Proposals to radically overhaul the benefits system have moved a step closer after the Welfare Reform Bill cleared its first hurdle in the House of Commons. The Bill received its second reading after MPs voted by 308 to 20, a Government majority of 288. A Labour motion which had criticised much of the Bill and called for fuller consultation was defeated by 317 votes to 244, a Government majority of 73.
Under the Government's plans most existing benefits will be replaced with a universal credit as part of efforts to ensure "work will always and must always be made to pay", Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith told the Commons. Other proposals would see the the loophole closed which has led to some couples receive more for living apart.
Those who refuse to take up job offers face losing their benefits for up to three years, and there will be tougher sanctions for fraud. But there have been fears that the reforms could push some cancer sufferers into poverty and debt. An alliance of thirty cancer charities warned that changes to disability benefits would mean "that a significant number of people with cancer will be left without vital financial support at a time when they need it the most."
They claim thousands of patients undergoing oral chemotherapy will be hit by plans to withdraw employment support allowance (ESA) after a year, as many will still not be well enough to go back to work. Mr Duncan Smith moved to allay the fears, telling MPs he would listen to advice from charities and the medical profession.
He said: "We are not in the business of trying to harm or affect cancer patients, quite the contrary, I think we have made some very serious changes to what we inherited from the previous government and that is what we will continue to do."
UPDATE – Thursday 10th March 2011 at 15:30
The Labour frontbench abstained on tonight’s vote on the Welfare Reform Bill. John McDonnell MP, LRC Chair, was among just 22 MPs who voted against the Bill. John tweeted: “Ed Miliband decided PLP should only vote for amendment to Tories Welfare cuts Bill & then abstain. It is so appalling I am voting against”. The LRC previously wrote to all Labour MPs urging them to vote against the Bill.
The 22 MPs who voted against the Bill were:
Ronnie Campbell (Lab), Katy Clark (Lab), Michael Connarty (Lab), Jeremy Corbyn (Lab), Jon Cruddas (Lab), Mark Durkan (SDLP), Jonathan Edwards (PC), Dai Havard (Lab), Kelvin Hopkins (Lab), Stewart Hosie (SNP), Sian James (Lab), Elfyn Llwyd (PC), Naomi Long (Alliance), Caroline Lucas (Green), Angus MacNeil (SNP), John McDonnell (Lab), Angus Robertson (SNP), Jim Sheridan (Lab), Dennis Skinner (Lab), Eilidh Whiteford (SNP), Hywel Williams (PC) and Mike Wood (Lab).