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Government 'committed' to disability benefits cuts despite rebellion threat

Downing Street makes position clear after Nicky Morgan’s comments fuel speculation of U-turn on controversial budget proposal reports the Guardian.

Downing Street has insisted it “remains committed” to cutting disability benefits by £4.4bn this parliament, despite the prospect of a Commons defeat over the proposed changes.

David Cameron’s official spokeswoman said the task of explaining the changes was ongoing and the government would engage with MPs and disability groups to ensure the money for disability benefits was “targeted at those who need it most”.

Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, had earlier fuelled speculation that the government would make a swift climbdown on its proposal in the face of Tory backbench revolt, saying the cuts of up to £3,500 a year per claimant were only a “suggestion”.

But Cameron’s spokeswoman said it was a firm policy proposal and the government’s position had not changed on implementing it.

“We will be taking the opportunity to engage with colleagues who have concerns about the way it will be working,” she said, adding that Morgan had been reflecting the government’s position that the reforms were still in the consultation phase.

The suggestion that the government just needed to explain the cuts better was immediately rebuffed by critics.

Andrew Percy, the Conservative MP who has been leading the revolt, said: “Those of us who are concerned about these cuts, we understand them, we don’t need them explained to us. We believe they are not acceptable.”

The situation may also be inflamed by a source close to Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, telling the BBC that Morgan “did not seem to understand” the changes.

The ministerial source criticising Morgan is a sign that the disability cuts are already causing cabinet tensions, although Downing Street has weighed in behind the education secretary, giving her full support.

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said his party would force a vote on the issue in the Commons, aiming to defeat the cuts with the help of Tory rebels.

But Cameron’s spokeswoman said there was no imminent plan for an official government vote on the measures because legislation had not been drawn and would be worked on over the coming months.

Corbyn said 200,000 of the 640,000 people affected by the proposals would lose out as a result of the government’s plan to “arbitrarily” make the cuts.

He told BBC Radio 5 Live the government was planning to take more than £4bn out of the benefit over the course of the parliament, at the same time as George Osborne’s budget was “giving tax relief to the biggest companies in cutting corporation tax”.

“It is utterly appalling what they are proposing,” he said. “We will be forcing a vote in parliament on this. I hope and believe all opposition parties will join with us in that. I believe a number of Conservative MPs are so upset about this they too will vote against the government.”

The Liberal Democrats said that even if the measures got through the House of Commons, they would be looking at ways to disrupt the plans in the Lords in a similar way to the vote on tax credits cuts.

Morgan made her remarks on the BBC’s Question Time as she sought to defend the chancellor’s savings from changes to personal independence payments (PIP) – a benefit to help people pay for the costs of living with a disability. The cuts of thousands of pounds a year will affect payments for aids and appliances for those who struggle to dress or go to the toilet.

Conservative backbenchers, led by Percy, have threatened to revolt over the changes, which were announced in the same budget as tax cuts for companies and investors.

The rebels may have been emboldened by their successful challenge to George Osborne over tax credits, which he scrapped because he lacked Tory backbench support.

Morgan said the government had yet to finish consulting MPs and disability groups about the cuts. “It is something that has been put forward, there has been a review, there has been a suggestion, we are not ready to bring the legislation forward.”

Morgan, who has said she might want to run for Conservative leader one day, may also have been signalling she was herself not entirely convinced of the need for the cuts.

Owen Smith, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “Nicky Morgan was either too ashamed to admit cuts to disability benefits are Tory policy, or she was signalling the start of a sharp U-turn. Either way, she and the rest of the Tories are quickly realising there’s no justification for these cruel cuts.

“They should now do the fair, sensible thing. Scrap these cuts completely and spare hundreds of thousands of disabled people who’ve already suffered enough under the Tories.”

The Institute for Fiscal Studies said the cuts would hit 370,000 people, with an average loss of £3,500 a year.

Percy accused the chancellor of hitting “exactly the wrong people”. “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 MP for Brigg and Goole said.

“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.”

Writing for the Guardian, David Burrowes, a Tory backbencher, said he supported welfare reforms that had the interests of the vulnerable at heart but remained unconvinced by the cuts to PIP.

“When families containing a disabled individual are vastly more likely to endure poverty than other families we need to handle with great care cuts to disability benefits. Recent costs and court cases suggest that PIP is clearly in need of reform and review. If there are to be cuts to PIP they need to be fully justified on the basis of reform, rather than just a cost-cutting measure. The government should press on with its commitment to reform disability benefits but in the meantime it should press pause on these cuts to PIP.”

Meawhile, Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative chair of the health committee, joined those expressing disquiet about the changes. She tweeted:

 

 

Johnny Mercer, the Tory MP for Plymouth Moor View, tweeted:

 

 

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

Some senior Tories say 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 the cuts to be chancellor’s biggest single revenue-raising measure over the next five years, prompting Labour to condemn them as “morally reprehensible”.

The depth 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, because he was seen as no longer “suitable” for the position after he voted in favour of cuts to employment and support allowances 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, which said it was “surprised and disappointed” to learn he had voted for £30 a week cuts to ESA.

 

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