§ The Commons insisted on their Amendment No. 42A and disagreed to Lords Amendment No. 42D for the following reason—
42E Because it would alter the financial arrangements made by the Commons, and the Commons do not offer any further reason, trusting that this reason may be deemed sufficient.
§ 42F Lord Ashley of Stoke rose to move, That this House do not insist on their Amendment No. 42D to which the Commons have disagreed but do disagree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 42A to words restored to the Bill and do propose the following amendment in lieu thereof to words restored to the Bill—
42G Page 66, line 4, leave out ("two") and insert ("four").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this Motion, I speak also to Motion 43J. I suggest that we discuss the two together. It is impossible for me to compete with the felicity of the compliments offered to the Minister and vice versa. I sat in awe listening to the gracious compliments passing back and forth and know that my comments are crude by comparison. I have enjoyed crossing swords with my noble friend Lady Hollis. I cannot claim any victories over her, but it has been a pleasure to work with her. I propose to leave it at that because I cannot overegg the pudding.
§ In moving the Motion, I want to make one thing clear. I prefer the elimination of these clauses because the original clauses were highly regrettable. They were bad in principle and damaging in practice. But I am a political realist and, despite what my wife says, I am also a very reasonable man. Being so reasonable, I decided to make a concordat with the Government, despite the Chief Whip's icy stares at me, and I offered a reasonable compromise to the House.
§ Regrettably, the Government took a stony view of these realistic, honourable compromises and said, "Thank you, but no thank you". The compromise 1328 amendments were therefore rejected in the other place, not in the House of Lords; and I greatly appreciated the support I received from all sides of the House for those amendments. But, equally, being realistic, I recognised that the Government's massive majority in the House of Commons meant that however enlightened the House of Lords was—and it was very enlightened by comparison with the Commons—in its judgment of the amendments, the Government, with their massive majority, would override them. And so they did.
§ We are now left with the regrettable—to put it mildly—government statement, "No compromise. Full stop". That is one of the worst phrases ever to emanate from 10 Downing Street, from where so many fine, splendid initiatives for disabled people have emerged. The Government have a wonderful record of helping disabled people and I have been more proud than anyone to advocate and support them. But they have blotted their copy book and spoiled the record with their provisions on incapacity benefit. When they say "No compromise. Full stop", I say that that is no way to conduct democratic discussions on an important issue affecting 310,000 severely disabled people.
§ Where do we now stand? The choice for helping disabled people on incapacity benefit is strictly limited, especially because so many supporters of the amendments on both sides of the House are away. Furthermore, a number of Peers have indicated to me that they are not prepared to vote. But there is scope for movement, so perhaps I may modestly offer further amendments.
§ They are, first, that the period when disabled people need to have worked and paid national insurance contributions to qualify should be not seven years but four. Secondly, the disregard should be not £128 but £100. That means that the level at which people start to lose incapacity benefit would be £8,723 rather than the Government's figure of £7,943 and that incapacity benefit would not be withdrawn until it was £12,142 rather than the Government's £11,362.
§ At that level of income those small amounts matter to poor people. That is why I am pressing these further amendments. If the Government tonight reject those very modest amendments, I believe they would damage themselves even further. I also believe that the Government will eventually regret that refusal. That is my modest judgment.
§ Secondly, I believe that these last amendments are the last chance for the Government to give any worthwhile concessions. We are very close to the wire tonight: this is a last chance. Next, this is a glorious opportunity for the Government to heal the breach with disabled people and the organisations representing disabled people. The breach is a very wide one—everyone is aware of that—and the Government can now move forward. I hope that they will.
§ The acceptance of these amendments would demonstrate the Government's willingness to listen and to respond. In a very curious way—I do not know how it has happened—this controversy has caught the 1329 nation by the throat. It is remarkable how people's imagination has been stirred by the controversy in the House of Lords. The way these profound and fundamental controversies have been conducted is a credit to the House of Lords. The Government need to have regard for public opinion, because I believe that public opinion is with these amendments. I believe that public opinion is behind the House of Lords, and undoubtedly parliamentary opinion is behind the House of Lords.
