Last Chance for MPs to Challenge the lower Benefit Cap
Marc Francis, Director of Policy & Campaigns
Over the last few weeks, Z2K has been taking a closer look at the amendments tabled for Committee Stage so far to clauses 7 and 8 of the Government’s Welfare Reform & Work Bill which lower the Benefit Cap in the Capital to £23,000. The amendments tabled to these clauses are 11, 12, 13, 14 and New Clause 1 from the Labour Shadow DWP Team, and amendments 25-37 from the Scottish Nationalist Party.
At the time of Labour’s very public wrangling over its position on the Bill’s Second Reading, those MPs objecting to the lower £23,000 a year cap in London (and £20,000 elsewhere) were assured that amendments would be tabled at committee stage. The Front Bench Team has been true to the letter of its word. But it is questionable whether they have been true to the spirit. None of these amendments is really worth the paper it will be printed upon.
Amendment 11 is the one of greatest substance – exempting a number of categories of social Security claimants from the cap. To be fair, some of those affected by the current £500 a week cap would be exempted, which is good. But the problem is that the vast majority of those people ministers want to cap would still be hit if Labour’s amendments were to become law.
For example, subsection (a) of amendment 11 only exempts single parents with a child under 2 years-old, which means that those on Income Support with children aged between 2 and 5 years old will still be affected. Likewise, subsection (b) only exempts non-resident full-time carers, leaving those who are resident potentially subject to the cap. And subsection (c) only exempts families who are homeless because of domestic violence, leaving the majority of other homeless families subject to the cap. (In any case, most of the families fleeing domestic violence will be exempt in any case as their local authority will have placed them in a refuge which counts as “supported accommodation”.)
Similarly, Amendments 12, 13 and 14 simply require that additional information is provided to the Secretary of State as part of the process by which he will review the level of the cap and that this review takes place every year, rather than once every Parliament as the Government currently wants. New Clause 1 simply requires a report on the Benefit Cap’s impact to be produced and published. None of these amendments amounts to serious opposition to the lower benefit cap.
In contrast, the SNP has tabled much more substantive amendments. Amendments 25, 26 and 27 all remove the lower level of the cap – effectively keeping it £500 a week across the whole country. Its other amendments would have the effect of removing Bereavement Allowance, Carer’s Allowance, Child Benefit, Child Tax Credit, Guardian’s Allowance, Maternity Allowance, Severe Disablement Allowance, Widow’s Pension, Widowed Mother’s Allowance and Widowed Parent’s Allowance from the cap. It is hard to argue that these are anything other than “wrecking amendments”. But there is no doubting the SNP’s opposition to this dreadful policy.
Obviously, it is very unlikely that any of Labour’s inoffensive amendments will be accepted by ministers, let alone the SNP’s ones. But that really isn’t the point. Only a small minority of the 129,000 households the Government’s much-delayed Impact Assessment reveals to be affected by the lower cap would be helped were these Labour amendments to become law. Essentially, Labour’s current Front Bench Team is giving ministers a free run at a policy which will impoverish around 129,000 households and leave many of them facing arrears, eviction and homelessness.
Of course, Labour’s position may change once the outcome of its Leadership election is known as one candidate is unreservedly opposed to the cap. However, the Bill starts its passage through committee on Thursday 10th September and so the window for tabling more substantive amendments to clauses 7 and 8 at committee stage is already beginning to close. And there may not be sufficient time for a vote on amendments to the Benefit Cap clauses at Report Stage / Third Reading even if the Leader is minded to lay them. Without such a challenge in the House of Commons, there is little hope of the Lords taking up these concerns.
For the sake of all those Londoners who will be pushed towards a financial precipice if this policy comes into force, Z2K hopes a London MP will step up and table more substantive amendments before it is too late.