Consideration of Lords message
Lords amendments 1B, 1C and 1D place a duty on the Secretary of State to publish data annually on four low-income statistics. Let me start by being very clear about what the Government are not doing in these amendments: we are not returning to the broken state of affairs in the Child Poverty Act 2010; we are not returning to a policy approach driven by flawed income measures; and we are not compromising on the new life chances measures and the approach that we have set out in the Bill. Income measures do not drive the right action. They focus the Government’s finite resources on the symptoms of child poverty, not the root causes.
Let me be clear on what these amendments are about. They provide a further guarantee that information on low income will be made available for all to see, every year. We have repeatedly given commitments on that throughout the passage of the Bill, in both Houses. The “Households below average income” publication, which provides a range of low-income data, already has statutory protection as a national statistics product. We are now reinforcing that with a new statutory duty to publish those data annually. Three of the four income statistics—relative low income, combined low income and material deprivation, and absolute low income—are already routinely published in the HBAI publication.
Our commitment goes beyond the data that are already published. It will also place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to publish new data annually on children living in persistent low-income households. The information will be based on a new data source, and the first figures will be published before the end of the 2016-17 financial year. We believe that those data are a useful addition, because they tell us about families who are stuck on low incomes.
However, although we have given full statutory guarantees that those low-income data will be published annually, we will not commit to the Government’s laying a report on them to Parliament. Reporting to Parliament on those statistics would incentivise Governments to take the wrong action and would simply continue to drive actions, such as direct income transfers, that fail to tackle the root causes of child poverty. The duty to publish low-income data is fundamentally different from reporting on or setting targets for them, and Opposition Members should not confuse the two.
We need to move away from the flawed “poverty plus a pound” approach that income measures incentivise. Resources are finite, and it is crucial that the Government prioritise the actions that will make the biggest difference to children. The evidence is clear that tackling worklessness and low educational attainment will make the biggest difference to children’s life chances. That is why the Government will report to Parliament on their life chances measures of worklessness and educational attainment every year.
We are also committed to publishing a number of non-statutory measures annually, including family stability, drug and alcohol dependence and problem debt, but we firmly believe that any move to report on those low-income measures would divide Government’s efforts and undermine the new life chances approach, which will bring about the transformative change that we all want to see. I urge hon. Members to support the motion to agree with amendments 1B, 1C and 1D.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is really unhelpful, when we look at poverty, to focus on relative income measures? If there is a recession and incomes fall, poverty will appear to have got better when it has actually got worse. We need to look differently at poverty and focus on its underlying causes rather than on relative income measures.
I have two very quick points to make. First, no Government over the next 10 years will have the resources that previous Governments had to drive their counter-poverty programme by increasing cash transfers. We might wish that it were different, but we need to grow up. Secondly, may I push the Minister further on whether the Government are open to looking at birth readiness, toddlerhood and school readiness as additional key indicators if we are, within existing resources, to make a real difference to the life chances of the poorest children?
The right hon. Gentleman makes my point for me and, importantly, highlights the significance of the Government’s work on life chances. That will cover the whole range of ages, because it is of fundamental importance that the Government provide the right measures to support people throughout their lives.
I turn to the employment and support allowance work-related activity component, and the universal credit limited capability for work element measures. I remind the House why the changes are being made. As we stated when we last debated the measures, the change is urgently needed to ensure that the right incentives—and, importantly, support—are available to help more people with disabilities and health conditions to move closer to, and into, employment. We have experienced record employment levels and strong jobs growth over the past few years, but the benefits have bypassed the majority of those who are stuck on ESA. Only one in 100 ESA claimants in the WRAG moves off benefits each month, compared with one in five jobseeker’s allowance claimants. That cannot be right, and the Government believe that people with health conditions and disabilities deserve better.
My understanding from our debate on the matter last week is that the Government intend to put an extra £100 million into supporting that group. However, will the Minister confirm that the savings she plans to make from the measure are much greater—some £600 million?
The hon. Lady will know from the Bill and the impact assessments the fiscal savings that will result from the measure. Fundamentally, we are making the change so that we can provide long-term support. For that reason, I think that all hon. Members will look forward to it.
We are committed to tackling the problem that too few people are moving off benefits and being supported into employment. There are economic, social and moral arguments for ensuring that those who are able to work can work, and that they are supported into work. Work is the most effective way to improve the wellbeing of individuals, their families and their communities.
