The minister for disabled people is working on urgent plans to cut the living costs faced by disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits, she has told MPs.
Penny Mordaunt was responding to warnings of the “human cost” of “bizarre” government plans to cut more than £1 billion from disabled benefit claimants over the four years from 2017-18.
From April, the highly-controversial cuts will see a £30-a-week reduction in payments to new claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) who have been placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG).
Ministers have tried to justify the cuts by claiming that they will “incentivise” sick and disabled people to find work.
But Mordaunt told MPs on the Commons work and pensions committee this week that she was working on a package of measures to “mitigate the £30”, which would be in place “before April”.
She provided few details of how she would do that, other than that she was working at “ensuring that someone’s outgoings can be managed”, and at reducing their “non-work-related costs”, such as energy, broadband and phone bills.
She was defending herself from accusations from the SNP’s Mhairi Black that government plans to cut the WRAG payments were “bizarre” and would have a “human cost”.
Black told Mordaunt that evidence submitted to the committee had “almost unanimously” been “heavily criticising” the cuts, while the plans were causing “more anxiety” to constituents who had visited her office.
She added: “You can’t incentivise people to get healthy.
“The cuts can have a detrimental impact on people’s health to the point where anxiety gets worse, depression gets worse…. surely that defeats the whole purpose.”
Mordaunt said she accepted that disabled people had the best chance of finding work, or returning to work, if “they don’t have other things to worry about”.
She added: “The evidence that people need further support is massive.”
And she said that “the 13 measures” laid out in the green paper – a package of support that will be available to new WRAG claimants – were “required”, and that “not doing that would be an extremely bad thing”.
When Labour’s Neil Coyle asked whether any of the disability groups Mordaunt claimed had backed the 13 measures had also supported the £30-a-week ESA cut, she said: “Funnily enough, no, but… I need to cover off those concerns that you have articulated.
“There are various ways I am exploring to do that. I recognise I have got to do that quickly.”
Heidi Allen, one of the Conservative MPs who has been most vocal in opposing the ESA cuts, told Mordaunt it was “very ambitious” to try to identify savings of £120-per-month for people who will be joining the WRAG in time for April, and asked her for her “back-up plan”.
But Mordaunt said: “We are making good progress. I know what I need to do.
“I am not in a position to outline chapter and verse, but I hope to be soon.”
Asked after the meeting for further details about Mordaunt’s efforts to cut disabled people’s living costs, a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokeswoman said: “We are in the early stages of talking to providers and there is no further detail we can provide at this time.”
The committee heard that the government predicted it would save £30 million in 2017-18, £180 million in 2018-19, £345 million in 2019-20 and £450 million in 2020-21 by cutting the WRAG payments, although some of that will be spent on providing them with support to get into work.
DWP said later that it was investing a total of £330 million of those cuts over four years from April 2017 to deliver employment support to those affected, while an extra £15 million per year had been added to the Flexible Support Fund – which is supposed to give jobcentres flexibility in providing back-to-work support – for 2017-18 and 2018-19.
Coyle also raised concerns that someone who had left the WRAG to try a new job would then be treated as a new claimant – and so face a £30-a-week cut – if they failed to pass their three-month probation period and had to return to the ESA system.
ESA claimants are only protected from being treated as new claimants if they rejoin the benefit within 12 weeks.
Mordaunt appeared to agree with Coyle that if someone who was in the WRAG started a new job but failed a three-month probation period they would be treated as a new ESA claimant.
But there was also a suggestion that DWP might have been listening to concerns from disabled activists about the risks of forcing people with health conditions into inappropriate work.
Tracey Waltho, director of the joint DWP and Department of Health work and health unit, told the committee that evidence on the health benefits of work were “mixed”.
She said there was “good evidence that appropriate work can help people’s health” but that “appropriate work is a very personal thing” so “we need to be very cognisant of getting good matches” between people and jobs, including whether that work would “support their particular health condition or work against it”.