Disability Benefits and Social Care

Part of Opposition Day — [2nd Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 20th June 2012.

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Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 3:30 pm, 20th June 2012

I agree, and when I was a Minister in Northern Ireland with direct responsibility for benefits, I saw every day of my working life the high proportion of people in receipt of benefits, particularly disability living allowance. That was a result of our divided and conflicted society and a legacy of the conflict itself, because we had a high proportion of people with mental illness. The new policies do not take that on board.

The Department’s subtext is clear—a presumption that many people receiving benefits do not need them. The Government claim that they are restricting the new benefit arrangements to those who need them most, but surely benefits should be granted simply to those who need them, without qualification. That is what any notion of the big society should be based on.

One of the main problems with the work capability assessment for employment and support allowance is the reasonableness of the mobility test. The test is whether a person can mobilise

“unaided by another person with or without a walking stick, manual wheelchair or other aid if such aid can reasonably be used.”

I know of constituents who have arthritis in their back, hips, legs and feet but are physically able to use a wheelchair. The test is hypothetical; even if a person has never been assessed for such a mobility aid, and such an aid has not been considered by their medical professional, they can be considered able to mobilise, despite their having a serious medical condition that would prevent them from mobilising without a wheelchair.

The incongruous element of the test is that, in many cases, a medical professional would not recommend a manual wheelchair for a condition such as arthritis, as it is a hugely life-changing and extreme intervention on someone’s mobility. Frustratingly, without the wheelchair element of the mobility test, many people with a physical illness would meet its criteria.

I am aware from constituents’ experiences at appeal tribunals that legal professionals also struggle with the lack of clarity on “reasonableness”. Such serious problems have left many facing uncertainty, which can cause severe stress to people who already face incredibly challenging circumstances.