It is incredibly disheartening—actually, heart-breaking —that we are having a debate on cuts to support for disabled people in 2016. This should be an issue of consensus in this House, but it has not always been. In a debate on the disability employment gap in June, the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Stephen Crabb, said:
“There have been times in the past when the House has sought to speak with one voice, and no more so than in the area of disability.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 611, c. 1265.]
Sometimes, when we have discussed support for disabled people, it has been felt that the Opposition and some of the Government’s own Back-Benchers, alongside civil society, speak a different language from that of the Government. I hope today that the motion serves as an interpreter and we can understand each other and act in concert.
Since the UK Government announced their plans to cut ESA by £30 a week—which will reduce the budgets of the sick and disabled by one third—MPs of all stripes have stood repeatedly and railed against it, and charities have unanimously condemned it, but this Government have so far chosen not to listen. Let us hope today, with so much support in the House, that changes.
We already know that many people who are currently unfit for work are dubiously placed in the ESA work-related activity group and that DWP policies already force WRAG claimants to meet arduous bureaucratic requirements simply to receive the financial support they rely on and deserve. We already know that the UK Government’s welfare reform programme is impacting disproportionately on those living with disabilities and sicknesses and that it impairs their ability to work. We also already know that there is currently absolutely no evidence that these policies of cuts will have a positive impact on moving those in the WRAG group into work. There is no evidence from the Government, despite repeated requests for it to be produced. It is therefore absolutely imperative that the Government pause the implementation of the cuts.
“otherwise discourage claimants from taking steps back to work”.
But this is a different time, a different era, a different Government. The extra £30 a week for ESA recipients is not a luxury above and beyond jobseeker’s allowance; it was intended—and should remain—for the additional costs associated with their condition.
Only last week a UN inquiry found that there had been “grave and systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights under the Government’s welfare reforms. On page 6, the report recommends that social protection systems should address the costs associated with disability. I implore Ministers to read it and act.
Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box to say that they are forced to make “difficult decisions”, but it is not they who bear the brunt of those difficult decisions. It is the Davys mentioned by my hon. Friend Anne McLaughlin: genuine, ambitious, decent folk trapped by illness or disability. But the unfortunate truth is that the Davys of this world are not the exception. Every Member has a Davy and constituents who will be affected.
We must ask ourselves why the Government choose to cut £30 a week from ESA, choose to close Remploy, choose to cut disability employment advisers by 60%, choose to abolish the independent living fund, choose to replace disability living allowance with a far more restrictive PIP assessment criteria and choose to remove Motability from 90,000 disabled people. None of those decisions demonstrates the laudable ambition to cut the disability employment gap in half.
I want this Government to champion social mobility, not contribute to social stagnation and isolation. I want the Government to offer people with disabilities a helping hand, not to kick away their ladder. Today, they have a chance to do that. My constituency, Glasgow East, has a higher than average level of disability, born or acquired. Most people I speak to tell me, if they are able, they want to work. They want support into work. They want to use their considerable talents to contribute to society. They do not want to be objects of pity or to have to constantly fight for dignity.
According to a survey conducted and released last year by the Disability Benefits Consortium, almost one third of people currently on ESA say they cannot afford to eat on the ESA they receive. I know that there are honourable and decent Members on the Government Benches, and I know that it is not Government policy to starve those people into work, so today they can ensure that that is not the unintended consequence of these cuts. If there was ever an opportunity to ditch this punitive aspect of welfare reform, it is now. We have a new Government, a new Prime Minister and a new Secretary of State: this is the time to assert who we are as a society and who they are as a Government. If the Prime Minister wants truly to live up to the spirit and the letter of her words spoken on the steps of Downing Street, when she pledged to build a country that works for all and promised to fight against burning injustice, the Government would scrap their cuts to ESA today. Otherwise, it is a case of “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” and, for that, she will not be forgiven.