It is extraordinary that the Labour party could have got itself into such a muddle over welfare reform (which is Tory-speak for crippling welfare cutbacks) when Osborne’s sole motive for this bill, which had its second reading today, is to create divisions within Labour and label it as the party of shirkers. The bill is awful. Despite some useful provisions on apprenticeships, it ignores the plight of children in low income working households, removes the concept of child poverty from the statute book, increases the number of children living in poverty, worsens work incentives for people with below average incomes, and cuts the incomes of sick and disabled people. The attempt of the interim leadership to square all this with Labour’s need to get on-side with public opinion, repeatedly corrupted by Osborne and the Tory tabloids ranting against the poor and jobless, predictably got the worst of both worlds – a split party and an unconvincing compromise presented to the electorate.
If only Labour could have stayed together by hammering away at the stark inhumanity of the bill, the result could have been very different. There is no way that the majority of people in the country would support this bill if they knew the full details of what it does. It applies the household benefit cap to persons who are responsible for a child under 2 years old, or are a carer, or are in temporary accommodation because of domestic violence. It restricts tax credits applying to 3 or more children where a third child is born as a result of a multiple birth, where a thrid or subsequent child is fostered or adopted, where a third or subsequent child is disabled, or where a family with 3 or more children moves on to tax credits or universal credit in exceptional circumstances, including the death of one member of the family, the departure of one parent, or loss of income through unemployment. It cuts ESA for the work-related activity group by around £30 a week, even though this group has been through a rigorous test which deemed them not fit to work because they have Parkinson’s or are being treated for cancer. And so on.
Instead of trying to defend the indefensible, it would have been far better to skewer the Tories on the succession of broken promises presented in this bill. Cameron said before the budget: “Whatever the pressures, we will stand by my promises to protect the most vulnerable, including the most disabled who cannot work”. How is that compatible with a big cut in their ESA? The Tory manifesto said it would “work to eliminate child poverty”. How is that compatible with abolishing the targets for reducing child poverty?