An eleven-time Paralympic gold medallist used a debate in the House of Lords yesterday evening to urge peers to prevent an “ideological” cut to the benefits of ill and disabled people.
Lady Tanni Grey-Thompson, who enjoyed extraordinary success in the Paralympics before becoming a peer in the upper chamber, dismissed ministers’ claims that cutting the benefits of disabled people will incentivise them to find work.
On Monday evening defiant peers in the Lords, for a second time, rejected the government’s controversial welfare reform bill proposals to slash £30 a week – or over £1,500 year – from the benefits of ill and disabled people who have been found unfit for work.
It was voted 289 to 219 – a majority of 70 – to delay the cuts pending a parliamentary report on the impact on claimants.
In an emotive speech in the House of Lords during a debate on the bill, the crossbench peer Lady Grey-Thompson said: “It almost feels to me as though we’re putting the blame on the disabled person trying to fix them and not trying to understand the barriers that they face getting into work.”
She added: “I was told by a special careers adviser that the best job I could ever get would be answering telephones and I should not aim too high. That might have been 25 to 30 years ago but right now disabled people are being told similar things.
“It’s hard for me to see how the government taking away £1,500 a year from people who are profoundly limited in their capability for work will be better off under Universal Credit.
7 ways the Tories have ‘helped’ disabled people
7 ways the Tories have ‘helped’ disabled people
1/7 Closing Remploy factories
The Work and Pensions Secretary called time on Britain’s system of Remploy factories, which provided subsidised and sheltered employment to disabled people. People employed at the factories protested against their closure and said they provided gainful work. “Is it a kindness to stick people in some factory where they are not doing any work at all? Just making cups of coffee?” Mr Duncan Smith said at the time, defending the decision. “I promise you this is better.” The Remploy organisation was privatised and sold to American workfare provider Maximus, with the majority of the organisation’s factories closed. The future of the remaining sites is unclear
2/7 Scrapping the Independent Living Fund
The £320m Independent Living Fund was established in 1988 to give financial support to people with disabilities. It was scrapped on July 1 2015, with 18,000 often severely disabled people losing out by an average of £300 a week. The money was generally used to help pay for carers so people could live in communities rather than institutions. Councils will get a boost in funding to compensate but it will not cover the whole cost of the fund. This new cash also doesn’t have to be spent on the disabled
3/7 Cut payments for the disabled Access To Work scheme
Iain Duncan Smith is bringing forward a policy that will reduce payments to some disabled people from a scheme designed to help them into work. The £108m scheme, which helps 35,540 people, will be capped on a per-used basis, potentially hitting those with the more serious disabilities who currently receive the most help. The single biggest users of the fund are people who have difficulty seeing and hearing. The cut will come in from October 2015. The charity Disability UK says the scheme actually makes the Government money because the people who gain access to work tend pay tax that more than covers its cost. The DWP does not describe the reduction as a “cut” and says it will be able to spread the money more thinly and cover more people
4/7 Cut Employment and Support Allowance
The latest Budget included a £30 a week cut in disability benefits for some new claimants of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). The Government says it is equalising the rate of disability benefits with Jobseekers Allowance because giving disabled people more help is a “perverse incentive”. The people affected by this cut are those assessed as having a limited capability for work but as being capable of some “work-related activity”. A group of prominent Catholics wrote to Mr Duncan Smith to say there was “no justification” for this cut. Mental health charity Mind, said the cut was “insulting and misguided”
5/7 Risk homelessness with a sharp increase disability benefit sanctions
Official figures in the first quarter of 2014 found a huge increase in sanctions against people reliant on ESA sickness benefit. The 15,955 sanctions were handed out in that period compared to 3,574 in the same period the year before, 2013 – a 4.5 times increase. The homelessness charity Crisis warned at the time that the sharp rise in temporary benefit cuts was “cruel and can leave people utterly destitute – without money even for food and at severe risk of homelessness”. “It is difficult to see how they are meant to help people prepare for work,” Matt Downie, director of policy at the charity added
6/7 Sending sick people to work because of broken fitness to work tests
In 2012 a government advisor appointed to review the Government’s Work Capability Assessment said the tests causing suffering by sending sick people back to work inappropriately. “There are certainly areas where it's still not working and I am sorry there are people going through a system which I think still needs improvement,” Professor Malcolm Harrington concluded. The tests are said to have improved since then, but as recently as this summer they are still coming in for criticism. In June the British Psychological Society said there was “now significant body of evidence that the WCA is failing to assess people’s fitness for work accurately and appropriately”. It called for a full overhaul of the way the tests are carried out. The WCA appeals system has also been fraught with controversy with a very high rate of overturns and delays lasting months and blamed for hardship
7/7 The bedroom tax
The Government’s benefit cut for people who it says are “under-occupying” their homes disproportionately affects disabled people. Statistics released last year show that around two-thirds of those affected by the under-occupancy penalty, widely known as the ‘bedroom tax’, are disabled. There have been a number of high profile cases of disabled people being moved out of specially adapted homes by the policy. In one case publicised by the Sunday People last week, a 48 year old man with cerebral palsy was forced to bathe in a paddling pool after the tax moved him out of his home with a walk-in shower. The Government says it has provided councils with a discretionary fund to help reduce the policy’s impact on disabled people, but cases continue to arise
“The appeals for ESA work capability assessment logged at HMRC have reached record levels. They are currently at 1.1 million – the highest for all benefits. We need to look at this system. I absolutely think that is essential but right now disabled people are bearing the brunt of the wastage in the system.”
In 2005 she became ‘Dame’ Tanni Grey-Thompson for her services to sport and five years later she was created a life peered and was conferred as Baroness Grey-Thompson, of Eaglescliffe in the County of Durham. She has won eleven gold, four silver and one bronze medal over a 16 year Paralympic career.
The vote in the House of Lords came after work and pensions minister Lord Freud offered concessions to try to head off a revolt and warned peers against supporting a "wrecking amendment" to the welfare reform and work bill.
Conservative ministers are arguing that cutting the ESA entitlement from April 2017 for new claimants in the work-related activity group (Wrag) would provide and incentive for them to return to work. Peers, however, claim there is no evidence of this while campaigners insist it will push benefit claimants into further poverty.
The Department for Work and Pensions claimed the vote which saw the Government defeated was "routine" and said ministers would respond shortly.
A spokesman said: "The vote in the House of Lords is a routine part of the legislative process and next steps will be announced in due course."