The House of Commons has voted in favour of the proposal to cut the payments given to people in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) by £30 per week – a third of the benefit.
Disability charities have reacted with dismay and anger to the decision, branding the cut “misguided and insulting”.
The Commons’ decision overturns amendments to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill made by the House of Lords, which would have protected the amount people supported by disability benefits are paid.
This means that, from April 2017, many people who are in the WRAG of ESA – who have been assessed as currently being unable to work due to illness or disability, but are given support so they may move towards employment in the future – will receive £30 per less a week than current claimants. Currently almost 500,000 sick and disabled people receive this benefit.
The motive behind the move is that the government has suggested that sick and disabled people who get this benefit are being disincentivised from finding work because of the £30-a-week more they get compared to those on Jobseeker’s Allowance. However, the Disability Benefits Consortium strongly disputes this claim and a survey in October 2015 of more than 500 disabled people found this to be completely false:
• 45% of respondents said that the cut would probably mean they would return to work later
• Just 1% said the cut would motivate them to get a job sooner
• 69% said cuts to ESA will cause their health to suffer
• 28% said they sometimes can’t afford to eat on the current amount they receive from ESA
• 40% have become more isolated and less able to see friends or family after their ESA was withdrawn or reduced.
In addition, a review by 3 peers – Baroness Meacher, Baroness Grey-Thompson and Lord Low – found “no evidence to suggest that disabled people can be incentivised into work by cutting their benefits.”
Disability charities have decried the decision. Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said: “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.
“Implying that ill and disabled people will be motivated into work if their benefits are cut is misguided and insulting. 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.”
Rob Holland, parliamentary manager at learning disability charity Mencap added: “Today’s [February 23] debate heard MPs from all parties express their deep concerns around the government’s proposed cut to the WRAG of ESA and the equivalent in Universal Credit. This adds to opposition already expressed from disabled people, the House of Lords, charities, and the public of which just 6% think cuts to welfare will make the UK a better place for disabled people to live. The opposition across society to this cut is overwhelming.
“People with a learning disability will be disappointed to see the government continue to try and force this cut through despite their promise to protect disability benefits. Just 6% of people with a learning disability are in employment; however the government are still yet to provide any robust evidence that cutting ESA WRAG will improve this number. In fact, the evidence available shows it will push disabled people further away from the job market, and closer to poverty.
“With MPs from all parties now publically expressing concern around the damaging effects of this cut we urge the government to halt this cut, and consider how cutting ESA WRAG will directly undermine their desire to get more disabled people into work.”