Welfare Reform (Disabled People and Carers) — [Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
2:30 pm

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

Owing to the interest in this debate, it will be necessary to impose a time limit on speeches. I shall decide what that will be after Ian Mearns has finished his speech.

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Ian Mearns (Gateshead, Labour)

I am happy to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.

Today’s debate, I hope, will categorically highlight the unfairness of the Government’s welfare reform agenda on disabled people, their carers and families. I urge the Department for Work and Pensions, in collaboration with the Minister for Disabled People, Esther McVey, to conduct a cumulative impact assessment on the real-term effects of welfare reform on some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I was urged by a number of groups to try to secure today’s debate. The importance of the debate and the issues within it is reflected by the number of hon. Members present this afternoon. I am gratified, and I thank my hon. Friends for coming along to support this debate.

The Chancellor and the Prime Minister have repeatedly lectured us about the need for fairness and said that we are all in this together. However, as I hope to demonstrate conclusively in this debate, it is not the richest, most powerful or most able in our society who will pay the price of the Government’s calculation and uncaring disregard, but the least able, most vulnerable and least powerful—the disabled.

I am sure that hon. Members will have read, or at least heard of, the report, “The Tipping Point”, by the Hardest Hit campaign, which concluded:

“Many disabled people feel that they are living on the edge, and that the loss of even a small amount of income could tip their already complex lives into greater dependence and insecurity.”

This summer, the Hardest Hit coalition surveyed more than 4,500 disabled people on their views and experiences of the welfare and social care systems. It also conducted a series of 50 in-depth interviews with disabled people and a poll of more than 350 independent welfare advisers. From the study, it discovered that disabled people and their families are struggling to make ends meet and feel increasingly nervous about the future. The Government need to act urgently to arrest the slide of disabled people into entrenched isolation and poverty.

Disabled people have experienced a massive drop in income—about £500 million—since the emergency Budget of 2010. Recent reports have shown that just in the past year, cuts for typical disabled households ranged from £200 to just over £2,000. The latest estimates suggest that disabled people will experience £9 billion of cuts over the lifetime of this Parliament—half the total cuts to the welfare budget.

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Jim Cunningham (Coventry South, Labour)

Will my hon. Friend touch on the fact that many people who are permanently disabled now have to go through

assessment schemes, which cause a lot of anxiety in their families? At the end of the day, there is a long wait to see what those results are and, more importantly, what the effects will be on those people and their families.

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Ian Mearns (Gateshead, Labour)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I will reflect on that entirely. Added to the ordinary stresses of life for disabled people and their families, the mental anguish of not knowing the future is piling pressure on to many family circles.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will have heard of Pat’s petition, which closed last month. The petition was signed by 62,693 people, calling on the Government to

“stop and review the cuts to benefits and services which are falling disproportionately on disabled people, their carers and families”.

To fully appreciate the widespread concerns and understand why a cumulative impact assessment is essential, it is vital to look at the specific elements of welfare reform that are affecting disabled people, their carers and families. First, the introduction of universal credit, which will replace six income-based benefits and tax credits for people of working age with a new single benefit, will result in 2 million households seeing a drop in their income, with disabled people being among those worst affected. The Department’s own equality impact assessment from November 2011 predicted that disabled households would lose £37 a week, compared with non-disabled households, which would lose £26 a week. Quite honestly, it almost feels that the malice knows no bounds, as the Government are targeting even disabled children—they are halving support for those children from £52 to £26.

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Sharon Hodgson (Shadow Minister (Education); Washington and Sunderland West, Labour)

My hon. Friend mentions children. I was recently contacted by a father in my constituency, whose daughter has severe cystic fibrosis. Her claim for disability living allowance has just been refused, and the appeal has also been refused. Given that the Government’s stated aim is to cut spending on disability payments by 20%, and that, in the north-east, where my hon. Friend is also from, Atos has been appointed to deliver the tests for people, does he share my concern that such situations will become more common in the future rather than less?

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Ian Mearns (Gateshead, Labour)

Alas, I fear that that is the likely outcome.

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Brian H Donohoe (Central Ayrshire, Labour)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate about an issue that is burning hot in my constituency. Does he agree that Atos is not the problem? Although it has to administer the problem, it has been set certain parameters in which to work. The consequence is that everyone blames Atos, when the Government should be blamed for all that is happening to disabled people.

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Ian Mearns (Gateshead, Labour)

That is the case. We can hardly blame Atos for managing a system to its own benefit, because it is on a sort of performance-related pay that relates to the number of assessments it makes.

The cumulative effect on children could be as much as around £1,300 a year. Disabled children are losing that sum.

Another major change occurring through welfare reform is the introduction of the personal independence payment, which will replace disability living allowance. The Disability Minister made a statement last week, which I thought was a little odd to say the least. She said:

“By October 2015, we will have reassessed 560,000 claimants. Of those, 160,000 will get a reduced award and 170,000 will get no award, but 230,000 will get the same…support.”—[Hansard, 13 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 464.]

How could the Minister or the Department have drawn those conclusions before having done a single assessment of any individual? We already know that the outcome will be that 160,000 will get a reduced award, 170,000 will get no award, and 230,000 will get the same sort of support. I hope that I am not the only Member slightly concerned that the Minister, before any assessments have taken place, already has figures of those who will get a reduced award and those who will receive no support. Surely, it is down to the assessment to determine what the outcomes will be, but it seems that the Department has already pre-determined the outcome of the assessments for each individual.

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Pat Glass (North West Durham, Labour)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The interest here today shows how concerned we all are, as are the people we see in our constituencies. I share my hon. Friend’s concern. I wonder whether people will simply be reassessed and reassessed until they no longer qualify for the benefit. I want to raise the case of a constituent of mine, a terminally ill constituent—

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

Order. This is an intervention. If you wish to make a speech in due course, you can catch my eye, make a speech, and refer to individual cases.

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Pat Glass (North West Durham, Labour)

I just want to say quickly—

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

You cannot, because this is an intervention. I ask you to resume your seat. If we allow interventions to be too long, it will inevitably take time away from other people. The hon. Gentleman introducing the debate is not in a position to comment on individual constituency cases.

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Ian Mearns (Gateshead, Labour)

Returning to “The Tipping Point” report, it found that 84% of disabled people believe that losing their DLA would drive them into isolation and into struggling to manage their condition. Nine in 10 disabled people fear that losing their DLA would be detrimental to their health.

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Kate Green (Shadow Minister (Equalities); Stretford and Urmston, Labour)

I, too, congratulate, my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Many disabled people will be pleased to see it happening this afternoon. Does he agree that a further concern and uncertainty about DLA is whether it will be used by local authorities in the calculation of income for determining housing benefit? While the Burnip case remains unresolved—the Government are planning to appeal—we really do not know how much DLA people will have to spend on their needs.

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Ian Mearns (Gateshead, Labour)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is why we are asking for a cumulative impact assessment of all the welfare reforms, including the housing benefit reforms.

Some 65% of respondents in work stated that without DLA they would not be able to work; 30% of disabled people stated that without DLA their carer would not be able to work; and 75% of disabled people said that losing DLA would mean that they needed more social care support from their local authority. Cumulatively, we can see a great deal of worry and concern emanating from the households of disabled people.

The Government say that they have to cut spending, but cutting DLA will simply mean that they have to spend more money on other things. It is clearly a false economy. We need to take into account the knock-on and implementation costs of replacing DLA with PIP. The Hardest Hit coalition concludes that the Government have over-estimated the total amount of savings that that will generate by, potentially, £1.6 billion.

