Disability Benefits and Social Care

Part of Opposition Day — [2nd Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 2:37 pm on 20th June 2012.

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Photo of Duncan Hames Duncan Hames Liberal Democrat, Chippenham 2:37 pm, 20th June 2012

We have certainly heard strong words in the debate, but a careful study of the motion suggests that it tells us about those areas on which the Opposition agree with the Government. It says that DLA “needs to be reformed” and that the work capability assessment, which was introduced in the final years of the Labour Government, is in “pressing need” of reform. It even suggests that the principle of the closure of Remploy factories is not in dispute, because I thought that the shadow Secretary of State, Mr Byrne, was asking whether now is the right time. There is also agreement throughout the House about the importance of recognising the contribution made by carers, and I suggest that such recognition is reflected by the £400 million that the Government found to support respite breaks for carers. We should clarify where there are points of disagreement.

All parties can agree that the Government’s aim should be to create a system that ensures that every disabled person is treated with dignity and respect, and that they have access to the services and support that they need to fulfil their potential. That is reflected in the aim in the Government’s business plan, although we do not know what change of approach that represents. Despite difficult economic times, that remains the Government’s intention, and Liberal Democrats have already made a difference to the policies that can help to make that a reality. Although we support a cap on the total amount of benefits that a household can receive, we considered it vital that the cap was set at the right level, to protect those who are unable to work through disability or ill health. That is why Liberal Democrats welcomed the original exemption of DLA from the cap, but pressed further to exempt all those in the support group of employment support allowance as well, to which the Government agreed.

Liberal Democrats in the Lords amended the qualifying periods for the personal independence payment to match the existing qualifying periods for disability living allowance.

This should ensure that those who need support up front, perhaps to deal with the costs of a new condition, will get that support quickly. However, the principle remains that personal independence payments are a long-term benefit. On the Floor of the House I repeatedly highlighted a campaign in support of disability charities to get the Government to rethink—and ultimately abandon—the proposal to remove the mobility component from the disability living allowance of local authority-funded care home residents.

There is much on which we have been able to agree, but there is certainly still more work to do, especially on getting the work capability assessment right. Liberal Democrats support the plans of the independent reviewer, Professor Harrington, to develop new, evidence-based descriptors, covering chronic fatigue and pain, which would help better assess those with fluctuating conditions. During the exchanges earlier in the debate, I was amazed at the refusal to acknowledge that the work capability assessment as it was operating at the start of this Government barely two years ago was that created by the Labour Government. It relied too heavily on the contracted-out, face-to-face assessment performed by Atos, with decision makers just rubber-stamping a decision that Atos had made. I therefore welcome the Harrington proposals to give DWP decision makers more flexibility to look at evidence other than the Atos assessment in coming to their decisions.