Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:18 pm on 17th November 2016.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle 1:18 pm, 17th November 2016

Like other hon. Members, I commend Neil Gray for introducing the debate in the terms he did, and I commend other hon. Members for the way in which they have addressed the issues. Hon. Members have rightly reflected on what the impact will be on a range of their constituents. They have reflected on the questions they have received from a number of policy groups that campaign on behalf of people with disabilities and people with variable conditions. These changes will have a huge and grave impact on those people.

Whenever the Welfare Reform and Work Bill was discussed on its way through the House, several of us, on both sides of the House, specifically opposed clauses 13 and 14 in the original Bill—we are addressing those clauses, particularly clause 13, today—and I pay tribute to those Conservative Back Benchers who expressed concerns and misgivings at the time; some even voted accordingly.

We need to remember that what drove all that was the welfare cap. It was a bit of a flagship for the Government in the last Parliament, but ended up becoming the search engine for more and more cuts. That was recognised even by Mr Duncan Smith. He was almost grinning like a horse chewing thistles when the measures were first brought forward—there could not be enough of them—but then even he began to see that the way in which the welfare cap had become a search engine for the Treasury to find more and more cuts was doing harm and injury to his conception of universal credit, not least in terms of the very measures addressed in the motion of the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts.

Today is our opportunity, ahead of the autumn statement next week, to lay down a marker and say that, given all the developments and circumstances, perhaps we should pause and think whether we have to follow through with this cut. The Government rightly stopped on the tax credits changes, and hon. Members on both sides of the House were rightly seized of the problems connected to those changes. What we are debating today is the longer-term effect—the sting in the tail of those proposals. These longer-term measures are the after-effects that result from that same mind set.

We have a new range of Ministers in different Departments, including the Treasury. They have seen fit to say that they are not bound by the constraints of previous pronouncements, nor even by the terms of previous legislation passed by the same Government. I ask them to find some time and space on these issues.

I hope that at no point will Ministers use the specious argument that they have committed to these changes, have framed them and are bound by them. In particular, I do not ever want to hear Ministers say that one reason why they have to stay on this course is because, unfortunately, there was a legislative consent motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly specifically endorsing the clauses of the Bill that brought the changes in. That legislative consent motion was passed in the Assembly at the hands of Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party as a way of handing direct rule powers back to Westminster—supposedly temporarily—on welfare reform. It dealt not just with the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Act 2015, but referred to the clauses of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill as originally tabled in Westminster. This is our chance to make it clear to the Government that they are not bound by those clauses as originally tabled or passed, but can and should find a new way. I hope that the Government will do that.

I have heard the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work at different events in Parliament speak directly to activist groups and patient groups, and people with disabilities. She has spoken with some heart and sincerity about her hopes for what will come from the Green Paper. Many people have engaged positively with that, as we have heard from Members on both sides of this House. No one is decrying the potential of the Green Paper. But it will mean nothing if we do not put a brake on the cuts that are to come in next year. We cannot pretend that the tyre is only flat at the bottom and say that people will be taking a hit now but good things will come again eventually.

People cannot understand why they have to bear the burden of the cuts now. The Chancellor is now saying that he will not promise to deliver on expenditure and deficit levels on the same terms as his predecessor, and people are hearing understandable questions about quantitative easing. If that is the climate now, and given the scale of quantitative easing that has taken place, people cannot understand why the punitive squeezing has to be of those who will bear the brunt of these cuts—the people for whom other hon. Members have spoken so well and so strongly today.

I hope that the Minister listens to the strength of opinion across the House. I hope she listens to her colleagues, here in the Chamber and in the corridors outside and in other meetings. They are saying that we can find a better way on this and should alter course. We are better than this, we can do better than this and the people we represent need better than this.