[2nd Allocated Day]
Further consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
Ending of discretionary payments
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 39, page 52, line 22, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
‘(1) Section 138(1)(b) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (discretionary payments out of Social Fund) may be repealed, if the Secretary of State—
(a) publishes a detailed proposal for a replacement scheme, or schemes, based on wide consultation with relevant stakeholders;
(b) ensures that such a scheme, or schemes, will provide financial protection for applicants in an emergency or crisis, with the eligibility criteria for applicants specified in regulations;
(c) demonstrates the feasibility of such a scheme, or schemes, through a pilot or pathfinder process; and
(d) demonstrates how an independent appeals mechanism will be implemented.’.
Amendment 40, page 52, line 24, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
‘(2) In consequence of the provision in subsection (1), the office of the social fund commissioner may be abolished.’.
Amendment 54, page 128, line 28, leave out Schedule 8.
Amendment 53 relates to the abolition of the social fund and addresses a number of the concerns that Members raised on Second Reading and in Committee.
The Government propose to abolish key elements of the social fund—the community care grants and the crisis loans—and to replace them with support through local authorities. The social fund, particularly the crisis loan, is critical to many Members in representing their constituents. That is the case not only in my constituency but across the country. These mechanisms support people in desperate need and at key times in their lives, and they are safety nets when people are facing essential expenditure that they cannot meet. My concern is that many organisations have made representations to the Government, Committee members and Members of the House urging that the social fund should not be abolished without robust and effective alternatives put in its place. The proposal should certainly be fully explored and tested before any change is made.
Social funds have been critical. The numbers of recipients of social funds and of applications demonstrate their importance. In 2009-10, there were 640,000 applications for community care grants, 3.64 million for crisis loans and 1.69 million for budgeting loans. Some 263,000 CCGs were awarded, 2.7 million crisis loans were awarded, and 1.2 million budgeting loans were awarded, so the expenditure was significant. They have a significant impact on individuals’ lives and in tackling poverty across the country. Some £139 million was spent on CCGs, £109 million net was spent on crisis loans, and £482 million gross on budgeting loans. This is therefore a large-scale activity that is vital to the most vulnerable and poorest members of our society. Even at this level of expenditure, however, the Public Accounts Committee concluded, having investigated CCGs, that only 32% of legitimate demand was being met.
I am extremely pleased that the Department for Work and Pensions is retaining budgeting loans and advance loans for alignment payments. However, I and many Members and voluntary organisations working in this field are unclear about what will replace the crisis loans and the CCGs. I am gravely concerned about the proposals to transfer responsibility to local authorities, which will be expected to design their own schemes for emergency support. Those responsibilities are being transferred at a time when local authority budgets are being cut. My understanding is that the funding will not be ring-fenced. In their consultation, the Government suggested that local authorities could also meet some of the demands with payments in kind—food parcels and second-hand furniture were mentioned as examples. I am also concerned that without clear guidance councils might be able unilaterally to introduce and force new conditions on those applying for emergency support.
I tabled the amendment because of the real danger that we will now be faced with numerous schemes being developed by local authorities, and that vulnerable people will lose this essential support. I am concerned that if the funding to local authorities is not ring-fenced, it will be diverted to other priorities.
Let me give the example of what happened to the playbuilder grant in my area. I chair the local play association, which I also helped to set up. When the ring fence was lifted, the Government initially sought to withdraw elements of the second year of the scheme. I am grateful that the Secretary of State for Education reinstated them and returned significant amounts to local authorities, which was a real breakthrough. However, because the money was not ring-fenced, much of it unfortunately appears to have been diverted into other areas of council expenditure, rather than going to improve play for children. That is just one example, from the most recent period, of funds that were not ring-fenced being allocated to local authorities and then spent for purposes other than those that the Government had intended. The Minister has agreed that allocations will be based on social fund spending, which will be regularly reviewed and the data updated. However, my concern is that if money is not ring-fenced in the first stages, it will be creamed off in the early years to be spent elsewhere.
We in Scotland have had four years’ experience of the removal of ring-fencing, supposedly to free up local authorities. I would be interested to hear my hon. Friend’s comments on our experience. Now that the ring fence has been removed, it is difficult to track what is happening to funds such as the supporting people fund, which give people valuable low-level support.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me: I forgot about the experience in Scotland. What she describes is a classic example of what could happen. I am quite fearful, because I have been a councillor and I know about the pressures on local authorities when they expend their resources. If there are no clear guidelines or statutory duties placed on the authorities, elements of expenditure that the Government might have allocated with the best of intentions might not be spent in the way that the Government would want.
I am fearful that if people lose access to the scale of emergency support they currently draw on, their alternative will be to go to higher-cost lenders such as loan sharks, thereby falling into greater debt. Even in advance of the reforms, we have already had a number of pawnbrokers opening up in the town centre in my area, with the local citizens advice bureau reporting increased evidence of the use of loans from loan sharks. A number of organisations have expressed their concern that having numerous different local schemes could mean that we end up with—I do not like this phrase—a postcode lottery of access to life’s necessities, as a result of the loans not being distributed coherently and consistently. I am also concerned that local authorities seem not to have been given any guidelines or directives about establishing an appeals mechanism. Unless an appeals mechanism is set up, claimants will not have the security of being able to challenge decisions made locally.
I would therefore urge the Government not to abolish or wind down the social fund without giving an absolutely clear commitment about what will replace it. If emergency support is to be localised, we need strong, unambiguous and extremely clear statutory duties placed on local authorities to support vulnerable people, and for those duties to be attached specifically to such funding. I urge the Government to think again about ring-fencing, so that the money cannot be diverted away from the poor. The social fund commissioner proposed that the Government consider establishing national criteria for the schemes to be drawn up by local authorities, to ensure consistency in the use of local discretion. It would still be possible to reflect local circumstances, but national parameters would be set on the use of that discretion. I am also concerned that the devolution of emergency support services might create high administrative costs—this has been mentioned by a number of organisations, including Age UK and the Disability Alliance—which might divert funds away from provision for the poorest.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with interest. Would he like to comment on the observation made in the evidence that we received on the Public Bill Committee that the distribution of such loans nationally is very uneven in any event, despite a national body administering them? On that basis, would there not be some merit in distributing funds to local authorities on a needs basis?
I appreciate that argument, but there is a difference between having a national system and having a complete free-for-all at the local level. There is a midway point, which would involve the Government setting clear criteria and guidelines, backed up with statutory force, so that when the changes are introduced locally, funds are not diverted but go to people who need them, and local authorities do not face high administrative costs. What I am searching for is Government action to reach a compromise and achieve a balance between national distribution and local distribution, thereby avoiding a free-for-all.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s generosity in giving way, but I would query what he is describing. Would it not go against the ethos of the Localism Bill, which is about trusting authorities with the responsibility to do what is right for their areas, and trusting the electorate to keep them in check so that they do just that?
I understand, and, coming from a local government background—both as a councillor and as a local government officer—I very much support the localist agenda of freeing up local authorities to do as much as they can to reflect the direct wishes of the local electorate. However, we are talking about people in severe poverty, and one of the overall duties of government at every level is to ensure that people in our communities are not put at risk as a result of that poverty. Therefore, there is a danger in the localist agenda, which I support, of allowing a free-for-all. Without establishing national standards and monitoring, we could have a number of local authorities failing to fulfil their responsibilities as we would wish. Although I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the local electorate should hold those authorities to account, we have unfortunately had numerous examples—I speak as an advocate of local government—of that mechanism for keeping local authorities in check not being effective, particularly on the detail of administering such schemes. I am sure that we can all cite examples of that on a cross-party basis, no matter who has been in control.
I am not talking about just my individual concerns. Virtually every organisation dealing with the poor in this country has expressed its concerns about this element of the legislation. My local citizens advice bureau has provided me with numerous examples—which I will not take the House through—of the benefits of both social loans, particularly crisis loans, and community care grants. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Heather Brown, director of the Hillingdon CAB, and all her team for their hard work. They have emphasised the need to explore all the implications locally and nationally before the Government leap into a new system.
Shelter and Crisis, the housing charities, have undertaken their own assessments of the process. Crisis surveyed 250 of its housing advisers. Numerous Members across all parties work closely with Crisis, and we have the greatest of respect for its work. That survey showed that 69% of clients used crisis loans for rent in advance, with 87% using them to help furnish their properties. In its briefing, which many Members will have seen, Crisis quotes one person as saying that unless we have a system that is at least as effective as the social fund, the effect on efforts to get people to move into independent accommodation would be “catastrophic”. Anxieties have been expressed across the board about the fact that we have not yet had that assurance.
I am concerned about the lack of analysis in the Government’s proposals of people’s needs. There is also a lack of detail on how the proposals will work. My worry is that poor and vulnerable people will be put at risk as a result. It therefore behoves us as a House in discussing this Bill, as well as the Government, to come forward rapidly with detailed proposals that have statutory backing, in order to assure our constituents and all those working in the field that we will have a system to provide emergency support to people who are poor and vulnerable, but not one in which local decision making risks diverting those resources away from where they are needed. It is on that basis that I have tabled this amendment for discussion. I hope that, as a result of this debate, we will at least gain a clear understanding of how the Government are going to address these issues—and address them fairly urgently—given that they are causing considerable concern.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on the way in which he has introduced this group of amendments. His amendments and those tabled in my name cover much the same ground. Like him, I am deeply concerned that the Government propose to remove the discretionary element of the social fund without giving us a great deal more clarity about how the poorest and most vulnerable will be protected, about the adequacy of the replacement system, about the protection of vulnerable people without a local connection—a matter to which I shall return in a moment—and about the lack of a proper system of review. As my hon. Friend rightly said, the numbers involved are significant, with 640,000 applications for community care grants and 3.6 million applications for crisis loans. We are not talking about a modest amount of money, and those figures represent a great deal of need. He also suggested that they represent only the tip of the iceberg of need. Of course we accept that there cannot be unlimited capacity to meet need, and it is clear that, were more resources to be made available, more need would come out and be met.
I want to pick up on a point that my hon. Friend made in response to an intervention. Despite the numbers of people who apply for and receive loans and grants under the discretionary grant, and the fact that when local government takes on this responsibility it will be accountable, in the spirit of localism, to its electors, we must recognise that the characteristics of people who seek assistance from the social fund do not make them a cohort of people that is likely to influence local politicians on a significant scale. This will tie into comments that I will make in a moment about what we should do with people with no local connection.
All the evidence that I and my hon. Friends have received from our law centres, citizens advice bureaux and other organisations shows that the claimants of discretionary social fund elements are very likely to be highly mobile people in a crisis that frequently severs their connections to the local community. They are not likely to be over-represented among those on the electoral register, or to wield a significant amount of local clout. They would not always need to do that; a good, responsive local authority will map and respond to their needs without it, but the reality is that, in a competition for scarce resources, that will not always be true of all local authorities.
We are completing the stages of the Welfare Reform Bill today, having been asked to make decisions on a number of important elements, which we discussed on Monday and are debating today, without having been given a great deal of substance or detail about how those elements will work. The Government called for evidence on the discretionary element of the social fund in February, but the consultation did not close until we were in the middle of the Bill’s Committee stage. That worries me. Yet again, the Government seem to be pushing ahead with their proposals even though we have not had a proper opportunity to reflect on the breadth of views and opinions of people with experience of and expertise in the subject.
The Minister might care to report to the House on what the responses to the consultation actually said. It would be nice if she assured us that all the responses would be placed in the Library. I think I can guess, however, that their overwhelming tone will be one of deep disquiet, and that they will be urging the Government to think again, which is consistent with the principles outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington. As he said, almost all the organisations with expertise and specialist knowledge in the operation of the social fund have told the Government of their worries. Let us take note of who they are. They include: Age UK; the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services; Barnardo’s; the Child Poverty Action Group; Citizens Advice; Community Links; Crisis; Disability Alliance; Family Action; the Family Fund; the Family Rights Group; Gingerbread; Homeless Link; the National Housing Federation; Oxfam; Platform 51; the Prison Reform Trust; Save the Children; Scope; and St Mungo’s. I am sure that there are others.
Those organisations are the big society in action. In many cases, they provide complementary services to the social fund, and they are expressing their concerns about the Government’s proposals and about their capacity to deliver to the people who will need their services when the changes are introduced. If the Government are serious, as I have always thought they were, about the idea of the big society and about a partnership with voluntary and community organisations, surely the first principle must be to listen to what those organisations are saying. Let us take an example from that list. Oxfam has said:
“The Social Fund provides vital support for people in times of crisis. The government proposes to devolve much of this money to local authorities, but without any statutory duty on them to provide an equivalent system of protection. This runs the risk of driving people to use high-cost lenders, reducing their chances of managing their debts successfully. This is particularly important as Universal Credit constitutes a radical reform, and it is almost certain that its introduction will suffer from teething troubles. These are likely to cause significant need for emergency payments like crisis loans, just as they are abolished. The Social Fund needs to play an important role in protecting people during this transition, which further supports the need for a delay to the change.”
