‘We are committed to help people live without discrimination’- Mid-Norfolk MP George Freeman responds after storm follows his comments about benefits

George Freeman, whose comments about disability benefits have caused a storm. Photo : Steve Adams

George Freeman, whose comments about disability benefits have caused a storm. Photo : Steve Adams - Credit: Steve Adams

A Norfolk MP has insisted he is committed to helping people live without stigma and discrimination following a backlash over comments he made about disability benefits.

In an interview with the BBC yesterday Mid-Norfolk MP George Freeman said personal independence payments (PIP) should go to 'the really disabled people who need it' rather than those who were 'taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety'.

The head of Theresa May's policy unit has been urged to apologise for the remarks, which came as he sought to defend disability benefit changes on national radio.

Last night Mr Freeman told this newspaper: 'The government is determined to ensure that our £50bn per year disability budget is focused on those most in need.

'Through our pledge to close the disability employment gap, nad our new mental health strategy, we are committed to help more people enjoy fulfilling lives without the stigma of discrimination.'

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He said the changes were needed to roll back the 'bizarre' decision of a tribunal, which said claimants with psychological problems who cannot travel without help must be treated like those who are blind.

The tribunal also said claimants who need support to take medication should be assessed the same way as those managing therapies such as dialysis at home.

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Responding to the upper tribunal rulings on Thursday as Westminster's attention was on two by-elections, disabilities minister Penny Mordaunt said she was reforming the payments to 'restore the original aim of the benefit' to make sure the most needy were given support.

Ms Mordaunt said no claimants would see a reduction in the amount of PIP previously awarded.

But Labour said the Government's equality assessment showed 160,000 would miss out on money that was 'rightfully' theirs.

Mr Freeman, the head of the Number 10 Downing Street policy board, said it was the right decision.

He told Pienaar's Politics on BBC Radio 5 Live: 'These tweaks are actually about rolling back some bizarre decisions by tribunals that now mean benefits are being given to people who are taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety.

'We want to make sure we get the money to the really disabled people who need it.'

Challenged on his assessment of anxiety, Mr Freeman said: 'I totally understand anxiety and so does the Prime Minister. We've set out in the mental health strategy how seriously we take it.

'My point was that these PIP reforms are partly about rolling back some frankly bizarre decisions in tribunals which have seen money that should go to the most disabled spent on people with really much less urgent conditions.'

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell tweeted: 'This is an insult to disabled people. (George Freeman) should apologise immediately or Theresa May should make him.'

In a separate statement, he said Labour would push Chancellor Philip Hammond to reverse the changes in next month's Budget, arguing they amounted to a £3.7 billion cut to disability benefits.

Mr McDonnell said: 'Theresa May has used the cover of the by-elections to sneak out this announcement hurting so many vulnerable disabled people.'

Reacting to Mr Freeman's comments, Labour MP Louise Haigh tweeted: 'They know this will affect ppl w/ PTSD, dementia, schizophrenia, seizures. Tories in the gutter trying to shame those in desperate need'.

Mr Freeman also tweeted yesterday: 'Having suffered myself as a child career from childhood anxiety & depression I don't need any lectures on the damage anxiety does.'

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