Planned cuts to out-of-work disability benefits will lead to more “tragedies” in which disabled people will lose their lives, Labour’s new shadow minister for disabled people has told fellow MPs.
Debbie Abrahams, a former public health consultant, was speaking as she and fellow opposition MPs failed in their first attempt to throw out plans to cut 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.
Abrahams (pictured, speaking at a Labour conference fringe event) pointed to the government’s own figures, which showed that the death rate of people on out-of-work disability benefits had increased – in comparison with the general population – from 2003 to the period between 2011 and 2014.
She pointed out that people in the WRAG were 2.2 times more likely to die than the general population.
She said: “The innuendo that people with a disability or illness might be ‘faking it’ or are ‘feckless’ is quite frankly grotesque and belies the epidemiological data.
“Incapacity benefit and ESA are recognised as good population health indicators. I can say that as a former public health consultant. I have experience of this and I have worked in this field.
“The release of the government’s own data, which show that this group are more likely to die than the general population, proves that point.”
Abrahams said the government had “continually maligned, vilified and demonised” benefit claimants, while its use of words like “shirkers” and “scroungers” had led to these terms being used far more often in the media.
She said: “This group of people are vulnerable and need care and support, not humiliation, from us.
“Once again the cart is being put before the horse: make cuts in support and cross your fingers that something turns up for disabled people.”
Priti Patel, the employment minister, said the work-related activity component was introduced by the last Labour government “as an incentive to encourage people to participate in employment”.
She said: “Clearly, we know that that has not happened. We are therefore reforming our approach with DWP, through our jobcentres and work coaches, to support individuals to get back into work.”
She added: “Through all our welfare reforms we have made it clear that we will continue to protect and support the vulnerable.
“That of course includes those who have terminal illnesses or people with progressive illnesses who are unable to work.”
During discussion of a related clause of the bill, Patel added: “It is very easy for Labour members to claim that the [WRAG] measure is about taking money away.
“It is about providing the right kind of support for people with health conditions and disabilities.”
After Labour MP Naz Shah asked her if “the number of people who have committed suicide after sanctions have affected their mental health problems is acceptable”, Patel said that there was “no causal effect at all”.
Neil Coyle, a newly-elected Labour MP and a former director of Disability Rights UK, told Patel: “Some 440,000 disabled people have to pay the bedroom tax… and benefit rates have been frozen, including the vast majority of employment and support allowance benefit paid to disabled people.
“We have also had the change to disability living allowance.
“It is very frustrating to hear ministers continue to claim that disabled people have been protected when they clearly have not.”
Abrahams said the cuts to WRAG payments would affect 500,000 disabled people, according to the government’s own estimates, and she pointed to a “whole host” of other cuts to social security support for disabled people since 2010, as well as cuts to social care.
She said the UK was currently ranked only 19th of 32 European states on how much it spends on disabled people (1.3 per cent of GDP), and that, by 2021, about £640 million a year will have been cut from disabled people’s support through the WRAG cut, while only £100 million a year of that would be spent on “unspecified” assistance to help them into work.
She told the committee: “With this cut to the ESA WRAG support without anything to replace it, the government are condemning more people with disabilities and their families to living in poverty, and I predict, unfortunately, that more tragedies will undoubtedly happen.”
The SNP’s Hannah Bardell said the proposal to reduce the WRAG payment by just under £30 a week was “completely immoral and makes absolutely no sense”.
She said: “ESA claimants have always received a higher rate than those on JSA, because they typically take longer to move back into work, as they face additional barriers.”
She said: “The Conservative manifesto committed to halving the disability employment gap, but it is my party’s contention that the reduction in the ESA WRAG component will in fact present more barriers to those with disabilities who are trying to get back to work.”
The part of the bill that will cut the WRAG payment was passed by the committee by nine votes to eight.