A senior Conservative has said he regrets causing offence after he said disability payments should go to “really disabled people” rather than those who are “taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety”.
George Freeman, the head of Theresa May’s policy unit, had made the comments while defending government plans to restrict who received personal independence payments (PIP).
The Tory MP said this morning that having experienced “traumatic anxiety” himself as a child he had “not intended” to “inadvertently caused any offence”.
He said: “I know all too well the pain anxiety and depression causes.”
The government is facing a backbench Conservative rebellion over plans roll back the decision of a tribunal which said claimants with psychological problems who cannot travel without help must be treated like those who are blind.
PIP helps people pay for the extra costs incurred by a disability. Ministers say they have to make changes to prevent an extra £3.7bn cost by 2030.
But Labour said the Government’s equality assessment showed 160,000 would miss out on money that was “rightfully” theirs.
And Conservative MP Heidi Allen said today the government should “should take the financial hit” and pay for the benefit as the tribunal ruled.
Freeman caused a backlash when he told Pienaar’s Politics on BBC 5 Live yesterday: “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.”
He tweeted today:
Allen said this morning the government would face a significant rebellion from Tory MPs on the issue.
The South Cambridgeshire MP said the court ruling which extended the scope of PIP should be accepted.
“In my view, the courts are there for a reason. If they have come up with this ruling, which says that the criteria should be extended, then I believe we have a duty to honour that. That is their role,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme..
“Does that mean we should look at the process as a whole? Frankly I think we should do that anyway. It is not fit for purpose at the moment.”
Allen told disabilities minister Penny Mordaunt - who has responsibility for PIP - not to restrict the benefit.
“Don’t do it. If I was in her shoes, I would take the financial hit and say we need to accept this,” she said.
“Let’s really look at this PIP policy, which is something that needs to happen anyway, and review the whole thing from top to bottom.”
Former Tory disabilities minister Alistair Burt told the BBC’s Westminster Hour on Sunday evening that the government had to “make it very clear that physical and mental health has the same priority”.
But he defended Freeman. “George Freeman is the last person in the world that I would consider capable of a deliberately insensitive remark. It’s a difficult judgement for the Government,” he said.
“I know George quite well. George is not the sort of person to make a deliberately insensitive remark and he’s already said on his own behalf look I’ve suffered from these thing myself so he said I’m not going to be spoken to by other people about this. It’s a matter for George”