To move the motion, in a contribution that should not exceed 15 minutes in total—I make this point by way of reminder, as there has been slippage in recent times—I call Mr Neil Gray.
I beg to move,
That this House notes the Government’s plans to reduce the Employment and Support Allowance work-related activity component and the corresponding limited capability for work component in universal credit in April 2017; further notes that this measure will cut the weekly amount received by recipients with long-term health conditions or disabilities by £30 and that these cuts are due to take place before the promised Work and Health programme Green Paper can be considered or implemented; and therefore calls on the Government to use the upcoming Autumn Statement to postpone the cuts to Employment and Support Allowance work-related activity component and the corresponding limited capability for work component in universal credit until appropriate alternative measures to progress the commitment to halve the disability employment gap have been considered, in order to secure support for current and future claimants so that sick and disabled people are supported adequately when they are unable to work.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for accepting my application for this urgent debate today. It was brought to the Committee at short notice and with my added time pressures ahead of the autumn statement, so I am grateful to the Committee. I am grateful also to the MPs from nine parties in this Parliament who supported the motion.
From April 2017, new employment and support allowance claimants who are placed in the work-related activity group will receive £29.05 less than do current ESA WRAG claimants. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 legislated for this cut, and the Government promised
“new funding for additional support to help claimants return to work.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 333.]
This afternoon, I intend to set out why the Government should use the opportunity of the autumn statement, a new Prime Minister, a new Chancellor and a new set of Department for Work and Pensions Ministers to pause the cuts to ESA WRAG and the corresponding universal credit work allowance elements, at least until the new system that they are to propose has been scrutinised and implemented.
I agree with the motion. Does the hon. Gentleman recall, as I do, that the Conservative party manifesto said that the target for increasing employment support for disabled people was to halve the disability employment by 2020, and does he share my dismay that that target has been abandoned?
I sincerely hope that it has not been abandoned and that the Government will continue to work towards it. I will come to that later in my speech.
It is clear to me that it is not Opposition politicians but Government Back Benchers who are most influential in changing the minds of Ministers, especially when those Ministers currently have such a narrow majority, so I am pleased to have the support of at least five Conservative Members for this motion. In their actions in supporting this debate, they are indeed honourable, for it is not an easy thing to go against the current thinking of their party. I am aware that a number of other Conservative Members are expressing their concerns in private, and some have made more public statements of concern, such as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) and the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). I am not standing here today to lambast the Government. I am here to make a cross-party appeal to the Government: please press pause on these cuts.
Today is about this new set of Government Ministers having an opportunity to look at this issue again—to look at the timetable of events that have led us to this point and to look ahead to the impact that these cuts will have on nearly half a million sick and disabled people who have been found unfit for work. Yesterday, I attended an event in Westminster with Disability Agenda Scotland, which is an organisation of six disability charities north of the border. One of the speakers at the event really highlighted for me, and should highlight for us all, why this issue is so important.
John Clarke from Stirling spoke about his experience of trying to enter the employment market. He volunteered for 10 years in a charity shop. He took on all the responsibilities that an employee would be expected to take on. He did cash handling, was customer facing and turned up for his shifts in a timeous fashion at all times. He has been making a very meaningful attempt to find work. John has been trying to find paid employment, using the significant experience that he gained from his time at the shop to progress that, but has failed to do so.
John just happens to have a learning disability and is in receipt of ESA WRAG. He is not financially incentivised to be out of work because he is on ESA WRAG; he is desperate to get a job. He needs his ESA WRAG, because he has additional costs associated with finding work, but John also needs the Government to come forward with that additional package that the Prime Minister talked about yesterday—such as supporting employers, publicising Access to Work more widely and helping employers see that someone like him would be an asset, not a liability, to their workplace.
What is most concerning for me about John’s story is that he has a new volunteering role after moving on from the charity shop, but the jobcentre wants him to stop that so he can come in to carry out job searches. I put it to those on the Treasury Bench today—what is more beneficial to John, not just for his ability to get a job, but for his emotional wellbeing, his self-worth and his feeling of contributing to society?
This is where we come to the crux of the issue, and John summed it up so well. He said, “Everyone has needs and it is important that these needs are met.” That is the starting point from which the UK Government should be working. We cannot escape the fact that part of that need is financial. It is worth remembering that the rationale for paying some claimants more than others was considered by Richard Berthoud in his 1998 report on disability benefits. He found that the primary reason historically was that those who have to live for a long time on social security could not be expected to survive on the very low income available as a temporary measure for a short-term claimant.
Some people may argue that those who currently receive ESA WRAG, like John, will not be affected by the cut, but as people fall in and out of work, with many of those who receive ESA WRAG the subject of fluctuating conditions, they could well be affected. So if John gets a job after April next year, which I hope will happen sooner for him, and if, unfortunately, it does not work out, although obviously I hope it does, John will reapply for ESA, but will receive £30 per week less than he does now. That is a reduction in income of almost a third between what John receives now and what he would receive next year.
This cut will create two tiers of disability support and create an arbitrary cut-off for people to receive a reduced support rate, purely by virtue of their application date. The Scottish Association for Mental Health agrees. It says that this cut could provide a perverse disincentive to work for people with mental health conditions, who make up 49% of ESA WRAG recipients. It says that people who are currently in receipt of ESA may be affected by the forthcoming change in April 2017 if they have been claiming the benefit and move into work before they are well enough to do so.
Why should John’s peers who apply for ESA WRAG next year get two thirds of the support that John gets now and could continue to receive if, sadly, he does not find a job? John just wants a job. He is not incentivised to be out of work because of ESA WRAG payments. Such a suggestion is an insult to John and to the hundreds of thousands of sick or disabled people like him who want to work but struggle to get noticed in the employment market. The Government will add to that frustration and the feeling of rejection by telling them that the £30 a week lifeline is being pulled away because it somehow holds them back.
The payment of a higher rate of ESA WRAG compared to jobseeker’s allowance was supposed to acknowledge the longer time that someone in that position will take to find employment. It was also supposed to acknowledge the additional costs that someone with a long-term illness or disability incurs as they carry out work-related activity. Scope is particularly concerned at this aspect and says that this cut to disability support will have an impact on the financial wellbeing of sick and disabled people, leaving them further from work, not closer. Its research suggests that 49% of disabled people rely on credit cards or loans to pay for everyday items such as food and clothing.
New figures today from the StepChange Debt Charity show that a third of ESA recipients were running a budget deficit, and that figure could rise to over a half if they had a cut to their income, however small that cut. John’s experience shows us that it is not easy to tell ESA WRAG recipients to find work to make up for that cut. He has done everything he can to do that.
This leads me on to the timing issue before us. During the debates on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, the Government at the time said that they would find new funding for additional support to help claimants return to work—new money and a new system, which was included in the work and health programme White Paper, now the Green Paper. I argued then and I repeat now, that the Government cannot cut away this lifeline support before the new system of support is in place, otherwise there will be a vacuum of support from April. ESA WRAG will no longer be available for new or returning clients, but the new system, which the Government hope will do a better job, will also be unavailable.
The Government need to get the horse back in front of the cart. They need to put these cuts on pause, at least until we can see what is coming forward. Their new system is still in Green Paper consultation form. The ESA cuts happen in four months. Even if the new system will be better, we have seen nothing more than consultation proposals, and we do not know when the new system will be implemented.
That view is supported by the Disability Benefits Consortium, which represents 60 disability charities. It has published an open letter today, which is signed by 74 disability charities and other organisations, including Action on Hearing Loss, Age UK, the National Autistic Society, Enable Scotland, Action for ME, Carers UK, the MS Society, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Scope, Mencap, the Royal British Legion, Citizens Advice and dozens of others I wish I had time to mention individually, as they represent health conditions and disabilities that hon. Members’ families, friends and, certainly, constituents will have. Those organisations say that this cut will undermine the Government’s welcome commitment to halve the disability employment gap. Their survey of over 500 disabled people found that seven out of 10 said that ESA cuts will cause their health to suffer. More than a quarter said they sometimes cannot afford to eat on the amount they currently receive from ESA, and nearly half said that this cut will probably mean they will return to work later than they would have done.
The Government predicted that savings of £450 million a year would be realised from these cuts. Just two weeks ago, we saw the welcome publication of the health and work Green Paper, which sets out the options for the Government to create a replacement system. The budget for that for next year is £60 million, rising to £100 million by 2020-21. That does not equate to new money; it does not even match the cuts being made to ESA WRAG—a point echoed by today’s open letter from the charities, which cannot see where the additional support for disabled people to find work will come from, or how it will mitigate the effects of the cut.
There must also be concern on the Treasury Bench after the Supreme Court ruling on the bedroom tax. Letters, which have been published, between the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) highlight the concerns the EHRC has regarding the Government’s impact assessments on these cuts.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Most disabled people I know in my constituency are desperate to work if they can and would give every penny they have to get back into work, but can I just press him on one point? He said at the start of his speech that the only way we will persuade the Government to change their mind is through a Conservative Back-Bench rebellion. That is not going to happen, so can I plead with him to join me in persuading the Scottish Government to use the welfare powers they have to replace ESA for disabled people in Scotland? They have done it with the bedroom tax; let us persuade them to do it with this as well.
Order. I remind the House that interventions must be brief.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am disappointed in the hon. Gentleman. He knows well that ESA has not been devolved, and it is not in the Scottish Government’s competence. I genuinely believe that there is a feeling on the Conservative Benches that the Government can change their mind and that there are workings under way to make that happen, so his pessimism about where the Government might be going is, I hope, unfounded.
Parkinson’s UK points out that the Government’s statutory obligations may not have been met, leaving them open to further legal challenge.
In conclusion, I want today to be a time for reflection for the Government. I want them to reflect on whether they truly believe that people such as John will benefit from this cut without a replacement support system being in place. I want them to listen to those 74 disability charities and other organisations, and to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I want them to pause these cuts, at least until they have delivered what they promised would be a better system. Everyone has needs, and it is important that those needs are met. I hope those are the words ringing in the ears of Ministers today.
Order. I advise the House that, on account of the number of would-be contributors, we need to start with a limit on individual Back-Bench speeches of eight minutes, and we will see how we get on.
I do not think I will be taking the full eight minutes, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and to colleagues on both sides of the House for securing this important and timely debate.
Any welfare-to-work system needs to satisfy four criteria. First, it should support people and families in their times of need. Secondly, it should provide every assistance to people in moving forward and in getting back into work, where that is a realistic objective for them, taking into account their personal circumstances. Thirdly, there should be an underlying theme that work must pay, so that welfare does not become a lifestyle choice. Fourthly, any system must be affordable to the nation as a whole.
The system we have, which has evolved over many years, has, I am afraid, become incredibly complicated. It would be great if we could start with a clean sheet of paper, but I fear that is not possible, given where we are at present. The Government should be commended for taking on the challenge of seeking to reform the system and for not filing it away in the “too difficult” tray. Credit is also due to them for some of their initiatives in this Parliament and the last Parliament: taking the low-paid out of tax altogether, the introduction of the national living wage and the provision of 30 hours of free childcare.
The question today is whether the proposed changes to universal credit and ESA satisfy the four criteria I outlined. I would just like to make three observations as to whether they do or not. First, I would like to look at whether the changes are properly researched, backed up by evidence and supported by impact assessments.
When the Welfare Reform and Work Bill was going through Parliament in the spring, it was made clear to me that reductions in ESA WRAG would be followed by a full consultation on the package of support measures to help the disabled into work. At that time a White Paper was proposed, and we were assured on the Floor of the House that it would be published before the summer recess. In the event, a Green Paper, which is actually very good, was published at the end of last month, and a consultation will now run until 17 February. I say to the Government that it surely makes sense to digest the outcome of that consultation—to get feedback from non-governmental organisations and other groups that have the detailed first-hand knowledge as to what changes we need—before making any radical changes.
There is a concern, as we heard from the hon. Gentleman, that there has not been a full and proper impact assessment on the proposed changes. It has been suggested that the impact assessments published with the original Welfare Reform and Work Bill may fall short of the Government’s statutory obligation to properly analyse policy, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In its report, “MS: Enough—Make welfare make sense” the MS Society has recommended that the Government undertake a full impact assessment of any changes they make to disability benefits.
There is also a concern that what is emerging is a lottery, with some family types being more adversely affected than others. Research has highlighted that two thirds of single-parent families will be hit particularly hard by the work allowance cut and the delay to childcare support.
I move on to my second issue—support for vulnerable groups. Again, there is concern that particular groups are being unfairly hit, and I have in mind those with fluctuating conditions such as Parkinson’s and MS. There is also a worry that it has not been recognised that not every disabled person is able to work. The all-party group on multiple sclerosis, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), has just published a report on support for people with MS in the workplace, and I urge the Government to take on board its three recommendations.
It must always be borne in mind that Parkinson’s and MS are degenerative conditions: people do not get better, there is no cure, and the severity of symptoms fluctuates not just from day to day but, very often, from hour to hour. The consultation on the work capability assessment is to be welcomed, but the feedback I receive, such as that from Waveney Suffolk Help in Multiple Sclerosis—an MS support group I will be with tomorrow—is that more needs to be done.
My third issue is the roll-out of universal credit. The full roll-out of universal credit went live in Waveney on 25 May. While I acknowledge the hard work of Jobcentre Plus and DWP staff on the ground, I have to report that it is not going well. Those in my constituency office are spending most of their days addressing very real problems that people face in having nothing to live on, nothing to pay for food, and no money to pay the rent. The DWP is being helpful in addressing these cases, but I have to question whether it is right to make further changes to universal credit at a time when there are major practical problems in its roll-out.
Is the universal credit that my hon. Friend has in his constituency the full version or the initial straightforward version just for single claimants?
We have the full version being rolled out at the moment.
I am concerned about research showing that people in areas now on universal credit will, as a result of these changes, be significantly worse off than their neighbours and those in other regions who remain within the tax credit regime. Will the Minister address these concerns? Why should the people I represent in Waveney, and indeed those in other areas where universal credit has been rolled out, be unfairly treated in this way? It is a really unfair postcode lottery.
There is also early evidence that those on universal credit are 13% more likely to go into work, and are getting in-work support to help them progress. They will often enter low-paid work and continue to progress, so in some cases the lottery is very beneficial to my hon. Friend’s residents.
I thank my hon. Friend. We are yet to receive those benefits in my area, where universal credit was rolled out only on 25 May, but I am happy to look at that information.
The Government have the time to get this right. They should use the autumn statement to address these concerns, consider targeting support at those who need it most, and pause and consult. If they do those three things, they can get it right.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak on a matter that affects a large number of my constituents.
The latest employment figures show that unemployment in my constituency is twice the national average, but as we know, this forms only a small part of the problem. Both this Government and their predecessor have systematically targeted the most vulnerable in our society. Our welfare state has become a game of numbers and a debate about the bottom line, and once again Members of this House find themselves debating cuts to the incomes of those who can least afford it.
