The government has abandoned plans to tighten eligibility for its new disability benefit, but has refused to reconsider cuts to out-of-work disability benefits that were approved by parliament earlier this month.
The announcement that the government was withdrawing plans to cut spending on personal independence payment (PIP) – which would have affected 370,000 disabled people by 2020-21 – was made by the new work and pensions secretary, Stephen Crabb, following the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith.
The announcement of the U-turn was greeted with relief by disabled people and disability organisations, alongside widespread anger at Duncan Smith and his attempt to paint himself as a defender of disabled people’s rights in his resignation letter and a subsequent interview with the BBC.
He claimed in the letter to the prime minister that cuts to PIP – which he had earlier defended in parliament – were “a compromise too far” and “not defensible in the way they were placed within a Budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers”.
In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Duncan Smith said he was concerned about the government’s policies being “perceived” as a “very limited narrow attack on working-age benefits”.
He said that, by 2019-20, the present and previous governments would have taken £33 billion a year from spending on working-age benefits, which he said was “going too far”.
But disabled activists poured scorn on his claims to be defending disabled people.
Disabled researcher and campaigner Catherine Hale said: “IDS ruined disabled people’s lives in so many ways.
“It was not only the financial cuts, which he now claims were all [George] Osborne’s idea. It was also the systematic shaming and bullying of disabled people and the callous inhumanity of the regime he presided over.”
Ian Jones, co-founder of the WOWcampaign, said: “The resignation of Iain Duncan Smith and the admission that this Tory government deliberately targeted austerity cuts at disabled people and others they viewed as unlikely to vote for them, demonstrates their intention to punish disabled people for the 2008 financial crash.”
Ellen Clifford, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), told BBC Radio 5 live that DPAC was “absolutely delighted” that Duncan Smith had quit, because he had caused “untold suffering to disabled people”.
She dismissed claims that Duncan Smith had taken a “principled stand” and stressed that he had defended the PIP cuts “all the way through” until his resignation, and had been “self-delusional about the amount of harm he has caused”.
Concerns about the planned cuts to PIP of £4.4 billion over five years were used by Duncan Smith to justify his decision to resign, although many commentators suggested he had been looking for an excuse to quit the cabinet in order to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.
In the interview with Andrew Marr, Duncan Smith appeared to suggest that the PIP cuts would have been acceptable if they had not been included in the budget alongside tax cuts for high earners.
Only last week, Duncan Smith told MPs that the PIP cuts were “the right way to go and will improve the lot of the worst off”.
Despite the PIP U-turn, there appears little chance that the government will also reverse cuts to employment and support allowance (ESA).
Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, confirmed in the House of Lords that the government had no intention of abandoning the ESA cuts, which were a key and controversial part of the welfare reform and work bill, which passed its final parliamentary hurdle this month.
He told the disabled crossbench peer Lord [Colin] Low – who had led opposition to the ESA measure in the Lords – that the government had “no plans” to reconsider the cuts, which will see a loss of nearly £30 a week for new ESA claimants placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) from April 2017.
When asked the same question yesterday (23 March), prime minister David Cameron also refused to reconsider the WRAG cut, telling MPs that “the changes to employment and support allowance have been through both Houses of Parliament”.
Meanwhile, Duncan Smith’s replacement has already faced the embarrassment of being contradicted by the Treasury as he was delivering his first statement to the House of Commons.
While Crabb was telling MPs that the government would make no further savings to working-age benefits, Treasury sources were briefing a newspaper that he was wrong and that they were not ruling out future cuts to welfare spending later in this parliament.
Further embarrassment came after it emerged that Crabb had tried to justify voting for the WRAG cuts on his Facebook page – before his appointment as work and pensions secretary – by arguing that ESA claimants placed in the WRAG were “able to work”, a statement he later admitted to fellow MPs was untrue.
Crabb is likely to face fresh embarrassment within months because he is the constituency MP for Paul and Susan Rutherford, the disabled couple who are taking on his Department for Work and Pensions over whether the “bedroom tax” discriminates “unjustifiably” against disabled people.
A ruling on their case – along with other disability-related bedroom tax cases – is expected from the Supreme Court before its summer break.