Disability Benefits for the Elderly

Part of Opposition Day — [1st allotted day] – in the House of Commons at 6:20 pm on 8th December 2009.

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 6:20 pm, 8th December 2009

I want to concentrate on the proposal to abolish attendance allowance, apparently now only for new claimants, and disability living allowance for the over-65s. As we know, that would affect 2.4 million vulnerable pensioners, including 1.6 million who currently claim attendance allowance and 800,000 over-65s who are on disability living allowance. However, whatever happens to the current claimants, presumably we are talking about higher numbers in future, so those are the minimum numbers at least.

We have received various reassurances from Ministers in recent weeks and months. They have suggested that people will receive similar services, rather than money. Previously, we were told that

"people will be guaranteed an equivalent level of support".-[ Hansard, 19 November 2009; Vol. 501, c. 241.]

One of the problems in this debate is the lack of clarity about the phrase "equivalent level of support", because frankly it can mean absolutely anything to absolutely anyone. Laura Moffatt said that reassurances had been given, but the first reassurances that I heard were given yesterday, at Department for Work and Pensions questions. I am not sure when she thought she had heard reassurances before that.

Quite a lot of concerns have been expressed, not least today, about some of the statements that have been made and the phrases that have been used. The Secretary of State said that the present system was "not sustainable" and that the cost could rise by 50 per cent. A number of hon. Members, including Mrs. McGuire, have talked about a demographic time bomb, which Chloe Smith also mentioned. I feel that those statements are slightly over the top, because the reality is that we, as a Parliament, and the Government need to set priorities. The question is: what priorities are they to be? If we are saying that the present pot of money that looks after the elderly and vulnerable will continue to be the same pot, despite an increasing number in those groups, I would very much question whether that is the right priority.

Yesterday we received clarification that those already receiving the benefits in question would get

"the same level of cash support."-[ Hansard, 7 December 2009; Vol. 502, c. 6.]

The Secretary of State said today that he had "said it all along" and that there would be no cash losers. However, to reiterate what other Members have said, we did not really hear that, and it might have been helpful if he had said it a bit earlier. Although that statement seems to be reassuring, it still leaves new folk looking ahead and wondering what will happen if they do not receive attendance allowance in future. That seems to go in the opposite direction from the Welfare Reform Act 2009, in which I was involved in the Public Bill Committee. Great play was made of the right to control and all parties agreed on that.

I would like to make a number of points. The first is that attendance allowance and DLA do a lot of good. I should like to quote again-I have quoted from this before-from a paper that I received from SAMH-the Scottish Association for Mental Health. What SAMH says is probably typical of what a lot of similar groups would say. SAMH refers to the 194,000 people of working age in Scotland and the 145,000 over-65s who receive attendance allowance and to the 110,000 older people who receive DLA. The advantages that SAMH quotes are similar to those that we have heard about already this evening:

"For example, people with mental health problems can experience much smaller social networks and can feel isolated and alone. Anxiety may mean that a person feels unable to leave their home by themselves. People can choose to use their DLA to use a taxi to access social activities and cover the costs of an informal carer to provide the additional support and assistance needed. Without this additional support the person could experience greater anxiety and social isolation, increasing the potential of a period of hospitalisation or more intensive and costly community support."

SAMH also says:

"Disability benefits and free personal care enable older people in Scotland to remain independent in the community, providing older people with a personal budget to help with their care and support needs. This could include covering the costs of a friend or family member coming to the home in the morning to help the person get out of bed, prepare meals or do shopping and cleaning. Any changes to disability benefits could affect the provision of this care and support and result in an older person needing more costly forms of social care in the home, or lead to a person moving into residential care if they were not able to manage their household."

It has been said before, but it is worth re-emphasising, that much of the present system involves unpaid carers, of whom we hear a lot, and that the danger of just transferring even the same money to local authority or to any other control is that we will get less of a service.

I enjoyed being involved in the Public Bill Committee on the Welfare Reform Act 2009, in which other Members who are present were also involved. It is worth quoting again from the then Bill and from a clause in the part dealing with the right to control. It said:

"The purpose of this Part is to enable disabled people aged 18 or over to exercise greater choice"- not the present choice, but greater choice-

"in relation to, and greater control over, the way in which relevant services (as defined by section 31) are provided to or for them"

The Government seemed to be saying-and I agree with them-that they wanted to move in the direction of individuals having greater control over the services. However, what we are seeing now is a move towards less control. Nobody has explained to me-perhaps the Minister could explain this evening-exactly how those two things are meant to relate to each other.

Previously I asked-and would like to ask again-what would happen to the money in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Will it be handed over as a lump sum? Will attendance allowance be based on need or will it be based on the Barnett formula? Will it be open to the devolved Governments to continue with attendance allowance in Scotland and Wales, even when it is eventually phased out in England? I did not quite hear the Secretary of State's earlier answer, but if I understood him correctly, he said that he would brief the devolved Governments. I hope that he would go a little further than just briefing them and enter into a consultation with them on how the proposals might work out.

We have received the assurance that only new claimants will be affected, but that leaves a number of questions about the future. Who will be paying for the protection? Will the money go through the local authority or will it be transitionally protected under the social security system? Will it affect local authority budgets, and what happens if local authorities cannot or will not pay? Is the money inflation proof, or will it not be increased each year in line with inflation and thus gradually reduced in real terms? If that is good enough for existing recipients, why should other disabled elderly people not receive at least the same? We will end up with a two-tier system, and potentially for quite a long time.

What happens to people on the middle or high rate of DLA if they reach 65 after the new system is in place? Will they be protected or will they lose the benefit when they reach 65? The current protection appears to affect those on benefit at the time of change, not afterwards, but if so many people are to be protected, what is the point? Should we not continue with something much closer to the present system? What would the impact be on carer's allowance? It is not particularly generous at the moment, at £53.10, but if it is abolished, what will happen to someone who looks after a person who receives attendance allowance or DLA at the higher or middle rate? Similarly, will there be an impact on pension credit?

Locally, the Labour campaign against me often refers to how often I might vote with the Conservatives, but sometimes it forgets to say that, very occasionally, the Conservatives are right and the Labour party is wrong. I must admit that, in this particular debate, I remain suspicious of the Conservatives' motives. I am suspicious of what they might cut instead, if they are going to protect these benefits. However, it is hard to say that Labour has not moved further to the right of the Conservatives on this issue.

The Government have rightly given undertakings about DLA for the under-65s, and, yesterday, new reassurances that those receiving cash will continue to do so. I suggest, however, that it was cynical to get people this worried in the first place, and then apparently to give ground. In the longer term, how can it be right to change the system to give future claimants less control over their benefits?

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