Diary of a duff bill

John Mason MP describes his experience of the seriously flawed Westminster legislative process as the Welfare Reform Bill is passed

The Welfare Reform Bill has been a real challenge! As a new MP it is the first time I have followed a piece of legislation through the House of Commons. Even understanding how the Westminster process works has been a steep learning curve. On top of that, the actual content of the Bill has been a challenge… a challenge to anyone who is vulnerable and is likely to lose out through its provisions.

In summary it seeks to increase the pressure on those not in work to get a job. On the surface that might seem good. And I am happy to accept that there are some individuals who could work, for whom a suitable job is available, but who choose not to work. However, I am convinced many who are not currently working are either not able to, there is no suitable job available, or they have caring and other responsibilities which benefit society as a whole.

Some of the content headings in the Bill give a flavour of it: ëWork for Your Benefit schemesí, ëAbolition of Income Supportí, ëClaimants dependent on drugsí, ëExternal provider social loansí, ëBenefit sanctions for offendersí, ëDisqualification for holding etc driving licence or travel authorisationí. These are the actual wordings from the Bill and give an indication of its general direction; not a direction the SNP, LibDems, or left- wing Labour MPs were comfortable with. Having said that, I do accept there were some more positive provisions in the Bill, e.g. ëDisabled people: Right to control provision of servicesí.

Perhaps by summarising my diary for the last 10 months, I can describe how the Welfare Reform Bill and I came together!

Friday 27 June 2008

Itís great to be on holiday from Glasgow City Council for 6 weeks. The last year has been hectic leading the Group of 22 SNP councillors (what a varied group – left, right, everything!). Midnight: I get a text telling me of the Glasgow East by-election. Ugh! My holiday ruined.

Monday 21 July

Only 3 days to go until the by-election. Labour have been helping us all the way. The latest is an announcement to tighten up on benefits. Seems strange timing just before the election. It confirms what we have been saying that Gordon Brown is following on where Margaret Thatcher left off.

Friday 25 July

After a recount I am the new MP for Glasgow East. Amazing! Resigned as councillor same day. At least there are two months to get an office set up, staff recruited, and find a flat in London.

Monday 6 October

Westminster resumes after the recess and I am sworn in as an MP.

Monday 13 October

I make my maiden speech in a debate on Democracy & Human Rights.

Wednesday 14 January 2008

The Welfare Reform Bill is presented.

Tuesday 27 January 2009

The Bill comes to the House of Commons. First time I have led for the SNP on a Bill and Iím having to learn fast. I get to make several interventions on other speakers and then I get to speak myself. Not surprisingly other MPs intervene on me.

Tuesday 10 February

The Public Bill Committee for the Welfare Reform Bill meets twice to take evidence. There are 16 MPs on the committee: 9 Labour, 5 Tory, 1 LibDem, and myself. I have no idea what happens at these committees but the first few meetings are OK – taking evidence from witnesses. I get to ask my fair shareÖ I like asking questions! (Glasgow City Council is good preparation for being an MP.) It becomes clear early on that the Tories and Labour are hostile to the voluntary sector witnesses; the witnesses in turn are generally united in being critical of much of the Bill. The nine Labour members seem to be towing the Government line although we know there is opposition from some Labour back-benchers (they seem to have been excluded from the committee). One witness from DrugScope is laughed at by Labour MPs when he suggests that drug addicts deserve benefits. Another witness from Child Poverty Action Group is subjected to a personal attack. It is amazingly unprofessional. The Barnadoís representative supports conditionality for benefits. When I ask him how the children are to eat if the parentsí benefits are cut, he is unable to answer. It seems to me there are not going to be many options: either the extended family has to find the food, the parents resort to crime, or the children simply do not eat.

Thursday 12 February

The lead minister, Tony McNulty, and his colleagues are todayís witness in front of the committee. He again resorts to personal attacks, e.g. DrugScope are ìdisingenuous and churlishî, rather than dealing with the real issues.

Tuesday 24 February

The Committee resumes after the recess. Now it is into the serious business of discussing amendments. Again I am in new territory. Most of the Tory amendments are very minor technical details. The only real opposition to the thrust of the Bill is coming from Paul Rowen (LibDem, Rochdale). We have a few votes on amendments most of which are lost 9 (Labour) to 2 (LibDem/SNP). The Tories donít seem to like voting!

