Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:09 pm on 17th November 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment) 12:09 pm, 17th November 2016

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 John Redwood and the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 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 then 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 Mr Godsiff highlight the concerns the EHRC has regarding the Government’s impact assessments on these cuts.