The Committee also heard directly from people who know more about the social fund in all its strengths and weaknesses—we know that there are some weaknesses in the operation of the existing scheme—than anyone else. They included Sir Richard Tilt from the Social Security Advisory Committee, who said:
“Community care grants are the bit I am most concerned about—£141 million. By the time that you have dished that out to 100 plus local authorities, there will not be a great amount of money at local level, and I think, as it is not ring-fenced, it is likely to disappear into other things.”
He also said:
“My view on all this is that we have a UK social security system and that, for the past 25 years, the discretionary social fund has been the ultimate, final safety net for the poorest and most vulnerable…I would argue for a UK safety net underneath it.”––[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 24 March 2011; c. 82-3.]
Professor Kempson told the Committee, in respect of the role of local authorities:
“Some will provide a better service than we have now”.
I do not think that that is in doubt. There is excellent practice in local government. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, I also came to the House after serving in local government and I am a great advocate of it. Professor Kempson said:
“Some will provide a better service than we have now; many will provide a worse service; and some, I fear, will provide almost no service.”
She also said:
“As I read it, there will be no ring-fencing, and I cannot even see that there is any proposal as yet to build in any form of accountability by local authorities. That is the very least that is needed.”––[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 24 March 2011; c. 82-3.]
We know that the social fund has many flaws and has been subjected to scathing criticism from the Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office and others. I completely accept that those criticisms need to be taken seriously. The issue before the House today, however, is whether the Government’s proposal risks making things worse by entirely removing that essential safety net without addressing the genuine concerns of the present system. The Minister made it absolutely clear to the Committee that
“there is no expectation that local authorities will replicate the current scheme.”––[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 3 May 2011; c. 731.]
She is nodding at that. She made it clear that, when the discretionary social fund is removed, local authorities will provide a service equivalent to the present one. She said that this was not devolution to local government, but something fundamentally different.
Central to that is the fact that the Government do not expect local authorities to manage loan schemes, as happens now with the crisis loan scheme, and that as loan repayments were topping up the available resource through the current crisis loans, the capacity to provide an equivalent level of service through emergency funding is now severely restricted. The figure I was given was 84%, although the Minister told us in Committee that it was 50%—and I am happy to accept her correction. None the less, the cash sum as an annual figure starting from now that will be devolved to local authorities does not tell us much about the funding that will available for the equivalent level of crisis service once the scheme gets under way because that 50% repayment will very quickly fundamentally erode the value of the service. As we have heard, the likelihood is that it will drive people into the arms of the cowboy and high-interest lenders as well as into debt.
The current proposals expect local authorities to devise their own schemes for emergency support, but without ring-fencing or without specific accountability attached to the funds. It is highly likely, as we know, that some or all of the funds can be diverted into other local priorities and the safety net would disappear.
The Government also envisage local schemes that will make use of the provision of other cash support to assist people in need, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, emphasising the potential use of credit unions, charitable support, recycled furniture outlets and food banks. Setting aside whether that is really the kind of service that we want to operate, it has to be accepted—this is central to our thinking—that in many cases, although not all, when people are in need of emergency assistance, money is the best way of helping them to purchase the goods that they are likely to need.
That is very much in the spirit of empowerment, which we often hear the Government talk about in other respects. When people are at a crisis point in their lives and turn up to ask for assistance—perhaps fleeing domestic violence and needing to set up a new home—I fail to see how it empowers them when the only thing available is a second-hand recycled white goods store that may or may not have the form of assistance that they need. Whether or not it will be good value for money is another point. We all know that second-hand and recycled goods are of less value than new ones. There are all kinds of practical issues to consider.
Is it not also the case that many of the arrangements for people to purchase second-hand furniture are increasingly set up as social enterprises, which are intended to recoup money and make a working profit to go back into the business, so they will charge people, albeit less than for new goods, as otherwise their enterprise will not work? In any event, if this were going to be free, it would have to be heavily subsidised by someone.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Government’s mindset is an old-fashioned one. There is an excellent case for making better use of recycled goods as a commercial or social enterprise facility, but there is also a strong empowerment argument for letting individuals make their own choices with cash at their disposal to meet their needs appropriately. As my hon. Friend rightly says, in many cases, the vision we used to have of a charitable sector simply opening a warehouse into which people can go to choose whatever donated goods might be available no longer applies.
I would counterpoint that on the basis that it is entirely possible to imagine a financial arrangement between the charity and the local council in which the council uses the funds provided for the purpose to future-buy services from the charity, giving people free access under certain circumstances to the products provided. There are many different ways to skin this cat; I can see these arrangements working perfectly adequately.
The problem is that once we start creating a necessity for such an arrangement to be run at every single local authority, we will also create the potential for a mismatch between the goods that people need, the goods that are available, the charities providing those services and the area in which they are available. That also risks setting up a completely bureaucratic system in every single local authority to do what the current discretionary social fund does.
I do not suggest for a moment that what I said should be a prescription nationwide. I said simply that it is easy to imagine an entrepreneurial solution that used the social fund to provide services locally that were administered by local councils but did not involve money changing hands.
I will do a deal with the hon. Gentleman. If he supports our amendment, I will accept his point. There is some truth in what he says: there is some excellent practice out there and plenty of innovation in the local government sector, but it is not consistent across the piece. The amendment effectively says, “Do not abolish the discretionary social fund without piloting or without allowing a proper ability for local authorities across the piece to demonstrate that they have the capacity to do what needs to be done”. The hon. Gentleman might well have enough confidence in that, but it cannot be guaranteed. At the moment, there is absolutely no assurance that a consistent level of innovation, expertise and commitment is available in some, let alone most local authorities.
In my constituency we have done just that. A furniture fund has been set up by a voluntary organisation that is partly contracted by different agencies, but it has taken us 10 years to get to that. Now, because of people’s change in circumstances as a result of loss of benefits, we are setting up an arrangement for food parcels, which are being distributed by religious organisations. It is, however, extremely difficult, and it takes a long time to set this sort of thing up. My anxiety is that in the rush to legislate on this matter, none of the preparatory work has been done and there are considerable costs in setting these things up, particularly in the early years.
That is an excellent point. As we have said so many times in debating this Bill, one does not necessarily disagree with some elements in principle—localism and the involvement of local government in shaping the response to local needs, for example—but these local projects take a long time and require investment to set up and they tend to come and go. In north Paddington, one of the most deprived communities in the country, two credit unions were set up over the last 15 years—with regeneration funding in both cases—but they have both collapsed. I do not want some of our most desperate and vulnerable people to be forced into reliance on a set of services that come and go, that might not be available and that might well collapse. I think credit unions are marvellous; I would like to see them flourish in all parts of the country, but they are much more vulnerable than people sometimes allow.
Many of us have been through the same exercise that my hon. Friend described to establish credit unions, so the last thing we need at the moment is anything that destabilises our local credit unions. Loading this sort of responsibility on to them could undermine not only individual credit unions, but the whole sector.
That is absolutely right. We need to carry on growing the local expertise and the local voluntary and community organisations, including credit unions, which need to come up with innovative and practical responses to help deal with our social problems. However, they are not a replacement, but a complement, and they have to be approached with a great deal of care.
I commend credit unions to all Members for the work they do, but for those in financial difficulties, the crisis is already there and unless someone is already in a credit union, they cannot borrow from it. With respect, I do not believe that credit unions are an option.
That is absolutely right. The Government mention credit unions as part of the package of alternatives that they want to see picking up the slack. They may have a role for some people, but the hon. Gentleman is right that they are not an emergency response. As I said in my opening remarks, precisely because a disproportionate number of the individuals who need crisis intervention do not have a local connection or a stable household background, they are the ones who will not be in a credit union. They are disproportionately unlikely to be in a credit union or to have the scope to be able to join one. That is precisely why the social workers—expected to be a part, although admittedly not the entirety, of the gatekeeping process for the replacement of the discretionary social fund—are so concerned. Although they will not be alone, they will be very much on the front line of gatekeeping for this dramatically reduced and very different type of service, which is patchy and might be flourishing in some cases and not in others. As I said in Committee, the consortium of community care stated a few months ago that social workers are anxious about having to deliver the social fund, knowing that applications for community care grants are already turned down in 60% of cases. They say that their role as advocates and supporters for people in need through a crisis in their lives is dangerously undermined by the new financial gatekeeping role that they will be asked to take on.
In evidence to the Committee, Councillor Steve Reed, speaking on behalf of the London Councils and the Local Government Association, said that local authorities have expressed an in-principle willingness to be part of this process. I understand why he would do that. He also told the Committee that he was worried that the localisation of the discretionary social fund should be fully funded and that it should cover all the costs, including the administration costs, which, for the community care grant alone, were £19 million in 2008-09. As we have drawn out in the debate over the past hour, the likelihood is that the administrative process for local government and the gatekeeping, which will not simply be about deciding whether to give a crisis loan or community care grant but whether to find people alternative levels of support, are likely to put an increased financial burden on local authorities.
Some Government Members on the Committee argued that social workers and others will be able to provide more intensive, personalised intervention for people in crisis, helping to end a cycle of repeated loan applications, but that is likely to make the situation worse. If the 3.64 million crisis loan applicants or 640,000 applications for community care grants have to be funnelled through a more intensive and personal level of intervention, who will do that work? Where are the social workers and the available time in local government to improve on this? The answer is that they will not be there. Local authorities are retrenching and they are on the back foot financially, and the likelihood is that they will have a smaller pot of money as they act as gatekeepers for an even wider group of individuals.
The Minister tells us that there is an expectation that there will be some form of review process, but the current review process is national and now every local authority will be expected to set up its own, leading to huge complications with differences in approach and the structure and bureaucracy of setting up a process in every local authority to determine how initial decisions will be reviewed and appealed against. I know that that causes a great deal of alarm in the advice sector.
Let me return to the vexed concern about local connection. Sample work on discretionary fund cases was carried out by the Department last year, which considered a basket of 500 different cases, and 20% of those cases involved people who were homeless. Some 20% and more of the applicants in such cases—the amount varied between different parts of the country—had no single connection with any individual local authority. That is my single biggest concern about the Government’s approach to this agenda.
One example, which was highlighted in the media last week, is the case of victims of domestic violence. A group of the women’s charities has written to the Minister for Women and Equalities, warning that some councils will not be financially able or willing to help women escape violent partners on the grounds of the provisions in this part of the Bill. The belief is that there will be an increased postcode lottery of provision that does not reflect the Government’s previous claim that tackling domestic violence is a priority and the fear is that councils could impose a local connection test that could disadvantage women fleeing domestic violence who are often, almost by definition, forced to move into another local authority area. The charities say that many women fleeing the home have to leave everything behind, including household furnishings and essential items, such as cookers, that most families take for granted to rebuild their lives in a new home. They quoted a mother from Croydon, south London, who left her abusive partner in 2003 and said that she had only been able to escape a life of domestic violence thanks to a £700 grant that helped her to rebuild her life. The chief executive of Women’s Aid said:
“The social fund is a vital resource for victims attempting to rebuild their lives after domestic abuse and, if it is not available, victims may be forced to return to their abusers.”
The director of Refuge added that if the discretionary social fund is abolished, there is a risk that
“more women will be forced to delay their escape from their partner.”
We flagged up other groups in Committee that deserve to be mentioned again, such as those that deal with the problems for ex-prisoners. About 66,000 people leave prison every year, a third without accommodation. The Prison Reform Trust has lobbied me and others on its concerns about the loss of the discretionary social fund and has flagged up the fact that ex-prisoners have a particularly strong need for early financial assistance to prevent debt, because once they are in debt there is a grave danger that that will lead to a risk of reoffending, as the two are heavily correlated.
I worry that local authorities, which are subject to political pressures from their resident populations and forced into painful choices that, in some cases, involve retrenching youth services, libraries and so on, are hardly likely when allocating a non-ring-fenced grant to make ex-offenders, for example, a priority. That is human nature. It is inevitable that some groups will be less of a priority than others and ex-offenders are likely to be a particularly at-risk group in that context. If we take each local authority on its own merits, we can understand the political reality of that position, but it will come back and bite local communities and the Government many times over if those individuals are not assisted and cannot make a stable life for themselves after they leave prison.
Local authorities such as mine and such as those in seaside communities, in particular, have an incredibly high population turnover. In my constituency, 30% of those on the electoral register alone move address every single year. Those individuals do not have a local connection and there will be a real risk that a mechanism will be created to determine who does and who does not have a local connection. Where, then, will those individuals go?
