Leading the debate against the Welfare Reform and Work Bill – 3rd reading

t1It was the report and third reading of the Welfare and Reform Work Bill in the House of Commons yesterday, in which I spoke in opposition as the Shadow Minister for Disabled People along with my colleagues Owen Smith MP and Emily Thornberry MP.

I have published my speech and debate below or alternatively, you can watch it by clicking here (15.30pm):

Debbie Abrahams: It is a pleasure to be here on my first occasion at the Dispatch Box. On Second Reading I conveyed my concerns about the Bill, and after a few weeks in Committee I have not changed my opinion. I said then that I thought this is a wicked Bill, and I still feel that.

Amendments 56 and 20 seek to leave out clauses 13 and 14 so as to prevent cuts to the work-related activity component of employment and support allowance, and to the limited capability for work element of universal credit. We believe it is unjust and unfair that disabled people and those with serious health conditions who have been assessed during the work capability assessment as not fit for work and placed in the work-related activity group should have their social security support cut by nearly £30, from £102.15 to £73.10.

Compelling evidence from the independent Extra Costs Commission, which analysed the additional costs facing disabled people, shows that on average they spend an extra £550 per month on things associated with their disability. The Government’s proposed cuts to people in the ESA WRAG come on top of a host of other cuts to social security and support for disabled people since 2010. Demos has estimated that by 2018, £23.8 billion will have been taken from 3.7 million disabled people, with 13 policy changes in the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

The cut in the ESA WRAG comes on top of the freeze in other social security support and the £3.6 billion of cuts to social care. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) has argued for a cumulative impact assessment of cuts to tax credits and other benefit reforms for working families on low incomes, as defined in new clause 2, but why has that not happened already? Why have the Government not undertaken a cumulative impact assessment of the latest proposed cuts for disabled people, given that it is a requirement under the Equality Act 2010? I raised that point in Committee, and although I am grateful to the Minister for her response, she implied that only one model can be used to analyse the distributional effects of a policy. That is a flawed judgment. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is somewhat surprised by the suggestion that such cumulative modelling is not possible, given that it is undertaking its own cumulative impact assessment. I understand that the commission has written to the Government and highlighted the resources that are available to help them do that work, and perhaps when she responds the Minister will enlighten the House as to whether the Government have changed their mind.

The Government have also failed to provide evidence to substantiate their claim that working families on low incomes will be better off in spite of having tax credits taken from them—for example, through the introduction of the new national minimum wage, changes to personal allowances, and extended childcare provision. The Government’s meagre offering of an impact assessment for clauses 13 and 14 has failed to provide reassurance that disabled people will not be subjected to serious financial hardship. Although the assessment estimates that approximately 500,000 disabled people and their families will be affected by the cut to the ESA WRAG, there is no analysis of the impact this will have on the disabled people who will be pushed into poverty.

Ian Lavery: I am not sure whether my hon. Friend was present about an hour ago, when the Minister suggested that it was a good idea for people in the work-related activity group to lose 30% of their benefits so as to move them nearer to employment. How ridiculous is that?

Debbie Abrahams: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, I am going to move on to a section specifically concerned with incentivising work and how on earth people with, for example, progressive conditions can be incentivised.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. On the specific issue of trying to help people in the work-related activity group to get into work, does she agree that the current system is not working as well as it should and that we need to spend more money on helping them find jobs? It is harder for them to find jobs than it is for other people on jobseeker’s allowance. In answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), that is precisely why we should be transferring money into helping them to get jobs.

Debbie Abrahams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but his question belies the facts. Some £640 million is being withdrawn from people in the ESA WRAG, while £100 million is meant, in some undisclosed manner, to provide support. There is no information from the Government on how that will support disabled people back into work.

As I was saying, there is no analysis of the impact that this will have on the disabled people who will be pushed into poverty. Disabled people are twice as likely as non-disabled people to live in persistent poverty, and 80% of disability-related poverty is caused by their extra costs. Last year, there was a 2% increase in the number of disabled people who were pushed into poverty. That is equivalent to 300,000 people. The Minister’s recent reply to me did not address this particular point, so I would be very grateful if that could be explained. Half a million disabled people will be affected and lose £30 a week—nearly a third of their weekly income. What is the Government’s estimate of the increase in the number of disabled people who will be living in poverty?