§ So these amendments are offered in a really constructive spirit so that we may end this Bill on a happy, co-operative note. I suggest no vote this evening. We have had enough votes and I have explained why we do not want them. These amendments are put forward in a spirit of amity and constructive good will. I hope that my noble friends will be able to accept these amendments in the spirit of good will in which they are offered.
§ Moved, That this House do not insist on their Amendment No. 42D to which the Commons have disagreed but do disagree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 42A to words restored to the Bill and do propose the following amendment in lieu thereof to words restored to the Bill.—(Lord Ashley of Stoke.)
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, deserves the gratitude of the whole House.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, he has put before us a series of issues on which, whatever we may think about them, there was plainly a great debate to be had. That debate has been had and it does Parliament credit, but it is coming to a very sad end.
I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, said about voting, but nevertheless I very much hope that the Government will show a desire to cooperate by accepting the very modest amendment that he puts before us. Tonight, the issue has become bigger.
It has been my dubious privilege to listen to the Secretary of State addressing another place on the Motion to reject our amendments of yesterday. The Secretary of State did not address that Motion. He was called to order by the Chair for failure to address that Motion but, rather than going on to address it, he thereupon sat down. That does not suggest to me that the Secretary of State was full of arguments about the iniquity of the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke. The Secretary of State devoted his whole speech to the need to secure the passage of his Bill. He is perfectly entitled to want the passage of his Bill, and those who remember what I said yesterday—which is not that long ago after all—will remember that I was not attempting to obstruct the passage of that Bill.
1330 What the Secretary of State said was that he was not prepared to consider any further concession or compromise whatsoever: that he would either give in or lose the Bill. That is a reaction which I described yesterday as "petulant". Having listened to him today, I do not believe that that description was inappropriate. The issue is now not merely the Bill, nor the Weatherill amendment—we can let that go if we must. It is not even the future of the next Session. The issue is nothing less than whether the Government do or do not want a bicameral Parliament.
§ Earl Russell
The noble Lords opposite say, "rubbish". That is not what they said before 1997. This House is supposed to be a revising Chamber. All governments while in office accept that, provided that we revise Bills only in the points that they want the Bills revised. Every government want their Bills revised when they believe that it is right for them to be changed. However, one does not actually have a revising Chamber unless it possesses sufficient bargaining power occasionally to induce governments to change things when they do not wish to do so.
Of course, there is no question of the ultimate supremacy of another place. The Parliament Acts see to that, and it is quite right that they should. We on these Benches, of all people, are in no position to challenge that and have no wish to do so. However, before it comes to that point, it is as we see it only right that the Secretary of State's supremacy in the name of another place should be exercised not arbitrarily but according to rules.
According to those rules, there was still time for further proceedings in this Session. When we get onto numbers, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, has illustrated, there is always room for movement towards compromise. Compromise could have been had. If your Lordships look at the list of proposed forthcoming business, you will see that there was provision, if necessary, for proceedings as late as Friday. When the Secretary of State talks about the "death of the Bill", I am reminded of Mistress Quickly's remarks on the last days of Falstaff:So a'cried out 'God, God, God!f' three or four times [and I said] I … hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.The Secretary of State's comment was distinctly premature. It is a great contrast with a remark once made to me by a Minister in the previous Government. He said to me that all governments must bargain and compromise and that all governments must be defeated in the House of Lords.
I took that not only for a piece of political wisdom, but as I had just that moment assisted in inflicting an embarrassing defeat on him in the Lobbies, I took it for a remarkable act of political generosity. It was a private remark, but as I had the Minister's permission to name him in this context and I have done so in print, I might as well do so here. It was the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. I should have liked to hear that note from a member of this Government. I have not yet done so. I 1331 do not withdraw what I said. The Ministers have made generous concessions for which I have thanked them, but they have not been prepared to go in for compromise at the point of the Division Lobby.
Before we move to stage two, there must be some serious thought about this issue. When the Government do not have, to coin a phrase, Dick Hereditary to kick around any more, they will have to rethink the purpose of this House. People will not come here for snobbery. They will not come here unless they have a decent job of work to do. They will not feel that they have a decent job of work to do unless occasionally they can change something. I come here because I know that perhaps once every two years I can change something which appears in legislation. Were we to have the arbitrary version of the supremacy of the other place taking over and should that cease to be true, I should begin to wonder what useful purpose I was serving by attending this House. I should regret that. Therefore, before we go into stage two, I believe that we must think about whether or not we want a revising Chamber which is capable of checking a government who do not want to be checked.
