It is a pleasure to follow Patricia Gibson. I congratulate Neil Gray on initiating the debate. He has a certain credibility, as he has already raised this issue in the Chamber on several occasions. I welcome the cross-party nature of both the motion and the speeches that we have heard so far. We want to see a Government who care: a Government who protect society, but also protect those who are disabled and vulnerable.
I shall make my speech in a Northern Ireland context. As was mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend Mark Durkan, my colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party and I voted against the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015 and the Bill that became the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Act 2015 in the House of Commons less than a year ago. Those measures were dealt with in the House because the ruling parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party, voted for a legislative consent motion that locked Northern Ireland into the
“welfare clauses of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill as initially introduced at Westminster”.
That is directly relevant to today’s debate.
The clauses in question covered the insidious £29.05 a week cut in the ESA WRAG component and the corresponding cut in universal credit. Under the previous Chancellor and the previous Work and Pensions Secretary, Mr Duncan Smith, the Government justified the cut by claiming that it would encourage claimants into work by removing financial disincentives.
I have two issues with that. First, there was the thinly veiled suggestion that members of the ESA WRAG needed financial strain to push them into employment. I know many people in that category, some of whom are constituents and some of whom are related to me. The vast majority are actively seeking work and desperate for the independence and fulfilment that a meaningful job can offer. In my previous role as a Northern Ireland Minister dealing with these matters some seven years ago, I came into contact with people in that position. I knew that they desired work because it would give them status, identity and a purpose in life. The barrier that prevents such people from securing employment has been created by the lack of special adjustments and support in the workplace and by discrimination on the part of some employers, not by the absence of a work ethic.
Secondly, not one shred of evidence has been produced, by the Government or by others, to suggest that £29.05 a week in addition to the basic amount acts as a disincentive. Will the Minister please tell us whether she has any evidence to present to the House, or whether she is endorsing the former Chancellor and his predecessor at the suggestion of the Department for Work and Pensions?
Moreover, in a wider context, we should remember that the original taper in universal credit has been gradually eroded, which has reduced the financial gap between benefits and earnings from employment. Universal credit was intended to prevent claimants’ income from dropping sharply as they moved into work, but the cliff is gradually re-emerging as more and more cuts are packaged into it.
The proposed cuts in social security offices in Northern Ireland will lead to their closure, and in my constituency and that of Jim Shannon that will remove access from the most vulnerable people, who are periodically unemployed because of their disability. Running in parallel with these proposed cuts is a lack of accessibility to immediate help.
We should remember that the freeze in benefits is itself the biggest cut in the welfare bill. It may not attract the same criticism as blunter cuts, but it has a very real impact on claimants’ living standards. Although the additional amount that the support group receives—currently £36.20 a week—is not subject to a freeze, the basic amount of ESA is. People in the work-related activity group are not just losing nearly £30 a week; they are losing even more from their basic amount, and members of the support group will also suffer a reduction in their overall amount in real terms. This is a slow and creeping means of reducing living standards and piling financial strain on all our constituents with complex health conditions and disabilities who will apply for ESA.
As we approach the week of the autumn statement, I urge the Chancellor—who is not in the Chamber today—to rethink these potential cuts and to reflect on the cross-party nature of the motion, which asks for the autumn statement to provide a pause. We want to develop a society that protects and safeguards those with disabilities, whether they are physical or psychiatric, because the one thing that they desire most in this life is the status and purpose of a job to get up for every day.