The chancellor’s latest budget was based upon the premise of a long-term plan rather than short-term fixes. This correct approach to the economy must also extend to social reform and support for disabled people.
Conservatives can be proud of the fact that this year we can expect Britain’s economy to grow faster than that of any other advanced nation in the world. We can also be proud that we are spending more in real terms supporting disabled people this year than the £42.6bn spent by Labour when it left office. Even afterthese proposed cuts, the disability budget will still rise by over £1bn.
The Conservatives have a long tradition of supporting the disabled. It wasMargaret Thatcher’s government that increased disability payments by 21%. She said: “Our aim is to provide a coherent system of cash benefits to meet the costs of disability, so that more disabled people can support themselves and live normal lives.”
The £4.4bn cut to personal independence payment (PIP) does not sit well with traditional and current support for the disabled. The prime minister has a great mission of an “all-out assault on poverty”, but it will fall short if it does not properly support disabled people.
I reject the narrative advanced by the left, which claims that Conservatives have failed to protect the vulnerable amid austerity. I also reject commentary from some on the right for condemning all welfare recipients for being workshy, when we know that the vast majority are no such thing. It’s time for those on the left and the right to stop weaponising welfare.
Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms are delivering real results in transforming the life chances of those on benefits, and more people are in work than ever before. However, reforms need to be handled sensitively, particularly when there is a direct impact on vulnerable disabled people. It is important that changes are led by a zeal for reform and not a zeal for saving money.
I joined with Conservative colleagues and those across parliament in challenging the government about changes to employment support allowance (ESA), which will see new ESA claimants who are placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) receive the same rate of benefit as those claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA).
The government eventually convinced me and many of my colleagues not to vote against the changes, on the basis of their commitment to long-term reform and the fulfilment of our manifesto pledge to halve the disability employment gap. I look forward to the publication of a white paper that, as the budget says, will be “focusing on the roles that the health, care, and welfare sectors can play in supporting disabled people and those with health conditions to get into and stay in work”.
I also welcome the government’s additional £15m being introduced next year to help ESA claimants placed in the WRAG to pay for the additional costs of preparing for work.
I wholeheartedly support the government as it undertakes the difficult but vitally important work of restoring our nation’s finances and reforming welfare. We should never forget the often callous methods deployed by Atos, which we inherited from the last government. The PIP is a welcome reform to replace the outdated disability living allowance. We should also keep remembering that the number of disabled people helped into work under this government has increasedby 5.4% in the past year alone, even if there is much still to be done.
The litmus test I have set for every welfare reform presented since I became an MP has been simple: is this is a reform that will support the vulnerable, and is it fair to the taxpayer? On the changes announced in the budget, I am yet to be convinced.
Is long-term reform of disability driving this cut or is it a direct response to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s recent forecasts, which require the chancellor to find an additional £3.5bn worth of savings? Should the budget for vulnerable disabled people be considered less deserving of protection than the benefits for pensioners or for those in receipt of tax credits?
The government has argued that recent legal judgments have broadened the scope of what is considered an “aid and appliance” to include items such as beds and chairs that people have in their homes already, and that the number of people who qualify for PIP solely due to aids and appliances has tripled in 18 months, and is therefore in need of review.
Yet the government’s own statistics indicate that a substantially higher proportion of individuals who live in families with disabled members live in poverty, compared with individuals who live in families where no one is disabled. Some 19% of individuals in families with at least one disabled member live in relative income poverty, on a before housing costs basis, compared with 15% of individuals in families with no disabled member; 21% of children in families with at least one disabled member are in poverty, a significantly higher proportion than the 16% of children in families with no disabled member.
The chancellor has a difficult task: to maintain sound public finances in the face of growing spending pressures such as in the disability budget. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) makes the case that the daily living component of PIP has tripled. However it is hard to maintain the claim of fairness when “aids and appliances” to help disabled people go to the toilet and get up in the morning are to be downgraded while, for example, comparatively wealthy individuals are to receive a cut in capital gains tax.
When families with a disabled individual are vastly more likely to endure poverty than other families, we need to handle any cuts to disability benefits with great care. Recent costs and court cases suggest that PIP is clearly in need of reform and review. If there are to be cuts to it, then they need to be fully justified on the basis of reform, rather than just as a cost-cutting measure. The government should press on with its commitment to reform disability benefits, but in the meantime it should press pause on these cuts to PIP.
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