I spoke a few days ago about the Health and Social Care Bill, and my concerns about the impact that that will have on the NHS. The other so-called flagship legislation of the Coalition, currently making its way through the judicial process, is the Welfare Reform Bill, which we have been told is going to result in better services, fairer payments, and a reduction in the number of people who illegally or inappropriately claim benefits. If it passes, the reality is going to turn out to be very different, and disabled people and campaigners for disability rights are justifiably concerned about what the future might hold for them. Disabled Medic has been writing about this for several months now and far more eloquently than I can, so if you want to know more or want to read about this from the perspective of someone for whom it is an enormously important and deeply personal subject, I urge you to read what she has to say and especially this bit.
Last week, the Bill passed through the House of Commons and debates began in the House of Lords. On Wednesday, a motion was proposed to move the debates from the main chamber of the Lords into one of the smaller committee rooms. Now, whether or not you agree with the Bill, there is democratic imperative in this country that the law-making process should be open and transparent, and part of that is that these sorts of debates take place in a public arena. The smaller committee rooms in the House of Lords are public arenas, but they are not areas that are generally accessible to disabled individuals or are large enough for all of the Lords to attend and participate. I was alerted to this by Disabled Medic via Bendy Girl, and as at the time I happened to be on a bus with a smartphone, I wrote a fast and probably typo-riddled email to the Chief Whip and the Opposition Chief Whip of the House of Lords.
As you will all know by now, the efforts of the public to keep the Lords debates in the main chamber have failed and they will be moving into the committee rooms. The powers that be have promised that it will be an accessible venue, and we live in hope.
In the very early hours of Thursday morning, after that motion had been passed, my phone beeped with a message from Steven Bassam, the opposition chief whip to the House of Lords. He has given me permission to disseminate that message as widely as I can, and this is the best forum that I have to do that in. The following is an unedited copy of what he said to me. At risk of being accused of being partisan, I want to make it clear that if Baroness Anelay had acknowledged my email, I would have made that public too.
Many thanks for your email which was the first of five hundred I received on the above subject. Like you, I was appalled by the Government’s action in firstly failing to agree a timetable for the Bill through the Usual Channels and by agreement. I tried to protect the interests of the House and those interested in open committee debate on the floor of the Chamber. Do look at the Hansard debate on the issue. I think that the Government has acted in an arrogant and high-handed way and not in the interests of those properly concerned about the highly controversial bill.
Jane Campbell and Tani Grey Thompson made strong pleas to the Government to ensure that the Bill be considered by the whole House and supported Labour’s opposition to the Government’s motion. Sadly, we lost with the Lib Dems supporting the Government in a whipped vote. I frankly find this unbelievable given their opposition to back door deals, stitch ups, and their stated support for greater openness in debate. They have forgotten all this in Government and they are starting to look like a bunch of very unprincipled politicians. As the Labour chief whip in Government, I would not have tried to fix Lords business like this. We never once used a procedural motion to prevent debate on the floor of the Chamber.
Sorry for the rant, but I feel very angry about this and the impact this will have on debate, people with disabilities, and the working of the Lords. Do share this email with others. Now I have to work out how to deal with the other five hundred.
Steven Bassam, Labour Chief Whip, House of Lords