Tory rebellion over disability benefits cuts after PM’s policy chief says anxiety sufferers are ‘not really disabled’
A Tory rebellion has been launched over cuts to disability benefits after Theresa May’s policy chief caused outrage by suggesting anxiety sufferers are not ‘really disabled’.
A controversial shake up of personal independence payments (PIP) is set to unwind a series of tribunal decisions that have extended the scope of the benefit.
Heidi Allen became the first Tory MP to go public in support for the revolt, demanding the Government ‘honour’ the tribunal rulings and review the entire PIP system.
Tory think tank the Bow Group has also urged a Government rethink.
George Freeman provoked fury yesterday as he defended the curbs to the disability benefit, insisting the Government would only ensure it goes to the ‘most needy’.
Mr Freeman branded a tribunal decision that claimants with psychological problems who cannot travel without help must be treated like those who are blind.
Amid a welter of criticism, Mr Freeman – head of the No10 policy unit – later insisted he would not be ‘lectured’ about anxiety because he had suffered from it himself in the past.
Ms Allen told the Today programme: ‘In my view, the courts are there for a reason. If they have come up with this ruling, which says that the criteria should be extended, then I believe we have a duty to honour that. That is their role.
‘Does that mean we should look at the process as a whole? Frankly I think we should do that anyway. It is not fit for purpose at the moment.’
In a message to Ms Mordaunt, she said: ‘Don’t do it. If I was in her shoes, I would take the financial hit and say we need to accept this.
‘Now let’s really look at this PIP policy, which is something that needs to happen anyway, and review the whole thing from top to bottom.’
Bow Group Chairman Cllr Ben Harris-Quinney said: ‘This is the very behaviour that gives the Conservative Party a bad name, attacking the most in need and kicking people when they are down.’
Responding to the upper tribunal rulings on Thursday – when attention was on two crucial by-elections – disabilities minister Penny Mordaunt said she was reforming the payments to ‘restore the original aim of the benefit’ and make sure the most needy were given support.
Ms Mordaunt said no claimants would see a reduction in the amount of PIP previously awarded.
But Labour said the Government’s equality assessment showed 160,000 would miss out on money that was ‘rightfully’ theirs.
Mr Freeman, the head of the Number 10 Downing Street policy board, said it was the right decision.
He told Pienaar’s Politics on BBC Radio 5 Live: ‘These tweaks are actually about rolling back some bizarre decisions by tribunals that now mean benefits are being given to people who are taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety.
‘We want to make sure we get the money to the really disabled people who need it.’
Challenged on his assessment of anxiety, Mr Freeman said: ‘I totally understand anxiety and so does the Prime Minister. We’ve set out in the mental health strategy how seriously we take it.
‘My point was that these PIP reforms are partly about rolling back some frankly bizarre decisions in tribunals which have seen money that should go to the most disabled spent on people with really much less urgent conditions.’
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell tweeted: ‘This is an insult to disabled people. He should apologise immediately or Theresa May should make him.’
In a separate statement, he demanded that Chancellor Philip Hammond reverse the changes in next month’s Budget, arguing they amount to a £3.7 billion cut to disability benefits.
Mr McDonnell said: ‘Theresa May has used the cover of the by-elections to sneak out this announcement hurting so many vulnerable disabled people.
‘This is a return to the worst politics of spin that so tarnished our politics for so long. It is an act of immense bad faith. She is degrading politics and demeaning the role of Prime Minister.’
Labour MP Louise Haigh tweeted: ‘Tories in the gutter trying to shame those in desperate need’.
Tory MP David Burrowes, who rebelled over separate cuts to disability benefits last year, signalled he would back the changes, although he admitted it was a ‘difficult judgment call’ to make about who should receive the highest PIPs.
The Prime Minister has made tackling mental health a priority, saying last month that mental illness has for too long been ‘shrouded in a completely unacceptable stigma and dangerously disregarded as a secondary issue to physical health’.
Disability charity Scope criticised Mr Freeman’s ‘crude’ distinction between physical and mental health and said it was concerned about the Government’s ‘worrying’ changes to PIP.
Scope chief executive Mark Atkinson said: ‘It is unhelpful to make crude distinctions between those with physical impairments and mental health issues because the kind of impairment someone has is not a good indicator of the costs they will face.
‘Many disabled people will be now be anxiously waiting to hear as to whether or not these tighter rules will affect their current PIP award.
‘The Government must offer clarity and reassurance that these new measures will not negatively affect the financial support that disabled people receive now or in the future, and that they stand by their commitment to making no further changes to disability benefits in this Parliament.’
The independent Equality and Human Rights Commission said Mr Freeman’s comments would add to the stigma surrounding mental health.
Its chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath said: ‘Our welfare system should support those that are in need.
‘Any decisions should be based on sound evidence and not sweeping generalisations.
‘There are many people who have unseen disabilities and they need just as much support.
‘These comments will only feed into negative perceptions of disability and add to the stigma surrounding mental health issues.’
But posting on Twitter, Mr Freeman defended his remarks: ‘Having suffered myself as a child career from childhood anxiety & depression I don’t need any lectures on the damage anxiety does, tbh.’