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Disability Benefits (Single Assessment)

Volume 461: debated on Wednesday 20 June 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a single assessment process for disability benefits; and for connected purposes.

Disability benefits are complex and convoluted; they are not something that any rational person would want to spend a huge amount of time trying to understand unless they had to do so, but 6 million disabled people in the UK have to do just that, including up to 400,000 families with disabled children. For them, the benefit system is simultaneously a lifeline and a nightmare. I suggest to the House that it is time we did better.

I will not test Members’ patience by going into enormous detail about the complicated differences in eligibility criteria for the disability living allowance, the attendance allowance, the disabled facilities grant, the community equipment fund, the carer’s allowance, the independent living fund, the industrial injuries disablement benefit and incapacity benefit. I wondered whether the complexity of the system might be a function of the complexity of disability itself; but why, when we spend £26 billion annually on benefits for disabled people, are there so many complaints?

There are complaints from taxpayers who, despite the fact that they want their money used to support the most vulnerable people in society, constantly read stories in the media about disability benefits being claimed by people who are patently not disabled. There are also complaints from disabled people themselves, who all too often have to put up with a system that lets them down, frustrates them and humiliates them by asking them to repeat information about their disability a thousand times over, squandering money on official error, waste and fraud, and all too often failing to reach the very people it most needs to reach: those most at risk of falling into and becoming trapped in poverty.

In my research, I discovered that most unusual of things in modern politics: a relatively simple solution that does not cost any money. I will return to that later, but first let me give the House an example of the crazy complexity of the current system. A couple of weeks ago, I met a man who, a few years earlier, had been going to the shops with his daughter. He was walking along his local high street when a car careered off the road and crashed into him. He was carried some distance. Fortunately, his daughter was unharmed, although she had severe psychological trauma, but he ended up in a coma and when he came round he had an acquired brain injury. As a result, he was unable to continue with his job. Someone in that situation is eligible for up to eight different benefits. If he were to apply for them all, he would have to answer a total of 1,275 questions over 352 pages.

Let me put that in context. An A-level student doing maths, physics and chemistry has to answer 510 questions. Someone applying to do a masters in law at Harvard has to answer 54 questions. So, our welfare state, which is supposed to be the pinnacle of a civilised society, makes a man with an acquired brain injury answer more questions than our brightest A-level students or our most ambitious lawyers. That cannot be right. I wondered whether, because disabilities are complicated, we needed to ask all those questions, but in fact 80 per cent. of the questions are repeated. A third of the questions are repeated twice and a quarter are repeated four times. Think not about the waste of employing Department for Work and Pensions officials to process the same information over and over again. Think not about how that money could be put to much better use. Think instead of the man with an acquired brain injury and the signal that this sends to him about our willingness as a society to help him piece his life together. Think also of those parents who discover that they have a child with severe disabilities and the signal it sends to them that we ask them to answer more questions than if they were applying for a mortgage, a credit card or a bank account.

The most pernicious outcome of the complexity is not the frustration that it causes disabled people; it is the fact that it makes it so difficult for them to get back into the world of work. All the benefits have different rules about how much work someone is and is not allowed to do. On incapacity benefit and carer’s allowance, one can earn £87 a week. On income support, it is £20 a week. On housing benefit, after £20 a week, a person’s benefit is deducted at a marginal rate of 65 per cent. On council tax benefit, it is 20 per cent. The result is that for many disabled people the simplest and safest thing is not to work. That leads on to another problem: poverty. We know that, according to the Government’s preferred measure, child poverty is increasing. A third of parents of disabled children say that they are put off applying for the disability living allowance because of the complexity of the application form.

My Bill will not solve all those problems at a stroke, but it will transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people by requiring the Department for Work and Pensions to get its computer systems to talk to each other, so that, if a disabled person consents to it, they need only supply information about their disability once and that can be used across all the different benefit streams. Every year, the Department for Work and Pensions processes 7.2 billion questions from disability benefit applicants. Nearly 6 billion of those are repeated questions. This measure will save money in administration costs, but, more importantly, it will save huge frustration and aggravation for disabled people.

The Government do not have a good record on technology projects. However, that should not obscure the fact that technology can transform the lives of the most socially disadvantaged. Why should the IT revolution benefit only the BlackBerry generation of adults or the MySpace generation of children? Why should it not benefit disabled people as well?

We cannot remove people’s impairments, but we can remove the obstacles that the state needlessly and carelessly puts in their way that make it more difficult for them to find a job, to live independently, or to hold their family together. Only once should disabled people have to supply information about their disability, unless or until that disability changes. Only once should a family with a disabled child have to supply information about that child’s disability, unless or until that changes. Only once should that information be processed by the Department for Work and Pensions. My Bill is a modest measure. It would not get us there all in one go, but it would allow progress to be made in the right direction. For that reason, I urge the House to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jeremy Hunt, Natascha Engel, Greg Clark, Malcolm Bruce, Michael Gove, Ms Sally Keeble, Stephen Hammond, Anne Milton, Mr. Graham Stuart, Mr. Stewart Jackson, John Penrose and Mr. Paul Goodman.

Disability Benefits (Single Assessment)

Mr. Jeremy Hunt accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for a single assessment process for disability benefits; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 128].