A coalition of 70 charities have signed an open letter calling on the government to reconsider cutting benefits for sick and disabled people who are seeking work.
Employment and support allowance (ESA), for those who are unable to work at present but deemed capable of preparing to do so in the future, will be reduced from £103 to £73 a week if the cuts come into effect as planned in April 2017.
Disability charities have widely criticised the change, with Mencap, RNIB, the MS Society, and Age UK – all part of the Disability Benefits Consortium – signing the letter, published today.
Research carried out by the consortium earlier this year found 7 in 10 (69%) people said cuts to ESA would cause their health to suffer, and just 1% said the cuts would motivate them to find work.
Michelle Ornstein, a 22-year-old who wants to work with children, is one of those who stands to lose up to £1,500 a year, or £30 a week.
Ornstein, who has a learning disability and is supported by a carer and her family, told BuzzFeed News she was "scared about what might come next" and the impact it will have on her quality of life.
“If we had the benefits cuts it is going to be a lot harder for us, because we’ve got to think of other ways of taking me out [on trips],” Ornstein said. “It keeps me up [at night], and it just gets me panicking.”
Eric Martin, 50, was diagnosed with Asperger's “a few years ago”, and has been in and out of employment. He said he likes working, especially meeting new people, but he’s worried if the government makes the cuts, it will stop him from doing some of the things he enjoys.
"I like playing football," said Martin, who currently receives ESA. "I used to play centre-forward, I scored lots of goals." But if the government presses ahead with the proposed cuts – which have already rejected twice by the House of Lords – he fears the reduced amount will leave him with just enough to cover basic living costs.
“If I want to go somewhere, I have money to do things that I want to do," he said. "But if she [Theresa May] cuts [ESA] then it will affect my enjoyment and all the things that I like doing."
He added: “I’m not ashamed of my condition but I find that people sometimes find it difficult. Sometimes it can be challenging, but I think I can achieve more things in life. The government needs to recognise that as well.”
Belinda Powell, 30, is recently engaged. She'd like to be a bingo caller. “Sometimes, when I go to bingo on Sundays, they let me call the numbers out,” she said. “If I could get [a job like] that it would be brilliant.”
Powell, who has a learning disability, is currently applying for ESA. In the meantime, she has a job, but it's a zero-hours contract and she doesn't know when she'll be offered her first shift. “I am very worried about these cuts because of the impact it’ll have on my life,” she told BuzzFeed News. “It’ll be extremely difficult.”
Ornstein, Martin, and Powell all visited parliament yesterday petitioning their MPs to lobby the government over the proposed cuts.
Jo Davies, campaigns lead at the learning disability charity Mencap, described the decision to reduce the benefits as “wrong”.
Only 5.8% of people with a learning disability are currently in full-time employment, she told BuzzFeed News, and “despite the government’s manifesto commitment to halve the disability employment gap we are not seeing enough of the support that was promised to get more disabled people into work".
Ministers desperately need to listen to the disability community, she said, and reassess how they currently tackle disabled unemployment. “Cutting their benefits will simply make their lives harder and push them further from employment,” Davies said.
Just under 500,000 sick and disabled individuals are included in the ESA work-related assistance group. Of these, just under half have a mental health condition or a learning disability, and have been found unfit for work – but are expected to take steps towards gaining employment.
A green paper, published earlier this month by the Department for Work and Pensions, outlined plans promising to help at least 1 million people in to work, but set no timescale.
The Disability Benefits Consortium, the umbrella organisation behind the open letter, believes the reduction to ESA will directly undermine the government’s objectives.
When challenged during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday about the cuts, Theresa May said her government was “focusing support on those most in need”.
Neil Gray, SNP MP for Airdrie and Shotts, told BuzzFeed News the government was “putting the cart before the horse” on the issue.
Gray said the government’s rhetoric on putting £60 million into support but making cuts of up to £450 million did not add up and that there appeared to be no concrete long-term plan. “In the meantime the personal and direct financial support that sick and disabled people are going to be able to receive is going to be cut away,” he said.
“The government’s arguments that these cuts will incentivise sick and disabled people into work are baseless and deeply, deeply offensive,” added Debbie Abrahams MP, shadow work and pensions secretary.
A spokesperson for the DWP told BuzzFeed News: “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.
“People currently on ESA will continue to get the same level of financial support and the new Personal Support Package will ensure people get the best practical support that they need to re-enter the workforce.”
Rose Troup Buchanan is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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