Hammond’s comments show the Tories haven’t changed

The chancellor is as factually wrong as he is insensitive, argues Lizzy Dobres

Appearing before the Treasury select committee, the chancellor’s comments yesterday showed the Conservatives are not only insensitive, but wrong and inconsistent. Phillip Hammond told the assembled members of parliament that the low level of productivity reported in the budget could be down to marginal groups in the workforce, such as ‘the disabled’.

Not only was the comment most likely factually incorrect but, worse, it was hypocritical. The Conservatives just a week ago released their Improving Lives: the Future of Work, Health and Disability review, a report with a key aim of helping disabled people into work. The report falls short in many ways – not least by failing to tackle sanctions for those with mental health problems – but it was an attempt at progress.

While some Tory MPs thought their government was serious about helping disabled people into work, Hammond’s comments only prove them wrong. Work and pension secretary David Gauke today said he wanted to ‘ensure that all who can work or undertake meaningful activity have the chance to do so’. He will be hard-pressed to do that if his own chancellor does not agree.

This is yet another example of Tory broken promises and a government, rife with splits, that is completely detached from society. Theresa May started off her term as prime minister with the promise of a new kind of conservativism. She promised a renewed focus on social mobility – a commitment to ‘tackle the hidden injustices’ in our society. Instead, meaningful welfare reform seems to have gone the way of exacerbating people’s mental health problems, creating barriers to accessing support, and pushing people into low-skilled jobs; Tory ministers pretend to care but do not have a clue. Their promises are plenty but action is lacking.

The government’s supposed commitment to ‘fair welfare reform’ has, bit by bit, fallen by the wayside. It has not tackled benefit sanctions despite Gauke acknowledging the need for change, it dropped its 2016 pledge to halve the disability employment gap by 2020 and – worst of all – it has let so much of the country down with its universal credit rollout.

There has been opposition from all sides on the harshness of welfare policy, but it now seems that, even when people do exactly as the government asks, they are singled out (wrongly) as the problem. You could not make this up.

A comment from a backbench MP would be unacceptable but when the second most important person in the cabinet is showing clear disregard for disabled people – and for his own government’s policies – it sets a dangerous precedent. Hi words alone undo generations of progress.

The government are often only too happy to pay lip services to some of the most important issues in our society, such as mental health and the welfare system. But when it comes to creating lasting change and taking meaningful action they have consistently failed.

Across the country, harsh government welfare policies are putting the lives of vulnerable people at risk. Yesterday, the chancellor let them down once again. He must start by apologising for his comments, and then he must deliver real change.

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Lizzy Dobres works for a mental health charity as Policy Officer for UK Council for Psychotherapy. She tweets at @LizDobres

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