A minister has failed to apologise after he was caught misleading an influential committee of MPs about the impact of his government’s cuts on disabled people.
Justin Tomlinson, a former minister for disabled people, was being questioned by the Commons work and pensions committee (pictured) about the impact of his government’s benefits freeze, which is due to last until next year.
He told the committee (10.21am on the recording) that “disability benefits were exempt from the benefits freeze”.
But that is not true, a fact repeatedly pointed out to Tory ministers and his party.
Last summer, the minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, who resigned earlier this month, made the same inaccurate claim in a House of Commons debate.
Disability living allowance, personal independence payment and the employment and support allowance (ESA) support group top-up are exempt from the benefits freeze, which is set to last to 2020 and was first introduced in 2016.
But there is no exemption for the main component of ESA or the top-up paid to those in the ESA work-related activity group, which continue to be frozen.
This means that every disabled person receiving ESA, the main out-of-work disability benefit, has been and will be hit financially by the freeze until at least next year.
A spokesperson in Tomlinson’s Commons office said it was a “matter for his ministerial portfolio” and so any comment should come from DWP.
DWP had not responded to requests for a comment by noon today (Thursday).
Earlier in the evidence session, the committee’s chair, the independent MP Frank Field, said that he and fellow committee member Heidi Allen, another independent, had been in Chester recently and were told by an advice worker: “We now do not meet anybody who is not hungry and cold.”
Field said the country now had a social security system which “is not providing a safety net” but is designed to “push people into destitution: hungry and cold”.
He asked Tomlinson how many people were receiving no universal credit at all because of deductions made in their monthly payments due to being sanctioned or having to pay back debts, for example to utility companies.
He told Tomlinson that he wanted to know the numbers because he would be “haunted” by them if he was a minister required to put the government’s policies into effect.
Neil Couling, director general of the universal credit programme, said no-one should have more than 40 per cent of their payments deducted.
But Field told him: “So those constituents coming to us saying they are getting nothing under universal credit are mistaken?”
Tomlinson appeared to accept that some people were receiving nothing through universal credit because of sanctions and debt repayments, but he said this was probably due to “a breakdown in their relationship with their individual [jobcentre] work coach”.
He said: “It is clear that in some cases, for whatever reason, that claimant doesn’t feel in the position to have that conversation, and that’s where more work needs to be done.”
But Field told him he was living in a “fantasy world”, and added: “If I was a claimant I wouldn’t know the hell what your rules are.”
Tomlinson suggested that the situation should improve through guidance for work coaches, the “universal support” scheme that will be provided by Citizens Advice to universal credit claimants on behalf of DWP from next month, and stronger partnerships with local organisations such as food banks.
Couling eventually admitted that if a single claimant had 40 per cent of their payment deducted, they would be left with about £42 a week to live on.
But Labour MP Steve McCabe said some claimants could face a shortfall in their rent if it was not being covered by the housing costs element of universal credit, “so leaving them with almost nothing” if they had to use much of their £42 to cover that gap.
Field said the committee was considering asking every MP how many people were turning up to their constituency surgeries saying they were receiving nothing through universal credit.
Tomlinson said: “We have got to make sure everybody, particularly vulnerable people, are getting the money that they are entitled to as quick as possible and that is where we have got to focus a huge amount of work.”
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