The Government’s equalities watchdog has said that there is
“very little in the way of evidence”
to show that what the Government are trying to do will support disabled people back into work. In the last five years, the number of working-age disabled people has fallen, and the Government speak from a track record of failure. Are disabled people not right to be sceptical about what is about to happen? What direct evidence can the Minister offer about the support that will be delivered to disabled people?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware from his participation in the Public Bill Committee and during the Bill’s passage through the House, the Government are committed to bringing in reforms. As I will shortly come on to say, the reforms will be set out in a White Paper later this year. Importantly—we are optimistic; we really are—the White Paper will outline our plans to reform further the help to support people with health conditions and disabilities into work.
A large body of evidence shows that work is good for physical and mental wellbeing. There is also a growing awareness, as I am sure all Members recognise, that long-term worklessness is harmful to both physical and mental health. Reform is therefore vital in itself, but we will go further. We are ambitious; we do not believe in writing people off. Importantly, we will ensure that the welfare system incentivises and supports people into employment.
In the past five years—in fact, in the past six years, during which the coalition and this Government have been in office—the number of disabled people of working age in work has fallen, the Government have closed Remploy factories, the number of disability employment advisers in Jobcentre Plus has fallen by 20% and the number of people supported by the Access to Work programme has fallen.
I will repeat my starting premise: we are more positive and optimistic for people with health conditions and disabilities. Support through the Access to Work programme has increased. We have great initiatives, such as the Disability Confident campaign, which is supporting people back into work. The hon. Gentleman may want to join us, perhaps by hosting a Disability Confident event in his constituency. I would very much welcome such support. I think that we should be optimists. This Government are committed to halving the employment disability gap, which all Members of the House should welcome.
I very much welcome the Minister’s ambition, which I share, to halve the employment disability gap, and the pathway that will be a crucial part of the White Paper. Will she provide reassurance that the good intentions in relation to the Lords amendments—identifying those affected in the work-related activity group, the impact on them and their wellbeing, and having better information, as well as tailored support—will very much be part of the imminent White Paper? Can we have some reassurance about that process before the changes start to have an impact?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He will know this, but let me tell the House that I have met a number of colleagues who, quite rightly, want to know more about the White Paper. In relation to the changes that will be made, they have expressed concerns about the content and direction of the White Paper. I want to make it clear that this is an ongoing dialogue. I will continue to engage with all colleagues in the House, as well as stakeholders and charities, which have a valuable contribution to make and are interested in this area. In particular, my hon. Friend and my hon. Friends the Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) have raised with me their desire for the reforms to produce the right outcome. I and the Government share that desire. Importantly, we will work together to make sure that we get the right outcomes.
I will not give way. We are pressed for time, so I want to make some progress.
As the Secretary of State said last summer, the purpose of the reforms is to ensure that we give people with disabilities and health conditions all the appropriate and necessary support that they need to move them closer to the labour market and to support them into work. We are basing all that we do around what works for them. Importantly, as applies to the other amendments, we are focused particularly on life chances.
I will, if I may, move on to the debate in the other place. I can report that, since we last met, the other place has chosen not to insist on its amendments 8 and 9, which removed the changes to the ESA WRAG and the UC LCW element. However, it has agreed what is in effect a wrecking amendment, because it could in practice prevent the provisions from coming into force, despite the fact that my noble Friend and colleague Lord Freud committed to several additional measures to help those affected by the change, which addressed a number of the specific requests raised in the Lords.
Let me set out the extra measures we have committed to in the other place. First, the additional measures include an additional £15 million in 2017-18, when the changes to the ESA WRAG and the UC LCW element come into force, to increase the local Jobcentre flexible support fund. The money, which will be set aside specifically for those with limited capability for work, represents a 22% increase in the overall fund.
Secondly, in response to the concerns that were raised about claimants with progressive conditions, we have committed to improving the awareness of the reassessment process and the guidance for claimants and disability charities about reassessments. We will provide additional support and training to jobcentre staff to ensure that they are aware that they may need to talk about requests for reassessments with claimants with deteriorating conditions.
Finally, we will improve the work incentives for those who continue to receive ESA even further by removing the 52-week limit that applies to permitted work for those in the ESA WRAG. That will allow claimants to gain skills and experience and to build their confidence, while still receiving the benefit over a longer period. We will support these individuals to get back into work.
As I said earlier, despite those additional measures, the other place proceeded with amendments that ignore the clear voice of this democratically elected House, which has supported the changes to the ESA WRAG and the UC LCW element, and the fact that we have voted on this measure five times. Although, on the face of it, the amendments may appear to be reasonable, let me set out how they are, in effect, potentially wrecking amendments.
I will proceed, because we have very little time. The right hon. Gentleman will get the chance to speak once all the introductory speeches have been made.
First, the amendments would require the Secretary of State to publish a report on the impact of the changes prior to the changes being made, and not to introduce the reform until the report had been published. Specifically, the report would be about the impacts on a person’s health, finances and ability to return to work. In line with normal practice, we of course intend to evaluate this change.
