Opposition MPs have failed in their latest attempt to defeat government plans to cut out-of-work disability benefits.
The government is using its welfare reform and work bill to reduce support for new claimants placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) of employment and support allowance (ESA) by nearly £30 a week from April 2017.
But Labour and SNP attempts to introduce a string of changes to the bill, including scrapping the WRAG cut, were defeated by Conservative MPs.
Their failed attempt came after members of the House of Lords succeeded in delaying government plans to cut tax credits.
Among the changes suggested by Labour and SNP MPs was a measure that would have forced the government to ensure an independent review of the benefits sanctions regime.
Debbie Abrahams (pictured), Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, speaking in the main chamber for the first time in that role, said the welfare reform and work bill was “wicked” and the proposed cut to WRAG payments was “a disgrace”.
And she questioned why the government had not yet carried out a cumulative impact assessment of the changes in the bill on disabled people, as it should have done under the Equality Act.
She said: “There is no analysis of the impact that this will have on the disabled people who will be pushed into poverty.
“Half a million disabled people will be affected and lose £30 a week – nearly a third of their weekly income.”
Abrahams pointed to the government’s refusal to publish 49 internal reviews of benefit-related deaths – whose existence was first revealed by Disability News Service – and said the government’s failure to order an independent review of its sanctions regime was “a slap in the face of everyone affected by sanctions, including family members of those who have died”.
And she said it had been estimated that further planned reductions in the benefit cap “risk pushing tens of thousands of children, families and disabled people into poverty”.
She said: “We are the sixth wealthiest country in the world. It is not right that the government are seeking to secure the recovery on the backs of the working poor, their children and disabled people.”
Natalie McGarry, the SNP’s shadow disability spokeswoman, said: “We already know that the UK government’s austerity programme is impacting disproportionately on those living with disabilities and sicknesses and that it impairs their ability to work.
“We also know that there is absolutely no evidence that these policies of cuts will have a positive impact on moving those in the WRAG group into work.
“There is no evidence from the government, despite repeated requests for it to be produced.
“It is therefore absolutely shameful that, without any evidence, the Conservatives should have disabled people in their sights yet again, promising to cut nearly a third of ESA support for new claimants in the work-related activity group.”
But Priti Patel, the employment minister, said: “In 2008, when the then Labour government introduced ESA as a ‘radical reform package’, the work-related activity component was originally intended to act as an incentive to help people into work and to return quickly to work.
“However, the original estimates were incorrect and only one per cent of people in the work-related activity group left the benefit each month.
“It is clear, therefore, that the existing policy is not working and that it is failing claimants.”
She said that £100 million a year (by 2020) of the £640 million annual savings from the WRAG cut would be spent on helping “claimants with limited work capability but who have potential, because they want to move into work, to get closer to the labour market”.
Patel said the government kept the operation of its sanctions regime “under constant review”.
Opposition attempts to amend the bill, including the withdrawal of the WRAG cut, were defeated, and the bill was passed at both the report stage and third reading, and will now be debated by the House of Lords.