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Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:53 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Lord Rix Lord Rix Crossbench 5:53 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, first, I must apologise for being absent from your Lordships’ House for the last 18 months, but a touch of cancer, a pleural effusion and other ghastly things which can happen to people approaching their 92nd birthday have, understandably, kept me otherwise occupied.

It is of course people with a learning disability with whom I am most concerned. While there are some things to welcome, a number of clauses in the Bill will hurt many people with a learning disability, together with their families and carers. There are 1.5 million people with a learning disability in the United Kingdom and, while we have come a long way in building a more inclusive society, understandably many are on the margins, few are employed and many live in poverty or close to it. The Government have said that they will protect vulnerable and disabled people, and indeed it was clear in the Conservative manifesto that that was their intention, but I fail to see how the Bill meets that commitment.

One should of course give credit where credit is due, and it is extremely welcome that the Government have chosen to protect the disability living allowance and its replacement, the personal independence payment, from these cuts. Many people with a learning disability rely on these payments to make ends meet. However, those with mild and moderate learning disabilities are not always in receipt of DLA and PIP and so would be adversely affected by the benefit cuts and benefit freeze. The majority in this group are on employment and support allowance, a benefit specifically for people found unfit for work on account of their disability or illness.

Regrettably, the Bill also proposes cutting employment and support allowance for new claimants in the work-related activity group by around £30 a week. Currently, there are half a million sick and disabled people in this group, almost a quarter of a million of whom have mental health problems, autism or learning disabilities. These are people found unfit for work, albeit encouraged to take steps towards work, training and the like. Cutting their benefits from £102 to £73 a week is going to have a huge impact on this group. Fewer than one in 10 people with a learning disability are in work and are reliant on this much-needed income in order to make ends meet.

The Government have stated that the cut is to remove financial disincentives to work. This seems to imply that people with a learning disability are living a life of luxury on benefits, free from the desire to work.

This is, frankly, insulting. There are of course barriers to work for people with a learning disability, ranging from employer attitudes to a lack of support in finding work, integrating and staying in work. The Government have pledged additional money to support people into work by the end of this Parliament, which is a welcome commitment. I hope that the Minister can confirm that a proportion of this money will be spent on those with significant barriers to overcome, including those with a learning disability.

I look forward to Committee on the Bill. Alas, I do not know how much of a role I will be able to play in the House over the coming debates, but I certainly hope that my colleagues will speak on behalf of those with a learning disability if I am unable to do so.

In conclusion, I wish to ask a question to which the Minister may find it a little difficult to give an honest answer. Where is the evidence that cutting benefits results in more people with a learning disability getting a job? I rest my case.