Welfare Reform Bill: Which way do Lib Dem MPs vote?

Those 57 Liberal Democrat MPs, whether on the Government payroll or not, are going to have some very tough choices when they come to vote on all the amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill.
It’s been suggested that the difficult position the Party finds itself in is all down to communications. Tell the world about all the concessions the Lib Dems have achieved, the spin doctors say, and all will be OK.
But of course it’s not. Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords were thoroughly unconvinced by this argument when they rebelled over ESA, the cap and CSA fees. Those rebellions seem to have achieved far more of substance.
In any case, a re-evaluation of priorities is needed.
That’s why I’ve been working with other grassroots Lib Dems like the author of Party policy on ESA, Liberal Youth’s blogger extraordinaire George Potter; former Guildford MP Sue Doughty; Social Liberal Forum colleagues and members of the Liberal Democrat Disability Association. Sue has orchestrated an open letter to Nick Clegg, signed by a significant number of Liberal Democrat candidates in 2010 (the most significant number since the General Election).
There will also be meetings with Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians – an almost unprecedented move – and I have put the issue on the agenda of the Federal Policy Committee next month.
Liberal Democrats need to be very careful to spell out their priorities. That should be ensuring the most vulnerable people receive proper care, while ensuring that the benefits system can no longer be used by the right-wing press to assert that working people earn less than claimants. The premise of the Coalition’s approach to welfare reform is generally right – and the many conversations I’ve had with people in areas of high deprivation in Reading prove it. But the Coalition will lose the argument unless they deal properly with the substance rather than retreating into their collective bunker.
That means that the smaller of the rebellions so far – on ESA – should be seen as a greater priority than the controversial benefits cap. Paddy Ashdown has been clear on the cap that he wants to see effective mitigation, and the bishops’ amendment to protect children is a start. Many people, though, are concerned that the real winners from the current, uncapped system – the landlords – are being left off the hook. A look at rent controls in the small number of most affected boroughs would be wise. But there is some consensus on this – and to concentrate on the cap is to focus not on the most vulnerable people at risk from the provisions of the Bill. The localising and non-ringfencing of the Social Fund is one measure that the Lords have let slip through – and an example of unfairness masquerading as localism.
Worst of all, though, was the discovery of the blatantly discriminatory proposals to charge lone parents to pursue maintenance via the Child Support Agency. Anyone who has ever been anywhere near running the smallest council will be aware of nonsense proposals produced by lazy or incompetent officials suggesting ways to save money. Those who wish for a political future ensure such proposals never see the light of day and that the bureaucrats’ move is not career-enhancing. How has an entire coalition Government made such a schoolboy error?
So the job of Liberal Democrats in Government on the Welfare Reform Bill is not yet done. There’s work to do to stop landlords profiteering at the State’s expense, providing the means to provide adequate mitigation on the benefit cap. The positions on the CSA and ESA are more serious. Both go against the fundamental values of the Liberal Democrats. One goes against party policy passed only months ago. Neither was part of the Coalition Agreement. I do not know of any concession we have made that remotely legitimises any of this.
So until I see change, I will continue to work with a great many Liberal Democrat colleagues to ensure the Coalition Agreement is honoured to encourage work and enshrine responsibility and fairness in the welfare system. The Agreement states:-
“Our government will be a much smarter one, shunning the bureaucratic levers of the past and finding intelligent ways to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves.”
Let’s not let lazy politicians, let down by lazier bureaucrats, get in the way of it. Lib Dem MPs should retain the Lords amendments.

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