Cross-party resistance in Cambridgeshire to Government welfare reforms

“But basically there’s a test; you have to reach a certain number of points. She got ten points; you have to get twelve points to qualify for the Motability Scheme. And this is quite clearly happening on a massive scale across the country, because there are a series of MPs standing up with similar heartbreaking accounts.”

walking_with_sticks17:05 Wednesday 24th February 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS MANN: Government plans to limit welfare for some disabled people have been given the go-ahead despite objections from some Conservative MPs, including the South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen. She spoke out against the planned tax credit cuts last night, and attacked Ministers who are looking to reduce the Employment Support Allowance for disabled people by up to £30 a week. This is what she had to say in the Commons.
HEIDI ALLEN: Anyone who has beaten cancer must surely burst with desire to return to a normal life, and are unlikely to want to be labelled as a cancer sufferer for any longer than they absolutely must be. From 2017 in the region of 270 disabled people alone in my constituency of South Cambridgeshire would stand to lose £30 or 29% of their weekly income, if we accept this Bill in its original form, and ignore the Lords. For these people I need to see more detail of the contents of the White Paper, and hear about the financial support too that will be made available before I can fully support the Government. If we don’t get this right, we will damage not jut the employment prospects and well-being of these vulnerable claimants, but also our reputation and our trust amongst the electorate. And to secure my trust, I need to believe in that White Paper and that £100 million is going to go some way towards those people. That is my warning shot to Government. Today, I will not support them. Today I may abstain, but only for today. Let’s get the detail right. Let’s be a Government of sweeping strategic change, but also let’s be one with the compassion and the dexterity to look after the little man too.
CHRIS MANN: That’s Heidi Allen talking in the Commons last night, and she joins us live from there now. Heidi hello to you. Hello Heidi
HEIDI ALLEN: Hello. Can you hear me?
CHRIS MANN: Yes I can now. Thank you.
HEIDI ALLEN: Hi Chris. Sorry.
CHRIS MANN: “A warning shot”, and talking about the reputation and the trust of Government. Tough words.
HEIDI ALLEN: Well because in my heart I wanted to vote very much against, and that to be honest when I went into the Chamber before I made my speech that was my intention And talking to a couple of colleagues, it became clear that this White Paper could potentially .. that the Government has still to publish .. could potentially give us a better solution, and that I would have possibly some influence over it, if I abstained rather than voting against. So it was a warning shot. It was kind of a last chance ‘let me be involved’ or if you don’t then I will certainly go against the Government.
CHRIS MANN: Well the political chattering classes are all excited about the EU ..
HEIDI ALLEN: Yes.
CHRIS MANN: .. and the referendum that is to come at the moment. But perhaps people in the street, ordinary folk, are more concerned about issues like this, and welfare cuts which are hurting many people it appears.
HEIDI ALLEN: Well these cuts, if they are allowed to come in as they are, it will be from April ’17. And one thing I would say in fairness to the Government is it wouldn’t affect anybody currently receiving these benefits. It would be for any new claimants. But you’re absolutely right. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in what they call the Westminster Bubble here, and be obsessed with things like the EU, which of course are important, but perhaps not what everybody is thinking about.