That is a constitutional issue. Now, it is being made a constitutional issue by the Secretary of State and I reply directly to what the Secretary of State has said. My views on the amendment are well known and they have not changed since yesterday. I have said that the question now is whether the Government want a two-Chamber Parliament. I do not know the answer to that question. Before the end of this debate I should be awfully glad if I did, but I do not expect miracles.
§ Lord Rix
My Lords, last night in this House I stressed the fundamental importance of testing the opinion of the other place on the fair and balanced compromises of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, with the Government's proposed cuts to incapacity benefit. I should like to pay tribute to the noble Lord, who has steadfastly campaigned with immeasurable integrity for the interests of disabled people throughout the United Kingdom. I pay tribute also to those Members of the other place who, equally steadfastly, continued to support the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley. I share his view that the government reforms to incapacity benefit are morally unacceptable. I support him in his continued opposition to them. As I explained to the House last night, his mandate—indeed, that of all of us who represent disabled people—derives from genuine representation of 8½ million disabled people across this country. That is indisputable, as is his argument for compromise on the disregard and taper affecting the means testing of incapacity benefit.
The noble Lord has made it abundantly clear that his concessions seek to protect incapacity benefit claimants who are at the lower end of the income scale—at the poverty end. I for one make no apologies in supporting him in safeguarding their interests. The new amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, represent a somewhat diminished but still genuine 1332 compromise towards effective targeting of resources to protect the poor. That is not an incapacity benefit free-for-all, as the Government seem to fear.
We have heard that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, does not seek to divide the House tonight. If the Government's present figures for tapering of incapacity benefit remain on the face of the Bill, whichever government are in power after 2001 will find out the hard way about these clauses. The real statistics will emerge when the number of those condemned to a life on income support is revealed. That will be when the anxious letters which we have had in our postbags over the past few weeks and months become future case work for constituency representatives in another place. I am no Jeremiah but I suspect the worst, and I wish them well in their new role as Sisyphus.
§ Lord Morris of Manchester
My Lords, I acknowledge the unfailing courtesy of my noble friend Lady Hollis in her approach to all our debates on this Bill. She and all your Lordships will appreciate the depth of my interest in these amendments as the architect, 25 years ago, as the then Minister for Disabled People, of disability benefits affected by the Bill's provisions.
While I know that we shall be repeatedly told, as we were again by the Secretary of State in another place this evening, that the amendments to the Bill approved by this House on 13th October led to marked improvements in the Government's original proposals on incapacity benefit, I am dismayed that we have not been able to do more. In these final moments of our consideration of the Bill it would be wrong and dishonourable not to say so, just as it would be wrong of anyone here to question the ultimate supremacy of the other place, in which I had the honour of serving for 33 years for the same Manchester constituency.
I hold it to be grossly unjust to cut the benefits of people who have been saving for a personal pension, week by week and from meagre wages for perhaps 30 years or more, by 50 per cent of any amount over £85, and I believe that Parliament will come to regret its decision. For a disabled person who has saved for a personal pension of £100, the loss will be a punishing and totally unmerited cut of £7.50 per week. But a millionaire, living on dividends and bank interest and with no need of a personal pension, would suffer no cut in benefits.
It is wrong also to alter the contribution conditions for incapacity benefit in the way the Bill proposes and I am sure that this too will come to be strongly criticised by Parliament as it is already now by every major disability organisation in Britain. If private insurers altered benefits and rules of entitlement in the same way, they would be subjected to bitter public and parliamentary criticism. And I can see no justification for double standards.
As I made clear to the House yesterday, I speak without animus in stating my objections to the Bill's provisions on incapacity benefit. At the same time I make plain my warm support for many features of the Bill. My sole purpose in acting as I have done has been 1333 to reduce the handicapping effects of their disabilities for people who deserve much better of Parliament than cuts in benefits and tougher entitlement conditions for help of crucial importance to their well-being.
