The government is facing a growing Tory rebellion against George Osborne’s plans to cut £4.4bn from benefits for disabled people over the course of the parliament.
Downing Street was forced to defend cuts to personal independence payments (PIP) for people who need aids to help them dress and use the toilet, as the leading rebel Andrew Percy accused the chancellor of hitting “exactly the wrong people”.
The MP for Brigg and Goole, who wrote to the chancellor last week to express concerns about the changes to PIP, told The World at One on BBC Radio 4: “The government has a very small majority. So you don’t need very many for this to be a problem of parliamentary arithmetic. But it is fair to say that the numbers on this who have expressed concern directly to ministers, to whips, to myself … are very significant indeed.”
Johnny Mercer, the Tory MP for Plymouth Moor View, tweeted: “Concerned by proposed changes to PIP. Not sure right direction. We must look after our most vulnerable at every turn. No doubt welfare spend still too high, but for those who really need it, it is lifeline.”
The row erupted after the budget revealed that the chancellor’s biggest single revenue-raising measure over the next five years would be cutting PIP by £1.3bn. Disability rights groups said the changes would be a devastating blow to disabled people who relied on the benefit to help them live on their own.
Three Tory MPs have also been asked to step down as patrons of prominent disability charities on the back of supporting budget slashes to disability allowances.
Zac Goldsmith, the tory London mayoral candidate, resigned on Wednesday as patron of his local disability charity after coming under pressure for voting for disability benefit cuts. He was criticised by Richmond AID, the west London disability charity, earlier this month when he supported cutting £30 a week from disabled people claiming Employment Support Allowance (ESA) – despite warnings from charities that the benefit barely covers basic living costs and would have a “severe and detrimental impact on the lives of disabled people”.
Kit Malthouse, the MP for North West Hampshire, was told to resign as patron of the MS Society, the national charity that campaigns on issues surrounding multiple sclerosis, and was no longer seen as “suitable” for the position after he voted in favour of cuts to ESA that would see MS sufferers among hundreds of thousands of disabled people to lose critical allowances.
James Cleverly, the MP for Braintree, was also told to resign as patron with “immediate effect” by Advocacy for All, a charity that works to help vulnerable people in the local area, who said they were “surprised and disappointed” to learn he had voted for £30 a week cuts to ESA benefits.
Responding to the budget announcements, the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC), a national coalition of more than 60 charities, said: “These changes could have harmful consequences for the health and independence of the 640,000 affected disabled people, and significant cost implications for the NHS and local authority social care services as a result.”
The DBC reported how 28% of people on the current work-related activity group (Wrag) rate have been unable to afford food, while 38% have been unable to heat their homes.
A Labour analysis found the disability cuts would deny 200,000 claimants access to PIP worth almost £3,000 a year, with a further 400,000 seeing their entitlements reduced.
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said that it was “morally reprehensible” to cut disability benefits while helping the rich with changes to capital gains tax and cutting corporation tax. McDonnell said about a “third of the cutbacks [Osborne] has been raising money from will fall on people with disabilities” by 2020-21.
Downing Street defended the cuts to PIP on the grounds that health professionals examining whether people were eligible found that after initial payments to fund aids to help disabled people the ongoing extra costs were low or non-existent in 96% of cases. A spokeswoman said: “Health professionals were asked to review cases where people qualified for personal independence payments based on a need for aids and appliances they have for their disability.
“What they found was in 96% of cases they were unlikely to have extra costs. For example they might have needed to have a hand toilet rail fitted in their home. Once that was completed they were unlikely to need significant extra costs over a sustained period that would therefore justify a weekly allowance.”
No 10 indicated that the government had no plans at the moment to back down. The spokeswoman said: “The government are clear on why we are proposing these changes. Spending on main disability benefits has gone up. We don’t think that the PIP payment is working as well as it could and making sure that the money that is going into this is being focused on the right people.
“What is important is that the government gets out there and explains to people, including MPs, the precise changes we are looking at here. [They] are very specific, they are relating to the criteria that make people eligible for qualifying for PIP whether that is requiring appliances to be able to undress or other needs. This is about making sure that we keep the money focused on those who need it most.”
But Percy warned the government that it must back down. He said: “The way in which this has been presented and the way in which it is a catch-all and is really more about the welfare cap and about welfare reform, this hits exactly the wrong people potentially. It sends out the wrong message about the priorities of the government.
“The package as a whole goes too far, the savings it makes are not appropriate and I don’t think can be justified. It is just not acceptable. We need to go away and think about this again.”
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