Disability Benefits for the Elderly

Part of Opposition Day — [1st allotted day] – in the House of Commons at 5:21 pm on 8th December 2009.

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Photo of Roger Berry Roger Berry Labour, Kingswood 5:21 pm, 8th December 2009

I can answer that in one sentence. People are anxious because others have generated scares outside. Let me speak for myself. I agree with the Government that disability benefits should be seen in the context of a national care service. I, as much as anyone, want a national care service that is similar to the national health service. That is long overdue. As the Government say in their amendment, the national care service is about having a

"national, universal, entitlement-based system for care and support".

The only part of the system that is currently national, universal and entitlement-based is the benefit system-attendance allowance, disability living allowance and other related benefits. My point of departure is this: if our purpose is to create a national care service, I find it strange that the part of the package that we should start considering is the one part of the service that is national, universal and entitlement-based. It would be much more logical, in summary, for attendance allowance, DLA and related national entitlements to be the basis on which we build a national care service.

I welcome the publication of the Green Paper. It addresses a number of the shortcomings of the social care system that deny disabled and older people the right to decent care and support. That is why virtually every disability organisation-Age UK, Age Concern, Help the Aged and many others-has also welcomed it.

It is interesting that, within a few days, the same organisations expressed specific concerns about the future of disability benefits, so I think that we should regard their submissions as pretty sophisticated: they passionately want a national care system, but they have concerns about removing the national entitlements that currently exist through the benefits system.

We all know why things need to be done. As Members of Parliament, we all know that needs are being met insufficiently. Our constituents frequently have unmet needs, and perhaps the same is true for members of our families. At present, local authorities are addressing only the most serious needs, and there are charges. For instance, a constituent wrote to me this week claiming that her charging regime was unfair and unreasonable, and I think that she is correct. In addition, the 6 million carers in our country do not get the kind of support that they should get, and all that is despite the fact that the Government are putting more money than ever into the social care system. I do not think that the Government can be criticised for not providing extra resources. They have done that, but the system itself is not functioning as it should.

As the right hon. Member for Charnwood said, provision varies from local authority to local authority. People who get an assessment for care and support in one local authority but who have the temerity to want to work, or visit relatives, in the next-door local authority have to go through the process all over again. When will that cease? Entitlements are not portable. When are we going to get portable entitlements? A national care system, if it is national, will at least address that problem.

Finally, disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. In such circumstances, therefore, we should be very cautious indeed about considering changes to benefits in a downward direction. Let us not forget that people who receive attendance allowance and DLA are, sadly, some of the poorest in our society.

As I have said, I support the vision of a national care system and national entitlements. I welcome the emphasis in the Green Paper on preventive interventions and on promoting choice and control. As other hon. Members have said, it is the national entitlements that give choice and control at the moment, because people can choose how to spend that money.

I think that resources could be saved if we moved to a national care system, and away from multiple assessments of non-portable entitlements between local authorities. The existing bureaucracy could be reduced in size, and some resources could be saved that should be spent on front-line care and support. Nevertheless, we all know that that is not going to be enough to provide the resources that the social care system needs at present. It will certainly not be enough, given the well-known demographic changes, to ensure the resources that the social care system of the future will need, but I repeat that I do not think that it makes sense to fund the social care system by undermining that part of the benefits system that works most successfully at present.

As Steve Webb has pointed out, many people who receive attendance allowance do not receive any social care support at all. Why should we consider any change to that entitlement, given the possible consequences for those people?

It must also be stated that, as we all know, many people's experiences of local authority social services are not good. I am a former local councillor and I am passionate about local government, but we all know that there are local authorities, for faults that either are not their own-perhaps insufficient resources-or are their own that do not provide the quality service that is needed. When disabled people say to me, "For goodness sake, we must retain AA and DLA", it is often because they cannot bear the possibility that the money would somehow end up under the control of local authorities with their current management of the social care system.