Let us consider what is happening with contribution-based employment and support allowance. This is affecting many of my constituents at the moment. The Government’s decision to place a time limit of 365 days on those in the work-related activity group for ESA and to implement that retrospectively is forcing many disabled people on to jobseeker’s allowance. We should bear it in mind that there is no magic tree sprouting jobs at the moment, particularly not in places such as the north-east of England and particularly not with the Government’s economic plan. We talk an awful lot in the House about welfare to work, but it is a two-part equation—welfare and work—and I am sorry to say that, in my constituency, work is hard to come by, and in the north-east of England as a whole it is particularly hard to come by at the moment.

One of my constituents suffers from bronchial pulmonary dysplasia, is too ill for a heart and lung transplant, has been on steroids for 37 years, has osteoporosis, has kidney failure, cannot walk a single step unaided, has a fracture in her right arm, has left arm damage, has osteoarthritis and is diabetic. She was initially placed in the work-related activity group and told that she would need to find work. It should be borne in mind, as I am sure hon. Members have already fathomed, that she is housebound. Only after my intervention did the Department for Work and Pensions realise that a mistake had been made.

I do not want to talk extensively on the topic of Atos or its assessments, because frankly I would need all day. I have been sent a huge amount of information from concerned constituents and lobby groups for this debate, and I could quite easily speak for 10 hours. Unfortunately, I will not have that privilege, but it is a common occurrence in my constituency that people are concerned and genuinely feel harassed by the assessment process.

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Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion, Green)

This is a very important debate. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the perverse outcomes of the reforms is that the constant reassessment is making sick people even more ill? The financial implications, as well as the health implications, are completely negative. This system simply is not working.

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Ian Mearns (Gateshead, Labour)

I absolutely concur with that. For people who have a physical disability, the added stress that that brings can often mean that their mental health deteriorates and they end up suffering genuine mental illness. That is no laughing matter for anyone affected by such an affliction. Not a week goes by when I do not get a piece of casework because Atos has assessed one of my constituents as fit for work and the decision is somewhat questionable. From my perspective and that of many charities and professionals, the work capability assessment is not fit for purpose and is particularly inept at assessing people suffering from mental health problems.

According to Mind, 40% of people applying for ESA are doing so because of mental health problems, yet it found that a lot of people with mental health problems are waiting for a work capability assessment. Some 87% of respondents said that the prospect of a reassessment was making them unduly anxious. More than one third had increased their medications as a result of anxiety, and 51% reported that it had made them have suicidal thoughts. Those data are shocking. We should not be vilifying the most vulnerable people in our society; they are contemplating taking their own lives.

I am not sure whether many hon. Members have heard of the website Calum’s List. It shows how many suicide deaths have been directly attributed to welfare reform by coroners. So far, there have been 24. How many more cases are there that have not been so attributed by a coroner? Surely the Minister should be looking into the tragedies that the Government’s agenda is causing.

In my constituency, I was provided with an interesting statistic by the local citizens advice bureau. In the last year, it has conducted 1,416 welfare benefit appeals. Of those, 1,201 were successful. That shows that of all benefit appeals that the CAB assisted Gateshead residents with in the last year, more than 80% were won. That prompts the question: why did the system fail in the first place? Surely it is a complete waste of time and money.

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Jessica Morden (Newport East, Labour)

The Government will argue that the system and the process are getting better, but I saw a constituent the other day with a serious brain injury whose benefits had been stopped because he did not go for his reassessment, but he did not go because he has short and long-term memory problems. These cases just keep on coming. Does my hon. Friend agree that that does not fill us with confidence for the introduction of personal independence payments?

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Ian Mearns (Gateshead, Labour)

Unfortunately, my forecast is that, in areas such as the one that I represent, with its particular age and disability profile, we MPs can look forward only to a tsunami of casework coming in our direction. We need to reflect on how we will deal with that.

Some figures even suggest that the work capability assessment appeals cost £50 million annually. Does the Minister really think that those assessments are effective and cost-efficient? A lady in my constituency with significant mental health issues tried to claim disability living allowance but was unsuccessful, and subsequently attended a tribunal without representation and lost. She visited the local CAB for help, and it assisted her in appealing again at the tribunal. The decision was overturned, and she was awarded £4,000 in backdated benefit. She also gained an extra £41 a week to live on. She reports that that has made such a difference to her physical and

mental well-being; she no longer has to choose whether to “heat or eat”—a dilemma that many families with disabled people now face.

We need to ensure that the assessment criteria take proper account of the full range of barriers faced by people with disabilities and health conditions, make the assessment and reassessment process as simple, transparent and proportionate as possible, and ensure that robust evaluation and monitoring processes are in place.

Let me come on to social funds, which were designed to help people with expenses that are difficult to meet on a low income. The centrally provided social fund has been abolished and replaced with the devolution of discretionary social fund emergency payments, including crisis loans and community care grants, to local authorities. The making of those payments has been delegated to local authorities, and of course we know about the disproportionate cuts that authorities in the north-east have had to make in their mainline budgets.

About one third of the users of crisis loans and community care grants are disabled people. Localising that provision could have a significant impact on them, as there is no statutory duty obliging councils to provide that service or ring-fence funds for that purpose. In other words, local authorities can choose to use that money for other purposes. Given the tight budgets that they are currently overseeing, there is a high likelihood that the money will be injected into other services. The Department for Work and Pensions acknowledged that itself in its research.

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Nicholas Dakin (Scunthorpe, Labour)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. Does he agree that Jobcentre Plus in localities such as Scunthorpe is concerned about that transfer of responsibility to local authorities, which are ill prepared to take on that very important task?

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Ian Mearns (Gateshead, Labour)

I could not agree more. My local authority has shed about one third of its administrative staff. That prompts the question: how will a local authority with such a huge cut in its capacity to deliver for its people ever be able to come to terms with the demands that will be placed on it?

Another distressing topic at the moment for disabled people and their carers and families is, of course, the bedroom tax. The reduction in housing benefit for social housing tenants whose accommodation is deemed to be too large for their needs will disproportionately hit households with disabled people. Of the 670,000 people estimated by the DWP to be under-occupying accommodation in the social rented sector, two thirds of those affected may be disabled. Many organisations such as Carers UK believe, as do I, that the policy will have a detrimental impact on certain groups of carers and many disabled people. Some families may be unable to cover the shortfall and be forced to move.

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Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour)

Inclusion Scotland made the point to me that it is not only about financial costs. If the family of a disabled person moves away to get smaller accommodation—if it is available—they will lose support networks and contact with carers and families. If they have to move, due to the tax, they will lose those things, which they need to survive. I am sure that point has been made to many other hon. Members.

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Ian Mearns (Gateshead, Labour)

I could not agree more. I thank my hon. Friend for making that point; it is absolutely true.

Steve Cowen, the chief officer of the Gateshead Carers Association—I cannot ignore it, because its office is next door to mine—has told me about the devastating impact that the proposals will have on carers and their families in Gateshead. Steve says that carers are the glue that holds the health and social care system together. The reforms hit them hard, and hit them again and again.

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Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent, Labour)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the bedroom tax needs to be promoted? The Government need to raise awareness of it sooner rather than later, so that families can budget and prepare for it. It will be a terrible shock for many.

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Ian Mearns (Gateshead, Labour)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right, but I need to make some progress, so I will move on swiftly.