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, it seems to me that this is simply a matter of common decency over which we will have the support of the vast majority of the British public. If, in revenge, a mean-spirited Government were to refuse to accept the Weatherill amendment and all the hereditary Peers were to go, so be it. We should at least go with honour. But if, in order to save our puny skins, we did not vote against this mean legislation, it would be to our eternal shame.
§ Lord Higgins
My Lords, I join with those who have paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, for the way in which he has pursued this matter. When we first discussed it I said that I believed the clauses we are seeking to amend were wrong in principle. Since then he has sought to move various amendments designed to achieve a compromise. That has been so again this evening.
I believe that your Lordships' House was absolutely right yesterday to say that the House of Commons should have an opportunity not only of debating but of voting on the proposals he then made. When I raised this matter with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, yesterday, she replied:My Lords, if the other place had wanted these amendments, it could have voted down the Government's proposition and voted for the other amendments on the Order Paper put by Mr Roger Berry, which were basically the same as my noble friend's amendments. The other place chose not to do so. To suggest that the Commons had neither the wit nor the intelligence to see that strategy is … condescending to Members of the other place. They knew what they were doing. It is an act of self-deception by your Lordships to suggest [otherwise]".—[Official Report, 8/11/99; col. 1208.]With great respect to the noble Baroness, they did not have an opportunity to vote until today. The guillotine Motion which the Government imposed in rather unusual terms prevented them from so doing. Therefore your Lordships were right yesterday to give the other place the opportunity to consider the amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley.
I felt it right to listen to the debates that took place as a result of that. In many ways it was an extraordinary debate this evening in another place. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, rightly pointed out, the Secretary of State made no attempt whatever to address the amendments. His sole object appeared to be to say that the Bill was a good Bill and therefore it ought not to be opposed. That is common ground. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, myself and others have all said that we do not wish to kill the Bill. But the fact that the Secretary of State put forward that argument in no way meant that there was not scope for improvement.
The reality is that these clauses are inconsistent with the Bill as a whole, particularly in relation to pensions. The Bill is largely designed to promote people taking 1334 out pensions, but the clause before us from the Government means that if people in receipt of disability benefits take out a pension they will lose out. It is that inconsistency in government policy which is increasingly of concern to the House, not least in the light of developments since yesterday. We find more and more a tendency of the Government to means test—as they do in the clause we are now discussing—contributory benefits and not to means test benefits which are not contributory. We had an announcement this afternoon that there are to be free television licences for the over-75s—not means tested—whereas the people affected by these clauses will be means tested. Similarly, many of us in this House will receive cold weather fuel payments, not means tested, but the people affected by these amendments and these clauses will be means tested even though their incomes are likely to be a great deal lower than the incomes of those who receive cold weather or winter fuel payments.
The Government's policy on these issues has simply not been thought through. That is certainly so in relation to these clauses. Therefore I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, is right even at this late stage to suggest that the Government ought to come forward and accept his amendments. Of course I made it clear yesterday and I do so again that at the end of the day it is a matter for the House of Commons to decide. But it is right that we should give them the opportunity of thinking again on these important issues which will affect the disabled, including those who by any standards cannot be regarded as rich.
We wish to reach a conclusion on this matter. It is a matter for the Commons ultimately to decide. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, is right, in putting forward his amendments this evening, to say that it would be inappropriate to vote on them. I share that view. I made that clear in my remarks yesterday. But I remain puzzled—the sums involved in these amendments are not enormous compared with the kind of figures the Chancellor of the Exchequer was discussing this afternoon—as to why the Government should decide to penalise this particularly disadvantaged group in the way they have in this Bill. Even at this late stage perhaps one may hope that they will be prepared to accept the latest suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley. If not, then those who have said that the Government will live to regret this are right. It will be shown, against the spin-doctoring statements on the need to help the old, the pensioners, the disabled, the bereaved and so forth, that the reality of the situation is that they should be judged not by what they say, but by what they do. What they are doing in these clauses is wrong.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, perhaps the House will allow me to make a brief point. It is extremely important for us to recognise that when we voted yesterday—indeed, whenever we vote in this House—it is irrelevant whether we are hereditary Peers or life Peers. In fact, as I understand, even had the hereditary Peers not voted yesterday, the noble Lords, Lord Ashley and Lord Morris of Manchester, would have won. It is very important that we should 1335 regard ourselves as Peers; we are all the same. We vote on the merits of the case. It is most important for us to continue to be seen as doing so.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, perhaps I may begin my remarks by saying that, despite the great respect and affection that I and the Government hold for my noble friend Lord Ashley, we cannot accept his amendments tonight. Before I respond, perhaps I may correct something I said last night. I attributed to my noble friend Lord Morris remarks about the incapacity benefit caseload, which were in fact made by my noble friend Lord Ashley. The names got transposed. However, as my noble friends are such solid friends, I know that they will both treat this as a tribute to each other.