That is not a criticism of individuals who work for local authorities. Many struggle in very difficult circumstances indeed. Many local authorities are quite small, so there is often a real question about how they can provide a comprehensive social care service. I am not criticising individuals-I am simply relaying what we all know: many of our constituents who use local authority social care services are less than enthusiastic about their quality and are, therefore, all the more keen to hang on to national entitlements via the benefits system.

Attendance allowance and DLA are paid directly to individuals regardless of their personal circumstances, such as where they live, which makes the allowances an obviously desirable entitlement. As we have all said, recipients can spend the money as they wish. Those allowances have all the advantages of the individual budget-they are about empowerment, choice and control. The allowances have the important characteristics that we are saying the national care system should have in the future, so we should tamper with them only after we have come up with a very good reason for so doing. At the moment, it does not make much sense to move the part of the system that arguably works most successfully, given what disabled and older people expect from it, and that is why disability organisations, Age Concern and Help the Aged have expressed concerns.

Disability Alliance and the disability consortium-representing between 25 and 30 organisations-oppose the use of existing benefits to fund social care. Disability Alliance said:

"DLA and AA were intended to help with the higher costs of living disabled people and their families experience, and to help tackle the link between disability and poverty. We believe placing either or both of these funds in the pool for Local Authority distribution could cut support and restrict choice and control for many disabled people."

We should listen to what Disability Allowance has to say.

Age Concern and Help the Aged said:

"If the idea to stop AA is taken forward, it will mean that many older people will be worse off than they are now."

We should take that seriously- [ Interruption. ] Despite the provocation from those on the Opposition Front Bench, we should still take that comment extremely seriously indeed.

Finally, we all recognise that the Institute for Social and Economic Research is an organisation that has no political agenda; it produces reports and analyses by experts in the field. Its response was:

"Since the need for 'care'...is the main criterion governing eligibility for the benefits, it is sometimes assumed that the money is intended to pay for care. On the other hand, the past governments that introduced these benefits made it clear they were intended to contribute to the general extra cost of living faced over the long haul by disabled people and their families-extra heating, special diets, the incidental costs of hospital visits and so on-not necessarily on caring services."

Others have made that point this afternoon. The ISER continued:

"Standard of living indicators suggest that the current benefits do little more than compensate disabled people and their families for the extra costs associated with disability. A reduction in their cash incomes is likely to lead to an increase in deprivation."

The significant additional resources needed for the national care system should come from general taxation. I do not believe that one group of disabled people should be required to pay disproportionately for care and support for another group of disabled people. It is a responsibility that all citizens should share. My concerns, therefore, are that we might end up damaging the most successful part of the current system, which is the national entitlements via the benefit system, and that the proposal may not be fair.

The truth is that we will not know the detail that might be in the White Paper until we see the White Paper. Indeed, a number of questions have been raised, not least by the right hon. Member for Charnwood, to which I suspect we will not get clear answers this afternoon, and I hope that that is for a good reason. I hope that it is because the Government are considering carefully the submissions that were made to the Green Paper as part of the consultation exercise.

Yes, I signed early-day motion 1, and I did so for the simple reason that I agree with it. However, I am afraid that I shall not support the Opposition motion before us, and I shall not do so for two reasons. Sixteen Opposition Members signed the motion, and a number of them did so yesterday. I have great respect for the views of many Opposition Members, and I make no personal comments, but it is not good enough for a political party to use the early-day motion as a bandwagon on which to jump and bash others when three handfuls of its Members actually put their names to the relevant motion. When they also go around making statements, as they have explicitly done, saying that the Government are taking away disability benefits, despite no such decisions having been made, I think that that is outrageous. That was not in the statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who was here earlier this afternoon, and I have it in front of me.

So, I shall not support an Opposition motion that has been presented in that way. The Government's amendment explicitly states that no decisions have been made, and I welcome that. It states also that they will take into account the consultation exercise and the submissions that have been made. The Government are not setting out to frighten people, and for that reason I shall support their amendment. That is no guarantee, however, that they can always rely-on every conceivable occasion-on such unqualified support.

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