Again, that problem will be replicated across all our constituencies. In my constituency, the citizens advice bureaux have reduced their hours, which means that they have reduced their capability to take on tribunals and appeals. We have probably filled that gap. That responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of people not only in my office, but in the offices of other Members in this House. I thank the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady for their contributions, because they have outlined the issues very clearly.
In the summer Budget of 2015, it was announced that the work-related activity component paid to those in the WRAG would be abolished for new claims from April 2017. The equivalent element in universal credit will also be abolished. This means a reduction of £29.05 a week, and aligns the rate of payment with that for those claiming jobseeker’s allowance. It is said that existing claimants will not be affected and that there will be protections for those who move into the WRAG or the universal credit equivalent from the support group. The changes were introduced to
“remove the financial incentives that could otherwise discourage claimants from taking steps back to work.”
As of February 2016, there were some 2.4 million ESA claimants in Great Britain. Of these, 1.5 million were in the support group; some 19% were in the work-related activity group; some 13% were in the assessment phase, awaiting their work capability assessment—how frustrating it must be to wait for that to happen, given the time that it takes—and 3% were in the unknown phase, yet to be allocated to a group. Again, that illustrates the lack of process and the difficulties with time. Many people are in this group. Although the changes apply to new applicants, there will certainly be people that are affected. I understand that the DWP impact assessment says:
“The notional loss to each family is expected to be around £28 a week, which represents around a 10 per cent notional change in net income, presented in 2019/20 prices. Someone moving into work could, by working around 4-5 hours a week at National Living Wage, recoup the notional loss of the Work-Related Activity component or the Limited Capability for Work element.”
Let us focus on what that means. The Government expect those disabled people to find four to five hours’ work elsewhere to fill the gap. For a start, the hours might not be there. What if their disability means that they are not able to do it? With respect, it is just incredible that the Government believe that that could happen.
Let us be serious here: the whole point of ESA is that it is for people who are unwell. There seems to be a presumption by the DWP that working the five hours a week to fill the gap is not an issue, when in fact the 200,000 or so people who are in WRAG for mental and behavioural issues may not find it such an easy option. Earlier, a Member referred to those with mental health issues. In Northern Ireland, we have many, many people who have depression and other mental health issues, and who suffer greatly every day. Our 30-year conflict has contributed to those problems.
It is fair to say that whenever a Government do something good, we want to congratulate them. The DWP has stopped the renewals of ESA for those who are long-term sick. I am very pleased about that. Many people with brain injuries or who have children with educational and emotional difficulties have come to my office. The court has appointed people to deal with their money, and yet, until now, those people have had to renew their ESA claim every two years. I wrote to my own Department in Northern Ireland about that matter, and I was very pleased to get a response from the Government through the Department and to hear that they are now doing away with that requirement. It is only right that those for whom the court has made appointees should not have to renew their ESA every two years. It is just silly to ask for that.
As an employer, would I hire someone who may be prevented from being reliable because of their documented illness—someone I could not allow to work with customers owing to such issues? Although I would have sympathy, could I run my office like that? The answer is that I could not, and I doubt that the Government could either, so who will employ these people who are being told, “Just work another five hours to make it up.”
Let me be clear: we are not talking about jobseekers, but about people who have a recorded and supported illness. The rationale, while perhaps understandable in other areas, is ridiculous for those who are in this group. There is a reason they are not simply on JSA, and the Government must recognise that.
Ms Ritchie referred to the closure of offices, and we are concerned about that as well. We are fighting that together. The campaign is supported by all the parties at every level—council level, MLA level and MP level. Retaining those offices is important. We also should remember the support from the Disability Benefits Consortium. Mencap in Northern Ireland has asked me to express its concerns as well. I am given to understand that there will be
“new funding for additional support to help claimants return to work”.
That has been clarified as £60 million in 2017-18, rising to £100 million in 2020-21. In addition, the Government have announced an extra £15 million per year in 2017-18 and 2018-19 for the Jobcentre Plus Flexible Support Fund to be set aside specifically for those with limited capability for work. Some £43 million has also been allocated to trial ways of providing specialist support for people with common mental health conditions between 2017-18 and 2019-20. I wish to make this plea to the Minister. When we have those staff in place, please, please can we make sure that they have the training, the ability and the quality to respond, because very often, with great respect, they do not have those skills. As the elected representative of my staff, it is frustrating to have people on the phone telling someone that they do not understand what they are about.
My concern is that the seriousness of the illness is not taken into account. It almost feels as though Government are saying, “Yes, yes, I know you’re feeling a trifle under the weather, but come on, old chap, stiffen that upper lip and move on.” That is not possible for those suffering from muscular skeletal problems—there are almost 100,000 in this group. There is no stiff upper lip for them. There are those who cannot know when they will be well enough to work, but they are told to make up the five hours whenever they can. I am sure that my staff would love me to say, “Do your 37.5 hours whenever you feel like it. You can work from 2 am to 7 am if you like.” However, that would not help me to deal with my constituents, my customers or those who need help. There are few places of employment like that, so why can the Government not outline where those five hours at a time can be found? We could go so far as to say that people would have to work only one hour if they could find an employer willing to pay £29 an hour. “Don’t be absurd,” the Government would say, but that would be as easy to find as an employer who would allow someone to work five hours a week whenever they choose, according to their illness.
Instead of cutting benefits, we should focus on improving support for disabled people who need help and on getting them back into work. I know that the Government have made some concessions, and the unemployment figures this week showed that more people who are disabled are in work. That is good news and a move in the right direction. Let us continue in that way.
The Government need to understand the difference between being ill and being unable to find work. In the past month I have had in my office a former ward sister, a former construction worker, a business owner and a social worker, all of whom are now on ESA. I know those people well. They do not want to be on ESA. They are not choosing not to work out of laziness. They were earning £500 a week and are now getting £75, so the Government’s inference in this regard is insulting. More importantly, it is based on a false premise that cannot be allowed to stand. I therefore feel that I have to stand with the proposer of the motion and those who have supported it and say that we are against these Government proposals. I know that the Minister is an understanding lady and I look to her to respond compassionately to the issues that we have raised. I hope her response to today’s debate will be positive and constructive. Let us help our people as we should.