Noble Lords will recall that we had a lengthy debate on these amendments yesterday. The House was then concerned that those in the other place had not had sufficient opportunity to express their views on my noble friend's proposals; indeed, that was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. As your Lordships accept, the other place has now had a chance to debate and vote on similar amendments put forward by my noble friend. Those amendments were defeated today by 314 votes to 234. So those amendments were given full exposure. At that point, the other place chose to support the proposals put forward by the Government. I suggest to your Lordships that it is now time for this House to accept the views of the elected Chamber.
We have made it clear all along that we believe that incapacity benefit needs to be reformed: the debate between us is in what way that should happen and the degree to which it should be accepted, whether along the lines proposed by my noble friend or by way of the Government's proposals. I believe that the Government's proposals strike the right balance.
Many noble Lords tonight have talked as though, somehow, there has been no compromise and have suggested that the only person offering compromise has been my noble friend Lord Ashley. That is simply not true. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships—
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I should like to put the record straight. I did not say that there had been no compromise in the past. I said that the Secretary of State had ceased dialogue at the present time.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, compromising stops at a certain point and you then have an agreed or defined position. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, seems to believe that whenever a compromise has been offered, you then restart the process and negotiate another one. This then continues through the Division Lobbies, incrementally, salami slice after salami slice, as though, somehow, the right and proper way for a government to determine public policy is by haggling in the Division Lobbies, without consideration either to the prudent use of public finances or to the proper read-across to other government policies. We do not believe that that is the right way to proceed.
1336 I return to the charge from my noble friend Lord Ashley—not that made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell—that our changes have been hopelessly inadequate. They have not. We have made it clear all along that existing claimants will be protected. Indeed, despite some myths to the contrary, there was never any question of taking away benefit from people already receiving it. On the measure to reduce the overlap between IB and early retirement income, we have now made it clear that no one with a private pension of less than £85 a week, not £50, will be affected. Further, as a result of pressure, partly from your Lordships' House, we are exempting altogether people with the most severe disabilities from any of the effects of these tapers.
I turn now to the second part of my noble friend's amendments dealing with the contribution conditions. We have addressed concerns that the original proposal would hit people with limited employment prospects by extending the qualifying test from two years to three years and by extending the protection that we are giving to former carers to people on disabled person's tax credit. So let there be no talk that the Government have neither listened nor compromised. We have. Reducing the numbers as a result of our compromises has taken something like 100,000 people out of the reach of the Government's original proposals and reduced the savings by over £200 million. This is a significant movement, significant compromise, significant concession and I think that the Government are entitled to some credit for having listened to views, including the views of your Lordships' House, and responded to them.
The noble Lord, Lord Rix, said that he felt that in 2001 more people would be coming on to income support as a result of our changes and that as a result the Government would live to rue this day. Of all the people in your Lordships' House tonight the one person who should know that there will be fewer people on income support as a result of what the Government have done is the noble Lord, Lord Rix. Who are the main beneficiaries of the changes among disabled people? They are those same children and young people who have perhaps been born with a disability—it may be Down's syndrome, severe learning difficulty or cerebral palsy—who at the moment "bump along" on income support with never a chance to enter the labour market and never a chance to build up savings. These are the people—the poorest and the most severely disabled—who under the Government's Bill will no longer have to "bump along" on income support but will be passported onto incapacity benefit to the credit of an extra £26 a week.
I hope that my noble friend will acknowledge—I refer to the noble Lord as I would not like to call him my noble friend—that we are doing exactly what he would wish us to do and exactly the opposite of what he fears we are doing. We are helping those on income support to come off it and onto IB.
