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2 April 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:07am

The untruth about benefits DWP ministers keep repeating

By Anoosh Chakelian

Ministers at the Department for Work & Pensions keep repeating the same misleading line about the benefits freeze with no repercussions.

Last week, as the Westminster world was absorbed by Brexit, the DWP minister for family support, housing and child maintenance Justin Tomlinson told MPs “disability benefits were exempt from the benefit freeze”.

The Work & Pensions Select Committee had been asking about the benefits freeze, and Tomlinson was responding to a question from Labour MP Ruth George about why “a lot of the freeze has fallen on Local Housing Allowance [housing benefit for private renters], which affects people who aren’t in work, people with disabilities who aren’t able to get into work, and pensioners as well”.

But Tomlinson’s assertion that disability benefits don’t fall under the benefits freeze – the policy introduced by the former chancellor George Osborne which stopped benefits rising in line with inflation from 2016 until 2020 – is wrong.

His mistake was picked up by the excellent Disability News Service last week, but has not been reported elsewhere.

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Here’s why the comment is misleading. Yes, Personal Independence Payments, disability premiums, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) support group and other disability benefits are exempt from the benefits freeze.

However, the ESA support group top-up payments only cover those with the severest work-limiting conditions. The main element of ESA (the personal allowance), and claimants in its work-related activity group (WRAG), are subject to the benefits freeze.

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This is not to mention how other frozen benefits – such as the housing benefit mentioned at the Work & Pensions Select Committee hearing last week – affect people with disabilities or long-term illnesses.

So Tomlinson is wrong. Non-support group ESA is for people with disabilities and illnesses that are affecting their ability to work. It is subject to the freeze. Therefore not all “disability benefits were exempt from the benefit freeze”.

This repeats a comment from the former disability minister Sarah Newton last June, when she told MPs in a Westminster Hall debate that “there has been no freeze in the benefits that disabled people receive, and those benefits are not subject to the benefit cap”.

This is misleading for the same reason as Tomlinson’s comments. The DWP did not provide an apology when the Disability News Service pointed it out at the time.

It may seem like a small omission for those unacquainted with the benefit system or the way disability or sickness can affect household finances and one’s ability to work. But it overlooks the 2.2 million people claiming ESA (1.6 million of whom receive the support group top-up, the one unfrozen part of ESA) who are already marginalised by virtue of having to claim this benefit in the first place.

The DWP pointed me towards corrections made by Tomlinson in a written statement to parliament today, following four errors he made about uprating benefits in the House of Commons last month

This statement does not extend to his comment about disability benefits and the freeze – in fact, during the debate in question, he confirmed that only the “support component” of ESA would be uprated.

This was despite the shadow work & pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood and Independent Group leader Heidi Allen (formerly of the Tories) pointing out that the rest of ESA would be frozen. Allen called it a “glaring omission” to leave out “standard allowances in ESA… [for] those too ill to work”.

Tomlinson doubled down: “A number of speakers said that we were not supporting those too sick to work. Let me be absolutely clear that the Employment and Support Allowance support group rate will be increased from £37.65 to £38.55.”

So how do you explain these ministers’ misleading statements? Well, within the DWP, ESA is not actually considered a disability benefit. It’s classed as an “income replacement benefit” for people who “have a health condition or disability”. This is why it is subject to the benefit freeze, which only applies to working-age benefits.

Much harder to explain is why people with health conditions or disabilities are having their benefits frozen – whatever the jargon.