Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:46 pm on 17th November 2016.

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Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Labour, East Ham 1:46 pm, 17th November 2016

I am glad to be following Caroline Ansell. I agree with her and other Conservative Members that these cuts should at least be paused. On 27 January, Lord Freud said in the other place:

“we are proposing to recycle some of the money currently spent on cash payments…into practical support”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 January 2016;
Vol. 768, c. 1316.]

That was the deal offered to us—there would be a shift from cash payments to practical support. Mr Burrowes and others are absolutely right to point out that that practical support will not be in place by next April, so that is a good argument for pausing the cuts.

Not only will the support not be in place next April, but as far as I can see, the Government are not even planning to spend as much on their new programme for supporting ESA claimants into work as they are spending on the Work programme which, as we have heard, has done a hopeless job for people claiming ESA. I thought that the whole point of this benefit cut was to give additional resources to support those people into work, but it appears that the Government are now talking about spending less. The £60 million to £100 million we have heard about is not on top of what is currently being spent; it is instead of what is currently being spent, which seems completely contrary to what we have been assured throughout this process.

In 1998, when I held the Minister’s post, I was responsible for the new deal for disabled people. That was followed by the Pathways to Work programme. On 1 July, the House of Commons Library produced the briefing note “Key Statistics on People with Disabilities in Employment”. It helpfully shows, with a graph, that the disability employment gap fell steadily but substantially from 1998 to 2010. In 2010, the new deal was replaced by the Work programme, and the steady progress on reducing the disability employment gap came to a halt. As the Green Paper candidly acknowledges at paragraph 1.22, there has been no progress in reducing the disability employment gap since 2010. The progress we have heard about from some Conservative Members, particularly Justin Tomlinson, has not involved any progress at all in reducing the disability employment gap, which reflects the fact that the Work programme has been so disappointing for this particular group.

I think that the Conservative party recognised that it had a problem, so its manifesto for 2015 to 2020 announced a bold target of halving the disability employment gap. Achieving that by 2020 would be ambitious, because progress would have more than caught up with the rate that was steadily delivered between 1998 and 2010. Ministers said that they would achieve that bold ambition by committing the proceeds of the benefit cut that we are debating today. They told us that the details would be set out in a White Paper.

As the former Secretary of State ruefully observed yesterday, there has still been no White Paper. When launching the Green Paper, the current Secretary of State made this astonishing claim:

“The original commitment in the manifesto did not have an end date”—[Official Report, 31 October 2016;
Vol. 616, c. 678.]

If one reads a commitment or a promise in a manifesto for 2015 to 2020, one is entitled to believe that what that says will be achieved will actually be achieved by 2020. The commitment was more explicit than that, because during one of the televised election debates, David Cameron—some of us still remember him—said:

“The gap between the disabled unemployment rate and the unemployment rate for the whole country is still too big. I want to see that cut in half over the next five years.”

He was explicit about that. The press release issued by the hon. Member for North Swindon—he told us that he could not remember it—was also clear that this was going to be done by 2020. That was what everyone in the disability organisations understood.

A month or so ago, I attended the launch, which was hosted by Mrs Gillan, of the National Autistic Society document “The autism employment gap”. Let me read what it says:

“The UK Government has made a very welcome pledge to halve the disability employment gap by the end of this Parliament, meaning they have to shift the disability employment rate from 47% to 64%.”

Just last week, the all-party group on multiple sclerosis, which is chaired by Simon Hoare, published the report “Employment that works”, which referred to

“a 2015 general election manifesto commitment by the Conservative Party to halve the disability employment gap by 2020”.

However, when I asked the new Secretary of State about the timing of the commitment, he replied to me on 31 October, when he launched the Green Paper, that it was “premature” to set a date for achieving this goal. At least the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work in her winding-up speech in yesterday’s debate did not claim that there were never was a 2020 target when there clearly was.

To resume progress on reducing the disability employment gap—that reduction was delivered consistently under the new deal from 1998 to 2010—the Government need to resource the process properly, as they promised to do earlier this year. The point of making this cut in ESA was supposed to be that the proceeds would be used for that purpose. The Government simply need to keep the promise that they made to disabled people.

When a clear promise has been made to disabled people, is it really too much to ask that it is delivered? The problem with the Green Paper is not that the ideas in it are bad, as I understand the U-turn of abandoning the Work programme, but while the Government promise to increase the number of disabled employment advisers, that is only back up to the number there were in 2013 —it is no more than that. A clear promise was made in the Conservative party manifesto. It was understood right across the disability organisations, so I ask the Minister to tell us that she is determined to keep it.