When the Committee took evidence, the Secretary of State said that there would be a “moral duty” on local councils. I repeat what I said in Committee: I do not know what a moral duty means. We all believe that local authorities have moral obligations and we have a moral obligation to respond to homelessness, to children in need and to the care needs of our elderly people, but in practice, without a legislative framework, people will not necessarily assume that duty if they have grounds to believe, for example, that the person approaching them at a time of crisis is not someone whom that specific local authority has a duty to assist. Although I welcome the principle of a moral duty, I want to see a legislative framework. I want to see it piloted so that local authorities have the opportunity to draw up a code of practice that can be tested and shown to work so that when people do not have a specific local connection they will be dealt with and not turned away.
For all those reasons, and for the reasons so well expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, I shall press amendment 39 to a vote. There might be scope for a localised response to some of these needs, but we are a long way from having anything like the structures, framework and legislation to enable individual needs to be accommodated, including with reviews and when the vexed question of local connection is not resolved. I hope that the House will take the opportunity to say that we should not proceed until we have seen this working in practice and dealt with any of the problems that will undoubtedly arise.
I know that the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) is keen for us to make progress today and was somewhat concerned that we did not complete consideration of all elements on Monday. I will try to address all the issues that I am able to address in a speedy manner so that we can consider things fully.
Right hon. and hon. Members who have been listening to the debate thus far will already have a flavour of the complexity of the current scheme. Unfortunately, the scheme is open to widespread abuse, and some of that is driven by the remoteness of the administration of these elements of the discretionary social fund. Just so that hon. Members are absolutely clear, I should say that we are talking about replacing budget loans, crisis loans and the community care grant with national payments on account, including advances and alignment payments, and with local authority -delivered local assistance. The bulk of the comments of the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Westminster North (Ms Buck) were about crisis loans, half of which are alignment payments, which will continue to be paid at national level through payments on account. It is important that hon. Members are aware that to all intents and purposes people will still have access to that money on a national basis. I hope that will reassure hon. Members regarding a number of the issues raised.
I do not think that the status quo is an option because of the level of abuse in the system at the moment. First, the number of crisis loans has tripled since 2006, but we do not believe that that increase reflects an underlying increase in genuine need as a result of the recession or anything else. We have looked in detail at the individuals who are causing that increase in demand and our analysis has shown that it is being driven by young single people on jobseeker’s allowance, many of whom are still living at home. We should be looking at what is driving that demand and asking whether the money is getting through to the sort of vulnerable people about whom the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington is rightly concerned.
What is the Minister going to do to ensure that the operation of the social fund across the devolved regions does not set a hierarchy of standards and differences that are so far apart that people come to realise that the social fund operates very differently in certain parts of the UK? That would create hardship for many vulnerable people.
The national payments on account will be dealt with on a national basis in the same way in any part of the country and the regulated part of the social fund will continue as it is. The hon. Gentleman is talking about how local assistance will be dealt with and I am sure that he, like all hon. Members, will know that local authorities want to do their best by the vulnerable citizens we are talking about. That is certainly my experience of most, if not all, local authorities.
Will the hon. Lady forgive me if I make a little more progress? As I have said, we really need to move through this quite quickly.
Another reason why the status quo is not an option was highlighted only this week when community care grants were referenced in a “Dispatches” programme, which showed that an ex-offender who had received a community care grant for resettlement had spent the money on drugs. We should all be concerned about the lack of checking on how money is used and we should look at how to improve the system.
The hon. Member for Westminster North took a great deal of pain to talk about people who claim crisis loans having some degree of mobility and disengagement from the democratic system. I am not sure what evidence she has to support those assumptions, but we do not have that evidence to hand. The three elements of the discretionary scheme that I have talked about have very different and distinct client groups.
May I draw the Minister’s attention to one group of people who might fall into that category? Victims of domestic violence might not be on the electoral register because they are forced out of one area and into another and they therefore do not have the democratic accountability that comes through the ballot box.
The hon. Lady is obviously a mind reader, because I was just about to talk about whether the changes we are discussing will be a problem for victims of domestic violence—a group whom we all want to ensure get that support and are able to move to a place of safety, as is absolutely right. We do not believe that the new localised service will be a barrier to people in genuine need, particularly victims of domestic violence. It will provide an opportunity for more joined-up services on the ground while continuing to give individuals in that situation access to national payments on account through advances or alignment payments. The hon. Lady will be aware that under the current scheme victims of domestic violence must have fled the family home to qualify for support to set up home from the discretionary social fund.
A third and very important reason why keeping the status quo is not a sensible option is the need to align support with the wider changes that are happening in the welfare system. To continue running the current administratively burdensome system is no longer financially sustainable. Community care grants and crisis loans for general living expenses will be replaced by locally based support, which will be the responsibility of local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales. That will deliver on the coalition’s commitment to implement the Calman commission’s recommendations and will tie in with the wider Government agenda on localism, as has been mentioned. Local authorities are better placed to understand the issues that people in their area face and to dovetail existing and needed services. Different areas face different issues and local authorities will be free to come up with the sort of innovative ideas that will address these issues and make sure that the money that is available is targeted at the right purposes so that we move away from a situation that allows the sort of abuse I have mentioned.
We learned in Committee that although council tax is delegated to local authorities, investigations of fraud will be carried out nationally by the single fraud investigation service. The Minister has talked about abuse. In the case of the devolved social fund, where there is a worry about fraud will it be investigated by the local authority or by the single fraud investigation service?
Local authorities will be free to consider whether they need to set up their own service locally or use the local government ombudsman. It really is for local authorities to look at the most effective way of dealing with levels of fraud or with any dissatisfaction with the way in which they are delivering services. The amendments do not really grasp the premise behind the Government’s proposals. We want to move to a situation in which local authorities are looking at the gaps in their services locally and are able to use the funding that is forthcoming as a result of these changes to fill those gaps and pull together the sort of service that is required by vulnerable groups such as those we have been discussing.
Crisis loans for alignment purposes and budgeting loans will be replaced by new national provision. As I have said, that accounts for half of all current crisis loan applications. That provision will be delivered nationally by the Department for Work and Pensions. The ending of the discretionary social fund and the implementation of replacement schemes, both nationally through payments on account and locally by local authorities and the devolved Administrations, is the best way to approach the reform. Amendments 53 and 54 would prevent those reforms from taking place and would leave us with an out-of-date and inefficient discretionary social fund scheme that would soon be unworkable with the introduction of the wider benefit reform we have already outlined.
Amendments 39 and 40 would impose criteria set by central Government on arrangements to replace the discretionary social fund if it were abolished. Some of the requirements in amendment 39 are activities that we are already undertaking in our work on the replacement of the discretionary social fund. Other elements in the amendment would not be helpful to what the reform of the social fund is trying to achieve. As I said, in some ways the amendment misses the point of the reform, which is that local authorities are better placed to understand the needs of their local communities and to make sure that the money is getting through to the right people for the right activities.
The hon. Lady will know that we have had a call for evidence, and we will be considering the many different views of the organisations she mentions. We will of course want to work with those organisations to make sure that our policies work well. I remember some confusion in Committee about whether we were talking about the social fund or the discretionary social fund, so perhaps we need to make sure that people really understand our policy. Empowering local organisations at local level—the sorts of organisations that the hon. Lady named—to work with vulnerable groups in the individual community will, I think, be welcomed by many organisations on the ground.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I too was thinking about some of the speeches earlier this week; responsibility and empowering people are vital.
Amendment 39 misses the point when it proposes a pilot scheme to determine the feasibility of whatever scheme would replace the discretionary social fund. It would be impossible to run a pilot scheme for each local authority. We could run only a single pilot scheme, which would lead to our stifling any ideas local authorities might have about how to improve their local area. I hope that my experience of local authorities is no different from that of the hon. Member for Westminster North. They really understand their responsibilities to the most vulnerable groups in society and rather than deprioritising them, which is the inference from her comments, they are very much a priority. Those groups may not have a strong voice at the ballot box, but most councillors I meet are very motivated about getting the right support to them.
I do not want to get drawn into discussions about blue Labour, and I understand the hon. Lady’s anxiety about almost flying against the localism agenda, but there is a mid-way point. Even if the Government are not looking at laying down criteria or guidelines, is there no thought that central Government could convene local authorities to explore best practice before the proposals are implemented?
There have already been conversations with local government, and as I think Opposition Front Benchers hinted at, there was a broad welcome for the proposals. We shall certainly be working with local authorities to make sure that what happens is exactly what the hon. Gentleman was talking about; the spread of best practice will be critical.
The amendment seems to have taken no notice of the national provision of payments on account that DWP will provide under clause 98. Budgeting advances—the replacement scheme for social fund budgeting loans—will be very similar to budgeting loans, which have been hugely successful and largely self-financing. Budgeting advances will be targeted at those who are least likely to be able to access mainstream lending. That will help to ensure that vulnerable people are not driven to illegal lenders, which is rightly of concern to Opposition Members.
Short-term advances—the replacement scheme for interim payments and crisis loan alignment—will ensure that people who face financial need as a result of problems with their benefit claims will, if they are eligible, be able to access financial assistance through interest-free advances of their benefit. The grounds for eligibility will be set out clearly in regulations.
Another element of the amendment is a requirement for the Secretary of State to publish a proposal for a replacement scheme, based on wide consultation with stakeholders. We are already taking that approach in our discussions about replacement schemes. We will soon publish our response document to our call for evidence, which was based on wide consultation with lobby groups and local authorities. There will be a large amount of information and evidence for Members to consider.
The amendment requires local authorities to set up an independent appeals mechanism, but as I have already said, local authorities will be able to set up an internal review mechanism if they think it appropriate. Furthermore, the local government ombudsman offers a fair and impartial service for people who are dissatisfied with a decision made by their local authority.
In conclusion, the national scheme of payments on account and the local provision, as delivered by local authorities and the devolved Administrations, will provide well-considered replacements for the discretionary social fund, and will make sure that we are supporting more effectively than is currently the case the vulnerable individuals we have discussed today. With those reassurances, I hope Members feel it appropriate to withdraw their amendments, and we can press forward with the Bill.
As we have heard, the discretionary social fund currently consists of budgeting loans for managed expenditure, crisis loans for emergencies and community care grants for essential household items such as cookers and beds for certain groups—for example, vulnerable people who are moving into new accommodation. The provision is national and acts as a safety net for benefit recipients facing essential expenditure they cannot meet.
It bears repeating that in 2009-10, there were 640,000 applications for community care grants and 3.64 million applications for crisis loans. That demonstrates the scale of the activity we are asking local authorities to take on. It is no small task, but it is absolutely vital to the financial well-being of many of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. Although an alignment scheme will be introduced—in effect, allowing advance payment of benefit—I have seen from experience how important it is that people can claim a community care grant, which does not have to be paid back, for their living expenses. It does not put people on the lowest possible income into debt. Without that, people will be driven into the arms of the high-cost lenders, which will reduce their chances of managing their debts successfully. That will put more strain on other services—for example, the health service—due to the increase of stress and depression caused by the cycle of low income and debt.
Proposals were outlined in 2011 to transfer to local authorities, with guidance, the funds currently used, but there will be no new statutory duty for how the money is to be used. It will not be ring-fenced. Local authorities have numerous calls on their expenditure at present, and without ring-fencing we cannot guarantee that the provision will go to those who are most in need. I envisage a number of different policies and that some vulnerable people will lose the right to apply for emergency support. They may be trapped between two local authorities with differing policies.
My hon. Friend talks about the involvement of local authorities. Several of my constituents have contacted me about a situation that arose when the computer system in Sefton council’s housing office was down for six weeks. The staff advised my constituents to get crisis loans until the problem was fixed. I cannot understand how the Government’s proposals will make it possible for those staff to provide any kind of crisis support. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I do. It is difficult for local authorities to provide a consistent service. As we have heard, people who are fleeing domestic violence will have an especially difficult time as they move from one local authority to another overnight. How will they be treated?
I shall return to the issue of domestic violence. Who will be the responsible authority? If people move overnight to interim accommodation, whose policies will prevail? There are problems at the moment with local authorities taking responsibility. I know of situations in which one local authority says, “These people can’t come back to us,” and the other says, “We don’t want to accept them.”
My hon. Friend makes an important point. This is a serious and acute problem in London. Given that the boroughs are geographically small, people who move at a time of crisis are not aware of what borough they are moving to and from, and the situation can be disastrous for their future housing options. Central Government direction is needed, and there must be complete ring-fencing and a statutory requirement on each local authority because otherwise the most vulnerable will be short-changed as a result of demands for expenditure—albeit understandable demands—in other areas of a local authority.
I completely agree. The Government’s approach seems to be predicated on a view that local management will more accurately assess local people’s needs and use a range of local provision and services to support people in need, but that argument is flawed.
We have heard mention of credit unions and charitable support, as well as recycled furniture outlets and food banks. However, let me cite the example of an individual whose washing machine or cooker breaks down. They might be given a recycled product, but such goods are often much less energy-efficient than new goods, so that person will face higher fuel costs and will have no choice but to pay them with more of their low income. Such goods also lack a guarantee and have questionable reliability, so the approach might well be a false economy.
