Heidi Allen is MP for South Cambridgeshire.
Having run my own manufacturing business and employed people for years, I know only too well how the benefits system we inherited was not fit for purpose.
I lost count of the number of times capable employees with tough financial home lives would turn down more hours because of that magic number – the number 16: the number of hours you could safely work before you tripped over the edge, into an uncontrollable spiral of benefits reduction and uncertainty.
So no one could be prouder than I of the track record of this Conservative Government and the Coalition before for reforming that broken system and getting record numbers of people into work. Iain Duncan Smith’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill has clearly been at the heart of this transformation.
But as with so much in life, it’s the attention to detail that can make or break the success of change. Not only in real terms, but crucially also in public perception. Overall, the voters in this country believe we are the most financially competent party and are responsible for turning the economy around. They believe that the welfare state needed reform, and that we are on the road to achieving that. But I also know many of them voted for us with a heavy heart and an even heavier conscience. Yes, we were disciplined and could be trusted with strategic responsibility, but would we look after the little person along the way? Would we care, would we show compassion?
We were so close – too close – to losing that trust during the autumn when tax credits were on course to be cut before income tax thresholds and the minimum wage had risen. However, common sense prevailed and at the eleventh hour the Chancellor rightly cancelled his plans. A lot of people breathed a sigh of relief that day – millions, probably. I and more colleagues than you might imagine breathed that same sigh.
Today, though to a lesser extent, we are here again. We will review whether we should proceed with the Welfare Reform Bill as it is, or back a Lords’ amendment. As it stands, the Bill makes a specific provision to reduce the support for individuals in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance in the Work Related Activity Group or ‘WRAG’. A similar change would also be made to Universal Credit.
The proposal is to reduce the support for those in the WRAG – half a million people who have been independently assessed as too ill to work – from £102.15 a week to £73.10, a reduction of almost a third. The change would apply to new claimants from April next year.
People in the WRAG include those recovering from the effects of cancer treatments, living with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, people with a physical or learning disability and mental health issues.
Whilst the change has been touted as a necessary reform that will incentivise claimants back to work, I have concerns that it may in fact do just the opposite – and make it harder for some of the most vulnerable people in society to find their way back to employment.
Peers voted to remove the proposals from the Bill at Report Stage. Does this sound familiar yet? I worry that to proceed with the Bill in its original form will damage not just the employment prospects and wellbeing of these vulnerable claimants, but also our reputation and trust amongst the electorate.
Ministers have long argued that reforms are necessary to reduce welfare spending and to make progress towards halving the disability employment gap: a welcome and bold ambition. They talk of a White Paper, due soon, that will offer a better way of supporting these individuals. They say support should be about more than just cash and that, for far too long, individuals have been left, abandoned in this group.
I admire the sentiments – but I want to see evidence of them, too. In my business career, I never entered into a deal without sight of the detail. So to be able to support the Government today, I will ask for that detail again. How will you support these individuals? What will the promised £100 million for 2017/18 fund?
Ministers have suggested that savings made from the cut will allow them to invest in better employment support. Yet current Government plans suggest that only a small proportion of the savings they expect to make will be invested in employment services – and there’s still too little detail about what alternative employment support provision would look like.
What has suddenly changed in the lives of these individuals that they are suddenly fit enough or not fit enough to work? The beauty of this intermediate WRAG group is that it is just that, intermediate. On the road to returning to work, but not quite there yet. Recovering from chemotherapy, but needing to keep the heating on that little bit more. Many people who are ill are desperate to work, but need to be supported financially until their health improves. There are also structural and economic barriers standing in their way; reducing financial support only serves to create a further hurdle to be overcome. Many of these people have worked and paid in for many years before falling ill. They deserve better than this.
The voters who trusted us to build a fairer society deserve better than this.