And the day began so politely. The third day of the Report stage of the Welfare Reform Bill started with a government amendment—that is, the government themselves had seen the virtue of a specific criticism of their bill and decided to make improvements in the light of it. In fact a smiling Lord Patel, who had spotted in the amendment elements of suggestions he had made in Committee, was the first to thank the minister, Lord Freud.
Lord Patel: My Lords, I speak to Amendment 42, to which the Minister has just referred. Before I start, perhaps I might wish him a happy new year and, in doing so, thank him enormously for his Amendment 43. It may be claimed that it was in response to my amendment in Grand Committee; if so, I am very grateful for it.
Everyone knew, though, that the day's real sport hadn't yet begun. Opposition and independent Cross-Bench amendments were coming up that went against some fundamental money-saving propositions by the government: cutting contributory employment and support allowance from people who had been unable to work since childhood due to disability, time-limiting ESA to 12 months and means-testing cancer patients after one year instead of two.
The government knew these measures were contentious enough for there to be votes on them, and knew those votes might be close. The Tories were under strict instructions about how to vote on these questions. It had been reported that the Lib Dems, who had been making it clear behind the scenes to their own whips that one or two aspects of this legislation were too unpalatable even for them
, had been given a looser leash than they have been used to under the coalition, allowing some of them them to abstain without provoking... whatever a whip could possibly threaten a life peer with. A Chinese burn?
However, the government hadn't been expecting to lose the first vote—on contributory ESA for people who had never been able to contribute national insurance—by 260 to 216. There's no way a government can gloss those numbers as the work of one or two
usual suspects or professional contrarians; when one side is being heavily whipped to vote against but a hefty majority acting on its conscience votes for, that can confidently be taken as the will of the House.
The next amendment, on the time-limiting of ESA and all the implications that would have for people with long-term conditions, was Lord Patel's. He argued his case passionately, went into great detail about cases where individuals would suffer and was neither the first nor the last to appeal to Lord Freud's compassionate Conservatism
by pointing out that sufferers of terminal cancer would save the Treasury money by not living long enough to collect their pensions.
Various Lords chipped in to this particular debate, including the Conservative Lord Blencathra, a Commons whip under Thatcher and the only disabled peer the coalition can remotely rely on to wheel the party line
Lord Blencathra: I am informed that his amendment as it stands has serious cost implications. I believe that it would cost up to £200 million next year, maybe £400 million the year after and again the year after that… it is incumbent on the Opposition or on those who are arguing for this amendment to say where the £1 billion, if indeed it is £1 billion, is to come from... It is easy to feel morally good because we have done something to help those who will be affected, but we have to bear in mind the others who will lose £1 billion of expenditure, or wherever that £1 billion will come from. [Hansard]
Lord Patel's manner in response was courteous as ever but implacable:
Lord Patel: We are talking here about not taking money away over five years even to the level of £1.3 billion from the most vulnerable in society. As I pointed out, they are those on the lowest third centile of income, to whom, as the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, said, it is £94 a week. If we are going to rob the poor to pay the rich, we are entering into a different form of morality. [Lord Blencathra] asked the question whether it is moral. I say that it is moral to look after those that are sick, vulnerable and poor. If that is immoral, what is moral is to pay the rich—and we are on a different planet altogether... They are not skivers or benefit cheats. They are the last people who cheat. Are we going to make savings there? I was honest in accepting that what I proposed was costly, but I am not going to be dishonest and say that therefore we should let those people suffer. I ask the House to determine who should be supported. [Hansard]
The debate was being followed live by many people who normally might hesitate even to point to the location of the House of Lords on a map of Parliament but, for this one important day, found themselves riveted to its proceedings. People who previously had never had any reason to hear of this eminent doctor, peer and member of the Order of the Thistle were getting carried away:
@DocHackenbush I've been teetotal my whole life, but I've been seized by an overwhelming urge to get drunk and snog Lord Patel.
The House duly determined who should be supported by another convincing margin, 234 to 186. That was on the time-limiting of ESA but immediately afterwards they voted again, this time specifically on Lord Patel's other amendment about means-testing cancer patients, which was carried by 222 to 166.
No minister wants to lose a vote on Report. The hope is that, by a combination of pressure applied to the arms of your own colleagues and a deft and persuasive performance in the Chamber, you'll storm any vote or perhaps even convince the opposition not to go ahead in the first place. Still, it's accepted that losing is an occupational hazard. To lose badly twice in one day, though, is an exceptionally bad day
for a minister. To do so three times is all but unheard of.
Lord Freud was visibly stung. He had seemed unflappable all through Committee, but then he had known that the rules meant that at that stage no-one could actually vote against him. On Report, though, his attempts to persuade the House by sheer force of argument had been at least futile and possibly even counterproductive—after all, repeatedly telling the House of Lords that you're explaining something to them slowly so that perhaps this time
they'll understand you is unlikely to win you a sympathetic hearing.
(Lord Freud, like his Commons counterpart Chris Grayling, says that whole swathes of the population are too well off to need or deserve benefits, and that therefore his schemes are fair. As with virtually every other coalition policy, though, they can't produce a shred of evidence to justify the numbers they—vaguely—refer to, and in fact appear to have based their assumptions of large incomes and sizeable inheritances purely on what they know of their immediate friends and families
. It's a shame for posterity that these Conservative ministers never minuted the delightful dinner parties where they presumably arrived at their conclusions about everyone else's finances.)
A relaxed Lord Freud shows us around his beautiful home.
But he had a plan. It was a simple one: to wait until later in the evening and then insist on other government amendments later on in the bill that would reverse what the House had voted on. It is a convention that if the House has made its will expressly clear on a matter, then any related amendments that day will be dropped. Conventions, though, are no match for a minister scorned, and he went ahead and forced a vote on just such an amendment, which would restore Clause 52, which the House had earlier voted to remove. Most of the Cross-Benchers and Opposition members who had supported Lord Patel in the division lobbies had long since gone home satisfied that their fight was won, and the government won this unexpected vote comfortably by 132 to 49. Lord Freud's blood was up and he wanted to press more amendments that would annul all of the day's painful reverses for the government, but at this point the opposition made it clear that there would be all hell
to pay if he tried it. He backed down, glowering (or smiling delightedly, or possibly heavily constipated—it's quite difficult to tell with him), but safe in the knowledge that he had clawed one back for the team.
Not, in the end, that any of this matters. I hate to say it but the “victory” the other day in the Lords was purely illusory, and gave false hope to the very people to whom that spiteful gift should never be given. Even without Lord Freud's inventive manoeuvres that evening, it was a given
that the government would immediately start planning how to reverse the Lords' decisions once the bill returned to the Commons. This coalition will not be deflected from its core agenda, which seems as ever to be to redefine once and for all, and at any cost, the relationship between the vulnerable and their betters.
Ever keen to leave behind the “nasty party” tag that dogged them for so long, the Conservatives can be confident that with their behaviour over this bill they have done exactly that, although whether they were wise to do so by eagerly embracing the label of the “unbelievable cunt party” remains to be seen. The noble Lord is the closest thing the coalition has to the coalition cheerleader in the Chamber that I recently helpfully suggested. Back It would be hard for the Lib Dems to trash their reputation any more than it already has been, but those who are still dutifully filing through the lobbies in support of these particular measures are having a stab at it anyway. Back