Thursday, 2 February 2012

The Welfare Reform Bill and the abuse of privilege

The dream of a generation of Christian social reformers has been dealt a terrible blow: their simple dream was that all who contributed to society would receive at least what they needed. Yesterday, the House of Commons voted to change that principle to “all that all who contribute will receive what they need – unless it is a lot”.  

There was no mention that families assessed to need a lot, might simply have a lot of needs. Although we were repeatedly told that many people raise families on less than £500 a week, there was no mention of the hundreds of thousands of families who because of their particular and difficult circumstances just can’t. Sadly there is polling evidence to say these families don’t vote and it is popular to pretend they don’t exist.
During the debate jargon phrases like “welfare dependant” were sometimes used to hide the raw contempt of sections of society – but sometimes not even these masks were used. It is an uncomfortable fact but the people in the room, particularly the most powerful ones, were drawn from a very different section of society to the people they were discussing. I would not go down to job centre and expect clients to give me an accurate description of life at Parliament. Sadly today we saw that this lack of understanding goes both ways.

The Government invoked “financial privilege” to prevent further debate on important changes to the Welfare Reform Bill. Essentially the Government said only the Commons can spend money, so any House of Lords amendment which might cost money can be waived away and told never to come back.
The awful truth is that the benefit cap is essentially a financially neutral measure done on the basis of principle and ideology – as the minister Lord Freud said repeatedly. This isn’t primarily a financial measure. If the Lords can’t discuss principle, ideology, money... why are they there? A question the Lords themselves asked repeatedly when they stopped debating the Healthcare Bill and repeatedly asked the government representative if there was any point continuing.

Financial privilege is a rule from 1671 and the Restoration of King Charles II to the throne. It was Parliament’s way of saying Charles II you can’t do what your father did – spend money on an extravagant lifestyle and expect us to raise taxes to pay for it - that is how Civil Wars start. Today it was used to say to the House of Lords you can’t talk about the lifestyles of 220,000 impoverished children, cancer suffers or people with disability. It was the worst example of a lack of respect and self-interested rule bending I heard all day.