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Benefit Entitlements (Joanna Cranfield)

Volume 521: debated on Tuesday 11 January 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Dunne.)

In the Christmas Adjournment debate I raised the case of Joanna Cranfield and I asked the Deputy Leader of the House to bear in mind three specific issues concerning Miss Cranfield’s circumstances. I am delighted that during the period between my raising the case and tonight, one of those issues has already been dealt with satisfactorily.

Joanna Leigh Cranfield is a 17-year-old young lady who is an exceptional swimmer. She is an up-and-coming talent whom I very much hope will represent the United Kingdom in next year’s Paralympics. Joanna was born with her left lower arm and hand missing. Also, her left clavicle is short and twisted, which results in her having a dropped shoulder and a slight curvature of the upper spine. Despite all that, Joanna is, as one might expect, an extremely attractive and glamorous young lady. As a result of the challenges I have mentioned, Joanna suffers from repetitive strain syndrome in her remaining right hand and wrist from overuse. On top of those difficulties, she also suffers from a condition known as pump heel or foot spurs—an abnormal growth of the bone that in turn makes the tendon in her legs short and tight. For that condition, Miss Cranfield has had to undergo an operation to remove part of the deformed bone in her heel. Further to all those conditions, Joanna is under the care of Moorfields eye hospital for light-sensitive eyes and poor 3D vision, which results in her having trouble with depth perception and other abilities that healthy eyes grant, which most of us take for granted.

I am only too well aware that there are hundreds of everyday tasks that Joanna cannot do, but the things she can do she does exceptionally well. Her swimming ability is an example to every one of us and I repeat that I strongly hope she will represent us in next year’s Paralympics. She has achieved British records in the swimming pool at a number of different distances within the S9 category, including the 1,500 metres long course and short course, the 800 metres short course, the 400 metres short course and the 200 metres short course. She is a highly competitive swimmer in breast stroke, butterfly and back stroke. How anyone can do all that with one arm beggars belief, but Joanna can. She is a very talented swimmer, and I strongly hope that the Minister will intervene and have a word with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport to see whether there is any way in which Joanna, with her particular talents, can be given some sort of funding. Also, if anyone out there has a little extra money in these challenging times and wants to help a Paralympian to achieve her goals, I hope they will help her.

Joanna has received numerous awards for sporting achievement. This year alone she was given the Paralympic hopeful award from the Essex Disability Sports Academy and was named the disability sports personality of the year 2010 in the Rochford district sports awards. Despite her remarkable sporting success, it is clear that Miss Cranfield has a disability that is a great hindrance to her everyday life. For the past five weeks, I have been able to use only one arm, which has presented all sorts of challenges that I had not anticipated. For a young lady such as Joanna, all sorts of tasks, such as grooming her hair and looking after her personal needs, will be jolly difficult. Having met Joanna and her mother on several occasions, the last thing that she wants to be perceived as is disabled. That said, if there is anything at all that can be done through my hon. Friend’s departmental responsibilities, Joanna and her family would be very grateful. I hope that our welfare system can help someone in Miss Cranfield’s position.

I understand all the arguments about the fact that there has to be a cut-off point, but why, on Joanna’s 16th birthday, were almost all the benefits that she received relating to her disability suddenly stopped? I would hope—again, I understand that there has to be a cut-off point, and when someone is 16, they can get married, fight for their country and all those things—that if under the system that is in place, funding has to stop, there would be other sources of funding to help her with her needs.

I return to my opening point, on which success has been achieved. Joanna had been awarded a blue badge and, without wishing to delay tonight’s debate, for all sorts of reasons she lost it when she turned 16. I had a number of exchanges with the Minister in the Department for Transport, more or less to no avail, but I have received a letter, dated 4 January, from Southend-on-Sea council that says that it has looked carefully at the legislation and has found that there is some leeway. I am delighted that Joanna has been awarded a blue badge, at least for the next three years, which is a cause for celebration. May I tell colleagues in other parts of the House that if Southend can do it, regardless of party politics, I very much hope that other local authorities will use the same leeway.

I acknowledge Joanna’s courage, what she is doing, her energy, ability and drive. It is obvious, however, that Government Departments need to be flexible. Is it the opinion of the hon. Gentleman, and perhaps of the House, that that should be the case? Not everything is black and white—there are in-betweens and grey areas, and this is clearly such a case.

I am a Government supporter, and the hon. Gentleman slightly challenges me. All I would say is that the two letters I received from the Minister in the Department for Transport stuck to a pretty heavy briefing. I will not enlarge on that any further. However, I challenged the local authority on it, and I am delighted that it found a way through. This is not the responsibility of the Minister responding to this debate, so it would be unfair for me to unload it on her, but I am sure that she will pass the message on to the Department for Transport, because it is utterly ridiculous that Joanna should have been denied a blue badge. I pay tribute to Southend-on-Sea council for finding a way through, and now it is up to all other local authorities, if they experience stonewalling from the Department for Transport, to find a way through the guidance.