Neil Coyle: I welcome my hon. Friend to her rightful place on the Labour Front Bench. Is she aware that in the other place Lord Low is going to carry out an independent review of poverty, in the absence of a Government study? Will she encourage the Government to interact with that independent review, in particular on poverty and the impact on higher health and local authority costs as a result of the reduction in ESA?

Debbie Abrahams: My hon. Friend makes some excellent points. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is able to undertake that analysis. Other bodies and organisations are doing it, so why are the Government not able to do it? Surely this is what we should expect from the Government in their implementation of policy. There are real concerns from disabled charities, disabled groups and Lord Holmes, the chair of the EHRC’s disability committee, about the extent to which the assessment of the impact on disabled people is understood.

On incentivising work, on Second Reading the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions stated: “the current system discourages claimants from making the transition into work.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 1259.]

What about people with progressive conditions, such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease, who have no prospect of recovery but have undergone a work capability assessment? They have been found not fit for work and placed in the WRAG group. Are the Government seriously saying that the measure will incentivise this group of disabled people into work? They have already been found not able to work through the Government’s own assessment process. Their progressive conditions are not going to change. This is a real concern.

Mr Anderson: I welcome my hon. Friend to her position on the Front Bench. As chairman of the all-party group on muscular dystrophy, I would like to tell her that information shared with me suggests that people across the whole field of disability believe that this measure will actually have the opposite effect from the one intended. Rather than providing an incentive for people to go to work, it will mean that they will struggle to continue to have the independence they need. This £30 deduction will make a big difference: people will wonder whether they can afford to maintain their mobility, which will have a detrimental effect, making it less likely that they will find work than if they are left where they are now.

Debbie Abrahams: My hon. Friend makes an entirely valid point. Disabled people will find it more and more difficult to live fulfilling lives that enable them to make contact and fulfil their potential, which everyone should have the right to do, so it will be a disincentive.

Simon Hoare: I am chairman of the all-party group on multiple sclerosis. I entirely understand the hon. Lady’s concern and, indeed, the sort of representations made by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson). However, does she take heart, as I do, from the fact that Ministers are part of a party that brought forward pioneering legislation on disability rights, which should provide comfort that Ministers on the Treasury Bench will make sure that no policy will leave people behind?

Debbie Abrahams: Yes, it is right to acknowledge the Government’s role in bringing in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, but this Bill flies in the face of that legacy. I really hope that by the end of today, the Government will be able to provide some reassurance, because to date there has simply been none for disabled people.

In Committee, the Minister said that these cuts would not affect people currently on the ESA WRAG, but does that mean that people diagnosed with progressive conditions, but assessed after the Bill is enacted, will be deemed to have a different form of the progressive condition? Will they require less support, or do the Government finally accept that, apart from being dehumanising and exacerbating people’s health conditions, the work capability assessment is not fit for purpose and needs a complete overhaul so that people with progressive conditions are not placed in the ESA WRAG? I would really appreciate some clarity on that point.

Surely if the Government were serious about supporting disabled people into work, there would be measures in place to support those disabled people who are able to work into work. How many employers will be engaged? Although the Disability Confident scheme is a good first step, only 68 employers are currently active in it, and they will certainly not be able to support the 1.3 million disabled people who are able to and want to work. Do the Government intend to extend Access to Work beyond the 35,000 disabled people it helped stay in work or into a new job last year? What is going to happen about the appalling ratio of one disability employment adviser for 600 disabled people? [Interruption.] What estimates are there of the impact on the employment of disabled people of this measure and the reduction of the 30% disability employment gap?

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): My hon. Friend has just said the most astounding thing I have heard in this Chamber for a very long time. There is one work adviser for 600 people. In the course of a year, I wonder whether each person would get some attention just once. Has there been any assessment of the absurdity and ineffectiveness of this situation, as contrasted, of course, with the marvellous suggestions we heard a short while ago from the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham)?

