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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 co-operate 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.
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:
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
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
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
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.
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