There is also a question of whether charities will be able to sustain continuing demand and, importantly, of whether the dignity of the individual will be adequately protected. I have heard many people—young and old—say, “I am not asking for charity. I do not want charity.” I fear that people will be deterred from applying to any scheme under which they will be referred to a charity and that they will therefore be forced into the hands of the high-cost lenders and credit companies.
I might have misunderstood the hon. Lady, but is she really criticising the charities that provide such services? For example, councils for voluntary service provide excellent second-hand furniture facilities. These charities are not undignified, but offer an extremely worthwhile service through which they provide good quality goods at reasonable prices.
I absolutely accept that, but some people do not want to be forced to use such charities as their only course of action. Vulnerable people on low incomes have a great sense of pride when claiming benefit. I absolutely believe that forcing individuals into the arms of charity will mean that they will instead go to high-cost lenders.
I will not give way. I want to move on to the lack of an appeals process.
I regret the loss of the extremely useful digest published by the social fund commissioner that gave an overview of appeals and reviews. That was an invaluable tool for advisers. It assisted them to help their clients to obtain their rights consistently. Such consistency is extremely important. Without a universal scheme, it will be lost, so vulnerable claimants will be left with a patchy and inconsistent service. People might have a right of appeal or independent review but, depending on local authorities’ policies, one side of the street could well get a cash grant while the other side would be given advice about which charity to approach. In the context of homelessness, I have seen that one local authority’s interpretation of “advice and assistance” can be very different from that of the local authority that gives people a list of private landlords.
I am glad that my hon. Friend brings up the issue of private landlords because the majority of the people about whom we are talking—certainly in London, but possibly in the rest of the country—tend to live in private rented accommodation, which is often unregistered and usually incredibly energy-inefficient, certainly compared with council and housing association accommodation and most owner-occupied properties. These people therefore face higher energy costs and their permanency of accommodation is more vulnerable. We need to take account of the fact that we will be throwing people into the most vulnerable housing sector of all those available.
I agree. This is no way to treat vulnerable individuals who are trying to obtain life’s necessities. I urge hon. Members not to legislate for the Government’s proposals before a robust, effective and consistent alternative, with a proper right of appeal, has been fully explored.
One of the Bill’s underlying principles is that it focuses resources on those who are the most vulnerable and in need. It is also designed to reduce complexity and to make the delivery of welfare support more effective and efficient. Clause 69 satisfies those requirements. Localising the delivery of the social fund will clearly promote a more joined-up delivery of services and support.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the remarks made by the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), who seemed to suggest that benefit claimants should be entitled as of right to buy all their furniture as new, rather than resorting to sensible and reasonably costed alternatives? What person who starts a new home does not have to buy a little bit of second-hand furniture?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are talking about taxpayers’ money, so we have to be resourceful.
I do not believe that Labour amendments 39 and 40 would make the delivery of the social fund more effective, and nor would they further support applicants and people in need. They would put additional bureaucratic burdens on the Government and risk delaying the implementation of the reforms. Amendments 53 and 54, which were tabled by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), would dogmatically block change by retaining the existing top-down system that is nowhere near as effective as we want it to be.
The hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) talked about several of the anomalies and dysfunctional problems in the social fund, as well as the National Audit Office’s criticism. Members of the Public Bill Committee know that the number of crisis loan applications has soared since 2006 from 1 million to 2.7 million, while more than 17,000 people have received crisis loans in the past 12 months. Given that such a significant number of people require multiple crisis loans, delivering the social fund locally will help to signpost them to support mechanisms, rather than encouraging the top-down approach that has been in place thus far. Many of the arguments put forward by Labour Members have been flawed and inaccurate, and I think that the amendments would be counter-productive to the Bill’s objectives.
I am not against the principle of welfare reform, but I am against how it affects those people who regularly come to see me. Not a week passes in the offices that I look after in which we do not see people who need crisis loans, and we hear from people who are under financial pressure all the time. With respect, I sometimes wonder whether some hon. Members have ever seen a social fund or crisis loan form. Do they know what it is like to be in financial crisis and under pressure?
I support the amendments for a number of reasons, and I hope they will be put to the vote. What happens in the House today will be sent to the Northern Ireland Assembly for its endorsement. On the principle of parity with the rest of the United Kingdom, I expect the Northern Ireland Assembly to endorse the decision of the House. The measure will then become the law for Northern Ireland as well. So if we feel concerned about it, we must oppose it here today. That is what the people I represent tell me.
Most of us are probably affluent enough to be able to borrow money from the bank if we are under financial pressure, but the people who come to me in my office seeking crisis loans through the social fund cannot do that. They do not have the option of the credit union either, because of the credit union methodology. I fully support credit unions. Everyone on the Opposition Benches who has a particular knowledge of credit unions would support them 100%, as we have in the past, but they are not an option for people in financial crisis, as the Government have suggested.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the difficulty is that in circumstances where people’s finances are very stretched and they are very vulnerable, the crisis loan system stands between them and lenders with extortionate interest rates and loan sharks, which can impact not only on their financial welfare, but on their health and well-being more generally?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She clearly has cause to represent people in relation to social fund issues and has a good understanding of the financial crisis they face.
Many of the people who come to me in my office have health problems. If they are unable to work, possibly because of an injury at work or an accident at home, they are left facing a financial crisis. Intimidation is not rife in Northern Ireland and nowhere else; it happens in other parts of the United Kingdom as well, and there are occasions when someone has to leave home quickly, and they face financial crisis. Most of those who come to me are single people, maybe a single parent with a young child, or sometimes they are people coming out of care or out of prison, or people who have experienced family break-ups.
The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) described the situation well, and I share her experiences as a representative. Those people are under great financial pressure and are worried about where they are going to go. They look for alternatives to borrowing money. Sometimes, as a result of their inability to pay back their loans on time, they end up in hospital. Loan sharks are probably the only people willing to lend them money but at an extortionate rate, which puts them under great pressure. I am sure other hon. Members have seen that.
Is my colleague, like me, at a loss to understand how some hon. Members who are prepared to commend the social fund measures are the same people who, in relation to parliamentary expenses, argue for the operational principles of clarity, predictability, responsiveness, consistency and the right to query or appeal? They demand those operational principles where it affects themselves, but they are prepared to mangle them where they affect their most marginal constituents when it comes to the social fund.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his passion and his commitment. I would find it difficult to argue against those points. I should like to hear from the Minister what measures the Government intend to put in place to ensure that the people whom I have described—the single people facing financial problems or those experiencing health problems, marital break-ups or intimidation, who clearly have problems at home—will fit into the system. I do not see that they will. I see extreme difficulties for them in future.
The hon. Lady spoke about those managing debt. Not everybody has the ability to manage their financial circumstances. We meet people in my office who unfortunately fit into that category. We try to advise them or send them to someone who can give them advice and help, but in many cases they are unable to manage their financial circumstances. The crisis loan enables them to borrow and get out of the crisis that they face, and agreeing a direct debit helps them to manage their money.
For those who come to me in financial crisis, the crisis loan is their only way out. I would love to be the Northern bank or the Ulster bank and be able to lend all those people money personally, but unfortunately my resources do not go that far and it is not my responsibility to do that singly and individually. That is the responsibility of Government.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong case for his concerns about the loan system. What worries me, reading the clause, are the references to discretion and appropriate decisions by the Treasury about what does or does not constitute grounds for payment on account. A constituent who came to me was denied employment support allowance and was told that he was fit for work. When he went to the jobcentre, he did not qualify. That person needed three separate crisis loans. The point about managing debt is well made. The issue of appropriateness will cause huge problems.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Many Members in all parts of the House know how the system works and the importance of a crisis loan system operating through the social fund.
My final point relates to the appeals system. The proposed changes will do away with the independent appeals system or at least make it unnecessary. I fought a number of appeals for people who had applied for crisis loans through the social fund. Having the appeals system in place is critical. If they are turned down the first time, it may be because they provided the wrong information, or because all the necessary information was not available. An appeals system allows a review to take place. It is crucial that the independent appeals system is retained.
The system of crisis loans through the social fund is a crucial aspect of life in Britain today for the people who come to my office and for those I meet. It gives people hope and an opportunity to get out of sometimes dire financial circumstances. The Government, the House and we as elected representatives have a duty to make sure that the social fund and the crisis loan are retained.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to this important group of amendments concerning the discretionary social fund, particularly amendment 39, which calls on the Government to bring forward detailed proposals for the replacement scheme.
Discretionary social fund payments, such as crisis loans and community care grants, provide an essential safety net for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities who, at times of extreme hardship or disadvantage, need financial support. One such group I wish to talk about in detail are women fleeing domestic violence who, through no fault of their own, are forced out of their own homes and have to seek shelter elsewhere. It is because of my experience working with women affected by domestic violence and their families that I am so concerned about the Government’s proposals and what they could mean for those women.
A woman fleeing domestic violence often must leave her home with nothing more that the clothes she is standing in, without money or access to money, but she still needs access to vital items for herself and her children, from food and nappies to children’s clothing. The social fund provides a vital lifeline for those women. Although far from perfect—I admit its shortcomings—it gives reassurance to the woman that help is available should she need it so that she does not feel pressured to return home to violence simple because she has no access to money. Community care grants allow women to start afresh, with a new life and a new home, by covering some of the costs attached, such as a washing machine or a cooker.
At present, clear guidance operates for decision makers, with clear processes in place if the individual is unhappy and wishes to challenge a decision, but the Government’s proposals will shift those responsibilities to local authorities and are deeply concerning on a number of levels. There is little reassurance that an adequate service will be provided or that the quality of service and the appeals process will not differ greatly across the country from council to council. The Government say that local authorities will be open to scrutiny at local level, and to a degree that is true, but I simply do not feel confident that vulnerable and excluded groups, such as women fleeing domestic violence, will be able to make their voices heard in those circumstances.
As I indicated when I intervened on the Minister, those women are often not on the electoral register and cannot cast a vote, so at the most basic level there is a lack of democratic accountability. I am sure we all hope that local councillors and councils would take due notice of those groups regardless, but the realities of life mean that if those women are unable to vote, as is the case for the vast majority who are forced to move to a women’s refuge, they are denied an important opportunity to affect local decision making.
Skilled and experienced professionals in the Department for Work and Pensions currently administer the discretionary social fund, but it is not clear who will take on that role within local authorities. That will present a significant capacity problem for local authorities that are already stretched in the current financial climate. The Government have not set out minimum standards and levels of service that they expect councils to adhere to. How will individuals access the replaced discretionary social fund, and where? What time scales can they expect for decisions? We might end up with significant variation between councils, whereas at present we have a clear national scheme. I do not believe that we have had clarity from Ministers on local eligibility.
The point that the hon. Lady is making is critical. A local authority might lay down a policy on this matter that is very good, but if another authority then does something slightly different that appears to be better, automatically all the good work that the first local authority has done will be seen as of no use as it will be held to another standard. We must have a single national standard so that people who require this fund, whether in Bushmills or Birmingham, know that they will see the same standard, with the same requirements, the same grant and the same opportunity to avail themselves of that assistance.
I agree entirely. It is vital that people feel that appropriate safeguards are in place with a national scheme and a national appeals system so that when things go wrong, as they sometimes do, there is an appropriate means of redress and decisions can be looked at again.
My concern with the Government’s proposals is that we will end up with massive variation between councils and between different parts of the United Kingdom, which will disadvantage people in certain areas. Some councils might choose a system that works very effectively and addresses the needs of vulnerable groups, but others might not do that so well. That is why the Government must be very clear about the standards that they will demand of local authorities, but they are not being clear.
Women fleeing domestic violence are often forced out of their local area in order to seek safety, so what safeguards can we expect when a woman is forced to move to an area where the local council might decide that she is ineligible for support? In the urban areas of the north-east, where large local authorities cover small geographical areas, it is not a great distance from Gateshead to Sunderland, but might the local authority in Sunderland, for example, take the view that the woman should seek support from her local authority in Gateshead? I sincerely hope that it would not take such a view, as that could hold up the process when the woman desperately needs financial help. This is not a factor at present because the scheme is a national one, but devolving responsibility to local councils will create a raft of potential problems for those councils and risk placing some very vulnerable people at risk of harm.
It is simply not good enough for the Government to hope that local councils will be able to manage this complex change. With a budget that is not ring-fenced and the potential for a reduced level of funding from recovered grants, it is inevitable that some local councils will not want to take people without a clear and established local connection, which I believe will be particularly damaging for women fleeing domestic violence if this is not done properly. That is why it is imperative that the Government set out detailed proposals, as amendment 39 makes clear, including eligibility criteria and an independent appeals mechanism. Without further clarity and detail, there is a real likelihood that some of the most vulnerable people in our communities will be unable to access financial support when they need it most.
