Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:49 pm on 17th November 2016.

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Photo of Eilidh Whiteford Eilidh Whiteford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Social Justice and Welfare) 2:49 pm, 17th November 2016

This debate could not be more timely, given that we are a week away from the autumn statement. It speaks volumes that the motion has been supported by Members from nine parties represented in this House. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Gray on his persistence in pursuing this issue and on marshalling such broad cross-party support.

As we have heard, Members on both sides of the House know that it is just not right to cut employment and support allowance for sick and disabled people in the work-related activity group by almost £30 a week. It is just not right to cut the corresponding limited capability for work component for those on universal credit. It is especially not right to press ahead with these punitive cuts, which are due to come into effect for new claimants from next April, when the Government have acknowledged that their efforts to address disability employment have failed to date, and their system of employment support for sick and disabled people of working age has been wholly inadequate.

Earlier this month, the Government finally brought forward their long-awaited Green Paper on the disability employment gap, which I have welcomed and we all hope will initiate comprehensive improvements. We have heard a very different tone from Ministers in recent weeks. There have been serious attempts by senior Ministers to distance themselves from their predecessors, not least with the Prime Minister’s early commitment to a

“country that works for everyone”.

They will be judged by their actions, not their words, and that is precisely why we need to hit the pause button on these cuts to ESA and universal credit that will cause hardship and distress to thousands of people who are not fit for work. The exchanges between the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) and for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) captured this point succinctly when they said that we need to pause to allow the support infrastructure to catch up.

Ministers know that we in the SNP have been deeply critical of the Government’s willingness to allow the most disadvantaged sick and disabled people to bear the brunt of austerity cuts. We will continue to hold them to account for the adverse consequences of their actions—those consequences are already writ large among sick and disabled people in all our communities and constituencies—but I and my colleagues have also tried to be constructive by offering ideas, solutions and better ways forward. We will continue to do that, because it is in everyone’s interest that we get this right.

We should not forget that when these cuts were first announced, the then Chancellor argued that they were intended to remove “perverse incentives” in the system. That point has been made by several hon. Members today. I hope that the new incumbents in the DWP and the Treasury now recognise that taking away necessary financial support from sick and disabled people who have been assessed as unfit for work does not make them get better any more quickly. Quite the reverse: there is a growing body of evidence that poverty exacerbates illness, hinders recovery, and makes it harder for people with long- term conditions to secure and sustain employment.

As we have heard, what is actually perverse is to reduce the resources available for sick and disabled people that enable them to work. I hope the Government will ditch the prejudices and stereotypes that have fed the poor policy decisions of the past, and will listen not only to disabled people and those who represent them, but to MPs on their own Benches who have expressed severe disquiet about the consequences of these cuts.

I am reluctant to break the consensual tone of this debate, but I must respond to the question that Ian Murray asked my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts about whether he thought that the Scottish Government should plug the gap, using new devolved powers in Scotland. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman has not stayed for the rest of the debate, but I suspect that he knows as well as I do that both ESA and universal credit are not areas of devolved competence. They are fully reserved, despite my best efforts last year, when I tabled and spoke to amendments to the Scotland Bill that would have devolved all working-age benefits. Obviously, we failed to win the backing of the House for those proposals.

It is a wee bit rich for Members to oppose the devolution of those powers yet to demand that the Scottish Government plug the gap. The Scottish Government have already committed an extra £20 million for disability employment support, but they cannot be expected to plug every hole in the bucket of poor Westminster policy making. The hon. Gentleman should take a long, hard look to his own conscience and perhaps his own voting record.