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27 May 2008
The all-party, all-charity, consensus on employment and support allowance has finally started its acrimonious break up with leading charities accusing the government of going back on its promises.

charity government split Meanwhile, Roger Berry MP has launched an early day motion signed by 36 MPs so far calling for the introduction of ESA to be postponed. It’s all far too little far too late to change ESA, but it means the government’s proposed further welfare reforms are in difficulty before they’ve even been launched.

Misled
Disability Alliance, CPAG, the Disability Benefits Consortium, the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group and Citizens Advice have all written to the Merits of Statutory instruments committee of the House of Lords setting out their disappointment and frustration at the reality of the ESA regs.

The Disability Benefits Consortium quote various ministerial statements in which assurances were given that ESA would be paid at a higher rate than incapacity benefit and allege that in reality: “Our organisations and the people we represent believe these commitments have not been followed through and that Parliamentarians have in effect been misled.”

CPAG echoes this sentiment, accusing the government of not meeting the spirit of its commitment and pointing out that:

“Everybody in the work-related activity group will receive £84.50 after 13 weeks. This compares with existing claimants on income support who are entitled to the disability premium who get £86.35, amounting to a reduction of £1.85 per week.”

Disability Alliance also accuse the government of bad faith, saying that the proposal to apply the harsh new Work Capability assessment to existing claimants “goes against the spirit and ethos within which the Welfare Reform Act was introduced.”

Citizens Advice, on the other hand, are highly critical of the way that people who have paid sufficient national insurance contributions to qualify for contribution-based ESA will be worse off than those who have paid no contributions.

Weasel words
The government’s extraordinary excuse for misleading everyone about the rates at which ESA is to be paid was that:

“The rate of £84.50 for those in the work-related activity component is above the rate of long-term incapacity benefit, £81.35 per week, at the time the statements were made”.

In other words, at the time the announcement of the rate at which ESA would be paid was made it was higher than incapacity benefit, but only because the annual uprating of incapacity benefit which takes place every April had not yet happened. Once the annual uprating was put in place, the rates of work related ESA and incapacity benefit were exactly the same.

As Lord Low of Dalston kindly put it in the House of Lords debate on the annulment of the Employment and support regulations on 22 May:

“That is casuistry of the worst order.”

Sadly, the Lords nonetheless voted against annulling the regulations

Postponement
The third sector’s belated revolt has led to a similar u-turn by some MPs. Roger Berry, formerly a staunch convert to ESA, has now tabled an early day motion asking for the introduction of ESA to be postponed ‘until such time as outstanding concerns about benefit reductions and further problems identified in the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee report are addressed.’

The EDM has so far been signed by 36 MPs, including 26 from the labour benches.

Harder times ahead
Sadly, this is all much too little, much too late as far as changing the course of ESA is concerned. At best, national disability and advice sector charities have been guilty of an extraordinary degree of naivety. Their optimism about the government’s good intentions was never shared by claimants themselves, to whom they would have done well to listen. But it does suggest that the government will have a much harder time selling its forthcoming package of further welfare reform to the voluntary sector or to its own back benches.

Or rather, it suggests that unless the third sector comes up with a much more robust response to any further welfare reform packages, it may not just be claimants who will be facing a sudden and disastrous drop in their income and the prospect of life on jobseekers’ allowance.

You can read the early day motion and check who has signed it here.

You can read the full evidence here from the voluntary sector here.

You can read the record of the House of Lord’s debate here.