Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:32 pm on 17th November 2016.

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Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 1:32 pm, 17th November 2016

We are discussing whether the state can afford to give less than 1% of its citizens, who have been assessed as unfit to work through illness or disability, £30 a week to help them to get through their lives. In one sense, it is a remarkably small amount of money, yet for the people involved it is really quite major. In some cases, it makes a difference of up to a third of the money they subsist on over the course of a week.

I want to deal first with the question introduced by the architects of the policy. It was put about that somehow the existence of more money on employment and support allowance would create a disincentive for the people in that category to seek employment, compared with those on jobseeker’s allowance. It was thought that this extra payment would somehow create a disincentive to their search for work. That argument is possible only if we assume that the needs of people claiming ESA are no different from and no greater than those who claim JSA. I hope that by now the Government are persuaded by the testimony, given by many Members from across the House about individual constituents in this situation, that that is not the case. People on ESA have greater needs and that is why the additional payment is justified.

We know that many people who claim ESA are in an isolated and vulnerable position. Many are temporarily housebound. They spend much more time at home than their able-bodied peers, which means that their household bills are greater. We know that many people have a condition that may suddenly mean they have to get a taxi or may face some extra expense that other people do not face. We also know that some people are using this money to buy medical supplies not available on the NHS for their condition. The extra payment is there to assist people, to help them to cope with the conditions they suffer from while they try to get back into employment. The House really has to recognise that.

It is particularly iniquitous to have some people continue to claim £109 a week, while others in an identical situation who make a fresh claim will be paid less. How, as a matter of public policy, can we justify that? The Government suggest that this will affect only new claimants and that those already on the benefit need not be too concerned. In fact, the people already claiming the benefit are extremely concerned, because the nature of the benefit is such that we are talking about recurrent claims. People need the benefit for a period of time, after which they may have a period of employment before having to rely on the benefit again. Many such people suffer from mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression. In that condition, I cannot think of anything worse than knowing that, were they to take a job offer that does not work out, when they ask the state for help again they will be offered £30 less than the amount they currently receive. That situation will exacerbate the mental illnesses that many people face.

I was impressed yesterday when the former Secretary of State, Mr Duncan Smith, said that there is not a simple dichotomy of being either fit for work and not receiving benefit, or being unfit for work and receiving benefit. There are lots of shades of grey and nuances. If people are unable to work at all and are in need of permanent support, they are transferred to a support group. The WRAG claimants are trying to get back into the job market. The support they receive is to enable them to get back into employment. Far from incentivising people, I fear that if this cut goes ahead it will drive many people into deeper despair and greater isolation, and make it less likely that they will be able to enter the jobs market. For that reason, I ask the Government to think again.

The Minister is listening intently and I appreciate that. I ask the Government to consider the character of this debate: the language being used and how the arguments are being presented. It is the job of the Government to govern and make decisions, and it is the job of the Opposition to attack those decisions. Such is the rough and tumble of politics. However, I ask the Government to note that in this instance that is not the nature of the debate. Members from across the House have come together to make a heartfelt plea for reconsideration of this particular policy. I am hopeful that we will get some movement. I do not accuse the Department for Work and Pensions of malicious intent towards disabled people. Tomorrow, I will be speaking at a DWP conference in Edinburgh at the Hibernian stadium, which will bring 100 local employers together to try to encourage them to take on people with disabilities and to explain the precise support the Government can give to them as employers. That is a good thing and I welcome the Green Paper, on which we can have a debate and consultation.

What sense does it make to pursue this cut now, introduce it in April and reduce the benefit for potentially 600,000 people, while considering how to improve the situation for the very same group of people? Surely the most sensible thing to do is to press the pause button and to put off any final decision on the level of support that claimants in this particular category receive until after April next year. There would then be the opportunity to look at the other means of support available, consider the consequences of the discussion on the Green Paper and then take a balanced decision. It seems to me that we actually jeopardise and hinder some of the potential improvements by making this cut now.

Somebody once said that when you’re in a hole, stop digging. I appeal to the Government to consider doing exactly that. I also appeal to them again to understand the nature and the tenor of the debate. People from across the House are coming together and trying to build a golden bridge over which the Government can retreat. I urge them to cross that bridge. I promise that if that happens, they will not find people on this side of the House condemning them for making a U-turn. Rather, we will salute them for doing the right thing.