§ 10 p.m.
§ Lord Rix
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I acknowledge that point and I have 1337 done so consistently through every single debate on incapacity benefit. I have said all along that young people with a learning disability in particular would benefit from the changes in this Bill, as will, I hope, widows benefit from changes to SERPS in this Bill. However, I must point out that many people who will seek incapacity benefit in the future are older people who will become ill, perhaps with multiple sclerosis, ME, or other conditions which will greatly reduce their earning capacity as the years go on. Furthermore, they may have small pensions and their incapacity benefit will be tapered rapidly after that time. Those people will eventually suffer from the clauses in this Bill; not the young people with a learning disability but people who become ill and disabled in their thirties and forties.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I do not think that is the case. I do not want to take up your Lordships' time by taking the noble Lord through the changes that relate to DPTC for those people below the lower earnings limit and those people with progressive illnesses. We have addressed those matters in debate. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Rix, that he has perhaps misunderstood the impact of the Government's proposals together with the changes the Government have made in response to some of the fears he has expressed. His fears in this respect are groundless.
As I say, we have moved considerably on this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, emphasised that the Government were increasing means testing. That is a bit rich when in 1979 when the noble Lord's party was in government something like 13 per cent of social security was means tested and in 1997 the figure was something like 34 per cent. If any government has moved away from contributory benefits to means testing, it was the previous administration. Under this administration the amount of benefits being means tested has fallen, mainly because the Government have expanded access to non-contributory, non-means tested benefits. In this Bill the contributory principle is being extended to widowers for the first time. Therefore, I hope that in the light of those comments the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, will reflect that perhaps his fear, too, is groundless.
§ Lord Higgins
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. The point I was making concerned the inconsistency of government policy in relation to these amendments. These amendments extend means testing to particular disadvantaged groups. But at the same time the Government are spending money in areas where people are not means tested on a substantial scale. We are getting government by sound-bite as regards that particular concession while overlooking the inconsistency in the clauses that we have before us this evening and the way in which the Government are approaching policy generally.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, that comes from the Opposition Front Bench which was 1338 responsible for reducing unemployment benefit from a contributory benefit of 12 months to six months and, what is more, tapering it out when an occupational pension was £50.
As regards the second point raised by the noble Lord that we are extending television licences without means testing, is he seriously saying that we should be means testing the rights of people to have free television licences if they are over 75 years of age? I did not hear that from the Front Bench when I was in the Gallery today. I did not hear Mr. Willetts ask whether he had permission to say that the position of the Tory Front Bench is now that one should means test pensioners before they have a winter fuel payment or free television licences. Is it now the policy of the Opposition Front Bench that pensioners should be means tested if the Labour Party proposes it, but they should not be if the Tory party proposes it? I suggest that the noble Lord opposite offers some consistency in his arguments tonight.
§ Lord Higgins
My Lords, with great respect to the noble Baroness, that is not the argument. We understand what is being done as regards the benefits to which she has just referred. But the Government are means testing people who are on disability benefit. That is what we are debating this evening, not what happened in the past. The amendment before us means tests people who have an occupational pension and that is wrong.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I have the greatest respect for the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, but his position on the Front Bench seems to be to own up to nothing that was done by the previous administration since he was last a Minister under the Heath government. I suggest that he takes some collective responsibility for the things done by the previous government rather than making charges against us which are ill-founded.
I am sure that the House would wish me to return to the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Ashley. We still believe that our proposals and not those of my noble friend
§ Lord Rix
My Lords, I am sorry to return to this matter. In the debate last night in this House the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, quoted figures showing that there are 310,000 poor people likely to be affected by loss of incapacity benefit. That is the figure I was proposing to carry forward to the year 2001—people who may eventually require income support.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I am absolutely baffled by what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has said. The people affected by the government changes are those who have an occupational pension well above the income support rates together with IB which will taper out for most of them at somewhere between £12,000 and £14,000 according to family circumstances. Income support is simply irrelevant to the argument. If a person has the kind of occupational pension we are talking about, 90 per cent of those on 1339 incapacity benefit will not be affected by the government changes because either they have no occupational pension or only a very modest one. The only people affected are those with an occupational pension of £85 or more. At that point the taper begins. That is already floating them above income support levels as a single person. I repeat that the fears of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, are groundless. I believe he misunderstands the relationship between income support, occupational pensions and incapacity benefit.