Debbie Abrahams: That figure was revealed through the work done when I sat on the Select Committee. Yes, it is shocking. Some are trying to say that this Bill is about encouraging people into work, but there are no measures in place to support it. Indeed, my next point is—where exactly is the “work” bit in this Welfare Reform and Work Bill? Here we are on Report, and these basic questions have still not been answered. All we know from the Government’s impact assessment is that by 2020-21, approximately £640 a year will have been cut from social security support for disabled people—on top of the £23.8 billion of support that has already been taken from them—and that £100 million a year will be provided in unspecified support to help them into work. That is a disgrace; disabled people deserve much better.

I am sure the House will recall the Government’s reluctance to publish data on the number of people receiving incapacity benefit and employment support allowance who had died. On the Thursday before the last August bank holiday, five months after the Information Commissioner had ruled that the Government must publish those data, they were finally published. They revealed that the death rates among people on incapacity benefit and ESA in 2013 had been 4.3 times those among the general population, having increased from 3.6 times in 2003. People in the ESA support group are 6.3 times as likely to die as members of the general population, and people in the ESA WRAG, a third of whose weekly income would be deducted as a result of the Bill, are more than twice as likely—2.2 times as likely— to die as members of the general population.

The Government have continually tried to malign, vilify and demonise people on disability and other social security benefits, calling them shirkers and scroungers, and that has been picked up by the media.

Simon Hoare: Hitherto, the hon. Lady has been making a very thoughtful and considered speech. It may not be up to me, as a new Member, to say this, but the sentence that she has just uttered has fundamentally undermined the cause of her argument, and I invite her to reconsider it.

Debbie Abrahams: I appreciate that it is strong language, but I can only provide the hon. Gentleman with the evidence. In 2010, the use of the term “scrounger” by the mainstream press had increased by more than 330%, and it has remained at that level. We should always be mindful of the language that we use as leaders, and of how it is perpetuated.

Ian Lavery: May I advise my hon. Friend not to take any lectures from the team opposite when they are asking her to calm down in respect of her language against the disabled? Constantly, for the last five years, they have attacked disabled people, poor people and lower-paid people. No apologies are required.

Debbie Abrahams: I used that language to draw attention to the issue in the House, and more widely. I did so partly because I am sure I am not the only one to remember the autumn statement two or three years ago in which the Chancellor, at the Dispatch Box, referred to “closed curtains” when people were going out to work. It was quite clear what that implied. I use such language very carefully, and I repeat that its use in the media has increased by 330%. We all have a responsibility in this regard, including the country’s leaders.

The innuendo is that people with a disability or illness might be faking it or feckless. That is grotesque. As a former public health consultant, I speak with some knowledge. It is recognised that incapacity benefit and ESA are good population health indicators, and the release of the Government’s own data has proved the point. Disabled people in the ESA WRAG are a vulnerable group who need our care and support, and not our humiliation.

Simon Hoare rose

Debbie Abrahams: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman one more time.

Richard Graham: I invite the hon. Lady to come to the opportunities fair in my constituency on 6 November, which is specifically focused on helping people in the ESA WRAG category to find opportunities for getting back into work. It will be very similar in tone to the first Disability Confident fair we held a year ago, and I am sure she would want to encourage Members from all parts of this House to hold these events and champion people like that who are trying to find jobs.

Debbie Abrahams: In return, I ask the hon. Gentleman to ask his constituents who are on ESA WRAG how they will be affected by these proposals and whether they will have to cut back on such journeys and work fairs because of the cuts the Government are likely to impose. Up and down the country good work is being done to support people back into work, but this measure is not part of that.

Debbie Abrahams: I am not going to give way anymore, as I am conscious of the time.

These cuts are punitive and wrong. They fly in the face of the Conservative party’s pledge to protect disabled people’s benefits. With this cut to ESA WRAG support, without putting in place anything to replace it, the Government are condemning more disabled people and their families to live in poverty. I predict that more tragedies will happen. I will be pushing our proposals to a vote and urge all Members to do the right thing by supporting the removal of clauses 13 and 14 from the Bill.

New clause 4 requires that the Government undertake a full independent review of their sanctions regime by 31 March 2016. It is with considerable regret that, after the Work and Pensions Committee’s report earlier this year, which also recommended an independent review of benefit conditionality and sanctions, the Government have failed to recognise the real concerns about their new sanctions regime, either in response to what was said in the Bill Committee or to that report.