Since Miss Cranfield was two years old, she had a blue badge, which was suddenly taken away from her at 16, but I am delighted that it has been restored. She also received disability living allowance at the middle rate, amounting to £47.10 a week; mobility allowance at the lower rate, amounting to £18.65; and carer’s allowance, amounting to £53.10 a week. Since she turned 16, all that has changed, and Miss Cranfield now receives only £18.65 a week. The reason given by the Department for Work and Pensions to Miss Cranfield’s mother was that as she was now an adult, she would have to learn to deal with her disability. I do not think for one moment that the Department meant that in an unpleasant way; I think it was saying that she had reached an age at which she basically had to get on with her disability and try to cope with it. It was argued that the condition would no longer be a factor. Her mother seemed to have got the impression that somehow the Department was saying that the disability would go away.

When the Minister replies, she will no doubt say that Joanna’s mother had misunderstood the point being made. However, I should tell my hon. Friend that in her last visit to my surgery, Joanna’s mother asked whether the Department was expecting her daughter’s arm to suddenly grow back; obviously, that would be a ridiculous proposition.

At a tribunal held in January 2010, Miss Cranfield, as was quite proper, was submitted to an intensive interview by a doctor, an occupational therapist and a judge. After the hearing, they decided that Miss Cranfield was not entitled to any further benefits aside from the £18.65 per week that she was already receiving. The main point of contention during the tribunal was that Miss Cranfield does not wear a prosthetic arm.

Joanna cannot have a functioning prosthetic arm as she retains part of an elbow—a floating, pea-sized piece of bone. As a result, doctors are unable to fashion a prosthetic arm with a working elbow. As such, Miss Cranfield can have only an inanimate prosthetic arm with no functioning capabilities. Her mother has brought the arm along to show me. I suppose it is like something that we would see at Madame Tussaud’s; it looks very good, with lovely finger nails and all the rest of it, but it literally does nothing at all.

Miss Cranfield has been advised that if she was prepared to have more of her arm amputated, a more functional prosthetic arm could be made for her. However, I understand that the risks are quite high, with the possibility of infection leading to major complications. The Minister will understand that Joanna wants to represent us at the Paralympic games, so she does not want to risk that sort of operation.

At the tribunal, unfortunately, that point was focused on, with one interviewer—apparently; I was not there—accusing Miss Cranfield of not wanting to help herself as she does not wear a prosthetic arm. Her current prosthetic arm, which does not do anything, cost £2,500. It was also said at the tribunal that she should have the operation, but I am sure that the House will understand why my constituent does not want that.

Miss Cranfield has further problems in her efforts to learn to drive. As she has only one arm, it is essential that she drives an adapted vehicle while learning. That is very expensive and she comes from a humble family that does not have the money. Again, I say to my hon. Friend that this issue is all about aspiration, and here we have a 17-year-old who has great aspirations. She does not receive disability living allowance, and that means that the organisation Motability is unable to help her with the cost of buying an adapted car or to help her find a driving school that can meet her needs. Again, she has been clobbered doubly and her ambition has been frustrated.

It is vital that this young lady is given whatever help we can offer. She will, I hope, represent our country in the Paralympics next year and she deserves our full support because she is a very brave young lady. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister if she will review Joanna Leigh Cranfield’s case again to see if there is some sort of common-sense approach that could be taken—this is not a matter of special pleading—to ensure that Miss Cranfield receives the benefits to which she is rightly entitled. I also ask the Minister to look further at the guidelines, so that we can ensure that all people who have one missing limb are not forced to go through the degrading process that Joanna has experienced. If there are no further benefits to which my hon. Friend can direct Joanna, I would welcome her thoughts on other lines of funding that may be available to Miss Cranfield to help her live as normal a life as possible.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) for bringing to the attention of the House the achievements of his constituent Joanna Cranfield. By securing the debate, he has been able to shed light on her remarkable achievements as a role model for young people in this country through her work as a swimmer. I recognise many of the challenges that disabled people can face, and that is what makes Miss Cranfield a truly remarkable young lady. I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in wishing her every success as she aims to compete in the pool at the 2012 Paralympics. It seems that she has achieved such successes thanks not only to her talent but to the support of her family, and we should recognise that.

I should perhaps have intervened on the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess). I am not sure whether his constituent Miss Cranfield will be representing England or Scotland. If it is England, may I say that Scotland also recognises her great achievements and truly wishes her well?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, which was well timed and well made.

However much we hope that Miss Cranfield will succeed in her sporting ambitions, I hope that hon. Members here this evening will understand that I cannot intervene to ask for any individual to be treated differently. Systems are in place to ensure that support is given fairly, and if an individual disagrees with a decision about the support they are awarded, they are given the opportunity to challenge it and ask for an independent appeal process to be undertaken.

The fact that this debate has been initiated illustrates a key concern about the disability living allowance and the widespread misunderstanding of how it is assessed. DLA is paid on the basis of the particular effects that a disability has on a person’s care or mobility needs in line with the Government’s very real commitment to the social model of disability. DLA is not paid because of a specific health condition. That approach enables decision makers who decide whether awards are made to take account of what can often be a complex set of health conditions that an individual may need to manage; my hon. Friend outlined the very complex set of conditions that his constituent faces.

