Conservative MPs have called on the chancellor to reconsider welfare cuts ahead of the autumn statement, after a backbench motion to pause the planned cuts passed unanimously in the House of Commons.
No MPs voted against the motion to stop the planned cuts to employment support allowance (ESA) and universal credit, with 127 voting in favour. However, the motion is purely symbolic, intended only as a method of sending a message to government.
During the debate, called by the SNP’s Neil Gray, MPs across the house called for Philip Hammond to pause a planned £29-a-week cut to ESA, which applies to those not in employment through illness or disability but who have been judged fit to prepare to return to work.
The universal credit cuts will also mean a reduction in the amount people are able to earn before their benefits are withdrawn.
Heidi Allen, the Conservative MP who has led calls for a rethink on welfare cuts, said she could think of no other issue “so regretted by colleagues on my side of the house”.
“I have a guiding principle in life,” she went on. “Always listen to the loudest voice in your head. You might choose to ignore it, you might try and drown it out with distractions and other arguments. But you know it’s there. In fact, you can sometimes see it when you look in the mirror.
“I think we all know what that voice is saying. Let’s just pause these cuts. The £30 represents 29% of the weekly income of some half a million people. It’s big money for relatively few people. Let’s just pause. The risk of damage is high. The financial cost to pause is low. What kind of a government do we want to be?”
Peter Aldous, the Tory MP for Waveney, said he was concerned there “has not been a full and proper impact assessment of the proposed changes”.
Jeremy Lefroy, another Tory MP, spoke about his own father, a vicar, who became disabled when he was 34 but continued working until retirement with help from welfare schemes. Lefroy said he took issue with the cut, which brought down ESA to the same level as jobseekers’ allowance, because ill or disabled people preparing to return to work often had higher costs of living.
“There’s the additional costs for heating ... additional costs for food, some of the diets involved are expensive,” he said. “The cost of transport is expensive as one goes frequently to hospital and doctor’s appointments.”
The MP for Enfield Southgate, Tory David Burrowes, praised colleagues for supporting the motion but said he did not consider them “particularly brave” for speaking out on the issue. “The people who are brave in this debate, though, are those who are trying to make ends meet. They’re the brave people we care about and we have to do more for them,” he said.
The Department for Work and Pensions has pledged that a new package of support to give practical help for re-entering the workforce will be in place by the time the cuts come into force in April.
The work and pensions minister, Penny Mordaunt, replying to the debate, said: “Proof we have listened and understood will be in our actions and a person’s experience of the system and support they receive is the only thing that will assure confidence in that system.”
Speaking to the Guardian after the debate, Allen said she had detected a change of tone. “I think they are listening, and I do get the sense the door is more open than we might have thought, even if it is not a U-turn on the cut, but an extra fund to make up the difference.”
However, the DWP stressed there were no plans to unpick previously announced cuts in Hammond’s autumn statement or beyond. “Our reforms are increasing the incentives for people to move into a job rather than staying on benefits, while keeping an important safety net in place for those who are vulnerable or unable to work,” a department spokesman said.
On Wednesday, Tory MPs voted down a Labour motion to scrap the cuts. The opposition motion also called on the government to reveal its distributional analysis ahead of the autumn statement – a breakdown of how hard various income brackets are hit by spending cuts.
No figures have been published since 2015, but the motion was defeated by 24 votes.
This article was written by Jessica Elgot, for theguardian.com on Thursday 17th November 2016 17.51 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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