13 January 2012

This was the Libdems’ most shameful day. Nothing else they have done since May 2010 matches this wrong.

On Wednesday the Liberal Democrat party sank. In two hours and three votes in Parliament it shredded any fragile claim to be a party of progress and reform and liberalism.

The House of Lords was debating primarily three amendments to the non-means-tested contributory Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) provisions in clause 51 of the Welfare Reform bill of the Tory Libdem government. You can read the debate and see the votes here (Lords Hansard 11 January 2012 column 152-176). ESA is the successor from October 2008 to invalidity benefit and income support on grounds of incapacity.

There is a need to reduce the deficit, to ensure services are efficient, and to spread the pain of reduction fairly across society with the broadest shoulders carrying the greatest load. None of that requires us to penalise those who are among the most vulnerable in our country, but that is what the unamended bill proposed.

Let me explain very briefly what is explained more fully in the Hansard record of the debate. The three amendments, 36a, 38, and 38a, sought to mitigate the pain for the vulnerable. They kept automatic contributory eligibility for ESA for people severely disabled or impaired from birth or from a young age, young people so severely disabled that they have never had, and will never have, the chance to earn a living, in the words of the independent crossbench peer Molly Meacher who moved the amendment (36a); they extended the time which someone who had worked and paid into the system could receive contributory ESA from one year to at least two years (38); they exempted cancer patients from the one-year ESA limit (38a). Under the unamended bill a cancer patient would have stopped receiving contributory ESA support after fifty two weeks and while perhaps still in treatment or recovering from treatment.

These amendments did not propose additional costs; they opposed cuts in present spending for the seriously disadvantaged. Saving money seemed to be the government’s main concern; but arguments about cost are always at bottom about priorities.

It was an impressive debate and several members made telling speeches which expertly explored the technical issues and laid bare human suffering. The civilising amendments were carried by large majorities by Labour and independent crossbench peers and with a number of Libdems that you can count literally on the fingers of one hand; the government was defeated. Tory and Libdem peers who voted did so in bulk against them. Some Libdem peers seem to have abstained.

This was the Libdems’ most shameful day. Nothing they have done since May 2010 matches this wrong. Remember this, remember this, remember this: the Libdems voted to cut financial support for very vulnerable people.


The House of Lords debated these issues in Grand Committee on 8 November 2011. Read the debate here. At times the real life examples given are searing.

The House of Commons debated clause 51 in committee last May. See here (Hansard 3 May 2011 column 628-656). The Commons gave the bill a third reading last June.