The Commons this evening approved emergency regulations for the government’s work experience programme so the DWP can avoid repaying benefits to those who were sanctioned for refusing to take part. This wouldn’t be a particularly interesting vote, but for an uprising on the Labour benches.
This is the controversial ‘workfare’ programme, where those on Jobseeker’s Allowance are required to undertake work experience as part of their benefit claim. A court judgement last month (which was widely misinterpreted) meant the government had to rush these new regulations through. But though Labour made hay with that judgement at the time, its official position this afternoon was to abstain on the vote. Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne focused on the department’s procedural failings during his speech in the debate, but pushed on his stance on sanctions by MPs from minor parties, he said:
‘I do believe that the DWP should be equipped with the power to issue sanctions. That general foundation has been in the hands of Ministers for more than a century. The New Deal programmes and the Future Jobs Fund that Labour put in place had sanctions attached to them – indeed, they were tightened by the Welfare Reform Act 2009 – and I do not believe that those powers should be empty ones.’
Unfortunately for Byrne, not all of his MPs agree with him on this. So when the debate finally moved to a vote, a group of them didn’t abstain. The vote passed 277 to 57, with a handful of Labour MPs walking through the No lobbies with nationalist and Green MPs. A number of them made forceful contributions in the Chamber. Ian Lavery said:
‘Members of Parliament discuss with constituents, and often people away from the constituency, the merits and otherwise of policies. I often meet people with a very different view from the people the hon. Gentleman has met. That is not to say that that has not been said, but the people I meet want decent jobs. They want the opportunity to get up in the morning and go to work for a decent wage. They would accept the minimum wage even though, at this point in time, it is not high enough. Where I live, 25 people are after every single job in the jobcentre. That means that 24 are not getting employment for every single opportunity. People want to work for the best intentions and the right reasons. They want self-esteem and finances. People where I live want to work — I am sure that extends throughout the country.
‘Saying that paying claimants the money that the Court says they should be paid—the result of the ruling means that the £130 million can be paid—does not represent good value for the taxpayer is an absolute disgrace. It is not the type of language we would expect from any Government. It is not right to talk about people as, “This group of claimants.” They are ordinary people with feelings, and many of them want to get on in life.’
Outside the Chamber, Unite the union and prominent left-wing campaigners such as Owen Jones have been attacking the Labour leadership’s refusal to vote against the regulations. Now Labour has already made clear that its own programmes in government would include sanctions: Byrne spelt that out in an interview with Coffee House before Christmas. And today’s vote was on regulations which would prevent £130 million being paid out to those sanctioned by the scheme. It gives a foretaste of the bitter battles that Blairite Byrne has to face with his own party when such a large group of his own MPs refuse to abstain on a vote on regulations. What will their reaction be when the party’s own welfare policies are unveiled?Tags: Labour, Liam Byrne, UK politics, Welfare