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Swords Drawn Over Welfare Abstention

Entering a building steeped in centuries of pomp, circumstance and tradition, a new MP will routinely see things in the House of Commons that confuse or surprise them.

The snuffbox by the chamber entrance, the hooks in the cloakroom for swords and the two red lines in the carpet of the chamber floor which ensure the front benches are exactly two sword-lengths apart; the place is alive with curiosities!

However, this week, the truly puzzling sights were confined to the Commons Chamber as MPs were asked to vote on the government’s Welfare Reform Bill.

During the recent budget, Chancellor George Osborne announced that by 2019/20 he will cut annual welfare spending by £12 billion – of which £1 billion will fall on Scotland.

Faced with the option of standing with the SNP against these ideologically driven and draconian welfare reforms, Labour MPs instead chose to sit on their hands in cowardly abstention.

Before we go any further, it is important to scotch a few myths about welfare spending.

Last year, welfare spending in the UK was £217 billion. This sounds like a vast sum, and it is. However, a breakdown of the spending reveals that 45% of this went to our older people in the form of the State Pension and Pension Credits; 17% provided essential benefits to disabled people, 14% paid child and working tax credit, 12% helped those who couldn’t afford full rent through Housing Benefit, whilst 5% accounted for Child Benefit.

Of all of the ‘benefits’ the UK Government pays, a mere 1.1% was spent on Unemployment Benefit.

Whilst there will always be unscrupulous people who seek to cheat the system, very few people choose to be unemployed. In tough economic times, these benefits are a safety net, not a hammock.

The Welfare Reform Bill will do nothing to target so-called ‘skivers’. However, it will hit millions of people who are in work, but are so poorly paid that they rely on benefits like Child Tax Credits and Housing Benefit to make ends meet.

Worryingly, through this legislation, the government is scrapping the legally binding commitment to eradicate child poverty in the UK by 2020. Instead this Bill would redefine ‘poverty’ – choosing to ignore income as the measure being poor and replacing it with worklessness. Given that two-thirds of children living in poverty already live in working families, this change is completely nonsensical and betrays a desire to simply massage the figures instead of tackling root causes.

The Bill has also been roundly criticised by disability charities who say that Employment Support and Allowance will hurt disabled people at an already difficult time.

Similarly, homelessness charities have pointed out that removing housing benefit entitlement from under 21s will cause severe problems for those young people who are simply unable to remain in the family home.

Had Labour stood with the SNP, we could have stopped these reforms. That they stood aside and watched the Bill progress is an incredible dereliction on their part and – as recent votes on Fox Hunting and the EU referendum have shown – leaves the SNP as the only genuine opposition to David Cameron’s Tory Government.

Quite what will happen when the Labour Party selects a new leader is unclear. However, assuming that they can put an end to feuds and division within their ranks, I am hopeful that we will see a change in approach and that a progressive block can be formed with the SNP and other opposition parties to halt at least some of the regressive policies being pursued by the Conservatives.

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