Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:10 pm on 17th November 2016.

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Photo of Heidi Allen Heidi Allen Conservative, South Cambridgeshire 1:10 pm, 17th November 2016

Absolutely. I could not have put it more succinctly myself. It was because of that promise and guarantee that Members opted to support the Government, but, unfortunately, that has not yet been fulfilled.

Most heartbreakingly of all, the Lords was not asking for much. It was not so naive as not to accept that the ESA system needed reform, as it so clearly does. The announcement from our new Secretary of State that the whole work capability assessment process will be reviewed is very welcome. I sense this is a precious opportunity, and our disability charities, which have been invited to do so, are poised and eager to contribute to the review. I know that we will do better. I am confident that my Government will do better. The Green Paper is the first step in this process, and charities have welcomed it. With charities, as well as organisations such the Conservative Disability Group, for which I am the parliamentary link, the expertise exists to help us. I am so encouraged by the opportunities that lie ahead, and I sense transformation is possible.

However, my discomfort—this was expressed by the Lords when we last debated this issue—is about having agreed the proposals for new support before we took away the extra £30 per week for those in the ESA WRAG, individuals recovering from significant illness who are slowly transitioning to work. The Government’s argument was that the WRAG support was not doing its job, with individuals sometimes on it for up to two years. The Government concluded there was some perverse financial incentive for people to stay in that group. I say now, as I said at the time, that the fact that people are stuck in the group says more about the failure of DWP processes than about claimants’ active choices. People in that group do not have an easy time. They must demonstrate an appetite to transition towards work, and they can be sanctioned if they do not do so. I still maintain that anyone who has beaten a significant illness is desperate to get back to normal and to get their life back.

The Lords back in February and March, many of us in this House then and many of us today are just asking for a pause. What harm could it possibly do to the Government’s plans or reputation if we were to pause these cuts until an alternative support plan was agreed? Moreover, I passionately believe that it is the sensible and moral thing to do. Would we still be having this debate, would it still be the first thing on the lips of every health and disability charity and would MPs still talk of their regret if we had made the right decision last time around?

I have a guiding principle in life: we should always listen to the loudest voice in our head. We may choose to ignore it, or try and drown it out with distractions and alternative arguments, but we know it is there. In fact, we can sometimes see it when we look in the mirror. I think that we all know what that voice is saying: let us just pause these cuts. The £30—I repeat, £30—represents 29% of the weekly income of some 500,000 people, which is big money for relatively few people. Let us just pause. The risk of damage is high, and the financial cost of pausing is low.

What kind of Government do we want to be? If we want to be a unity Government, rallying and rejoining the nation after the splits caused by Brexit, how will we explain such a vision to two cancer sufferers—I picture them sitting side by side in hospital to have chemotherapy —who are receiving different levels of welfare support, because one was a claimant pre-April 2017 and one became a claimant just afterwards? If we are saying that we will continue to make the payment to those already on it, that must mean we acknowledge that the benefit has some value.

The Green Paper talks about the flexible support fund, which is promising, but it is only £15 million for 2017-18 and 2018-19. The Green Paper suggests that it could be used to buy mentoring or additional support, so could some of it be used to give direct financial support to claimants as well? If ESA WRAG is not the answer, perhaps a boosted support fund, consistently applied by well-trained jobcentre work coaches to provide additional financial support where needed, could be an acceptable alternative. I am open to such a suggestion, and I suspect my colleagues the Opposition Benches would be, too.

If we get the work allowance rates in universal credit right, we could support those transitioning back to work in that way, rather than their facing a cliff edge of having the £30 withdrawn the moment they enter work. That scenario would most definitely keep people away from the workplace, as they would be worried about losing money if they suffered a temporary, but debilitating, health relapse. As I keep saying, the work allowances in universal credit hold the key: because we can set them individually for every type of claimant, universal credit could offer the ultimate flexibility for the disabled and those recovering from poor health. It would offer them reactive, flexible and unwavering support on their entire journey in and out of work. However, for this group of vulnerable claimants, the work allowances need to be higher.

Whether it is a bigger flexible support fund or work allowances in universal credit set at the right level specifically to help those with disabilities or long-term health conditions, let us talk about these options and see whether they hold the answer. We are so close now. With the Green Paper, a new Secretary of State, a new Prime Minister and a new Government, we have a priceless opportunity to build a system that supports and realises the aspirations of people with disabilities and health conditions. That is clearly this Government’s proud and right mission, so let us not waste it by retrospectively fitting policies to savings targets that were agreed in a completely different era.