dan Rogerson was loyal, and Alan Reid was absent.
While unlikely to gain much traction, the amendments themselves will spark an interesting discussion in the Commons about fairness: and this time, it will be a little more nuanced as George wants benefit rises to move in line with wages, not a 1 per cent cap. He proposes replacing the 1 per cent cap with ‘a percentage by which the general level of earnings is greater at the end of the period under review in that tax year under section 150(1) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 than it was at the beginning of that period’. The only instance in which the 1 per cent cap would apply would be if that rise were higher than earnings.
George says that having abstained on the second reading, he will rebel at third reading if his amendments are not accepted. I am told that Liam Byrne’s shadow welfare team is also drawing up amendments to the Bill for report stage. But Labour will continue to struggle in this debate because of its official backing for the cap on public sector pay. Green MP Caroline Lucas is trying to replace the 1 per cent rise with the Retail Prices Index.
Another thing to watch out for in next Monday’s debate will be whether the debate continues to be as much about which side has made greater use of pejorative language to describe benefit claimants as it is about whether the measures themselves are fair. All sides have gradually realised that the striver/skiver/shirker/scrounger debate hasn’t covered anyone in a great deal of glory, with commentators across the political spectrum lining up to condemn it. So last week’s Commons vote descended into the Tories telling Labour that they’d used those unpleasant words just as much. It will be interesting to see whether either side is up for a reprise next week.