Another day, another Lords defeat for the government. Last night, peers voted by a majority of only 10 to moderate proposals to cut housing benefit from people in council houses who have spare rooms. Under the amendment passed, war widows, foster carers and disabled people would be exempt from the cut, which DWP says would cost £100m.
Many within Number 10 are delighted at this defeat. They say that the more peers defeat the welfare bill, the more it keeps these popular proposals in the news. It reminds voters of some of the government’s most vote-winning schemes and helps paint the Lords and Labour as out of touch. One senior coalition source told me that it was a “win-win” situation, saying:
Obviously we’d like to get the reforms through and onto the statute book, but we’re quite happy for this to go on a bit longer.
But there is a problem for the government. What last night’s defeat showed is that the tactic of using “financial privilege” (whereby the Commons is allowed to force through measures if they have implications for government spending) hasn’t worked.
Although peers were prevented from simply voting again for the amendments they approved last time, which were then voted down in the Commons, they simply came back with a whole set of new “amendments in lieu”. So instead of voting again on the last “spare bedroom” amendment, which would have exempted people who couldn’t move into smaller houses, peers voted for this new one to exempt foster carers, disabled people and war widows instead.
Of course, peers know this will simply be voted down once more in the Commons and classified under “financial privilege” again, which means they are only doing it for one reason: to stall the bill.
And while government sources insist they will have to give in after a while once all their amendments have been exhausted, there remains the possibility the bill won’t pass in time for the Queen’s Speech.
When I spoke to Lord Strathclyde, the Tory leader in the Lords, yesterday, he admitted this was a possibility, telling me: “We don’t want endless ping-pong”. Unfortunately for him, many in the Lords do.