Alan Whitehead

Labour MP for Southampton Test

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Welfare and Work Bill-Second Reading

The Government announced several weeks ago that it intended to take the second reading of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill on the 20th July. This is the first stage of the Bill’s passage through the House. It will be examined and voted on in committee, and then re-examined at report stage, and finally, given a voted on third reading before it is passed to the House of Lords for further scrutiny.

Second reading is therefore an initial opportunity for members to discuss what it is they like or do not like about a bill, and vote on whether it stops at that point or proceeds to be examined in committee.  A number of Bills about which people have had severe misgivings have not necessarily been opposed initially at second reading, but are amended as they go through their various stages.

My view of the bill is that it has some good content (provisions of the expansion of apprenticeships for example) but that overwhelmingly it contains provisions which would seriously impact on child poverty and family living circumstances (child tax credits, for example) and would disadvantaged disabled people seriously and unfairly through changes to Employment and  Support Allowance. It is a mostly bad bill which I would be inclined simply to vote against immediately.

The initial position of the Opposition, which would have been on a whipped vote, was essentially to accept substantial elements of the bill and neither put forward any grounds for opposing parts of it (known as a ‘reasoned amendment’) nor vote against second reading. That position was unacceptable to myself and a number of colleagues. By the day of the discussion and the vote on second reading, the position had changed substantially, however. A reasoned amendment setting out the areas in the bill that the opposition disagreed with was to be put down and voted on. The text of the amendment was:

That this house whilst affirming its belief that there should be controls on and reforms to the overall costs of social security, that reporting obligations on full employment, apprenticeships and troubled families are welcome, and that a benefits cap and loans for mortgage interest support are necessary changes to the welfare system, declines to give a second reading to the welfare reform and work bill because the bill will prevent the Government from continuing to pursue an ambition to reduce child poverty in both absolute and relative terms, it effectively repeals the child Poverty Act 2010 which provides important measures and accountability of government policy in relation to child poverty, and it includes a proposal for the work related activity component of employment and support allowance which is an unfair approach to people who are sick and disabled

I was encouraged that this change had taken place, but sought further assurances about the procedure following the amendment? Would the areas of disagreement be pursued as amendments at committee Stage – and crucially, would the Bill as a whole be voted against if those amendments were not successful in committee?

I was informed that this would be what would happen now, and indeed this was stated by Party frontbenchers when winding up the debate on Second Reading.  In order to maintain a unified approach to the Bill by the opposition, I decided on balance that I would abstain at second reading, having voted for the amendment on the night (which was defeated.)

I do not think the way the opposition front bench handled the initial approach to the bill was anything other than a mess, as has been set out in the media. I do think though that the hard work of opposing and amending multiple elements of the Bill in committee will indicate very clearly as the Bill progresses, just how much of it needs fundamental surgery to stand up even with the addition of the minority of acceptable clauses in it already. I hope amendments can be won, but I am not optimistic that this will happen. I am fully prepared, therefore to vote against the Bill in total at Third Reading.

 It is at its heart a very bad bill and Labour in opposition will be seeking to root out and destroy those multiple facets of its construction at committee stage. It is not true at all that, as some social media entries had it that Labour was somehow fully endorsing the Bill at Second Reading – it was not, as the amendment demonstrated. And by the way, we might think for a moment about who is actually supporting the bill, and who may well vote down all Labour's amendments as they did the Reasoned amendment at Second Reading.

We might be best employed on directing our fire at them, rather than each other.  

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