It is clear that for the vast majority of the 693 of my constituents claiming it, universal credit has been nothing short of a punitive disaster. As we sit here today, we all know of constituents across the country who struggle to choose between heating and eating, and where actually living takes second preference to just surviving. This Government’s answer to that is to take another £30 from those who most need it, many of whom suffer from often debilitating disabilities. If only Conservative Members had the same levels of compassion for those living on the breadline as they do for those whose wealth knows no bounds and for whom they strive to gain tax cuts.
Gateshead has rising unemployment and rising under-employment. A lot of my constituents who are lucky enough to be in work are often working many fewer hours than they would like to, with little or no job security. We all have constituents who are living in the most terrible circumstances. My office deals daily with individuals who are suffering at the hands of a Victorian regime of sanctions and bureaucracy, dreadful administration and, I am afraid, Kafkaesque hoops through which they are expected to jump in order to claim their entitlements.
I would like to focus on one individual who really highlights the extent to which the safety net of social security has become a trap. Simon Westlake is a young lad who, because of family issues, moved to Gateshead from London, not very far from this place. He had a job working at a local supermarket, paying his way, renting a flat in Gateshead and contributing to the local community. Unfortunately, he was made redundant in February 2016.
Universal credit has been operating in Gateshead for about 18 months, so Simon reported to the local jobcentre—which has since been closed by the DWP despite an increase in those needing to use its services—to apply for universal credit. In total, Simon made nearly 10 applications, week after week, on the computers in the jobcentre, each time hoping that he would receive enough money to enable him to feed himself.
Seven weeks passed and still nothing, so Simon returned to the jobcentre, where an adviser watched him go through the online application and saw that nothing happened: no error message, no refusal, but more importantly, no claim lodged with the DWP. This lady kindly wrote a supporting letter for Simon, stating what she had witnessed, and lodged his claim over the phone—something that is very rare for the ordinary constituent.
Simon began receiving universal credit in June 2016, nearly four months after his initial application. In the meantime he had been evicted from his flat, threatened with violence by the landlord due to unpaid rent, and pursued by various utility companies and the local authority for unpaid bills. Simon was living in temporary accommodation in Gateshead, and I am afraid to say that, for a period, he was sleeping wrapped in a curtain and only able to feed himself by warming tins of soup with a tealight.
We in this House are often accused of being out of touch and living in a political bubble, but Conservative Members often do not seem interested. There are constituents in the same predicament as Simon in all our constituencies, and they need help urgently.
Simon contacted my office because the DWP had refused to backdate his universal credit to the date in February when he first applied. Despite my personal intervention, the DWP required evidence from Simon that he was in the jobcentre making online claims when he claimed to have done so. The only problem was that that jobcentre had been closed. He did not know where the staff were. He could not prove to the DWP, and the DWP could not explain to him how he was meant to prove, that he had been there in a now closed jobcentre. This would be an absolute scandal in itself, but Simon is not alone.
My question is this: how can Conservative Members vote for further cuts to a system that is already leaving our constituents living in absolute poverty, utterly destitute? Welfare recipients and would-be recipients in this country are already shouldering a very great burden—much greater than many of them can handle. They are citizens but now dismissed as claimants representing a financial cost to a Government who regard them as numbers. The media continue, in a mythological way, to purport that they are all fraudulent claimants, while we leave people who have had a tough break in life, or are suffering from terrible illness, in crisis. This is not right. These further cuts are nothing more than a penalty for becoming ill or losing one’s job.
We live in 2016. We are paid well to serve our constituents. I do not know how Conservative Members can put their constituents through the torment of further cuts in the name of unnecessary levels of austerity. I am sure that all Opposition Members can relate to Simon. For the sake of his story alone, these cuts must be opposed.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for introducing this debate and for assembling here a large number of right hon. and hon. Members.
My father became disabled when I was two weeks old, when he was 34. He worked for the rest of his working life until he was 65. It was only after he died that I found that at one point he had had to consider emigrating to Australia in order to get work, but thanks to the foresightedness of a church in Highbury in Islington—he was a vicar—he was able to work in the United Kingdom. Throughout my childhood, as we were growing up, we saw the gradual improvement of the situation for disabled people in this country. I pay tribute to Governments of all colours over the past 50 years for that, because it has been incredibly important. I saw, for instance, the significant improvement that Motability made to his life and his ability to do his work—he benefited from the scheme from its introduction. That is why I believe that the motion should be supported and that the cuts to the work-related component in both ESA and universal credit should be paused and reconsidered.
The Government’s argument, which I understand, is that they wish everybody in the work-related activity group to return to work as soon as possible, and they intend to put in money to support and assist them in that process. Three assumptions underline that argument. The first is that the cost of living for those on ESA is pretty much the same as that for those on jobseeker’s allowance; in other words, it covers basic living costs. The second assumption is that any additional costs relating to sickness or disability can be covered by the personal independence payment. The third is that people will not receive ESA for very long, because they will get back into work.
On the face of it, one can assume that those assumptions are well meaning, but I would challenge all three of them. On the cost of living, those in the WRAG tend to have mental health conditions, cancer or musculoskeletal conditions, and they are often housebound for long periods. That means that they face an additional cost for heating, because they are not able to go out searching for work all the time. Macmillan says that 28% of cancer sufferers say that they cannot keep their homes adequately warm. They also face an additional cost for food: some of the diets involved are expensive and there is no particular help available. There is also the cost of transport, as people go frequently to hospital and doctors’ appointments.
The argument has been put to me that those costs could be covered by PIP, but fewer than half of those in the WRAG are eligible for and claim PIP. In any case, PIP covers mobility and care costs; it does not cover heating or dietary costs.
The final assumption, which is understandable, is that those in the WRAG will be able to return to work relatively soon, but that is not borne out by the facts. People tend to be in the WRAG for an average of two years, while the figure for JSA is six months. JSA is set at a level that assumes that people will be on it for only a few months, and it is very difficult to see how people can continue at that level without in the end getting into considerable debt. It seems to me that the assumptions, understandably made by the Government, do not hold up.
The hon. Gentleman will recall the commitment that was made to increase support for disabled people to get into work as a quid pro quo for the benefit cut. Does he agree, however, that it appears that the Government now propose to spend less on employment support for disabled people than has been spent on the failed Work programme? Surely they should be spending more, not less.
I am not clear on the figures, but what I do know is that the Government are committed to providing support to people to get into work. That is absolutely vital, but I do not think it is a substitute for the additional financial help that has been given until now.
I welcome the Green Paper and the Government’s work on it. I welcome the work that my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) did on it, and the work of my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, who is in her place, and everyone else at the Department for Work and Pensions. The excellent paper covers joint supporting, the promotion of mental and physical health, and occupational health support. I want all those things to be put in place, because I know that they will be of great benefit to many of my constituents. The Green Paper does not, however, cover the question of costs, and that is why I support the motion.
I want to make some constructive proposals for the Government to consider. I want them to consider modifying or postponing the changes while the proposals are consulted on and put into practice. Let us see them work: let us see people get into work more quickly before we actually remove the additional support. Let us also consider maintaining an element of support above JSA, specifically to cover the particular costs that people face, especially if they have been on the standard rate of ESA, as they will have been for a short period. It should not be indeterminate and indefinite. A discretionary fund has been used in other areas, so let us consider introducing one that is substantial enough to cover those additional costs for people in the WRAG.
I know that the Minister is listening. She has shown that in her responses to me both privately and publicly. I urge her to continue to listen, particularly to the points made by Members in this debate.
As there is a real chance of Members from all parties reaching agreement today, I will resist the temptation to talk about what I would usually talk about, which is the political ideology behind cuts to the welfare system. Instead, I will concentrate on the unfair implementation of the cuts and the counterproductiveness of removing £29 a week from people in the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance.
Let us remember that many people who are in receipt of ESA are currently unable to work because of poor health—“unable” being the operative word. Although it can be extremely difficult for jobseekers to find jobs, it is more than just difficult—it is often impossible—for those in the WRAG to do so; otherwise, they would not be in the WRAG. They therefore have fewer opportunities to improve their financial situation than someone who is able to actively seek employment. They do not have that potential light at the end of the tunnel. At the very least, their tunnel is a lot longer, because, as has been said, those on ESA tend to be on it for longer than those on JSA. For those on JSA, 60% are off it within six months, whereas the average figure for those on ESA is two to two and half years.
The sum of £73 a week is a shockingly small amount of money for anyone to have to live on. I am sure that we can all agree on that. It is a pittance, but having to live on a pittance for about six months is an entirely different proposition from having to survive on it for about two and a half years. People need the additional £29 a week simply because they have almost no prospect of any increase in their income and there is not an awful lot they can do about it.
The situation is not just unfair; it is also counter-productive. The Government say—in the spirit of consensual politics, I am willing to take them at their word—that the reason they are taking the money away is that people will be more likely to move from the WRAG into employment more quickly. The charity Scope argues that taking the money away will, in fact, take them further from the workplace, and I completely agree.
Being poor is a very time-consuming way of existing. It is a constant juggling act and a battle to stay afloat, and it takes up a lot of emotional and physical energy. For someone in the WRAG who has a disability, whether it is physical or psychological, to have to use up what little energy they have left trying not to go under financially when they are living, long term, on just £73 a week leaves them with very little energy to get well and to get the support they need to get back into the job market. Neither is it difficult to imagine the impact on the self-esteem of the dramatically increasing number—at the moment it stands at 49%—of people on ESA because of mental health problems.
To believe that keeping people on the very lowest income, rather than giving them the additional £29 a week, will help get them off the sick and into work is to believe that people are making themselves ill or swinging the lead in order to access that extra £29 a week. Do we have such little faith in people that we honestly believe that great swathes of those currently in the WRAG would not give anything to be well, to be working and to be able to play a full part in society, and to not be looked down on by others, as is often the case?
That is not what I see, and I represent one of the most deprived constituencies in the UK. I see incredible people in Milton and Ruchazie and in Blackhill and Royston—right across Glasgow North East—who, even when they have next to nothing themselves, keep giving to and sharing with others in their communities, because they are good people in an area with very high levels of health-related unemployment.
Davy in Possilpark has a disability. He walks with a stick, sometimes struggles to breathe and is in the WRAG. But when he is up to it, he spends his time voluntarily helping very many other people in his community. He could not possibly have a job right now, as he is just not well enough often enough, but he can sit down with others, for example, in the local men’s support group that he is a member of, to just listen and advise. He does that as often as he can. Davy told me that despite having that extra £29 a week he feels like a failure, because he still cannot afford to buy his granddaughter a decent Christmas present. That man is no failure, but does anybody here seriously believe that Davy likes feeling like a failure and that he would not give anything to replace his life with the one he once had, when he had his health and his job, and he was earning enough money to buy that wee girl a present that would have made her eyes light up? Does anybody honestly believe that his precious granddaughter is not motivation enough to get well and back into work?
My concern is that although every Member in here may well be thinking that they can empathise with Davy, some may also be thinking, “ It is not the Davys from Possilpark of the world we’re trying to sort out here, it’s the others.” I am anything but naive, and I can tell Members that Davy may be an exceptional man, and he is, but he is no exception to the rule. Those “others”, like Davy, would also rather be working, and an extra £29 a week will not stop them doing it, when they are able to. Removing that £29 a week will, however, make getting well and getting into the workforce much, much harder, and I appeal to the Government to please think again.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, although I have a feeling of déjà vu, as I was talking about this subject only yesterday—no wonder “Groundhog Day” is one of my favourite films. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for his proactive work in this area. When I was a Minister, I enjoyed engaging with him on a number of occasions. He always brought forward real experience and practical suggestions to challenge the Government and hold them to account in this important area. It is also good to see so many Members in the Chamber, on both sides of the House, to engage in this debate—it is a credit to them. That is important, because the Department has excellent Ministers who genuinely do listen, engage, act and influence the direction of policy.
I wish briefly to talk about the background to the current position. Yesterday I talked a lot about universal credit and less about the ESA WRAG, but today I will flip that around. The Government have introduced the national living wage, which has helped 2.75 million of our lowest earners, and we hope that it will rise to more than £9 an hour by 2020. We have increased the personal allowance from £6,495 to £11,000, taking the lowest 3.2 million earners out of paying any income tax. This country has the strongest economic growth of any developed economy, which is delivering record employment, with yesterday’s figures showing another 461,000 people entering work. We have also seen 590,000 more disabled people in work in the past three years—an increase of about 4%—although there is still much further to go.
I mentioned this yesterday, but let me remind the hon. Gentleman of the press release issued in his name by the Department for Work and Pensions on 29 June last year, which stated:
“The Government…aims to halve the gap between the disabled employment rate and the overall employment rate by 2020.”
Is he dismayed, as I am, that that commitment—he made the promise in good faith, I am sure—to a 2020 deadline has been abandoned by his successor?
I predicted that that intervention was coming, and it is an important point. The pledge was incredibly popular with stakeholders and focused officials’ minds. When I was a Minister, a lot of my work involved lobbying other Departments, so it was helpful when I was able to namecheck the then Prime Minister, as this was his personal pledge. I do not actually recall that press release, as my understanding was that we had not set the date because that was going to be determined in the Green Paper. Personally, I wanted to see significant progress year on year.
One problem with just adopting the approach in the pledge is that the number of disabled people in work could remain static yet in a recession the overall number of people in work could fall, meaning that the gap would close without any more disabled people benefiting. I wanted to set a target such as having 1 million more people in work by a certain date, which would mean that we would know that 1 million more disabled people had benefited. We were due to consult on that as part of the Green Paper process when I was in my ministerial role.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a single target can be a crude measure, so would it not have been sensible to have had two targets: to halve the disability employment gap by 2020, as the Department appeared to be committed to doing last year; and a numerical target? Does he think the new ministerial team might consider that suggestion?
I think that is twice as good as the current plans—it is a brilliant suggestion. All these targets focus minds, and this one made a difference in terms of pushing. That was a lot of what we had to do. We did not necessarily have all the levers ourselves, so having that target to focus minds makes a significant difference.
Wages have increased by 2.3% this year against the backdrop of an inflation rate of 0.9%—that fell again this week, helping people. We have also extended childcare. Let me briefly talk about universal credit, which will make a significant difference.
When the hon. Gentleman talks about rising incomes and wages, the implication is that more people in work will benefit, but as a result of the collapse in the value of sterling, the Bank of England predicts a 10% fall in real incomes over the next three years.
We are awash with predictions from experts, as we have been since the middle of the referendum campaign. So-called experts predicted that inflation would spike this week, but we saw it fall. We will see what happens. Good Governments keep a close eye on these things and act accordingly.