I would like hon. Members to be aware that very important safeguards are in place to ensure that each case gets treated fairly on its merits. Such safeguards have been available to Miss Cranfield, although I am sure that hon. Members will understand that I cannot comment on the details of her case on the Floor of the House. When an award is made, people who are unhappy with a decision are fully entitled to have their assessment reconsidered by a different decision maker. That provides an opportunity for the case to be looked at afresh. If, after that review, an individual still feels that their case has not been treated in a satisfactory manner, they can ask for the decision to be considered by an independent appeal tribunal consisting of three members: a legally qualified chairman, a doctor and a person who has experience of the issues faced by disabled people, who may indeed themselves be disabled.

I think that everyone appreciates how DLA works, and the fact that it is based on the needs of the person and the need for help with all the everyday things in their life. Perhaps consideration needs to be given to the information given by the GP, the consultant and the families, which are key factors when it comes to making a decision. As I said earlier, this is not black and white: all the facts connected with an individual person have to be considered.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is absolutely right that those details need to be taken into consideration. Indeed, as part of the tribunal process an individual, and others, will have the opportunity to attend the tribunal and answer questions so that its members can hear first hand the real impact that a disability or a condition can have on that person’s day-to-day care and mobility needs—just the sort of thing that he outlines. If it is considered that the decision of the first-tier tribunal ignored any material facts, or that there was an error in law, the case can be referred to the upper tier for consideration.

Benefit rules are set out by legislation agreed by Parliament, and decision makers have to comply with legislation when considering an individual’s case. I am sure that Members will appreciate that it is entirely inappropriate for me, or indeed any other Minister or MP, to try to influence or intervene in cases going through those independent review processes.

My hon. Friend referred to the fact that Miss Cranfield was in receipt of DLA until she was 16, and then her case was reassessed. DLA benefit rules are different for children and adults, and the majority of DLA awards are reviewed at the age of 16, because as people move into adulthood they often learn to manage their disability differently. It is not unusual for a person’s care needs to change. Sometimes they significantly reduce, or they may increase, but they often change in some way and we need to take that into account. For children under 16 additional conditions must be met for DLA entitlement, so the conditions to which individuals are subject are different depending on whether they are below the age of 16 or above it. For children under 16, additional conditions will include the need for care, supervision or guidance when out of doors in unfamiliar places, which must be

“substantially in excess of the normal requirements of a child of the same age”,

or it must be the case that

“they have substantial requirements which would be expected of a younger child in normal health, but which wouldn't be expected in a child of their age”.

This case illustrates a number of drawbacks with the current DLA system. That is why we are so committed to reforming what we believe is an outdated benefit and replacing it with the personal independence payment, which is more clearly understood, more objective, and better focused on the disabled people who face the greatest challenges. We also propose to review entitlement more regularly so that disabled people can easily report changes that might affect their benefit entitlement. Currently, 140,000 people on DLA since 1992 have never had their claim looked at since being awarded the benefit. About 20% of all people on DLA have not had any contact with the Department in the past 10 years, during which their care or mobility needs could have changed significantly in either direction. We plan to introduce the new personal independence payment benefit in 2013-14. Crucially, the new scheme will include an objective assessment of individual needs, which is being developed in collaboration with independent health specialists, social care and disability experts, and of course, importantly, disabled people themselves.

My hon. Friend mentioned the blue badge. I am glad to hear that his local authority, which is responsible for assessing eligibility for the blue badge, has granted his constituent a blue badge at this stage, as it will be best placed to judge the local situation. I am pleased that at least that problem has been resolved.

The debate has highlighted a number of issues that affect disabled people, and I am grateful for the opportunity to focus on the positives, as well as the shortcomings, of the current system. The Government are committed to providing the support that disabled people, especially young adults, need to live active independent lives. I believe that we are putting the right support mechanisms in place to ensure that young adults can make a full contribution—not only through DLA reform but through other schemes such as the disabled students allowance, the disability employment adviser network in Jobcentre Plus, the disabled facilities grant, increased personalisation through right to control, and the access to work scheme. Also relevant to this case is the support provided to Paralympic athletes via UK Sport, which is investing nearly £10 million of public funds in Paralympic swimming for London 2012, from the national lottery and the Exchequer. The Government provide a network of assistance to young adults such as Miss Cranfield.

I have met colleagues across Government to ensure that we support disabled athletes as much as possible, particularly in the run-up to the Paralympics. I shall be happy to write, as my hon. Friend requested, to my counterpart at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—although that is not the Secretary of State—to ensure that Miss Cranfield is aware of the full support available to athletes in her position. I hope that hon. Members will back the Government’s work to enhance the effectiveness of support for disabled people of all ages. Many of us feel strongly that Paralympians can be incredible role models for both disabled and non-disabled young people in our community. It is important that they receive the appropriate support to reach their potential and to do their best, not only in the Paralympics but in other events.

I conclude by wishing Miss Cranfield every success in the coming months leading up to the Paralympics, and by recognising the remarkable support that she has received from her family and the broader community in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which has helped her to achieve her goals. Above all, I hope that we will see her achieve her ambition of representing our country at the 2012 Paralympics. I wish her the best of luck.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.