Many people view what happens in Parliament through the prism of Prime Minister’s Questions, which makes the new Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to this weekly set-piece all the more interesting. However, the real work of providing a legislative check and balance to the Executive is done in Public Bill Committees, scrutinising legislation line-by-line for hours on end and considering the merits or otherwise of detailed amendments.
Last month, Z2K raised concerns about the weakness of the amendments tabled by Labour’s Shadow DWP Team to the Government’s reduced Benefit Cap. These amendments exempted only a small minority of families affected from the £23,000 cap, leaving many potentially vulnerable households facing its full weight. The timidity of this approach paled in comparison to the forthright opposition of the Scottish National Party’s own amendments to these clauses.
Z2K has been calling for London MPs to table more substantive amendments, and we were delighted when Islington South MP, Emily Thornberry, and several other back benchers tabled a series of amendments of their own – exempting homeless households, disabled people and full-time carers from the cap. Further amendments proposed that the cap should continue to be set by reference to average national earnings, rather than an arbitrary figure the Secretary of State for Work & Pensions chooses to pluck out of the air.
There has been plenty of media comment already about the differences of opinion – between Labour’s new Leader and other members of his Shadow Cabinet. But a clear indication of how far Her Majesty’s Opposition’s position on the issue has changed since the Second Reading debate in July can be gauged by the fact that Labour’s original amendments were not even selected for debate, let alone voted upon. That can only mean that those amendments were essentially withdrawn in favour of those tabled by Emily Thornberry and co.
Of course, it undoubtedly helped that Ms Thornberry was herself appointed to Labour’s Shadow DWP Team in the place of Stephen Timms the day before the amendments were due to be debated. Given her consistent opposition to the Benefit Cap in principle as well as this lower version of it, there probably isn’t anyone better qualified to lead opposition to it in the House of Commons. And in this first outing, she left no stone unturned as she exposed both the dubious philosophy underlying the cap and the devastating impact it has on those caught by it. The SNP’s Hannah Bardell MP was equally damning in her judgment of the Government’s motives.
In keeping with the lamentable efforts of the right-wing think tanks wheeled in to give evidence to the committee about the positive impacts of the cap on benefit claimants, the DWP minister, Priti Patel’s rebuttal fell apart when it was revealed that the overwhelming majority of those affected at the moment are not actually required to be in work. It says an awful lot about the evidential basis for this policy, that within two minutes of starting to speak, she was praying in aid an opinion poll saying that 70 per cent of the public apparently support it.
As the Government has its majority in the Chamber, so it does in these committees. And so Labour’s amendments and those of the SNP were defeated. The likelihood is that any amendments tabled at Report Stage and Third Reading in the Commons will suffer that same fate. But after months if not years of shilly-shallying, at the least the battle has now properly been joined, and the Benefit Cap is facing some Parliamentary opposition worthy of the name. This is important for the signal it sends to the House of Lords, where the Government does not have a majority, and where ministers may be forced to make concessions to get their legislation through.
That is exactly what happened back in 2012 when amendments tabled by the former Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, Lord Best and others secured the exemption of all Employment & Support Allowance (Support Group) claimants to the £500 a week cap, a significant increase in Discretionary Housing Payment funding and a 39-week “grace period” for those employed in the previous 12 months. Even with these concessions, the Coalition Government controversially resorted to engaging the financial privilege of the House of Commons over the Lords to get its Bill onto the Statute Book.
Without the support of Lib Dem Peers this time round, ministers may now find it even more difficult to resist more substantial amendments to their lower cap.