We are still some way away from the full roll-out of universal credit, but our aspiration and the difference that this will make for people are significant, because through universal credit people will have a named work coach. The hon. Members for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) and for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) highlighted some examples of people’s experiences, and we have all encountered difficult cases in which the system has failed. One key advantage of the full roll-out of universal credit is that every claimant will have a personal, named coach who will stay with them. The job of the coach is not only to help people to get into work, but to navigate all the challenges they face when dealing with complex benefits. If the system does not support claimants in the way it should, the coach will help them to address that. People will not have to rely on going to their Member of Parliament, councillors or local citizens advice bureau, and that will make a significant difference.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but my constituent was unable to get any backdating and was left destitute. The Department’s behaviour was outrageous, and I am sorry to say that all I can see is a cost-cutting exercise.
I do not recognise this as a cost-cutting exercise, but without knowing all the details, it is difficult to comment. I hope that the ministerial team will look at this, meet the hon. Gentleman and find out whether there are lessons to be learned.
These coaches will also signpost where training is available to enhance people’s hopes of getting into work or progressing in work. Obviously, the traditional job-searching work will be done and, for the first time, these coaches will also provide support for people as they go into work. A lot of people coming off benefits will go into relatively or very low-paid work and will not necessarily have the confidence or skills to push themselves forward to get roles with higher wages. For the first time, these coaches will keep in touch with those people and say, for example, “You have turned up for work for three months; why don’t you now try to go for a supervisor role or increase your hours?”
Crucially, for people with fluctuating health conditions the benefit is in real time, so if people can work fewer hours one week than another, they will have a minimum income. The process goes from there, so if they do more hours, the income increases. This system removes the 16-hour cliff edge that was preventing people from benefiting.
Today’s debate is predominantly about ESA WRAG. Before I comment about that, I pay tribute, as I did yesterday, to the fantastic work of the staff in jobcentres, support groups such the Shaw Trust and Pluss, and the many local charities and national charities that provide support. They do a huge amount of brilliant work and often go unrecognised. ESA has had so many reviews and changes, yet still only 1% of people come off the benefit every month. That cannot be described as doing anything other than failing the people who are on it. A number of speakers highlighted the fact that people are typically on ESA for two years, whereas someone on JSA would expect to get into work much sooner. Bizarrely, people on JSA, who are closer to the jobs market, would get 710 minutes of professional support, whereas those on ESA, who are recognised as further away from the jobs market, would get only 105 minutes of that support. Some of the changes that are being introduced will equalise the position. It is crucial that we identify what people can do, not what they cannot do.
We are all different, and we all have challenges in our lives. Some people have more challenges than others, but most have an opportunity with the right support. The Green Paper is welcome, because it highlights the significance of that “can do” approach. We have to offer personalised and tailored support to give everybody an opportunity. Crucially, the major charities, including Scope, Leonard Cheshire Disability, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the National Autistic Society and Mencap, as well as many other charities, right down to the smaller ones, will be contributing to the development and delivery of this policy. They will make a big difference.
I agree that those charities are very welcoming of the new Green Paper, but does my hon. Friend agree that they are still consistent in saying with one voice that the cuts to the ESA WRAG are wrong, and that they are not replaced in the Green Paper?
When I was a Minister, I was challenged on a whole host of issues, and that is what the charities are there to do. I feel that the extra support makes this approach worthwhile because only 1% of people are coming off that benefit. When people on ESA are surveyed, and when we talk to them in our constituencies, we find that the overwhelming majority are desperate to be given an opportunity to work.
I am running out of time, so I will try to wrap up. I have only two minutes left.
The Green Paper includes proposals for more personalised and tailored support, as well as quicker assessments. That is particularly important because 50% of people on ESA have a mental health condition, but typically wait nine months for an assessment. The Green Paper will address that by making sure that people are assessed quickly and given support before they navigate often difficult personal challenges when they take the step back into work.
There will be a place on the work and health programme or Work Choice for those who wish to take it—it is a voluntary opportunity. There will be additional places on the very popular specialist employment support programme. There will be job clubs run by peers—people with disabilities who have gone through the system and overcome their fear at the thought of going back into the process. That is often a big fear for people who have been out of work for a long time. There will be 200 new community partners; again, this is about utilising disability expertise. There will be increased access to work for young people with mental health conditions. There are further opportunities through the Disability Confident campaign.
My personal favourite, which I continue to champion, is the small employer offer. Time and time again, employers say to us, “We have skills gaps and we are struggling to find people to fill these roles,” but they have never thought to take on somebody with a disability because they lack the confidence to do so and do not realise that a huge amount of support is provided to help people to come into the workplace. Businesses that take that step benefit, more often than not, and I say that as a former employer who employed disabled people and benefited from doing so. I hope that the current small employer pilot will be expanded and will become a nationwide offer. It is making a significant difference.
The Chancellor was right to increase significantly the funding for Access to Work. On the fit for work scheme, we need to ensure that we provide advice at the beginning of a potential problem for people in work, not just at four weeks, because it is so much easier to keep people in work with suitable support than it is to get them back into work after they have dropped out. We have a fantastic ministerial team who are engaging with charities, with all their experience and knowledge, and the Green Paper represents a real opportunity.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). I pay tribute to him for his work and the commitment that he showed when he was the Minister for Disabled People. I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and thank him for introducing the debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee and its Chair for making time for this debate.
I join colleagues in expressing our deep concern about these cuts, which are based on several misconceptions and the effect of which will be cruel and perverse. Everybody wants disabled people and those with long-term health problems who can work to do so, and to have the support to do so. Everyone agrees that those people face additional barriers and may need that additional help.
As we have heard, the Government have published a Green Paper that makes a number of welcome proposals for improving that support for disabled people. I welcome in particular the replacement of the disastrous Work programme with personalised, tailor-made support for disabled people. I welcome the introduction of specialist work coaches, who will support the disability employment advisers in jobcentres, but I regret the fact that the number of disability employment advisers was reduced under the coalition Government. I welcome, too, the introduction of the health and work conversations, although it is a pity that they had to come in several years after the coalition Government prematurely scrapped Labour’s work-focused health-related assessments.
All those additional measures of support are proposed in the Green Paper, but it is none the less surely perverse to cut benefits for disabled people before the support is in place. There is no evidence at all that cutting financial support makes people more likely to move into work. Indeed, investigation by our colleagues in the House of Lords, Lord Low and the Baronesses Meacher and Grey-Thompson, has shown that the opposite is the case. They point out that it becomes more difficult when financial resources are reduced for disabled people to afford training and to undertake volunteering opportunities or work experience that could help them to move towards work. The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research in 2011 confirmed that cutting benefit for those who are unable to work because of illness does not result in more people moving towards work because it does not address the barriers they face—their health, employer attitudes, availability of suitable jobs, lack of reasonable adjustments or skills gaps—which the Government’s Green Paper acknowledges and seeks to address.
Ministers have said, particularly during proceedings last year on the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, that an additional £30 a week of benefit disincentivises disabled people from working. There is no evidence at all for that. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts pointed out, removing the £30 of additional support creates perverse incentives. If someone leaves the ESA to try to find work and they find that it does not work for them, after April 2017, when they reapply for benefit, they will be treated as a new claimant. They will not be able to retain the protection of the additional £30, which existing claimants will retain. Other people are likely to move from the ESA WRAG into the support group, where they will not be expected to look for work at all.
The proposals fail to recognise the nature and purpose of ESA for those in the WRAG. It is an income replacement benefit, in recognition of the fact that those in the WRAG have undergone a work capability assessment that has found that they are currently not fit for work. Employers, in many cases, would not have them in the workplace. Those employers would say that it was not safe to do so. In such circumstances, by definition, an individual cannot derive income from earnings, hence the need for the income replacement benefit. As we have heard several times this afternoon, because of the longer journey to return to work that people with disabilities and health conditions experience, there is a need for additional financial support and a higher rate of benefit.
I would like to say little bit about the support in universal credit for those with limited capability for work. Those people are set to lose out even if they are in work. At the moment, the limited capability for work element and the additional support through the disabled person’s work allowance in universal credit are roughly comparable to the support in tax credits for disabled people working 16 hours a week. If those in work on universal credit lose additional support, they will be substantially worse off than those on tax credits. That is surely a perverse outcome of these cuts that Ministers will want to address.
All such perverse outcomes might have been avoided and the policy improved if an equalities impact assessment had been properly carried out at the time of parliamentary proceedings on the legislation. As we have heard, the Equality and Human Rights Commission offered help with such an assessment and set out a methodology for carrying it out. Regrettably, that suggestion was rejected by the then Government.
Did the EHRC not offer to do that assessment for free? I seem to remember that it did, such was its wish to contribute.
I do not know whether the EHRC offered to do the assessment at no cost, but it certainly set out a substantial and detailed methodology by which the assessment could be carried out. Further, when the Government produced their own rather thin analysis, the EHRC was very clear that it was unsupported by evidence and that it was insufficient.
We now have the Green Paper, which has some welcome proposals and a welcome ambition to halve the disability employment gap, although as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) pointed out, we do not know when that goal is to be reached. I hope that the Minister will consider the suggestion, which I think the hon. Member for North Swindon supports, that we should consider more than one measure of success in assessing disability employment.
I must tell the Minister that, for all the good in the Green Paper, her proposals will be seriously undermined if she proceeds with the current cut before the proposals have had a chance to take effect. There is no justification for making sick and disabled people poorer. It will not help them to recover, and it will not help them to find work. Disability charities, Opposition MPs and, indeed, MPs from the Minister’s own party have all expressed their deep disquiet about the proposals. It is not too late to think again, to call a pause on this cut and to ensure that disabled people receive the financial support to enable them both to maintain a decent standard and quality of living and, where they can, to have the wherewithal to look for work, prepare for work and take the steps on the journey back to work that so many of them are desperate to make.
As all speakers have done so far today, I thank the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for bringing this debate to the House. I am glad that Members on both sides of the House are contributing to this debate, which is such an important one.
When I look back at my first year as an MP, I cannot think of a vote that has been so regretted by my colleagues on the Government Benches. I remember the pressure we all felt at the end of February, when the ESA WRAG element of welfare reform was being batted between this House and the Lords. I remember the feeling of desperation when this House sent it back. I abstained in the vote as a plea to the Government to rethink their decision, knowing the Lords would have one more opportunity to convince the Government, too. The Lords stuck to its guns and sent it back one more time, and I remember the relief when it did.
As a new MP, I was still trying to understand how the relationship between the two Houses worked, but I was exhilarated that the House of Lords was willing us on and watching and nudging us like a parent, hoping we would finally do the right thing. However, that sense of optimism was short-lived, as we failed in this House on the Bill’s final return. So few of us on the Government side voted with the Lords on its amendment, because many believed a White Paper was imminent and would describe what alternative support would be made available, and there was a promise of some £l00 million. However, the White Paper never came and the money never came, and I know that some of my colleagues have regretted their vote ever since.
My hon. Friend is making some very important points. Does she agree that Members who supported, as I did, the Government changes to the ESA in March did so on the absolute understanding that there would, in parallel, be appropriate support for people getting into work? Although the Green Paper is laudable, it will not be implemented in time, and therefore the ESA changes have to be delayed.
Absolutely. I could not have put it more succinctly myself. It was because of that promise and guarantee that Members opted to support the Government, but, unfortunately, that has not yet been fulfilled.
Most heartbreakingly of all, the Lords was not asking for much. It was not so naive as not to accept that the ESA system needed reform, as it so clearly does. The announcement from our new Secretary of State that the whole work capability assessment process will be reviewed is very welcome. I sense this is a precious opportunity, and our disability charities, which have been invited to do so, are poised and eager to contribute to the review. I know that we will do better. I am confident that my Government will do better. The Green Paper is the first step in this process, and charities have welcomed it. With charities, as well as organisations such the Conservative Disability Group, for which I am the parliamentary link, the expertise exists to help us. I am so encouraged by the opportunities that lie ahead, and I sense transformation is possible.
However, my discomfort—this was expressed by the Lords when we last debated this issue—is about having agreed the proposals for new support before we took away the extra £30 per week for those in the ESA WRAG, individuals recovering from significant illness who are slowly transitioning to work. The Government’s argument was that the WRAG support was not doing its job, with individuals sometimes on it for up to two years. The Government concluded there was some perverse financial incentive for people to stay in that group. I say now, as I said at the time, that the fact that people are stuck in the group says more about the failure of DWP processes than about claimants’ active choices. People in that group do not have an easy time. They must demonstrate an appetite to transition towards work, and they can be sanctioned if they do not do so. I still maintain that anyone who has beaten a significant illness is desperate to get back to normal and to get their life back.
The Lords back in February and March, many of us in this House then and many of us today are just asking for a pause. What harm could it possibly do to the Government’s plans or reputation if we were to pause these cuts until an alternative support plan was agreed? Moreover, I passionately believe that it is the sensible and moral thing to do. Would we still be having this debate, would it still be the first thing on the lips of every health and disability charity and would MPs still talk of their regret if we had made the right decision last time around?
I have a guiding principle in life: we should always listen to the loudest voice in our head. We may choose to ignore it, or try and drown it out with distractions and alternative arguments, but we know it is there. In fact, we can sometimes see it when we look in the mirror. I think that we all know what that voice is saying: let us just pause these cuts. The £30—I repeat, £30—represents 29% of the weekly income of some 500,000 people, which is big money for relatively few people. Let us just pause. The risk of damage is high, and the financial cost of pausing is low.
What kind of Government do we want to be? If we want to be a unity Government, rallying and rejoining the nation after the splits caused by Brexit, how will we explain such a vision to two cancer sufferers—I picture them sitting side by side in hospital to have chemotherapy —who are receiving different levels of welfare support, because one was a claimant pre-April 2017 and one became a claimant just afterwards? If we are saying that we will continue to make the payment to those already on it, that must mean we acknowledge that the benefit has some value.
The Green Paper talks about the flexible support fund, which is promising, but it is only £15 million for 2017-18 and 2018-19. The Green Paper suggests that it could be used to buy mentoring or additional support, so could some of it be used to give direct financial support to claimants as well? If ESA WRAG is not the answer, perhaps a boosted support fund, consistently applied by well-trained jobcentre work coaches to provide additional financial support where needed, could be an acceptable alternative. I am open to such a suggestion, and I suspect my colleagues the Opposition Benches would be, too.
If we get the work allowance rates in universal credit right, we could support those transitioning back to work in that way, rather than their facing a cliff edge of having the £30 withdrawn the moment they enter work. That scenario would most definitely keep people away from the workplace, as they would be worried about losing money if they suffered a temporary, but debilitating, health relapse. As I keep saying, the work allowances in universal credit hold the key: because we can set them individually for every type of claimant, universal credit could offer the ultimate flexibility for the disabled and those recovering from poor health. It would offer them reactive, flexible and unwavering support on their entire journey in and out of work. However, for this group of vulnerable claimants, the work allowances need to be higher.
