George Freeman’s comments ‘will only feed into negative perceptions of disability and add to the stigma surrounding mental health issues’, says campaigner
Disability benefits should only go to “really disabled people”, a senior advisor to Theresa May has said, and not those “taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety”.
George Freeman, a Conservative MP and head of the Number 10 Downing Street policy unit, was defending plans to cut £3.7bn from personal independence payments (PIP).
“These tweaks are actually about rolling back some bizarre decisions by [benefits] tribunals that now mean benefits are being given to people who are taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“We want to make sure we get the money to the really disabled people who need it.”
He added that he and Ms May “totally” understood the problems caused by anxiety.
“We’ve set out in the mental health strategy how seriously we take it,” he added.
His remarks resulted in a barrage of criticism from opposition politicians and mental health advocates, who branded his comments “an insult to disabled people”.
Mr Freeman later hit back on Twitter, saying he had suffered anxiety and depression as a child and didn’t “need lectures” on the damage caused by such conditions.
The Mid-Norfolk MP was defending Government reforms to PIP, which are intended to roll back “bizarre” tribunal decisions which he said meant unsuitable care measures were being implemented.
The changes will affect around 1,000 people who need help taking a medication and monitoring a health condition, and 164,000 people who can’t leave their homes alone because of the severe psychological stress it causes, the Mirror reported.
Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “Mr Freeman must immediately apologise for the comments he made regarding sick and disabled people.
“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 tribunal judgements.”
And shadow Chancellor John McDonnell tweeted: “This is an insult to disabled people. (George Freeman) should apologise immediately or Theresa May should make him.”
Disability charity Scope also criticised Mr Freeman’s “crude” distinction between physical and mental health and said it was concerned about the Government’s “worrying” changes to PIP.
The independent Equality and Human Rights Commission said Mr Freeman’s comments would add to the stigma surrounding mental health.
Its chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath said: “Any decisions should be based on sound evidence and not sweeping generalisations.
“There are many people who have unseen disabilities and they need just as much support.
“These comments will only feed into negative perceptions of disability and add to the stigma surrounding mental health issues.”
Earlier, Conservative Party Chairman Patrick McLoughlin defended the government’s plans to cut disability benefits, saying the spending reductions needed to be viewed in the wider context of bringing down the deficit.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “We are spending as a country over £50bn a year supporting people who have got disabilities in this country.
“I think we give, overall, very generous schemes. There are changes that come about as a result of tribunals and we have to look at that.
“But as far as supporting disabled people, I think overall we do very proudly in this country.
“We are still spending as a country over £60bn more each year than we are getting in as a country and we have got to look at trying to balance that budget and reduce that deficit.”
Disabilities Minister Penny Mordaunt said the payments were being to “restore the original aim of the benefit” to make sure the most needy were given support.