This article titled “May adviser regrets saying benefits should only go to ‘really disabled’ people” was written by Heather Stewart Political editor, for theguardian.com on Monday 27th February 2017 13.14 UTC
George Freeman, the chair of the prime minister’s policy board, has expressed regret after defending government changes to benefits rules by saying funding should go to the “really disabled”.
The Department for Work and Pensions announced last week that it was tightening benefits rules in response to two tribunal rulings, including one that found people with extreme anxiety who struggle to leave the house should be given the same status as, for example, the partially sighted.
Freeman, the Mid Norfolk MP, who was a carer as a child, said in a series of tweets that he “hugely regrets” any offence caused by his remarks.
Interviewed on Sunday about the rule changes, which would prevent what would otherwise have been a £3.6bn increase in the benefits bill, Freeman criticised “some bizarre decisions by tribunals that now mean benefits are being given to people who are taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety”.
He told Pienaar’s Politics on BBC 5 Live: “We want to make sure we get the money to the really disabled people who need it.”
When challenged about his comments on anxiety, Freeman said: “I totally understand anxiety and so does the prime minister. We’ve set out in the mental health strategy how seriously we take it.”
On Monday, under pressure over the comments, Freeman said: “Having experienced myself traumatic anxiety as a child carer living with alcohol, I know all too well the pain anxiety and depression causes, which is why as a former health minister and policy adviser I am passionate about supporting mental health and disability, and hugely regret if my comment about the need to prioritise the most serious disabilities inadvertently caused any offence which was not intended.”
Some Conservative backbenchers, including Heidi Allen, the South Cambridgeshire MP, are among those who have expressed concern about the tightening of the rules on personal independence payments (Pip), which also prevent those living with long-term conditions such as diabetes and monitoring themselves being classed alongside patients receiving kidney dialysis.
The rule changes, announced just days before the budget, have reminded some of George Osborne’s ill-fated attempt to claw back money from the disability benefits bill at last year’s budget, which prompted the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith.
The government hopes to push through the required shifts to disability rules through a “statutory instrument” in the House of Commons.
The Liberal Democrats’ leader, Tim Farron, has tabled a motion seeking to block the changes by “praying against” them – a formal parliamentary manoeuvre that could force the government to offer a debate on the changes, if it gains enough support from MPs.
As chair of May’s policy board, Freeman is responsible for long-term thinking on issues including intergenerational fairness and NHS funding.
Farron said: “The government is in real trouble with these Pip changes. While senior Conservatives make deeply crass and offensive remarks, many disabled people are worried about what the future will bring.
“The Liberal Democrats have tabled a motion in the House of Lords to kill these regulations and have now done the same in the Commons. I am calling on Labour and Conservative backbenchers to sign this motion and help us block these deeply damaging cuts.”
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