I will not delay the House any further because I think that colleagues from all Opposition parties have demonstrated why they are not convinced by the Government’s proposals, and why every charity and housing group in the country is not convinced either. Members’ surgeries will fill up as people can no longer receive grants and loans, so it is inevitable that we will return to the issue at a later date to reform the Government’s reforms. I will not push for two Divisions on this group and, on the basis of supporting amendment 39, beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed: 39, page 52, line 22, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
‘(1) Section 138(1)(b) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (discretionary payments out of Social Fund) may be repealed, if the Secretary of State—
(a) publishes a detailed proposal for a replacement scheme, or schemes, based on wide consultation with relevant stakeholders;
(b) ensures that such a scheme, or schemes, will provide financial protection for applicants in an emergency or crisis, with the eligibility criteria for applicants specified in regulations;
(c) demonstrates the feasibility of such a scheme, or schemes, through a pilot or pathfinder process; and
(d) demonstrates how an independent appeals mechanism will be implemented.’.—(Ms Buck.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
State pension credit: capital limit
Amendment made: 19, page 54, line 15, clause 74, at end insert—
‘( ) In section 19 of that Act (regulations and orders), in subsection (2), before paragraph (a) there is inserted—
“(za) section 1(2)(d),”.’—(Maria Miller.)
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. We now come to a sensible grouping of amendments, to be considered together, on the personal independence payment. The first, amendment 43, refers to clause 78, but amendments 41 and 42 refer to clause 83, which is about a rather separate issue, so I hope that the Chair will take into account the progress of the debate in order to decide whether to allow a vote, if necessary, on amendments 41 and 42.
I beg to move amendment 43, page 56, line 40, at end insert—
‘(7) Regulations shall exempt people with prescribed medical conditions from the requirement in subsection (4)(c), including in prescribed circumstances where the individual is—
(a) severely mentally impaired;
(b) a double amputee;
(d) undergoing haemodialysis;
(e) severely visually impaired; and/or
(f) meets the requirements of special rules set out in Clause 80.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 76, in clause 79, page 56, line 45, leave out ‘as respects every time’ and insert
‘as regularly as their disabling condition occurs’.
Amendment 44, page 56, line 45, leave out ‘6’ and insert ‘3’.
Amendment 77, page 57, line 3, leave out ‘as respects every time’ and insert
‘as regularly as their disabling condition occurs’.
Amendment 45, page 57, line 3, leave out ‘6’ and insert ‘9’.
Amendment 46, page 57, line 15, leave out from ‘previous’ to second ‘months’ and insert
‘3 months means the 3’.
Amendment 47, page 57, line 17, leave out from ‘next’ to second ‘months’ and insert
‘9 months means the 9’.
Amendment 66, in clause 83, page 58, line 34, leave out ‘meets the condition in subsection (2)’ and insert
‘is an inpatient of a hospital’.
Amendment 41, page 58, line 35, leave out ‘2’ and insert ‘3’.
Amendment 42, page 58, line 40, at beginning insert—
‘(3) The condition is that the person is an in-patient of a hospital.
Amendment 73, in clause 86, page 59, line 35, at end insert—
‘(3) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a report on the impact of regulations made under section 83 within 12 months of the regulations being laid before Parliament.’.
Amendment 60, in schedule 10, page 140, line 25, at end insert—
‘(3) The Secretary of State shall ensure that, in respect of any person whose award of disability living allowance is terminated on or after the appointed day, an award of personal independence payment is made without application, and that said award is not subject to the requirements of assessment in section 78(3) or (4), or subsection (2) of this section, until:
(a) The Secretary of State has commissioned an independent report, no less than six months after the appointed day, on the effectiveness of the assessment process as used on new applicants for personal independence payment, and;
(b) The Secretary of State has satisfied himself, having consulted with disabled people, that the assessment process is functioning correctly.’.
Amendment 74, in clause 91, page 61, line 13, at end insert—
‘(c) the first regulations under section 83 containing provisions about the payment of the mobility component of personal independence payments to residents of a care home.’.
We have reached a vital stage in our consideration of the Bill. Government proposals for the reform of benefits for disabled people have been mired in controversy and bogged down by issues that the Government have failed to address, and they have alienated many organisations of and for disabled people. Sadly, instead of listening to and attempting to understand those concerns, the Government have dismissed them and undermined the traction that they command throughout the country. So much for the new politics! Instead of continuing the previous policy and the new approach of co-production practised with care and consideration by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) when she was the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, the Under-Secretary has been steadfast in her refusal to appreciate the issues brought to her, which I will detail. I fear that her approach has alienated the voices for reform in the disability movement and in this House. As a result, we are debating a huge missed opportunity for meaningful reform. However, we are where we are, and we will debate the proposals before us and our amendments to improve them.
Let me say a few words to provide some context. Although disability living allowance is a much respected and much valued benefit, it was designed in a different time, well before measures such as the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and the Equality Act 2010, which were introduced by the last Labour Government and which have profoundly changed the way in which disabled people participate and are recognised in society today. I acknowledge that the application procedure to make a new DLA claim—the process of self-assessment whereby somebody has to fill out a long, and at times complicated, form—is not one that many people believe to be suitable in a modern welfare state. We therefore believe, and have said consistently throughout our deliberations, that it is right to reform DLA. We welcome the Government’s decision to keep DLA as a non-means-tested, in-work benefit, and we think it is right to introduce a new, objective gateway.
Notwithstanding that, we feel that this Government have made profound mistakes and have missed opportunities in their approach to DLA reform. The whole process was kick-started by a rushed consultation. Apparently, according to the DWP website, it was one of the biggest of its kind, yet despite all those representations it yielded very few changes following the introduction of the Bill. The consultation was carried out over the Christmas and new period and was cut short. Perhaps most disappointingly of all, the Government chose to publish their proposals before it had even closed. No wonder this Minister, in particular, has a reputation for not listening. She will know that charities and the disabled people whom they represent have been highly critical of the process of reform. It did not have to be like that, and it is very disappointing that the Government did not undertake more groundwork to ensure that key stakeholders were a key part of the reform process.
While we take issue with the process of reform, we also have major concerns about its substance, and that will be the focus of my remarks. We now know that universal credit will halve support for disabled children and take away the severe disability premium for disabled people who live alone without a carer, yet put nothing appropriate in its place. Furthermore, part 4 outlines details of the new personal independence payment, with proposals to make disabled people wait half a year before they receive support and to take away the right of automatic entitlement for those with severely disabling conditions. The proposals are plainly chaotic and confused as regards the future of DLA mobility component for those in residential care homes.
My hon. Friend has referred to the Government not listening and not understanding. Does she share my utter dismay at what the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions, when, on at least four occasions, he failed to acknowledge and understand what the Bill means, or even to see the difference between those who are terminally ill and those with cancer?
I could not agree more. It was staggering how ill-informed the Prime Minister seemed to be about the impact that the Bill will have on cancer patients. I will make reference to further experiences that cancer victims will have as a result of these proposals. There is worse news for them, as we will find out.
Our amendments seek to put right the wrongs in the Bill. They would make the personal independence payment a fairer, more effective and more workable component of welfare reform. That is incredibly important given the scale of the reform, with 1.8 million working-age people being assessed in just three short years. Let me begin with one of the most controversial elements of the Government’s proposals and explain the key arguments behind our amendments to clause 83, which deals with the mobility component for those in residential care homes. That policy has attracted much attention and has been the subject of much debate inside and outside the House, yet the Government’s position remains, I am sorry to say, far from clear.
The blanket cut to those living in residential care was first announced by the Chancellor in the comprehensive spending review: it is there on page 12 of the documentation that I have here beside me. For the record, that position has not changed. The cut was in the first Budget document, and it remains in today’s Budget document. Granted, it has been delayed by six months, but it is still there. The proposal was met with an outcry from disabled people, disability organisations and the Opposition. Where was the Government’s much vaunted compassionate welfare reform? Why single out this particular group? Why select perhaps one of the most vulnerable sections of society? We have heard much talk of reviews and overlaps, but let there be no mistake—unless clause 83 is amended, people living in residential care homes can have their DLA mobility taken away from them.
Let me draw to the attention of Members who may be thinking about how they will vote a briefing submitted by several charitable organisations, which says that while the Government are no longer planning to remove DLA mobility from people living in residential care, they are planning to remove PIP mobility. Members should be careful to remember that if the Government say they are not removing DLA mobility, the Bill as it stands will remove PIP mobility.
I accept the hon. Lady’s observations about the confusion over the Government’s intentions. I think she just said that the Bill will remove PIP mobility. Is it not the case that the Government could bring forward regulations to remove PIP mobility? What we have to determine this afternoon, and what I hope Ministers will give us assurances on, is whether that is the Government’s intention.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I know that he takes a great interest in this matter. That is exactly the point I am about to address. Our purpose this afternoon is to prohibit the Government from ever taking away PIP mobility from those in residential care. I hope that I can win his support, because I know that he has a genuine interest in this matter. I hope he bears with me, and I will gladly allow him to intervene again.
Just to put it in plain English, are we agreed across the House that the mobility allowance, as it used to be called, should be available to people who happen to live in a residential home, rather than in their own home, whether their home is within a residential home or they are living in a block with others?
Yes, that is what we agree on. Our amendments would ensure that the Government do not have a blanket power to remove PIP mobility from people because they live in residential care. If Members agree with me, they should vote for our amendments. I will go through the arguments again, and hopefully that point will be clear.
Does the hon. Lady agree that what will be foisted on people tonight if we are not careful is a sleight of hand whereby, from March 2013, people will be moved across duplicitously from DLA to PIP, and then PIP will be withdrawn? Of course, DLA will not be withdrawn because it no longer exists. That sleight of hand should be rejected outright by this House.
This is getting embarrassing because, again, I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more. He made the point perfectly. I commend him because he too takes a strong interest in this matter and has argued passionately for his constituents.
Unlike the Government’s position on DLA mobility for those in residential care homes, Labour’s position is crystal clear, as are our amendments. The Government must not remove DLA mobility for those in residential care and must delete the part of clause 83 that sets out to do just that. When I say “DLA mobility” throughout my remarks, I also mean as it applies to PIP mobility.
There have been many warm words from the Minister on the Government’s plans on DLA mobility, but they come as little reassurance to disabled people when they realise that absolutely nothing has changed since the cut was announced. The clause remains unamended and the cut remains in the Budget book. Some 80,000 disabled people continue to be under threat of losing out at the hands of this Government. Warm words, yes; a change in policy, no.
When justifying this cut, the Minister explains that it is about removing the overlap in provision. She has described a situation of chaos in the residential care sector in relation to this benefit, but hon. Members and charities have heard little or no evidence to substantiate that claim. Furthermore, she knows as well as we do that she does not need clause 83 to remove any overlap there might be in the provision of services to support the mobility and transport needs of care home residents. She already has the power to set new eligibility criteria. Such criteria could remove any overlap in funding or inconsistency in practice and ensure that the mobility component of DLA is used appropriately—I presume that that is the reason for her concerns about overlap. If care homes or local authorities are using the mobility component in a way that is not appropriate, she should address it head-on with the care homes and local authorities.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely good case. One of my constituents has said that if the mobility component of DLA is taken away, it
“will make a prison of my son’s care home”.
A wider issue that has been raised by many constituents is that people may be in care for many years with considerable mobility needs and that the care home needs the extra resources to get them beyond the front door.
I thank my hon. Friend for drawing our attention to his constituents’ concerns. I am sure that he, and all Members, will bear that experience in mind when we vote this afternoon. I appeal to Members to consider the significant needs of people who live in care homes. That should direct us in how we vote.
Does the hon. Lady agree that many people will be perturbed and confused by the fact that the Government are derelict on the real crisis affecting care homes in funding, ownership and stability, but are diligent in trying to claw back the pittance that some people in those care homes receive, based on the myth that there is some financial West Lothian question whereby people are being paid out of one fund and also getting money out of another?
The hon. Gentleman makes his point with great passion. We must bear in mind the context in which this decision is being taken and the scale of resource that is involved. I have to say to him that we have found no evidence of great concerns about the practice of care homes and local authorities on the matter. The Minister has not presented any such evidence to us or to charities, and we cannot see where the great worry or cause for concern is.
I have just a small point. I think I heard the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) say that PIP was being withdrawn after the change from DLA. I believe the hon. Lady will confirm that we are talking about the mobility component, not PIP in its entirety.
If I made that mistake, I am very grateful for the opportunity to correct it. We are talking about the mobility component of DLA, which will be transferred to PIP. I will come on to broader concerns about PIP later, but I thank the hon. Gentleman.
