I pay tribute to 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.