My noble Friend Lord Freud has confirmed in the other place that we will monitor the impact through regular national statistics. However, it will be impossible to provide the majority of the information requested in the amendments through our analysis prior to implementation, because the data that are currently available do not allow us to make any meaningful estimate. That means that the amendments would delay the implementation of the measure by four years and cost more than £1 billion of the savings for which this democratically elected House has voted.
The amendments would not only impact on the savings associated with this change, but would hinder the Government in their commitment to do the right thing by providing the right incentives and supporting people with health conditions and disabilities to allow them to improve their life chances, fulfil their potential and get the vital support that they need to enable them to get back to work.
Secondly, the amendments are unacceptable because they seek to require that the commencement regulations be made under the affirmative resolution procedure. At best, that is a delaying tactic that runs contrary to usual parliamentary process. In practice, it would allow the Lords to block the legislation by the back door. I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that the Lords has overstepped the mark on this.
This House voted convincingly for the changes on 23 February. That was the fifth time this House had voted overwhelmingly for this reform—a reform that is financially privileged and that is a key part of our efforts to reform the welfare system by supporting more people into work.
I apologise at the outset for the fact that I will not take interventions, but a lot of people want to make speeches and not everybody got in last week. Also, I am not sure that my voice will hold for very long.
I will speak to Lords amendments 1B, 1C and 1D on child poverty reporting and to Lords amendments 8B, 8C, 9B and 9C on the proposed cuts to the employment and support allowance work-related activity component and its equivalent in universal credit.
On Lords amendments 1B, 1C and 1D, I was going to welcome the Minister’s agreeing to publish the percentage of children living in poverty in the way originally described in the Child Poverty Act 2010, based on household income and material deprivation. However, I found the tone that she took in introducing the debate very regrettable. I also regret that the Government have not conceded to the request to submit an annual report to Parliament on the progress on these measures.
As I argued last week, we cannot deny the fact that in relation to child poverty, income matters. As experts in child poverty and child health have stressed in recent weeks and months, it is entirely regrettable that the Government are trying to conflate the consequences of child poverty, for example debt and family breakdown, with the cause—a lack of material resources. I have to disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field): there is no evidence to support the Government’s proposed interventions. They are likely to have no effect on child poverty and they may even make things worse. Contrary to that, support such as income supplements has been shown to be highly effective.
The Government’s predilection for focusing on worklessness, when two thirds of children living in poverty are from working families, reveals exactly where they are coming from. It is about hammering the poor, whether they are in work or not. As I predicted last week, and as yesterday’s Institute for Fiscal Studies report shows, the net effect of tax and social security changes will increase the proportion of children in relative poverty by eight percentage points, and those in absolute poverty by three percentage points by 2020. That means that one in four—2.6 million—of our children will live in poverty. The implications for those children and their families, but also for the country, are stark.
Growing up in poverty limits children’s potential and development across a range of areas. Brain scans show how children’s brains develop differently when children are subjected to poverty. Poverty leads to poor health and life chances in adulthood, and that has knock-on effects for future generations. We already have the highest mortality of children under five in western Europe, and children from poor families are five times more likely to die than children from rich families. We all need to reflect on that; it should be a concern for us all.
Let me deal with amendments 8B, 8C, 9B and 9C. On Monday, the House of Lords voted overwhelmingly for Lord Low’s amendment calling for an assessment of the effects of the proposed measures to reduce social security support for people with disability, impairment or a serious health condition who had been found not fit for work and placed in the ESA WRAG group. In particular, the amendment called for an assessment of the impact on disabled people’s physical and mental health, their financial position—we know that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people, and 80% of that is due to their disability—and their ability to return to work.
To refresh people’s memory, the Government propose to cut financial support from £102.15 to £73.10—nearly £30 a week or £1,500 a year—for new ESA WRAG claimants from 2017. However, that will also apply to existing WRAG claimants. In April, nearly half a million people who are currently on ESA WRAG will start to migrate to universal credit, and the Government intend to remove the limited capability for work component of the work element of universal credit. That means that everyone currently on ESA WRAG will ultimately be transferred to UC and have their support reduced by that £29.05 a week or £1,500 a year.
If my hon. Friend will excuse me, I will not. I said that I would not give way, and I want to be fair and consistent.
As Baroness Grey-Thompson pointed out on Monday, the cuts will also affect disabled people in low paid work, who will receive less under universal credit. I acknowledge the Government’s concessions in the increase in support to the jobcentre flexible support fund of an extra £15 million in the coming year. However, the payments are flexible and discretionary. I also acknowledge the removal of the 52-week limit on permitted work in ESA and some protection for people with progressive conditions, but they are frankly inadequate.
