Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:23 pm on 17th November 2016.

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Photo of George Kerevan George Kerevan Scottish National Party, East Lothian 2:23 pm, 17th November 2016

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman, who made an impassioned and elegant speech earlier. Indeed, I am happy to commend the former Prime Minister, who made an impassioned effort to direct the Government to deal with mental health issues. In the light of that, let us not rush into tinkering with the ESA work-related activity component. Let us leave aside these short-term changes until we get a permanent solution on which we can all agree.

Peter Aldous, who is no longer in his place, spoke earlier in the debate. Like me, he represents a constituency in which the full-service roll-out of universal credit has begun. It began in my constituency in March 2016. One of the problems that would emerge if we were to proceed with the ESA work-related activity component cuts, along with ending the eligibility of new claimants under the universal credit regime after April 2017, is that that would create a two-tier system.

Leaving aside the philosophical issues about universal credit, I just want to point out to the Minister that one of the problems is that the full-service roll-out is not working well. This has become the dominant issue in my postbag, with which my constituency office has to deal. With the best will in the world, Jobcentre Plus staff are trying to tackle the problems with the full-service roll-out, but we have had computer problems including constant software bugs and changes. The inability to adjust to the new system has meant that the citizens advice bureaux and the libraries, which are run by the local authority, have been deluged with requests for support by people who are trying to readjust to the universal credit system. Given that the roll-out is not going smoothly, any suggestion that we can suddenly reduce ESA WRAG to the JSA level in April and that it will go through smoothly is wrong. I want to put it on the record that those of us—this has nothing to do with party or opposition to the Government—who are dealing with the full service roll-out know that it is not going well. We should not be changing the way the system works until we know that it is working in a positive way.

There is no one in this House who would not want to see more people with disabilities get back into the workplace, but there is a specific local problem. All the statistics show that we are actually as near to full employment as we are ever going to get. Justin Tomlinson was rather scathing about experts and statistics, but they are all that we have to work with. The latest figures from the November Bank of England inflation report suggest that the jobs market will remain tight over the next three years, so the Government must bear that in mind when considering the prospect of getting large numbers of people with disabilities back into the labour market. If we are to get more people back into work, we will have to work with employers and look much more closely at their response.

If there is any lurking suspicion in Government—I am not saying that there is—that reducing ESA WRAG will force more people back into the labour market, I can tell them that that will not work. If that was ever the approach—I am not saying that it was—not only would it be callous, but it would be ineffective. We have to work with employers to put systems in place to enable and prepare them to take more people with disabilities into the labour market. That is a longer-term problem, which will be not be resolved in April by cutting ESA WRAG.

My final plea to the Minister—she has listened attentively and I thank her for that—is to go back to the Treasury and the DWP and rethink the change. It is only a week until the autumn statement, and those of us with any knowledge about how the Treasury works will know that the midnight oil will be burned this weekend as the final changes are made to whatever will be announced next week. There is still time to rethink these cuts.