Government not backing down on disability cuts despite minister's words
Suggestions by a cabinet minister that the government may back down over cuts to disability benefit have been played down amid a growing Conservative row.
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan described the plan as a "suggestion" and said it was "under consultation".
But sources close to Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said her comments don't "tally with what we and Downing Street are saying".
The BBC was told Mrs Morgan didn't "seem to understand" the proposals.
A number of Tory MPs have written to the chancellor urging a rethink of the £1.3bn a year cuts to spending on aids and appliances, which the government has said will affect up to 640,000 existing claimants. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said people could lose an average of £3,500 a year.
The government wants to change the way the daily living component of Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) is calculated from January 2017, with a public consultation closing last week. Budget documents made clear it would save the government more than £4bn by 2020-21.
But ministers have faced intense criticism over the plans, with Labour and some Tory MPs threatening to derail them in the Commons.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Chancellor George Osborne had "declared war on the disabled" and he would be seeking to force a Commons vote as soon as possible.
"The announcement made by the chancellor is a reverse of the whole trend of the past three decades, to go back to saying disabled people can't lead independent lives, can't get the support they need."
He added: "Any of us could become disabled at any time. We're just a car accident away from a major disability. We should think about that."
Speaking on BBC Question Time on Thursday, Ms Morgan said that the government was "continuing the conversation" to make sure money was "going to the right people to help them with the right needs".
"First of all we've got to finish the consultation and the conversations that we're having with MPs, but also with disability groups and others, before we even bring any legislation forward.
"It is something that has been put forward, there has been a review, there has been a suggestion, we are not ready to bring the legislation forward," she said.
Fellow panel members responded with incredulity to Ms Morgan's comments, with UKIP's Roger Helmer asking: "The Budget is merely a suggestion, is it?"
And sources close to Mr Duncan Smith also played down the significance of her comments. "Listening to the Education Secretary you might have assumed we are in concession territory," the source said, adding "that doesn't tally with what we and Downing Street are saying".
They added: "I don't know how Nicky is explaining what she said, but she doesn't quite seem to have understood what Iain has been saying."
What are the proposed changes?
Recipients of PIPs are assessed using a points system to determine what level of help they receive. Claimants can get between £21.80 and £139.75 per week.
The money is meant to help people cope with the extra cost of living with a disability or long-term health problem and are used to fund everything from mobility cars to adapted baths and showers.
The weight given to the use of aids and appliances in two of the 10 daily living activities - dressing and managing toilet needs - will be reduced from January.
It follows an independent review, commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions, which said a "significant number of people" were likely to be getting the benefit despite having "minimal-to-no" ongoing daily living extra costs.
But disability campaigners say the changes will make it harder for some disabled people to qualify for the benefit and prevent people hit by other benefit cuts from living independently.
Downing Street said it would be bringing forward "legislative proposals" and, in the meantime, would continue discussions with MPs and campaigners.
Asked whether the education secretary had spoken out of turn, the PM's spokesman said she was making the point there would be dialogue but insisted the government's position has not changed.
There have been growing calls within the Conservative Party for a U-turn, with some MPs unhappy that the cuts are coinciding with plans to help middle and higher-earners by raising the threshold at which people pay 40% income tax to £45,000.
Sarah Wollaston, the chair of the Commons health select committee, said the only changes she wanted to see to disability benefits was a "refocus on those in greatest need". She tweeted: "Govt will never meet approval for change that wld reduce entitlement to #PIP at the same time as raising higher rate tax threshold".
Backbench Conservative MP David Burrowes said the proposals were a "backward step" and urged ministers to "press 'pause' on it" while Andrew Percy suggested they were more about helping the chancellor meet his self-imposed cap on overall welfare spending than reforming the benefits system.
The changes will need to be approved by both the House of Commons, where the government has a majority of 12, and House of Lords, where it has no working majority. The government was forced to abandon planned cuts to tax credits last year after they were voted down in the House of Lords.
An independent review of PIP in 2014 recommended major changes to the way it was delivered to improve how claimants are assessed and treated.
Justin Tomlinson, minister for disabled people, has defended the changes, saying there would still be an increase in the number of people claiming PIPs and that the government would be spending more on disability benefits in 2020 than it does now.
He told the BBC that although hundreds of thousands of people would be hit by the cut, many of those would not lose out completely and would still be eligible for other forms of support.
"A significant chunk of that 640,000 will continue to receive the benefit," he said.