Hundreds of thousands of disabled people without work are to be hit hard by further cuts to their support, despite the chancellor’s claims in his autumn statement that he was protecting disability benefits.
George Osborne announced this week that he would restrict the annual “uprating” increase in most working-age benefits to just one per cent for the next three years.
He claimed this would not include “disability benefits”, which would increase instead by the rate of inflation, but said it would apply to employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit.
This will mean that the main element of ESA – currently £71 – will rise by just one per cent next year, as will the extra element for claimants in the work-related activity group – currently £28.15 – for those disabled people expected to move eventually into jobs.
The extra element for those not expected to take part in any work-related activity – the support component, currently £34.05 – will rise by the rate of inflation, about 2.2 per cent, while the various ESA “premiums” will also rise by at least the rate of inflation.
Osborne said the measures would save a further £3.7 billion in 2015-16, added to the £18 billion a year already slashed from welfare spending under the coalition.
He also announced new budget cuts of one per cent next year, and two per cent the following year, for government departments that have already seen their budgets slashed since 2010, while local authorities will see their central government funding cut by another two per cent in 2014-15.
Only one of 90 backbench MPs who quizzed the chancellor in the subsequent two-hour debate mentioned the impact of the cuts on disabled people.
Osborne again appeared to be trying to drive a wedge between those in and out of work by saying that he needed to be “fair to the person who leaves home every morning to go out to work and sees that their neighbour is still asleep, living a life on benefits”.
He was criticised earlier this year by a disabled Conservative parliamentary candidate when he spoke about the unfairness of a “shift-worker” leaving for work early in the morning who looks up and sees “the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits”.
Many activists pointed out that there were good reasons why many disabled people would have their blinds or curtains closed early in the morning, related to both their impairments and the crisis in social care.
Disability Rights UK welcomed the protection for disabled people from the very low rises announced for some benefits, but said it was “very disappointed” with a number of other measures in the autumn statement, including the one per cent increase in ESA.
And it pointed to Osborne’s failure to mention social care spending, or provide any extra resources for cash-strapped social services departments, and warned that with the further cuts in government funding for councils it was “inevitable that disabled people and carers will lose help altogether or face ever higher charges for very basic support”.
The only politician who mentioned disability in the Commons debate that followed Osborne’s statement was Labour’s MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, who told the chancellor that “passing on a two per cent cut to local government will involve cuts to adult social services across the country, affecting the vulnerable, the disabled and the elderly”.
In reply, Osborne claimed the coalition had provided “billions more for social care”.
The Hardest Hit campaign – a coalition of organisations representing disabled people – said the one per cent rise in working-age benefits had “come at a time when the government’s Work Programme is failing to help disabled people back into work”.
It said that the chancellor’s decision on ESA “would mean a significant cash loss for thousands of disabled people who rely on this money to live their daily lives”, while other below-inflation rises to benefits such as working tax credits and housing benefit would pose “a serious threat” to disabled people’s independence and “a major compromise on quality of life”.
Steve Winyard, a Hardest Hit spokesman, added: “The 1.3 per cent portion of ESA claimants securing work through the Work Programme is a risible return and reflects not a desire [by] the other 98.7 per cent of claimants to stay in bed, as the chancellor appeared to suggest, but huge inefficiency in Work Programme contracts and ongoing barriers to work for disabled people.”
6 December 2012