Theresa May is looking a bit fed up. Perhaps it’s time she had a long rest? [Image: Carl Court/Getty Images.]
If Theresa May had made any headway with Universal Credit rebels Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Johnny Mercer at Downing Street, she would have been crowing about it already.
So let’s assume she hasn’t. Does that mean she’ll make any concessions – like actually shutting down the rollout of the Great British benefit catastrophe until it actually does what the Tories have always claimed: Make work pay? No.
We can’t bank on it because Universal Credit hammers the poor very hard indeed – and hardline Tories love that.
That being said, if a show of mercy would avert another PMQs win for Jeremy Corbyn – or defuse another controversy over the validity of Opposition Day debates – then we might see some movement.
But any such concessions are likely to be symbolic only, and unlikely to end the agony for people already consigned to the UC scrapheap. Did I mention the fact that Tories love hammering the poor?
Theresa May has met with Conservative MPs threatening to rebel over the Government’s flagship welfare reforms in a bid to avert a public showdown in the House of Commons.
The Prime Minister met with Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Johnny Mercer on Tuesday afternoon to listen to their concerns over the roll-out of Universal Credit, which was meant to simplify and streamline the benefits system but has been beset with problems.
The meeting comes ahead of two events that will put the troubled roll-out into the spotlight on Wednesday.
Labour is trying to stoke Tory division with an opposition day debate on Universal Credit, while Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke is due to give evidence to a select committee inquiry.
Downing Street refused to comment on Tuesday’s meeting.
But the audience with leading rebels on the eve of the opposition day debate has stoked speculation the Prime Minister might use Wednesday’s session of Prime Minister’s Questions or the later Universal Credit debate to announce concessions.
The Conservative-led Coalition government has suffered a major setback in its plan for an oppressive law to criminalise any behaviour that may be deemed a nuisance or annoyance.
The Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill was intended to allow police the power to arrest any group in a public place who constables believe may upset someone. It was rejected by 306 votes to 178, after peers on all sides of the House condemned the proposal as one that would eliminate carol-singing and street preaching, bell-ringing and – of course – political protests.
It seems the Lords are more interested than our would-be tyrants in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Cabinet in the basic assumption of British law – that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
The politics.co.uk website, reporting the government’s defeat, said the new law would have introduced Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs) to replace Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs).
It explained: “Whereas an Asbo can only be granted if a person or group is causing or threatening to cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’ to someone else, an Ipna could be approved merely if a judge believes the behaviour in question is ‘capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person’.
“Opinion could have been swayed by a mistake from Lord Faulks, the Tory peer widely expected to shortly become a minister who was asked to give an example of the sort of behaviour which might be captured by the bill.
“He described a group of youths who repeatedly gathered at a specific location, smoking cannabis and playing loud music in a way representing ‘a day-by-day harassment of individuals’.
“That triggered consternation in the chamber as peers challenged him over the word ‘harassment’ – a higher bar than the ‘nuisance or annoyance’ threshold he was arguing in favour of.
“‘I find it difficult to accept a Conservative-led government is prepared to introduce this lower threshold in the bill,’ Tory backbencher Patrick Cormack said.
“‘We are sinking to a lower threshold and in the process many people may have their civil liberties taken away from them.'”
It is the judgement of the general public that this is precisely the intention.
Peers repeatedly quoted Lord Justice Sedley’s ruling in a 1997 high court case, when he declared: “Freedom to only speak inoffensively is not worth having.”
It is interesting to note that the government tried a well-used tactic – making a minor concession over the definition of ‘annoyance’ before the debate took place, in order to win the day. This has served the Coalition well in the past, particularly during the fight over the Health and Social Care Act, in which claims were made about GPs’ role in commissioning services, about the future role of the Health Secretary, and about the promotion of private health organisations over NHS providers.
But today the Lords were not fooled and dismissed the change in agreement with the claim of civil liberties group Liberty, which said – in words that may also be applied to the claims about the Health Act – that they were “a little bit of window dressing” and “nothing substantial has changed“.
A further concession, changing the proposal for an IPNA to be granted only if it is “just and convenient to do so” into one for it to be granted if it targets conduct which could be “reasonably expected to cause nuisance or annoyance” was torpedoed by Lord Dear, who rightly dismissed it as “vague and imprecise“.
That is a criticism that has also been levelled at that other instrument of repression, the Transparency of Lobbying Bill. Lord Blair, the former Metropolitan police commissioner, invited comparison between the two when he described the Antisocial Behaviour Bill in the same terms previously applied to the Lobbying Bill: “This is a piece of absolutely awful legislation.”
The defeat means the Bill will return to the House of Commons, where MPs will have to reconsider their approach to freedom of speech, under the scrutiny of a general public that is now much more aware of the threat to it than when the Bill was first passed by our allegedly democratic representatives.
With a general election only 16 months away, every MP must know that every decision they make could affect their chances in 2015.
We must judge them on their actions.
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The Torygraph has claimed this is Labour’s “strongest backing yet” for Universal Credit.