On the health issues that people on ESA face, we know from the Government’s published data from last year that the death rates of people on incapacity benefit/ESA in 2013 was 4.3 times greater than those of the general population. That is an increase of 25% since 2003. People in the support group are 6.3 times more likely to die than the general population, and those in the WRAG group—the people whom we are saying that we will take this money from—are 2.2 times more likely to die than the general population.
The innuendo that people with a disability or illness might be faking it or are feckless, and need incentivising into work by having their support cut, is frankly grotesque and belies the epidemiological data. Incapacity benefit and ESA are recognised as good population health indicators, and the release of the Government’s own data proves that point. This vulnerable group of people need our care and support, not humiliation.
There is a real risk that these cuts will exacerbate the health and well-being of this vulnerable group of people. The concession that allows disabled people to ask for a reassessment of their work capability assessment is a process that eminent academics in a peer-reviewed journal estimate to be associated with severe adverse mental health effects, including 590 additional suicides between 2011 and 2013. That is hardly reassuring.
All that we know from the Government’s impact assessment is that by 2020-21 approximately £640 million a year will have been cut from social security support to disabled people, with £100 million a year to provide unspecified support to help disabled people into work. That is on top of the £23.8 billion that has already been cut from 3.7 million people by the Welfare Reform Act 2012, and it does not include cuts that affect disabled people in social care, education, housing, transport or access to justice. Some 5.1 million disabled people are living in poverty, and last year that number increased by 2%, which is equivalent to 300,000 people. There is no assessment of what this Bill will do to the financial position of disabled people.
Although this is the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, it contains nothing about work. There is nothing about how many disabled people will get into work, or how many extra employers will be involved to reduce the disability employment gap. That is all pushed down the road to the White Paper. As Baroness Campbell said on Monday,
“the Government are demanding a massive leap of faith as financial support to disabled people is cut before publishing details of what a reformed employment and support system will look like.”
I also reject the content of the Secretary of State’s letter to Conservative MPs last night, and what we have just heard from the Minister, and the suggestion that the Lords have abused parliamentary process and that the impact assessment is too difficult to do. I suggest that the Secretary of State comes to the Dispatch Box to say that—it is absolute rubbish. He is putting as much spin into the Bill as he is into the EU referendum.
The notion put forward by the Secretary of State is that their Lordships are somehow usurping parliamentary procedure and doing something illegitimate, but in fact they are following parliamentary procedure. Ping-pong, as it is affectionately known, is a fundamental and recognised part of the legislative process. All that their lordships are doing is what every constituent expects their MP, as a legislator, to do, which is to know and understand the impact on their constituents of the laws they vote for. We expect our Government to take their responsibility seriously and provide evidence of the impact of the proposed legislation.
The Secretary of State claims that his Department cannot make a comprehensive assessment of the Bill, but that does not stack up. Five months ago, the Equality and Human Rights Commission wrote to the Minister to say exactly how such an assessment could be undertaken, and it even offered the expertise of its staff to do that. Again, the Secretary of State refused, but any responsible Government should undertake such work. Today MPs are effectively voting on whether they want to make a life-changing decision for their constituents, in the dark or with an understanding of the consequences. It is obvious what their constituents expect, and what they should do.
Lord Low, Baroness Grey-Thompson and Baroness Meacher’s report raised the issue of the impact assessment, as have disability charities, disabled people and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In correspondence to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff), the EHRC said:
“We consider that the Government’s impact assessments make very little attempt to set out comprehensively how the three aims of the”—
public sector equality—
“duty have been considered. On 16 September 2015, the Commission wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to set out our concerns about the impact assessments for the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. We believe the assessments would benefit from a more detailed consideration of the likely impact of the proposals on people with different protected characteristics. They contain very little in the way of evidence and this limits the accompanying analysis and the scope for parliamentary scrutiny and informed decision-making on the proposed legislative changes.”
I am most concerned that the Government have failed to fulfil their public sector equality duty. Under the Equality Act 2010, the Government must properly consider the impact of their policies on the elimination of discrimination, the advancement of equality of opportunity and the fostering of good relations. Supporting the amendments will help to put that right. I urge Members on both sides of the House to support the amendments.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate once again. I know that time is very short, so I will keep my remarks short and speak to Lords amendments 8B and 9B.
I would like to begin by thanking the Minister for the movement she has made so far on the flexible support fund and scrapping the 52-week permitted work limit. That is very welcome and a good move in the right direction. Although I disagree with the Government on this issue and I voted against the Government last week, I am concerned that this ping-pong is evolving into petty politics that is constraining the issue we should be discussing, which is the reform of welfare on a very technical point.
