I usually only team up with the SNP in parliament’s football team, defending our back line. But now I find myself on the same side in a Commons motion on disability benefit cuts. It is about defending those recipients of Employment Support Allowance (ESA), who will find their £30 a week work-related activity group (WRAG) payment cut in April.
Of course concern about the vulnerable and disabled is a cross-party one. I reject the narrative advanced by the left which claims that Conservatives have failed to protect the vulnerable amid austerity. I also reject commentary from those on the right for condemning all welfare recipients for being work shy when we know that the vast majority are no such thing. It was therefore disappointing to hear the shadow minister playing this tune in the Commons this week. I have made the plea last year and I will say it again – it is time for those on the left and the right to stop weaponising welfare.
I am ready to stand up for the Conservatives’ record on disability and ready to “stand up for the weak”, as the Prime Minister pledged in her party conference speech, particularly when we are talking about disabled people. So it is right to point out that as a proportion of GDP the amount the UK spends on benefits for the disabled is double that of the United States, a fifth more than the European average, and six times that of Japan. We are spending more in real terms supporting disabled people this year than the £42.6bn spent by Labour when they left office, and more every year of this parliament than in 2010. Half a million more disabled people are in work than three years ago.
However, much more needs to be done, not least to reach the ambition of halving the disability employment gap. It is frankly a scandal that fewer than 5 in 10 disabled people are in employment compared with 8 in 10 non-disabled people. Back in February, I along with many Conservative colleagues supported the cuts to the ESA WRAG payment but only because we were convinced by the government’s commitment to long term reform. We accepted that it does not make sense for a benefit that was meant to help people back into work to result in only 1 per cent each month leaving ESA support.
There has been a one size fits all approach to disability and sickness which has not taken account of particular complex needs and long term conditions. Over 60 per cent of ESA recipients do not have access to integrated and personalised employment and health support. We recognised the need to look more widely about the issue of benefits and its links to health, and certainly beyond a cost cutting budget exercise. £30 matters particularly when you are disabled. Scope has found that on average – life costs £550 more per month if you happen to be disabled.
However, we supported the cuts to disability benefits with serious reservations but assurance that additional support would reach new WRAG claimants by April. Therefore much rides upon the outcomes of the Work, Health and Disability Green Paper which was published on Monday.
I very much welcome the direction of travel of the Green Paper. It recognises that work and meaningful activity can promote good health. It sets out a bold vision as Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green said it “marks a new era in joint working between the welfare and health systems.” At its heart is a “Personal Support Package” offering personalised and tailored support such as disability employment advisors and a guaranteed place on a work choice programme.
There is also the offer of a “Flexible Support Fund” which needs more details but raises the hope of providing relief for the new ESA WRAG claimants. It needs to be ready to work on a local level based upon the Green Paper’s aim of drawing together practical health and welfare needs. In order to receive cross party support the Green Paper will need to prove its long term ambition by delivering in the short term – by April for these vulnerable disabled people.
We can then have a wider debate which could begin as early as the Autumn Statement about how much we want to spend on the “safety net budget” – the budget which looks after the most vulnerable – as a percentage of GDP, rather than just discussing how much needs to be cut from the welfare budget overall. We should provide a careful analysis of the current and projected demand for the safety net, which links health and welfare, and set aside the cash required for it accordingly.
The budget for vulnerable people facing temporary or long term hardship should not consist of leftover crumbs once the welfare cake has been shared out with pensioners and child benefits and required savings. We should be clear before budget rounds that the safety net budget will be protected so that vulnerable people have nothing to fear. The government now has six months to build a bridge to a reformed system rather than leave the cliff edge in April of a £30 per week cut.
David Burrowes is the Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate