Skip to main content

Disability Living Allowance

Volume 525: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2011

I will give colleagues leaving the previous debate an opportunity to sneak out—I am sorry that they cannot stay.

I am delighted to have secured this debate and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply and her comments on the wider issues that I am about to raise. There is probably no better place to begin debating disability living allowance than with the mobility component for blind people. An amendment that I tabled to the Welfare Reform Act 2009 and that will come into force in April will enable blind people to claim the higher mobility rate component of DLA. However, if the Government go ahead with the proposals in the consultation on a new assessment for DLA to remove the amendment that I successfully tabled to the 2009 Act, about 20,000 blind people across the UK could lose out. That means that 20,000 blind people in the UK, including 2,000 blind people in Scotland and 300 in my own city of Glasgow alone, could lose access to the higher rate mobility component DLA. That means they would lose at least £1,500 a year. That is a considerable sum for anyone, but it is a vital lifeline for blind people, who generally come from poor backgrounds.

The public consultation by the Department for Work and Pensions on DLA reform, which was published in December last year, raised concerns about the issue. The specific threat to the DLA mobility component appears in point 6 on page 4 of the document, which says:

“Currently individuals on DLA with certain health conditions or impairments are automatically entitled to specific rates of the benefit without a full assessment. We propose that for Personal Independence Payment there are no automatic entitlements, other than the special rules for people who are terminally ill. Instead, each case will be looked at individually, considering the impact of the impairment or health condition, rather than basing the decision on the health condition or impairment itself.”

Can my hon. Friend think of a way in which a blind person’s condition can improve? Why is there a need for a review?

My hon. Friend makes a good point and I will use a couple of cases as examples as I go through my speech.

On page 37 of the DWP consultation document, there is a list of automatic entitlements that the Government propose to remove, including one for blind people—the “severely visually impaired”. That entitlement was brought in as result of my amendment to the 2009 Act. The DWP consultation posed many more questions than it answered. We learned that the assessment for the new personal independence payment, which I will call “PIP”, will

“prioritise support on those individuals who face the greatest day-to-day challenges and who are therefore likely to experience higher costs.”

However, that wording was sufficiently vague that it could be overshadowed and interpreted in the light of other developments. Rules on eligibility would be restricted in such a way as to question the ongoing entitlement of disabled people in receipt of the lowest rates of the care and mobility components. PIP would consist of a mobility and daily living component, but unlike the existing care component, the new daily living component would comprise two rates, not three. An individual’s adaptation to their impairment would be taken into account in determining entitlement to PIP, presumably as a cost-cutting exercise.

I will not deal now with the plans to remove DLA mobility from individuals in residential care, as those plans were the subject of another Westminster Hall debate that was secured by the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams). I will simply add that it is reassuring that the Government will review mobility provisions for people living in care settings, but I still note the intention to remove DLA mobility for people in residential care in 2013, albeit one year later than originally proposed.

One of my most serious concerns relates to the Government’s plans to end automatic entitlement to DLA for people who clearly ought to have it, including the higher mobility component for people who have severe mental health problems, who are deafblind or are severely visually impaired. Individuals with those disabilities, along with people who are double amputees, automatically qualify for the higher rate, because they meet the strict criteria on the severity of their impairment.

That automatic entitlement is a clear and administratively efficient way of identifying disabled people with the highest level of mobility needs. In future, each case will be looked at individually, except the cases of people who are living with a terminal illness. Organisations for disabled people tell me that they do not believe that that is a sensible approach, as it will increase the costs of assessment while leading to the same outcome as the original system, and people with the most severe impairments will still receive the higher rate of benefit.

As I have mentioned, in three weeks’ time, more than 20,000 people in the UK with severe sight loss will be entitled, for the first time, to the higher rate mobility component of DLA and they will receive the extra £30 a week that they need in their pockets to maintain a decent quality of life. I tabled my amendment to the 2009 Act in the first place because of my strongly held belief that there is no good reason for discriminating between someone who faces physical barriers to mobility and someone who is unable to move around safely and independently as a result of blindness.

I want to tell the Minister about one of my constituents, as his case was the one that spurred me on to table the amendment to the 2009 Act in the first place. Alan McDonald has been blind from birth, has orientation problems and faces huge hurdles in getting around. He is unable to use public transport because of his difficulties in getting on and off buses and trains. Either he has to spend his other benefits on taxis, although they are meant to provide other support, or he is forced to rely on his sister to give him a lift to wherever he needs to go; otherwise, he has to stay at home.

Alan’s blindness is not the only barrier to his mobility. For example, when I tabled the amendment to the 2009 Act he was awaiting a second kidney transplant and was due to undergo surgery for hardening of the arteries. Despite all those difficulties, however, he was told on several occasions that he simply did not qualify for the higher-rate mobility component of DLA, because he was physically able to walk. Yes, he could walk—he could walk into wheelie bins, or into a set of traffic lights, or even into the middle of the road where he would be knocked down; but he could walk, so he did not get the money.

The barriers that Alan faces are just as great as those faced by someone who cannot walk, and the current situation is nonsensical. I believe that the Minister has to consider such things. It is unbelievable that somebody with such disabilities might not receive the higher rate of disability allowance in two years’ time, having finally received it after all these years.

Blind people such as Alan are justifiably angry about the discriminatory and unfair treatment that they receive, but they will feel even angrier and let down when the DLA mobility component, which comes into being in April, is taken away from them in just two years’ time. That will put them back to square one.

Many charities have contacted me because they are alarmed about the Government’s proposals. For example, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association is concerned about the proposal that PIP should replace DLA. In particular, the association is concerned about the proposal in the DWP report on DLA reform proposals to

“take greater account of aids and adaptations”.

Taking into account the use of aids and adaptations when assessing eligibility could inadvertently penalise an individual who uses such equipment to try to reduce some of the difficulties that they face as a disabled person.

I commend my hon. Friend’s campaign and the passion with which he is putting a very powerful case. Has he been contacted by the National Autistic Society? I ask that because there is enormous concern on the part of those who care for autistic people and those with family members who are autistic, as DLA is crucial for communication, travel and services for autistic people. It is crucial that access to DLA be retained for autistic people as well as for the other people whom my hon. Friend has mentioned.

I thank my right hon. Friend, who has more than a little reputation of looking after these people, both as a Minister and as a member of the previous Government. I congratulate him on the work that he has done. I have been contacted by so many groups that I could not possibly name them all in my speech today. If I miss any of them out, it is not because I want to do so, but because my speech is time-limited, but yes, I have received correspondence from the National Autistic Society and I thank my right hon. Friend for his input.

Any reduction in disability-related benefits simply because of someone’s access to equipment could significantly inhibit their efforts to lead a more independent life. Disability-related benefits enable people not only to live independently, but to participate in community activities. Such community engagement could include volunteering, which is a core component of the big society and could help someone to gain skills and experience that could enable them to go on to seek and obtain work.

Several wrong assumptions could be made about the effectiveness of aids and adaptations. They might work for some individuals, but others might struggle with them. Issuing someone with a cane or a low-vision aid such as a monocular, does not necessarily mean that that person will continue to use it, or use it correctly. Even if the aids and adaptations are used appropriately, they are likely to have only limited uses. For example, a liquid level indicator might help someone safely to make a hot drink, but it will not make it any easier for them to make a meal to go with that drink. How will the Government help these people?

I know of another gentleman, David Griffith from Walthamstow in London, who receives the mobility component of DLA because he is deafblind, like Alan. He uses his DLA to pay for taxis, and for other support in getting out and about. He also tries to walk in his local area, and has recently applied for a guide dog because he has had a few near misses with cars of late. However, having heard a feature on the BBC Radio 4 programme “In Touch,” he is now worried that becoming a guide dog owner might result in the removal of his DLA. Under the proposals, a guide dog would enhance his life and make him safer in one element of his mobility, but he would never have the independence that sighted people have. He would not be able to jump out of the way of the car that was about to hit him, and he might travel on a bus that he did not mean to get on in the first place.

Does my hon. Friend agree that something else that is hitting people is the proposed extension of the waiting period for DLA from three to six months? A constituent came to me who had been blinded in a road accident and was considering adaptations. He faced the cost of those straight away, and under the proposal he would have to wait even longer for the money.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. She is absolutely right, and perhaps the Minister could reflect on the impact of that increased period on people who do not have the extra time to wait. They need the money now, not in six months’ time. There is a danger that people like David will turn down help such as that provided through mobility training with a guide dog or a cane for fear of losing a benefit that they would still need, with or without the mobility aid. What does the Minister propose to do for Alan and David and people like them?

In conclusion, the Government state that 3 million people receive DLA and that the budget will reach £12 billion, and they draw the conclusion that the benefit is not fit for purpose. I wonder whether a better conclusion would be that the benefit rightly reaches the millions of people it is supposed to help. Reform might be necessary, and disabled people have expressed themselves on the changes they would like, not least shorter application forms in line with their disability and, of course, quicker receipt of the money. Are we not in danger, however, of going so far with the reforms that we lose sight of what DLA was originally set up for? DLA is there to assist people with disabilities that make life more expensive. It is there to help people stretch their incomes that little bit further, so that they can achieve the levels of independence and enjoy the opportunities that their non-disabled peers take for granted. Are we really saying that a fifth of today’s case load is no longer in need of that support? Have we really examined how the reforms will exacerbate disability poverty? Those questions are, in my view, central to this debate on the Government’s plans for DLA.

I hope that the Minister listens to and answers my questions. Let me reiterate some of them. Will the Government confirm that their intention is to revise this policy, which has been hard fought for and pursued over a number of years by parliamentarians on every side? Will the higher rate mobility component for individuals with severe visual impairments be awarded for just two years? Have the Government modelled the net loss of household income when individuals lose entitlement to DLA, and does their equality impact assessment acknowledge the lack of social care and other support for people with less complex needs? How much will that cost? What steps will the Government take to ensure that the assessment for PIP is not just a cost-cutting exercise but is fair and accurate, especially with regard to its suitability for people with fluctuating or mental health conditions, and those with lower-incidence conditions? At a time when the Government wish to tackle bureaucracy and simplify the benefits system, how can it make sense to insist that all disabled people, including individuals who evidently have severe needs, undergo regular reassessment?

I am calling for greater clarification on what impact the 20% cuts will have on determining who will be eligible for the new PIP and at what level. Will people who qualify for the lowest rate of DLA qualify for PIP under the new system? Will the Government ensure that those who qualify for the higher rate mobility component because they are deemed to have severe blindness can continue to receive PIP via that route? Finally, will a comprehensive training programme on blindness be made available for assessors for PIP? I look forward to the Minister’s answers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship of this very important debate, Mr Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on securing both the debate and the attendance of so many Members when the Budget debate is taking place in the Chamber. I welcome the opportunity to set out again some of the facts to counter some of the assumptions that have been made, not only by organisations but by some people who have been listening to the debate thus far. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s questions are answered in my comments, but if he feels that any of them need to be further investigated I will be very happy to do that with him separately.

I would first like to ensure that it is very clear to Members that the Government are not talking about a 20% cut in the current case load, but about ensuring that the budget for DLA is kept under control in the future, and that the rate of increase that we have seen—some 30% in the past eight years—does not continue as steeply. That is important, because the misunderstanding about how the budget works has caused great distress among my constituents, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and, I am sure, other Members’ constituents.

Will the Minister accept that the impression is that it is the budget and not the people who have the disabilities that will determine how much people get? It is not possible to budget for people with disabilities, but if we do we have to say, “We’re going to let only so many people get disability allowance.”

I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows that the Government have to make difficult decisions in many areas, not only regarding how much we spend to support disabled people. At a time of financial crisis, as a result of the problems with controlling costs under the previous Administration, we have to make tough decisions, but the decision that we have made is that we want to support the most vulnerable people through DLA and its successor, and also through many of the other benefits that we have. The introduction of universal credit will do a great deal to support those people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and in mine, who are disabled.

I shall just make some progress.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West has long battled to change how blind and severely impaired people are treated under the old DLA regime, and that serves as an excellent example of the shortcomings evident in DLA because of its complexity, poor targeting and inflexibility. I certainly applaud his determination to get the support that disabled people need. The failure of his constituent to get the support that he needed through DLA is a great example of why we need reform.

If the hon. Gentleman had not had to deal with the faulty framework of the DLA in the first place, it might have taken him slightly less determination, and slightly less than two years—some people might say less than 10—to make the changes in primary legislation and then in regulations that were needed to get the present measure supporting severely visually impaired individuals on the statute book. That is why we are taking a fundamentally fresh approach to dealing with that area of benefits through the personal independence payment, so that we can adjust it and the assessments through regulations in the first instance and maintain the flexibility required to ensure that the benefit reflects people’s experiences and is adaptable enough to cope with the dynamic nature of society’s response to disability.

The personal independence payment has been designed with the support of disabled people and specialists to provide an objective assessment and ensure that we can help disabled people overcome the barriers that they face to living full and independent lives. That means looking past broad categories of impairment and labels and instead treating people as individuals. In doing so, we must consider the impact of all disabilities: not only physical disabilities—some criticise the DLA for favouring people with physical disabilities—but the mental, cognitive and sensory impairments that many of us know need more support. The right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) mentioned individuals dealing with autism. Some people deal with multiple disabilities as well. That is the only way for us to deliver targeted benefit that is fair to all those who need extra help and who face the biggest challenges leading independent lives.

The personal independence payment also addresses yet another of the many weaknesses of DLA. The DLA assessment for the higher rate of mobility component, on which the hon. Member for Glasgow North West focused, is framed in the rather simplistic medical context of whether the person can walk. In practice, that means that people facing broader issues involving mental health problems, learning disabilities or sensory impairments such as blindness could be left, as they have been, disadvantaged under that narrow definition. With the introduction of PIP, what we want to ask is not simply whether people can walk but whether they can get out and about, plan a route and navigate from A to B, because that is the challenge that disabled people face.

