Thank you for writing to me regarding the vote in the Commons last week on the Government’s proposals on workfare. I am sorry that you disagree with my decision to abstain, and I wanted to set out the reasons for that decision. There was a great deal of debate within the Parliamentary Labour Party on the decision to abstain and many disagreed with it.
Firstly let me say that this Government’s attempt to divide those on low incomes into skivers and strivers by attacking the unemployed and those on benefits is cruel, divisive and entirely unacceptable. The deliberately created stereotype of lazy scroungers who have to be forced into work is both untrue and dangerous.
I recommend this recent mythbusting report which hightlights how false much of the current language about poverty is: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/files/truth_and_lies_report_final.pdf .
The Labour Party is committed to standing up for the vulnerable in society and attacking the false divide between deserving and undeserving poor.
It is true that sanctions have always been part of the welfare state, for the tiny minority who may abuse benefits or who do not seek to find work when they can. It is certainly part of the fairness agenda that there should be these sanctions just as there should be sanctions for those that evade their duty to pay tax.
It is clear that the Government got their workfare proposals in a mess, they were warned when they made them that they were unworkable but they still rushed them through. Clearly we were not going to vote to support them.
Having studied the successful legal challenge and the Government proposals, our front bench team led by Shadow Secretary of State Liam Byrne concluded that the vote came down to the question of whether the DWP should have any legal power whatsoever to stop benefits for people who won’t try to find work at all. I believe that is a matter of interpretation, but it was their strongly held view that that was the case, and that it was the message that would be sent by a Labour vote against the measures.
Moreover, they had negotiated an agreement with the Coalition which would deliver a comprehensive review of the sanctions regime, if we did not vote against the measures. This review would be of benefit to all those in receipt of benefits, bringing greater transparency on sanctions and how they are applied by job centres. Recent stories in the press of job centre targets for sanctions (always denied by the Government) highlight the importance of such of review. It should deliver a fairer system overall.
Additionally the Government made it clear that if the measures did not pass, they would be further cuts in benefits to pay for the compensation.
I discussed the vote with many colleagues in the Labour Parliamentary Party before coming to a decision. Many colleagues whom I respect greatly including Ian Mearns, Ian Lavery, Grahame Morris, Mary Glyndon and Nick Brown disagreed with the frontbench interpretation and decided to vote against the measures. The Unite Union of which I am a member also supported a vote against.
Many colleagues however felt it was important to back the frontbench position. Ultimately it came down to a judgement call and I took the decision to abstain in accordance with the frontbench recommendation. I recognise you may not agree with that decision but I hope that you do now understand my reasons.
Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central