A member of a couple could have a disability that means that the couple cannot sleep in the same room, for entirely appropriate reasons. A couple may need an extra room for equipment. A local authority—or a family—may have spent a considerable amount of money adapting a property for a family who are then forced to move, which not only would be distressing and disruptive to care arrangements, but could risk a greater long-term cost, because the adaptations need to be replaced in the new, smaller home. It is clearly daft.

Cuts in disability benefits imposed by the Government will, of course, affect disabled people living across the whole country, but, as with almost every other aspect of the Government’s approach to public policy, the impact is felt most keenly in areas with the greatest number of people living in relative poverty—the areas with the greatest need. Wales has the highest proportion of disabled people in the UK, with one fifth—21%—of working-age people living with a disability. It also has the highest proportion of benefit recipients for all types of benefits—20% of people of working age. Recent statistics show that just over 10% of Northern Ireland’s population are in receipt of disability living allowance.

A report prepared for the DWP by Christina Beatty, Steve Fothergill and Deborah Platts-Fowler listed the regional differences. The 20 areas with the greatest proportion of working-age people receiving DLA include Merthyr Tydfil, Neath, Blaenau Gwent, Easington, Caerphilly, Knowsley, Glasgow, and Liverpool—the list goes on. In my constituency, about 4% of people are affected. Surprise, surprise, the 10 areas with the lowest proportion of working-age people receiving DLA include Runnymede, South Northamptonshire, Kingston upon Thames, south Buckinghamshire, Windsor and Maidenhead, Surrey Heath, and Wokingham. So much for “We’re all in this together.”

The report from the Hardest Hit coalition highlighted the dismay felt by many disabled people on finding that they have become the easy target for cuts. Perhaps more shocking is the fact that the Government’s rhetoric justifying disability benefit cuts is hardening public attitudes. Many disabled people feel that the media portrayal of benefit scroungers is behind the increasing amount disability hate crime, which is at an all-time high. That is despite the fact that estimated overpayments

of DLA due to fraud make up less than 0.5% of total spending. As anyone who reads the

Daily Mail

will know, there are a lot of myths in the debate about welfare reform, and some are very damaging to disabled people. We need to confront those myths head-on. They are lies.

Official levels of fraud in disability and out-of-work benefits are far lower than public perceptions and polling suggest. The Office for National Statistics highlights that just 0.3% of overpayments for incapacity benefit were due to fraud. Figures on fraud for both DLA and incapacity benefit are outstripped by the figures for official error; in other words, mistakes by officials at the DWP cost the taxpayer more than fraud. Though it is true that the welfare bill grew in 10 years, disability benefits were not the main cause of that expenditure or a ballooning welfare budget.

Disabled people feel that they have been deliberately targeted, even though there is a clear alternative. Although estimates vary, tax evasion and avoidance cost the Government between £50 billion and £100 billion a year. It is estimated that a mansion tax on expensive properties, above a threshold of £2 million, would affect an estimated 74,000 people and, at face value, raise £1.7 billion. A financial transaction tax of about 0.05% on transactions such as those involving stocks, bonds, foreign currency and derivatives is possible. The bank levy introduced in January 2011 raises £2.5 billion annually, but a Robin Hood tax could raise up to 10 times that amount—£20 billion a year.

Whatever one’s view of the trade-offs, the priority should be the need to protect the poorest. In October 2010, the Prime Minister promised always to look after the sick, the vulnerable and elderly. The Chancellor said in his June 2010 emergency Budget:

“Too often, when countries undertake major consolidations…it is the poorest—those who had least to do with the cause of the economic misfortunes—who are hit hardest. Perhaps that”

has been

“a mistake that our country has made in the past. This coalition Government will be different.”—[Hansard, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 180.]

Really?

There are practical things that the Government can do over the next year. The first is to learn from the mistakes of the work capability assessments and ensure that the assessment for personal independence payments is as fair as possible. Secondly, they could review the work capability assessment, starting with the WCA descriptors, to ensure that it works consistently and fairly for all individuals with limited capability for work or work-related activity. Thirdly, they could get the fundamentals of universal credit right, ensuring that disabled people do not lose in cash terms due to the transition to universal credit from 2013. Fourthly, and most importantly, as loth as I am to implore the Government to do anything, I implore them to conduct a thorough cumulative impact assessment on the impact of all welfare reforms on disabled people, their carers and families. When the Government collect the results, they must act on them, so that no one is left floundering in unnecessarily deprived circumstances because of a Welfare Reform Act, the results of which were all too easy to predict.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

Order. Owing to the number of people who wish to participate, I shall limit the time for speeches to four minutes. If there are a lot of interventions, it may be necessary to reduce that time. The wind-ups will start at 3.40 pm.

2:58 pm
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Tony Baldry (The Second Church Estates Commissioner; Banbury, Conservative)

I shall focus on the 6 million carers. I want to ensure that I have understood the legislation correctly. My approach to the detail of Department for Work and Pensions legislation is a bit like my approach at school to algebra—I am not always confident that I fully understand it.

Am I right to think that carer’s allowance will continue to exist as a separate benefit outside universal credit? Will universal credit awards include a carer element, which will continue for as long as the carer provides care for at least 35 hours a week to a severely disabled person? Am I right to think that, within universal credit, claimants will qualify for a “limited capability for work” element or a carer element—not both—but households will still be able to get a “limited capability for work” element for one member and the carer element for another?

It will be helpful if the Minister explained to us all—perhaps in writing or in answer to a parliamentary question—what, for the purposes of legislation, constitutes a “household”. Some of the misunderstandings or confusions arise from how a household is defined. As I understand it, some households will have an increased earnings disregard to reflect their different needs. Carers will not be a specified group that is entitled to an increased disregard, but it is expected that a majority of them will benefit from income disregard because of other family circumstances, including the maximum disregard of £7,000 if they live in a household with a disabled partner. Does that apply only to households in which there is a disabled partner, or to those in which any other relation is disabled? As the Minister will be aware, there are concerns about households with, for example, adult disabled children.

Exemption from the benefit cap will be extended to households that include a member who is in receipt of the personal independence payment. Some households in receipt of DLA will be exempt from the benefit cap; for example, if a carer’s partner is in receipt of it, the household will be exempt from the cap. Are such households only those in which there is a disabled partner or all households in which there is a carer? Will the Minister clarify that, or write to me if I have misunderstood?

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Sharon Hodgson (Shadow Minister (Education); Washington and Sunderland West, Labour)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Tony Baldry (The Second Church Estates Commissioner; Banbury, Conservative)

I will not.

As I understand it, carer’s allowance will be linked to receipt of either rate of the daily living component of PIP. Is that correct? Obviously, it is important to ensure that people caring for those with greatest needs get the appropriate level of support, and disabled people clearly face extra costs. Am I right in thinking that households receiving DLA, PIP or the support component of the employment and support allowance will and should be exempt from the benefit cap? Have I got that right?

Will housing benefit regulations recognise that some people need an additional room for an overnight carer who lives elsewhere? To go back to the exchanges in the main Chamber earlier this week, am I right that significantly adapted accommodation will receive additional discretionary housing payments funding of some £30 million from 2013-14 to cover that group and foster carers, and that local authorities will have a fair amount of discretion about how that is applied?

Universal credit should provide support for carers and improve their opportunities to maintain links with, and get back into, the world of work.

3:02 pm
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Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth, Labour)

I rise to speak on behalf of the many constituents coming into my office every week who are affected by this Government’s welfare reforms. At every opportunity, we need to challenge the ideology underpinning those reforms and the disastrous economic policies that are wreaking devastation and havoc on ordinary people’s lives. That ideology is about dividing and ruling—pitting the public sector versus the private sector, so-called shirkers versus workers and the able-bodied versus the disabled.

