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Tory setbacks on welfare and education reform

Joy Macready reports on the recent government set backs and how we can get more of them

TORY PROPOSALS for welfare and higher education (HE) reforms suffered sound defeats in the first month of 2012. Sighs of relief could be heard around the country from those fighting against the cuts – but the struggle has just begun.

The government’s flagship Welfare Reform Bill, which marks the biggest overhaul of the benefits system since the 1940s and introduces a ‘Universal Credit’ scheme, was defeated twice in the House of Lords. Crossbenchers and bishops led the revolt but Labour peers and some Lib Dems and Conservatives joined in – notably former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown and former Tory lord chancellor Lord Mackay.

The bill proposes to:
• Cap out of work benefits at £26,000, the average weekly wage earned by working households from 2013 – the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds amended the bill to exempt child benefit.Charge parents between £50 and £100 upfront to use the Child Support Agency – Lord Mackay spearheaded this defeat by tabling an amendment to exempt some single parents.
• Limit the time people can receive contributory Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which replaced incapacity benefit.
• Replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with Personal Independence Payments (PIP) – the government narrowly won the vote but lost on compulsory means testing after one year.

In addition, the government has dropped controversial proposals to make it easier for private businesses to set up universities. Minister David Willetts’ whitepaper has been shelved ‘indefinitely’ – although he stated that the discussion is continuing. The Lib Dems oppose further reforms to HE after voting to raise tuition fees to £9000 last year.

These defeats have exposed cracks within the coalition and even within the Tory party itself. However, these objections were more to specific details of the cuts and the speed at which they were being made, rather than representing any fundamental opposition to the destruction of the welfare state the “reforms” represent.

Labour is the most spineless opposition, voting in favour of the welfare bill with only minor tweaks. They cannot vote against it after stating that they too would impose drastic cuts if they were in power.

However, these defeats do not mean that these reforms are off the agenda – this must be seen as a tactical retreat. The Tories are determined to push forward their plans and will do so at the next opportunity – ministers have already said they will overturn Lords defeats in Commons.

Protest matters
We cannot rely on the good graces of the Lords to save us from the government’s austerity and privatisation agenda. We have to build a movement which can stop the cuts.

The only way to guarantee the government cannot move forward with their attacks is to build the fightback on the streets and in our communities – pulling the trade unions into struggle against the coalition government and smashing it apart. Direct action must be part of this battle, such as the disability activists who locked down on Oxford Street on Saturday 28 January, blocking traffic in one of London’s busiest shopping areas, to protest against the government’s attacks on their wellbeing and independence. The battle for our rights is on!

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