New Clause 2

Welfare Reform Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 3rd March 2009.

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Disability living allowance: mobility component

‘(1) Section 73 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (c. 4) (the mobility component) is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (1), after paragraph (b) insert—

“(ba) he falls within subsection (2A); or”.

(3) In subsection (1A)(a), after “(b)”, insert “, (ba)”.

(4) After subsection (2), insert—

“(2A) A person falls within this subsection if—

(a) he is blind; and

(b) he satisfies such other conditions as may be prescribed.”.

(5) In subsection (5), after “(2)(a)”, insert “or subsection (2A)(a)”.

(6) In subsection (11)(a), after “(b)”, insert “, (ba)”.’.—(John Robertson.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause is self-explanatory and needs little introduction, but the clarity and familiarity of the issue should not obscure the justness of the case and the need to right a long-standing wrong. The new clause would amend the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 to enable a blind person to qualify for the higher rate mobility component of the disability living allowance, which that Act excludes them from unless  they are also physically unable to walk. It is easy to see why that exclusion does not make sense, and more than 300 MPs have signed up to support this change. There is also overwhelming support among the general public, with more than 90 per cent. of people believing that those who are blind should be eligible for the higher rate of mobility component. The groundswell behind the new clause is down to the work of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, and I pay tribute to its campaigning on this issue and many others, and on its work across the board as a charity. I have worked on welfare reform issues for a number of years, and it has never failed to impress me.

This anomaly—the way in which the DLA works—from the 1992 Act must surely have been a mistake and an unintended consequence that such Committees must root out. They were probably difficult times back in 1991 when the issue was first discussed, but that is no excuse for successive Governments’ not righting the wrong. Despite facing some of the biggest, and often most insurmountable, barriers to independent mobility, blind people were denied the higher rate of mobility support, which was limited to those who face physical barriers to getting around. That means a difference of £29 a week for a blind person on the lower rate of mobility component, or more than £1,500 a year. There is no good reason for discriminating between someone who faces physical barriers of mobility and someone who is unable to move around safely and independently owing to blindness.

The case of one of my constituents, Mr. Alan McDonald, highlights the paradox. He has been blind from birth and faces huge hurdles to getting around. He is unable to use public transport because of difficulties getting on and off buses and trains, and either he needs to spend other benefits, which are meant to provide other support, on taxis, or he is forced to rely on his sister for lifts to where he needs to go. Otherwise, he stays at home. His blindness is not his only barrier to mobility. He is currently awaiting a second kidney transplant and will, in a few months’ time, undergo surgery for hardening of the arteries. Despite all those difficulties, he has been told on several occasions that he simply cannot qualify for the higher rate because he is physically able to walk. The barriers that he faces are just as great as those for someone who is not able to walk, however, and it is nonsensical to pretend otherwise. Blind people like him feel justifiably angry about this discriminatory and unfair treatment by the DLA system.

Equality is not the only reason why we need to make this change, however. Without the freedom that independent movement brings, it is all too easy for blind people to become isolated and excluded from society and the leisure and activities that they value. It also affects them at the most basic level, preventing access to essential public services such as hospitals.

That exclusion is also played out in employment. Two thirds of working-age people with sight loss are not in work, and a Leonard Cheshire Disability report in 2003 found that visually impaired people are the group that is most adversely affected in that respect. Yet, that group is denied additional assistance. If we are serious about  improving the employment rate for disabled people, surely we need at least to ensure they can get to an interview in the first place.

At the RNIB lobby of Parliament in October, the Minister with responsibility for disabled people spoke in very positive terms about “how” and “when”, rather than “if”, blind people would be given access to that component. I understand that costing and conditions for eligibility have been carried out by the Department, and I suggest that the new clause, and the Bill, offer the perfect response to both questions that the Minister raised.

