This article titled “Disability benefit change shows Tories are still ‘nasty party’, says Corbyn” was written by Peter Walker and Jessica Elgot, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 1st March 2017 14.08 UTC
Jeremy Corbyn has accused Theresa May of turning the Conservatives back into “the nasty party” by quietly announcing a change to rules on disability benefits.
The Labour leader told prime minister’s questions that the government had “sneaked” out the announcement that it was overturning two tribunal rulings on personal independence payments, including one that found people with extreme anxiety should be given the same status as those who are blind.
May responded by saying the pensions secretary, Damian Green, had made a written statement to parliament, briefed officials and called the office of his Labour shadow, Debbie Abrahams, only to get no answer or any response for four days.
Corbyn responded by disputing that anyone had tried to contact Abrahams’ office, and called the decision over the personal independence payments, known as PIPs, “shameful”.
Recalling May’s speech to the 2002 Conservative conference, when she warned it must shed its reputation as “the nasty party”, Corbyn noted comments over the weekend by George Freeman, the Tory MP who heads May’s policy unit.
Freeman said PIP benefits should go to “really disabled people” rather than those with mental health problems. Corbyn asked: “Isn’t that proof the nasty party is still around?”
May stressed Freeman had apologised for his comments. And she argued repeatedly that the reversal of the tribunal decisions did not amount to any sort of cut.
The row over when Abrahams was briefed about the decision continued once prime minister’s questions was over. May’s spokesman said Green phoned on Thursday afternoon last week. “My understanding is that repeated telephone calls were made to the shadow, but they weren’t answered,” he told reporters.
“They were made to both parliamentary and constituency offices and a personal call directly from Damian [Green] direct to Debbie and a voicemail. That was on Thursday to the parliamentary and constituency offices. It was at the time of the written statement.”
Corbyn’s spokesman said the message was left “in out of office hours” and was not received until the party was already dealing with the implications of the statement.
Abrahams tweeted that a message was left with her constituency office on Thursday evening, after Green’s statement was released.
Another message from Green had been left on her mobile on Monday morning, Abrahams said. “Four days after he sneaked out the statement and a day after Freeman’s comments,” she tweeted.
At prime minister’s questions, May insisted that the PIP decision was “not a policy change”. She said: “This is not a cut in the amount that is going to be spent on disability benefits. And no one is going to see a reduction in their benefits from that previously awarded by the DWP.
“What we are doing is restoring this particular payment to the original intention that was agreed by the coalition government, agreed by this parliament after extensive consultation.”
Corbyn said: “The reality is, this is a shameful decision that will affect people with dementia, those suffering cognitive disorders due to a stroke, military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and those with schizophrenia.
“Can she look at the effects of her decision to override what an independent court has decided and think again?”
May responded by arguing that it was a Conservative government that established a policy of parity of esteem for mental health treatment in the NHS, adding: “How many years were Labour in government and did nothing about that? Thirteen years.”
The prime minister also returned to a familiar theme of recent prime minister’s questions, arguing that Corbyn’s proposed economic policies would threaten health spending.
“If you’re going to be able to provide treatment for people with mental health conditions, you need to have the strong economy that enables us to pay for it,” she said. “And the one thing we know about Labour is they would bankrupt Britain.”
Corbyn stuck to the same questioning, saying: “Can the prime minister look again at the decision of the court, look again at the consequences of it, and withdraw this nasty decision, accept the court’s judgment, and support those going through a very difficult time in their lives. That is how we will all be judged.”
May also used the session to direct jabs at Corbyn over the Conservatives’ capture of Copeland from Labour in last week’s byelection, the first time the seat had changed hands since 1935.
It began with a question from Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, asking May if she agreed the Copeland result was “an endorsement” of her record as PM, with which she agreed heartily.
May ended by recounting a comment from the Labour frontbencher Cat Smith calling Copeland an “incredible result” for Labour.
May continued, her voice dripping with sarcasm: “I think that word actually describes the right honourable gentleman’s leadership – incredible.”
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