Last week the Welfare Reform and Work Bill entered committee stage in the House of Lords. The bill will scrap all the government’s child poverty targets and measures, and make sweeping cuts to social security. Given the wide-ranging changes it seeks to make, it is surprising – and worrying – that ministers have provided so little detail on how the new measures will work and what the impacts will be on families with children. The government appears to be determined to shut the door on proper scrutiny, push the legislation through parliament with a minimum of debate.
The ministerial code states that “Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public”, and “Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner”. MPs and peers, as well as the public, rightly expect ministers to give them detailed information about the rationale for new legislation, the analysis on which it is based, and its expected impacts.
Committee stages (in both the Commons and the Lords) are the principal opportunity for detailed discussion of a bill, and suggested amendments are tabled in advance so that the government can prepare the necessary information to advance debates. Little information has been forthcoming, however. As Baroness Hollis of Heigham observed, “Ministers are coming to this House woefully underprepared with the information they need”.
Given the scale of the cuts in the bill, and the fact that it all but repeals the Child Poverty Act (which passed with cross-party consensus just five years ago), one would expect the government to publish in-depth impact analysis to accompany the bill. Yet they have not published any assessment of the cumulative impact of the measures in the bill, rather a series of separate impact assessments for different clauses, thus masking the overall devastating consequences of the bill for low-income households.
The information in these separate assessments is minimal. For example, the assessment for the two-child limit provides no distributional analysis, baldly stating that “It has not been possible”, and its equalities section includes such self-evident statements as “Households that include someone with a protected characteristic (as defined by the Equality Act 2010) will be affected by this policy if they receive one or more of the affected benefits”. There is little here to assist anyone who wants to understand the anticipated consequences of the policy.
Indeed, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has raised concerns that ‘these assessments do not examine equality impact in the depth required… and are therefore unlikely to help Parliamentarians fully understand and debate the different provisions contained within the Bill’. Yet frequently, when parliamentarians have asked for supplementary information, they have simply been referred to these assessments. Ministers have resisted complaints that these are inadequate, simply saying (in various forms of words) that “the documentation that we have published is the documentation that we need to publish”.
Several important details of how the new policies will be implemented are not set out in the bill itself, but will be put forward in secondary legislation. It would be very useful for draft regulations, or at least a reasonable indication of their contents, to be made available for scrutiny at the same time as the bill, but this has not happened.
For example the bill provides for exemptions from the two-child limit for ’exceptional circumstances‘, but does not define these. The government has indicated that multiple births and cases of rape will be exempted, but MPs and peers have repeatedly asked whether other situations will be considered exceptional (including re-partnered and step-families; kinship care, fostering and adoption arrangements; disabled children; and families fleeing domestic violence) and requested the government’s analysis of the impact on these groups.
The government has not given any indication of its view and no such analysis has been made available. In the debate on these clauses of the bill alone it is possible to count eleven questions to the government which went unanswered in debates. In the debate on changes to the Child Poverty Act, there were eight. (Debates on the benefit rate freeze and benefit cap reduction are yet to come.)
The government has, when pressed, indicated that some further details will be available before report stage in January. Not a moment too soon, as this could be the last chance for peers to vote on amendments to the bill.
But the failure to provide more information and answer questions has shocked both parliamentarians and observers, and, critics suggest, smacks of a government which knows the answers just aren’t good enough.