PM pledges disability benefit cuts discussion 'to make sure we get this right'


Prime Minister David Cameron has said the Government will consult with disability charities over controversial plans to cut benefits "to make sure we get this right". 

Chancellor George Osborne has insisted the Government would "protect the most vulnerable" as he faced the prospect of a Tory backbench revolt over the plans.

But Downing Street indicated the Government is committed to pushing ahead with the controversial £1.3 billion cut. 

The PM's official spokeswoman stressed that reform of personal independence payments (PIPs) was essential in order to curb the "ballooning" welfare bill. 

Answering questions at the conclusion of a European Council summit in Brussels, Mr Cameron said that welfare payments to disabled people had  increased by £4 billion in real terms during his time in office. 

The PM said: "We will always protect the most vulnerable people in our country and make sure they get the help they need. 

"We are going to discuss what we've put forward with the disability charities and others, as the Chancellor said today, and make sure that we get this right. It's important. 

"It is important that this increase in money goes to the people who need it most, that we make sure that the system is working properly. That's what this is all about." 

Mr Osborne has come under pressure from Tory backbenchers and Labour over the planned cut, with critics claiming it is unfair to press ahead with the move at the same time as reducing taxes for the wealthy and businesses. 

The Chancellor defended the Government's approach, saying: "Let me be absolutely clear: this Government will always protect the most vulnerable and help disabled people. 

"That's why the disability budget is going up. 

"As Iain Duncan Smith has said, we are going to make sure that it goes to those who need our help most. So in the coming months we will be talking to colleagues, to disability charities, to make sure we get this absolutely right." 

Downing Street said ministers would be "engaging" with MPs and disability rights groups over the coming months before tabling legislation. 

"The Government's position hasn't changed. We remain committed to making these much-needed reforms," the Prime Minister's spokeswoman said. 

"We have got the time now, with the proposals out there before we bring forward the legislative proposals, to be explaining it to colleagues across the House, to be engaging with disability groups, and that's what we will do." 

The intervention by No 10 came after Education Secretary Nicky Morgan appeared to indicate ministers could be open to a rethink, describing the plan as no more than a "suggestion" that is still being discussed in Government. 

Jeremy Corbyn said Labour is ready to combine with Conservative rebels to inflict what would be a humiliating defeat for the Government, unless ministers back down. 

The Labour leader said 200,000 of the 640,000 people hit by the changes would lose out altogether as a result of the Government's plans, which would take £4 billion out of the benefit over the course of the parliament. 

He told BBC Radio 5 Live: "It is utterly appalling what they are proposing. We will be forcing a vote in Parliament on this. I hope and believe all opposition parties will join with us in that. 

"I believe a number of Conservative MPs are so upset about this they too will vote against the Government." 

Conservative backbencher Andrew Percy, who has organised a letter to the Chancellor calling for a U-turn, warned that the Government - which has a working majority of just 17 - faces defeat in the Commons if it tries to push through the changes. 

Backbencher William Wragg became the latest Conservative to register his concern about the plan, putting his name to Mr Percy's letter and saying the "PIP changes need a rethink". 

Meanwhile, disability rights groups sought to ramp up the pressure on ministers, warning there was strong public opposition to the cuts. 

Rossanna Trudgian, head of campaigns at Mencap, said: "Support is being stripped away time and time again with no reassurance that the Government is working in disabled people's favour. 

"People with a learning disability are being forced to the very fringes of our community due to the effects of cuts." 

Robert Mooney, of the Community trade union's National League of the Blind and Disabled, said the plans were "fundamentally unfair". 

"Once again, disabled people are paying the price so the Chancellor can give tax breaks to the rich," he said. 

"These changes will be the straw that will break the camel's back for many of our members who face challenges in securing employment or access to health and care services." 

Tory London mayoral hopeful Zac Goldsmith, on a campaign visit accompanied by Mr Osborne, said the proposals were not a "fait accompli". 

Asked what he would say to the handful of protesters who voiced their anger at the cuts, he told the Press Association: "All policies need to be reviewed all the time to make sure that people don't fall through the cracks. That is the nature of legislation. 

"This is not a fait accompli. There is a discussion happening and it is happening up and down the country through MPs such as myself, feeding information back to Government and doing our best to ensure the policy works for everyone." 

Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Health Committee, said the plan did not have the support of the Tory backbenches and that a rethink by ministers was "highly likely". 

"I don't think they will need to force a vote. I think it's very clear that this isn't the mood of the Commons and I think that the Government is likely to take stock and start again," she told BBC Radio 4's The World At One.