I understand what the Minister is trying to say, but just because I can plan a route does not mean that I can go that route. We are trying to help people who have been assessed as unable to work, but who might be able to work if we can get them to the right place. My constituent Alan can work at a computer, but first he must get there, and the only way for him to do so is for somebody to be with him. He must get a lift, and he must be accompanied. If people have no one to do that for them or cannot afford a taxi, it cannot happen. The money that Alan gets is vital, and he is not alone. There are lots of people like him all over the country. Why must they be reassessed all the time? They know what they are like. They have been through the system already.

The hon. Gentleman raises several issues. DLA is not an out-of-work benefit. People in work can claim it, as they can claim access to work, which can also help them. However, I think his fundamental point is that we must recognise the true barriers that people face, not simply say that because they have a particular impairment they should receive a particular rate. We must understand the realities of their lives. He has made that point clearly on behalf of his constituent. I agree absolutely. That is how we are designing the personal independence payment. We are not saying that if somebody has a particular condition, their assessment should have a particular outcome; we are doing what he has done and considering the impact on people’s lives. I do not think that DLA does so.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned aids and adaptations. We must ensure, again, that we do not try to squeeze individuals into a one-size-fits-all box. That is doomed to fail, as he has pointed out. We need to consider how people can use aids and adaptations to improve how they live. We cannot simply ignore or discount aids and adaptations; the taxpayer pays £250 million a year for them. The main point is that if we do not consider how people actually live, we will never be able to provide more targeted support. What has happened is an extrapolation of what that might mean for the assessment process. I am not saying that we will include the imputed value of an aid or adaptation as a part of the assessment process. We are asking what day-to-day adaptations help improve people’s ability to live an independent life. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the example of guide dogs. I will explain why the issue is not being understood as well as it needs to be.

I assure hon. Members that we have absolutely no intention of penalising visually impaired people who can get out and about and live independently only with the help of a guide dog, largely because the activities that the assessment is likely to consider are not activities with which a guide dog can necessarily help. Guide dogs are extremely intelligent animals, but they do not help people eat, drink, manage their personal care, take treatments or communicate. Well, some of them help people communicate, but in a different way. Although guide dogs help people get out and about, they do not in themselves improve an individual’s physical ability to walk or to plan a journey. I hope that reassures the hon. Gentleman that there is little opportunity for someone who uses a guide dog to feel that they will be penalised for making that important adaptation.

Another aspect on which we have been asking for people’s thoughts in the consultation is whether we could use the new personal independence payment assessment as an opportunity to signpost people to additional support and help, or a touch point for getting people the help that they need. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we should not miss such an opportunity. Too often, disabled people do not get treatment for all the conditions with which they must cope. The assessment is an opportunity.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on securing this important debate. Does the Minister agree that it is important, having heard some of the details in this debate, that we cut through the myths, worries and concerns about the changes and stress the point that personal independence payments will bring more targeted help to those who really need it? As a result, many people will get more help than they do at the moment.

My hon. Friend could well be right. The assessment is being finalised. We want to ensure that support reaches people. I like to say that it is about getting help to the people who find it most difficult to live the independent lives that they would like. That is a positive way of thinking of it. Some of the evidence that the Public Bill Committee is hearing has applauded the positive nature of the personal independence payment. It is heartening to see it as a potential improvement.

I thank the Minister for giving way. She is being generous with her time, but I must say that her response so far has not filled me with confidence that my constituents who need the benefits to cope with their disabilities will still receive them, particularly as she referred immediately to deficit reduction when she responded to the earlier comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson). Can she make it clear whether a ceiling will be put on the benefits available, and therefore on the number of successful claimants of PIP?

As the hon. Lady knows, any area of expenditure must work within a financial budget. We are putting the assessment first and foremost in order to get it right for disabled people and ensure that the funding available reaches people such as the constituent of the hon. Member for Glasgow North West, who might have found it difficult to get support in the past because the DLA was invented some 20 years ago and perhaps does not reflect how we would like to think of disabilities today.

In conclusion, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured that despite our differences in approach, we have a similar outcome in mind. We want to deliver a fair and affordable benefit system that serves the interests of disabled people and the communities in which they live. That is our starting point for DLA reform, and that is how we will ensure that disabled people have enough choice and control in their lives to live as independently as possible. I am determined that we will get it right and continue to provide the right support, targeted at the right people, in a way that is fair for everyone.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.