In Parliament this week, David Cameron rejected arguments that benefits for people with disabilities will be lower. This is from Hansard on 17th October:
Mr Bain: … Last week the Prime Minister promised that work would always pay, but this morning Baroness Grey-Thompson and the Children’s Society have revealed that his current plans for universal credit next year will mean that up to 116,000 disabled people in work could lose as much as £40 a week. Does not that say everything about how this divisive Prime Minister always stands up for the wrong people? At the same time as handing huge tax cuts to 8,000 people earning over £1 million a year he is going to penalise some of the bravest strivers in our country.
The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely serious issue; let me try to deal with as fully as I can. The money that is going into disability benefit will not go down under universal credit; it will go up. The overall amount of money will go from £1.35 billion last year to £1.45 billion in 2015. Under the plans, no recipients will lose out, unless their circumstances change. All current recipients are fully cash-protected by a transitional scheme. On future recipients, we have made an important decision and choice to increase the amount that we give to the most severely disabled children, and there will be a new lower amount for less disabled people. That is a choice that we are making. As I have said, we are increasing the overall amount of money and focusing on the most disabled. That shows the right values and the right approach.
Some of the points here are unclear. There is no such benefit as ‘disability benefit’, so it is hard to tell just what the PM is referring to – it is not ESA or the Income Support that is going to be included in Universal Credit. I am not sure which benefit cost £1.35 billion last year, but my best guess is that it was Disability Living Allowance for children, which was forecast in the last budget to be £1.31 billion. If that’s right, the figure is irrelevant – this is not a benefit that is going to be affected by Universal Credit at all. Current recipients are only protected ‘unless their circumstances change’, and that will include movements into and out of work, and reaching school leaving age.
Probably more important than the precise figures, however, is the general message. The PM says here that the government is “focusing on the most disabled” and that this is “the right approach”. But this approach was apparently rejected by Lord Freud, the responsible minister, in last month’s evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, when he explained that the priority was to liberate disabled people by giving them opportunities to work (see my note on A zero-sum game, 11th October). Is the government giving priority to those who are most disabled, or those who might be able to work? They are not often the same people.