Ministerial proposals to cut £30 a week from the benefits of ill and disabled people found unfit to work have been criticised by the government’s equalities watchdog.
The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHCR) says the proposed cuts will disproportionately affect disabled people, widen inequalities and undermine the UK’s human rights obligations.
Separately, a scathing letter by the head of the EHCR warns that official assessments of the cut’s impact on disabled people “contain very little in the way of evidence” and “limited analysis” of the consequences for claimants.
The proposed cuts to employment and support allowance (ESA) will be debated again in the House of Commons on Wednesday after peers inflicted a second defeat for the government on the issue in the House of Lords earlier this week.
Ministers have been persistently challenged by peers over the apparent lack of evidence supporting the controversial cut, which the government claims will provide claimants with an “incentive” to find work.
On Monday peers successfully voted through an amendment to the welfare and work bill requiring the government to deliver a formal assessment of the impact of the cut on the health, finances and work prospects of an estimated 500,000 ESA claimants, who would see their benefits reduced by £1,500 a year.
The EHRC said the proposed cut will “cause unnecessary hardship and anxiety to people who have been independently assessed and found unfit for work”.
Letters obtained under freedom of information and seen by the Guardian reveal that the EHCR wrote to Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, in September offering advice to ensure the welfare reform bill draft aligned with the government’s equalities duties and international human rights obligations.
Duncan Smith’s reply suggests the government did not take up the offer, but sought to assure the ECHR that he took seriously his “responsibilities under the Equality Act to pay due regard to the public sector equality duty during the policy development process and the implementation of these important welfare reforms”.
The secretary of state defends the quality of the official impact studies as “the most robust analysis available to give a good assessment of both the rational for and the impacts of the reforms”.
But a letter sent a fortnight ago from EHRC’s chief executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, to the Labour MP Roger Godsiff, says the government’s impact assessments lack detailed consideration of the likely impact of the cuts on disabled people.
“[The assessments] contain very little in the way of of evidence and this limits the accompanying analysis and the scope for parliamentary scrutiny and informed decision-making on the proposed legislative changes.”
The letter describes the official analysis of the impact of the ESA changes as “very limited” with no attempt to break down the limited data available to show how the cut will affect people with different forms of disability.
“This makes it difficult to understand whether the changes will affect, for example, people with some types of physical disability more or less than people with particular types of poor mental health or who experience bouts of ill-health and may therefore be in and out of work.
“It is also unclear whether applying the changes to new claimants will mean they have a more significant impact on younger disabled people or new migrant workers.”
It concludes: “These are the kinds of matters that we might have expected a more thorough analysis to have considered.”
Campaigners called on MPs to reject the government’s “entirely untenable” ESA cuts proposals and back the Lords’ amendment.
Steve Ford, the chief executive of the charity Parkinson’s UK, said: “The EHRC has provided a clear independent view on this. There is absolutely no evidence to support these proposals or any analysis into the impact they will have on people with Parkinson’s and other long term conditions.
“These are not the actions of a responsible government.”
During the last Commons vote on the ESA cuts last month, two Tory MPs – Stephen McParland and Jason McCartney – voted against the government while a third, Heidi Allen, warned that she may rebel in a future vote.
The ESA cuts would affect new claimants placed in the work-related activity group (Wrag) – meaning they have been formally declared to be too ill to work but well enough to undergo work-related interviews or training – from April 2017.
There are currently about 500,000 people in the Wrag. The cut to Wrag payments would see a person’s weekly unemployment benefit fall from £102.15 to £73.10, providing an estimated saving to the Treasury of £1.4bn over four years.
Critics argue there is no evidence that the proposed cut would help ESA Wrag recipients get back into employment, but will push claimants further into hardship and poverty.
A DWP spokesman said: “The current system needs reform because it fails to provide the right incentives to work, and acts to trap people on welfare. We are committed to ensuring that people have the best support possible, and that is what these changes are about.
“Current ESA claimants will continue to get the same level of support, and those with the most severe health conditions and disabilities will continue to get a higher rate of benefit.”
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