I am not alone in being deeply offended by not only the content of the Chancellor’s autumn statement and its further hit on welfare recipients, but the characterisation of people receiving benefits. Terms such as “scrounger”, “shirker” and “workshy” are used deliberately to vilify people on benefits as the new undeserving poor. The issue for this Government, as in relation to so much of what they are doing, is that that is just not true. Most people on benefits are in work and are net contributors to the Exchequer.

The recent study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the New Policy Institute on research monitoring poverty has shown that 6.1 million people are in poverty in working households, which is 1 million fewer than the number of workless households in poverty. There is no evidence of a culture of worklessness. Evidence from the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that the autumn statement will affect the 10% poorest in our country, who will have the biggest percentage drop in their income. I am relatively new to politics, but I think that that is an absolutely disgraceful misrepresentation of the facts—not only on welfare, as we have seen in the past, but on the economy and the NHS too. This country deserves better.

I am proud of our model of social welfare and its historical roots. It was borne out of world war two, during which we were all in it together. I want to retain that model, which is underpinned by inclusion, support and security for all, so protecting us in case the worlds of any of us fall through and assuring the dignity and basics of life. Those basic securities are going, and the dignity and respect that all people should be afforded is often sadly lacking.

I want to highlight the effects of welfare reforms on disabled people and their families and carers. The context of those reforms has already been mentioned, but I want to emphasise the effects of the proposed cuts—the 1%—in out-of-work benefits and the change from DLA

to PIP. The economy is already depressed, with 6.4 million people lacking the paid work that they want, and 1.4 million people in part-time work who want full-time work, which is the highest figure in 20 years. We have already heard about the increase in living costs, with people having to choose between eating and heating, and cuts to local services—more than half my local council’s budget is being attacked—and social care. Those will have short-term effects on disabled people, but we must also bear in mind evidence about the impacts on life expectancy and the exacerbation of existing health inequalities. The cuts in motability allowance are just one example of how disabled people are being affected. I will finish now, Mr Chope, but you can see the scale of the issue.

3:06 pm
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Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall, Conservative)

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate Ian Mearns on securing this debate.

It is important to discuss the Welfare Reform Act 2012, but a lot that has already been said in this debate makes for unhappy listening. The campaigns that exist about the effects of the Government’s welfare reforms on disabled people have led to an outbreak of fear-mongering and panic. It was important to have this debate to put a balanced argument on the record, so that people understand that the Government are doing all they can for disabled people and their families in a harsh economic climate.

The recent Welfare Reform Act was an attempt to help disabled people and their families. I welcome the fact that, in recognition of the additional needs that disability brings, all households with somebody who is receiving disability living allowance or constant attendance allowance will be exempt from the cap.

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Kate Green (Shadow Minister (Equalities); Stretford and Urmston, Labour)

It is not absolutely correct that all households with somebody in receipt of disability living allowance will be exempt. If there is an adult non-dependent child in receipt of DLA in the household, that exemption will not apply to the main household.

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Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall, Conservative)

The hon. Lady is obviously going along the fear-mongering route, and perhaps the Minister will address that. The exemption will be extended to include a person in receipt of a personal independence payment, which will replace DLA for individuals of working age from April 2013.

The current system has its faults. One of my constituents has applied for DLA, because he is partially sighted and his sight is deteriorating rapidly. Medical records that were used in determining whether he was eligible for DLA were out of date, despite his ophthalmologist having issued up-to-date information more than once. My constituent was refused DLA, but he is appealing. I hope that, under the new system, he will receive what he needs, and that any appeals can be dealt with promptly and in a way that assists and protects those in need. Another constituent was so poorly that my senior caseworker had to go to his home to help him fill out his ESA and DLA forms. I want the Government to assure me that the application process will be accessible for the most vulnerable in our society and that there will be

help for those who have difficulty with any application.

I will continue to fight for constituents who are not getting the benefits they need because of their disability. I am determined not to let the most vulnerable in our society suffer at the hands of bureaucracy. There were issues with the system as it stood, but I hope the Welfare Reform Act will address them. It does a wide range of things, such as reducing the culture of welfare dependency for those who can work. It has the intention of protecting and helping the disabled, and I look forward to the Minister’s comments.

3:10 pm
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Grahame Morris (Easington, Labour)

This is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ian Mearns on securing this timely and important debate. The number of Opposition Members here is testament to the importance of this subject. It is excellent that they have come along to express concerns on behalf of their communities and of disabled people, who are up in arms.

I would like to challenge Sheryll Murray, who suggested that Labour Members were somehow scaremongering about the scale and impact of the cuts. For the record, I have done a little research on my area, County Durham, and the impact is absolutely huge: changes to ESA will affect 26,000 people there. The Government’s 20% reduction in DLA funding and the predicted escalation in the case load will cost County Durham £12.83 million. In my constituency alone, £2.76 million of support for disabled people will be withdrawn as the migration to PIP occurs. Overall, County Durham is predicted to lose £11.59 million a year in income just from changes to tax credits. We could contrast that with what is happening in some of the more affluent parts of the country, such as the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which is predicted to lose just £1.7 million. If we break the figures down according to population, we find that £77.22 is lost per working-age person in County Durham, compared with £17 in Kensington and Chelsea. That has huge implications for the local economy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead mentioned the Chancellor, who said:

“Too often, when countries undertake major consolidations of this kind, it is the poorest—those who had least to do with the cause of the economic misfortunes—who are hit hardest.”

He suggested that that was

“a mistake that our country has made in the past. This coalition Government will be different.”—[Hansard, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 180.]

However, if we examine what has happened since the emergency Budget in June 2010, we find that disabled people and their carers have experienced a major drop in their income of £500 million. There is a huge credibility gap between the Government’s rhetoric and the practical implications of their policy on the ground.

According to the Scope-Demos report “Destination Unknown”, Britain’s 3.6 million disabled people in receipt of disability benefits will have become £9 billion worse off between 2010 and the end of this Parliament.

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Sharon Hodgson (Shadow Minister (Education); Washington and Sunderland West, Labour)

I just want to add that Carers UK estimates that 10,000 carers could lose their carer’s allowance as a result of the changes to DLA. Does my hon. Friend think that that is a disgrace?

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Grahame Morris (Easington, Labour)

It is outrageous. Local authorities are struggling to balance their budgets. I thank Easington carers for the information they have provided to me. The number of carers’ centres across my county is going down from five to one, and carers report severe cuts in services, with many now being run using volunteers. So, yes, the issue is a huge concern, and carers are the unsung heroes of the community in many respects.

I will have to curtail my remarks, but there is absolutely no doubt that the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about being led by the views of disabled groups does not hold water. A number of surveys have been carried out, and a commission led by Paralympic gold medallist Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson found that 450,000 disabled people and their families could lose up to £58 a week under the coalition’s universal credit reform—cuts so deep that one in 10 disabled households with children fear they may lose their homes, with many struggling to pay for basic essentials such as food and heating.

There is no doubt the cuts are taking money from people who are already struggling, and disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as other citizens. I call on the Government urgently to review the impact of their welfare reforms on those who are most in need.

3:15 pm
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Eilidh Whiteford (Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Fisheries); Banff and Buchan, Scottish National Party)

I congratulate Ian Mearns on securing the debate.

One group of carers I have particular concerns about is the parents of disabled adults who provide care and support for their sons and daughters at home. In the short time available, I want to focus on a couple of stories from my constituency that highlight not only the shortcomings of the work capability assessments, but the long-term impacts of caring on families’ income levels and on the health of carers. The big challenge is how to make the home situation sustainable for people who are very much the backbone of our community care system.