CHRIS MANN: Yes. Well they don’t directly affect perhaps somebody’s income next week. which these readjustments of people’s benefits are, and we’re hearing lots of stories of people who are having to go without as a result of this. Is this potentially the current Government’s poll tax for instance? Have they got it so wrong.
HEIDI ALLEN: I think the tax credit cuts as you’ll know that almost came in in the Autumn, that from my point of view certainly would have been poll tax II. And I think the Chancellor was absolutely right to do a reversal on that. This removal potentially of this ESA wrag-group (work related activity) I do think there’s still time to avert that. And that’s what I’ll be working hard on through this White Paper, to see if we can change the Government’s mind.
CHRIS MANN: It’s not the first time you’ve spoken up against your own government. You appear to be the conscience of the Conservative Party.
HEIDI ALLEN: I think there are more of us perhaps than our brand would suggest. But maybe I’m just not so good at diplomacy. (LAUGHS) Maybe I’m just giving it with two barrels. I don’t know. But it’s not just me. There are a lot of us. But it’s difficult. We made a promise to the electorate that we’d bring the debt down, and welfare of course is a huge spending area. I just think as I describe, a little man. It shouldn’t be the state against the individual person. We need to look after individual people while we go through this change, and some of these cuts I just think are inappropriate.
CHRIS MANN: You lost the vote. Is anybody listening?
HEIDI ALLEN: Yes, because .. well we’ll find out whether they’re listening in terms of whether I’m allowed to be involved in the White Paper or not. And if not they’ll certainly be listening afterwards.
CHRIS MANN: Ooh! That sound like a threat.
HEIDI ALLEN: Yes well it was. Yesterday was. Because I wanted to vote completely against, and I met them in some ways half way I suppose by abstaining. The vote in the end wasn’t actually that tight, so one vote here or there would not have made a difference. But in terms of ramping up media presence etcetera, then there’s quite a few of us prepared to do that actually, if this White Paper doesn’t deliver, because it has to. And whether we’re the conscience, or just I don’t know a few MPs that perhaps have more examples of it in our constituencies I don’t know. But somebody needs to do something.
CHRIS MANN: Well you’ve already said there have to be austerity measures. But is this government going too far? Is it too unfeeling? Does it need to consider more those who really can’t help themselves?
HEIDI ALLEN: No I don’t think so. A lot of people for example talk about Universal Credit, the replacement benefit system that’s due to come in. Oh it’s a white elephant. It’ll never happen. Well I have seen it operate, and I think it’s brilliant. I really do. So there are reforms that the Government are bringing in which will be absolutely revolutionary. They’ll allow people to keep more of their money. This whole 16 hour cliff that people used to fall off, never knowing whether a couple of hours extra work would rid them of their benefits or not. Universal Credit will get rid of all of that. But the problem as I see in big sweeping strategies which are broadly great, is sometimes you miss the detail. And that’s the stuff that I want to focus Government’s attention on.
CHRIS MANN: OK. Heidi, thank you so much for joining us.
HEIDI ALLEN: No problem at all. Thank you Chris.
CHRIS MANN: Heidi Allen, MP for South Cambridgeshire.

