The government is to press ahead with devastating cuts to vital financial support for sick and disabled people, despite a previous defeat in the House of Lords.
MPs in the House of Commons voted by 306 to 279 to slash Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) by £30 a week to just £73.10, the same level as Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), despite desperate pleas from members on all sides urging the government to scrap the proposals.
Changes will initially only affect new claimants placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) of ESA from April 2017, but existing claimants could also see their benefit payments reduced following reassessment. There are currently around 500,000 people in the ESA WRAG.
The government also saw off a House of Lords amendment to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which if passed would have required the government to publish annual child poverty statistics based on family income. MPs voted against the amendment by 310 to 277.
Iain Duncan Smith defended the government’s decision to replace existing child poverty measures with a system more focused on educational attainment and household unemployment.
“The worklessness measures will identify the proportion of children living in workless households, and the proportion of children in long-term workless households”, he said.
“The educational attainment measures will focus on GCSE attainment for all pupils and for disadvantaged pupils. Alongside this will be a range of non-statutory indicators to measure our progress against the other root causes of poverty.”
He added: “By measuring these things, it is my hope that future governments can never again ignore or misrepresent the true nature of poverty in Britain.
“To paraphrase Joseph Stiglitz: we are creating the right metrics so that we will strive for the right things.”
Labour says the government is trying to hide the true extent of child poverty in Britain.
Shadow Minister for Disabled People, Debbie Abrahams, said: “Being able to pay their rent is an increasing issue; 443,000 are currently affected. Having a secure, warm home with healthy, nutritious food are basic physiological needs.
“When these needs are not there, people’s health suffers both physically and mentally. This is particularly the case for children as they are developing. Being in work or well-educated does not guarantee these essential needs; money does.”
In a blistering attack against her own party, Tory back bencher Heidi Allen called on colleagues to show a little compassion and “look after the little man”.
Ms Allen also challenged claims made by the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, as well other ministers from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), that ESA currently acts as a disincentive to work because claimants are paid more than JSA.
“If they’re stuck there, that to me says more about DWP processes failing rather than an active choice of the claimant.
“Anyone who has beaten cancer must surely burst with desire to return to a normal life.”
With cheers from opposition benches, Ms Allen issued a “warning shot” against the government’s relentless assault against vulnerable and disabled people.
“This is my warning shot to government”, she said.
“Today I will not support them. Today I may abstain, but only for today.”
Dr Fran Woodard, policy director at cancer support charity Macmillan, said the government’s refusal to shelve planned cuts to ESA “is a serious blow” to people with cancer and other health conditions.
“Every penny counts when someone can’t work because of cancer, and taking away vital financial support can be a serious blow to people when they are at their most vulnerable”, she said.
“The Government must urgently reconsider their decision; if they press ahead, the planned changes could seriously hinder the full recovery of people with cancer.”
Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, said cutting ESA will do nothing to help sick and disabled people return to work.
“We are extremely disappointed to hear that MPs have voted to cut the financial support available to people who cannot work because of illness or disability.
“Reducing the amount provided will make people’s lives even more difficult and will do nothing to help them return to work, especially given that there is a relationship between financial difficulties and experience of mental health problems.
Mr Farmer blasted “misguided” and “insulting” claims by government ministers that cutting benefits would motivate sick and disabled people into work.
“Implying that ill and disabled people will be motivated into work if their benefits are cut is misguided and insulting”, he said.
“Misguided for failing to take into account the many reasons someone with a mental health problem might struggle to find or stay in employment – such as the impact a mental health problem can have on them or their ability to work, lack of personalised support, problems accessing services, waiting times for talking therapies, side effects of medication, and the attitudes and flexibility of employers.
“Insulting because it’s based on the assumption that people with mental health problems are deliberately failing to find work because they prefer to stay on benefits, which simply isn’t the case.
“The vast majority of people with mental health problems would like to work and the Government has acknowledged the high ‘want to work’ rate of people with mental health problems, yet the sanctions and cuts coming in imply the opposite.
“We’ve already seen how many people supported by ESA are being pushed into activities that are often generic, under the threat of benefit cuts, and don’t take into account their barriers to work, skills or ambitions.
“We need a supportive benefits system that works with people, not against them. One that offers truly personalised support delivered by people with expertise in mental health.”
The Welfare Reform and Work Bill will now pass back to the House of Lords, where Peers will have the opportunity to make further recommendations, in a process known as “ping pong”.