CONCERNS were raised across all parties at a Cornwall Council meeting today that proposals by the Conservative government to make major changes to disability and sickness payments in a bid to get more people working will hit the most vulnerable people in the Duchy the hardest.

Leigh Frost, Lib Dem councillor for Bodmin St Petroc’s, had urged the council to write to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions opposing the changes to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) submitted in the government’s “Modernising Support” Green Paper Consultation. Changes would include stopping regular cash payments and instead offering claimants one-off grants for things such as home adaptations.

Under the proposals, PIP claimants – disabled people and those suffering ill health including mental health conditions – may no longer require a formal ‘sick note’ diagnosis by GPs but could instead be assessed by employees of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the current “disability benefits system isn’t working in the way it was intended” and reform was needed to ensure it is “supporting those who genuinely need it most”. The government said it would also address “spiralling costs”.

Cllr Frost tabled a motion entitled ‘Breaking the cycle of poverty, ill health and worklessness’ which also called for Cllr Andy Virr, the cabinet member for adult care and health, to write to the Secretary of State for Health requesting an increase in the Public Health Grant to provide the long-term funding needed to implement 14 recommendations made by the Director of Public Health to reduce health inequalities in Cornwall.

Cllr Frost said: “Gandhi once said the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. This is the reason why I brought this motion before you today. In the government’s new modernising support green paper, we are seeing a distinct change in approach to how we treat our most vulnerable and it is one I cannot agree with.

“Over the past few years, this council has worked really hard to help get people back into work and to do it the right way by supporting our most vulnerable residents. We have always championed that prevention is better than a cure; we want early intervention and to help those people as best we can. Of course, these things aren’t enough, but we are travelling in the right direction.

“The government is now going backwards. Instead of enacting policies from the government’s own commissioned Hewitt review that would see early-stage prevention, they are thinking of creating stigma through a voucher scheme, thinking of target-led sick notes from employees of the DWP rather than from NHS doctors, and thinking about money instead of people.”

He added: “Not only will this target and alienate our most vulnerable, but the Office of Budget Responsibility’s own estimations say it will only bring 15,000 people back into work. Quite honestly, it’s not just the wrong approach, it’s a waste of money.”

Cllr Thalia Marrington (Lib Dem, Mousehole, Newlyn and St Buryan), who seconded the motion, added: “It may feel easier to sometimes blame, whether that’s immigrants, single mums, sick-note culture – it can be a cheap, easy win but it doesn’t help us solve the real problems.”

Cllr Pete Mitchell (Lib Dem, St Agnes) opened up about his own battle with depression. He quoted the council’s former Cabinet member for health and former mental health nurse Robert Rotchell, who said: “Because you cannot see depression, sufferers are seen as an easy target to be labelled as work-shy.”

He also quoted Paul Reeve, CEO of Cornwall MIND, who said: “The proposed initiative seems to be a blunt instrument aimed at the most vulnerable in society. Rishi Sunak plans to strip GPs of the power to sign these people off work. It’s ill-conceived and may prove to be dangerous to people who are already at risk.”

Conservative cabinet member Cllr Barbara Ellenbroek outlined the “huge amount” being done by the council to support more vulnerable members of Cornish society and helping people into work, adding: “We should understand and celebrate what’s going right before we start playing around with what’s going wrong. We’ve got a really good track record here in Cornwall.”

Cllr Virr, the cabinet’s head of health and social care, proposed an amendment given the “importance, breadth and complexity of this motion” and recommended referral to cabinet for consideration and allow its members to take any appropriate actions. Cllr Frost said he wasn’t happy with that and the decision should be made by all councillors.

Cllr Ellenbroek argued work by cabinet could be more productive rather than the letter writing suggested in the motion. Cllr Mitchell was concerned that the cabinet – made up purely of Conservative members – could decide not to agree to the motion and support the government’s green paper “which doesn’t seem like democracy to me”.

The council voted in favour of the amendment, with some councillors vocally unhappy that it will go to Cabinet. “If this is going to be kicked into the long grass I will be absolutely furious, as this isn’t about party politics,” added Cllr Frost. “The council is doing great work, but the Government is changing its direction and it’s the antithesis of the direction this council has been fighting for. I think it’s shameful that this full council has lost its right to stand up for the people it represents. There are so many people throughout this Duchy who are struggling.”

The amended motion was then amended again following debate to ensure the cabinet works with Cllrs Frost and Marrington when it comes to following up the matter.