The Lords amendments are based on the amendment my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and I tabled on Report. I would have welcomed that amendment coming back last week, as opposed to this week. We have spent a lot of time on this amendment. I will be voting against the Government tonight, but I feel we should be putting this behind us and moving forward to discuss the White Paper. I want the Minister to be aware that I will be publishing a Green Paper and inviting colleagues who are also concerned to contribute to it, so we can broaden the horizon out on what we would like in terms of welfare reform.
I want to reiterate the fact that the Conservative party considers it its proud duty to look after the disabled in our community. The Conservatives are very happy, ideologically, to provide a welfare state that helps those in need. When people fall on hard times, we will look after them. Nobody is trying to punish anybody in the Bill or in the amendments we are discussing. The reality is that my Conservative colleagues and I want to get to the same position as the Government, which is to help as many disabled people as possible who want to work to get back into work.
I am not going to give way, simply because we are short of time.
In my view, the Work programme has failed. One out of 100 people are moving off it. That is our failure, not the failure of the people on the programme. We all want a fix. We want to get as many disabled people who want to work back into work. We just disagree on how we achieve that. I hope our Green Paper will help the Government to publish their White Paper. I genuinely think we would not have been in this position if the White Paper had been brought forward already and we were not having to take on faith something we are not really sure is going to happen, who the Ministers will be, who will be in charge of the money, and how we are going to move forward for these disabled people.
I want to reassure my constituents in the ESA WRAG that the changes apply only to new claimants from 1 April 2017. There has been a lot of confusion about that in my postbag and I want to reassure my constituents on that.
I will vote against the Government tonight, but I hope it will be for the last time on this particular issue.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland). We use the word “honourable” in this House far too often, but in this case he has been very honourable in the way he has approached this particular subject.
In the brief time available to us this evening, I hope I can set out the clear reasons why the House must accept Lords amendments 8B, 8C, 9B and 9C tonight. Let me first say that I welcome the Government’s partial change of heart to place the reporting of income-related child poverty on a statutory footing. Amendments 1B, 1C and 1D are not perfect, but they at least represent some progress. I hope that Conservative Members will now see the merits of accepting other arguments made by the Opposition regarding ESA and the work component of universal credit.
Last week, I was invited to sit on the Reasons Committee after we voted and rejected the previous Lords amendments. For those unfamiliar with it, the Committee meets immediately after the vote and agrees the reason to be articulated to the Lords from the Government as to why their amendments were refused. On ESA and universal credit amendments, the reasons were exactly the same:
“Because it would alter the financial arrangements made by the Commons; and the Commons do not offer any further Reason, trusting that this Reason may be deemed sufficient.”
So the Commons did not offer “any further Reason”, which I found shocking. The Government could not come up with anything else to say—no empirical evidence, no logical argument, nothing socially responsible or of any consequence. It relied on a pseudo-constitutional technicality to explain the decision to remove £30 a week from the pockets of sick and disabled people on ESA WRAG. Ping-pong is being used and abused as an excuse in this regard. What message does that send from this Government to ESA recipients? It says, “We don’t need to justify why we are cutting your ESA, we just are. We just can and we just will. We trust that this reason may be deemed sufficient.”
I am sorry, but time is tight and other right hon. and hon. Members have refused to take interventions.
As I was saying, the Government said that they trusted their reason “be deemed sufficient”. There is, of course, nothing to say because this Government have not done their homework. The impact assessment has not been done. The Government have no idea how this will impact on claimants, their health or their ability to progress towards work. Tonight, the Government will not have that technicality to fall back on. The revised amendments from the Lords ask the Government to provide the impact assessment that should have been done right at the start of this process and for it to be scrutinised before any cut to ESA would be forthcoming.
This amendment from Lord Low and his colleagues sets a challenge to this Minister and her Government. It sets a challenge to accept the amendment or do a better job of reasoning why the amendment should be opposed. It does not cost the Government any extra money; it just asks for them to do the work they should have done before even bringing these proposals to the House.
Some Conservatives voted with the Government last week, holding their nose. They did so on the “jam tomorrow” promise dangled by the Government in the shape and form of the much vaunted White Paper on health and work. Surely Conservative Members must now be asking whether the cart is being put before the horse. Why not publish the White Paper and explain what is going to replace this damaging cut to the incomes of sick and disabled people? Such a radical cut to social security for sick and disabled recipients merits at least that.
We should also consider the various court cases being brought against this Government regarding their welfare cuts—the bedroom tax, and carer’s allowance as part of the benefit cap. And the UN is investigating the cuts in general. By not doing their homework on cuts to ESA and universal credit and by not producing an impact assessment, the Government risk being dragged to court at great expense to the taxpayer once again and at great embarrassment to themselves once again.
