Disability Benefits for the Elderly

Part of Opposition Day — [1st allotted day] – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 8th December 2009.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 4:45 pm, 8th December 2009

That is helpful.

The proposals therefore raise questions for future recipients-that is what I am now talking about-and I hope that Ministers will address some of those questions. For example, if DLA is to remain for under-65s but perhaps not for over-65s, there will be a question about the transition from under to over 65. It is clear from research evidence that DLA is not just a care cost benefit, but a disability cost benefit. Is it not therefore the case that, in the future, if people on DLA who became disabled before pension age go on to the new regime and receive support from a different package-I do not want to say "have it taken away from them"-that will presumably give them potentially less cash after the transition to spend on the other costs associated with their disability? I assume that that would be a consequence of the Government's proposal. Is there not a danger, therefore, that although those individuals' care needs might be fully met in the future, the compensation that society has given over generations for the additional costs of disability would thereby be undermined, because potentially all or a large part of that cash would be put into a bucket for care costs and their ability to meet other, extra disability costs might thereby be constrained? We need to understand the transition from under to over the pension age, compared with the position now. That is the first question that I hope the Minister responding will address.

The second question is about the current role of such benefits in passporting people on to other things. If a person receives attendance allowance, someone will be looking after them 35 hours a week and, in principle, will be passported on to carer's allowance. Could the Minister who responds to the debate say something about how such passporting might work in a world where new recipients receive a care package, but do not necessarily receive the benefits that passport them on to other benefits? One imagines that there are ways around that, but there would be consequences.

We all agree on the importance of cash benefits for personal control, personalisation and dignity. We would all want the cash to make our own choices and not to have the state decide what pattern of services we want. One of my concerns about the Government's proposal is that the new system will inevitably rely more heavily on means-testing than the current one. That is implicit in the Green Paper, which on page 102 describes attendance allowance thus:

"Attendance Allowance is not means-tested, so people get it regardless of how well-off they are."

Of course, that is simply a statement of fact, but why does the Green Paper say that and, by implication, "And this might be thought to be a bad thing. This is not money well spent"? At that point we part company with the Government, because our argument is that attendance allowance and DLA are designed to meet the additional costs of disability and people have those additional costs whether they are rich or poor.

We are talking about a universal benefit for people with disabilities. They will all face a set of additional costs on average, so we as a society compensate them all. Reading between the lines of the Green Paper and suggesting that, although there are additional costs, people who are well off can meet them themselves would be a worrying undermining of that principle. In our view, therefore, a continuing role for a disability benefit that is specifically related to the additional costs of care, but separate from the process for assessment and meeting care needs, is an important part of the system.

I admit that I was rather puzzled by what the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire said about a single assessment system; his comment struck me as rather odd. At the moment, we have a system in which attendance allowance goes to millions of people who do not get social care services provided by their local authority. In a single assessment system, however, there are only two possible outcomes. Either the outcome is as broad as attendance allowance, in which case we would bring all the people who get social care who do not currently receive the allowance into the system, which would presumably be hugely expensive; or it is as narrow as social care, in which case people would be knocked out of attendance allowance. If neither of those two things is done, the system is not a single system.

I suppose we could have a compromise, whereby a few fewer people receive attendance allowance and a few more people receive social care, but that is not what the hon. Gentleman seemed to be saying. I am therefore slightly confused. We have come not to expect alternative proposals from the Conservative Opposition, but this time there is one on the table, only it seems not to make any sense. If we are talking about a single process of assessment that is different from what we have now, either it is universal and based on need, like attendance allowance, or it is means-tested, like social care, but it is rather hard to see how those can be one, single system.

There is an important question about what I call the non-overlap group-the people who are disabled enough to receive attendance allowance, but who do not get local authority social care. Again, my concern is that either that set of people loses out if attendance allowance goes, or the Government do not save any money, because those people use their attendance allowance to pay for care, and if the allowance was not there, they would rely on local authority provision. The only saving would be achieved be through means-testing, which is a worry. We all know why means-testing happens-we cannot be generous to everyone, so we pick some people-but there is a balance to be struck between universalism and means-testing.

One of my worries about the present Government is that the balance between universal and means-tested benefits in, for example, the pensions system has gone very much in the direction of means-testing. We have on the Front Bench today a former Pensions Minister, who will know that, when there was spare cash, it went into the means-tested areas. That was an understandable choice, but the Minister says that social care needs to look more like the NHS, and one of the hallmarks of the NHS is that we as a society say that people who are sick are entitled to help whether they are rich or poor. In my view, the Government's model seems to be veering in the direction of means-testing, because if we roll attendance allowance into the local authority social care budgets, we will by definition be doing more means-testing. We all get letters from our constituents saying, "I've worked hard and saved hard, but what was the point, because I'm no better off?" If we make social care more means-tested, we will rightly get more of those letters, because needing social care is akin to needing health care; it is the same sort of thing. Our worry about the direction of Government policy is the greater emphasis on means-testing.

That brings us to take-up. We know that take-up, even of the universal disability benefits, is not brilliant. There are plenty of people out there who should be getting attendance allowance or disability living allowance but who are not doing so. If we were to impose a means-testing regime on all that to create a single system, the likelihood of people missing out on the whole lot would increase. In Work and Pensions questions yesterday, a question was asked about the length of the DLA form. The Minister quite properly said that it was a complicated business and that we have to ask a lot of questions if we want to capture everything. If we tried to combine that with a means-tested system of local authority care, I imagine that the barriers would be even greater and we would therefore risk excluding vulnerable people. Having a mixture of the universal system that includes attendance allowance and, ideally, a less means-tested local authority system would create a better balance than what the Government are proposing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester was right to table his early-day motion a few weeks ago. The motion before the House today accurately sets out our position, which is that attendance allowance and DLA for the over-65s have an important part to play in the system. We recognise that the Government have promised equivalent cash support for current recipients, but we believe that those benefits have a long-term future as well. That is where we part company with the Government.

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