Please find below my speech on Employment Support Allowance for the House of Commons debate on the 23rd February 2016.
Thank you Mr Speaker. It has been a regular occurrence, Mr Speaker, since I was elected last May, that we have another lamentable situation where the government, and specifically the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is being called upon yet again to think again.
The opposition of members in the other place have once again given an opportunity to pause for reflection.
I wish to focus my remarks on the cruel and utterly devastating cut to Employment and Support Allowance for those in the Work Related Activity Group.
Let me just set this out in context.
A cut of £30 per week would have a huge impact on nearly all families and individuals in this country. We have heard in the previous debates about tax credits and universal credit the kind of impact that such a drop of income would have.
£30 per week is equivalent to raising council tax for a household on a Band D property in St Helens by 7.5% every year for the next decade. This cut does it all in one go.
Child benefit is £20.70 per week for the first child and £13.70 per week for additional children.
When the government proposed to withdraw this from individuals earning enough to pay the 40% rate of tax, putting them in amongst the top 15% of earners in this country, there was outrage amongst backbench members opposite.
There were newspaper campaigns from national publications. There was an intense and furious lobbying campaign to change the Chancellor’s position.
And indeed many made good points about the unfairness of the cut. The government made some modest changes to its implementation, meaning that there would be no cliff edge to the cut and a couple earning £99,000 a year between them would still be able to claim child benefit.
And yet here we are, again, discussing another cut that has had comparatively no coverage in the media and is taking place with the casual disdain that this government and the Secretary of State in particular has demonstrated time and time again for disabled people and people who have fallen on hard times.
We are talking about people who find themselves in circumstances that anyone could fall into.
For the vast majority of people in Britain, an illness, injury or disability leaving them unable to work would have a devastating financial impact.
We have a duty as a society to support each other when we find ourselves in such situations.
The amount currently paid to people on ESA is already a pittance.
The parliamentary review into the changes found that of those currently in receipt of the benefit, 30% cannot afford to eat on the amount they currently receive. The maximum of £102.50 per week is incredibly hard to live on for any period of time. In the context of other benefit cuts for disabled people and the abolition of council tax benefit, meaning virtually everyone pays regardless of their means, it is even harder.
This cut defies logic. The notion that making people starve or freeze in their homes- that will be the impact of this cut- is so obviously not a way to get people closer to the labour market and the House should be clear of that.
This pretence needs to be dropped.
People claiming ESA are being hit because they are an easy target. The wider societal perception of those claiming benefits is low and the government are exploiting this to hit their ever moving deficit reduction targets.
There are more than 1200 people in the Work Related Activity Group in receipt of ESA in my constituency of St Helens South and Whiston. It is clearly apparent from many of the cases that constituents have brought to me that many should not be in this group at all, given the fundamentally flawed assessment process.
This cut is dreadful for all those who will be in the Work Related Activity Group from next year even when the process has been followed correctly.
For constituents of mine it is truly immoral. Take for example, my constituent Paul.
Paul has a number of complex disabilities. Paul was placed in the WRAG having been awarded 6 points in his assessment.
The appeal process was both disrespectful, completely disregarded his conditions and was damaging to his health.
Following his 80- year old mother’s intervention, I was able to take up Paul’s case.
On appeal, he was awarded 30 points and placed in the support group. But how many people like Paul are in this situation?
Making this kind of cut when it is clear that the assessment process is failing and there is no confidence in it makes this even worse.
The government may not take seriously the thoughts of members of this side of the House in this debate.
But I would urge them to listen and hear the voices of the large coalition of charities and other organisations representing disabled people and other vulnerable people who have united in their opposition to this.
This is a cruel, inhuman and unnecessary act, regardless of whether the Government perceive that spending cuts are necessary.
The Government have changed policy before on child benefit and on tax credits.
This cut will have an even more devastating impact on the people who will be affected from 2017.
Simply, in the name of humanity, it must be stopped.