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Disability Benefits for the Elderly

Part of Opposition Day — [1st allotted day] – in the House of Commons at 6:06 pm on 8th December 2009.

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Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Conservative, Norwich North 6:06 pm, 8th December 2009

That is good to know. Earlier, the Secretary of State seemed to be having a Bill Clinton moment, in which we were not sure what the meaning of "is" was, or a Lewis Carroll moment in which the words were to mean what he said they were to mean. Perhaps instead it is one of those irregular verbs from a comedy programme that we all know and love, in which the Minister proposes a policy, we scrutinise it and the people outside think that the Government are in chaos. I would not want anybody to think that.

People receive attendance allowance or DLA because they need it. Many of us have pointed out that those benefits are based on need, not means, and that is an important point. Age Concern, which does great work in Norwich and Norfolk as a whole, as it does across the country, supports those benefits because they help older people to meet the daily living costs of disability. There is no question in anybody's mind that these benefits are undeserved or that they should be tossed around as discretionary options. In fact, they are essential to anybody's idea of social justice.

People in my constituency use those benefits for vital daily activities, such as assistance with washing, dressing or eating. They use them to carry on life in an enjoyable and meaningful way, and we all agree about that-the Minister nods again. A younger constituent came to my surgery on Saturday: he is totally blind, and he uses DLA to get around the city. He is another example of those who use it for enabling activities.

I recently met with carers and I hosted a web chat on Friday for a forum called Chill 4 Us. I spoke online with carers who, day in and day out, give up their time to care for others. Their passion on this issue was clear and powerful. None of them wants to lose DLA and AA because they need and appreciate them greatly as cash benefits. Sadly, however, I got the impression that the only chance they have to say that is through such virtual forums-we were there tapping away. That is one of the difficulties in this debate. It can be very constricting for people who need us to take the subject seriously and treat it with respect and maturity. Quite simply, living with the kind of care needs for which DLA and AA cater is hard and can be expensive. They are needs-based benefits. It is one small piece of help that society can give, so it should hardly be controversial to say, "Let's not abolish something that the elderly, disabled or ill need and value."

I want to highlight the vulnerability that comes with such need. Fooling around with such benefits carries a weighty risk. A younger constituent aged, say, 35 might be able to plan for the future if changes are made to the system now. Many today have mentioned the needs of the future cohort; from what Ministers have said, it seems that today's cohort might be fine. However, the many people who receive DLA or AA after 65 might be less able to accommodate change. In many cases, they have made financial choices for their retirement that leave them and their families little room for manoeuvre. In other cases, people are already living on precarious means-we have heard plenty of figures today-and the abolition, if enacted, could represent a loss of up to £60 a week. That would be serious in many cases.

Some recipients of DLA and AA are physically ill or disabled, and their lives could become severely restricted without that assistance. People suffering from dementia or other mental illnesses, too, are particularly vulnerable to change. Making any changes that affect those social groups is difficult and complex. Getting the change right is paramount, and of course we are all taking that seriously today. However, debating the changes without causing immense anxiety is another thing entirely. The uncertainty generated by the Government's proposals in July's Green Paper has caused enormous concern and distress for people who are already vulnerable. Many Members have recounted what they have heard in their constituencies.

Forgive me for saying this, but it is incumbent on the Government to exercise caution and clarity in their approach. We also need flexibility and personal and local control at the end of whatever proposal emerges. I am sure that no one has an argument with a system that aims to be fair, simple and affordable. That is wonderful. However, we have serious concerns about a system that removes or reduces older people's ability to choose what to do. Choice and control must shine through any reforms that we make to the care system.

By choice and control, we mean the support that people need to choose how they overcome their concerns in their own way. Abolishing AA and DLA is a serious risk to such individual control. I would like a Minister to explain the paradox clearly. If the wording that has rather tortuously been made available still leaves open the option of abolishing AA and DLA, we need to know why the Government think that that maintains choice and control for individuals. That question is still on the table.

I would also like Ministers to explain, even after today's twists and turns, a policy that seeks to reallocate a cash benefit that grant money to people who need it and allows them spend it how they want, and to add it instead to a nationalised system that could simply eat it up through the weight of bureaucracy.

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