George Osborne told a delighted Conservative party conference in Birmingham this week that working-age benefits would have to be frozen for two years from April 2016 – if they win the next election.
It follows the one per cent cap on increases Osborne announced in his 2012 autumn statement.
He said the freeze would save more than £3 billion – in addition to £100 billion of cuts already made in this parliament, and as part of a further £25 billion in savings needed in the next parliament – but that “pensioner benefits and disability benefits will be excluded”.
A note included in Osborne’s press release states that benefits covered by the freeze include jobseeker’s allowance, tax credits, local housing allowance rates in housing benefit and “the work-related activity group [WRAG] component in employment and support allowance”.
The party made it clear that disability living allowance – and its working-age replacement, personal independence payment – would be protected from the freeze and would rise in line with inflation, as would the disability elements of benefits such as tax credits and universal credit.
The party also insisted that the support group component of ESA would be excluded from the cap.
Media coverage of the announcement repeated Osborne’s assertion that “disability benefits will be excluded”, with the chancellor continuing to insist that “the vulnerable and people with disabilities are protected”.
The BBC’s Nick Robinson wrote that the freeze would include “Employment Support Allowance paid to those judged capable of work but it would not affect pensions, disability benefits and maternity pay”.
The Daily Mail said that “benefits paid to disabled people, carers and pensioners are unaffected”, while the Daily Mirror wrote: “Pensioners, the disabled and new mums will not be hit”.
And Karim Sacoor, the current chair of the Conservative Disability Group, told Disability News Service (DNS): “From what I heard, it was clear in my mind that disabled people are protected.”
But DNS has confirmed with special advisers to both George Osborne and work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith that disabled people in the ESA support group – those with the highest support needs – will be hit by the freeze.
This is because the main ESA component – currently up to £72.40 a week for those over 25 – will be frozen for two years from April 2016, even though the support group top-up of £35.75 will continue to rise at the rate of inflation.
Those placed in the work-related activity group – for those with lower support needs – will see their entire ESA of up to £101.15 a week frozen for those two years.
Dr Sarah Campbell, principal co-author of the Spartacus report, said: “Sick and disabled people who, after a battery of tests, have been found unable to work, should be sheltered from government cuts and their benefits protected from a freeze.
“George Osborne has now twice been misleading by publicly claiming that disability benefits were or would be unaffected by government cuts: once from the one per cent uprating cap and now from the benefit freeze.
“Furthermore, both times the public has been misled into believing that only disabled people in the WRAG would be affected when in fact the support group of ESA also bears the brunt of these policies.
“Not only are the policies unfair, but this misinformation is wrong and unacceptable. Both MPs and the voters should know exactly who is paying the cost. The government should come clean and admit that disabled people are not protected.”
A spokesman for Osborne told DNS the chancellor had said the freeze excluded disability benefits “because it excludes disability living allowance and the personal independence payment, attendance allowance, industrial injuries disability benefit and carer’s allowance.
“The ESA main element and WRAG are included because it’s a work-related benefit.”
Shaun Webster, a project coordinator with CHANGE, a national human rights organisation led by disabled people, said the benefits freeze showed the government was “attacking the poor again”.
Webster, who was attending the conference through sponsorship from People First England (PFE), said: “It is always the poor that suffer. I don’t know why they don’t tax the rich people, the bankers who caused this mess.
“It is like we are being bullied. We have got learning disabilities and we are poor. It is just unfair. It is spiteful.”
Gary Bourlet, co-development lead at PFE, said he believed the benefits freeze showed that “we are getting away from a caring society”.
3 October 2014