I was talking about how the Government are addressing the issue of overlap and introducing a review. I assume that part of their concern is the need for greater consistency in how funding for people who live in residential care is arranged. I put it to the Minister directly that if there needs to be greater consistency in how the transport and wider mobility needs of residents are addressed, she should issue the appropriate guidelines to care homes. Whatever she chooses to do to address the matter, it is plainly wrong and irresponsible to make victims of the residents themselves by the blanket withdrawal of a benefit to which they are legitimately entitled.
The core of the argument, which should determine how we vote today, is that the power in clause 83 is necessary only if the Government want to remove payments solely on the basis that someone lives in a residential care home. If that is not the aim, we need to change the Bill.
On that point, does the hon. Lady agree that under article 20 of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, on personal mobility, and article 31 of the UN convention on the rights of the child, removing the mobility component from children in residential homes may amount to a breach of the UK’s obligations in human rights conventions?
That is a very interesting observation, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing it to the House’s attention. I know that he takes a great interest in these matters. That point gives us even more reason to argue that Members should support the amendments—they would avoid any problem of that nature.
When the Minister is not talking about “overlap” in an attempt to address the problem in question, she is talking about the need for a review. It was promised that the review, first announced earlier this year, would look into the provision of DLA mobility to those in residential care homes, which I know offered some succour to Members who were concerned about the matter. Labour Members were mildly optimistic that that was a signal that the Government were undertaking a rethink, as we know they are prepared to do when the time is right. However, we have been sadly disappointed. Although a review was launched, it has no time scale, there are no terms of reference, no review group has been established and there is no involvement for disabled people. No wonder people are confused about where the policy stands.
I remind the House that at Prime Minister’s questions on 23 March, the Prime Minister offered the Leader of the Opposition an opportunity to contribute to the review. I do not think that possibility actually exists. Have the terms of reference of the review been made public? No. Will the findings be published? No. This is not a review, it is, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, a delaying tactic to cover up a deeply flawed policy. In my wilder moments I thought it was perhaps an appeasement of some Liberal Democrat Members, because we know that their party conference overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning the policy. The Liberal Democrats in Committee disappeared when the matter was voted on. They are here today, so I hope they will join us and help to defeat this particularly pernicious part of the Bill. I appeal to them to make their presence felt today in a way that they did not in Committee.
Does the hon. Lady agree that throughout all of this—no matter how it is dressed up or how Opposition Members are criticised—the policy is about doing one, well named thing? It is about making the pips squeak among the most vulnerable in our country. That is another reason why it should be opposed.
This is embarrassing, because hon. Members are putting the argument so much more effectively than I am.
To conclude on this section of my contribution, may I make an appeal to Members of the House? We have a moment in time. We are being watched by disabled people this afternoon, and by their organisations. This goes to the heart of what we are about. People will be prisoners in residential care and prisoners in their own homes if this provision is removed from them. Many opportunities for them will also be withdrawn. I appeal to hon. Members: let us do the right thing this evening and vote for amendment 43—I also intend, Mr Deputy Speaker, to press amendments 42 and 44 to a Division when the time comes.
I shall now discuss specific aspects of the personal independence payment that should be changed to make the new benefit fairer and more effective in giving support to those who need it, and to assist a smooth transition for existing claimants to the new benefit. Amendments 44 to 47 seek to amend clause 79 and the proposed change to the required period condition for PIP. The amendments would retain the three-month period that claimants must wait before they are eligible to receive PIP, but would extend the period over which a claimant must show that they will be with that disability from six months, as is currently the case with DLA, to nine months.
In other words, for those who have not followed every single detail of the Bill like those of us who served in Committee, like the Government intend, the Opposition would extend the current DLA required condition period from nine months to one year for PIP. However, the Opposition would extend the provision after receipt of the benefit, not at the beginning. To do otherwise would be to penalise unfairly those disabled people who need extra help associated with their disability early in their treatment.
Yet again, there is some confusion about the rationale behind the change in the waiting time for PIP. In Committee, the Minister said that the change was categorically not about savings. She clearly stated:
“I will be honest and open with my answer. I would like to reassure the hon. Lady”—
“that the principal aim of extending the qualifying period from three to six months is not about savings. We do not expect the measure to provide any significant savings.”––[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 10 May 2011; c. 848.]
Furthermore, I have asked the Minister in a series of written parliamentary questions what the projected savings are. Again, her Department was unable to provide any sort of answer—nor do its answers so much as allude to potential savings resulting from this policy decision—yet at Department for Work and Pensions questions on Monday, the Minister appeared to backtrack, stating that “modest” savings were now part of the reasoning for pushing ahead with the change. In her response today, will she indicate the scale of those modest savings? It is a little concerning that the rationale behind changes that will make such a big difference to the lives of many disabled people in this country is, even at this late stage, being cobbled together by the Government.
If we cannot comment on savings from the policy, we can at least discuss its impact on disabled people who require PIP to help them to meet extra costs associated with their disability. In Committee, we discussed in great detail the different conditions that are likely to require early support, so I will not go into them in great depth today unless pushed to do so.
The hon. Lady has clearly outlined the issues in relation to the qualifying period. Is she aware, as many in the House are, that for people in poor health, it is a time of stress and anxiety? The Government are talking about increasing the qualifying period when people are under the most pressure regarding their health, so putting them under additional, financial pressure. Does she feel that such financial pressure will impact on people’s health at a time when they need less pressure and more help?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very strong point. The Macmillan cancer charity, which has already had an airing in the Chamber today, makes strong representations about the impact that financial worries can have on health, including leading to a deterioration in health. It is therefore especially pernicious that the Government have come forward with this policy. Cancer and stroke victims will suffer severely from this, because they can have major changes in costs very early in their conditions. Cancer and stroke victims may not be terminal, but they can still have great needs and society needs to support them in working through the terrible and difficult circumstances they are experiencing.
Indeed, and for those of us who have experience of how families struggle through family illness on lower incomes, we know how important that is. We do not want to have a society in which people who are struggling with major illnesses have to worry about how they will meet their family bills.
Cancer and stroke victims usually require help early in their conditions. As of August 2010, some 195,000 people were receiving DLA for a malignant disease or a stroke-related condition. Many in this group who are of working age may well be the very individuals who will be affected by clause 79 and the decision to lengthen the qualifying period to six months.
The extra costs will vary from individual to individual, but we can safely assume that they include key criteria such as extra fuel costs, costs associated with aids, adaptations and special diets, and extra costs of washing clothes and such like.
On the issue of extra fuel costs, one reason why the last Government—followed by this Government—said that they would not extend the winter fuel payment to those with disabilities was that it was already covered in the payments received under DLA. If the people who move on to PIP do not get those payments, they will be disadvantaged.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which reinforces why we should not accept the Government’s proposals and instead vote for this amendment. Simply to shrug aside the points that have been made or—as I suspect the Minister will argue—to pass on the obligation for meeting these costs to local authorities that are already feeling the strain of funding would be unfair and a great insult to many victims. Cancer patients are already the victims of the decision to time-limit the contributory employment and support allowance to just one year, as the Prime Minister now understands. Why should they be punished yet again at the hands of this Government when it comes to reforming DLA? We had controversy this morning about how cancer patients are being treated by this Government and now we have more concerns and more difficulties for cancer patients.
As it is carers week, it is also important to remember that when someone is having treatment in a hospital that may be some distance from home, there is also an impact on family members, who end up taking time off work and have to pay high travel costs. That has an impact on the whole family’s income, not just the person who is suffering the illness.
Indeed, and there is often an impact on the wider family, not just the immediate family.
We believe that the Government are misguided in their decision to lengthen the time disabled people must wait before they are given support. The Government are also wrong to remove automatic entitlement for certain severely disabled people who currently have the automatic right to receive the higher rate of DLA. At the moment, the severely mentally impaired—that is the language that is used—double amputees and those who are deaf-blind, undergoing haemodialysis or are severely visually impaired are automatically able to receive higher rates of DLA. Under the Bill, however, only those with a terminal illness will automatically receive PIP. Obviously I welcome the Government’s commitment to protect the terminally ill, but we believe that this obligation does not go far enough. Amendment 43 would ensure that those with a severely disabling condition, who are currently eligible for automatic entitlement, would retain that right following the introduction of PIPs.
It is important that we keep in mind the group of people whom we are talking about in the amendment. Is the Minister planning to inform the House today that an individual who is severely mentally impaired or a double amputee might not now be eligible for the higher rate of PIP? That would be quite an announcement. What reason is there to force this group of severely disabled people to undergo an assessment process of which we can all safely predict the outcome? We now know that the Government plan to spend £675 million on establishing PIP, on the bureaucracy of PIP and on the reassessment of 1.8 million working-age recipients of disability living allowance.
Does my hon. Friend have estimates of the cost of each of these interviews that will have to take place; of how many will be unnecessary; of how many will be appealed successfully; and of the incredible stress and hardship through which individuals will be put while knowing full well that unfortunately they can never get a job or go to work, and that they will have to be in receipt of benefits in the future?
I am afraid that I do not have specific numbers to hand, but I will make it my business to get that information because it would be very interesting. I am sure that some organisations could help us estimate those numbers and the different categories that my hon. Friend highlighted. He outlined a common-sense approach. It makes no sense to put these people through this stress, or to add to the bureaucratic costs of administering the process, when that money should be going to the disabled people themselves.
In a time of economic restraint, I am sure that everyone on both sides of the House agrees that this is a huge amount of money to spend on administration, so we should consider opportunities to reduce the costs. It is absurd to propose reassessing conditions that will clearly be eligible for the new PIPs. I have asked how much it will cost, and I will try to get answers—perhaps the Minister can give them in her reply. If the argument for retaining automatic entitlement is rooted in the avoidance of needless assessment, it is also grounded in the goal of appeasing the anxiety of many disabled people about having to undergo reassessment for PIP eligibility. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) knows, one of the biggest concerns disabled people tell us about is the constant reassessments they have to undergo, despite it being obvious to everybody that they have a disability. They are needless assessments.
Does my hon. Friend agree that problems are also created by the period disabled people have to wait before an assessment and the consequent stress and worry? They read newspapers that convince them they are not going to get the benefit, and their overall state worsens as a result of this whole exercise.
I acknowledge that many disabled people and disability organisations are extremely concerned about that, given the Government’s track record on this. We cannot underestimate or brush aside the level of anxiety of many people in this country about the reform of DLA. Many people find incredibly stressful and worrying the prospect of having to go through a new face-to-face assessment to prove their disability, despite it being abundantly clear, in order to receive help.
It is the Government’s job to assure disabled people that the introduction of PIPs—I know that the Minister tries to do this—will not mean the end of financial support for disabled people. Given the Minister’s efforts on that, I plead with the Government to go that extra mile to assure disabled people that the process is about meaningful reform of an important benefit, rather than an attempt to remove it from those whom they can get away with removing it from. One way the Government can do that is by ensuring that the most severely disabled members of our society do not face needless upheaval and uncertainty over the future of support following the introduction of PIPs.
That test was introduced for the work capability assessment and the application of employment and support allowance, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Of course I acknowledge that the Minister is working with disabled people to try to ensure that the test is as effective as it can be, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman and the Minister that most disabled people are saying that they are not satisfied. I do not think that reassurances have been given that the test is right yet. None the less, what I am talking about in this debate is automatic entitlement, which is a different issue. Even if the test were perfect, which would be very hard to achieve—we are very far from that—putting people through needless assessments, all at a cost, would still not be worth it when they are clearly disabled. Retaining automatic entitlement for severely disabled people would be a small step, but would enable the Government to send out an important signal to show that they are listening and that they get some of this. The big cry coming from disabled people is that there has been no shift from the Government and no signals, and that they do not get it.
Amendment 60, which is our final amendment in the group, would ensure that the process of reassessment will result in an orderly, careful and efficient transition for working-age claimants. As I have said before, we need to keep in mind the scale of the exercise that the Government are proposing to undertake. We are talking about reassessing 1.8 million working-age people on DLA in the space of just three years. To meet that goal, the Government would need to reassess—I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North that I do have the figures for this—roughly 600,000 people, which is 11,500 people a week or more than 2,000 a day. That is the scale of the process that disabled people will have to go through.
Given the scale and depth of concern about this issue, our amendment 60 proposes that checks and balances be written into the Bill to ensure that lessons are learnt as reform develops—we have tried to learn some of those lessons ourselves—and that the teething problems of assessment are addressed and disabled people have the confidence that reform will work for them. Amendment 60 would embrace this opportunity to send out a clear message that we will learn from mistakes in the system and iron out anomalies in the assessment before we start to assess some of the most vulnerable people currently receiving DLA, by ensuring that only new applicants are assessed first. That is what the safeguard would do. Amendment 60 is fair and proportionate. We are not saying that reassessment is wrong; we are simply saying that it needs to be done properly and carefully, and that it should be phased, with the Secretary of State playing a key role in the process to ensure clear scrutiny and accountability.
