Parliament: Welfare: Commons reverses welfare reform defeats

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT'S welfare reform package last night looked set to become law after ministers succeeded in reversing two key defeats inflicted by peers on the legislation.

Despite another Labour backbench rebellion, the Commons overturned a Lords amendment relating to plans in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill to restrict entitlement to Incapacity Benefit for people who have not worked for three years before claiming.

Voting was 314 to 234, Government majority 80, to reject the move by Labour ex-MP Lord Ashley of Stoke, a veteran campaigner for the disabled, to extend the period to seven years.

Earlier, MPs voted by 361 to 178, Government majority 183, to throw out a Lords amendment giving younger war widows the right to keep their dead husband's occupational pension rights.

Last night the Bill was being rushed back to the Lords, but the signs were that peers would bow to the will of the democratically-elected Commons and stop short of another round of parliamentary "ping-pong".

In last night's Commons debate, Alastair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Security, warned that the Government had already made changes to details of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill and the legislation was "right in principle" and provided extra help for thousands of disabled people who "needed it the most".

"What is at stake here is significant help for thousands and thousands of disabled people. All of this will be delayed or fall by the way-side if this Bill is further delayed. This Bill needs to be supported," he told MPs.

Opening the debate, Jeff Rooker, a Social Security minister, repeated the Government promise that a review of the issue was pending. It would be "inappropriate" to attach the widows plan to the Bill because it needed the co-operation of the Ministry of Defence, he said.

Mr Darling warned backbenchers and Lords not to oppose the measures "The Government has made those changes, there are no further changes to come, and I think the House of Lords needs to focus on that."

He also launched a fierce attack on the opposition. "The Tories oppose this Bill out of opportunism not because they are concerned about disabled people," he said.

But David Willetts, the Tory social security spokesman, told Mr Darling it was not too late for "the Government to offer compromise and stop bullying disabled people".

The row centres on Government plans - which would restrict incapacity benefit to those in recent employment and introduce a means test limiting benefits to those with occupational pensions above a defined threshold - despite earlier Government concessions.

But Lord Ashley had warned of dire consequences for the Government unless it backed down. "The penalty for the Labour Government of forcing through these measures will be catastrophic."

The Government has already issued a thinly veiled threat that the Weatherill amendment, the deal to reprieve some 92 hereditary peers from abolition under the reforms of the Lords, could be ditched if the Lords continues to defy ministers over welfare reform.

The House of Lords Bill has been scheduled to clear the Commons today, just a day before the end of the parliamentary session, in a clear warning to the Conservatives not to conspire with rebellious Labour peers to obstruct the welfare Bill.