Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:35 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 7:35 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, I will explore just some of the concerns about this new wave of welfare cuts. We need to consider these cuts in the context of the £21 billion of cuts implemented in the last Parliament. Under this Government, we are witnessing the most dramatic rolling back of the role of the state and the deepest reductions in the security floor for our most vulnerable citizens ever seen, in my view, in the UK.

The Minister said, I think, three times that the Government will protect the most vulnerable. My Lords, I have to say that is not my perception. What, for example, will this Bill mean for disabled people? The Government’s justification for the cuts is, of course, that they want to make sure that work pays and to end benefits dependency as far as possible. This is certainly a fine theoretical position—no one could disagree with it—but it does not work for people with a disability or long-term sickness who cannot find an employer willing to take them on. This is the bit of the jigsaw that is missing in this Bill: the probably perfectly realistic position of employers. Whom will they employ? They will not employ some of the people who are going to be affected, and the results could be catastrophic.

Can the Minister inform the House whether his department has assessed the likely impact of the benefit cuts on the demand from disabled people for mental health services—for example, a bed in a psychiatric hospital or social services? The Royal College of Psychiatrists has expressed some concern about what that effect could be. In my view, it could be very worrying. The key issue is that if the DWP succeeds in cutting its budget, all that happens is an increase in the budget for the NHS and social services. Then, the Government’s objective of a smaller state will not be achieved. I really would be grateful if the Minister addressed that point in his wind-up speech.

There are many, many causes for concern, but the cut I find most cruel—other noble Lords have mentioned this—is the cut of nearly £30 per week for sick and disabled people placed in what is commonly known as the WRAG: the ESA work related activity group. These people—as, again, other noble Lords have pointed out—have been assessed by an independent assessor as unfit for work. The Government argue that the extra £30 disincentivises sick and disabled people from working. The noble Baroness, Lady Browning, mentioned those on the autistic spectrum. I have worked with people with a variety of mental health problems and people with learning difficulties. In my experience, all these people desperately want, more than anything else, is to be regarded as normal. What does that mean? It means being able to go to work. They really do not need this sort of incentive or disincentive.

About half those in WRAG are entitled to DLA or PIP. These are people with serious disabilities who will find it very hard to find work or to keep a job if they get one. Does the Minister not find it appalling that people with Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis—progressive illnesses, of course—are included in the WRAG because they are unfit to work now, and they will be subject to this £30 a week cut? If they are not fit for work now, the chances of an employer’s taking them on in the future, as their symptoms get worse, are surely remote. Will the Minister ensure that such groups with worsening symptoms, assessed as not fit for work, are in future placed in the support group, whatever happens to the WRAG group?

Further, over 50% of people affected by this cut will suffer from mental and behavioural disorders. These people long to be accepted. Their families, who themselves may be on benefits, will have to pay for their food and heating. Is the Minister aware that 70% of respondents to the Disability Benefits Consortium survey said that the cut would in fact mean a return to work later, rather than sooner? Obviously, that is a judgment, and it may be wrong—but job hunting costs money, including money for transport and clothes, since you cannot go to work or an interview without appropriate clothes. That is probably particularly true for disabled people. If a claimant cannot afford the fare to attend an interview, how will that promote his employment prospects? Does the Minister have any evidence of the likely consequence of this cut on the employment prospects of sick and disabled people?

The Disability Benefits Consortium welcomes the commitment in the Conservative manifesto to halve the disability employment gap. Again, we are all behind such an objective, but depriving disabled people of essential resources will simply not achieve it. A specialist employment support programme has been mooted, which really could make a significant difference. Again, it would be good if the Minister advised the House about progress in developing that proposal.

The exemption from the benefit cap for claimants of DLA, PIP and the support group level of ESA is very welcome. However, many sick and disabled people will be subject to the cap, along with a small but significant number of carers of those defined as non-dependants in the benefits system, such as carers of adult disabled sons or daughters. The four-year freeze of benefits, including JSA, ESA, WRAG, housing benefit and universal credit, will also severely affect many disabled people, so there are multiple cuts coming along for particular families.

Perhaps the most extraordinary fact, if I am right about it, is that the most drastically affected claimants are families with disabled children. As a result of a cluster of cuts to child tax credit, the disability component and the introduction of the two child limit, a new universal credit claimant would have a maximum annual entitlement of just one-quarter of their current entitlement in the tax credit system. Will the Minister inform the House whether that is correct? Do the Government really want to penalise such families with a disabled child more than anybody else? I find that quite difficult to believe. What action are the Government taking to assess the impact of these cuts on those people? I would be grateful to know about the evidence behind that.

There are many other serious concerns, including the impact of the reduction in social housing rents on the provision of supported housing for a number of vulnerable groups, as explained by the National Housing Federation. On housing, it seems that there is one real opportunity for the Government to save billions without hurting anybody, which I have mentioned before: by releasing 10% of the greenbelt around the major urban areas. That would transform the cost of land, housing and housing benefit. Yes, we love our greenbelt, but we go walking in the greenbelt regularly, and there is never anybody there.

In conclusion, the level of anxiety among sick and disabled people and others about this onslaught on their modest standard of living is unimaginable. The future for them is truly frightening. I hope that, through debating this Bill, we can truly mitigate the effects of the Government’s plans.