If any part of the social security system needs a fresh look, that would be my first choice, although there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from. At present, people are not well served by work capability assessments.
We have heard protestations today and in the past that no one who is currently receiving ESA and no one with the most severe disabilities will be affected by the forthcoming changes, but they have been categorically refuted by organisations such as the Scottish Association for Mental Health, which has pointed out that those who are currently receiving ESA may well be affected by the changes if they have been claiming the benefit and move into work before they are well enough. They may also be affected if they need to seek support again. People are likely to be deterred from trying out new jobs if the possible outcome is reduced benefit after a short period of employment.
SAMH’s report also points out that 98% of its service users said that their mental health had suffered as a result of welfare reforms. People are already very frightened and worried. Ironically—I want Ministers to reflect on this, because we are trying to build consensus across the House today—the Government’s policies are literally making those who are coping with the daily challenges of a disability ill or, at best, less well. How can that make those in the group that is targeted by these measures more work-ready? In fact, such measures will prolong or exacerbate existing health conditions. Protecting the sick and disabled should be above budget savings. If it is not, what does that say about the kind of society that we are trying to create? What does it say about Government priorities?
I know that there is concern about this issue on both sides of the House. I urge the Minister to note what has been said by Action on Hearing Loss, Capability Scotland, Disability Agenda Scotland, Guide Dogs, the Motor Neurone Disease Association, Parkinson’s UK and a range of members of the Disability Benefits Consortium, and to do the right thing. I urge the Government to use next week’s autumn statement to pause these cuts until appropriate alternative measures to implement the commitment to halve the disability gap have been fully considered, and to do all that they can to secure support for current and future claimants so that sick and disabled people are supported adequately when they are able to work, and also when they are unable to do so.
I urge the Minister to respond positively today, and to remove the shadow that hangs over the lives and futures of too many people throughout the United Kingdom as they fear the future and what the Government appear to be seeking to do. I urge her to do the right thing, and to respond to the debate with compassion and understanding.