from The Guardian, 27 January 2016. Story by Patrick Butler, social policy editor.
The government has been defeated in the Lords over plans to cut £30 a week from the benefits of sick and disabled people who have been found unfit to work.
Peers voted by 283 to 198 to send the cut to employment and support allowance (ESA) back to the House of Commons to be reconsidered.
The defeat is the government’s second setback on the welfare and work bill in the Lords this week. On Monday peers voted to keep targets aimed at reducing child poverty, forcing the government to reconsider its plan to abolish them.
Summing up the debate, crossbencher Colin Low said: “There are things that can encourage disabled people into work but cutting their benefits is not one of them.”
Ministers have argued that cutting the ESA benefit payment for new claimants placed in the work-related activity group (Wrag) from April 2017 would provide an incentive for them to return to work.
William McKenzie, a member of the shadow work and pensions team, said: “Peers from across the house urged [the welfare reform minister] Lord Freud to see sense and listen to those whose lives will be made a misery by this cut to their support. Sadly he didn’t but the outcome of the vote at least provides the opportunity for reflection and a further challenge in the Commons.
“Many of the people affected by the plans would welcome the chance to move towards work if the government would only invest in tailored, personalised programmes. This is where ministers should be directing their energy rather than pushing people further into poverty.”
There are currently 500,000 people in the Wrag group, who have been formally declared to be too ill to work but well enough to undergo work-related interviews or training. The cut to Wrag payments would see weekly benefits fall from £102.15 to £73.10. The government estimates that the cut would save £1.4bn over four years.
Ministers have promised to get a million more disabled people into work. But campaigners have said the ESA Wrag cut would push hundreds of thousands into poverty and further away from the job market.
Rob Holland, parliamentary manager at Mencap and co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium, said: “This vote by the Lords should add further evidence of the deep unease amongst disabled people and the wider public around cutting ESA Wrag and the equivalent in universal credit. We now urge the government to take note of this and halt this cut.”
Last week more than 30 national disability charities and peers wrote to the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, to say that the practical and psychological effects of the cut to ESA Wrag would make claimants less likely to return to work. Signatories to the letter included charities such as Mencap, Macmillan Cancer Support, Mind, Rethink Mental Illness and RNIB, as well as parliamentarians such as the former Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson.
Lady Grey-Thompson jointly led an independent parliamentary review of the proposed ESA Wrag reform, published in December, which concluded that the cut would hinder attempts by claimants to return to work.
The review, which was supported by seven disability charities, recommended that the government should instead invest more in expert employment advice tailored for the needs of disabled people.