It is a pleasure to follow Justin Tomlinson. I pay tribute to him for his work and the commitment that he showed when he was the Minister for Disabled People. I congratulate Neil Gray and thank him for introducing the debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee and its Chair for making time for this debate.
I join colleagues in expressing our deep concern about these cuts, which are based on several misconceptions and the effect of which will be cruel and perverse. Everybody wants disabled people and those with long-term health problems who can work to do so, and to have the support to do so. Everyone agrees that those people face additional barriers and may need that additional help.
As we have heard, the Government have published a Green Paper that makes a number of welcome proposals for improving that support for disabled people. I welcome in particular the replacement of the disastrous Work programme with personalised, tailor-made support for disabled people. I welcome the introduction of specialist work coaches, who will support the disability employment advisers in jobcentres, but I regret the fact that the number of disability employment advisers was reduced under the coalition Government. I welcome, too, the introduction of the health and work conversations, although it is a pity that they had to come in several years after the coalition Government prematurely scrapped Labour’s work-focused health-related assessments.
All those additional measures of support are proposed in the Green Paper, but it is none the less surely perverse to cut benefits for disabled people before the support is in place. There is no evidence at all that cutting financial support makes people more likely to move into work. Indeed, investigation by our colleagues in the House of Lords, Lord Low and the Baronesses Meacher and Grey-Thompson, has shown that the opposite is the case. They point out that it becomes more difficult when financial resources are reduced for disabled people to afford training and to undertake volunteering opportunities or work experience that could help them to move towards work. The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research in 2011 confirmed that cutting benefit for those who are unable to work because of illness does not result in more people moving towards work because it does not address the barriers they face—their health, employer attitudes, availability of suitable jobs, lack of reasonable adjustments or skills gaps—which the Government’s Green Paper acknowledges and seeks to address.
Ministers have said, particularly during proceedings last year on the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, that an additional £30 a week of benefit disincentivises disabled people from working. There is no evidence at all for that. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts pointed out, removing the £30 of additional support creates perverse incentives. If someone leaves the ESA to try to find work and they find that it does not work for them, after April 2017, when they reapply for benefit, they will be treated as a new claimant. They will not be able to retain the protection of the additional £30, which existing claimants will retain. Other people are likely to move from the ESA WRAG into the support group, where they will not be expected to look for work at all.
The proposals fail to recognise the nature and purpose of ESA for those in the WRAG. It is an income replacement benefit, in recognition of the fact that those in the WRAG have undergone a work capability assessment that has found that they are not currently fit for work. Employers, in many cases, would not have them in the workplace. Those employers would say that it was not safe to do so. In such circumstances, by definition, an individual cannot derive income from earnings, hence the need for the income replacement benefit. As we have heard several times this afternoon, because of the longer journey to return to work that people with disabilities and health conditions experience, there is a need for additional financial support and a higher rate of benefit.
I would like to say little bit about the support in universal credit for those with limited capability for work. Those people are set to lose out even if they are in work. At the moment, the limited capability for work element and the additional support through the disabled person’s work allowance in universal credit are roughly comparable to the support in tax credits for disabled people working 16 hours a week. If those in work on universal credit lose additional support, they will be substantially worse off than those on tax credits. That is surely a perverse outcome of these cuts that Ministers will want to address.
All such perverse outcomes might have been avoided and the policy improved if an equalities impact assessment had been properly carried out at the time of parliamentary proceedings on the legislation. As we have heard, the Equality and Human Rights Commission offered help with such an assessment and set out a methodology for carrying it out. Regrettably, that suggestion was rejected by the then Government.