Disability Benefits for the Elderly

Part of Opposition Day — [1st allotted day] – in the House of Commons at 5:37 pm on 8th December 2009.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 5:37 pm, 8th December 2009

These are always good debates in which to take part, and it is a pleasure to follow Roger Berry, who knows and cares about this subject very deeply. I agreed with many of his later remarks, but I shall avoid the difficulties of the politics for a while. It is always, however, a pleasure to listen to him, as it is to listen to the Front Benchers and to my right hon. Friend Mr. Dorrell.

I make two comments based on my time as Minister for Disabled People. Many distinguished colleagues, such as the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Ann Keen, who is sitting on the Government Front Bench now, have followed me into that position. I remember someone asking me to do more as a Minister to ensure that people with disabilities could access polling stations. That happened early on in my time as Minister, and before the meeting I thought, "What's this about? Everybody has the right to vote, you can vote by post, it doesn't really matter if you can't physically go down to the polling station. You've still got the same right to vote. What's the point?" By the end of the meeting, I had got the point: there is a very early conversion for Ministers and Members who are involved with people with disabilities. They realise that, for those with disabilities, one of the most important things is to be able to do the things that everybody else does-without thinking about them, without it being a big deal-and to have the same access to things which everybody else takes for granted.

My second observation is to offer a memory of Nicholas Scott. I know that we are in the heat of battle and that the Secretary of State for Health gets well stuck into such encounters, but if he looks back at some of his previous press releases he may come to see that crass politicking-the phrase that he used-is reflected in them. No doubt it will feature in future press releases, too. Nevertheless, he gave an impression that Opposition Members either had an artificial interest in disability or did not care very much. Well, those who knew Nicholas Scott and worked with him in the House know how unfair that impression is. I remember talking to Nick about the independent living fund, the disability living allowance and other such issues. He said to me: "One of the great things about disability issues is that by and large there is a benevolent ratchet. It does not always proceed at the pace those in the disability lobby would like, but it moves inevitably to a position of greater individual choice and the opportunity to exercise more individual power. That is really important for people with disabilities. There is a process whereby we have moved from a position of giving things to people to their then being able to access them entirely of their own accord." I begin my remarks about the motion on that basis.

I do not dispute with Ministers the difficulty of dealing with this matter, nor the issue of quantum. It will be extremely expensive and difficult to manage this for the future-there is no argument about that. It is of course partly about how much money goes in, but it is also about how that money is applied and who has control over it. Serious questions have been asked about precisely what a national care service might mean, how it might be handled locally, and what power there will be for the individual. Those issues are at the heart of our discussions here and the confusion outside that has led so many individuals, including those from disability organisations, to raise the concerns that they have. No matter what politicians may have added in trying to develop the policy in one way or another, those fears are genuine and worrying. I will turn in a moment to some of the things we have heard today as supposed clarifications of the policy.

Let me quote from a letter from one of my constituents. It was produced at the time when the policy had been announced in the Green Paper and people were not sure where it was going, and it reflects a concern that we now know is met because existing benefit holders will not be affected. Nevertheless, it might just as well have been written today by somebody anticipating what the future may hold. I suspect that most of us have similar letters. My constituent wrote:

"At the moment my husband of 82 who is blind and has other health needs, receives attendance allowance at the highest rate. Taking away this allowance would affect greatly his quality of life. He is a very independent gentleman, one who would find it very difficult to allow people he is not familiar with to provide personal care. Because of the allowance he is able to arrange his own help and feel in control of what needs he wants met and not assessed by what social services consider to be his needs. I feel for an older person who remembers pre war conditions. He is unlikely to access services through a local authority, he feels this is going back to the 'State Control, and Work House mentality'. Going without these provisions would greatly affect his quality of life, and mine as I can pay for someone to sit with him for a break with caring."

On one of the websites that discuss these matters, a gentleman called Mick Hall says:

"My own Dad who has now sadly died fell into this category. His reasoning was two fold: before he became ill and frail he had taken responsibility for his life since he was a young boy. He also feared if he let people in through the door he might be taken off without his consent and placed in what he called in a disparaging manner 'a home.'"

When I spoke today to Yvonne Clark, the excellent chief executive of Carers in Bedfordshire, she reiterated that that fear about loss of control was of major concern to people. We have dealt with that a little bit today, or I think we have, in terms of what the policy is, but I am still not quite sure about that. It is important to know how we have got to where we are, and the Minister who winds up will have to clear up the confusion that appeared to exist before half-past 3 and about where we are now.

The Secretary of State almost used the words, "Read my lips-no cash losers." However, that is not what he was saying on 20 November; the quote is included in the excellent pack prepared by the Library. On the same day, Martin Green, chief executive of the English Community Care Association, said this about the Green Paper:

"There seems to be no coherent back story about how it is going to be funded, what the criteria are, how it interfaces with other aspects of the health and social care system, whether the money allocated will be enough, and if it isn't, what is going to be the price paid by other parts of the care budget".

On the same day, the Secretary of State was quoted in The Independent:

"Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary, accused the Tories of 'disgraceful scaremongering'"- that is his view, and he is good at saying so-

"in suggesting benefits could simply disappear. However, he admitted that the Attendance Allowance could be reformed to pay for broader changes in the future. He added that anyone who lost out would be compensated with an 'equivalent level of support'."

If the phrase "Read my lips-no cash losers" was on his mind then and always had been, and if it was never in any doubt, why did he not make it clear to The Independent that there would not be anyone who would be compensated with an "equivalent level of support", because no one would actually lose out? I am not certain that The Independent was contacted to say, "You've got this wrong".

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