Disabled peers have failed to prevent the government moving the next stage of the debate on its hugely controversial welfare reform bill to a less accessible part of the House of Lords.
The government argued that the bill’s lengthy next stage should take place in a committee room – in “grand committee” – rather than in the main Lords chamber.
Negotiations had broken down with Labour peers over splitting the committee stage of the bill between the two venues.
But the government move sparked fury among disabled activists – including blogger Kaliya Franklin, co-founder of The Broken of Britain – who found out about it just hours before it was due to be decided by a Lords vote, and flooded peers and MPs with emails and phone calls.
As well as causing access problems, having the bill discussed in “grand committee” will mean peers will not be able to force votes on key controversial issues until the bill returns to the main chamber for its report stage.
The disabled peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell told the Lords that she felt “compelled” to speak out against the move, even though she would normally be resting at home having attended the lengthy second reading debate the previous day.
She said having the committee stage outside the chamber would make access “tremendously difficult” for both disabled peers and those disabled campaigners following the debate.
And she said that not being able to vote during the committee stage on “one of the most significant pieces of legislation for disabled people in my adult life” was “deeply disturbing”.
She had spoken out the previous day about measures in the bill to replace disability living allowance with a new personal independence payment – cutting spending by a fifth – which she warned could “return disabled people to levels of dependence last seen 30 years ago”.
Her fellow disabled peer, Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, said the Lords would be doing disabled people a “great disservice” by not having the debate in the main chamber.
But the Liberal Democrat disabled peer Baroness [Celia] Thomas disagreed, saying that taking the debate away from the chamber would mean fewer interruptions from other business.
The Conservative chief whip in the Lords, Baroness Anelay, told peers that a “reasonable” proportion of bills had to be sent to grand committee if peers were to have “reasonable time” to scrutinise them all.
She said she believed the welfare reform bill was the “best candidate” to be sent to grand committee because it would benefit from a more “in-depth, informal and technical approach”.
Peers voted for the move – with the crossbench disabled peer Lord [Colin] Low joining Baroness Thomas in voting in favour – by a majority of 52.
Baroness Wilkins told Disability News Service after the vote that she and other disabled peers had been “very unhappy” with the government’s decision.
She said: “There is better access [in the chamber], both for all the interested peers and also for any disabled people who wanted to access it.
“[Holding the debates in a committee room] means it becomes extremely crowded and difficult and it does mean that the discussion isn’t as open to the whole house as it would be if it was in the chamber.”
15 September 2011