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Tory MPs press ministers on sickness benefit cuts

4 February 2016

5:00 PM

4 February 2016

5:00 PM

The Welfare Reform and Work Bill has its third reading in the House of Lords on Monday before returning to the Commons for consideration of amendments. Jeremy Corbyn raised one of the controversial aspects of this bill, which is to cut the amount of money paid to people who are judged too ill to work currently but with the potential to return to the workplace in the future, at Prime Minister’s Questions this week. Peers have defeated this measure, but the government intends to reverse it.

But there are Tory MPs who are worried about the cut to employment and support allowance, too. Heidi Allen, she of the dramatic Commons speech on tax credit cuts, raised it at Work and Pensions questions this week, and Jeremy Lefroy has also been pressing ministers on the matter as he is worried that the cut will mean people who are suffering from illnesses such as cancer will not be able to cope with the higher cost of living associated with being ill. He tells Coffee House that he hopes the government will reflect these higher costs of living:

’I have engaged with colleagues on the issue: they have been very consensual in their approach and I fully understand and appreciate the need to help people back into work because that is undoubtedly the best thing to aim for. It is also important to ensure that people who are not yet able to return to work have the support they need which includes meeting extra costs associated with their condition.’

Other Conservative MPs regard Lefroy as the leader in their campaign to get the government to reconsider this cut. The problem is that there aren’t more than about half a dozen of them at the moment, which means that ministers needn’t fear a defeat when the government tries to overturn the amendment passed by peers.

The Work and Pensions department is currently drawing up wider reforms of the sickness benefit system in a white paper, which campaigners hope will overhaul the way that people are assessed for these benefits. A paper published by the think tank Reform today suggests that the Work Capability Assessment is ‘too crude’ to assess the sort of support a claimant should receive. Instead, the test should be split into three stages; the first working as a means test of whether the person applying is eligible for out of work benefits, the second assessing how far someone is from moving back into work, and finally the third examining whether the claimants has a health condition that is confirmed by a health professional. Then a claimant could take an occupational health assessment which looks at what they can actually do, rather than whether they can lift an empty cardboard box, for example.

It also suggests a single out-of-work allowance that is paid at one rate for everyone, whether they are just looking for work or out of work due to sickness or disability. The savings from that change can then fund higher rates of disability living allowance and the personal independence payment, as these benefits are the ones that are supposed to reflect the higher cost of living for someone who is sick or disabled.

Reform’s paper is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because Iain Duncan Smith gave a speech on his own thinking on sickness benefits to the think tank last summer. But it also tries to answer some of the concerns of those who are worried about the proposed arrangements in the Welfare Reform and Work Act. If ministers indicate in private discussions with MPs that they are moving towards this sort of reform that means those on sickness benefits are still adequately supported financially, then they may be able to make the small Tory rebellion disappear entirely.

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