When the Lords voted down Iain Duncan Smith's attempt to slash £30 per week from employment and support allowance (ESA), campaigners thought they'd gained a small victory. They were wrong. Despite a number of Conservative backbenchers raising concerns about the cuts during a debate in the Commons yesterday, MPs rejected the Lords' amendments to the welfare reform bill.
Priti Patel was the minister tasked with defending taking money away from the sick and disabled. She did it by claiming the government had their best interests at heart. One of the first things the minister for employment said during the debate was that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) proposals would ensure "support is focused on the most vulnerable". That sounds reasonable enough. Except it's hard to think of many people more vulnerable than those suffering from Parkinson's, or cancer, or mental health problems. And that's who we're talking about here. Not people who can't be bothered to work, as the government tries to portray, but people with serious illnesses and disabilities who are unable to.
There are currently 500,000 people in the Work-Related Activity Group (Wrag), which is for claimants of ESA who the DWP consider incapable of work but who may be able to take steps towards returning to employment in the future. People in this group have to attend work-focused interviews (a meeting with an advisor who will discuss work options and support), and complete training programmes. The government's plans will see new Wrag payments slashed from £102.15 to £73.10.
IDS and his team argue that they want to help these people return to work, apparently a cut in benefits will act as incentive for them to do so. This suggests they are actively choosing a life on benefits and need a kick up the backside to go out and get a job. The reality is they are either simply too sick or disabled to be able to work or there is not enough practical support available to help them re-enter the job market. They have already been through the government's dreaded work capability assessment (WCA) and will, depending on their condition, be required to regularly do so again.
The DWP also sanctions the benefits of claimants who don't attend the support interviews or training. So even if all these people who ministers describe as needing an incentive to go back to work really exist, they would soon be rooted out.
In yesterday's debate, Patel did what this government so often does and does very well. She dodged difficult questions and instead repeated the same old lines which have been devised to paint a bad policy as a good one. Again and again she spoke of disabled people "needing more support", and of the government's commitment to help them "back to work". She insisted additional support for those affected will come and announced that a white paper would be published later this year on how to close the disability employment gap. But MPs were voting on cuts yesterday, not later this year, and they were doing so without any clear idea of what form this support will take.
Conservative MP Heidi Williams, who previously spoke out against cuts to tax credits, once again issued a warning about her party's cuts.
Tory PPS has just spent 10 minutes at back of HoC Chamber haranguing @heidiallen75 , I suspect 4 having temerity to agree ESA cuts r wrong.— Owen Smith (@OwenSmith_MP) February 23, 2016
"Let's get the detail right," she warned."Let's be a government of sweeping strategic change, but let's be one with the compassion and the dexterity to look after the little man too."
Numerous charities, including Macmillan Cancer Support, Mind and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), have warned of the impact the cuts will have. Most agree that if there is a problem with the Wrag it's that there is not enough support to help people into work, not that people need to be incentivised to do so.
Last night, the stark difference in reality between the views of IDS and the lives of the sick and disabled were on full display. While the work and pensions secretary was delivering a speech to the Centre for Social Justice on how he is improving the life chances of vulnerable people, some of the those affected by his cuts to ESA took to Twitter to express their dismay at the Commons vote.
"I'm too sick to work, I wish I was well," one said.
"I just can't think about the ESA cuts and the devastation they'll cause me and others," said another. There were many more.
The government claims to be listening to the concerns of disability groups but it's no good hearing what somebody says if you point blank refuse to act on it. In his crusade for what he calls social justice, IDS ignores the facts and ploughs on regardless. As for the thousands of people suffering because of his reforms, they are little more than collateral damage.