David Cameron came under fire today after declaring that some benefit claimants were making a “lifestyle choice”.
The Prime Minister used the phrase after he rejected calls to ditch welfare sanctions targets and planned £30-a-week cuts to disability benefits.
A defiant Cameron dismissed the calls, and instead went on the offensive to say the system of penalties and benefit sanctions was designed to tackle those who should be working and not on welfare.
“Sanctions in a benefit system are important. We want a benefit system that's there for people who can't find a job who need support,” he said at Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons.
"It shouldn't be a lifestyle choice and if people can work, they should work. That's why we have a sanctions system and I believe that sanctions system is fairly applied.”
Cameron’s response came after SNP MP Anne McLaughlin asked him to reveal if Department for Work and Pensions staff had been given targets for the number of sanctions they should apply.
Shadow Minister for the Disabled People, Debbie Abrahams, told HuffPost UK: "It is spectacularly misjudged for the Prime Minister to refer to the social security system as a ‘lifestyle choice’ on the same day as the IFS raises concerns about the Tories’ extension of in-work sanctions, as part of Universal Credit.
"As well as confirming that cuts to Universal Credit Work Allowances will leave over 2 million families £1,600 a year worse off.
“Just what have the Tories got against low and middle income families? They clearly do not understand that low pay is not a way of life people choose, but a chronic problem that is keeping millions of families in poverty.”
Condemnation was also swift from SNP MPs.
Yet again the Prime Minister lets himself down at #pmqs— Gavin Newlands MP (@GavinNewlandsMP) February 3, 2016
He thinks that people make a "lifestyle choice" to be on benefits.
So out of touch.
Shameful & divisive language from the PM describing some who claim benefits as making a 'lifestyle choice' #PMQs— Hannah Bardell MP (@HannahB4LiviMP) February 3, 2016
PM demonstrates again how little he understands of vulnerable families - he thinks people make a 'lifestyle choice' to be on benefits #PMQs— Steven Paterson MP (@Steven4Stirling) February 3, 2016
And others on Twitter criticised the use of the phrase too.
The sanctions system is NOT working! For most not working is NOT a lifestyle choice! #pmqs— Ashley Hickford (@ashlai_89) February 3, 2016
Unemployment isn't a "lifestyle choice", cretin. He & his fellow MPs will never suffer that indignity because of their social capital #pmqs— Buddy Hell (@buddy_hell) February 3, 2016
Contrary to what the PM says, poverty is not a "lifestyle choice". It's a political one. And his political choices stagnate social mobility.— Miriam Brett (@MiriamBrett) February 3, 2016
The Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee last year urged no fewer than 26 reforms to the sanctions regime operating by job centres and the DWP, including clearer warnings, better protections for the most vulnerable and more emergency hardship payouts.
The Prime Minister also refused to back down over Jeremy Corbyn’s call for an end to cuts to the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which were recently overturned by the House of Lords.
Referring to the ESA cuts, Cameron insisted the changes were aimed at “future claimants - not for existing claimants who continue to be paid at the same rate".
The PM said that only those judged fit for some forms of work would suffer cuts. "That is what a compassionate Conservative government does," he said.
Asked after the Commons clashes if the PM could quantify how many people on benefit he felt were making a 'lifestyle choice', a No.10 spokesman sidestepped the question.
"The point he's trying to make is it's important that f you've got a benefit system it's there to help people who are unable to work," he said.
"If people are able to work, there's a lot of jobs being created, there's hundreds of thousands of vacancies out there. And it's right that we have a welfare system that's designed to get people back into work.
"Taxpayers are funding the welfare system. People working long hours, paying their taxes. That's very different from the approach Labour seems to take, which is a welfare free-for-all."
Although today was the first time he has used the phrase in the Commons, Cameron used it before in a Sun article in 2013.
He said back then that the benefits system "it was meant to be a stopgap in hard times, but has become a lifestyle choice for some".