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Key May aide hits back after criticism over disability benefits comments

A key Theresa May aide has hit back after being criticised for saying certain disability benefits should go to the "really disabled" rather than anxiety sufferers, revealing he struggled with the condition as a child.

George Freeman faced Labour calls to apologise and criticism from charities after saying personal independent payments (PIP) should go to "the really disabled people who need it" rather than those who are "taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety".

But Mr Freeman hit back, saying he suffered himself from "childhood anxiety and depression", adding in a tweet: " I don't need any lectures on the damage anxiety does, tbh (to be honest)".

He made the remarks while defending Government reforms to PIP 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.

Responding to the 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, 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."

Earlier, Labour figures seized on Mr Freeman's comments, with shadow chancellor John McDonnell tweeting: " This is an insult to disabled people. (George Freeman) should apologise immediately or Theresa May should make him."

Party colleague Louise Haigh MP said Mr Freeman should resign unless he apologises.

" Given (the) PM's commitment to mental health surely she can no longer rely on (an) adviser who dismisses serious issues as 'not really disabled'," she said.

Disability charity Scope criticised Mr Freeman's "crude" distinction between physical and mental health and said it was concerned about the Government's "worrying" changes to PIP.

The independent Equality and Human Rights Commission said Mr Freeman's comments would add to the stigma surrounding mental health.

Its chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath said: "Any decisions should be based on sound evidence and not sweeping generalisations.

"There are many people who have unseen disabilities and they need just as much support.

"These comments will only feed into negative perceptions of disability and add to the stigma surrounding mental health issues."

Phil Reynolds, policy and campaigns adviser at Parkinson's UK, called for clarity over the changes to PIP, arguing the system already fails people with the disease.

"Any changes shouldn't be about pitting different conditions against each other, but ensuring that the benefits system is fit for purpose and is effectively supporting people in desperate need," he added.

The Liberal Democrats said the party was opposed to the changes to PIP.

Disabilities spokeswoman Baroness Thomas of Winchester said: "The tribunal knows what it is talking about, its rulings should not just be disregarded because they get in the way of the Government's plans for sweeping cuts across the board.

"PIP payments are meant to help give people the freedom they need to get on in life."

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