The amendments would ensure that the personal independence payment was a fairer, more effective and workable reform. As I set out in my introductory remarks, the Opposition support reform and the principles of reform; however, the Government have wasted a significant opportunity to introduce such reform. If the universal credit penalises families of disabled children by halving the support available to them; penalises severely disabled people who live alone by neglecting to replicate the severe disability premium or the personal independence payment; penalises disabled people in residential care homes by removing their DLA mobility component; penalises disabled people by making them wait six months before they receive the support that they need; and creates uncertainty and needless anxiety for the most disabled people in our society by removing their automatic entitlement to the new benefit, is it any wonder that we are opposed to this Bill?
I rise to speak to the amendments tabled in my name, which focus on the mobility component of the disability living allowance for those in care homes. We have already heard a lot about that from the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran). Amendment 74 asks for the regulations on this issue to be dealt with under the affirmative, rather than the negative, procedure. Amendment 73 asks for a report on the impact of the changes after one year.
There were many concerns across the House when the Government announced their original plan to remove the mobility component of the disability living allowance from all those in care homes. Concern was expressed particularly about young people in boarding schools and residential care, and about the impact on parents who have to meet extra costs associated with their child’s disability, whether or not they are in residential care. For example, they might need to meet the additional cost of an adapted or expensive car to transport the young person around. Concern was also expressed about the impact of the proposal on older people in residential care, and it is that issue that seems to have taken off, rather than a focus on younger people.
The Government have listened, however, and they have said that they no longer plan to remove the mobility component of the disability living allowance from all those in residential care. Instead, they have made it clear that they intend to tackle instances of overlapping funding, such as when a local authority is providing funding for someone’s mobility needs directly to a care home and the individual is also getting DLA. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is the Government’s intention, because it is important to be clear that we are tackling the overlap of funding rather than entirely removing mobility support from people in care homes.
Under the hon. Lady’s definition of overlapping provision for mobility needs, would she settle only for what we would expect anyone living in the wider community to have—namely, complete freedom of choice and access to transport to assist them when it suits them?
I am about to come to my understanding of that point. Obviously, it is up to the Minister to determine her definition, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will be able to comment on what the Minister has to say later.
I am also glad that the Government have put on hold the plan to introduce this change while comprehensive research is carried out. Any decision needs to be based on solid evidence, and it has become clear that no research has been done in the past, so no such evidence has been available so far.
I have just made it clear that no research has been done in the past, so there has been no evidence up to now. I have absolutely no idea what evidence the Minister has found, but I am sure that she will be able to give the House more information on that and answer the hon. Lady’s question. Not being part of the research team, I cannot give the hon. Lady any examples of overlap, but I am sure that the Minister will be able to provide more information about that later.
May I ask you to address the second part of my question, which was about the review? There are serious concerns that the review is not being made public and that we do not know its terms of reference. I presume that you know its terms of reference, since you support the Government’s proposals. Could you perhaps explain them to the House?
I think she means “the hon. Lady”, rather than you, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is obviously an issue for the Minister to address later, particularly in regard to the terms of reference. I do not believe that it would have been appropriate for disabled people to take part in the research, because it is my understanding that this is an information-gathering exercise—
The hon. Gentleman shouts “Shame”, but this is an information-gathering exercise to obtain evidence on the basis of which a decision can be made. At that point, it will be appropriate for people to be consulted. When we know the evidence base, and what options are open to the Government, it will clearly be appropriate to consult. At the moment, the Government are communicating with local authorities to find out what funding is in place, and disabled people are probably no more aware of that than I am. It would not be appropriate, while gathering that information, to consult. Afterwards, when we have the evidence on which to base a decision, it will become appropriate to consult on the options.
I have to confess that I am astonished to hear the hon. Lady suggest that disabled people would have nothing to add to an information-gathering exercise. Would she support postponing the proposals until we have clarity on what the review will involve, to ensure that everyone with a view is able to put their view forward?
The hon. Lady completely misrepresents my words. I absolutely did not say that disabled people have nothing to add to this. I said that the Government are undertaking an information-gathering exercise so that we have an evidence base on which to look at the options for the Government to take forward. At that point, people with disabilities and others affected would, I hope, have an opportunity to be consulted and to participate in discussions. At the moment, it is my understanding that the Government are gathering information to provide the evidence that has been lacking. I have to say that I was taken aback to find that the previous Government had never done research to enable us to understand what funding is made available to care homes and what is made available to people through disability living allowance. Providing such evidence is seriously overdue.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who is being very good and lenient with her time. On the issue of overlapping, which was raised at the start of her comments, I want to point out that the disability living allowance as currently constructed is a non-means-tested benefit. Overlapping implies that there should now be a means test. If part or all of someone’s benefit were to be taken away, means-testing would be necessary. Is the hon. Lady saying that she will support a provision that would introduce a new means test by stealth?
I do not believe that this is about means-testing of benefits. It is about looking for sources of state support or Government funding for the mobility needs of individuals with disability. It is about looking at the different sources of money to ensure that it is provided evenly to people with disabilities so that their mobility needs are covered.
I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from, as she and I are signed up to the same position. Let me confirm that her position and mine is the one agreed at our party conference only a few months ago—[Interruption.] Let me put it on the record that the conference called
“on the Coalition Government not to remove the Mobility Component completely and to ensure sufficient funding for the mobility needs of those who cannot afford to fund their needs themselves”
“to ensure that any reductions to the Mobility Component are based on clear evidence that the cost of that support is provided via other funding means.”
That is where we stand, so I ask my hon. Friend to confirm that that is why she is making sure that the Government will end up standing there, too.
That is exactly the position that I am putting forward. I am concerned, because clause 83 still leaves it open for Ministers to cut the mobility component for those in care homes. As a number of Members have made clear, the concern about that is considerable.
I appreciate that the hon. Lady is trying to get the Government off the hook by supporting this review, but the original proposal came forward in the coalition Government’s first Budget—almost a year ago. Is she not as surprised as I am—if not shocked—that the work that she now advocates was not done before the proposal was made in the first place?
To risk the wrath that has been incurred by some colleagues on my side, I have to confess that I was somewhat surprised about that, but I also think it should have been done by the previous Government as well. It is pretty shameful that we have no understanding of where the funding for these costs has come from.
I am afraid that I am not taking any more interventions, as many Members want to participate in the debate and I do not want to run out of time. I am sure that those who have further comments will attempt to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker.
We must not underestimate how important it is for people to be able to get out and about. I appreciate that those in residential care often do not have as many mobility needs as some people living on their own. For example, they do not need to shop regularly for food as it is usually provided, and they often do not need to make arrangements to get to a doctor’s appointment or the hairdresser’s because those services are often provided in the care home. However, they often need to shop for things other than food—for clothes and personal items—and they need to be able to maintain contact with friends and family. Younger people in residential care may often be in work and need to travel in and out of work as well. They have needs that need to be funded. It depends on the disability, but often public transport is not an option, so people rely on expensive taxis, on Motability scooters or on having access to their own vehicle, all of which add significant costs.
It is important that people have independence, keep up their social lives and live a full and valuable life. That is not possible on the £22 a week that people in residential care would be left with if they did not have the mobility element or any other support for their mobility needs. Although this part of the Bill is about PIPs, which will apply only to those who are over 18, I would be grateful if the Minister clarified the Government’s intention about extending PIPs to the under-18s, too, and whether the provisions will apply to families and young people with disabilities who are under that age.
My amendments would ensure that this important issue is decided by affirmative resolution, enabling proper parliamentary scrutiny, and that its implementation is monitored effectively through the production of a report after enough time has elapsed to show the impact and the effect. It is clear to me from the totality of the Government’s proposals that affect people with disabilities that the Government do not intend to restrict the independence of individuals. The move towards personal independence payments from disability living allowance goes in quite the opposite direction. We had a number of debates in Committee about the increased emphasis on individual needs and independence, and I sometimes found the Minister’s emphasis on taking every person as an individual and assessing their individual needs somewhat frustrating. Sometimes in debate it is easier to consider groups of people, but it is clear that the Minister’s intention is to consider individual needs and to take them into account when making decisions, as well as to ensure that individuals have independence.
The Minister has said that she does not envisage the results of the review being published. If I understand the hon. Lady correctly—she is making some telling points—she envisages the review being published so that there can be consultation. Will she confirm that she disagrees with the Minister on that point?
I have no idea whether the review will be published. I was commenting on the fact that the options on PIPs and DLA for the future should be consulted on. The Bill simply states that that will be decided in regulations, which is one reason I tabled an amendment requiring them to be subject to an affirmative resolution. The decisions will be made by regulations, which means that there is a further decision-making point. The Government will be able to publish their regulations and their intentions once they have done the information gathering and considered the funding situation across the board. At that point, I would like to see some broader involvement of people who are affected by these decisions. We will then have the information when we make a decision.
The hon. Lady is very generous in giving way. How will this review, report and gathering of information apply to the devolved Governments of the country? How can the Minister possibly influence social care policy and NHS policy in the devolved Governments?
I am afraid that I shall disappoint the hon. Lady, but that is an issue for the Minister. I do not know what discussions the Minister has had with the devolved Administrations. I am a Member of Parliament for a Welsh constituency, so the issue clearly affects my constituents, too. I am sure that some discussion is going on, but the hon. Lady can ask the Minister to respond to that question.
A number of other issues are covered by the amendments before the House and have already been raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran), including how the Government handle fluctuating conditions and the assessment requirements for PIPs. We have had a number of debates about fluctuating conditions, not least in a Delegated Legislation Committee yesterday afternoon which was attended by many Members who are in the Chamber this afternoon. Fluctuating conditions are hard to manage in the benefits system. As has been mentioned, Professor Harrington is doing work on descriptors for the work capability assessment for fluctuating and mental health conditions and on how the assessments can be improved to take them into account. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the Government are learning the lessons from the mistakes made in the work capability assessment and that we do not replicate them when the new PIP assessment is introduced.
I am afraid that I will not, as I am aware that a lot of people want to speak.
I flagged up my concerns in Committee about whether there are some people for whom face-to-face assessments are not appropriate, and I was reassured by the Minister’s response, as she clearly accepted that they are not appropriate for everybody. She intends to allow Jobcentre Plus advisers discretion to consider individual cases and the Government seem to be thinking about taking the same approach to the need for ongoing face-to-face assessments. As long as there is discretion and an acceptance that such assessments are not appropriate for everybody, I hope that decisions will depend on the discretion and common sense of Jobcentre Plus advisers. Will the Minister reconfirm today that the Government are taking a slightly flexible approach?
The final issue that I want to flag up is that of sudden-onset conditions such as cancer, stroke or accidents, which the hon. Member for Glasgow East has mentioned. Such conditions are very different from conditions that gradually worsen. They do not give people time to adapt mentally, emotionally or financially to their new circumstances and in addition to the trauma of coping with diagnosis there are large up-front costs that start almost immediately. There might be a sudden loss of income and there is the cost of travel to and from hospital for regular treatments, as well as parking charges and new equipment that is needed. Such costs seem to be just the sort of thing that disability living allowance was designed to fund.
The change from three to six months before someone can apply for the new personal independence payment might hit those people the hardest, because they have to pay those costs so immediately up front. I understand that that group of people form a very small proportion of those who are currently on DLA—around 6%, I think—so it would not be expensive to treat them differently. There are knock-on implications for that group, as their carers will not be able to apply for carer’s allowance unless they have DLA, so both the claimant and the carer could lose income. I raised this issue in DWP questions on Monday and the Minister was kind enough to say that the Government are looking into the issue. I hope that they will look at what can be done to ameliorate the situation for that small and distinct group.
I welcome the Government’s moves to take into account concerns about the removal of the DLA mobility component, and although I welcome the decision not to push ahead with the original proposal to remove it entirely, I think the Bill leaves the door open for that to happen in future—perhaps not under this Government but under a future one—so I believe that any changes should pass through the House via affirmative resolution. I also believe that the situation needs to be monitored closely to ensure that we are protecting and enhancing the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society.
I suspect that many hon. Members will want to speak particularly about the removal of the higher-rate mobility allowance from residential care, so I shall not talk about that in any detail, but I think it is merely the top of a very pernicious iceberg, and the proposed amendments attempt to allay our concerns on that. This issue has captured the public imagination because it seems so grossly unfair and because people cannot understand what kind of Government would take away the independence of the, by definition, most disabled people in our community because they happen to live in a residential home or, for those whose families might lose access to an adapted vehicle, because they happen to go to a residential school.
I want to look more widely at the Government’s reasons for seeing fit to wipe away everything that was the DLA and bring in a new benefit called the personal independence payment. Let me address the Government’s analysis, or rather their argument—I should not have said analysis because part of the problem is that there has been no proper analysis and it is very difficult to get any data to suggest that some of what they have said is true; that might be the case for individual cases, but it is not widespread. The fact that the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott) had to ask for some of those data may show that the Government lumbered into the whole area without knowing the details, and that their proposals were based on some perception of prejudice, or the need to save money, a point to which I shall return.
