MPs defend voting for cuts to some disability benefits

Lewes and Wealden's MPs have defended voting for cuts to some disability benefits.

Friday, 18th March 2016, 6:59 am
Updated Monday, 21st March 2016, 2:49 pm
Nus Ghani, Wealden MP

Peers in the House of Lords had called for a full impact assessment on proposed changes to the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.

From next year the measures will see £30 a week less paid to new ESA claimants who may be capable of work in future, but the majority of MPs, including Conservatives Maria Caulfield and Nus Ghani, voted to reject the amendments earlier this month.

Ms Ghani said: “Contrary to what some have suggested, spending on disability support will be higher in every year to 2020 than was the case when Labour left government in 2010.

Lewes MP Maria Caulfield pictured at last May's election count

“We now spend £50 billion a year on benefits to support people with disabilities or health conditions. This represents around 2.5 per cent of GDP, significantly above spending in countries such as France and Germany and the average for the 34 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD) of 2.2%.

“It is true that the Government is reducing the rate of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for some new claimants. ESA provides support for those who cannot work because of a health condition or disability. “Those with the most severe work-limiting conditions and disabilities are placed in the Support Group.

“The payment to people in this group will not be reduced. People who can do some work-related activity are placed in the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) and are expected to prepare themselves for a return to employment.

“At the moment, those in the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) get higher payments than people who are unemployed but fit to work (who are on Jobseeker’s Allowance [JSA]), but they do not get appropriate help into work in the same way as JSA claimants.

Lewes MP Maria Caulfield pictured at last May's election count

“The Government is therefore reducing, from April 2017, the level of payment that new ESA WRAG claimants will receive to the level JSA claimants receive and using the money saved to help ESA WRAG claimants into work (this new funding will be worth £100 million by 2020-21).

“No existing claimant will have their benefit reduced. I think this is the right approach – our welfare system should help those who can work into work and provide a decent standard of living to those who can’t work.

“Additionally, the Government made a number of concessions in response to issues raised in both Houses, including an additional £15 million for the Jobcentre Flexible Support Fund to be targeted specifically at people with limited capability for work.

Ms Caulfield added: “The changes in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill will not affect existing claimants and only come into effect in 2018, alongside other reforms to welfare most people will be no worse off in cash terms.

“I am more than happy to help with any individual cases where people feel they have been adversely affected.”

Potential claimants have to take a work capability assessment, and if entitled to claim ESA are placed in one of two groups. People in the work related activity group, which means they have regular interviews with an adviser, and the support group, where claimants do not have interviews.

During the House of Commons debate on the Lords’ amendments Priti Patel, employment minister, said: “The change is urgently needed to ensure that the right incentives—and, importantly, support—are available to help more people with disabilities and health conditions to move closer to, and into, employment.

“We have experienced record employment levels and strong jobs growth over the past few years, but the benefits have bypassed the majority of those who are stuck on ESA.

“Only one in 100 ESA claimants in the WRAG moves off benefits each month, compared with one in five jobseeker’s allowance claimants.

“That cannot be right, and the Government believe that people with health conditions and disabilities deserve better.”

Several days earlier Lady Tanni Grey-Thompson, the eleven-time Paralympic gold medallist and a cross-bench peer in the Lords, said: “It almost feels as if we are putting the blame on disabled people , trying to fix them and not understanding the barriers that they face getting into work.

“Reducing the gap between those who are economically inactive through sickness and those who are unemployed throws away all recognition of those who are facing hardship through sickness and through no fault of their own.”

According to national disability charity Scope the changes will affect 500,000 people in the WRAG group.

Elliot Dunster, group head of policy, research and public affairs at Scope, said: “Reducing disabled people’s incomes won’t incentivise them to find a job. It will just make life harder.

“The Government has committed to halving the disability employment gap, but cutting financial support is not the answer.”

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