As regards the government amendments, we are exempting a further 120,000 people, which is the nature of our change. But tonight we are not really talking about numbers. We are discussing whether this Bill should be delayed still further as compromises go to and from the other place. My noble friend has suggested that perhaps the other place should be given yet another opportunity to consider yet another amendment or, to quote the noble Earl, Lord Russell, there is still time for further movement. I point out to him that through a succession of three votes the number of Labour rebels in the Commons has fallen progressively from 67 to 53 and then to 42 and the Government's majority has risen progressively from 40 to 60 and then to 80.
Let us be clear: the House of Commons is content with the Government's position and has made its contentment clear on three occasions. I suggest to your Lordships that it is now quite clear that any amendments—new amendments, repeated amendments, fresh amendments, discovered amendments—will not reduce the Government's majority; on that pattern, they will probably increase it.
I repeat what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has said on many occasions, including today: there are no further concessions. The Government have compromised; the Government have moved; the Government have listened; and this is the Government's position. I gently suggest to your Lordships that we should not delay proceedings any further; delay will not extract anything further for disabled people.
To repeat, this is a good Bill. We have listened and we have moved on disability benefits. In addition we are also producing the opportunity for stakeholder pensions for 5 million people for the first time. We are setting up the new ONE service, which will bring opportunities for work and employment to some of the most marginal people in our society. We are extending bereavement allowances to widowers for the first time alongside widows. Above all—this is something that is very dear to my heart and, I know, to your Lordships—we are putting pension sharing on divorce on a statutory basis. Each year, as women and men together face the tragedy of divorce, they will at least know that they will have a fairer disposition of marital assets. We fought for this in opposition—all of us around the House fought for this in opposition. The great lady Nancy Seear was one of those who led us. I am delighted to see it in the Bill now.
1340 This is a good Bill. It helps women, it helps the low paid, it helps those who are most severely disabled, it helps the poorest disabled, it helps women facing divorce, it helps men facing bereavement. We have discussed this; the Commons has considered it; I know that my noble friend is not pressing his Motion to the vote. I would, therefore, urge your Lordships, with good grace and generosity, to move the Bill on and send it forward to Royal Assent.
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Hollis has raised 100 Aunt Sallys. It would be my joy and pleasure to knock all of them down. But my judgment now is that enough is enough.
None the less, my noble friend yesterday had the opportunity to reply to the fundamental and important issues raised in debate by many speakers. She failed to do so. Anyone who doubts that statement can read Hansard. Many of the fundamental issues raised in the debate yesterday by most of the speakers were not answered by my noble friend. She has made a good fist of trying to respond to several of the issues tonight, but yesterday was her chance to give answers so that we could take them into account. She failed to do so.
As I say, enough is enough. To me, her answer has been disappointing. I believe that my noble friend Lady Hollis and the Government as a whole are compounding their failure, their political miscalculation, by saying "No, no, no, no". We saw it in detail with the so-called concessions yesterday. We explained how inadequate they were—and now my noble friend has repeated them again and again and again. We spoke about the figures yesterday and proved how inconsequential they were. But she raised them again and again and again. However, I do not propose to go into them now.
All I now wish to do is to say thank you very much indeed to all the speakers—including especially my real friend, my noble friend Lady Hollis, with whom it has been a genuine pleasure to work. Enough of speeches. Apart from the provisions on incapacity benefit, this is a fine Bill. I wish it Godspeed. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 10.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 42D to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 42E and do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 42A to the words restored to the Bill.
Before I speak to this Motion I cannot resist the opportunity to pay a tribute to my noble friend Lord Ashley. I know he recognises that the Government's position is different from his own, but he has fought a gallant and generous-spirited campaign on behalf of disabled people as he sees it. We agree to disagree but I am sure that your Lordships will join with me in recognising the spirit in which he has conducted that fight.
1341 Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 42D to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 42E and do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 42A to the words restored to the Bill.—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.