Osborne secretly plans £2.5bn cut to sickness benefit

Leaked document shows that the Chancellor wants to slash support for people too ill to work.

Leaked document shows that the Chancellor wants to slash support for people too ill to work.

Leaked documents have shown that George Osborne is secretly planning to cut sickness benefits by £2.5bn.

The plan is detailed in a confidential letter from Osborne to the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, which was seen by the Observer.

Written on 19 June (three days before the Emergency Budget) and also sent to David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the letter says:

Given the pressure on overall public spending in the coming period, we will need to continue developing further options to reform the benefits as part of the spending review process in order to deliver further savings, greater simplicity and stronger work incentives.

Reform to the employment support allowance is a particular priority and I am pleased that you, the prime minister and I have agreed to press ahead with reforms to the ESA as part of the spending review that will deliver net savings of at least £2.5bn by 2014-15.

The employment and support allowance (ESA) is the successor to incapacity benefits, and is paid to those who are unable to work because of disability or illness.

Duncan Smith is currently locked into negotiations with the Treasury over his proposed reform to the welfare system, which will require immediate investment in order to incentivise working in the long-term.

This revelation has done little to ease the tension. The Department for Work and Pensions insisted that nothing has been decided, stressing that "our reforms will ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected." Some within Duncan Smith's camp have even accused the Treasury of leaking the letter to force them into accepting the plan.

The proposed cuts are disturbing, but hardly surprising. Just last week, Osborne launched an astonishing attack on people who have made the "lifestyle choice" to be on benefits, announcing an extra £4bn cuts.

A government spokeswoman dismissed the leak, saying that the £2.5bn figure was "totally out of date", and that negotiations on ESA were ongoing. Possible changes could include means-testing recipients, and limiting the amount of time that people can spend on ESA.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies showed unequivocally last month that the Budget was regressive, and would disproportionately affect the very poorest in society. To this already punitive Budget, with its drastic cuts to housing benefits, add the extra reductions that Osborne announced last week and this latest news. You have a picture of an assault on the welfare state and a worrying propensity to go after the most vulnerable in society.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.