A disabled peer has launched a furious attack on MPs, after he was forced to admit defeat in the battle to prevent the government cutting out-of-work disability benefits for tens of thousands of claimants by £1,500 a year.
The decision, which will mean a loss of about £30 a week for new employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) from April 2017, has angered disabled peers, disabled activists, and disability organisations.
The government measure was described this week by campaigners and peers as “drastic and without justification”, “harsh”, “dreadful”, “punitive” and “counter-productive”.
MPs had twice blocked attempts by peers to throw out or delay the cuts, but the Lords finally had to admit defeat this week because parliamentary convention means MPs have the final say on matters that have financial implications for the government.
Lord [Colin] Low (pictured during the debate), who has led attempts in the Lords to defeat the WRAG measure, said: “The Commons have spoken decisively and we must bow to their wishes, but we do so under protest.
“Do not let anyone kid you that this is democracy in action. There is more to democracy than just being elected.”
He said the House of Lords was “much more democratic” than the Commons because it was more representative of the population, more accessible, more open and more responsive.
He said: “Organisations representing the needs of poor and dispossessed people find it much easier to get their point across and have it taken on board in the House of Lords than in the House of Commons.”
And he said that Tory whips – whose job it is to enforce the government’s wishes among its MPs – had been “working overtime” before the measure was voted on last week, and he accused them of “handing out bribes and blandishments like there was no tomorrow”.
Lord Low said he and his colleagues in the Lords had listened to disabled people, while the House of Commons had “preferred to listen to the government”, which failed to provide “any convincing reason” for their decision to cut WRAG payments.
He said the WRAG cut was “emblematic of the way in which this Conservative government have chosen to treat disabled people”.
He said: “The fact is that ministers are looking for large savings at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable.
“That was not made clear in the general election campaign; then, the prime minister said that disabled people would be protected.
“By this action, the government have betrayed the trust of disabled people and they should not be surprised if they forfeit it for the rest of their time in office.”
His fellow disabled crossbench peer, Baroness [Jane] Campbell, told her fellow peers: “The minister is asking us to have faith again today, but I hope and pray that we do not look back on this day as the moment when we pushed some of the most severely disabled people in Britain over the edge.”
She said she found it “very difficult when the niceties of parliamentary protocol trump the lives of disabled people”.
Baroness Campbell said that words had failed her last week when she heard the arguments made by ministers in favour of the WRAG cut.
She said: “In my view, our arguments were pretty indisputable, especially with regard to the absence of evidence that cutting severely disabled people’s employment and support allowance would incentivise them to work.”
A third disabled crossbencher, Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, said she was “deeply disappointed” at what had happened.
She said: “I and others spent a great deal of time last week working through every possibility of tabling another amendment to send this dreadful and punitive part of the bill back to the other place.
“Unfortunately, because of parliamentary procedure, that was not possible.”
She added: “I apologise to the people affected by this bill that, at this point, we could not do any more.
“This may be the end of the legislative process, but it is the start of the negative impact the bill will have on thousands of people’s lives.”
Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, paid tribute to the three disabled peers who he said had “argued so passionately against the changes that we are introducing”.
He said their concerns would be “right at the forefront of our minds—certainly of my mind” as the government finalises its forthcoming white paper on employment support for disabled people.
The bill has now cleared all of its parliamentary hurdles and only has to receive royal assent before it becomes law.
After the debate, Disability Rights UK said in a blog that the cut was “drastic and without justification”, was “terrible news” for disabled people, and “will do nothing to incentivise employment – quite the opposite”, while the government was “profoundly wrong to make this harsh and counter-productive cut”.
The charity added: “The risk that we are clearly facing is that from 2017, many disabled people will just be worse off – when already disabled people are so disproportionately affected by poverty.”