Whether it is a bigger flexible support fund or work allowances in universal credit set at the right level specifically to help those with disabilities or long-term health conditions, let us talk about these options and see whether they hold the answer. We are so close now. With the Green Paper, a new Secretary of State, a new Prime Minister and a new Government, we have a priceless opportunity to build a system that supports and realises the aspirations of people with disabilities and health conditions. That is clearly this Government’s proud and right mission, so let us not waste it by retrospectively fitting policies to savings targets that were agreed in a completely different era.
Like other hon. Members, I commend the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for introducing the debate in the terms he did, and I commend other hon. Members for the way in which they have addressed the issues. Hon. Members have rightly reflected on what the impact will be on a range of their constituents. They have reflected on the questions they have received from a number of policy groups that campaign on behalf of people with disabilities and people with variable conditions. These changes will have a huge and grave impact on those people.
Whenever the Welfare Reform and Work Bill was discussed on its way through the House, several of us, on both sides of the House, specifically opposed clauses 13 and 14 in the original Bill—we are addressing those clauses, particularly clause 13, today—and I pay tribute to those Conservative Back Benchers who expressed concerns and misgivings at the time; some even voted accordingly.
We need to remember that what drove all that was the welfare cap. It was a bit of a flagship for the Government in the last Parliament, but ended up becoming the search engine for more and more cuts. That was recognised even by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). He was almost grinning like a horse chewing thistles when the measures were first brought forward—there could not be enough of them—but then even he began to see that the way in which the welfare cap had become a search engine for the Treasury to find more and more cuts was doing harm and injury to his conception of universal credit, not least in terms of the very measures addressed in the motion of the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts.
Today is our opportunity, ahead of the autumn statement next week, to lay down a marker and say that, given all the developments and circumstances, perhaps we should pause and think whether we have to follow through with this cut. The Government rightly stopped on the tax credits changes, and hon. Members on both sides of the House were rightly seized of the problems connected to those changes. What we are debating today is the longer-term effect—the sting in the tail of those proposals. These longer-term measures are the after-effects that result from that same mind set.
We have a new range of Ministers in different Departments, including the Treasury. They have seen fit to say that they are not bound by the constraints of previous pronouncements, nor even by the terms of previous legislation passed by the same Government. I ask them to find some time and space on these issues.
I hope that at no point will Ministers use the specious argument that they have committed to these changes, have framed them and are bound by them. In particular, I do not ever want to hear Ministers say that one reason why they have to stay on this course is that, unfortunately, there was a legislative consent motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly specifically endorsing the clauses of the Bill that brought the changes in. That legislative consent motion was passed in the Assembly at the hands of Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party as a way of handing direct rule powers back to Westminster—supposedly temporarily—on welfare reform. It dealt not just with the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Act 2015, but referred to the clauses of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill as originally tabled in Westminster. This is our chance to make it clear to the Government that they are not bound by those clauses as originally tabled or passed, but can and should find a new way. I hope that the Government will do that.
I have heard the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work at different events in Parliament speak directly to activist groups and patient groups, and people with disabilities. She has spoken with some heart and sincerity about her hopes for what will come from the Green Paper. Many people have engaged positively with that, as we have heard from Members on both sides of this House. No one is decrying the potential of the Green Paper. But it will mean nothing if we do not put a brake on the cuts that are to come in next year. We cannot pretend that the tyre is only flat at the bottom and say that people will be taking a hit now but good things will come again eventually.
People cannot understand why they have to bear the burden of the cuts now. The Chancellor is now saying that he will not promise to deliver on expenditure and deficit levels on the same terms as his predecessor, and people are hearing understandable questions about quantitative easing. If that is the climate now, and given the scale of quantitative easing that has taken place, people cannot understand why the punitive squeezing has to be of those who will bear the brunt of these cuts—the people for whom other hon. Members have spoken so well and so strongly today.
I hope that the Minister listens to the strength of opinion across the House. I hope she listens to her colleagues, here in the Chamber and in the corridors outside and in other meetings. They are saying that we can find a better way on this and should alter course. We are better than this, we can do better than this and the people we represent need better than this.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I have signed the motion, which represents a cross-party concern and call to the Government. I very much commend the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) not only for securing the debate but for his constructive tone. Some restraint was shown by the Scottish National party in avoiding what the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who is no longer in place, sadly lapsed into, namely seeking to politicise an issue about which there is cross-party concern. When we deal with welfare there is a sad tendency to get into a narrative—one that I wholly reject—about Conservatives not caring for the vulnerable with their austerity cuts. On the right, we then get the narrative that this is all about the workshy. I reject both narratives, which, sadly, can end up weaponising welfare.
Today’s debate is constructive. Reference has been made to bravery on the Conservative side. Frankly, it is not particularly brave to support this motion. But this is not a binary issue. I support the bravery shown by my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) when a Minister, and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) as well. It takes a lot of bravery to reform disability welfare, which had been unreformed for too long. There is bravery on the ministerial Bench as well—it would have been easier not to go down this route. But there was nothing brave about a status quo that left only 1% of the group affected able to get into work.
The people who are really brave are those trying to make ends meet. As we know, people who are disabled have disproportionately higher costs than others. They are trying to travel, or to deal with energy costs. They are trying to do what they all want to do—to get better and get into work. Through no fault of their own, some of them are not able to do so. They are brave. They are the people we care about, and we need to do more for them.
Politics at the moment is a topsy-turvy world. Some may say that it is topsy-turvy for me to be involved in a motion that is predominantly supported by SNP Members; nevertheless, the motion is cross-party. It is a topsy-turvy motion, to the extent that it was drafted before the Green Paper was published. In essence, the issue is topsy-turvy, as has been mentioned, because it would have made so much more sense to have a White Paper before the decision was made on this cut, so that we could see the direction of travel and see what the parallel track of financial and practical support for these claimants would be.
Still, here we are. Some might say that I am being somewhat topsy-turvy in my position on this issue. I voted for the cuts in February. I stand by that vote, and maintain that we can look to a better reformed system. But as I said at the time—and many hon. Friends held the same position:
“I recognise that the WRAG is not fit for purpose, as only 1% are getting into work, but it does have a purpose. It has a purpose for the most vulnerable individuals, for whom the financial element of £30 really matters...As we move towards 2017, with the flow of new applicants, we must do all we can to reassure everyone that we are in the business of reform…I will support the Government tonight, but we must get the White Paper out and show our practical support in meaningful ways before 2017.”—[Official Report, 23 February 2016; Vol. 606, c. 235.]
Today’s motion is about making sure we deliver on that. A considerable number of hon. Friends gave conditional support because we want to ensure that we deliver for those claimants.
I recognise that there has been good progress. The latest employment stats, as has been mentioned, show that 590,000 disabled people are in work. That is much better than three years ago, with an increase of some 4%. However, that still constitutes a scandal of five in 10 disabled people in employment compared with eight in 10 non-disabled people. We must do so much more. Recent announcements from Ministers have been encouraging, not least that yesterday on homeless people and people with mental health illness facing sanctions. The Secretary of State said:
“We want our jobseekers to focus on getting into work and enjoying the dignity and security of a good job.”
Those fine words also need to be applied properly to WRAG claimants. We need to realise the vision in the Green Paper of a new era of joint working between the welfare and health systems. By April, that long-term vision must be a reality for this group of people. It is important and encouraging to provide coaches, the Access to Work and Fit for Work schemes, and personalised integrated support. The Disability Confident scheme is also important, as is removing prejudice where some look to difference and otherness rather than positive diversity. All of that comes together, but we need to do something about the £30. Perhaps one way to deal with it is to look at the flexible support fund as a way of bridging the gap.
We must ensure that, as we move into 2017, financial and practical support is available. The 2013 incarnation of the support fund managed only to assist people with getting job interviews. It must be about much more than that. I want to hear from the Minister that this will be a much more integrated package, which incorporates the vision in the Green Paper. Let us grasp that vision and ensure it becomes a reality. Let us make sure there is local discretion on disability that pulls together practical health and welfare needs, not just a one-size-fits-all approach. The words in the Green Paper need to become a reality for the new WRAG claimants.
I appreciate that the Green Paper has far wider aims, aspirations and objectives. Those of us on the Conservative Benches—we have a good track record, which we can be proud of; we spend more than Labour did when it was in office and will continue to do so, despite the cuts for this group of people—must accept that there is a credibility and confidence gap on how we support the most vulnerable and disabled. We must not lose on this, but recognise that the great approach in the Green Paper can be realised by showing real practical support, particularly as we get to April. The new WRAG claimants will still need that £30 support for travel, heating and so on.
I believe that, as we approach April, the way in which we show our support and care for the vulnerable and disabled is a litmus test for the Green Paper. I look forward to hearing from the Minister today. I will be working with Ministers on how we can ensure practical, integrated support to meet that test and to deliver for this group of people.
We are discussing whether the state can afford to give less than 1% of its citizens, who have been assessed as unfit to work through illness or disability, £30 a week to help them to get through their lives. In one sense, it is a remarkably small amount of money, yet for the people involved it is really quite major. In some cases, it makes a difference of up to a third of the money they subsist on over the course of a week.
I want to deal first with the question introduced by the architects of the policy. It was put about that somehow the existence of more money on employment and support allowance would create a disincentive for the people in that category to seek employment, compared with those on jobseeker’s allowance. It was thought that this extra payment would somehow create a disincentive to their search for work. That argument is possible only if we assume that the needs of people claiming ESA are no different from and no greater than those who claim JSA. I hope that by now the Government are persuaded by the testimony, given by many Members from across the House about individual constituents in this situation, that that is not the case. People on ESA have greater needs and that is why the additional payment is justified.
We know that many people who claim ESA are isolated and vulnerable. Many are temporarily housebound. They spend much more time at home than their able-bodied peers, which means that their household bills are greater. We know that many people have a condition that may suddenly mean they have to get a taxi or may face some extra expense that other people do not face. We also know that some people are using this money to buy medical supplies not available on the NHS for their condition. The extra payment is there to assist people, to help them to cope with the conditions they suffer from while they try to get back into employment. The House really has to recognise that.
It is particularly iniquitous to have some people continue to claim £109 a week, while others in an identical situation who make a fresh claim will be paid less. How, as a matter of public policy, can we justify that? The Government suggest that this will affect only new claimants and that those already on the benefit need not be too concerned. In fact, the people already claiming the benefit are extremely concerned, because the nature of the benefit is such that we are talking about recurrent claims. People need the benefit for a period of time, after which they may have a period of employment before having to rely on the benefit again. Many such people suffer from mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression. In that condition, I cannot think of anything worse than knowing that, were they to take a job offer that does not work out, when they ask the state for help again they will be offered £30 less than the amount they currently receive. That situation will exacerbate the mental illnesses that many people face.
I was impressed yesterday when the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), said that there is not a simple dichotomy of being either fit for work and not receiving benefit, or being unfit for work and receiving benefit. There are lots of shades of grey and nuances. If people are unable to work at all and are in need of permanent support, they are transferred to a support group. The WRAG claimants are trying to get back into the job market. The support they receive is to enable them to get back into employment. Far from incentivising people, I fear that if this cut goes ahead it will drive many people into deeper despair and greater isolation, and make it less likely that they will be able to enter the jobs market. For that reason, I ask the Government to think again.
The Minister is listening intently and I appreciate that. I ask the Government to consider the character of this debate: the language being used and how the arguments are being presented. It is the job of the Government to govern and make decisions, and it is the job of the Opposition to attack those decisions. Such is the rough and tumble of politics. However, I ask the Government to note that in this instance that is not the nature of the debate. Members from across the House have come together to make a heartfelt plea for reconsideration of this particular policy. I am hopeful that we will get some movement. I do not accuse the Department for Work and Pensions of malicious intent towards disabled people. Tomorrow, I will be speaking at a DWP conference in Edinburgh at the Hibernian stadium, which will bring 100 local employers together to try to encourage them to take on people with disabilities and to explain the precise support the Government can give to them as employers. That is a good thing and I welcome the Green Paper, on which we can have a debate and consultation.
What sense does it make to pursue this cut now, introduce it in April and reduce the benefit for potentially 600,000 people, while considering how to improve the situation for the very same group of people? Surely the most sensible thing to do is to press the pause button and to put off any final decision on the level of support that claimants in this particular category receive until after April next year. There would then be the opportunity to look at the other means of support available, consider the consequences of the discussion on the Green Paper and then take a balanced decision. It seems to me that we actually jeopardise and hinder some of the potential improvements by making this cut now.
Somebody once said that when you’re in a hole, stop digging. I appeal to the Government to consider doing exactly that. I also appeal to them again to understand the nature and the tenor of the debate. People from across the House are coming together and trying to build a golden bridge over which the Government can retreat. I urge them to cross that bridge. I promise that if that happens, they will not find people on this side of the House condemning them for making a U-turn. Rather, we will salute them for doing the right thing.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing this important debate, and I welcome its tone, not least because when this change was first proposed, there was such heat and rhetoric that I had to field very many calls from distressed constituents. One in particular stays with me to this day: a father concerned that he was about the lose the benefits associated with supporting his eight-year-old daughter. It is hugely important, therefore, when we speak about such changes, that we be mindful of the people who might be affected by it, so as not to cause undue distress.
This important debate is an opportunity for us to challenge the Government and raise concerns and for the Minister to offer reassurances, particularly on the position of existing claimants and those on reassessment and on the grace period extended to those who move into work. For them, it should not be game over; rather, their support should continue, or they might face too early a challenge. I hope to hear the Minister reassure people in receipt of that benefit.
I welcome the comments made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) about abandoning the ideology that has sadly underpinned this debate. It is not driven by ideology. As we have heard today, there are many Members on both sides of the House who have compassion and want the best for everyone in our country, whatever their position, background or—crucially—disability. As a Member of Parliament with disabled family members, I can say there is nothing more important to me.
Moving into the world of work is a hugely positive step for people, and it brings with it identity, purpose and connection, but when only 1% of claimants are doing so, we must recognise that the system has failed. Whatever the cause, whether it be the assessment or the fact that people should actually be in the support group, one in 100 is simply not good enough.
We need always to remember the bigger aspiration when we are talking about benefits and work. I share the concerns over the changes to ESA. We have heard many speeches from hon. Members expressing those concerns eloquently and movingly, and I would endorse the proposals from my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy).
Work is a hugely positive thing, as has been recognised by Governments of all hues and colours, not least by the previous Labour Government in a DWP report that associated the renewal of work with positive mental health outcomes. I am a member of the all-party group on disability, which has an imminent report containing a host of recommendations not just about reforming support services to help people into work but about the need to reform our attitudes to disability in the workplace.