I remind Members that about 26,000 people in the UK have no useful sight for orientation purposes, and I would challenge anyone to say that such people do not face some of the most significant barriers to getting around. It is time that the mobility component of DLA lived up to its name, and it is time for us to live up to blind people’s expectations.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West and the RNIB on the new clause. We can all support it, because as he says, it would right a wrong.

The key point about the proposal is that people will become eligible for, rather than have an automatic entitlement to, higher rate DLA. The discrimination at the moment is that people are ineligible for the higher rate and can qualify only for the lower rate. It should be left to the normal processes of medical assessment to decide. Why should someone who is physically handicapped be eligible for an award when someone with a sight impairment is not?

The sums of money that the DWP spends on this annually are quite small—£45 million for 22,000 people. That was the figure that was given to the RNIB. It is a comparatively small amount of money in global terms, even if all 22,000 people automatically qualify. The caveat is that people will not automatically qualify. They will have to demonstrate that their disability means that they qualify. That that does not apply is the injustice that blind people feel at the moment.

I have been given an example by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). A 14-year-old boy in his constituency had had an accident when he was nine and had ended up being severely disabled, with poor eyesight. He was initially given the higher rate, which meant that his mother qualified for a Motability vehicle, which she has used to take him around. He is now able to walk but his sight has not improved, and following a reassessment he now gets the lower rate. His mother will therefore lose eligibility for the Motability vehicle.

In our view, these decisions should not depend on which rate a person is on; they should be based on a proper assessment. The fact that the boy became ineligible for the higher rate caused the mother to lose eligibility. The key point is that blind people should be eligible—we are not saying that they would all automatically qualify. A number of hon. Members back such a change—as the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West said, more than 200 Members signed various early-day motions in the past two years—and there is a very strong feeling across the House that this is the right time for a change. The Bill would be considerably strengthened in a number  of ways if the Government accepted the new clause. I am sure that people would be very pleased if the Government accepted such a positive measure.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I simply want to flesh out what the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West said about the definitions. He referred to the phrase, “no useful sight for orientation purposes”, which the RNIB used. For the benefit of the Committee, in a written answer, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, said that

“during helpful discussions with the RNIB they have suggested that...no useful sight for orientation purposes...could be interpreted as meaning that a visually impaired person would have: no perception of light; perception of light only; perception of hand movement; or...‘total’ or ‘extensive’ loss of visual field. Using these definitions of visual impairment we estimate that, if implemented in 2010-11, we would require additional annual benefit expenditure of around £45 million to extend the higher rate”.—[Official Report, 23 February 2009; Vol. 488, c. 57W.]

I await the Minister’s response.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Disabled People; Minister for the South East), Department for Work and Pensions 12:30 pm, 3rd March 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West on the new clause. All members of the Committee will agree that he put forward a compelling and passionate argument for such an important change. He has a track record of campaigning for blind and visually impaired people, both in his constituency and further afield.

I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale for bringing forward a case on behalf of the hon. Member for Twickenham, and the hon. Member for Forest of Dean for setting out the information that I was able to supply. His lack of comment about whether he supported the proposal was deafening. Perhaps we will hear at a later stage whether he and the Conservative party have an opinion on this.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Disabled People; Minister for the South East), Department for Work and Pensions

And we listened to the hon. Gentleman’s very succinct remarks, which offered no opinion. I invite him to intervene to give me an opinion. There we are, we have heard the opinion of the Conservative party.

Perhaps I can bring some context to this. Some 65,000 people who receive disability living allowance are recorded as having a sight impairment as their primary disability. Of those, around 58,000 receive the lower rate mobility component and around 4,600 the higher rate. The DLA is clearly working for a great number of visually impaired people. Having said that, the Government are sympathetic to the call for change, specifically regarding the rules on entitlement to the higher rate mobility allowance.

