Opposition and independent peers have secured three key victories over the government in the battle to reverse its planned cuts to out-of-work disability benefits.
Crossbench and Labour peers combined with a small number of Liberal Democrat rebels –although a larger number of Liberal Democrat peers abstained – to win votes on three key amendments to the coalition’s welfare reform bill.
Each of the amendments overturned government proposals to cut spending on employment and support allowance (ESA).
Despite the large margin of victory on all three amendments, the government made it clear that it would try to overturn the defeats when the bill returns to the House of Commons.
But there was also anger among peers after Lord Freud, the Conservative welfare reform minister, managed to reverse one of the victories by demanding a late-night vote on a government amendment, when most opposition and crossbench peers had already left the chamber for the day.
Lord McKenzie, Labour’s work and pensions spokesman, described Freud’s move as “quite disgraceful”.
The first of the three successful amendments overturned government plans to remove the contributory form of ESA from disabled young people with the highest support needs, who can currently claim the benefit from the age of 16 without being means-tested.
Some young disabled people who are ineligible for income-related ESA support were set to lose almost £100 a week.
But Lord Freud’s late amendment then reversed this success.
The second amendment doubled the government’s planned 12-month time-limit on disabled people in the “work-related activity group” – those with limited capability for work – receiving the “contributory” form of ESA.
Government figures show that 94 per cent of people with limited capability for work need ESA for longer than 12 months in order to find a job.
The disabled peer Lord [Colin] Low, who backed the amendment, said that because of problems with the government’s new Work Programme it would be “not only unfair but downright cruel to time-limit contributory ESA to one year”.
But the disabled Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Celia] Thomas claimed that voting for the amendment would just be a “cynical” move, as it would probably be overturned in the Commons because of its financial implications.
Members of her party voted to oppose any time-limit on contributory ESA at their annual conference last September.
Lord Freud said extending the time-limit to two years would cost £1.6 billion over five years.
The third amendment removed all time-limits for contributory ESA for claimants receiving treatment for cancer or with a cancer diagnosis.
Labour peers are now believed to be seeking clarification on what Lord Freud’s late amendment will mean when the bill comes to third reading, the final stage before it returns to the Commons.
Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins, the disabled Labour peer, described Lord Freud’s late vote as an “ambush”, but said the three earlier victories were “wonderful”.
But she warned that these amendments would be overturned when the bill returned to the Commons unless Liberal Democrat MPs voted against their own government.
Many campaigners have attributed the size of victory in the Lords to the Responsible Reform report, which was published by disabled activists on Monday and distributed the same day – just two days before the ESA votes – to peers and MPs.
Sue Marsh, the disabled blogger and campaigner who led the research, said she believed their report had had an impact on peers.
Although the report focused on reform of disability living allowance (DLA), she said that the message – that the government misled parliament and the public about the scale of opposition to those reforms – must have influenced this week’s votes on ESA.
Attention has now turned to next week’s crucial votes on DLA reform.
Marsh said she was “fairly confident” that the same coalition of crossbench and Labour peers would combine again to vote through amendments to the government’s DLA measures.
12 January 2012