It is important and relevant to point out that Aberdeenshire was part of the pilot that introduced the new assessment scheme. We are therefore somewhat ahead of the curve in the implementation of the changes, and we are perhaps starting to see the impacts ahead of other parts of the country.

The first family I want to talk about have a severely disabled son with a range of complex learning and physical disabilities. It is clear from his assessments that he will never be expected to work, and he will need support all his life. However, he can walk without the use of aids—he cannot walk far, but he can nevertheless walk—so his mobility needs have recently been downgraded, which has had significant consequences for his family. Initially, the most serious was that he lost the gateway services that the council provided, which gave him access and transport to a day centre. I intervened in the case, and we have managed to get that decision rolled back, but the loss of part of my constituent’s mobility allowance has put a significant strain on his working parents, who

juggle their working lives and shifts around his mobility requirements. They now have to use public transport in a rural area where services are not regular, and that is highly inappropriate, given their son’s medical condition, because they need to get him to regular hospital appointments in Aberdeen. That situation is not sustainable, and I am left wondering how long those parents will be able to continue to care for their son at home. They have made it clear they do not want him in residential care, but they are also clear that the situation they are in is simply not sustainable. The Government really need to address that issue.

The other family I want to talk about have been very unlucky in the health lottery. Until recently, the mother received ESA for her own health problems. She looks after a severely disabled husband, who is a bit older and who is basically housebound. She also looks after a disabled daughter, who is a wheelchair user with other, complicating health conditions. It is difficult in a short debate such as this to assess the extent to which the mother’s health problems have been compounded and exacerbated by that long-term caring. However, she now receives £29 a week because she has exhausted her entitlement to contributory benefits, and she must, as it were, live off her disabled relatives, although she has a small occupational pension from earlier in her life, when she was able to work. The family are trying hard to live with dignity in tough economic circumstances. They have not asked to be unhealthy; they have had to deal for a long time—well over 30 years—with a child who has severe disabilities and who has needed a lot of care and attention.

The impact on such families, the strain on social services and the long-term implications for our health care service and for residential care provision are significant. At a human and a social level, the system needs to address and support the needs of carers, and particularly those who are caring for an indefinite period.

3:19 pm
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Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East, Labour)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ian Mearns on securing the debate.

I am going to pre-empt the Minister, because I expect her to say in reply to the debate, as she keeps saying, “You”—not meaning any of us personally, but the Opposition—“did not have a cumulative impact assessment when you were in power.” However, I cannot think of a time when so many things have been happening simultaneously. The roll-out of incapacity benefit to ESA is still going on. We will have the change from disability living allowance to personal independence payment. We have housing benefit changes and universal credit. The reason we want a cumulative impact assessment is that what is happening is unprecedented. We need to know what will happen to people like my constituent who is 59 and has lived in her home for 30 years; she has severe back and hip problems and has just received a letter telling her she will lose housing benefit in April unless she can find somewhere to move to. Currently her grandchildren stay over for part of the week, which helps her family out. If she cannot do that any more, it will have an impact on their living and working arrangements. A ripple effect happens.

I have not yet dared tell my constituent that almost certainly she will in due course lose severe disability premium, which she currently gets because she is in receipt of income support and has no carer in the household. That, doubtless, is still to come, but I do not want to make her too fearful. The things that she does know about are happening already. They are not a myth being created by us or the disability movement.

When people become ill they experience a fantastic loss of income anyway, and an increase in costs. The Government appear to be oblivious to that. If a couple have been working—one full-time and one part-time—and the one who worked full-time suffers a stroke and must give up work, they go down to half an income and ESA. At the end of a year, if the person in question ends up in the ESA work-related activity group, their income falls again: the ESA will be lost because it is contributory; they will not qualify for the non-contributory version—even though they have worked and paid in all their lives they will not get that—so their income will go down to that of a part-time employee. Again, there are ripple effects and cumulative effects on people at a time when they are incurring greater costs. Someone who is at home more than they were when they went to work will have increased fuel and transport costs to meet. The person who is ill and has a disability may always have been the driver for the household, so there will be taxi and increased public transport costs. People in that position already have a substantial reduction in income.

I am glad that the Minister realised that the initial plans for rolling out DLA into PIP were totally unrealistic, and that the time scale has been extended, but there will still be clear losers. Our accounts are not scare stories. The information comes from the Government’s figures: 170,000 people, on reassessment, will lose DLA altogether before October 2015. That is a lot of people. That, apparently, is reality in the Government’s terms. I ask the Minister please to agree to a cumulative impact assessment.

3:23 pm
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Jim Shannon (Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health); Strangford, DUP)

I congratulate Ian Mearns on bringing the matter to the House. I thank him, because it is one that is close to my heart, for two reasons. The first is personal, because my brother, Keith, had an accident in which he received serious brain injuries. He had many years of rehabilitation, and although it did not mean he could lead the independent life he once had, he can have some sort of independent life, because of his carers and my parents. My parents give as much help as they can, but my mother is 81 and my father is 83, so they will be able to give less and less help. There will be greater emphasis on the NHS and what it does through carers, but also on the DLA award that helps Keith to have carers in the house on a more permanent basis. He relies on the award to pay for the help he needs. If that were to change—I hope that the Minister is taking this on board—his quality of life would change dramatically. He would have to go to a health facility elsewhere.

Is my brother the only person in my constituency to whom that has happened? Of course not: there are hundreds—indeed, thousands—who fit into that category. All over the country people have made me aware of

that. Some of the hon. Members present for the debate attended Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson’s inquiry. In her report she has said that

“230,000 severely disabled people who do not have another adult to assist them could receive between £28 and £58 a week less”.

Also,

“100,000 disabled children stand to lose up to £28 a week”

and 116,000 disabled people who work risk losing up to £40 per week from payments towards additional costs of being disabled. Clearly, those figures cannot be ignored. Those are the facts of the case and that is how things will happen. A recent newspaper comment said:

“DLA helps disabled people to manage some of their own care needs; without this support, they could increasingly rely on family members.”

Yes, that is so if the family members are alive and accessible. If not, that cannot happen.

Other hon. Members have mentioned Carers UK and the Hardest Hit survey. Three in 10 disabled people stated that without DLA their care would not work. The figures are clear. Family carers provide an unmatched service in the United Kingdom, saving the Government millions upon millions of pounds each year. The Government must address care-in-the-home needs. There is only so much that families can do and while we are trying to save money care in the community cannot bear the brunt, but that is what is happening. Private care companies are under pressure and have less money available to them. That means that elderly people are living in unfit conditions, and much more is required of their carers.

Many young and single-parent families find it very difficult to cope. Young mothers try their best to do without the absent father, but they cannot juggle taking care of the home as well as looking after children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There are many in that situation in my constituency, and that will be true of the constituencies of many other hon. Members. Those mothers have particular problems, trying to hold down a job of 16 to 20 hours a week to qualify for help, and they are under tremendous strain, which in turn leads to breakdowns in their health. Voluntary sector groups used to fill the gap, and sometimes they can, but mostly they cannot. Such a mother is under pressure, worried about DLA and the effect on her son, and about her increasing child care costs. Those problems multiply. I want to make a quick mention of Home-Start, a charity at home in my constituency and many others, which does marvellous work and can look after a child for a year for £422. Where else could anyone get that?

