Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 10:12 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Gale Baroness Gale Labour 10:12 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, as I am the last Back-Bencher to speak in this debate, I believe that everything that has to be said about this Bill has already been said, but I will speak briefly on Clause 13. It will cut the support paid to people who cannot currently work owing to sickness or disability by about 30%. That means that this group of sick and disabled people will get the same financial support as those on jobseeker’s allowance who are fit and well enough to work. The rationale given for the cut is that this extra money for people in the ESA WRAG acts as what the Chancellor calls a “perverse incentive” which stops sick and disabled people getting better and working. The noble Baroness, Lady Browning, put it very clearly when she described this move as disgusting. I agree with her on that. The Government’s policy intention is to get more people from the work-related activity group back into work. Where is the evidence for the Government’s claims that the cut will get people into jobs who are currently unfit to work owing to sickness or disability?

Reducing financial support for sick and disabled people cannot improve a medical prognosis or speed a recovery. There are also fears about not being able to afford to attend all medical appointments and having to stop therapeutic classes that maximise physical movement and social confidence. It is clear that cutting support by one-third to half a million sick and disabled people is likely to put extra pressure on accident and emergency services and the health service generally.

This is not mentioned at all in the Government’s impact assessment, and the glaring omission casts doubt on the Government’s claim that this policy will save around £640 million a year by 2020-21. Sick and disabled people do not give up work lightly in order to claim benefits. It is not a lifestyle choice. A study found that people with Parkinson’s worked for an average of 3.4 to 4.9 years after being diagnosed. People report regularly that they want to work for as long as they are able. Many people with Parkinson’s work and, with the correct drugs regime and the help and support of their workplace, will be able to continue to work for some time. Eventually, as it is a progressive illness, they will have to give up work. They work as long as they can because of the uncertain future they face, which for many will mean expensive care and support.

There should be no doubt about the motivation of sick and disabled people wanting to work—most people want to work—but they face many significant barriers, including their health and workplace obstacles such as employer attitudes and inappropriate job design. The test does not capture the reality of living with a fluctuating condition, leaving people at risk of being assessed on a “good day”. People with Parkinson’s can have a good day and perhaps the next day cannot do anything. Tests such as the ability to lift a pen and place it in a pocket do not say anything of someone’s ability to have a job and carry out the work. The impact of pain and fatigue is not considered and neither is the fact that some people will not recover because they have incurable and degenerative conditions.

If someone has had to give up work because of the progression of their condition and their prognosis is further deterioration, this will inevitably impact their chances of securing employment again. As a result of the many failings of the WCA, employment and support allowance claimants with Parkinson’s are placed in the impossible and demoralising position of being told they are either fit for work or should be getting themselves back into work, and are often placed in the work-related activity group rather than the much more appropriate support group.

Many people struggle to survive on the WRAG payment, as they are already trying to improve or maintain their health. The Government would be taking £30 a week from almost half a million people on employment support allowance in the work-related activity group. Ministers argue that if these people worked between four and five hours a week on the new minimum wage they could recoup this loss. I wonder where these jobs offering four to five hours a week are. Can the Minister say how many thousands of jobs there are that people could work in for those few hours to recoup the money the Government are going to cut from their benefits?

How is making people poorer an incentive to work, especially people with progressive illnesses such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis? In its excellent briefing, Scope says that it,

“opposes the proposed reduction in support provided to disabled people through the Employment and Support Allowance Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) set out in Clause 13. Disabled people placed in ESA WRAG have been found ‘unfit for work’ by the independent Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The proposed change will not incentivise disabled people to find work”.

I agree with Scope and look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.