The government is likely to face legal action if it pushes ahead with plans to cut the out-of-work disability benefits of hundreds of thousands of claimants by £1,500 a year, say disabled activists.
The warning came as Conservative MPs overturned a House of Lords amendment which had removed the proposed cut from the welfare reform and work bill.
The bill will now return to the House of Lords on Monday (29 February), but it is thought almost inevitable that the government will force through the cut, even if peers vote to reinstate their amendment.
If the measure becomes law, weekly payments for new claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) who are placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) – for those found to have limited capability for work – will be cut from £102.15 to £73.10, a loss of about £1,500 a year.
Ministers have argued that the extra £29 a week acts as a disincentive to find work for sick and disabled people in the WRAG.
They plan eventually to spend an extra £100 million a year of the annual £640 million savings from the WRAG cut on improving employment support for disabled people.
Priti Patel, the employment minister, told MPs this week that a “taskforce”, including representatives of disability charities Scope, Leonard Cheshire Disability, RNIB and the National Autistic Society, as well as the government’s Disability Action Alliance network, which is chaired by Disability Rights UK, would help decide how that money would be spent.
The user-led grassroots campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) has already taken advice from a barrister, and has been told that a legal challenge – arguing that the group of disabled people affected would be discriminated against under the Equality Act – has a good chance of success, but could only be taken once the cut has been implemented from April 2017.
Debbie Jolly, a co-founder of DPAC, said: “DPAC looked at the legal routes to challenge the £30 cut to the WRAG when it was first put forward as a possibility.
“Unfortunately, we cannot challenge it until it happens. However, we will, in our usual way, be calling for people to help us take a legal challenge if this goes all the way through.
“The cut is yet another illustration of this government’s contempt for disabled people, and any disability charity taskforce that helps to institute it is deserving of the contempt of disabled people.”
Disabled activist Rick Burgess, from Manchester DPAC, said the cut to WRAG payments was “cruel and nasty”.
He said: “It will take lives, it will ruin lives, because of the added stresses that the poverty will create.
“The fight isn’t over, but if this ends with the government pushing this through then it will be down to legal challenges.”
Burgess called on disabled people affected by the cut to “try to hold yourselves together”.
He said: “It’s a nasty fight but it’s going to go on. These are dark days but there will be some light sooner or later.”
He said he believed the government would find a way to extend the measure to existing WRAG members and not just new claimants.
Burgess said the government could eventually make similar cuts to those in the ESA support group, and would justify this by saying that sick and disabled people facing extra disability-related costs should claim personal independence payment.
Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “There is no evidence that the £30 a week paid to disabled people in the WRAG acts as a disincentive to work.
“Instead, all the evidence from a recent parliamentary review finds that the cut will make it difficult for disabled people to be able to afford to take part in things like training and work experience.
“It will also lead to disabled people struggling to pay food and heating bills, which will have a damaging impact on their physical and mental health.”
There was disappointment among campaigners that only one of four Tory MPs who had spoken out against the cut – Stephen McPartland – voted against the government, while another, Heidi Allen, abstained.
Allen had told MPs in this week’s debate: “I do not believe mentoring and support alone will heat the home of someone recovering from chemotherapy or help the man with Parkinson’s who needs a little bit of extra help.
“I remain unconvinced that these people do not also have financial needs.”
McPartland told the debate: “I do not accept that £30 a week is an incentive for somebody not to go to work.”
He added: “My concern is that the way in which the bill will be perceived, and its practical implications, will lead some people who have disabilities to feel as though they are being pushed into the support group or into work.”
Dr Eilidh Whiteford, who leads for SNP on social justice and welfare in Westminster, accused the government of “putting sick and disabled people on the frontline of their austerity agenda, hitting the incomes of those who are already disadvantaged”.
She added: “The cuts to ESA will cause real hardship and are quite unnecessary. They are based on a flawed and frankly offensive misconception that people with serious long-term health conditions are malingerers who need to be prompted into work with ‘tough love’.”
The vote saw a comfortable government victory by 306 votes to 279, while an equivalent measure affecting disabled claimants of universal credit was approved by 304 votes to 280.
Employment minister Priti Patel declined to answer Labour’s Stephen Timms when he asked her to name a single disability organisation that backed the WRAG cut.
She told MPs that as only one per cent of those in the WRAG move off ESA every month, the benefit was “not working as anyone intended it to work” and that the “fixation on welfare… traps people into dependency”.
The disabled Conservative MP Paul Maynard backed the government’s position and said that agreeing to the Lords amendment would mean that “we will not get a £100 million fund placed in the hands of the third sector to support people with limited capacity for work to try to get back into employment. That would be a wasted opportunity.”
He said ESA was a “dinosaur of a benefit” which “needs to be taken to the knacker’s yard and put out of its misery”, a measure he hoped would be included in the government’s forthcoming employment support white paper.