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Tuesday, November 2, 1999 Published at 16:49 GMT

UK Politics

The battle over welfare reform

Critics say the bill will hit the disabled hard

By BBC News Online's Sarah Teasdale

The government faces its biggest backbench revolt to date when its controversial welfare proposals are debated by MPs on Wednesday.

Although the Welfare Reform and Pension Bill is central to Labour's modernising reforms, it has suffered a tempestuous passage through Parliament.

The last time it was in the Commons, the bill led to 67 Labour MPs voting against the government on a measure regarding incapacity benefit.

The flagship welfare reform bill is a result of the government "thinking the unthinkable" on how to create a welfare state for the 21st century.

But opponents of the legislation claim the bill is merely Treasury-driven cuts disguised as social security reform.

The bill's measures

Among the measures the bill proposes is the creation of a new single gateway for all benefit claimants of working age.

[ image: The bill proposes a single gateway for claimants]
The bill proposes a single gateway for claimants
All new and existing claimants will be required to attend an interview to discuss their future work plans.

This is an attempt to link the Employment Service, Benefits Agency and other welfare providers by having a single port of call for all services.

The bill will also introduce tougher tests for eligibility for incapacity benefit and will remove the entitlement from those who have not paid National Insurance contributions in one of the past three years.

The Social Security Secretary, Alistair Darling, is concerned that incapacity benefit should not be used to keep unemployment figures down or act as a disincentive to seeking work.

The bill will also introduce means tests for people claiming incapacity benefit who already have a private or occupational pension. It also contains measures to introduce stakeholder pensions.

Opponents of the bill

This flagship bill has faced months of opposition from all political parties in both houses of Parliament.

The Conservatives say that the extension of means testing will create further disincentives to work and saving. They also claim the stakeholder pension proposals are confused.

[ image: Campaigners have praised the government on some disability reforms]
Campaigners have praised the government on some disability reforms
Although the Liberal Democrats support the idea of a single gateway for claimants, they are opposed to the bill as they say it hits the poor hardest.

But it is disability rights campaigners and a core of Labour backbenchers who have been among the most vocal opponents of the bill.

They say they are disappointed a government which has done so much for disabled people, such as establishing a Disability Rights Commission, is forcing through these measures.

Critics of the reforms point out that at a time when the government is so committed to fighting poverty, they are in fact targeting the most vulnerable group in society through this bill.

James Strachan, chief executive of the RNID, said: "The public seems unaware that these cuts affect not only disabled people today but anyone who becomes disabled in the future, through illness or accident.

"It is obscene that disabled people, one of society's most vulnerable groups, remain under such attack."

Disability campaigners argue the amount spent on incapacity payments is falling despite government claims that in 1998 1.6m people were claiming incapacity benefit, three times the number claiming equivalent benefits in 1980.

Many MPs have also been enraged by the way the government concessions were announced to the media ahead of a meeting with the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday.

Lynne Jones, Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, said: "We are thinking people and we don't like being treated with contempt."

Defeats and rebellion

It is against that context and the memory of the rebellion by the 67 MPs in May that the bill will be debated on Wednesday.

The bill has also suffered eight defeats in the Lords, including some amendments tabled by Labour peers.

Days before the bill returned to the Commons, Mr Darling made a number of concessions to the reforms.

They maintain the principle in the bill - of restricting incapacity benefit - but lessen the impact, by making more generous the level at which the reductions will start and at which benefits are tapered.

They include increasing the level that people on incapacity benefit with occupational pensions will be means tested from £50 to £85 a week.

But MPs want this to be set at £128 and will demand this on Wednesday.

Mr Darling has also now said that incapacity benefit should be removed from people who have not worked in the last three years, rather than two years as the bill originally stated.

However, this is at odds with MPs demands who want the level set at seven years.

The government has said it will not make any further concessions prior to Wednesday's debate and on that basis a rebellion is inevitable.

[ image: Lord Ashley: Has warned the bill may not pass through the Lords]
Lord Ashley: Has warned the bill may not pass through the Lords
If a rebellion was not enough to contend with, the government is mindful that the bill has only two weeks to complete its passage through Parliament.

So, despite the government's majority of 176, they will use a guillotine motion on Wednesday to curtail the debate.

But even if the bill does pass through the Commons unscathed, it faces further obstacles when it returns to the Lords on Monday.

Former Labour MP Lord Ashley of Stoke has warned that peers may well oppose the bill and vote it down.

He said on Tuesday that he does not believe that the bill's contents were a manifesto commitment.

That would mean peers do not have to stick to the convention which prevents them obstructing government's manifesto commitments.

If the bill does not make it through Parliament before the Queen's Speech on the entire bill will fail.

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