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Tuesday, March 19, 2013 

Liam Byrne: must try harder.

In one sense, you can understand the more than cautious approach Labour has taken on welfare reform in opposition.  They know it's an utter lie that they didn't reform welfare, as the Tories continually claim; they introduced the work capability assessment for goodness sake, still making life miserable for tens of thousands of those declared to be fit for work by ATOS, but know it's futile complaining too loudly about it.  It's also the case that in principle, Iain Duncan Smith's universal benefit makes sense: whether it works in practice we're yet to see. Lastly, they also deserve credit for calling the Tories' bluff and opposing the coalition's 1% cap on benefits, despite the dangers of such a policy.  As it's turned out, it hasn't affected the party's polling whatsoever, even if they again haven't properly set out the arguments against a real terms cut in benefits.

All this said, the decision to abstain on today's vote on the "emergency" workfare bill is perplexing and naive.  Yes, you can understand that it would be incredibly easy for the Tories to paint Labour as being the party of the welfare scrounger, and the DWP certainly has worked every sinew in its attempt to paint those who have been sanctioned for any reason as malingerers who refused reasonable job offers. It's also laudable that Liam Byrne has at least attempted to improve the bill by ensuring those sanctioned have the right to appeal and know from the outset exactly what it is they're agreeing to when they go on any of the various schemes recommended to them at Jobcentre Plus.

The issue here though ought to be a simple one: the government is legislating to deny those at the very bottom rung of society what is legally and morally owed to them. As Sunny writes, many of those on the workfare schemes were deliberately denied the information which would have allowed them to make an informed choice on what to do, while the legislation on sanctions was purposefully vague. This is wholly a mess of the coalition's own making, and they shouldn't be allowed to get away with such manoeuvring.

Moreover, as Mark Ferguson on Labour List argues, abstaining also gives tacit approval to the work programme that the party has rightly been deriding as worse than useless.  Indeed, in the specific case of mandatory work activity, the scheme is worse even than that as it saw the numbers claiming employment and support allowance increase. Liam Byrne's argument is also completely disingenuous: his suggestion that if everyone was to be compensated it would mean more cuts implies that savings through sanctions are built into the DWP's budget, which can't possibly be the case.

It's true that Labour's opposition wouldn't see the bill defeated, as the Tories can in this at least rely on the support of the Lib Dems, but it's beside the point. If Labour's position truly is that there should be a job's guarantee, then those who have been let down or worse, actively mistreated by the current system, surely deserve better than the forced imposition of schemes that are being used just as much to massage the unemployment figures as they are to help those out of work. Byrne's intervention hasn't so much challenged Iain Duncan Smith's bad faith as made it more slightly more palatable.

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