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Monday, November 1, 1999 Published at 17:17 GMT

UK Politics

Welfare rebels demand more concessions

The government wants to amend disability benefits

Labour MPs have told the government that the concessions it has announced to its controversial welfare reform bill are not enough to avert a major backbench rebellion.

Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling moved to try to stave off major dissent when he outlined some changes to the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill on Monday.

[ image: Roger Berry:
Roger Berry: "There is grave anxiety"
But Labour opponents to the measures, which include means testing on private pensions and changes to the way incapacity benefit is paid, are still threatening to oppose the bill when it is considered in the Commons on Wednesday.

MP Roger Berry has told the BBC that he expects the number of rebels who vote against the bill to exceed the 67 Labour MPs who opposed it earlier this year.

"From the two meetings I attended last night, including the one addressed by Alistair Darling, and from talking to colleagues in the last 24 hours since seeing the government's proposals, there is grave anxiety," he said.

"I know colleagues who last time did not vote against the government who have said they will do so on this occasion.

"I'd rather not get into that position, I would like the government to reconsider so we could all support the bill."

'Piffling concessions'

The MPs want the government to support the amendment made by former Labour MP Lord Ashley, who wants the threshold of means testing on occupational pensions raised to £128.

Lord Ashley warned on Tuesday that if the government did not make more concessions then the whole bill could be lost.

He described the government's concessions as "piffling".

Lord Ashley said: "Even if they get it through the House of Commons tomorrow, they will still need to get it through the House of Lords.

"Then we are facing real deadlock."

Lord Ashley has said the contents of the bill were not part of the Labour manifesto so the Lords need not stick to the convention that they would not oppose it.

Lynne Jones: Many Labour MPs are backing amendments to the Bill
The bill needs to complete its passage through Parliament in the next two weeks or the entire legislation will fail.

He continued: "I'm sorry about this but I have spoken to a number of Lords and they are determined on this."

Lynne Jones, Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, has also expressed reservations to the bill.

She said: "Even if this scrapes through the Commons, it is very likely that it will be voted down in the Lords.

"We very much regret that but there is time for the government to make more concessions.

[ image: Alistair Darling:
Alistair Darling: "Not attempting to buy back anybody"
"We don't understand why a government which is doing so much good for disabled people is spoiling it."

The government has made it clear that there will be no further concessions to the bill.

He said: "The government have tabled some amendments and Alistair Darling has made clear there won't be any more concessions.

"We believe the argument is moving the government's way and it is doing so because the argument is right."

On Monday, Mr Darling told the BBC he was prepared to some offer concessions on incapacity benefit which would allow more people to claim it, and to reduce the impact of a new means test.

He said: "I am making a number of changes to this bill, exempting the severely disabled from some of its provisions, raising the threshold before which you take into account someone's occupational pension to £85 [a week], and extending the time for which you can qualify for incapacity benefit to effectively four-and-a-half years.

"I think these are sensible changes, and I think they make it into a better bill."

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