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.