The government has sparked fury among disabled people’s organisations and activists after taking advantage of a rarely-used parliamentary procedure to force through some of the most unpopular parts of its welfare reform bill.
Disabled activists had welcomed many of the changes to the bill secured during its passage through the Lords, particularly amendments that reversed some of the planned cuts to employment and support allowance (ESA), although there was considerable anger at other measures that survived unscathed.
But the coalition this week used its significant majority in the Commons to overturn every one of the seven defeats it suffered in the Lords, and confirmed that it would use “financial privilege” to ensure that peers did not attempt to re-introduce those amendments.
Among those overturned by the government were amendments that would have increased the time-limit for claiming the contributory form of ESA – for those in the work-related activity group – from one year to two; removed all contributory ESA time-limits for those receiving treatment for cancer; and reinstated the contributory form of ESA to disabled young people with the highest support needs.
The government also reinstated its plans to cut financial support for young disabled people with lower support needs, which will see most families with a disabled child losing £27 per week while those with children with higher needs gain just £1.50 a week.
Jaspal Dhani, chief executive of the UK Disabled People’s Council, said the government’s use of “financial privilege” was “quite preposterous”.
He said it was a “reminder of how the government are not listening to the issues and concerns raised by not just disabled people but their supporters and allies” and were “continuing to ignore the potential threats to disabled people’s independent living”.
Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns for Disability Rights UK, said: “It is distressing to see a government use the financial privilege mechanism to prevent further analysis of a deeply-flawed piece of legislation that will negatively impact on millions of disabled people’s lives.”
He added: “It is burying its head in the sand rather than taking action to address issues that will cause destitution and despair for hundreds of thousands of disabled people and their families.”
He said peers had passed their amendments based on “better analysis, better evidence and more information” than the Commons had possessed when debating the bill in depth last year, but coalition MPs were now over-riding those decisions.
And Coyle said the government had still not analysed the cumulative impact of all the welfare cuts on the NHS and local authorities.
Among the information that has emerged since MPs considered the bill last year was December’s report from the parliamentary joint committee on human rights, which suggested that parts of the bill could contravene the European Convention on Human Rights.
And the government only published estimates last month of how its plans to scrap working-age disability living allowance (DLA) and replace it with a new personal independence payment would affect disabled people.
Disabled activist Sue Marsh – co-author of the Responsible Reform report, which revealed how the government misled parliament over the scale of opposition to its DLA reforms – wrote on her blog that the government had “ridden roughshod over any thread of democracy we might have thought we still had in the UK” and had “treated parliament and the House of Lords with complete contempt”.
Another disabled activist and blogger, Paul Smith, of the Atos Victims Group, said the government’s decision to use financial privilege was an “utter disgrace” and “showed for all to see the utter contempt in which the coalition government holds the public and the House of Lords”.
He said: “People and organisations have lobbied for months over this. Disabled and terminally-ill people do not want something for nothing. All these groups of people want is to be able to lead a reasonable life, being able to afford things like food, heat and shelter, all these things we regard as basic rights.”
A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesman said: “We have listened to the Lords and there has been a healthy debate across the country on the merits of the bill.
“MPs had the chance to vote yesterday on the Lords amendments and now the bill will go back to the Lords.”
The bill is expected to return to the Lords next week. Although peers can still bring forward new amendments, the DWP said they would need to be “substantially different” to any previous amendments already voted on.
2 February 2012