I have a personal commitment to this. One of the first things that I did on becoming Minister for disabled people was to review some of the correspondence that the Department had received. I found a letter to the Secretary of State dated 22 August last year that told my right hon. Friend that he should read the enclosed letter from Ms Karen Osborn, the chief executive of KAB Sight Centre, and that asked for comments on the issues raised in that letter. It also said that reassurances would be welcomed that the Department was determined to end the exclusion of blind people from this important  extra cost benefit when they face some of the greatest barriers to independent mobility. The letter was signed “Jonathan Shaw MP”, the Member of Parliament for Chatham and Aylesford. That puts my activity as a constituency Member of Parliament on record. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) subsequently wrote back because there were some discussions about costs. Hon. Members will remember that the original cost put forward by the RNIB was about £30 million per year. As we have heard, since work has been undertaken, there has been agreement that the cost would be about £45 million.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also confirmed his support by saying:

“The Government do not have any objection to it in principle. They totally understand the case that is being made.”

I am pleased to say that, in recent weeks and months, we have been able to work with the RNIB in the way mentioned by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean. I am enormously grateful for its work in engaging with us positively to find a workable solution. Although we have made huge progress in developing this measure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West knows, the issue is about finding funds within limited resources. Our priority at this time is to stabilise the economy and help people remain in or return to work. Any spending decisions in this context must be focused on a stable economy, businesses, supporting families and helping people to remain in or return to the labour market. Spending decisions at this time will clearly be difficult and must be taken in the context of continued pressure to deliver efficiency across the Government. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has alluded to these pressures.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I have been listening carefully to the Minister. Given that there is a process of people migrating from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance, and that a lot of work is going on to get people who may have been on incapacity benefit back into work, does he not accept that some savings are going to be made? They could be passported over to this particular group, thus enabling this wrong to be righted.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Disabled People; Minister for the South East), Department for Work and Pensions

There are always competing demands for the DWP budget and I shall set out carefully the context on which we need to focus.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said on Second Reading:

“If we move forward with this, we will have to find the investment not only for now, but for the medium term, because a continuing commitment would be involved.”—[Official Report, 27 January 2009; Vol. 487, c. 186-87.]

As has been said, we now estimate that the additional benefit expenditure would be about £45 million per year, with a £12 million administrative spend in the first year alone. However, we estimate that the ongoing costs of administrating the change would quickly fall to around £2 million per year, although we would still need to find resources to cover at least £45 million a year and rising in the years going forward. Funding on such a scale could not be found from this Bill’s measures. While the Government fully recognise the intentions behind the new clause, accepting it without having the funding to support it would require us to withdraw funding from elsewhere in the benefit system.

Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Rochdale suggested in terms of incapacity benefit, hon. Members will know that we are increasing Access to Work over the next few years. That is assisting many people—blind people, in particular—by enabling them to get into work. We want to continue to work with RNIB and the partner organisations to ensure we do all that we can for blind and visually impaired people. I anticipate that some of my comments will disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West and, indeed, other members of the Committee. We cannot, at this stage, provide substantive support for the new clause. However, I assure him and the Committee that we will continue to look at the matter.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

Will the Minister give us an indication of what time scales we are talking about?

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Disabled People; Minister for the South East), Department for Work and Pensions

I am not in a position to be able to give the Committee a time scale. When we are in a position to finance a change to the rules, we are firmly committed to make that change an urgent priority and to do so at the earliest possible time. Given that assurance, I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West will withdraw his new clause.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

My hon. Friend started by saying that I gave a compelling and passionate argument, although it was obviously not compelling and passionate enough. He is absolutely right that I was disappointed by what he had to say. My head says I should press the new clause to a Division because I know right is on my side. However, I am going to overrule my head in this case and think about going away to fight another day. I want to ensure—and I say this to the Minister as a promise, not a threat—that such a measure goes through in this House, not the other place. I believe that if the other place considers such a measure, it will go through there. However, it is important that elected representatives make this decision. I want our House to agree to such an amendment, so with the promise that I will return to this on Report, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.