I have been campaigning for an independent review of sanctions for nearly two years, and in that time constituents have come to me with their stories about how they have been sanctioned. One constituent was told while he was undergoing the work capability assessment that he was having a heart attack and should go to hospital, yet two weeks later he received a letter to say that he had been sanctioned. People up and down the country have also got in touch with their stories of how they have been sanctioned, for example, for being a few minutes late for an appointment with an adviser or work coach. Increasingly, people are being sanctioned unreasonably, for example, because they had attended their mother’s funeral, been hospitalised or gone to a job interview—this is absurd.

There was another category of reasons for being sanctioned. I still have the email from a constituent who had received a letter saying he had been sanctioned for non-attendance at a meeting with his adviser at the jobcentre, even though he had evidence that he had been there. The penny dropped when another constituent, who had worked in jobcentres across Greater Manchester for 20 years, came to me to tell me that as part of the new sanctions regime introduced at the end of 2012, the DWP had targets for sanctions. As he described it, claimants were being deliberately set up to fail, whether they had done anything wrong or not.

The Work and Pensions Committee also became concerned while conducting an inquiry in 2013 on “The role of Jobcentre Plus in the reformed welfare system”. At that stage, it recommended the following:

“DWP should launch a second, broader, independent review of conditionality and sanctions, to include investigation of whether the process is being applied appropriately, fairly, proportionately and in accordance with the rules, across the Jobcentre network.”

Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I am concerned about the issue the hon. Lady raised about targets for sanctions, as this is a serious allegation to make and it is a serious issue. It is possible to meet people from all sorts of walks of life who through their profession may have some professional insight, but their word alone is not enough to suggest that something is true—one does need verification from elsewhere. Can she substantiate her point? What did she find out that would make us believe it is true?

Debbie Abrahams: The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me: that is why we need the independent review. There was enough evidence to leave real concerns about this matter. The Select Committee thought that the Minister had agreed to a review, but as paragraph 100 of the report states, unfortunately he reneged on that promise. In addition to these serious ethical issues, there were, and still are, concerns about a number of people affected, particularly in the case of ESA claimants, and about the meteoric rise in the use of sanctions.

Peter Dowd (Bootle) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend recall that in the summer the Department for Work and Pensions was forced to admit to having invented quotes from fake benefit claimants, which meant that its sanctions leaflets had to be withdrawn pretty quickly?

Debbie Abrahams: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. That is one of the reasons why we need an independent review to investigate such matters.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on her new role on the Front Bench—she has done far better than me. When she and I served on the Work and Pensions Committee, we investigated this matter and found no evidence of benefit sanctions targets in the jobcentres we visited. I have two outstanding Jobcentre Plus offices in my constituency, and I have seen no evidence whatsoever of any targets there. How can she stand at the Dispatch Box and say that there are targets for sanctions when, to the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence that they exist?

Debbie Abrahams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I understand that his wife has previously worked in a Jobcentre Plus office. To reiterate my response to the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), the whole point is that there is some evidence and that we need a better understanding, which is why we need an independent review.

Helen Goodman: If there is to be an independent review, does my hon. Friend agree that it should take evidence from the National Audit Office, which has stated that although the targets might not come from the Minister’s office, the performance management of the jobcentres amounts to targets, because what it measures does not take into account the numbers of people who are supposed to go back into work or the quality of advice they receive?

Debbie Abrahams: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Select Committee reported on the fact that there are targets for off-flow, which means getting people off the books. Those in themselves are targets. [Interruption.]

Graham Stuart: That has nothing to do with sanctions.

Debbie Abrahams: Well, I will move on to that shortly and show exactly why we believe that is happening.

In addition to those serious ethical issues, we have also seen a meteoric rise in the use of sanctions. ESA sanctions increased from 60,363 between June 2010 and  October 2012 to 245,679 between November 2012 and March 2015, which corresponds with the introduction of the new sanctions regime. As I have said, people on ESA are disabled or have serious health conditions.

The new sanctions regime is also particularly punitive. People are without financial support not just for a week or two, because the minimum sanction is now four weeks. Subsequent misdemeanours can mean up to three years of sanctions, whereas previously the maximum was six months. That has particularly affected young people, disabled people and lone parents. In addition, during 2013-14 it became clear that although no other benefits, such as housing benefit, were meant to be affected, in some cases housing benefit was automatically being stopped. The obvious implication is that families will be getting into debt as a result.

