Wednesday, January 26

Disability benefit cuts not acceptable, Conservative rebels tell Osborne



George Osborne risks parliamentary defeat over plans to cut £1.3bn from disability benefits as criticism of the scheme spread across Conservative backbenches.

The leader of the revolt warned the chancellor that the political unease was greater than that felt at the time of last autumn’s successful revolt over plans to cut tax credits.

Andrew Percy accused the chancellor of hitting “exactly the wrong people” in its proposal to cut personal independence payments (PIP) for people who need aids to help them dress and use the toilet.

The MP for Brigg and Goole said: “This is about need, it is not about welfare reform. These people have these needs. These needs are not going away and therefore the payments should not go away.

“The difference on this to tax credits is, although difficult to sell and wrongheaded, people who lost out from them would eventually be compensated through the system. Whereas that is not the case [with PIP payments]. They will be permanently dis-benefited. That is where it is much harder for a lot of [Conservative] colleagues to swallow than the tax credit changes.”

Johnny Mercer, the Tory MP for Plymouth Moor View, tweeted: “Concerned by proposed changes to PIP. Not sure right direction. We must look after our most vulnerable at every turn. No doubt welfare spend still too high, but for those who really need it, it is a lifeline.”

Government sources said that Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary who wrote to MPs explaining the changes, would listen carefully to the concerns raised during a consultation which is not due to end for a few months. The regulations introducing the changes are expected to be amended before MPs vote.

Some unhappy senior Tories say that the handling of the affair is reminiscent of the way in which Jeremy Hunt has alienated junior doctors in a bitter industrial dispute.

Wednesday’s budget revealed that the chancellor’s biggest single revenue-raising measure over the next five years would be cutting PIP by £1.3bn. The Office for Budget Responsibility said that 370,000 people would lose out on an average of £3,500 a year.

The seriousness of concern over welfare cuts was underlined when it emerged that three Tory MPs were asked to step down as patrons of prominent disability charities. Zac Goldsmith, the party’s London mayoral candidate, resigned on Wednesday as patron of his local Richmond AID disability charity after coming under pressure for voting for disability benefit cuts.

Kit Malthouse, the MP for North West Hampshire, was told to resign as patron of the MS Society, the national charity that campaigns on issues surrounding multiple sclerosis, and was no longer seen as “suitable” for the position after he voted in favour of cuts to ESA that would see people with MS among hundreds of thousands of disabled people to lose critical allowances.

James Cleverly, the MP for Braintree, was also told to resign as patron with “immediate effect” by Advocacy for All, a charity that works to help vulnerable people in the local area, who said they were “surprised and disappointed” to learn he had voted for £30 a week cuts to ESA benefits.

Downing Street defended the cuts on the grounds that health professionals examining whether people were eligible found that, after initial payments to fund aids to help disabled people, the ongoing extra costs were low or non-existent in 96% of cases.

The prime minister’s spokeswoman said: “Health professionals were asked to review cases where people qualified for personal independence payments based on a need for aids and appliances they have for their disability.

“What they found was in 96% of cases they were unlikely to have extra costs. For example they might have needed to have a hand toilet rail fitted in their home. Once that was completed they were unlikely to need significant extra costs over a sustained period that would therefore justify a weekly allowance.”

Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, highlighted irritation in some quarters of Whitehall at the chancellor’s handling of the cuts by saying that they were not a fiscal measure. In a BBC interview Tomlinson said that the changes were “sensible measures” to reform the system of payments which are designed to fund aids and appliances to help disabled people carry out basic tasks.

The chancellor said in his budget statement that the disability budget would rise overall by more than £1bn. But the budget red book said that there would be cuts of £4.4bn in welfare for disabled people over the course of the parliament. Labour pointed out that in the first year of the next parliament, in 2020-21, the £1.2bn in cuts to PIP payments will account for a third of government cuts.

Whitehall sources said there are sensible reasons for introducing the changes which are unrelated to the chancellor’s budget. A series of court judges had led to a growth in the PIP budget by extending the gateway to the benefit. “This is about making the welfare budget sustainable,” one source said.

Percy said he welcomed the signs that ministers have acknowledged to his concerns: “I welcome the fact that the chancellor is listening to this as he done on previous issues. But the changes as proposed cannot be justified. The majority of the public would expect us – with PIP payments which are paid to people who are unquestionably disabled and have additional needs – to protect those benefits.