MPs have backed demands for the government to assess the true damage caused by its welfare reforms to the lives of disabled people, after an historic debate in the House of Commons.
The debate was secured by the Labour MP John McDonnell after more than 100,000 people put their names to the War On Welfare (WOW) petition, largely as a result of campaigning on social media.
It is the first time that disabled people have secured a debate in the main chamber of the House of Commons on an agenda they have chosen themselves.
McDonnell said the WOW campaigners were simply demanding the truth. “They want a cumulative impact assessment of all welfare changes, so that the truth of their plight can be revealed.”
The disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, who chairs the work and pensions select committee, said that disabled people had been hardest hit by social care cuts, the bedroom tax, and changes to council tax relief and housing benefit, as well as the reforms to the disability benefits employment and support allowance (ESA) and personal independence payment (PIP).
She said: “I have been calling for a cumulative impact assessment [of all the welfare reforms] for a number of years now and that is because no one knows precisely the full force of everything that may be falling on individual families and individual households.
“Unless we do that cumulative impact assessment, we will never know, and in the meantime those families and households are struggling to makes ends meet, falling into debt and having to make the choice between eating and heating.
“They are having to make choices we should not have to make in 21st century Britain.”
Dame Anne also said the debate had shown the “effectiveness of social media in opening up the lives of disabled people and allowing them to connect with other people throughout the country”.
Anne McGuire, the Labour MP and former minister for disabled people, who herself has a long-term health condition, said the Conservative work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith had “become a victim of his rhetoric” and was “obsessed by the idea of his legacy”.
She called on Duncan Smith to “do the assessment, and prove me and 100,000 people out there totally wrong, if you have the courage”.
She added: “I say categorically that if he will not or cannot do that, we are entitled to ask why he is still in his job.”
The Conservative MP Guto Bebb pointed out that, although Labour MPs were expressing “a lot of passionately-held points of view”, their leaders had committed the party to zero growth in spending if they won the next election, so it was “very difficult to envisage any increase in the welfare budget”.
The SNP’s Dr Eilidh Whiteford said disabled people had been “vilified and stigmatised” in the public discussion of welfare reform.
She added: “The attempt to discredit disabled people in order to justify harsh and punitive cuts in their already fairly paltry incomes is quite shameful.”
The Labour MP Grahame Morris quoted figures produced by Disability News Service last year, which showed that the UK was not nearly as generous as the government had suggested when it came to spending on disabled people.
He pointed out that the UK spent 2.9 per cent of its income on disabled people, compared with an average of 3.3 per cent by our nine immediate OECD neighbours.
Alan Reid, the Liberal Democrat MP, said he supported most of the government’s welfare reforms.
He added: “They are fine in theory, but in practice, there is a huge number of problems. Atos has failed completely. The government must get the mess sorted out urgently.”
Labour MP Ian Mearns said the reforms were “disproportionately affecting disabled people, their carers and their families”, and “causing immeasurable anxiety and tangible human suffering”.
The Conservative MP George Hollingbery, who illustrated his speech with four examples of disabled people who had moved off out-of-work benefits and into work, insisted that the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) should not be scrapped.
He said: “It is not perfect and it will not always produce fair and just results, but that is what the appeals process is for and there to catch.
“That it is necessary to have some sort of objective test to help decision-makers seems to me to be undeniable.”
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said her party supported calls for a cumulative impact assessment, but not for an end to the WCA, one of the key demands of the WOW campaign.
She said: “In my view, the assessment should be the first step in a process of identifying and assembling the right support, including financial support.”
Mike Penning, the Conservative minister for disabled people, said it would be too “complex” to carry out a cumulative impact assessment, although he said he would ask his civil servants to contact the Centre for Welfare Reform – which last week published an assessment of its own – to “see whether we can work closely together”.
And he refused to back the calls to scrap the WCA, and insisted that it was “brought in for the right reasons”.
Penning also apologised “unreservedly” for the treatment of Sheila Holt, whose case was reported by Disability News Service last month.
Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale, had told the debate how Holt had been sectioned, had a heart attack and fell into a coma after being forced onto the government’s Work Programme, while DWP and the private sector provider Seetec had “continued to harass” her family while she was in hospital.
Penning told MPs that it was “a great honour” to be minister for disabled people, and that he “desperately” wanted to “make things right and proper”.
He added: “If we look at the spending since 2009 going forward and projected into 2015, we see that the budget in this area of government expenditure will continue to rise.”
But McDonnell said: “Any good government would want to assess the impact of their policies, so why are this government refusing to do so?
“I think it is because, if an impact assessment were published, people across society would be so angered and disgusted at how people with disabilities were being treated that they would rise up in revolt.”
He added: “If the government say that it is too complicated for them to carry out the assessment, let us have an independent assessment.”
27 February 2014