I welcome the Green Paper, especially for its engagement with disability charities. On the change to the WRAG, I have been contacted by many constituents who share the concerns expressed today, so I am looking forward to some reassurances, and, on the motion, I would support a pause in the implementation of these changes. Equally, however, I am pleased that the Government have already announced new schemes and initiatives, rather than waiting until 2017 to make those changes. I particularly welcome the abolition of the permitted work rules, which will allow ESA claimants to work more than 16 hours a week without the immediate cessation of ESA payments. What more perverse situation is there? The Government have recognised that and responded positively. Likewise, there is the additional funding for access to work, the work and health unit and the discretionary flexible support fund, which will help thousands more people with disabilities to move into work, or at least to begin that journey.
I also recognise, however, that there is far more to do than simply looking to central Government. The all-party group’s report makes several suggestions at a grass-roots level, such as ensuring that disabled entrepreneurs are integrated into local business networks, such as the Federation of Small Businesses and the chambers of commerce. We have an exceptionally active chamber in Eastbourne, and I look forward to discussing further with it what more can be done to enhance employment opportunities for people with disabilities in Eastbourne and Willingdon. Likewise, the BIG Futures event next year, aimed at school leavers, will for the first time have a strong Disability Confident element to it. That is change; that is progress, and I welcome that.
To close, all change is unsettling, but I am looking today for assurances, and I would encourage all those with strong views to contribute to the Green Paper, because we all want to see the right policies that support people with disabilities back into work and ensure that they can enjoy the same life opportunities.
I am glad to be following the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell). I agree with her and other Conservative Members that these cuts should at least be paused. On 27 January, Lord Freud said in the other place:
“we are proposing to recycle some of the money currently spent on cash payments…into practical support”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 January 2016; Vol. 768, c. 1316.]
That was the deal offered to us—there would be a shift from cash payments to practical support. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and others are absolutely right to point out that that practical support will not be in place by next April, so that is a good argument for pausing the cuts.
Not only will the support not be in place next April, but as far as I can see, the Government are not even planning to spend as much on their new programme for supporting ESA claimants into work as they are spending on the Work programme which, as we have heard, has done a hopeless job for people claiming ESA. I thought that the whole point of this benefit cut was to give additional resources to support those people into work, but it appears that the Government are now talking about spending less. The £60 million to £100 million we have heard about is not on top of what is currently being spent; it is instead of what is currently being spent, which seems completely contrary to what we have been assured throughout this process.
In 1998, when I held the Minister’s post, I was responsible for the new deal for disabled people. That was followed by the Pathways to Work programme. On 1 July, the House of Commons Library produced the briefing note “Key Statistics on People with Disabilities in Employment”. It helpfully shows, with a graph, that the disability employment gap fell steadily but substantially from 1998 to 2010. In 2010, the new deal was replaced by the Work programme, and the steady progress on reducing the disability employment gap came to a halt. As the Green Paper candidly acknowledges at paragraph 1.22, there has been no progress in reducing the disability employment gap since 2010. The progress we have heard about from some Conservative Members, particularly the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), has not involved any progress at all in reducing the disability employment gap, which reflects the fact that the Work programme has been so disappointing for this particular group.
I think that the Conservative party recognised that it had a problem, so its manifesto for 2015 to 2020 announced a bold target of halving the disability employment gap. Achieving that by 2020 would be ambitious, because progress would have more than caught up with the rate that was steadily delivered between 1998 and 2010. Ministers said that they would achieve that bold ambition by committing the proceeds of the benefit cut that we are debating today. They told us that the details would be set out in a White Paper.
As the former Secretary of State ruefully observed yesterday, there has still been no White Paper. When launching the Green Paper, the current Secretary of State made this astonishing claim:
“The original commitment in the manifesto did not have an end date”—[Official Report, 31 October 2016; Vol. 616, c. 678.]
If one reads a commitment or a promise in a manifesto for 2015 to 2020, one is entitled to believe that what it says will be achieved will actually be achieved by 2020. The commitment was more explicit than that, because during one of the televised election debates, David Cameron—some of us still remember him—said:
“The gap between the disabled unemployment rate and the unemployment rate for the whole country is still too big. I want to see that cut in half over the next five years.”
He was explicit about that. The press release issued by the hon. Member for North Swindon—he told us that he could not remember it—was also clear that this was going to be done by 2020. That was what everyone in the disability organisations understood.
A month or so ago, I attended the launch, which was hosted by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), of the National Autistic Society document “The autism employment gap”. Let me read what it says:
“The UK Government has made a very welcome pledge to halve the disability employment gap by the end of this Parliament, meaning they have to shift the disability employment rate from 47% to 64%.”
Just last week, the all-party group on multiple sclerosis, which is chaired by the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), published the report “Employment that works”, which referred to
“a 2015 general election manifesto commitment by the Conservative Party to halve the disability employment gap by 2020”.
However, when I asked the new Secretary of State about the timing of the commitment, he replied to me on 31 October, when he launched the Green Paper, that it was “premature” to set a date for achieving this goal. At least the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work in her winding-up speech in yesterday’s debate did not claim that there never was a 2020 target when there clearly was.
To resume progress on reducing the disability employment gap—that reduction was delivered consistently under the new deal from 1998 to 2010—the Government need to resource the process properly, as they promised to do earlier this year. The point of making this cut in ESA was supposed to be that the proceeds would be used for that purpose. The Government simply need to keep the promise that they made to disabled people.
When a clear promise has been made to disabled people, is it really too much to ask that it is delivered? The problem with the Green Paper is not that the ideas in it are bad, as I understand the U-turn of abandoning the Work programme, but while the Government promise to increase the number of disabled employment advisers, that is only back up to the number there were in 2013 —it is no more than that. A clear promise was made in the Conservative party manifesto. It was understood right across the disability organisations, so I ask the Minister to tell us that she is determined to keep it.
I am delighted to speak in this debate, but regret—I think that we would all agree about this—that it is so necessary. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for securing the debate.
As we have just heard, the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, vowed to halve the disability employment gap. At the end of 2015, the employment rate among those living with a disability stood at 46.7% compared with 80.3% for people not living with a disability. According to the Work and Pensions Committee in March 2016, when it launched its inquiry into the previous Prime Minister’s commitment, halving that gap would require getting an additional 1.2 million disabled people into the workplace. However, plans to reduce the employment and support allowance work-related activity component and the corresponding limited capability for work component in universal credit in April 2017 appear to fly in the face of that worthy target set by the previous Prime Minister.
Does the hon. Lady welcome the fact that in the past three years alone, an extra 590,000 disabled people have gone into work? The employment rate for disabled people is now 48%, which is up 4% from when we first came to power?
I welcome all progress in this area, but that does not detract from the commitment made by the previous Prime Minister, which I believe everyone would have supported. Progress is always to be welcomed, but we have not gone far enough and we should still work towards that commitment.
In practical terms, £30 each week will be cut from those with long-term health conditions or disabilities, and as we have repeatedly heard today, this will happen before the work and health programme Green Paper can be considered or implemented. The fact is that reducing sick and disabled people’s financial support to jobseekers’ levels is counter-productive since those in the ESA WRAG will have very low incomes for a long time, because disabled people are much more likely to be out of work for longer. It is extremely important that the Government proceed by using an evidence-based approach, instead of rushing into cuts that will have the opposite outcome from what they and everyone else want.
The Government say that they want to help disabled people into work, but under the limited capability for work element of universal credit, disabled people in work and those looking for work will be negatively affected. Those in work but on low pay will be particularly hard hit. How on earth can that be consistent with the aim of halving the disability employment gap? The truth is that helping disabled people into work means supporting them, and doing so effectively. The proposed measures will push them further and further away from the workplace. Scope claims that a loss of financial support for disabled people will have a detrimental impact on their health and wellbeing, pushing them further away from the workplace. It will also strip away necessary support from those already in work, making it harder for them to retain their place in the world of work.
Some 492,180 disabled people across the UK are reliant—I repeat the word “reliant”, because that is so important—on ESA WRAG. According to the third sector, these people will struggle to live independently and will be pushed further and further into isolation, poverty, hardship and debt. Research by Scope discovered that 49% of disabled people use credit cards or loans to pay for everyday essential items such as clothes or food.
We should spare a thought today for people who are living with conditions such as Parkinson’s. We know that those with fluctuating conditions are not well served when they are placed in the WRAG, because the work capability assessment does not and cannot accurately capture the reality of living with such a condition. That means that ESA claimants with Parkinson’s will be placed in the impossible and demoralising position of being told they are fit for work or should be getting back to work. They are often placed in the WRAG rather than the more appropriate support group.
Does the hon. Lady therefore welcome, as I do, the fact that the Government will take a completely fresh look at the whole way in which the work capability assessments are carried out, so that we can put people into the right support group—or not, as the case may be?
If any part of the social security system needs a fresh look, that would be my first choice, although there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from. At present, people are not well served by work capability assessments.
We have heard protestations today and in the past that no one who is currently receiving ESA and no one with the most severe disabilities will be affected by the forthcoming changes, but they have been categorically refuted by organisations such as the Scottish Association for Mental Health, which has pointed out that those who are currently receiving ESA may well be affected by the changes if they have been claiming the benefit and move into work before they are well enough. They may also be affected if they need to seek support again. People are likely to be deterred from trying out new jobs if the possible outcome is reduced benefit after a short period of employment.
SAMH’s report also points out that 98% of its service users said that their mental health had suffered as a result of welfare reforms. People are already very frightened and worried. Ironically—I want Ministers to reflect on this, because we are trying to build consensus across the House today—the Government’s policies are literally making those who are coping with the daily challenges of a disability ill or, at best, less well. How can that make those in the group that is targeted by these measures more work-ready? In fact, such measures will prolong or exacerbate existing health conditions. Protecting the sick and disabled should be above budget savings. If it is not, what does that say about the kind of society that we are trying to create? What does it say about Government priorities?
I know that there is concern about this issue on both sides of the House. I urge the Minister to note what has been said by Action on Hearing Loss, Capability Scotland, Disability Agenda Scotland, Guide Dogs, the Motor Neurone Disease Association, Parkinson’s UK and a range of members of the Disability Benefits Consortium, and to do the right thing. I urge the Government to use next week’s autumn statement to pause these cuts until appropriate alternative measures to implement the commitment to halve the disability gap have been fully considered, and to do all that they can to secure support for current and future claimants so that sick and disabled people are supported adequately when they are able to work, and also when they are unable to do so.
I urge the Minister to respond positively today, and to remove the shadow that hangs over the lives and futures of too many people throughout the United Kingdom as they fear the future and what the Government appear to be seeking to do. I urge her to do the right thing, and to respond to the debate with compassion and understanding.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on initiating the debate. He has a certain credibility, as he has already raised this issue in the Chamber on several occasions. I welcome the cross-party nature of both the motion and the speeches that we have heard so far. We want to see a Government who care: a Government who protect society, but also protect those who are disabled and vulnerable.
I shall make my speech in a Northern Ireland context. As was mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), my colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party and I voted against the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015 and the Bill that became the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Act 2015 in the House of Commons less than a year ago. Those measures were dealt with in the House because the ruling parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party, voted for a legislative consent motion that locked Northern Ireland into the
“welfare clauses of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill as initially introduced at Westminster”.
That is directly relevant to today’s debate.
The clauses in question covered the insidious £29.05 a week cut in the ESA WRAG component and the corresponding cut in universal credit. Under the previous Chancellor and the previous Work and Pensions Secretary, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), the Government justified the cut by claiming that it would encourage claimants into work by removing financial disincentives.
I have two issues with that. First, there was the thinly veiled suggestion that members of the ESA WRAG needed financial strain to push them into employment. I know many people in that category, some of whom are constituents and some of whom are related to me. The vast majority are actively seeking work and desperate for the independence and fulfilment that a meaningful job can offer. In my previous role as a Northern Ireland Minister dealing with these matters some seven years ago, I came into contact with people in that position. I knew that they desired work because it would give them status, identity and a purpose in life. The barrier that prevents such people from securing employment has been created by the lack of special adjustments and support in the workplace and by discrimination on the part of some employers, not by the absence of a work ethic.
Secondly, not one shred of evidence has been produced, by the Government or by others, to suggest that £29.05 a week in addition to the basic amount acts as a disincentive. Will the Minister please tell us whether she has any evidence to present to the House, or whether she is endorsing the former Chancellor and his predecessor at the suggestion of the Department for Work and Pensions?
Moreover, in a wider context, we should remember that the original taper in universal credit has been gradually eroded, which has reduced the financial gap between benefits and earnings from employment. Universal credit was intended to prevent claimants’ income from dropping sharply as they moved into work, but the cliff is gradually re-emerging as more and more cuts are packaged into it.
The proposed cuts in social security offices in Northern Ireland will lead to their closure, and in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that will remove access from the most vulnerable people, who are periodically unemployed because of their disability. Running in parallel with these proposed cuts is a lack of accessibility to immediate help.
We should remember that the freeze in benefits is itself the biggest cut in the welfare bill. It may not attract the same criticism as blunter cuts, but it has a very real impact on claimants’ living standards. Although the additional amount that the support group receives—currently £36.20 a week—is not subject to a freeze, the basic amount of ESA is. People in the work-related activity group are not just losing nearly £30 a week; they are losing even more from their basic amount, and members of the support group will also suffer a reduction in their overall amount in real terms. This is a slow and creeping means of reducing living standards and piling financial strain on all our constituents with complex health conditions and disabilities who will apply for ESA.
As we approach the week of the autumn statement, I urge the Chancellor—who is not in the Chamber today—to rethink these potential cuts and to reflect on the cross-party nature of the motion, which asks for the autumn statement to provide a pause. We want to develop a society that protects and safeguards those with disabilities, whether they are physical or psychiatric, because the one thing that they desire most in this life is the status and purpose of a job to get up for every day.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie). I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing the debate. It is notable that members of nine parties supported the motion, to which I was pleased to add my name.
It is incredibly disheartening—actually, heart-breaking —that we are having a debate on cuts to support for disabled people in 2016. This should be an issue of consensus in this House, but it has not always been. In a debate on the disability employment gap in June, the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), said:
“There have been times in the past when the House has sought to speak with one voice, and no more so than in the area of disability.”—[Official Report, 8 June 2016; Vol. 611, c. 1265.]
Sometimes, when we have discussed support for disabled people, it has been felt that the Opposition and some of the Government’s own Back-Benchers, alongside civil society, speak a different language from that of the Government. I hope today that the motion serves as an interpreter and we can understand each other and act in concert.
Since the UK Government announced their plans to cut ESA by £30 a week—which will reduce the budgets of the sick and disabled by one third—MPs of all stripes have stood repeatedly and railed against it, and charities have unanimously condemned it, but this Government have so far chosen not to listen. Let us hope today, with so much support in the House, that changes.