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17:20

CHRIS MANN: So we’ve already heard from the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire Heidi Allen, who’s protested about Government plans to limit welfare for some disabled people. That’s been given the go-ahead, although she objected as you heard, called it a ‘warning shot’ to the Government and questioned their reputation and trust with the people. She even said she was concerned that it could be poll tax II. Listening to all that is the Labour MP for Cambridge Daniel Zeichner. One of his constituents he says suffered a stroke, has been told that her Disability Living Allowance would be changed to Personal Independence Payments. He joins us now from Westminster, having been involved in that vote that Heidi was just off doing. Daniel, hello to you.
DANIEL ZEICHNER: Good evening Chris.
CHRIS MANN: Tell us the story then of your constituent Lisa.
DANIEL ZEICHNER: Well Chris Lisa, like so many people across the country unfortunately. We heard this in a debate that I spoke in on this issue yesterday. So many people are finding that they’re being reassessed to these new Personal Independence Payments. And they’re failing to pass these new tests being set by the Government. And the end result is that Lisa, who had a car under the Motability Scheme for the last ten years, is now having to return her car. And we’re finding this is happening across the country to 100 people a week, 14,000 people so far. And some estimates are that it could end up affecting 135,000 people across the country. So this crucial lifeline for so many people, a car that’s been adapted for their personal use, it’s cruel, it’s poor in terms of economy, because of the effect it’ll have on people will be inevitably to pass them on to another part of the system where there will be costs elsewhere. So much like Heidi, I almost despair at this government at the moment. They’re not listening. They really do need to change course.
CHRIS MANN: So Lisa was given an adapted car after she had a stroke. And that left her paralysed. Am I right?
DANIEL ZEICHNER: That’s right, and I went to see her. And a lovely person, she’s been doing really well. But she needs her car to keep her in touch with her friends, to keep her in the community. She will effectively be trapped in her own home without it. And as I say she’s one of many. Many others in Cambridge too. She’s been brave enough to stand up and speak out about it. But so many people just feel crushed by these kind of decisions.
CHRIS MANN: Now she was getting the Disability Living Allowance, and that’s been changed to the Personal Independence Payment, the PiP, by the Government.
DANIEL ZEICHNER: That’s right.
CHRIS MANN: And she’s been told she no longer qualifies for this support. Does she get other support?
DANIEL ZEICHNER: She gets other support. But it’s a complicated system. But basically there’s a test; you have to reach a certain number of points. She got ten points; you have to get twelve points to qualify for the Motability Scheme. And this is quite clearly happening on a massive scale across the country, because there are a series of MPs standing up with similar heartbreaking accounts to Lisa’s account. And it’s perhaps worth saying that this isn’t the latest round of welfare changes. These are actually the ones introduced under the Coalition. But I think what you can see is it takes some years for these things .. for the full effects to become apparent. So the current set we’re discussing in Parliament, I think will see many many more of these kinds of cases in years to come, if the Government doesn’t change tack.
CHRIS MANN: Obviously we don’t have Lisa with us. We haven’t looked in detail at her case. But you’re telling us that she will be trapped in her house because she can’t afford another car. She won’t be able to get around.
DANIEL ZEICHNER: Well what it will mean is that she will have to probably, and this is what I suspect some people will do, is they’ll turn to family, to friends, to try and scrape together the cash to pay for the car in another way. And some people will be able to do that. But many people won’t be able to do that, and that’s the problem. We have a system that works very well at the moment. A Motability Scheme has been around for 30 or 40 years. It’s widely understood. It’s well supported. The trade is there. It’s a scheme that works well. Frankly it seems to me to be a very very cruel thing to be doing to so many people, to take the key element that keeps them mobile away from them.
CHRIS MANN: Yes Parliament heard 14,000 disabled people who rely on these motoring allowances.
DANIEL ZEICHNER: Well so far. These reassessments are being done a bit at a time, so based on the numbers of people who have lost their cars so far, it will actually be 135,000 by the time this whole process is finished. That’s a lot of people.
CHRIS MANN: Now I actually mentioned this to Heidi, and she suggested that you need to appeal this as the MP, and she said a lot of people have, and have overturned these verdicts.
DANIEL ZEICHNER: Well we’ve been through this, and I asked the Government Minister how many people have actually been successful on appeal, and they weren’t able to tell us. And these appeals are taking a very very long time. And while you’re waiting for the appeal to come through, the car is taken away. So yes, Heidi is right. There is an appeal mechanism. But frankly very few people seem to have much faith in it at the moment. And that’s the message we’re getting back from people who’ve been through the process before.
CHRIS MANN: Do you disagree with the overall objective, which is to try and obviously cut back some of the benefits that are being paid, because they believe the system is being misused and people are taking advantage of it?
DANIEL ZEICHNER: Well I believe in the principle of helping people into work, and that’s important. But actually this is entirely about cutting costs. And remember this is the government that chose to cut inheritance tax for the very richest people. So it’s about political choices in the end, and I’m afraid they’re making the wrong choices as far as I can see. And for people like Lisa, it has a profound effect on their everyday lives. And I think anyone who met Lisa, I sat in her front room and she is a lovely person, but she was struggling really to make me a cup of tea. The idea that she could as they say go and use the bus or drive a normal car, I’m afraid it just isn’t going to happen.
CHRIS MANN: People will want to know how was this assessment made by the way Daniel. Do you know?
DANIEL ZEICHNER: Well yes. There’s a massive long form that has to be filled in that Lisa and her mum went through. There are then tests by assessors, and the point I made to the Minister was given it’s quite clearly producing the wrong result at the end of it, either the criteria are wrong, or the actual way it’s being assessed is wrong. There’s quite a dispute about the criteria themselves. People are being assessed as to whether they can walk 20 metres or not. It’s a pretty cruel and arbitrary system, and I have to say I think most people , if they were exposed to it, would be pretty horrified quite frankly.
CHRIS MANN: Daniel, thank you for joining us. That’s the MP for Cambridge, Labour MP Daniel Zeichner there, live from the House of Commons. Earlier on of course we heard from Heidi Allen the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire. Both concerned about the effects of cuts to or plans to limit welfare, their effects on their constituents.

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