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

I thank the hon. Lady for her point, but she should remember that the Scottish Government’s steps to mitigate the bedroom tax have had to be paid for out of money earmarked for our responsibilities in devolved areas. We need to take a responsible approach to make sure that we get this policy right in the long term. We have committed an extra £20 million. I do not know whether she was one of the 20 Labour MPs who marched through the Lobby like the Tories’ little helpers last year to support the fiscal charter on austerity, but as Ms Ritchie pointed out earlier, we would not even be having this discussion if the Labour party had been the effective Opposition it could be. I urge Labour Members to work with all of us on these Benches to stop the austerity that is hurting disabled people, to rise to the occasion, and to be a better and more effective Opposition.

Let me come back to the main point of the debate. I want to highlight a number of reasons why the cuts to ESA WRAG and the universal credit limited capability for work component are harming people and are counterproductive. The first is that ESA should not be considered an equivalent of jobseekers’ allowance. People in the ESA WRAG are assessed as not fit for work, whereas with jobseekers’ allowance, the clue is in the name. However, the key point is that, for the most part, JSA is a short-term benefit. Most claimants come off it in a matter of weeks or months, so it is not designed to support people over long periods. By contrast, ESA is for people with serious health problems and disabilities. It is designed to cover some of the additional costs associated with serious illness and disability, and it recognises the reality that many claimants are likely to be in receipt of the benefit for a longer period—in over half of cases, for more than two years.

In my part of the world, one of the most obvious additional costs is heating for people who are likely to be at home all day, who might not be able to move about so much and who need to keep warm. People on low incomes already spend a huge proportion of their money on essentials such as energy and food. We know from the debt charities referred to earlier that a large proportion of people on ESA are already in debt, running a domestic budget deficit and living from hand to mouth. They have already experienced substantial real-terms cuts to their incomes due to austerity.

Getting by on a low income for a long time is hard. It entrenches poverty among sick and disabled people, who end up using all their savings and eroding their assets over time. Illness and disability also take a heavy financial toll on wider family members, who often find their own earning potential limited because they are providing unpaid care, and who try to support loved ones out of their own limited financial resources.

The Government are quite right to say that the disability employment gap is unacceptable, but they need to recognise that those disabled people who are in work are more likely to be in low-paid jobs and are at higher risk of in-work poverty. They also often move in and out of work more frequently than those who do not have health problems.

Less has been said in the debate about the parts of the motion relating to universal credit. The disabled worker element of working tax credit, which is due to disappear under the shift to universal credit, is the very component that actually makes work pay for many disabled workers. The loss of the limited capability for work element for everyone except those in the support group means that many working disabled people will be around £1,500 a year worse off. That will make it harder for disabled people to sustain employment, and it actively undermines efforts to support sick and disabled people into work.

The Government have pointed out in the past that these cuts will apply only to new claimants, but the reality is that people with serious fluctuating conditions often move in and out of work. That is particularly true of people with persistent and serious mental health conditions, who make up such a large proportion of the ESA case load. The fluctuations of these and other conditions that change over time are often compounded by fluctuations in the labour market and by the trend towards more temporary, fixed-term employment and zero-hours contracts.

The cuts we are debating actually create significant disincentives for those with fluctuating conditions to move into work, because if they do, they become sick again, and if they try to get back into work too early in their recovery and they relapse, they know they will be back on ESA at a significantly reduced rate. That is punitive and counterproductive.

That is at the heart of why we are calling on the Government to hit the brake on these cuts until they have had time to get their act together on the Green Paper and to come forward with more comprehensive and effective support measures for sick and disabled adults of working age. That has been a consistent refrain from Members this afternoon, who have shared moving testimonies from their constituencies.

Cuts to the already low incomes of sick and disabled people who are not fit for work or who are in precarious, low-paid employment are completely unjustifiable. They will damage the health and wellbeing of ordinary people whose lives are already hard enough because of serious health problems. These cuts will push people into deeper poverty and further away from sustainable employment.

The distress and anger of sick and disabled people can be seen and heard in communities across these islands, and those concerns are articulated clearly in the open letters published today. These people are citizens with rights, citizens with needs and people with a contribution to make. It is time that the Government started listening, and I urge them today to do the right thing.