I would rather have seen passed the amendments we tabled at the end of last year or those we considered last week. The Government won the votes on those occasions, but this is back before us tonight from the House of Lords. Universal opposition from disability groups and third sector organisations remains, while the fact that so many compassionate Conservative Members are thinking of voting against the Government tonight shows they have not won the argument. They have not convinced us that these cuts should happen before an impact assessment has been scrutinised, and they have not convinced us that these cuts should happen before the alternative in their White Paper has even been presented.
Given the apparent importance of this issue to the Government, the fact that the amendments are tabled in the name of the Secretary of State and that so many Conservatives are so close to voting against him, one would have thought that we would see the Secretary of State in his place this evening—if not at the Dispatch Box, at least somewhere on the Government Benches to show that he is not taking his Back Benchers for granted. He failed to attend the debate last week, and he has failed to appear again tonight. He has shown disrespect to the House, disrespect to his Conservative colleagues, and a blatant disregard for ESA and universal credit recipients whose support is due to be cut. As we heard from the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), he has apparently already written to his Back Benchers in a last-ditch attempt to shore up support, saying that the impact assessments satisfy the Equality and Human Rights Commission. That is simply not true: the commission says that they do not.
I understand that Conservative Members may not wish to agree with what I have to say, or indeed with what is said by those on the Labour Front Bench, but this matter is too important for them not to listen to what is said by those will be affected by the cuts. Last week, I quoted from an excellent speech made by Baroness Grey-Thompson.
Tanni Grey-Thomson, an 11-times wheelchair racing gold medallist, has no political axe to grind; she has no interest in giving the Government a bloody nose for the sake of it. She has campaigned hard on this issue because she can see the impact that the cuts will have. On Monday night, she said:
“Many people are already close to crisis point. They feel so beaten up by the changes that they are finding it hard to articulate. It is not that they do not care. They just do not have the energy left and are just trying to survive.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 February 2016; Vol. 769, c. 607-8.]
I could reel off any number of quotations from third sector organisations that have been mentioned in previous debates, and we agree with what they have said. Last week the Minister said that she had worked with them, but they remain concerned about the cuts, and we have to ask ourselves why. They have drawn attention to the impact that those cuts will have on the people they represent. I implore Conservative Members to consider what they have to say, and to weigh that expert evidence against the Government’s failure to provide any evidence at all.
The amendments offer a sensible opportunity for the Government to take stock, gather the evidence relating to a cut of £30 per week for those who are sick and disabled, and explain in detail what replacement they propose. Surely if DWP Ministers have confidence in their arguments, they will have no problem supplying the necessary evidence to the House, and to those who will suffer the impact of these cuts.
Playing ping-pong with the other place, or receiving a Lords message, sounds rather genteel and polite, doesn’t it? However, I ask all Members almost to divorce their thinking from the issue on which we shall be voting later. Dare I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister, and indeed to the shadow Minister, that virtually everything they said was an irrelevance? The House has already debated the point, and, as my right hon. Friend the Minister noted, we have voted on it on five occasions and have voted in the affirmative. We are now concerned with a much bigger issue, which should, in my judgment, unite all quarters of the House: the issue of the supremacy of this place as the elected House of Commons. As we know, in the last century the House had exactly the same debate on the people’s Budget.
The Minister was right. The Lords amendments are wrecking amendments, and the unelectable seem to be relying on the unelected to try to frustrate the policies and the position of Her Majesty’s Government, which was well articulated during the general election campaign and has been debated incredibly thoroughly in the House and elsewhere. Last night the House of Lords played a very dangerous game. It said to the democratically accountable House of Parliament in this country, “We know better than you, the electorate; we know better than you, the elected Government.” We are on the cusp—issue apart—of a constitutional conundrum which will not end easily for the upper House. The authority of this place is now under significant and serious challenge. It is time for parties to unite, and for us to exercise and exert our supremacy in a democratic Parliament.
I think that the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) must be rather inexperienced in the procedures of Parliament, because ping-pong is a well-established feature of our proceedings.
I welcome the change of heart on the publication of child poverty indicators, but I am very disappointed by the position that the Minister has taken on the Lords amendments on the employment and support allowance. It is a shame that the Secretary of State is not here tonight. As we have heard, he has written to Back-Bench Conservative Members to tell them that it is “impossible to provide” the information that is required. However, that is not what the Equality and Human Rights Commission says, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) pointed out in her excellent speech. A letter from the commission’s chief executive dated 16 September last year made this point:
“Assessments need to include sufficient detail and analysis to demonstrate that the draft proposals have been adequately considered for their potential impact on equality. We have considerable expertise in this area”.