When we debate Clause 9 ìClaimants dependent on drugs, etc.î Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Anne McKechin, is brought out to lead an attack on the Scottish Government. Throughout the progress of the Bill every opportunity is taken by Government ministers to ridicule any possible different approach in Scotland. So much for devolution and mutual respect then. In particular this clause shows the different approaches north and south of the border. Are we primarily to help and support drug addicts to get off drugs or are we to force them into treatment with the threat of reduced benefits? MPs also question whether the Governmentís approach would go against the NHS ethos of all treatment being undertaken by the patient voluntarily.

Such an amendment better fits with my understanding of the real world where many are desperately seeking work rather than the Governmentís view that most are work-shy.

Tuesday 3 March

The final committee day for the Bill. I speak to my new clauses which would seek to ensure a minimum income for families. For example, New Clause 6 would add, ìRegulations made by the Secretary of State shall set minimum income figures per week which no individual or family in receipt of benefits, and subject to any sanction under this Act, is permitted to fall below following the imposition of any sanctions.î However, as with every other amendment the government ministers reject them.

At least we have got through all the amendments and new clauses. I gather that for some Bills the committee runs out of time before all the amendments are discussed. Everyone thanks everyone else for being there (I thought that was what we were paid for!). Tony McNulty, the minister, thanks the Tories (no surprise there then), the LibDem, the chairs, the police, the staff, and then says everything I have said has been ìfatuous and vacuousî. At least Iíve been noticed! I later learn that these are two of his favourite words and he dishes them out to lots of his opponents. I speak briefly at a PCS meeting to oppose the Bill.

Tuesday 17 March

The Bill returns to the Commons for the Report Stage and Third Reading. We start at 3.50pm and there are seven ìbundlesî of amendments. We are unlikely to get through them all. The first bundle has 2 new clauses and 41 amendments, mainly from left-wing Labour back-benchers with some from the LibDems. Typical of these is Amendment 11 which would change the Billís wording of ìimposing on claimantsî to ìoffering to claimantsî ìa requirement to participate in schemesÖ to assist them to obtain employmentî. Such an amendment better fits with my understanding of the real world where many are desperately seeking work rather than the Governmentís view that most are work-shy.

John McDonnell (Labour, Hayes & Harlington) speaks well in criticism of the direction of the Bill. In summing up Tony McNulty talks about people ìwallowing in unemployment.î All of this takes till 7pm when we vote on a new clause making the Bill less harsh on claimants. It is defeated by 408 (all Tories and most Labour) to 85 (Labour left wing, LibDem, SNP, Plaid Cymru).

Then the second bundle of amendments starts at 7.15 and goes on to nearly 9 (the deadline for amendments to be discussed). It quickly becomes apparent that the Government is going to agree to the higher rate of DLA for blind folk. Good news and well done to John Robertson (Glasgow NW) for his persistence. But do we really need a further 10 MPs standing up and congratulating him, the Government, themselves, and everyone else for nearly 2 hours? This effectively kills all further debate on amendments concerning claimants on drugs, social loans, disabled peopleís right to control services, and child maintenance. What kind of crazy parliament is this that cannot find time to debate these massive issues?!

We vote on a Tory amendment to increase the age of children above which parents are required to prepare for work. Bizarrely, the Government is pushing for age 3 while the Tories are more ìgentleî at age 5. The left withdraws its amendment for age 7 in the hope the Tory one might win. Itís closer but still defeated by 260 votes to 217. This is the only time at committee or in the full house that the Tories vote against the Government. The enthusiasm of the Tories for the Bill sends out a worrying signal.

After 9pm we start the Third Reading. The Secretary of State, James Purnell, takes an aggressive line towards the Tories (trying to distance himself from them?). He accuses them of not supporting the Bill whereas they only proposed one tiny amendment! Not surprisingly, the Tories are incensed. I get to speak and say I think this is a very strange time to be introducing such legislation. If the government is trying to push people towards work while the real world is pushing people out of work, surely vulnerable people are going to be crushed in the middle. It is very easy for MPs on good salaries and with umpteen eating places to become detached from reality. Yet just a few days earlier I spoke to a constituent who had not eaten for three days the previous week; that should not be happening in 2009. Because of the Governmentís backing down and agreeing to the higher rate of DLA for blind folk, left wingers, LibDems, SNP, and Plaid do not vote against the Bill. There is no vote, despite this being a deeply flawed piece of legislation.

I go home. Much as I detest the House of Lords, it is now up to them to try and make the Welfare Reform Bill more human.