We already know that many people who are currently unfit for work are dubiously placed in the ESA work-related activity group and that DWP policies already force WRAG claimants to meet arduous bureaucratic requirements simply to receive the financial support they rely on and deserve. We already know that the UK Government’s welfare reform programme is impacting disproportionately on those living with disabilities and sicknesses and that it impairs their ability to work. We also already know that there is currently absolutely no evidence that these policies of cuts will have a positive impact on moving those in the WRAG group into work. There is no evidence from the Government, despite repeated requests for it to be produced. It is therefore absolutely imperative that the Government pause the implementation of the cuts.
The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), proposed these changes with the aim of ending what he called “the perverse incentives” that
“otherwise discourage claimants from taking steps back to work”.
But this is a different time, a different era, a different Government. The extra £30 a week for ESA recipients is not a luxury above and beyond jobseeker’s allowance; it was intended—and should remain—for the additional costs associated with their condition.
Only last week a UN inquiry found that there had been “grave and systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights under the Government’s welfare reforms. On page 6, the report recommends that social protection systems should address the costs associated with disability. I implore Ministers to read it and act.
Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box to say that they are forced to make “difficult decisions”, but it is not they who bear the brunt of those difficult decisions. It is the Davys mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin): genuine, ambitious, decent folk trapped by illness or disability. But the unfortunate truth is that the Davys of this world are not the exception. Every Member has a Davy and constituents who will be affected.
We must ask ourselves why the Government choose to cut £30 a week from ESA, choose to close Remploy, choose to cut disability employment advisers by 60%, choose to abolish the independent living fund, choose to replace disability living allowance with a far more restrictive PIP assessment criteria and choose to remove Motability from 90,000 disabled people. None of those decisions demonstrates the laudable ambition to cut the disability employment gap in half.
I want this Government to champion social mobility, not contribute to social stagnation and isolation. I want the Government to offer people with disabilities a helping hand, not to kick away their ladder. Today, they have a chance to do that. My constituency, Glasgow East, has a higher than average level of disability, born or acquired. Most people I speak to tell me, if they are able, they want to work. They want support into work. They want to use their considerable talents to contribute to society. They do not want to be objects of pity or to have to constantly fight for dignity.
According to a survey conducted and released last year by the Disability Benefits Consortium, almost one third of people currently on ESA say they cannot afford to eat on the ESA they receive. I know that there are honourable and decent Members on the Government Benches, and I know that it is not Government policy to starve those people into work, so today they can ensure that that is not the unintended consequence of these cuts. If there was ever an opportunity to ditch this punitive aspect of welfare reform, it is now. We have a new Government, a new Prime Minister and a new Secretary of State: this is the time to assert who we are as a society and who they are as a Government. If the Prime Minister wants truly to live up to the spirit and the letter of her words spoken on the steps of Downing Street, when she pledged to build a country that works for all and promised to fight against burning injustice, the Government would scrap their cuts to ESA today. Otherwise, it is a case of “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” and, for that, she will not be forgiven.
It is a privilege to speak in this timely debate about a very serious and concerning matter, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing the debate.
The welfare state has been the jewel in the crown of British politics for over 70 years. The concept was brought to life by a number of Liberal reforms during the first two decades of the 20th century and has been improved upon and matured by successive Labour Governments, starting with Clement Attlee’s Administration following the 1945 general election. The central principle that led to those Acts of Parliament was the delivery of social security—a safety net of the state, there to catch people who are down on their luck and who have experienced trauma in their lives, whether that be illness, accident or unemployment. This right to social security was then enshrined in article 22 of the universal declaration of human rights in 1948. The notion of social security and welfare is not one that the Labour party wishes to monopolise, and we must recognise the symbolic importance of the fact that many aspects of the welfare state have been retained during the tenure of every Government since 1945.
This Conservative Government seem determined to do everything they can to undermine this social contract and undo 70 years of work. Under the guise of austerity, the Tories have taken through the biggest cuts to welfare for 100 years, and since 2010 we have seen an assault on benefits for disabled people, working people and single parents, among others.
The proposed cuts to ESA and universal credit are yet another act to deliberately hurt the working class. The Resolution Foundation has undertaken research that suggests that cuts to universal credit will leave 2.5 million working families, on average, £2,100 worse off. It also estimates that by 2021 the poorest 50% of households will be £375 worse off on average. How can such cuts stand up to the scrutiny of an impact assessment or distributional analysis? They simply cannot, and I urge the Government to honour their word and reintroduce an adequate distributional analysis of their economic approach.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies identifies that the effect of the changes to tax and welfare proposed in the 2015 autumn statement would mean losses 25 times greater for those in the bottom decile than those in the top decile. It also claims that almost 500,000 children will be plunged into absolute poverty by 2020 as a direct result of planned tax and benefit reforms. The Office for Budget Responsibility has confirmed that keeping cuts to the work allowance of universal credit means a £9.6 billion reduction in support for working families over the next five years. That is not quite the
“country that works for everyone”
that the Prime Minister aspires to.
We have already seen the Government backtrack on their cuts to PIP, and we are still to find out how they propose to fill the £4.8 billion black hole of committed spending that it left. The opposition to these cuts is not limited to the Opposition Benches, and we have seen a number of the Government’s own Members voice their concerns, the most important of which was the resignation of the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith)—whose idea universal credit was—because he felt the cuts were going too far. He has most recently called on the Chancellor to cancel the planned tax cuts and to reverse cuts to universal credit.
The concept of an employment and support allowance was based on assessing the difference between those with the hope of recovery and those with a chronic illness. For those people with the aim of becoming well again and returning to work, an amount has been paid on top of what they would have received if they had been on jobseeker’s allowance. This additional amount supports them to undertake work-related activity as a means of transition back to the workplace. There are currently 492,180 disabled people nationally in the employment and support allowance work-related activity group. Should the cuts be implemented, those people will be £30 a week worse off, and equivalent cuts to universal credit will come on top of the £24 billion of support that has already been taken away from disabled people by this Government.
Universal credit was originally designed to ensure work that pays, but cuts to the work allowance will completely undermine that. While I can commend the aim of making work pay, I doubt the ability of universal credit to deliver that. The concept has been flawed from the start, and the Government have been forced to extend its roll-out seven times since March 2013. Cutting the work allowance of universal credit and abolishing the ESA work-related activity benefit will clearly be counterproductive. It is likely to increase the number of long-term unemployed people and penalise sick or disabled people who are trying their best to return to work.
Parkinson’s UK says that,
“the Work Related Activity Group is not comprised of people who are fit and healthy to work. It is made up of people who the Government has found to be currently unable to work due to illness or disability. It is illogical and medically impossible to incentivise a group of people to recover their health by reducing the amount they have to live on”.
I fully support the notion of full employment, but we must recognise that some people need support and time to return to the workplace following illness or disability. Others will not work at all.
In a modern, progressive, compassionate society—which the United Kingdom claims to be—is it not okay to recognise that some people are unfortunately not in a position to work? Instead, we have a Tory Government with a perverse view that our country is made up of scroungers and shirkers who deliberately avoid work, and that the only way to encourage them back to work is to take away the little support they receive to help them on their road to recovery. I have never met anyone who deliberately chooses not to work and not to reap the benefits that work brings. It is for these reasons that I urge the Government to reconsider their irresponsible and pernicious strategy to make cuts to ESA and universal credit, and carefully to consider the impact this will have on sick and disabled people, whose efforts to deal with the trials of life and return to work should be applauded, not ridiculed.
I join other hon. Members in commending my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) not only for securing the debate but for mobilising such a cross-party coalition. I must also commend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), for making notes and being attentive during the debate. There are many Ministers that we could all name who do not do that. I know that she will not give much ground at the end of today’s debate, but I hope that she will take away the feeling of the House on this matter and acknowledge the cross-party view that we should delay the implementation of the cuts to the work-related activity component of the employment and support allowance, at least until we have seen the outcome of the Green Paper.
Interestingly, the underlying reason for a delay has been given to us by the Government themselves. They have implicitly admitted that there is something wrong with the disability payments system for those seeking to get into work. They are looking at the matter again, and we know that the Green Paper consultation period will finish in February. There will then be discussions, and the Government will come back with something after that. All this could take a year or perhaps slightly longer, and we might not see any resolution before the autumn statement of 2017 or possibly in the Budget of 2018. So why change the system now? Why give the civil service more difficulties by changing it now and having to change it again in a year or 18 months’ time? The Government have given us the rationale for a delay.
The hon. Gentleman has talked about timing. I want to be more optimistic and give the Government an opportunity here. They are already responding to suggestions about an integrated approach in the Green Paper. We heard announcements yesterday relating to mental health and to homeless jobseekers facing sanctions. I hope that we can look forward to more announcements before April that will mean that we do not need to pause. Let us remain hopeful that we do not have to wait until April for the vision of the Green Paper to come to fruition.
I am happy to accept that optimistic approach. The hon. Gentleman will possibly have more influence on the Government than I will, and the sooner that happens, the better. In the spirit of this debate, I am trying to be as reasonable as possible in giving the Minister information to take back to the Government.
The most frightening statistic that I have read in recent months relates to the rise in the number of people with disabilities in the adult workforce. The figure is something like 400,000 since 2013, so this is not a diminishing issue; it is a social problem that is rising. I suspect that an awful lot, if not the majority, of those citizens with disabilities are suffering from mental health issues. That is precisely the group that comes in and out of employment. It is the strategic group for which we have to craft a benefits system that will help them through the process and give them the support and encouragement they need to get back into work permanently. This is not just another component of the welfare system; it is a key component for dealing with a growing problem, so again we have to ask the Government to look at the issue and not just to make short-term changes. They need to get the Green Paper through and find a permanent solution.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. He is right to highlight the fact that 50% of the people who go through ESA will have a mental health condition. We should recognise the fact that society is getting better at recognising those with disabilities, which is why we are seeing an increase in the numbers. We also have an ageing population, and 81% of disabilities are related to age.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman, who made an impassioned and elegant speech earlier. Indeed, I am happy to commend the former Prime Minister, who made an impassioned effort to direct the Government to deal with mental health issues. In the light of that, let us not rush into tinkering with the ESA work-related activity component. Let us leave aside these short-term changes until we get a permanent solution on which we can all agree.
The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who is no longer in his place, spoke earlier in the debate. Like me, he represents a constituency in which the full-service roll-out of universal credit has begun. It began in my constituency in March 2016. One of the problems that would emerge if we were to proceed with the ESA work-related activity component cuts, along with ending the eligibility of new claimants under the universal credit regime after April 2017, is that that would create a two-tier system.
Leaving aside the philosophical issues about universal credit, I just want to point out to the Minister that one of the problems is that the full-service roll-out is not working well. This has become the dominant issue in my postbag, with which my constituency office has to deal. With the best will in the world, Jobcentre Plus staff are trying to tackle the problems with the full-service roll-out, but we have had computer problems including constant software bugs and changes. The inability to adjust to the new system has meant that the citizens advice bureaux and the libraries, which are run by the local authority, have been deluged with requests for support by people who are trying to readjust to the universal credit system. Given that the roll-out is not going smoothly, any suggestion that we can suddenly reduce ESA WRAG to the JSA level in April and that it will go through smoothly is wrong. I want to put it on the record that those of us—this has nothing to do with party or opposition to the Government—who are dealing with the full service roll-out know that it is not going well. We should not be changing the way the system works until we know that it is working in a positive way.
There is no one in this House who would not want to see more people with disabilities get back into the workplace, but there is a specific local problem. All the statistics show that we are actually as near to full employment as we are ever going to get. The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) was rather scathing about experts and statistics, but they are all that we have to work with. The latest figures from the November Bank of England inflation report suggest that the jobs market will remain tight over the next three years, so the Government must bear that in mind when considering the prospect of getting large numbers of people with disabilities back into the labour market. If we are to get more people back into work, we will have to work with employers and look much more closely at their response.
If there is any lurking suspicion in Government—I am not saying that there is—that reducing ESA WRAG will force more people back into the labour market, I can tell them that that will not work. If that was ever the approach—I am not saying that it was—not only would it be callous, but it would be ineffective. We have to work with employers to put systems in place to enable and prepare them to take more people with disabilities into the labour market. That is a longer-term problem, which will be not be resolved in April by cutting ESA WRAG.
My final plea to the Minister—she has listened attentively and I thank her for that—is to go back to the Treasury and the DWP and rethink the change. It is only a week until the autumn statement, and those of us with any knowledge about how the Treasury works will know that the midnight oil will be burned this weekend as the final changes are made to whatever will be announced next week. There is still time to rethink these cuts.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for securing this extremely important debate. I want to declare an interest as I worked in learning disability services prior to joining this House and am now chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability.
Since being elected, I have looked deeply into the effects of the Department for Work and Pensions’ assessments, particularly those of people with mental health issues and disabilities. I am sure that many will agree that they are deeply unsuitable. The assessment is inadequate and fails to take a much needed holistic, tailored or specialist approach. We must ensure that we harness people’s potential and assess them fairly. I am sad to say that I have met many disabled constituents who have been unfairly treated by the welfare system. Many have been left with depression in addition to their disabilities. Their problems have been compounded. They experience a sense of hopelessness in the face of changes, often feeling that they have little voice. We must give them that voice in this House.
People whose Motability cars were taken away from outside their front doors have been left without independence and been plunged into dependence. Cuts to disabled people’s benefits are simply unacceptable. If they were morally or socially acceptable, we would not be having this debate. It is unsurprising that so many in this House, from both sides of the Chamber, feel passionately that we should not be taking much needed money away from the most vulnerable in our society. What is surprising is that the UK Government intend to push forward with the changes, which will have a genuinely detrimental effect on people’s lives. I ask the Government to think again.
Make no mistake, a reduction of £1,500 a year in benefits would be absolutely catastrophic for many and will undoubtedly exacerbate poverty among the disabled. It is unacceptable. The Government’s assertion that the work-related activity component acts as a disincentive for people to look for work can only be described as a sweeping statement. There is no evidence whatsoever to back up that claim. Does the Minister genuinely believe that disabled people are more likely to get a job if their benefits are cut? Employers’ attitudes, a lack of understanding, a lack of training and access to job opportunities, a lack of equality in society—those are the real barriers to employment for the disabled. Statistics show that disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed, and that is not linked to supports, which are vital to help people to find employment, make adaptations and remain in employment. The costs for disabled people are much higher and we must acknowledge that.
I was pleased to hold a Disability Confident event in my constituency a few months ago. I was able to speak directly to employers to help them to overcome preconceptions and to provide them with information about the support that they can access to employ people with disabilities. I urge MPs across the House to do the same. This month, I am hosting my constituency’s small business awards and have developed a specific award for inclusive employers. I want to ensure that I support small businesses that provide jobs, and inclusive jobs in particular.