However, the Secretary of State rejected its offer of help and now says that it is impossible to provide the information. It is perfectly possible to provide that information, but Ministers do not wish to provide it because the House would then be able to see what the effects would be.
An attempt has been made to present these changes as in the interests of disabled people, but they are not supported by a single one of the organisations representing disabled people. Parkinson’s UK has made its position very clear:
“The policy is likely to have a significant, harmful impact on the health and wellbeing of people with Parkinson’s.”
Macmillan Cancer Support states:
“Macmillan strongly opposes the proposed reductions because of the negative impact they will have on people affected by cancer and other long-term conditions.”
The judgment that the House has to make tonight is whether Ministers are speaking for disabled people or whether the organisations representing disabled people are speaking for them. I hope that the House will choose in favour of the latter.
This is a very important debate. It is important to note that these changes relating to the provision of the employment and support allowance work-related activity component will have no impact on existing claimants. They will apply only to new claimants and to claims made after April next year.
Additionally, the Government have said that they will publish a White Paper this spring detailing how they plan to improve support for people with health conditions and disabilities. I look forward to seeing what is in that White Paper, particularly on the role of employers in reducing the disability employment gap. I carried out my fifth jobs and apprenticeships fair in my constituency recently, and the 40 employers I spoke to all agreed that they would commit to a Disability Confident-aware fair, which is what I will hold this year. I am going to play my part, and everybody in this House has a role to play in helping people who wish to get into work.
There is an overwhelming body of evidence that work is generally good for physical and mental wellbeing, and 61% of those in work-related activity groups say that they want to work. The existing policy set up by Labour in 2008 is failing those claimants. Despite £2.7 billion being spent this year supporting those in the ESA work-related activity group, just 1% of the WRAG claimants moved off ESA each month. The policy is clearly not working, and we need a better system than this.
I urge the Government to remember that, by their own definition, claimants receiving work-related ESA are not capable of work at that time. They are people the Government’s own work capability assessment has deemed not to be fit for work. Surely it is therefore preposterous that the Government think they can cure those people’s complex and long-term ailments and miraculously incentivise them to return to work by reducing their financial support.
If implemented, these cuts will surely also hinder the Government’s ambition to halve the disability employment gap. Instead, they will push many disabled people further into poverty and have a significant and harmful impact on the health and wellbeing of many people, including many in my constituency. As has been mentioned, a Macmillan survey of nearly 1,000 people living with cancer recently found that one in 10 would be unable, or would struggle, to pay their rent or mortgage if they lost £30 a week. How can this Government think it is acceptable to risk cancer patients losing their homes as a result of these cuts? Surely, as has been said by many hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), who spoke articulately and with such passion and principle, it is time to listen to Macmillan, Scope, Sense and Parkinson’s UK, to the many experts who have lined up and to the recommendations of the parliamentary review of the proposed cuts and reverse the removal of the work-related ESA component—and the equivalent payment under universal credit—as proposed by these amendments. It is also surely time for a thorough impact assessment of the proposed changes before they come into effect.
Finally, instead of cutting these life-saving benefits, the Government should, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) has so clearly articulated, put in place much more effective back-to-work support and provide more disability employment advisers to help these people deal properly with the barriers they face. We should not be punishing some of the most vulnerable people in our country—we should be giving them a helping hand.
When I spoke on this matter in this House a week ago, I referred to the issue of the publication of data and the Lords amendments then before us. I recall saying, in answer to an intervention from an Opposition Member, that I felt sure the Minister for Employment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) would be giving an assurance that the Government would be guaranteeing that the sort of data that the Labour party was asking for would be guaranteed and would be published annually. Lo and behold, that is what has happened. She has been absolutely correct in making that concession to the Lords, and the resulting Lords amendments 1B, 1C and 1D are to be welcomed. I hope we can all support them this evening.
On the other Lords amendments, 8B, 8C, 9B and 9C, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) has articulated the parliamentary process. I will not go through any more of those arguments, but it is clearly the fact that this House—the democratically elected House—has quite properly voted on these matters on many occasions. I served on the Bill Committee, along with the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), for many occasions last autumn, and all these issues have been discussed in full and passed by this House.
Rather than the process, what is important to remember is this: everybody, on both sides of this House, wants to do the right thing. This Government have at the heart of their policy the fact that we will ensure that those with long-term illnesses or physical or mental disabilities will get all the help that they need to move closer to work. Of course that is the right approach, and it is the essence of the Government’s policy.
While on the issue, I should say that I am holding a Disability Confident event this Friday in my constituency, with the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), and that shows that with a rounded package of measures, this Government are absolutely committed to helping those who need the most support to get closer to work. It is time to get these measures on the statute book.