In conclusion, there is a degree of penny wise, pound foolish about what is happening—saving money in the short term, while in the long term there will be no saving. Worse, in the long term families will be pulled apart, disabled people will be isolated and the community will not function as it could, all because the big picture was not looked at. I urge the Minister to rethink the reform at this stage, consider its impact on individual lives, and put in place an efficiency package that saves money without doing it at the expense of decent quality of life.

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

I will reduce the time limit to three minutes now.

3:27 pm
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Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch, Labour)

At a recent AGM of Hackney carers association, carers raised concerns with me about many things. One was the carers allowance, which is only £55.50 a week. I want to ask the Minister to comment on the proposal by some bodies that that should be increased. Many carers in my constituency have been on low incomes for long periods of their lives already. It is not as if they have reserves to fall back on.

I wanted to touch on the general issue of disabled households typically being poorer, often because disability has meant being able to work less over time. Many carers have had to give up jobs to care. I am a former working carer, and I cared for two disabled adults. Annie, who sadly died in October, went to live with her sister, who was also a working carer. The Minister needs to understand that the pressure on carers is immense. As many hon. Members have mentioned, the cumulative impact of many changes can be very complicated.

When I cared for two disabled adults, at one point I dealt with 13 different agencies just to get the basics of care, support and medical support in place. Happily for me, at that time we were not dealing with many changes in the benefit system. I am not saying it was all perfect, but it was at least a stable system. All the changes coming hard on the heels of one another add stress to carers who must navigate through the system in addition to all the other challenges of being a carer. We live in a world now where people should be able to work and care, but we make it more difficult for them to do it. When I was a working carer my husband’s cousin was a carer for her sister. We worked because we had to—to pay bills and pay for our families. There was no option for us. Many people have taken the option of not working, and that has considerably reduced their household income.

I want to touch briefly on the work done by Contact a Family in my constituency, and ask the Minister to comment on the disability addition under universal credit, which seems to cut the weekly tax credit for families with a disabled child from £57 to £28. The issues for families with children are immense. If we do not get this right now, it says bad things about what our society wants to do for disabled people. Those families want to ensure that their children have the best start in life to increase their chances of independent living later on. Without proper support in the early stages, families can break down under the immense pressure. As we know, many marriages struggle under the strain of coping with a disabled child. I urge the Minister to comment on that point and to look more widely at the work of organisations such as Contact a Family, which, by the way, is quite supportive of some of the Government changes, but has some particular points that I urge the Minister to consider.

3:30 pm
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Iain McKenzie (Inverclyde, Labour)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ian Mearns on securing this important debate. There can be no doubt that the UK Government’s programme of welfare reform will have a devastating impact on the incomes and well-being of thousands of disabled people in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

One common theme runs across the many different types of benefits, and that is that “reform” means “cuts in income”, and disabled people are among the most badly affected. Next year, disabled people will feel the effects of even more stringent cuts. According to the impact assessment of the Tory-led coalition, the Government expect 500,000 people to lose PIP by 2015-16, compared with what would have happened under DLA. The reality is that the Government are trying to mould a benefit around these cuts, rather than around the needs of individual disabled people.

A Citizens Advice report in Scotland has estimated that the replacement of the disability living allowance with personal independence payments will require 225,000 working-age DLA claimants in Scotland to undergo an assessment, with some 75,000 in danger of losing their entitlement. Capability Scotland notes that all PIP claimants, including

“those with complex learning disabilities, severely visually impaired people, double amputees and deaf people”

will be assessed by an independent medical officer.

To reduce the number of claimants, everyone on DLA will have an Atos test. Where do I start with Atos? Many people fear the Atos test, and with good reason. In fact, my constituents believe that Atos stands for “another Tory oppressive system”. I tell them that that is not the case, because that would be letting off the Lib Dems too lightly. We are told that 40% of Atos test decisions were wrong and have been overturned on appeal. In my constituency of Inverclyde, the percentage is significantly higher; something like 60% of cases are overturned. I know that colleagues have had many frightened and worried constituents contact them about the medical assessment process.

The UK Government plan to halve tax credits for disabled children. The carers, too, will be hit hard. Welfare cuts will push families caring for ill or disabled relatives to crisis point. As the financial pressure on carers grows, there is the increasing risk that they will be unable to continue to care for their loved ones.

We have a Government who, while slashing the welfare budget, provide a £40,000 tax break for millionaires. The Government’s Welfare Reform Act 2012 crosses the basic line of decency.

3:33 pm
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Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South, Labour)

I congratulate my hon. Friend Ian Mearns on securing this debate and on the way in which he opened it. In the little time I have, I want to focus on the carers of people with disabilities.

Carers’ organisations have told me that they fear that the welfare reform measures proposed by this Government will seriously undermine the ability of carers to care for people with disabilities and for older family members. On the reform of the disability living allowance, the Government’s original impact assessment said:

“We expect that the introduction of Personal Independence Payment will not affect the overall size of the Carer’s Allowance population”,

but analysis by Carers UK shows that there will undoubtedly be a knock-on effect on those who claim carer’s allowance. If the number of claimants of the allowance falls, as it moves to PIP, in line with the caseload for DLA, Carers UK estimate that 23,800 carers will be unable to claim carer’s allowance.

On the housing benefit cap, it seems clear that around 5,000 households that will be capped in 2013-14 are expected to contain a carer. Those carers will see an average reduction in income of £105 a week. That is quite clearly at odds with the Government’s stated policy for the cap.

Around 1 million carers have either given up work or reduced their working hours in order to care. An average drop in income of £105 per week is a cruel way to treat carers who have given up their careers. It could also be counter-productive, in that it could make caring for a family member financially untenable and force more people into taking up the option of care homes or residential homes.

Many carers already face financial hardship. A survey of carers by Carers UK found that 45% of them were cutting back on essentials such as heating or food, and four in 10 were in debt as a result of caring. Carers are not choosing to give up work, but being forced into doing so by the crisis in social care. Carers UK found in a survey that 31% of working age carers gave up work or reduced their working hours to care because support services were not flexible enough, the person for whom they cared did not qualify for support, there were no suitable services in the area, or the services were too expensive or not reliable enough. There is not time now to go through how care charges have gone up.

In an earlier debate on social care, I talked about the impact of financial issues on the lives of carers. I have heard of one carer who had to take on a part-time cleaning job in the early evening because money was so tight. She puts her husband to bed at 4pm so that he is safe while she is at work. That is the reality.

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Grahame Morris (Easington, Labour)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a case not just of money—pounds and pence—but of the dignity of disabled people?

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Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South, Labour)

Indeed it is. The House of Commons has received reports that criticise care agencies for putting people to bed at 6 o’clock or 8 o’clock. This carer has to put her husband to bed at 4 o’clock. How must that feel to her? I have had further evidence that shows that that is not an isolated example. It is very common for carers who can no longer afford respite care to have to leave a person, perhaps wearing an incontinence pad, and hope that they will be safe in a chair while the carer has a hospital appointment or goes to work.

I question whether anyone here believes that it is right or fair to hit carers with further cuts to their income when changes already made by this Government are clearly hitting them. The manager of my local carers centre in Salford told me that, this Christmas, the centre’s staff are collecting and distributing food parcels to carers. That is something that they have not had to do since the 1980s. She said, “This does not bode well.” It does not, and it should not be happening to carers, who already give so much. I call on the Minister for a rethink on welfare reform for carers.

