Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:40 pm on 17th November 2016.

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Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne 1:40 pm, 17th November 2016

I congratulate Neil Gray on securing this important debate, and I welcome its tone, not least because when this change was first proposed, there was such heat and rhetoric that I had to field very many calls from distressed constituents. One in particular stays with me to this day: a father concerned that he was about the lose the benefits associated with supporting his eight-year-old daughter. It is hugely important, therefore, when we speak about such changes, that we be mindful of the people who might be affected by it, so as not to cause undue distress.

This important debate is an opportunity for us to challenge the Government and raise concerns and for the Minister to offer reassurances, particularly on the position of existing claimants and those on reassessment and on the grace period extended to those who move into work. For them, it should not be game over; rather, their support should continue, or they might face too early a challenge. I hope to hear the Minister reassure people in receipt of that benefit.

I welcome the comments made by Anne McLaughlin about abandoning the ideology that has sadly underpinned this debate. It is not driven by ideology. As we have heard today, there are many Members on both sides of the House who have compassion and want the best for everyone in our country, whatever their position, background or—crucially—disability. As a Member of Parliament with disabled family members, I can say there is nothing more important to me.

Moving into the world of work is a hugely positive step for people, and it brings with it identity, purpose and connection, but when only 1% of claimants are doing so, we must recognise that the system has failed. Whatever the cause, whether it be the assessment or the fact that people should actually be in the support group, one in 100 is simply not good enough.

We need always to remember the bigger aspiration when we are talking about benefits and work. I share the concerns over the changes to ESA. We have heard many speeches from hon. Members expressing those concerns eloquently and movingly, and I would endorse the proposals from my hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy.

Work is a hugely positive thing, as has been recognised by Governments of all hues and colours, not least by the previous Labour Government in a DWP report that associated the renewal of work with positive mental health outcomes. I am a member of the all-party group on disability, which has an imminent report containing a host of recommendations not just about reforming support services to help people into work but about the need to reform our attitudes to disability in the workplace.

I welcome the Green Paper, especially for its engagement with disability charities. On the change to WRAG, I have been contacted by many constituents who share the concerns expressed today, so I am looking forward to some reassurances, and, on the motion, I would support a pause in the implementation of these changes. Equally, however, I am pleased that the Government have already announced new schemes and initiatives, rather than waiting until 2017 to make those changes. I particularly welcome the abolition of the permitted work rules, which will allow ESA claimants to work more than 16 hours a week without the immediate cessation of ESA payments. What more perverse situation is there? The Government have recognised that and responded positively. Likewise, there is the additional funding for access to work, the work and health unit and the discretionary flexible support fund, which will help thousands more people with disabilities to move into work, or at least to begin that journey.

I also recognise, however, that there is far more to do than simply looking to central Government. The all-party group’s report makes several suggestions at a grass-roots level, such as ensuring that disabled entrepreneurs are integrated into local business networks, such as the Federation of Small Businesses and the chambers of commerce. We have an exceptionally active chamber in Eastbourne, and I look forward to discussing further with it what more can be done to enhance employment opportunities for people with disabilities in Eastbourne and Willingdon. Likewise, the BIG Futures event next year, aimed at school leavers, will for the first time have a strong Disability Confident element to it. That is change; that is progress, and I welcome that.

To close, all change is unsettling, but I am looking today for assurances, and I would encourage all those with strong views to contribute to the Green Paper, because we all want to see the right policies that support people with disabilities back into work and ensure that they can enjoy the same life opportunities.