The APPG for disability, which I have the privilege of chairing, will publish a report in the coming weeks on practical measures showing how Government, business, industry and other organisations can help disabled people into work and halve the employment gap. I specifically ask the Minister to commit to meet our cross-party group and to consider the report, which now has the support of seven parties. With the Minister, I recently spoke at a parliamentary event that brought inspirational Paralympians to Westminster and we championed their achievements. We should build on that.
Let us look at support. Let us look at abilities, not disabilities, and at people’s potential and aspirations. Let us look at opportunities for disabled people to start their own business and to overcome hurdles. Let us not lose their skills and value to our economy. Let us turn this debate on its head. We should not be short-sighted and do harm; we should pause these cuts. Let us ensure that the UK is compassionate and a role model in disability support and employment so that others across the world can look up to us in our endeavours.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for setting the scene so well. Right hon. and hon. Members across the Chamber have made marvellous contributions. I have the pleasure of speaking on behalf of the DUP and am happy to have the same attitude as others on the right way forward.
ESA is a complex, complicated benefit with many different aspects. Like many other MPs, I have a full-time member of staff dedicated to working with people to help to calculate their benefits and fill out the confusing, complicated forms. She works some 37.5 hours a week—sometime more in her own time—and always has a waiting list of people to see her. That is how it is in my office, and I suspect it is the same in others. On my constituency days, I also take on the benefits problems, while the admin staff in my office handle the day-to-day queries. A lot of our time is spent trying to help people, which is why today’s debate is so important to my constituents and to me. I watch the struggles that people go through and wonder how these vulnerable and ill people can go through more.
Further to the point about employing full-time caseworkers to deal with the issues that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned, the caseworker I employ is passionate about helping my constituents in Neath, but the toll on him is great, and he is under strain. We are passionate about what we do, but the workers in our offices are passionate about what they do, too, and we must give credit to them.
The hon. Lady is right. Our staff are compassionate on behalf of our constituents—in many cases, they themselves are our constituents—and they understand the issues very well. When it comes to explaining ourselves, let us make sure that that point is highlighted.
This does not only affect our staff. Cuts to legal aid and to organisations such as citizens advice bureaux very often mean that we are picking up issues that really only a lawyer should be dealing with.
Again, that problem will be replicated across all our constituencies. In my constituency, the citizens advice bureaux have reduced their hours, which means that they have reduced their capability to take on tribunals and appeals. We have probably filled that gap. That responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of people not only in my office, but in the offices of other Members in this House. I thank the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady for their contributions, because they have outlined the issues very clearly.
In the summer Budget of 2015, it was announced that the work-related activity component paid to those in the WRAG would be abolished for new claims from April 2017. The equivalent element in universal credit will also be abolished. This means a reduction of £29.05 a week, and aligns the rate of payment with that for those claiming jobseeker’s allowance. It is said that existing claimants will not be affected and that there will be protections for those who move into the WRAG or the universal credit equivalent from the support group. The changes were introduced to
“remove the financial incentives that could otherwise discourage claimants from taking steps back to work.”
As of February 2016, there were some 2.4 million ESA claimants in Great Britain. Of these, 1.5 million were in the support group; some 19% were in the work-related activity group; some 13% were in the assessment phase, awaiting their work capability assessment—how frustrating it must be to wait for that to happen, given the time that it takes—and 3% were in the unknown phase, yet to be allocated to a group. Again, that illustrates the lack of process and the difficulties with time. Many people are in this group. Although the changes apply to new applicants, there will certainly be people that are affected. I understand that the DWP impact assessment says:
“The notional loss to each family is expected to be around £28 a week, which represents around a 10 per cent notional change in net income, presented in 2019/20 prices. Someone moving into work could, by working around 4-5 hours a week at National Living Wage, recoup the notional loss of the Work-Related Activity component or the Limited Capability for Work element.”
Let us focus on what that means. The Government expect those disabled people to find four to five hours’ work elsewhere to fill the gap. For a start, the hours might not be there. What if their disability means that they are not able to do it? With respect, it is just incredible that the Government believe that that could happen.
Let us be serious here: the whole point of ESA is that it is for people who are unwell. There seems to be a presumption by the DWP that working the five hours a week to fill the gap is not an issue, when in fact the 200,000 or so people who are in the WRAG for mental and behavioural issues may not find it such an easy option. Earlier, a Member referred to those with mental health issues. In Northern Ireland, we have many, many people who have depression and other mental health issues, and who suffer greatly every day. Our 30-year conflict has contributed to those problems.
It is fair to say that whenever a Government do something good, we want to congratulate them. The DWP has stopped the renewals of ESA for those who are long-term sick. I am very pleased about that. Many people with brain injuries or who have children with educational and emotional difficulties have come to my office. The court has appointed people to deal with their money, and yet, until now, those people have had to renew their ESA claim every two years. I wrote to my own Department in Northern Ireland about that matter, and I was very pleased to get a response from the Government through the Department and to hear that they are now doing away with that requirement. It is only right that those for whom the court has made appointees should not have to renew their ESA every two years. It is just silly to ask for that.
As an employer, would I hire someone who may be prevented from being reliable because of their documented illness—someone I could not allow to work with customers owing to such issues? Although I would have sympathy, could I run my office like that? The answer is that I could not, and I doubt that the Government could either, so who will employ these people who are being told, “Just work another five hours to make it up.”
Let me be clear: we are not talking about jobseekers, but about people who have a recorded and supported illness. The rationale, while perhaps understandable in other areas, is ridiculous for those who are in this group. There is a reason they are not simply on JSA, and the Government must recognise that.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) referred to the closure of offices, and we are concerned about that as well. We are fighting that together. The campaign is supported by all the parties at every level—council level, MLA level and MP level. Retaining those offices is important. We also should remember the support from the Disability Benefits Consortium. Mencap in Northern Ireland has asked me to express its concerns as well. I am given to understand that there will be
“new funding for additional support to help claimants return to work”.
That has been clarified as £60 million in 2017-18, rising to £100 million in 2020-21. In addition, the Government have announced an extra £15 million per year in 2017-18 and 2018-19 for the Jobcentre Plus Flexible Support Fund to be set aside specifically for those with limited capability for work. Some £43 million has also been allocated to trial ways of providing specialist support for people with common mental health conditions between 2017-18 and 2019-20. I wish to make this plea to the Minister. When we have those staff in place, please, please can we make sure that they have the training, the ability and the quality to respond, because very often, with great respect, they do not have those skills. As the elected representative of my staff, it is frustrating to have people on the phone telling someone that they do not understand what they are about.
My concern is that the seriousness of the illness is not taken into account. It almost feels as though Government are saying, “Yes, yes, I know you’re feeling a trifle under the weather, but come on, old chap, stiffen that upper lip and move on.” That is not possible for those suffering from musculoskeletal problems—there are almost 100,000 in this group. There is no stiff upper lip for them. There are those who cannot know when they will be well enough to work, but they are told to make up the five hours whenever they can. I am sure that my staff would love me to say, “Do your 37.5 hours whenever you feel like it. You can work from 2 am to 7 am if you like.” However, that would not help me to deal with my constituents, my customers or those who need help. There are few places of employment like that, so why can the Government not outline where those five hours at a time can be found? We could go so far as to say that people would have to work only one hour if they could find an employer willing to pay £29 an hour. “Don’t be absurd,” the Government would say, but that would be as easy to find as an employer who would allow someone to work five hours a week whenever they choose, according to their illness.
Instead of cutting benefits, we should focus on improving support for disabled people who need help and on getting them back into work. I know that the Government have made some concessions, and the unemployment figures this week showed that more people who are disabled are in work. That is good news and a move in the right direction. Let us continue in that way.
The Government need to understand the difference between being ill and being unable to find work. In the past month I have had in my office a former ward sister, a former construction worker, a business owner and a social worker, all of whom are now on ESA. I know those people well. They do not want to be on ESA. They are not choosing not to work out of laziness. They were earning £500 a week and are now getting £75, so the Government’s inference in this regard is insulting. More importantly, it is based on a false premise that cannot be allowed to stand. I therefore feel that I have to stand with the proposer of the motion and those who have supported it and say that we are against these Government proposals. I know that the Minister is an understanding lady and I look to her to respond compassionately to the issues that we have raised. I hope her response to today’s debate will be positive and constructive. Let us help our people as we should.
This debate could not be more timely, given that we are a week away from the autumn statement. It speaks volumes that the motion has been supported by Members from nine parties represented in this House. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on his persistence in pursuing this issue and on marshalling such broad cross-party support.
As we have heard, Members on both sides of the House know that it is just not right to cut employment and support allowance for sick and disabled people in the work-related activity group by almost £30 a week. It is just not right to cut the corresponding limited capability for work component for those on universal credit. It is especially not right to press ahead with these punitive cuts, which are due to come into effect for new claimants from next April, when the Government have acknowledged that their efforts to address disability employment have failed to date, and their system of employment support for sick and disabled people of working age has been wholly inadequate.
Earlier this month, the Government finally brought forward their long-awaited Green Paper on the disability employment gap, which I have welcomed and we all hope will initiate comprehensive improvements. We have heard a very different tone from Ministers in recent weeks. There have been serious attempts by senior Ministers to distance themselves from their predecessors, not least with the Prime Minister’s early commitment to a
“country that works for everyone”.
They will be judged by their actions, not their words, and that is precisely why we need to hit the pause button on these cuts to ESA and universal credit that will cause hardship and distress to thousands of people who are not fit for work. The exchanges between the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) and for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) captured this point succinctly when they said that we need to pause to allow the support infrastructure to catch up.
Ministers know that we in the SNP have been deeply critical of the Government’s willingness to allow the most disadvantaged sick and disabled people to bear the brunt of austerity cuts. We will continue to hold them to account for the adverse consequences of their actions—those consequences are already writ large among sick and disabled people in all our communities and constituencies—but I and my colleagues have also tried to be constructive by offering ideas, solutions and better ways forward. We will continue to do that, because it is in everyone’s interest that we get this right.
We should not forget that when these cuts were first announced, the then Chancellor argued that they were intended to remove “perverse incentives” in the system. That point has been made by several hon. Members today. I hope that the new incumbents in the DWP and the Treasury now recognise that taking away necessary financial support from sick and disabled people who have been assessed as unfit for work does not make them get better any more quickly. Quite the reverse: there is a growing body of evidence that poverty exacerbates illness, hinders recovery, and makes it harder for people with long- term conditions to secure and sustain employment.
As we have heard, what is actually perverse is to reduce the resources available for sick and disabled people that enable them to work. I hope the Government will ditch the prejudices and stereotypes that have fed the poor policy decisions of the past, and will listen not only to disabled people and those who represent them, but to MPs on their own Benches who have expressed severe disquiet about the consequences of these cuts.
I am reluctant to break the consensual tone of this debate, but I must respond to the question that the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) asked my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts about whether he thought that the Scottish Government should plug the gap, using new devolved powers in Scotland. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman has not stayed for the rest of the debate, but I suspect that he knows as well as I do that both ESA and universal credit are not areas of devolved competence. They are fully reserved, despite my best efforts last year, when I tabled and spoke to amendments to the Scotland Bill that would have devolved all working-age benefits. Obviously, we failed to win the backing of the House for those proposals.
It is a wee bit rich for Members to oppose the devolution of those powers yet to demand that the Scottish Government plug the gap. The Scottish Government have already committed an extra £20 million for disability employment support, but they cannot be expected to plug every hole in the bucket of poor Westminster policy making. The hon. Gentleman should take a long, hard look to his own conscience and perhaps his own voting record.
As the hon. Lady will remember, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) pointed out that the Scottish Government were able to provide additional support in relation to the bedroom tax, so it has such a power regarding reserved benefits. His question was: would they use that power in relation to this cut?
I thank the hon. Lady for her point, but she should remember that the Scottish Government’s steps to mitigate the bedroom tax have had to be paid for out of money earmarked for our responsibilities in devolved areas. We need to take a responsible approach to make sure that we get this policy right in the long term. We have committed an extra £20 million. I do not know whether she was one of the 20 Labour MPs who marched through the Lobby like the Tories’ little helpers last year to support the fiscal charter on austerity, but as the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) pointed out earlier, we would not even be having this discussion if the Labour party had been the effective Opposition it could be. I urge Labour Members to work with all of us on these Benches to stop the austerity that is hurting disabled people, to rise to the occasion, and to be a better and more effective Opposition.
Let me come back to the main point of the debate. I want to highlight a number of reasons why the cuts to ESA WRAG and the universal credit limited capability for work component are harming people and are counterproductive. The first is that ESA should not be considered an equivalent of jobseekers’ allowance. People in the ESA WRAG are assessed as not fit for work, whereas with jobseekers’ allowance, the clue is in the name. However, the key point is that, for the most part, JSA is a short-term benefit. Most claimants come off it in a matter of weeks or months, so it is not designed to support people over long periods. By contrast, ESA is for people with serious health problems and disabilities. It is designed to cover some of the additional costs associated with serious illness and disability, and it recognises the reality that many claimants are likely to be in receipt of the benefit for a longer period—in over half of cases, for more than two years.
In my part of the world, one of the most obvious additional costs is heating for people who are likely to be at home all day, who might not be able to move about so much and who need to keep warm. People on low incomes already spend a huge proportion of their money on essentials such as energy and food. We know from the debt charities referred to earlier that a large proportion of people on ESA are already in debt, running a domestic budget deficit and living from hand to mouth. They have already experienced substantial real-terms cuts to their incomes due to austerity.
Getting by on a low income for a long time is hard. It entrenches poverty among sick and disabled people, who end up using all their savings and eroding their assets over time. Illness and disability also take a heavy financial toll on wider family members, who often find their own earning potential limited because they are providing unpaid care, and who try to support loved ones out of their own limited financial resources.
The Government are quite right to say that the disability employment gap is unacceptable, but they need to recognise that those disabled people who are in work are more likely to be in low-paid jobs and are at higher risk of in-work poverty. They also often move in and out of work more frequently than those who do not have health problems.
Less has been said in the debate about the parts of the motion relating to universal credit. The disabled worker element of working tax credit, which is due to disappear under the shift to universal credit, is the very component that actually makes work pay for many disabled workers. The loss of the limited capability for work element for everyone except those in the support group means that many working disabled people will be around £1,500 a year worse off. That will make it harder for disabled people to sustain employment, and it actively undermines efforts to support sick and disabled people into work.
The Government have pointed out in the past that these cuts will apply only to new claimants, but the reality is that people with serious fluctuating conditions often move in and out of work. That is particularly true of people with persistent and serious mental health conditions, who make up such a large proportion of the ESA case load. The fluctuations of these and other conditions that change over time are often compounded by fluctuations in the labour market and by the trend towards more temporary, fixed-term employment and zero-hours contracts.
The cuts we are debating actually create significant disincentives for those with fluctuating conditions to move into work, because if they do, they become sick again, and if they try to get back into work too early in their recovery and they relapse, they know they will be back on ESA at a significantly reduced rate. That is punitive and counterproductive.