3:37 pm
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John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington, Labour)

Sometimes our role as MPs is to bear witness, so it is important that the words spoken by people with disabilities and their carers are put on the record. Professor Peter

Beresford of Brunel university, working as the chair of Shaping Our Lives, the national disabled people’s and service users’ organisation network, undertook a massive survey of people with disabilities and their carers. The Spartacus report was published earlier this year, and has now been revamped. I just want to quote a few brief statements from people with disabilities. This is one person’s family member:

“John is so severely disabled he has to wear nappies and is fed through a tube. He is blind and deaf, cannot speak, suffers frequent seizures and requires 24-hour care. But he has now been told by a Government decision maker that he is ‘capable of work’ — and that he is no longer entitled to benefits. Family members have contacted officials who say that an appeal against the decision will have to be lodged.”

What happens when those appeals take place? Let me quote a person with a disability:

“It’s like doing a crime. I am a human being who needs additional support but here I am facing a panel who are making a decision on my life. I am tired of fighting officials who seem to think they know more about my disabilities and needs than I do. It now makes me feel ashamed of who I am. I am being punished for being disabled and feel powerless.”

What happens in the assessment itself? Here is a quote from a wife:

“I can honestly say there are lies that go into that assessment. I do shorthand and I took down word for word my husband’s whole assessment. What actually came back was practically the opposite of everything he said.”

Let me quote another claimant:

“They are now ordering claimants (and their companions) to surrender any notes they have taken during the interview. Before the assessment even began, both I and my companion were warned that we had to first agree first to hand over our notes at the end of the assessment. We were told that the notes would be photocopied and stored on a database. I was told that the penalty for refusing to agree to this condition was the immediate termination of the assessment.”

The implicit warning was that they would lose benefits.

What happens in the administration of these benefits? I will give another example. The client’s husband is in hospital in a coma. He was sent an ESA50 form. The client contacted the Department for Work and Pensions to explain the situation, and was asked to obtain a letter from the hospital confirming that the client’s husband was in a coma. The client did so, and sent it to Atos rather than the local benefit disability centre. The client was then sent a letter saying that they had failed to return the appropriate form and the client’s husband was no longer entitled to the benefit.

Let me save the final words for Karen Sherlock, 44. She was put in a work-related activity group. She was required to attend interviews. She suffered from a whole range of conditions. Her husband Nigel said it was a disgrace that she was refused benefits. Last year, she lost the long process of appeal against the decision. In April 2012, as a result of the time-limiting of employment and support allowance to one year, she lost her benefits. She won her appeal a few weeks later and was finally put in the support group. She died eight days later, on 8 June.

Read the Spartacus report. It gives example after example of the inhumane treatment of people with disabilities and their families. It shames any Government to treat people in this way.

3:40 pm
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Anne McGuire (Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions); Stirling, Labour)

Thank you very much, Mr Chope, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I thank the many Members who have made a contribution to this debate, and indeed I also thank the many Members who sat here in Westminster Hall but did not speak; they did not make a contribution but wanted to show their support for my hon. Friend Ian Mearns, who promoted today’s debate very successfully.

I have to say, in passing, that rarely have I seen a Government Minister so ill-supported by people on her side. Frankly, she is supported more by the number of officials with her than by Back Benchers.

I also thank the many organisations that have given us briefings, and indeed would probably have given briefings to many MPs from all parties. They include Scope, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, the British Medical Association, the Disabled People Against Cuts, the Hardest Hit campaign, Rethink, Action for Children, Disability Rights UK, Mind, Pat’s Petition, the Gateshead Carers Association and the Gateshead Citizens Advice Bureau, which of course are in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, Carers UK, and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux.

Many Members have commented on the Chancellor’s statement of 22 June 2010, in which he said that the Government would not grind the poorest into the ground. Frankly, what a difference two years has made. This is the same Chancellor who is now looking for more cuts from the Department for Work and Pensions. As many colleagues have said, there are many hidden costs to being disabled, which do not always compute.

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Yvonne Fovargue (Opposition Whip (Commons); Makerfield, Labour)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the costs that has not been mentioned today is the additional cost of child care for a child with a disability, the benefit for which is being reduced under universal credit?

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Anne McGuire (Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions); Stirling, Labour)

Yes, and because of the width of the spectrum of impact that we are having to deal with, it has been very difficult to highlight every particular aspect of that impact. I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue.

There is a hidden accumulation of disadvantages that this Government have consistently tried to hide, in the face of the evidence that has been presented to them over the past two years by some of the organisations that I referred to.

The Minister told me last week in response to my question about a cumulative impact assessment—I think this was mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend Sheila Gilmore—that there had never been a cumulative impact assessment under Labour, as if that somehow absolved her from undertaking a cumulative impact assessment. I find that an astonishing answer, because no Government—neither Conservative nor Labour—have ever launched such a torrent of changes, with such a speed of change, in the way that this Government have done in tackling the support that we give to disabled people. No Government have done

that before. I worked with disabled people during the premiership of Baroness Thatcher, and frankly I have never seen anything like this—never.

According to the figures, disabled people have dropped at least a massive £500 million in income since that emergency Budget statement two years ago, when the Chancellor said that he would not be breaking the backs of the poorest in our society. The cuts to the incomes of disabled households go up to more than £2,000 a year; they vary, depending on individual circumstances.

We can see what the impact of those cuts is. There has been the imposition of the 12-month rule on employment and support allowance, a benefit that is intended to support people who are too ill or too disabled to work. The Government were so stubborn that they would not even accept an Opposition proposal to extend ESA to two years, to give people the opportunity either to adapt to a long-term disability or to receive the treatment that they needed to take them out of illness. That change is underpinned by a flawed work capability assessment, which states that disabled people are ready for work when they are palpably not ready; we have heard examples of that today.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead that we should not just attack Atos. There are issues to do with Atos and the professionalism with which it is conducting some of the assessments, but we should pin the responsibility on the Ministers who are supposed to be managing the Atos contract. If it is not the Ministers who are responsible—as is the way with this Government—then there will be a civil servant somewhere who will have to accept some responsibility.

We have an appeals service that is logjammed, and many people, after months of uncertainty, find that their benefits are restored. Sometimes that happens—this shows the bizarre economics of this situation—after they have had their Motability car repossessed; several months later, they find that they are to get it back again. What sort of economics is that?

Although I welcomed some of the mitigation, or easement, that the Minister announced in the changes to the personal independence payment, there are still many descriptors that are causing concern. I appreciate that the Minister only has a few minutes to respond to the debate, but perhaps she will share with us details of where the new descriptors in activity 12 come from. It looks as though the 12 points needed for the enhanced mobility rate can be achieved solely by people who have only a physical impairment and who are not able to stand or move more than 20 metres. Perhaps she can tell the House how many people will lose access to their Motability vehicles as a result of this further tightening of the gateway. I point out to her that even in the 1970s disabled people qualified for those little blue single-seater cars if they were able to move more than 20 metres, aided or unaided. Talk about back to the future.

From April next year, families with disabled children will receive £1,300 less than they would receive under the current system. It is estimated that about 450,000 families will lose out under universal credit. Until the last couple of weeks, the Government gave the distinct impression—this was a clever dodge—that if a carer was in the same household as a disabled adult child, their carer’s allowance would not be included in the

benefit cap. The Government have now had to admit that an adult disabled person will be assessed as being in a different household from their parents’ household.

Before the Minister says to me, “That’s always been the way; when an adult reaches the age of maturity, or the age at which they can receive benefits in their own right, they are a separate household”, I accept that is true, but what we never did—indeed, what no Government ever did before—was decouple a carer’s allowance from the disabled person whom it is intended to help. That is what this Government are doing.

