In the last few days, Conservative ministers, facing defeat over their plan to cut Tax Credits, have been hurrying around TV studios to denounce these attempts as opening up an ‘unprecedented constitutional path’ and ruining ‘centuries of observance’. Some of even gone further, suggesting that the Conservatives should flood the chamber with Conservative Peers in order to prevent a coalition of Liberal Democrat, Labour and Crossbench peers from striking down the proposed cuts. However, all of this is baloney and they know it. It is much easier to try and have an argument about the UK constitution than defend cuts that didn’t feature in the Conservative manifesto will hit work the working poorest exclusively and are opposed by a number of Conservative MP’s.
To start with, our action in the House of Lords is not as unprecedented or as undemocratic as the Tories are now claiming. As the Tories know well, throughout the beginning of the New Labour years, the Tories were consistently trying to defeat the government on the Fox Hunting, The House of Lords Act and various other measures. Secondly, the Tax Credits plans did not feature in the Tory party manifesto and more importantly were expressly ruled out by David Cameron in April 2015. They have no democratic mandate to be implementing these particular cuts and thus it is right that the House of Lords challenge them on this. Furthermore, the government did not introduce the changes as a Financial Bill, something that the House of Lords would have no right to block as it would make it a financial matter. Instead, they buried the changes in a ‘Statutory Instrument’, rushing it through Parliament to prevent rebellions from their own MP’s and to avoid uncomfortable scrutiny. This gives the House of Lords every right to vote it down. If the Conservatives wanted the matter to be treated as a financial one, they should have made it into one. The Conservative’s have consistently thwarted attempts led by the Liberal Democrats and others to reform the House of Lords, and if actions like these make the Conservative’s finally think about changing this undemocratic organisation, then so be it.
Fundamentally, however, Peers have a duty to block legislation that has no mandate from the general public and will have an enormously detrimental effect on some of the poorest in society. Most studies put working families who receive Tax Credits about between £1000-£2000 a year worse off with this cut, even with George Osborne’s new Living Wage; this could be the difference between a working family being able to heat their home or feed and clothe their children.
Also, ironically, this could mean that a working parent may actually be financially better off claiming for welfare payments then continuing to work, a situation that would be completely farcical. The policy is not just and does not make economic sense. George Osborne, with policies such as the Living Wage and the Liberal Democrat Income Tax Threshold changes, has tried to position his government on the side of the ‘working poor’, supporting those on low incomes who are working. However, this policy is exclusively taking away from this group of people, single handedly undoing any of the financial benefits from the Living Wage or changes in the Income Tax threshold could bring. It is hugely important that any government seeks to balance the budget, and difficult decisions need to made. It is clear though, that £12 billion pounds worth of cuts to Welfare, an already squeezed area of spending, are unrealistic and unfair. The government, by cutting Tax Credits for the working poor whilst cutting inheritance tax for the rich, have got their priorities completely wrong.
The Liberal Democrats should be proud to have stopped this from happening when we were in government and we should be proud to have voted against it again in the House of Lords. This policy has no democratic mandate, would massively impact on the incomes of working families and does not make economic sense. When Peers walked through the lobbies on Monday, they shouldn’t have felt ashamed or like they were defying constitutional norms. Instead, they should have held their heads high, knowing that they, not the government, are truly on the side of the working poor.
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