Stephen Timms – 2023 Speech on the Budget

The speech made by Sir Stephen Timms, the Labour MP for East Ham, in the House of Commons on 16 March 2023.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I apologise for my late arrival in the debate.

It is striking how hard it is for Conservative Chancellors to resist the temptation to hand out big tax cuts to the wealthiest while raising tax for ordinary people. We can sympathise with the Chancellor in that he meets many such people—many people among the 1% wealthiest pension savers in the country—who are very courteous and very nice to him over convivial dinners, and they explain to him their frustrations with the Government’s pensions tax policy. These are good eggs, and who could possibly begrudge them a £1.2 billion tax cut? But the reality is that pension tax relief is already massively skewed in favour of the best-off, and the Chancellor, when times are hard, has decided to give another billion to the wealthiest in pension tax relief.

I do welcome the adoption of the Select Committee recommendations on support in universal credit for the costs of childcare, which was announced yesterday. As the Secretary of State explained, allowing the costs to be paid up front from universal credit and lifting the cap—absurdly, it had not been raised since 2005—will remove very important barriers to work, including a barrier to those who are working part-time from working full-time.

There is much to welcome in the health and disability White Paper, which says that the system will be changed so that it focuses on

“what people can do, rather than what they can’t”.

That is laudable, but precisely the same form of words was used by Alistair Darling to introduce changes to the incapacity benefit system 25 years ago. Whether the detail turns out to be a good thing will depend on the detail, which is largely absent. The Secretary of State spoke about consultation. The Government’s ill-fated disability strategy came to grief in the courts because had not adequately consulted disabled people. We must hope that that lesson has been learned.

Nobody will mourn the work capability assessment, which the White Paper says will be replaced by

“a new personalised health conditionality approach”.

Can Ministers tell us what that means? The White Paper goes on to explain that it

“will provide more personalised levels of conditionality and employment support”,

but I am afraid that leaves us none the wiser. The problem is that, despite being years late, much of the vital detailed work does not seem to have been done yet.

I welcome some of the specific proposals to reform PIP—for example, I am pleased that the call to match people’s primary health condition with a specialist assessor will at least be tested. Many PIP assessments come up with the wrong answer, as we know, because when people appeal against the determination, the great majority win their appeal—in fact, the proportion who do so has been going up. The White Paper proposes to place more weight on the PIP assessment in future, so it is even more important that we get it right. The only way to do that is to record all the assessments, so that if the decision is subsequently found to be wrong, it is possible to go back, work out why and consider how to avoid the same mistake being made again in future.

The White Paper says that there will be an increase in recording, which is a good thing, but the Select Committee proposed five years ago that all assessments should be recorded, with an opt-out for the claimant if they did not want their assessment to be recorded. In the new contract for assessments to be agreed this year, the Department should instruct providers to record assessments by default with a clear opt-out option. That proposition is supported by all three assessment providers. It will ensure that there is an objective record of the assessment, which will reassure claimants and allow assessment quality to be audited. When recordings are available and the findings of assessments are overturned, the recordings should be checked at least on a sample basis to see whether an erroneous outcome could have been avoided.

I welcome the White Paper’s commitment to test the feasibility of sending a copy of the assessor’s report to claimants automatically before the decision is made, which was also recommended by the Select Committee five years ago. I hope that the feasibility testing will be brief so that that can be introduced across the system soon.

It is disappointing that there is still not yet a target for disability employment in the White Paper. The Government congratulate themselves on achieving the previous very undemanding target early, but I am pleased that the White Paper says:

“Our goal to reduce the disability employment gap remains.”

In the 2015 election campaign, David Cameron announced a target to halve the disability employment gap. Unfortunately, that target was quickly scrapped as soon the general election was out of the way. I hope that a clear target on the disability employment gap will now be adopted.

Much will depend on the support that disabled people receive from work coaches. Polling by the charity Scope found that half of jobseekers with complex disabilities do not feel supported by work coaches. The initial training for work coaches does not seem to cover the barriers to work faced by disabled people, and jobcentres lack the specialist assistive technology that many disabled people need to look for and apply for work.

The White Paper refers to the potential of the UK shared prosperity fund to provide employment support. It is disappointing that there will be, I think, a two-year gap between the European social fund ending and the UK shared prosperity fund being allowed to support employment projects. A witness to the Select Committee yesterday suggested that the flexible support fund might be expanded, at least temporarily, to try to bridge that gap.

That could lead to a large amount of important employment support capacity not being lost, which it will be if the gap is allowed to take effect.

Lastly, I appeal to the Secretary of State to spare us the embarrassment of the Department’s appealing against the ruling this week by the Information Commissioner that the Department’s research on the impact of benefit sanctions must be published. The Department promised to publish it. As was her wont, his predecessor but one, the right hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), decided to hide as much as possible if it contained any hint of a question mark about the Department’s policies. I welcome his review of that approach, and I hope he will show with this particular case that things have now changed.