I say to the Minister in all honesty that if this Government are so sure that what they are doing is right, and that, as Sheryll Murray said, they have the best intentions as regards disabled people, why in heaven’s name will they not carry out a cumulative impact assessment? I have said this to the Minister and to the previous Minister, who is now the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport: it is surely not beyond the wit of the best brains in the DWP to come up with a cumulative impact assessment that will prove either the Government’s case or ours.

3:48 pm
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Esther McVey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; Wirral West, Conservative)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank Ian Mearns for securing this debate on such an important issue, and I welcome all contributions to the debate about how our welfare reforms will better support disabled people, their carers and their families.

The UK has a proud history of furthering the rights of disabled people and I am pleased to say that, even in these very tough economic times, the Government continue to spend around £50 billion a year on disabled people and their services, to enable those who face the greatest barriers to participate fully in society. That compares well internationally. We spend almost double the OECD average, as a percentage of our gross domestic product, with only Norway and Iceland out of the 34 OECD countries spending more, and we spend a fifth more than the European average. More money will be spent on disability living allowance and the personal independence payment in every year up to 2015-16 than was spent in 2009-10.

We are world leaders in dealing with people with disabilities, but we should not be complacent, because disabled people are not a static group and we have to support them every which way we can. Some 3.2 million disabled people are on DLA and, over a year, the impairments of a third of them will change. Some people might get worse, and some will stay the same, but some will improve and get better and will no longer get the benefit as they will not be entitled to it. We will, however, support those who need support, or more support. The Government are committed to enabling disabled people to fulfil their potential and play a full part in society, but money needs to be targeted more effectively to ensure that support continues to be available to those who need it most, that there is a lasting impact, and that interventions provide a fair deal for the taxpayer.

Nearly half of disabled people are in work. Only 9% of working-age disabled people, and only 5% of those over the age of 25, have never worked. If we want to make a sustainable difference, we must do all we can to help more disabled people who can work to get into mainstream employment, and support them to stay in work. We know that many disabled people want to work but feel that the risk of losing their benefits is too great. By simplifying the benefits system and ensuring that work pays, universal credit will remove the financial risks involved in taking the first steps back into employment, and will increase the incentives of working, even if that work is for just a few hours a week. Universal credit will provide unconditional support to disabled people who are not expected to do any work.

Disability living allowance is an outdated benefit that has not been fundamentally reformed since it was introduced in 1992, and both sides of the House agreed that a change was needed. The reforms present an opportunity to start afresh, keeping the best elements of DLA that disabled people value, but bringing the benefit up to date and making it fit for the 21st century.

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Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth, Labour)

Does the Minister think that articles 19 and 20 of the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities are compromised by what the Government are doing in, for example, removing the Motability allowance from about 500,000 people?

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Esther McVey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; Wirral West, Conservative)

Of course we do not believe that the rights of disabled people are compromised. As I said at the start of my speech, we aim to strengthen and support them in every way we can.

The personal independence payment will be easier to understand and administer, and will be financially sustainable and more objective—the payment has not been so to date. It will be better targeted at those in most need. Throughout the development of the payment, we have consulted widely with disabled people and have used their views to inform policy design. It has taken more than two years of intense consultation, of listening and of working to adjust the criteria and the assessment, to get it right. We listened to people’s concerns about the speed of reassessments and, as I announced last week, we will now carry out a slower reassessment timetable to ensure that we get it right. The peak period of reassessments will not start until October 2015. Furthermore, the Government confirmed in last week’s autumn statement that disability benefits will continue to be uprated in line with inflation.

Carers provide an invaluable service to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, and we want to ensure that they continue to get the support they need. We have committed to linking carer’s allowance to receipt of either rate of the daily living component of PIP, which is an important safeguard for carers. Our earlier analysis indicated that the link to PIP would result in broadly the same number of carers being entitled to carer’s allowance, even though there would be some churn between those who are newly entitled and others losing entitlement. Now that we have finalised the PIP assessment criteria we are, of course, considering that, and our objective remains to ensure that people caring for those with the greatest need get the right level of support.

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Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South, Labour)

The Minister is right to comment on carers, but does she see how deeply unfair it is to apply the benefit cap to them? They will lose £105 a week. This stuff about households and the way in which they are defined is just nonsense; 5,000 carers should not lose out.

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Esther McVey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; Wirral West, Conservative)

I will explain to the hon. Lady why the changes have to be brought about. At the moment, there are 1 million spare bedrooms, 250,000 households living in overcrowded conditions and 1.8 million households on the waiting list, so we have a size criterion in the private sector, and we must get this right. We have to support people. We have to work with what we have, and we will introduce the changes because we have to get this right—it has not been right, and the previous Government left it to get into this predicament.

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Esther McVey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; Wirral West, Conservative)

I will not give way.

Work must always pay more than benefits, and that is why we are introducing the cap on the amount of benefits that working-age people can receive. It is not reasonable or fair that people out of work can get an income from benefits that is greater than the average weekly wage for working households. We understand, however, that disabled people face extra costs, and that is why we are exempting from the cap households receiving DLA, PIP or the support component of the employment and support allowance.

It is fair that the benefits system should support people in public housing in the same way as it does those in private housing, but we have made changes to the housing benefit regulations, in recognition of the fact that some people need an additional room for an overnight carer who lives elsewhere. We have also listened to concerns about disabled people living in significantly adapted accommodation, and have announced additional discretionary housing payment funding of £30 million for 2013-14, to cover both that group and foster carers.

Instead of simply cutting money from everyone, we chose the more difficult but principled option of modernising the benefit and focusing support where it is needed most. PIP will be awarded on the basis of fair, consistent and objective assessments, and such assessments are not in place at the moment. The assessments have taken two years to develop. We consulted with disabled people and made key changes as we received their feedback.

Although they are different assessments that will work in different ways, we have learned from the experiences of the work capability assessment—something that the Opposition brought in—and we had to introduce Professor Harrington, who produced recommendations that we are still working through, to get this right. That will enable us more accurately and consistently to ensure that support is targeted at those who face the greatest barriers to leading independent lives. More than a fifth of PIP recipients will get both of the highest rates, worth £134.40 a week, compared with only 16% of those who are on DLA at the moment.

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Julie Hilling (Bolton West, Labour)

I thank the Minister for giving way when time is so short. I have listened carefully to everything she has said, and what I do not

understand, at the end of it, is this: why will disabled people be financially worse off, when she says that everything in the garden is rosy? I truly do not understand how she can say that, when every day on which we have a surgery we face people coming in to say how they are suffering under the Government’s policies. I do not understand—

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Esther McVey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; Wirral West, Conservative)

Once universal credit has been introduced, many disabled families will receive more support than they do now, with the higher rate of support for all disabled children who are registered blind, for example. Households with one or more disabled adults will keep up to £647 a month—some £7,000 a year—of their earnings before seeing any reduction. Universal credit also offers a more flexible system for people whose condition and ability to work fluctuate. No one whose circumstances remain the same will lose out in cash terms as a direct result of the move to universal credit—there will be protection.

As we have talked about the cumulative impact, I will say that we have published impact assessments on reforms to workplace pensions, the child support regulations, automatic enrolment, PIP, universal credit and the benefit cap—the list continues. Labour embarked on a number of reforms, including moving from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance, the introduction of local housing, and changes for lone parents, on which no cumulative impact assessments were done, as Sheila Gilmore and Mrs McGuire said. It would have been far simpler to do a cumulative impact assessment, but because of the shift and the fact that the measures will not be in place until 2017-18 we have taken the advice that such an assessment would not be possible in its entirety. These are principled reforms, and we should all be proud that we are delivering them.