Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:24 pm on 17th November 2016.

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Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate 1:24 pm, 17th November 2016

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I have signed the motion, which represents a cross-party concern and call to the Government. I very much commend Neil Gray not only for securing the debate but for his constructive tone. Some restraint was shown by the Scottish National party in avoiding what Ian Mearns, who is no longer in place, sadly lapsed into, namely seeking to politicise an issue about which there is cross-party concern. When we deal with welfare there is a sad tendency to get into a narrative—one that I wholly reject—about Conservatives not caring for the vulnerable with their austerity cuts. On the right, we then get the narrative that this is all about the workshy. I reject both narratives, which, sadly, can end up weaponising welfare.

Today’s debate is constructive. Reference has been made to bravery on the Conservative side. Frankly, it is not particularly brave to support this motion. But this is not a binary issue. I support the bravery shown by my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson when a Minister, and that of my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith as well. It takes a lot of bravery to reform disability welfare, which had been unreformed for too long. There is bravery on the ministerial Bench as well—it would have been easier not to go down this route. But there was nothing brave about a status quo that left only 1% of the group affected able to get into work.

The people who are really brave are those trying to make ends meet. As we know, people who are disabled have disproportionately higher costs than others. They are trying to travel, or to deal with energy costs. They are trying to do what they all want to do—to get better and get into work. Through no fault of their own, some of them are not able to do so. They are brave. They are the people we care about, and we need to do more for them.

Politics at the moment is a topsy-turvy world. Some may say that it is topsy-turvy for me to be involved in a motion that is predominantly supported by SNP Members; nevertheless, the motion is cross-party. It is a topsy-turvy motion, to the extent that it was drafted before the Green Paper was published. In essence, the issue is topsy-turvy, as has been mentioned, because it would have made so much more sense to have a White Paper before the decision was made on this cut, so that we could see the direction of travel and see what the parallel track of financial and practical support for these claimants would be.

Still, here we are. Some might say that I am being somewhat topsy-turvy in my position on this issue. I voted for the cuts in February. I stand by that vote, and maintain that we can look to a better reformed system. But as I said at the time—and many hon. Friends held the same position:

“I recognise that the WRAG is not fit for purpose, as only 1% are getting into work, but it does have a purpose. It has a purpose for the most vulnerable individuals, for whom the financial element of £30 really matters...As we move towards 2017, with the flow of new applicants, we must do all we can to reassure everyone that we are in the business of reform…I will support the Government tonight, but we must get the White Paper out and show our practical support in meaningful ways before 2017.”—[Official Report, 23 February 2016;
Vol. 606, c. 235.]

Today’s motion is about making sure we deliver on that. A considerable number of hon. Friends gave conditional support because we want to ensure that we deliver for those claimants.

I recognise that there has been good progress. The latest employment stats, as has been mentioned, show that 590,000 disabled people are in work. That is much better than three years ago, with an increase of some 4%. However, that still constitutes a scandal of five in 10 disabled people in employment compared with eight in 10 non-disabled people. We must do so much more. Recent announcements from Ministers have been encouraging, not least that yesterday on homeless people and people with mental health illness facing sanctions. The Secretary of State said:

“We want our jobseekers to focus on getting into work and enjoying the dignity and security of a good job.”

Those fine words also need to be applied properly to WRAG claimants. We need to realise the vision in the Green Paper of a new era of joint working between the welfare and health systems. By April, that long-term vision must be a reality for this group of people. It is important and encouraging to provide coaches, the Access to Work and Fit for Work schemes, and personalised integrated support. The Disability Confident scheme is also important, as is removing prejudice where some look to difference and otherness rather than positive diversity. All of that comes together, but we need to do something about the £30. Perhaps one way to deal with it is to look at the flexible support fund as a way of bridging the gap.

We must ensure that, as we move into 2017, financial and practical support is available. The 2013 incarnation of the support fund managed only to assist people with getting job interviews. It must be about much more than that. I want to hear from the Minister that this will be a much more integrated package, which incorporates the vision in the Green Paper. Let us grasp that vision and ensure it becomes a reality. Let us make sure there is local discretion on disability that pulls together practical health and welfare needs, not just a one-size-fits-all approach. The words in the Green Paper need to become a reality for the new WRAG claimants.

I appreciate that the Green Paper has far wider aims, aspirations and objectives. Those of us on the Conservative Benches—we have a good track record, which we can be proud of; we spend more than Labour did when it was in office and will continue to do so, despite the cuts for this group of people—must accept that there is a credibility and confidence gap on how we support the most vulnerable and disabled. We must not lose on this, but recognise that the great approach in the Green Paper can be realised by showing real practical support, particularly as we get to April. The new WRAG claimants will still need that £30 support for travel, heating and so on.

I believe that, as we approach April, the way in which we show our support and care for the vulnerable and disabled is a litmus test for the Green Paper. I look forward to hearing from the Minister today. I will be working with Ministers on how we can ensure practical, integrated support to meet that test and to deliver for this group of people.