The proposal to cut the incomes of people on ESA WRAG by £1,500 is one of the most mean-spirited yet from this Government. The fact that the cut applies only to new claimants, in a little over a year’s time, demonstrates the unease Ministers have about it and their hope—a vain one—that because it applies only to new claimants, somehow people will not notice. The fact is that Ministers are looking for large savings at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable. That was not made clear in the general election campaign; then, the Prime Minister said that disabled people would be protected.
The Minister said that she was going to spend another £100 million on supporting these people. If her scheme was going to work, she would not need to cut this £30 from such people’s weekly income, because she would get the savings as they all moved into work. This is doomed to fail and the Minister knows it. If she was convinced that it was going to work, she would do the impact assessment, because she would be confident of the upshot. She is not doing so, and she is ignoring the very real impact that this will have on the health of the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens.
I am in complete support of my right hon. Friend the Minister and entirely in disagreement with the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), who is a very civilised gentleman. When he said that this was a pseudo-constitutional issue, he could not have been more wrong. This House’s democratic authority is wholly based on financial privilege, which is why, when we reject amendments that engage financial privilege, we give no further reason. Not only is that important to the current Government, but it will be important to the Opposition when they are in government, too. If the House of Lords can challenge the Commons on matters of financial privilege, then the country becomes ungovernable. Those who have the democratic mandate have a right, because of the people whom they represent, to determine issues relating to finance. The other place is increasingly trespassing on that right. The amendment that it passed in lieu decided to give it the right to consider the secondary legislation on a financial matter, which it does not need to do; it has taken it from primary to secondary, upgrading their role on a financial matter. Constitutionally, that is quite wrong. Any Member of this House who thinks that, one day, he may speak from the Treasury Bench Dispatch Box should bear in mind the importance of ensuring that the constitutional norms are maintained.
There are plenty of cameras in this place, but they do not always pick up what is going on across the Chamber. When my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) was speaking, the Minister was engaged in conversation with a person to her immediate left. I am not sure whether that conversation was related to the debate in hand, but they thought it fit to laugh during the debate when the true impact of these cuts on the people who can least afford them was being laid out. Either the Minister was not paying attention to the debate because of disinterest, or she thought that what was being laid out was funny. Either way, she should be ashamed of herself.
The first thing that I did when I was elected to this place in 2010 was to attend a dinner in honour of Alf Morris, the first disabled Minister, to celebrate the passing of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. At that dinner, I sat between Roger Berry, the former MP for Kingswood, and the late Paul Goggins, the former MP for Wythenshawe. Both were excellent Labour disability Ministers, who did a superb job. Also there was William Hague, who brought in the disability living allowance. What that brought home to me was that the only time that real progress is made on disability issues is when there is a spirit of bipartisanship in this Chamber. On this particular issue, that bipartisanship is clearly lacking.
For the past six years—[Interruption.] Will the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) please be quiet? Her behaviour now reminds me why I chose not to vote for her for the Public Accounts Committee. She is showing me no courtesy at all.
For six years now, I have believed that we need to improve our support for those with a disability. There is a crying need for reform. We now have a White Paper. I want us all to engage in the process, not just to sit there. I was proud to stand on a manifesto that promised to halve the disability employment gap. Nothing would upset me more than to think that Opposition Members actively want us to fail in that goal, because they see some sort of short-term political gain. They owe it to their constituents and to the country to help us achieve our goal, and I do not think that some of them want to do that.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have just heard a Government Member pray in aid my right hon. Friend Paul Goggins, who is dead, and try to include him on the Government’s side of the argument. It is terribly wrong to do that.
The cuts to employment and support allowance will make the lives of disabled people harder, the lives of those with mental, cognitive and behavioural difficulties harder, and the lives of those with progressive or fluctuating conditions harder. There are 9,290 people in receipt of employment and support allowance in my borough, Brent. In 2012 one of my constituents was placed in the WRAG group, fit to work—
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of the Lords message, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, 23 February).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83G), That Lords amendments 1B, 1C and 1D be made.
Lords amendment 1B, 1C and 1D agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83G).
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendments 8B and 8C.—(Priti Patel.)
Lords amendment 8B and 8C disagreed to.
Universal credit: limited capability for work element
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendments 9B and 9C.—(Priti Patel.)
Lords amendments 9B and 9C disagreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H), That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments 8B, 8C, 9B and 9C.
That Debbie Abrahams, Neil Gray, Holly Lynch, Guy Opperman, Priti Patel, David Rutley and Helen Whately be members of the Committee;
That Priti Patel be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee;
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Guy Opperman.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.