That is at the heart of why we are calling on the Government to hit the brake on these cuts until they have had time to get their act together on the Green Paper and to come forward with more comprehensive and effective support measures for sick and disabled adults of working age. That has been a consistent refrain from Members this afternoon, who have shared moving testimonies from their constituencies.
Cuts to the already low incomes of sick and disabled people who are not fit for work or who are in precarious, low-paid employment are completely unjustifiable. They will damage the health and wellbeing of ordinary people whose lives are already hard enough because of serious health problems. These cuts will push people into deeper poverty and further away from sustainable employment.
The distress and anger of sick and disabled people can be seen and heard in communities across these islands, and those concerns are articulated clearly in the open letters published today. These people are citizens with rights, citizens with needs and people with a contribution to make. It is time that the Government started listening, and I urge them today to do the right thing.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on calling this timely debate. The fact that he has such a degree of support from across the House cannot be overestimated. The speeches we have heard show the House at its absolute best. We are concerned about the plight facing so many of our constituents and the impact that this additional cut in support will have on them.
Although my party wants the ESA WRAG cuts to be scrapped completely, we will support this motion calling for a postponement until the Government have been able to analyse the consultation from their Green Paper. The same points have been made a number of times: I think that only one speaker generally supported what the Government are doing, while everyone else set out the reasons why their proposals should not go ahead. The key element is that we have only just had the closing date of the Green Paper consultation. I hope that the Minister accepts these points; she will have support from across the House if she does.
Let me re-emphasise some of the points that I made in yesterday’s debate. Half the 13 million people living in poverty are disabled or live with a disabled person. The number of disabled people now living in poverty is 5 million—one in three disabled people. The situation is getting worse after a decade when the problem was in decline. According to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the figures that are officially published are an underestimate. Labour Members are concerned that the Government do not seem to recognise the link between disability and poverty. We know from extensive research that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. Eighty per cent. of that poverty results from the condition or disability that they experience. We have heard moving accounts from Members on both sides of the House, including the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who gave a very eloquent description.
This is happening in the context of what disabled people are already going through; it is not just about social security cuts. The Welfare Reform Act 2012 cut £28 billion from 3.7 million disabled people, and that does not even include the cuts in social care and other health-related public services, such as the number of specialist nurses who might be available for people with a learning disability. I will not say that it is the tip of the iceberg, but it is not the whole story. Yesterday I mentioned research showing that families with a disabled adult or child have been made five times worse off than non-disabled people.
Among a number of measures in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 that the Minister debated extensively with me last year, this is one of the worst. We have already heard about the cut of £1,500 a year affecting nearly half a million disabled people.
This morning I received an email from a constituent who has lost his ESA and has been put on the assessment rate. He suffers from lymphedema, an extremely painful condition that makes him almost unable to walk. He asked what advice I could give him, because the rate that he is now on means that he has to choose on a weekly basis between turning on the heat and eating. What advice should I give him?
I have a constituent with exactly the same condition, and we are going through exactly the same process with the personal independence payment as well as ESA. It is important that my hon. Friend will be representing her constituent. Sixty per cent. of people are successful in the appeals process, which shows how flawed the system is, does it not?
These are people who have been found not fit for work. There is absolutely no evidence that the cut will incentivise people. In fact, the Government’s own research, which was published earlier this year, and the Low report say that it is less likely to help disabled people back into work.
Macmillan Cancer Support has forwarded me details about a woman called Lynn, who said
“When I was ill, I had to give up work for a year. I couldn’t work—the chemotherapy knocked me for six and I just wanted to sleep all day. It was horrendous. I couldn’t pay my mortgage, my council tax. I thought I was going to lose my house. Then I got Employment Support Allowance. If they cut the ESA that would just be absolutely horrendous. I would hate to have had that done to me. Without it, we would have been homeless.”
Members across the House will have similar examples.
I again remind the Minister that the Government’s own data, which were published last year, show how vulnerable people in the group are. They are twice as likely to die as the population as a whole. That proves that incapacity benefit and ESA are good population health indicators. We hear awful language about shirkers and scroungers, but these are sick people who deserve care and support, not humiliation.
I mentioned the work, health and disability Green Paper at the beginning of my contribution. It is out for consultation, and while it seems to include some good measures, I have a number of concerns about it. I am also concerned about the reduction in employment support from £700 million to £130 million. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) said, how on earth will we reduce the disability employment gap with such reductions? The Access to Work programme is inadequate: it serves only 35,000 of the 1.4 million disabled people who are fit and able to work. It is nonsense.
I know that we are pressed for time, but I want to touch on the limited capability to work component of universal credit. It has been suggested that it applies only to new claimants, but everybody will transfer to UC at some stage, so it will affect absolutely everyone.
I also want to reflect on growing evidence of the effects that the current round of cuts are already having on sick and disabled people. They include isolation, loss of independence, reliance on food banks, homelessness, exacerbation of existing conditions and a direct link to mental health issues. They have also been associated with the deaths of claimants. It is absolutely unacceptable for policies of the state to be doing such harm, so we support the motion and call for the ESA cuts to be paused. There is a lot of support for that.
In conclusion, there is an evidence base of the effects that the cuts are having on sick and disabled people. Over the same period that the Government have cut support for them, they have given generous support to high earners and big business. Last year, the average worker’s pay of £27,645 increased by 2%, while pay for top executives on £5 million increased by 50%. The trend is getting worse and the inequalities are already being felt. We cannot underestimate the effect of those inequalities. They are not inevitable; this is about political choices. The cuts must not go ahead and we would welcome the Government moving on the issue.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this debate, and all Members on the tone in which it has been conducted. Even the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) has managed to restrain herself today, and we are grateful for that. On these important issues, the House is often at its best when it takes this tone, and on this issue, for all the reasons outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), it is important that we have done so.
Good policy cannot be created in a vacuum; we must think about how something will be delivered, how it will work in practice and how it will affect those concerned. As the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) said, the welfare state is a safety net, but if it works well, it should also be focused on helping someone’s future ambitions as well as their basic needs. Proof that we have listened and understood will be in our actions, and a person’s experience of the system and the support they receive is the only thing that will ensure confidence in that system. So we must deliver and we must deliver well.
We must understand the personal impact of a policy on a person, often someone in a complex situation, under considerable strain and challenge. I refer to the budgeting challenge for those who have suddenly had to stop work or who have lost employment because of their condition or ill health, or who are facing increased costs—or both; the challenge of preparing for employment, while focusing on recovery; the challenge as those new constraints restrict a person’s choices and flexibility just at a time when such flexibility becomes an imperative; the challenges faced by people who, as well as having their own issues to deal with, often have other responsibilities and priorities—carers, parents or people who are both. Even where recovery or the all-clear is achieved, these people will still have concerns about their illness reoccurring, their ongoing relationship with their employer and the possibility of having to go through it all again.
We must ensure a person’s liquidity is in place, so that they can afford the additional costs brought by looking for work, or by being poorly or disabled: higher energy bills; mobile and internet access costs; the cost of getting insurance; the cost of a special diet, in some cases; the extra travel costs that come with unpredictable itineraries; clothing and bedding costs; and the cost of specialised equipment—to name just some of those costs. Someone with a neurological condition will spend almost £200 a week on costs related to their disability. Someone with a physical impairment will spend nearly £300 a week.
When that security and liquidity goes, often so, too, does a person’s dignity and wellbeing. They may face the embarrassment of having to pay for a train fare with a pot of 2p coins because that is all the cash they have left; the stress of having no mobile phone credit; the strain of extra planning and budgeting; the knock-on effects of all that to an already stressful situation; and the pressure of not wanting their kids to be disadvantaged or to miss out on what others are doing or what they used to do—or of not wanting that for their grandkids, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East mentioned.
Although I can answer the question from the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) about benefit levels having a significantly negative association in terms of employment by waving a report by Barr et al. at her,9j I will not be relying on those arguments in my speech. I say that because of the obvious point—it was made by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson)—that someone is more likely to get into work, make a success of it and recover from ill health if they are able to devote themselves to that. If a person has other worries or concerns, their energy and focus on those objectives will be diluted. Many who find themselves in receipt of universal credit or ESA will already have complex situations to deal with, and the delivery of our services should not add to that.
Yesterday, I outlined in detail how we will deal with those issues, but let me briefly recap. We will use funds to alleviate costs directly related to work, through the flexible support fund. May I just correct my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) as the figure is not £15 million—it is an extra £15 million that we have put in because of these changes, and this is currently standing at £83 million? In addition, we will have national and local schemes, such as the Jobcentre Plus travelcard, but I am also negotiating deals with third parties to help with expenditure not directly related to employment: broadband costs, phone charges, energy costs and insurance.
We are extending our hardship fund, as per the announcement yesterday, to new groups. That will be new money from the Treasury over the next four years with immediate effect. For thoroughness, I will mention personal independence payments, which will help to cover costs for 53% of the people we are concerned about today.
Will the Minister give way?
I am going to make some progress. We offer personal budgeting support for those who are transferring to universal credit. That could include money advice, with a mix of online, telephone and face-to-face support. I am also looking at extending that service and considering what further support I could give.
For the sake of the record, I remind the House that the changes to WRAG due in April next year will not affect those who are already in receipt of ESA and universal credit or the equivalent. Further safeguards mean that they will not lose the extra payment even if they are reassessed after April and placed in the WRAG. I hope that that will reassure the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), whom I cannot see here, and the two constituents that he mentioned yesterday, Dean and Lauren.
Will the Minister give way?
Bear with me. In response to the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), we aim to protect existing claimants who temporarily leave the benefit—for example, to try out work—and who then return. We will introduce draft regulations in due course to set out the detail. Nor will the change affect anyone whose ability to work is significantly limited by their health condition or disability. They will be in the support group or the universal credit equivalent.
On that point, let me recognise the concerns that have been expressed about the binary nature of the work capability assessment and how someone’s fitness to undertake a particular type of work is not an indication of how close to the labour market they might be. We need to take into account several other factors, including their skills, in making that assessment. That is why the Green Paper focuses on the work capability assessment and its reform. I hope that that will be welcomed by all Members, particularly the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), who mentioned it.
We have sought to get people to fit the system rather than to be part of a system that recognises the importance of personalised support. Everyone’s circumstances will be different, as will their multiple challenges.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on that point on personalised support. We understand that on employment support, she proposes to provide up to £100 million a year. Will she clarify whether that is in addition to the funding currently being provided through the Work programme, or whether it is a replacement for that?
The amount of money and how we spend it will be directed by, and based on, the needs of people who currently need the support. The situation was very different a few years ago, and it will not be like that. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Labour’s success in this territory, but I gently point out to him that the disability employment gap closed under Labour because unemployment rose. I gently say to him that a consensus on tone has been set this afternoon, and that is important.
I am going to do something unusual and make some asks of this House, although it is usually the other way around. If the Green Paper is to deliver all that it must, we must all play our part, whatever our political hue and on whichever side of the House we sit. All the organisations and experts in our constituencies need to be involved, too, including the patient and peer support groups that we are not currently engaged with, and all the organisations that the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) alluded to in the case of his constituent Simon, who faced a domino effect. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for alluding to the fact that we have a massive opportunity in the Green Paper, not only in terms of what we do for employers and healthcare, but for our own processes in the DWP.
We have designed the consultation process to facilitate discussion at a very local level, with facilitators’ packs and other support, and I ask all MPs to help to facilitate local meetings, bringing together organisations from across their constituencies. That way, we will get a good result from the Green Paper not just in the policies that will come out of it, but in starting local conversations about how it will work. On 5 December, we will hold an event in Parliament, where there will be a pack for every Member and every constituency to facilitate such dialogue.
I am grateful to the Minister for her constructive response to the debate. All the people and organisations to which she has referred would no doubt want to hear whether the hardship fund, the flexible support fund and the third-party deals she has mentioned will fully compensate for the loss of the WRAG payments for new claimants? Will she give us such a reassurance?
Yes. Let me give my hon. Friend that reassurance. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) not only thanked DWP staff again, but helpfully outlined the detail of the support mentioned in the Green Paper, which we will bring in before there are new claimants from April. I am grateful to him for going doing that. All that support will be in place before the new claims come in.
I have heard the word “pause” a lot this afternoon. I do not think we should pause that support. We need to progress it, and it will come on stream in April.
Will the Minister give way?
I am sorry, but I do not have any time left.
We must also progress the work of the Green Paper and pick up the pace, because we need to deliver on those issues. Having said that we do not wish to pause the support, I fully understand that we also need to ensure that the support for a person’s costs and liquidity—their ability to meet their cost of living—is in place. That is not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do if we want those people to be able to concentrate on either getting well or preparing for employment. As well as meeting those needs, we must ensure at the same time that we are taking care of their needs for the future. I have no intention of pausing our proposed support, which will come into effect in April, and I assure the House that the work we are doing—we have made announcements, and we have reiterated them again today—will meet that need. I hope that every Member will help us not only to do both those things, but to deliver on our ambitions in the Green Paper. I hope to see everyone at the event in the House on 5 December.
Finally, if the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) has time after this debate, my officials are waiting to deal with her constituent’s case.
I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate. There have been some wonderful speeches on both sides of the House calling on the Government to press pause on these cuts. The vast majority of the more than 20 Back-Bench speakers have supported the premise of the motion. I do not want to single out any Member, but all the contributions have come together to send a very clear message to the Government about what the House thinks on these matters.
I hope that the debate has given the Government cause to think again, including about how to pause the cuts at least until a new and appropriate form of disability employment support can be considered and put in place. The debate has been about building a constructive case for the Government to consider: it has been cross-party, well-tempered and, above all, an appeal. In that spirit, I wrote to the Chancellor last week offering to meet him ahead of the autumn statement to discuss how to stop the cuts happening before a replacement is considered. I reiterate that message and that offer, which is genuinely made, to Work and Pensions Ministers.
This issue is too important and the need for action is too urgent for us to retreat into party trenches. The Government must work on the same basis as that on which this debate has been conducted to deliver for and meet the needs of people such as John Clarke.
17 November 2016
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
That this House notes the Government’s plans to reduce the Employment and Support Allowance work-related activity component and the corresponding limited capability for work component in universal credit in April 2017; further notes that this measure will cut the weekly amount received by recipients with long-term health conditions or disabilities by £30 and that these cuts are due to take place before the promised Work and Health programme Green Paper can be considered or implemented; and therefore calls on the Government to use the upcoming Autumn Statement to postpone the cuts to Employment and Support Allowance work-related activity component and the corresponding limited capability for work component in universal credit until appropriate alternative measures to progress the commitment to halve the disability employment gap have been considered, in order to secure support for current and future claimants so that sick and disabled people are supported adequately when they are unable to work.