Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:23 pm on 17th November 2016.

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Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney 12:23 pm, 17th November 2016

I do not think I will be taking the full eight minutes, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to 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 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.