Is Ed Miliband, as Labour’s leader, blind to the amount of damage this will do to his party?
It seems likely that Byrne is trying to improve his position ahead of a shadow cabinet reshuffle, but Miliband would have to be stupid to keep him on, after the shadow work and pensions secretary caused one disaster after another.
Look at the Guardian article. The lead paragraph declares: “The coalition’s benefit cuts have descended into “chaos” that will cost an extra £1.4 billion because of delays, extra claimants, waste and complaints, Labour claims.” [Italics mine]
What about the human cost, then? What about the huge damage that these Conservative-led policies will cause to hard-working people up and down the UK? We know that the benefit cap has already caused huge harm to working-class people, and the bedroom tax is doing the same – and these are only recent examples of stupid, cruel Tory policies (forget the Liberal Democrats – they’re only around to rubber-stamp the plans of a Tory government).
This is telling us that Labour actually agrees with the ideology behind these schemes; it is in the execution of them that the parties differ. Here’s proof of it in the Guardian article: “The focus of Byrne’s speech will not be challenging the substance of reforms brought in by Iain Duncan Smith… but criticism of his failure to deliver them properly.
That is a terrible, terrible mistake for Labour to make and, as leader, Ed Miliband should be putting a stop to it at once.
The Guardian says, “he will pledge to ‘bring social security spending under control’.” That’s what the Tories say! Labour should be promising to bring fairness back to social security. Labour should be promising the removal of Atos, Unum and any other profit-making concerns from the business of the Department for Work and Pensions and Labour should be pledging to bring in a new system that concentrates on the needs and abilities of each claimant, as determined by proper medical evidence and not some silly made-up tick-box computer questionnaire that was devised to make it easier to sell bogus insurance schemes.
Why is Byrne making such silly promises? Because, the Guardian says, Labour wants to “shake off Tory claims that it is too much on the side of benefit claimants over working people”. In other words, he and they are worried about what the Tories say, and not about the torture through which they are putting ordinary people like you and me. They won’t win any elections that way!
Attacking the Tories over the way they are doing things, rather than the things they are doing, has of course left Byrne wide open to any kind of attack the Tories wished to launch and, sure enough, an ‘aide’ to Iain ‘Returned To Unit’ Smith dismissed Byrne’s claims as “laughable”.
Quoted by the Guardian, she said this was “yet another disastrous speech, void of any ideas”. It’s a rare situation in which I am forced to agree with a Conservative!
“Same old Labour is in the wrong place on welfare,” she continued. “They want people on benefits to make more money than the average hard-working family earns.” Now that – of course – is utter nonsense, but it will stay in people’s minds because the claim that the speech has no new ideas to offer, coupled with one that it is a “last-ditch attempt… to keep his job in the shadow cabinet” rings true.
The Telegraph article says Byrne has called for cross-party talks to clear up the “‘mess’ of delays and IT problems that he says have hit the policy.” Again, no mention that the policy is wrong. In fact, the article later states, “The project… is a good idea but needs to be rescued from the ‘disaster’ that it has become under [Mr Returned To Unit], he will claim.” A good idea? Universal Credit?
It’s a shame that he has decided to support the principles of the Tory regressions (we can’t call them reforms, and changes isn’t strong enough), because he did come up with a decent comment, that is also a truism: “There is now a private joke in Whitehall – to err is human, but to really foul things up you need Iain Duncan Smith.” But of course Byrne ruined it by saying it was Smith’s fault his harmful reforms are in crisis, rather than pouncing on them as bad ideas in their own right.
The Guardian article says “Shadow cabinet members are under pressure from Labour grandees to start spelling out their policies more clearly.” If this is Byrne’s idea of a Labour policy he should be dumped – not only from the shadow cabinet, but from Parliament and the Party – with haste.
Byrne has always been a dangerous liability – remember the damage he caused with one silly note about there being no money left after the 2010 general election?
He persuaded hundreds of Labour MPs to abstain from voting against the Tories’ hasty plan to legalise their robbery of millions of pounds from thousands of Jobseekers – the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Act – in March, claiming that he had secured “concessions” that would make it worthwhile.
The first was a guarantee of appeal rights – a safeguard that had always been in place and that the Conservatives had not suggested they would drop.
The second was an independent review of the sanctions regime, with an urgent report and recommendations to Parliament. It is now nearly six months since that concession was made. Has anybody – anywhere – heard any more about this “urgent report”?
Byrne was hoodwinked into giving way on a policy that is hugely damaging to the financial security of millions of people and receiving nothing at all in return. That’s not even mentioning the damage caused to the Labour Party by this and other unnecessary concessions to the Conservatives.
The only sane choice for Ed Miliband is to sack Byrne on the spot and announce a reversal of Labour policy that will halt any support for regressive Conservative austerity measures that harm not only hard-working people and jobseekers who want to get onto the employment ladder but also the economy in general.
But Miliband seems weak – or at least indecisive. It seems he needs encouragement.
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