DOWNING Street has staunchly defended plans to cut the benefits of 165,000 disabled people.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman insisted that “nobody was losing out” in the reform to Personal Independence Payments (PIP), a benefit which help people pay for the extra costs of living with a disability or illness.

Government changes to PIP come after two tribunal rulings widened the criteria for the benefit’s eligibility – including a decision that those suffering severe psychological problems, to the point where they need assistance to travel – should receive the same amount of help as the blind.

Ministers say this will add £3.7 billion to the benefits bill by 2023, and late last week announced “clarifications” to be made to the legislation to counter the rulings of the two tribunals.

But plans are afoot in the House of Commons to block the Tory changes, with Liberal Democrat, SNP, and Labour MPs backing a “prayer” motion which, if it gains enough support, will force a debate on the PIP reforms.

One of Theresa May’s senior aides was forced to apologise yesterday for the clumsy way in which he had attempted to defend the changes.

Over the weekend, George Freeman, head of the No 10 Policy Unit, said PIP should not be going to those “taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety” as they were not “really disabled”.

Yesterday he tweeted: “Having experienced myself traumatic anxiety as a child carer living w alcohol I know all too well the pain anxiety + depression causes ... Which is why as a former health minister and policy adviser I am passionate about supporting mental health and disability, and hugely regret if my comment about the need to prioritise the most ‘serious disabilities’ inadvertently caused any offence which was not intended.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the changes were simply “restoring the original intention of the PIPs which was to make sure there was a sustainable benefit to provide continued support to those who face the greatest barrier to living independent lives”.

Pressed on whether the Prime Minister had a message for those who could be affected by the changes, the spokesman said “nobody is losing out”.

Corri Wilson MP, the SNP’s disability spokesperson, said: “George Freeman’s crass and unhelpful comments seeking to differentiate between mental and physical disabilities once again highlights this Tory government’s utter lack of understanding or compassion when it comes to providing for those who are less fortunate than others. He should be ashamed of himself and must apologise for the offence he has caused.

“The UK Government must urgently clarify what these new proposals will mean for people who currently receive PIPs and give an assurance that any changes will not result in a reduction in financial support as the Tories promised.”

Charities rallied round to condemn the changes. Mark Atkinson, chief executive of Scope, said the changes could lead to “disabled claimants missing out or facing a reduction in the vital financial support they rely on to live independently”.

He said: “Life costs more if you’re disabled – Scope research shows disabled people spend on average £550 a month on disability-related costs. PIP plays an important role in helping disabled people meet some of those extra costs.”

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said the government needed to appreciate the debilitating impact a mental problem can have: “People who find it difficult to leave the house because of anxiety, panic attacks and other mental health problems are as restricted in their independence as many people with physical mobility problems, and face just as many higher costs in their daily lives as other disabled people do.”

“These proposed changes could prevent people accessing the financial support they need to get to health or job appointments, get out to pay for fuel and heating, take their children to school or see friends and family – things essential to their daily lives and recovery, things essential to preventing isolation.

“The government says that it is committed to treating mental health as seriously as physical health, but these proposals call this commitment into question. These misguided proposals must be reversed.”