Chancellor George Osborne has admitted that attempting to further slash disability benefits was a mistake, telling MPs he is willing to “listen and learn” and that he regrets the departure of former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
The volte-face was sparked by the fallout from a scathing attack by Duncan Smith, who accused Osborne of protecting wealthy pensioners at the expense of the poor and disabled as he resigned in protest last weekend.
Speaking in the House of Commons for the first time since Duncan Smith’s resignation, the chancellor confirmed that cuts to Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) would be withdrawn from his plans.
“Where we have made a mistake and got things wrong, we listen and learn, and that is what we’ve done,” he told MPs.
Osborne, however, ignored repeated calls by Labour and SNP MPs to apologize directly to disabled people for the “pain and anguish” he had caused over the last few weeks.
“I have already said we are not going ahead with these changes. And I have addressed these issues,” he said.
Defending the overarching principles of his budget proposal, Osborne insisted “sound public finances” are the bedrock of social justice.
“If we’re going to deliver a strong and compassionate society for the next generation we have to live within our means. We have to back business to create jobs, and we have to make sure that work pays by putting more money into the pockets of working people,” he said to loud cheers from Tory backbenchers.
Osborne evaded pressure from Labour to explain how the government will fill the £4.4 billion (US$6.2 billion) gap in the budget left by the withdrawal of the PIP cuts and instead reiterated his commitment to make £12 billion in savings to welfare spending.
Labour’s former work and pensions secretary, Yvette Cooper, suggested that Osborne would have to breach his self-imposed cap on welfare spending.
“Either he has ripped up his own welfare cap and ditched another big plank of his Budget in just a few days, or he and the work and pensions secretary have used the most awful weasel words in parliament and there are still more welfare cuts to come. Either this is chaos or it is a con,” Cooper said.
Despite the U-turn on PIP, a significant number of other cuts to welfare and benefits remain on the table, including unemployment benefit for ill and disabled claimants, tax credit, and a freeze on local housing allowance.
Though ministers argue the Budget will save the government billions, campaigners have attacked the proposals, claiming they sideline poor children, the unemployed and domestic violence victims.