ESA cut - where is the promised mitigation?

By Bernadette Meaden
April 1, 2017

Imagine if a friend had a stroke, heart attack or disabling accident this weekend. Imagine they became unable to work for an indefinite period, perhaps years. Would £29 a week deter them from getting well and returning to work? The government seems to think it would, which is why from Monday, somebody in that position may receive no more in benefit support than a healthy Jobseeker - £73.10 per week.   

The government forced its £29 a week cut to Employment and Support Allowance through Parliament despite serious concerns from some of its own backbenchers. It managed to do this by making rather vague promises that the people who would be affected by the cut, people whom the government find unfit to work but capable of ‘Work Related Activity’,  would be given special support to mitigate the impact and help them with their living costs.

When questioned on these plans in December 2016 the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Penny Mordaunt MP, said she was working on “urgent plans to reduce living costs”, a package of measures to “mitigate the £30”, which would be in place “before April”. She remained vague, but said the measures would be aimed at “ensuring that someone’s outgoings can be managed” and hinted at help with their energy and phone bills. When pressed for details her department said, “We are in the early stages of talking to providers and there is no further detail we can provide at this time.”

We are now in April. The only official announcement on this issue I can find is this published yesterday which states, “New claimants to ESA who are placed in the work-related activity group and new claimants to Universal Credit placed in the limited capability for work group will get the same rate as the job-seeking equivalent in both benefits to reduce barriers against starting to prepare for work…” So the £29 a week extra was acting as a barrier to employment for ill and disabled people, and cutting it removes those barriers? This seems to be what the government is saying.

What of the support with living costs that Penny Mordaunt promised would be in place ‘before April’? Some “personalised support” is mentioned  - but it is, “to help them move closer to the jobs market and, when they are ready, into work”. Obviously that won’t pay the bills whilst people are trying to get well, so surely there is something more concrete?  What does the Minister say?

As I write there is no announcement on her page on the official government site. Ms. Mordaunt was questioned by MPs in Parliament recently, and this is how the exchange went.

“Stephen Timms MP : We have been reminded that new claimants of employment and support allowance will get a much lower rate of benefit, starting in about 10 days. Some of those people will find themselves in serious difficulty. Do Ministers have any new proposals to help?

Penny Mordaunt MP : We do. In addition to the support offer, all the elements of which are in place, the Department has been doing a number of things, one of which is a big piece of work on social tariffs, which is about enabling people to have the right tools and information to reduce their household outgoings and giving them budgeting support.

Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP) In November last year, my motion calling on the Government to at least pause employment and support allowance cuts until mitigation or Green Paper proposals were brought in was carried unanimously by the House. Given that this is the last parliamentary week before the cuts take place on 3 April, will the Minister confirm whether the mitigations she promised will be laid before the House for scrutiny?

Penny Mordaunt : They are already in place.”

So, with the cut about to be implemented it would seem that the support and mitigation which was promised to help people survive, and which persuaded some concerned MPs to vote for it, amounts to little more than advice about switching energy suppliers and budgeting. I sincerely hope that, contrary to what Ms. Mordaunt indicates, there is more to come. If there isn’t, a lot of people who become ill will find themselves in dire need, if not destitute.

This cut is alarming because of the hardship it will cause to people who are ill. But it is also rather appalling in what it reveals about the government’s attitude towards people who have the misfortune to become ill and unable to work.  

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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