A Conservative minister and adviser to Theresa May has been condemned for arguing welfare payments should be going to “really disabled people” with physical problems rather those “taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety”.
George Freeman, who heads the No 10 policy unit, has been criticised by disability charities, Labour and the Liberal Democrats for suggesting mental disabilities are less deserving of support when defending “tweaks” to personal independence payments (PIP).
Critics blasted how the comments made “crude” distinctions between disabilities, and undermined Government claims it wants “parity of esteem” between mental and physical health conditions.
Ministers say they have to make changes to prevent an extra £3.7bn cost by 2030. Critics argue 150,000 vulnerable people will be affected by the reform, which was announced last Thursday as attention was on two crunch by-elections.
PIP, which has replaced the Disability Living Allowance, is a benefit to help people cope with the extra costs of their condition.
Freeman was pointing out the changes were needed after two tribunal rulings at the end of last year ruled the Government should expand the remit of the payment.
Speaking on Pienaar’s Politics on BBC 5 Live, Freeman said:
“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 total 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.”
Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who also appeared on the show, took to Twitter to label the comments an “insult to disabled people”.
Labour MP Louise Haigh said Freeman should apologise or resign.
Freeman later responded to online criticism that he had “suffered myself as a child” from anxiety, and wouldn’t “need any lectures”.
Scope chief executive Mark Atkinson seized on the “crude distinctions” between mental and physical health impairments. He 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.”
Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said the comments would “fly in the face” of Theresa May’s commitment to “parity of esteem” between mental and physical health conditions.
“Mr Freeman must immediately apologise for the comments he made regarding sick and disabled people.
“Freeman dismissed the needs of people with mental health conditions saying support should go to ‘really disabled people’ rather than those who are ‘taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety’.
“Not only does this fly in the face of the commitment to ‘parity of esteem’ for people with mental health conditions, but it directly contradicts Theresa May’s comments on mental health and two recent two tribunal judgements.”
Celia Thomas, a Liberal Democrat spokesperson on disabilities, said it was “shameful” the Government can “treat those with life-changing illnesses in this way”.
“It is astonishing the complete disregard the Conservative government have shown for those struggling in life.
“The tribunal knows what it is talking about, its rulings should not just be disregarded because they get in the way of the government’s plans for sweeping cuts across the board. PIP payments are meant to help give people the freedom they need to get on in life.
“It is shameful that this government feels that it can treat those with life-changing illnesses in this way.
“The Liberal Democrats will fight these proposed cuts in every way we can to ensure that everyone has a chance to get on in life.”