The fact that since January 2014, on average, nearly half of ESA sanctions have been overturned on appeal surely confirms that there are issues with sanctions policy and practice. The Work and Pensions Committee published its report in March this year, revealing even greater concerns about the inappropriate use of sanctions, their ineffectiveness in getting people into work and the impact on the health and wellbeing of claimants.

The Select Committee received evidence that sanctions were being driven by targets to get claimants off-flow in a way that distorted the JSA claimant count. A team from Oxford analysed data from 376 local authority areas and found that 43% of JSA sanctioned claimants left JSA and that 80% did so for reasons other than employment. In July, the Social Security Advisory Committee also raised concerns about the effectiveness of the sanction regime in getting people into good quality jobs, and called for better evidence to underpin sanctions policy.

The Select Committee also took evidence on the rise in the use of food banks—more than 1 million food parcels were distributed in 2014—on its largely being attributed to the increase in the use of sanctions; and on the particular impacts on poverty, including child poverty, debt and physical and mental health. One reported case concerned a woman who discharged herself from hospital in fear of being sanctioned, but even more shocking were the reports of deaths following sanction. Many will have heard of David Clapson, a diabetic soldier who died after being sanctioned. He was unable to keep his insulin cool in a fridge and died of diabetic ketoacidosis. He was only 59. The coroner said that when he died there was no food in his stomach. His sister, Gill Thompson, has campaigned tirelessly for an independent review into sanctions, and the petition she started has got support from more than 211,000 signatories.

But David is not the only one to have died after being sanctioned. At the time of the Select Committee’s report, there had been 49 peer reviews since February 2012 following the death of a claimant. Unfortunately, the Government have refused to publish the learning from these peer reviews or to state whether or how policy has changed as a result. The association with sanctioning is also unclear. The Select Committee recommended that an independent body be established to investigate all deaths of vulnerable claimants. It is with considerable regret, therefore, that in addition to ignoring the recommendation for an independent review, the Government, in their response on Thursday—four months late—have rejected the call for greater transparency following the death of a vulnerable claimant. I am afraid this is a slap in the face of everyone affected by sanctions, including family members of those who have died.

Finally, I wish to speak to new clause 5, which would compel the Government to report on the impact of the benefit cap reductions by 31 March 2017, including on the effect on child poverty as defined in the Child Poverty Act 2010. The Opposition are absolutely committed to developing a high-wage economy in which work pays, but after more than five years, this Government and the previous coalition have failed to deliver it. As an IFS analysis and many others have shown, our fragile recovery has come at the expense of people on low incomes, who have lost proportionately more of their income as a result of tax and social security changes.

Last year’s analysis in The BMJ showed that working-age families with children and disabled people have been particularly adversely affected and that the level of child poverty and the number of disabled people living in poverty had both increased, thereby reversing the improvements from the previous decade. Two weeks ago, another article in The BMJ warned of further risks to child poverty and, as a result, to child health from the further cuts to social security. The authors argued that with the UK having the highest under-five mortality rate in western Europe—double that of Sweden—the expected rise in child poverty would have“a corrosive influence on children’s learning and development”and associated higher levels of childhood mental health problems.

Helen Goodman: Exactly. It is a long-term problem.

Debbie Abrahams: Absolutely.

Similarly, there are concerns about the impact of the benefit cap on disabled people, who already face extra costs associated with their disability, as I mentioned earlier. It is estimated that 150,000 adults and 395,000 children will be affected by the reduction in the cap. We believe that, in conjunction with the freeze in local housing allowance, cuts in social housing rents and a lack of affordable homes, the lower cap also risks exacerbating the housing crisis. The Government’s own impact assessment concedes that rent arrears, evictions and homelessness will increase as a result of the lower cap. We believe that further reductions in the benefit cap in London and elsewhere risk pushing tens of thousands of children, families and disabled people into poverty. We are the sixth wealthiest country in the world. It is not right that the Government are seeking to secure the recovery on the backs of the working poor, their children and disabled people. I hope they will think again.

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