The defeat inflicted on the Government on three amendments in a row in the Welfare Reform Bill raised more than a few eyebrows – and not just those of Westminster watchers. Amongst other things, acknowledgement should be given to Sue Marsh and Kaliya Franklin for what I think sets a precedent in the use of evidence and of social media to enable thousands of people with disabilities to influence politics – and law-making. I’m referring in particular to the Responsible Reform Report, known on Twitter as the Spartacus Report.
Having seen up close what it’s like taking a bill through Parliament, I imagine that the civil servants both on the Welfare Reform Bill Team and those policy officials who have had to work up the detail of the policy and write all the briefing and speaking notes will now be working their socks off in response. Ultimately though, they will be implementing and responding as ministers direct them to – which is their job. Hence the focus now moves onto the ministers.
My first question in all of this is “Who is the decision-maker?” Is it Freud? Is it Grayling? Is it Duncan-Smith? Labour MP and Puffles-watcher John McDonnell has already stated he has tabled a Parliamentary Question asking for ministers to make a statement in response to the Responsible Reform Report. That’s not to say ministers will be forthcoming. They could turn around and say “We disagree with the findings of that report” and leave it at that. Hence the limitations of, and my blogpost on Parliamentary scrutiny.
Chris Grayling, Minister of State for Employment at the Department for Work and Pensions has gone on record saying that he intends to overturn the Lords’ vote when the Bill returns to the Commons for considerations for Lords’ amendments – or constitutionally speaking, ask the House of Commons (probably with a three-line whip) to overturn those amendments. Where does this leave campaigners?
On the lobbying side, having a look at who has which majorities is a useful start. We still have a first-past-the-post system which means that there is a greater incentive for those MPs to make more of an effort to represent their constituents beyond party lines rather than toeing the party line. (Some may also point to the link between safe seats and expenses too – but does that claim stack up?)
The second place to look is towards the MPs sitting on the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee asking Dame Anne Begg and colleagues to hold an inquiry and/or a series of hearings into the Responsible Reform Report. That way, MPs would be able to properly cross-examine ministers on the key findings in a manner that would make it more than difficult for ministers (and their senior civil service policy advisers) to hide away from.
The nature of the Coalition means that the use of whipping is not as effective as a disciplinary instrument as it might have been in the previous administration – in particular where there are significantly fewer reshuffles with which to provide an incentive of a future ministerial post to aspiring MPs. Thus more concessions may need to be made by ministers (in particular to Liberal Democrat MPs) before the final text of any amendments from ministers are formally tabled when the Bill returns to the Commons.
I have no doubt that campaigners will keep up the media and lobbying pressure to keep this issue in the spotlight – one that took a significant effort to get the media to cover it. (It seemed that it was only the defeat in the Lords that forced the media to cover it.) When it comes to the Commons’ consideration of the Lords’ amendments, it looks like the Coalition will table amendments to strike out what the Lords voted on yesterday. Now is the time for campaigners to start asking their local MPs which way they intend to vote on those amendments. If they can persuade the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee to subject ministers to cross-examination on the content of the Responsible Reform Report, this might help ‘concentrate the minds’ of MPs further, as well as bringing greater levels of publicity and scrutiny to the policy content of the Welfare Reform Bill.