Isabel Hardman Isabel Hardman

Labour’s frontbench gets a taste of the welfare battles to come

The Commons this evening approved emergency regulations for the government’s work experience programme so the DWP can avoid repaying benefits to those who were sanctioned for refusing to take part. This wouldn’t be a particularly interesting vote, but for an uprising on the Labour benches.

This is the controversial ‘workfare’ programme, where those on Jobseeker’s Allowance are required to undertake work experience as part of their benefit claim. A court judgement last month (which was widely misinterpreted) meant the government had to rush these new regulations through. But though Labour made hay with that judgement at the time, its official position this afternoon was to abstain on the vote. Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne focused on the department’s procedural failings during his speech in the debate, but pushed on his stance on sanctions by MPs from minor parties, he said:

‘I do believe that the DWP should be equipped with the power to issue sanctions. That general foundation has been in the hands of Ministers for more than a century. The New Deal programmes and the Future Jobs Fund that Labour put in place had sanctions attached to them – indeed, they were tightened by the Welfare Reform Act 2009 – and I do not believe that those powers should be empty ones.’

Unfortunately for Byrne, not all of his MPs agree with him on this. So when the debate finally moved to a vote, a group of them didn’t abstain. The vote passed 277 to 57, with a handful of Labour MPs walking through the No lobbies with nationalist and Green MPs. A number of them made forceful contributions in the Chamber. Ian Lavery said:

‘Members of Parliament discuss with constituents, and often people away from the constituency, the merits and otherwise of policies.

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