What were the criticisms that the Government laid at the door of DLA? They said there were no regular reassessments. That is easy to sort. We can put in regular reassessments for certain people. The Government said that too many people were getting DLA for life. Is that too much of a problem? If a person is quadriplegic after a cataclysmic accident, I am not sure they will get better. The reason many people who at present depend on DLA are so frightened by the changes is that they have an award for life; they do not have to worry about more reassessments. They have gone through assessments. They know they are profoundly disabled. Anybody looking at them can tell they are profoundly disabled, so why on earth do they yet again have to go through an assessment?
Another criticism of DLA was that some people were getting it automatically based on their condition. I challenge the Minister to tell us what it is about the condition of people who cannot feed themselves, cannot dress themselves, cannot move from one seated position to another, cannot walk or go to the toilet themselves that means they have to be assessed for their need for extra costs for care and mobility. I cannot think of a reason. Why should there not be an assumption that those individuals have their extra costs for care and mobility covered by DLA? That is what it was all about.
The Government’s main argument was that DLA was not well understood. That is not my experience from talking to people who receive DLA. It was one of the few benefits they did understand. DLA was for the extra mobility and care costs associated with disability. Compare that to the confusing rules for tax credits, or the in-work benefits or disability premiums associated with jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance or incapacity benefit. We could look at contributory ESA as well. Those are confusing. The one benefit for disabled people that was clear—they knew what it was for—was disability living allowance. That is what they tell me and I am sure it is what they have told the Government. The vast majority of responses to the Government’s consultation made exactly that point: people valued DLA so greatly that they were frightened they might lose it.
Another criticism the Government have made of DLA is that the form was too long and complicated. That would be easy to sort. Make it shorter, make it less complicated and maybe put it online. There were solutions.
Those are the main criticisms of DLA that the Government have come up with, but none of them could not have been solved by some changes to the existing allowance. It did not require the sweeping away of DLA and its replacement with a new benefit, with new criteria. If the criteria were out of date, some of them could have been changed, but there was and is no need to change all of them. People who depend on DLA at present as a large part of their income are terrified, because they do not know what lies ahead. If the system is as bad as, according to the Government, it is at the moment, those people are worried that whatever the Government come up with will not be suitable for their needs. I have to tell the hon. Member for Cardiff Central that the previous Government did not collect data on double-funding mobility allowance in care homes, because they were not advocating the removal of DLA from that group of people.
The things that are particularly good but often forgotten about DLA include the fact that it is an in-work and out-of-work benefit. That element will become increasingly important as the Government proceed with their welfare reforms to put work obligations on people with profound disabilities. Anyone who is not assessed as being in the support group for ESA will have a work obligation. However, if those who end up in the work-related activity group find that they no longer qualify for DLA, it will be all the harder for them to find a job or to do the work-related activity that the Government expect them to do, because the extra financing to make that possible will have been removed.
The best thing about DLA was that we had for the first time in this country a benefit that followed the social model of disability, rather than the medical model. There is a worry that the clock will be turned back. The Government call their new benefit the personal independence payment, but DLA was a personal independence payment, so they did not need to change the benefit. DLA is personalised and represents what the Government say they want the benefit system to be because it is a dynamic benefit, which means that it helps people to lead an independent life by going out to work, visiting friends and doing all the things that everyone else takes for granted. Such independence includes the ability to live in the community, which can be achieved if a person can buy in care and get someone to come in to look after their care needs. All those things exist under DLA, so why is there a need to make a fundamental change to something that was not broken? Why fix something that was working reasonably well? No one would have complained if the Government had done a bit of tweaking, but such a fundamental change makes people especially worried.
The Red Book states that the Government want to cut 20% from the DLA budget. That means that the pot will be 20% smaller, but given the cost of reassessing everyone, about which we have heard today, the reduction in payments will be more than 20%, because some of the money that would have gone to disabled people so that they could live their lives will be invested into the private company that will carry out the reassessments. Given the difficulties of the ESA, there is suspicion about the accuracy of the reassessments. Even though Professor Harrington has made recommendations, there are still fears and worries about the way in which the work capability assessment is working, and disabled people’s experience of that assessment makes them especially worried about what will happen under PIP.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Perhaps I should now speak to amendments 76 and 77, which I tabled as an attempt to ensure that fluctuating conditions—mental health problems are often fluctuating conditions—are properly recognised.
Mental health organisations throughout the country are deeply concerned about clause 79, which makes provision about whether an individual will qualify for a personal independence payment. The Bill states that the question of qualification relates to whether during
“every time in the previous 6 months, it is likely that if the relevant ability had been assessed at that time that ability would have been determined to be limited”.
Mental health charities are worried that someone with a fluctuating condition would not qualify because they would have to be sufficiently ill for qualification at every point over those six months. Amendments 76 and 77 clarify that the condition would not have to be continuous throughout that time. The charities agree with the principle of monitoring a person’s condition over time rather than making a snapshot assessment—they have no problem with that. They say the latter would poorly serve individuals with fluctuating conditions. This has been especially apparent in the experience of people applying for employment and support allowance.
The wording of the Bill suggests that people with fluctuating mental health problems or another fluctuating condition will not qualify if they are not consistently ill for the required length of time. Denying them support through PIP could have a detrimental effect on their health and their ability to manage their condition. This could affect the individual’s ability to stay in work if they are employed, or impede their recovery if they are not working. Also, it would not accurately capture the impact of the condition on an individual’s life. I do not intend to press my amendments to a Division—we probably have enough votes—but I want an assurance from the Minister that fluctuating conditions will be taken into account and will be recognised. That is a particular worry.
If the Government are hellbent on introducing PIP, it is important that we get it right. As I just mentioned with regard to people with mental health problems, the Government are putting new obligations on disabled people of working age. They will have work obligations. They will have to do work-related activity. If PIP is not there to act as an aid to help someone get into work, the barriers that exist for all disabled people—such as lack of access to transport, or the lack of the ability to buy in their own care that is flexible enough to allow them to go to work—become insurmountable barriers. That means that the Government will not be able to deliver on their stated aim of getting more and more disabled people into work.
It is particularly important that the right people and those with severe disabilities get PIP because, as we heard during Prime Minister’s questions today, the Government are proposing to limit contributory employment support allowance to a year. That will affect anyone who is not in the support group and who has cancer—that has been used as an example, but it could be someone in the early stages of multiple sclerosis or with a condition such as Crohn’s disease—and who is quite ill, but not terminally ill or ill enough to go into the support group, and not so disabled that anyone looking at them would say it was unfair to expect that person to work.
Large numbers of people with conditions that are difficult to manage and make work difficult will be assessed as being able to look for work some time in the future and will therefore be in the work-related activity group. They will lose their contributory ESA after a year. I know that many such people in my constituency will not get any benefit afterwards because they will probably live in a household that has other income. That need not be a large income, but just enough to put them above income support level, which is not particularly high. There is much talk about caps on benefits, but if a household is living on income-related benefits, it does not get a lot of money. Those people do not get £26,000. They get an awful lot less than that. If somebody is earning more than £10,000, there is a good chance that they will not get any benefit.
In a constituency such as mine, which is reasonably affluent and wants people in work, there is a good chance that there will be a partner in the household who will be working. At the end of the year, the cancer patient or the person in the early stages of multiple sclerosis will lose their contributory ESA if their condition is not bad enough to put them into the support group. If that happened now, the one thing they would have is their DLA, but in future they may not have their PIP. They will have no independent income whatever. That is particularly worrying.
Even more worrying is the fact that the Government have set up an unfairness in that some people will be able to keep their contributory ESA and others will not. If someone has a cataclysmic accident and becomes quadriplegic, they will go straight into the support group. If they have worked all their life up to that point and paid their national insurance, they will get their contributory ESA, as far as I can gather, for life.
However, if someone falls out of work because they have just been diagnosed with MS that is quite far advanced but not far enough advanced to put them into the support group, they might be in the work group. Because they have MS, they might find it very difficult to get a job. That was why they fell out of their previous job and it would be difficult to get back into work. MS in its early stages can be a fluctuating condition. For the first year, that individual will receive contributory ESA, and the next year they will not because they have a working partner, but what will happen in year three or four when they are reassessed and go into the support group? Will they get their contributory ESA back? I do not think that they will, because they will not have made national insurance contributions for two years, having been out of work for that time. Perhaps the Minister could clarify that.
There is a danger in all this of setting up a two-tier system for contributory benefit, which would be particularly unfair on those with slowly degenerative diseases, who fall out of work some time before they are classified as severely disabled and before the work obligation is taken off their shoulders.
Perhaps I misunderstand the hon. Lady, but I think that I am right in saying that if those individuals are reassessed a year or two later and found to qualify for the support group, contributory ESA is no longer relevant as they will automatically be in the support group in any case. Is that right?
That is exactly what I would like the Minister to clarify. I do not know whether there will be contributory ESA for those in the support group, whether it will be income related, or whether everyone will get it. If someone lives in a household with a working partner who earns £20,000 or £30,000 a year and then goes into the support group, having not worked before that and so having not made national insurance contributions in their own right, will they get any ESA? I am not sure they will, because ESA is an income replacement benefit, and of course to get such a benefit they need to have made national insurance contributions or have a low income.
That is my understanding also. There will be a group of people who will have paid the contributions in the two previous years and who will go straight into the support group and get to keep the benefit for life, but those with slowly degenerative diseases and those who come from better-off households will get nothing at all. It is that kind of unfairness and that sense of a two-tier system that frightens people.
My point is that if the Government take contributory ESA away from this group of people and then change the criteria so that they no longer qualify for DLA or the new PIP, those people will end up with no independent income at all. That is the connection. We cannot look at the Government’s proposals to remove DLA and introduce PIP in isolation, because they are putting disabled people under all sorts of other obligations. If we look at the benefits in isolation, we will get into trouble, and that is what leads to the fears of disabled people, because many of them, particularly those with more profound disabilities who are trying to live independently in the community, have complex funding packages that they have put together to make things work for them. They are dependent on the personal care element of DLA for their care and on housing benefit to pay for their rent; they are dependent on local government facility grants to adapt their houses; and they are dependent on the mobility element of DLA to provide them with transport or, for many of them, with cars through the Motability scheme. These are complex packages, and if the Government interfere with some of them the whole edifice could collapse. That helps to explain why there is so much fear among people with disabilities about what the Government are doing. They feel that the Government are not seeing the whole picture—that they are seeing different pieces of the jigsaw but not putting it together or looking at the impact that those pieces will have on individuals.
Part of the problem with universal credit and with PIP is that we do not yet know the criteria, the payments or who will qualify for what, so it is impossible for individuals to sit down with all the new regulations, which nobody has seen because they have not been published, and work things out, saying, “Right, in my condition, I know I will get that, that and that, and I can add that together and that will then tell me whether I am going to be better off or worse off under the new proposals.” It is difficult to judge the situation, because we do not have that detail.
The hon. Lady is doing the House a great service in teasing out the complexities, and in illustrating just exactly what is and is not known. Is not that at the root of many problems? How can we proceed with these measures when our constituents have so many unanswered questions? They have asked me, but I am unable to relay with any certainty what is going to happen to them, so surely the issues that have been raised deserve full clarification. Certainly, what has been illustrated as definitely going to happen demands that the amendments be carried.
Much of Monday’s debate was about the fact that the regulations for PIP, for housing benefit and for universal credit do not exist, so it is difficult to judge exactly what will happen to individuals.
There is also a fear among disabled people, because the Government sometimes take a simplistic view of what a disability might be. Disability living allowance was quite clear, because it was to cover the extra costs of disability, but one worry is that, under the PIP proposals, aids will be taken into consideration. The implication is that, if someone has an aid, they do not have the extra costs associated with their disability—that somehow the aid will miraculously take away those costs.
It has been said—the Minister did so in front of the Work and Pensions Committee—that, if a wheelchair-using Olympic athlete has a university degree, it is reasonable to place some work obligations on them. That might be the case, but being an Olympic athlete who needs a wheelchair does not take away the need for an adapted car. They still need the car, the wider parking space, to build the ramps to get into their house, the adapted shower that the local authority’s facilities grant often does not pay for, and the adapted bathroom.
In many cases, therefore, aids and adaptations do not take away the need for extra money. In fact, people with disabilities sometimes need the extra money to run some of those aids, such as an electric wheelchair and the extra costs that that entails, or an electric buggy that gets them around the shops. Rarely are such aids supplied by the NHS or, indeed, by the local authority, and DLA was such a good benefit because people could choose how they used it in order to fulfil their needs and lead an independent life.
If disabled people have work obligations placed on them, they will need extra money for travel costs. I could be as fit as possible and have the best super-duper wheelchair in the world, but with the best will in the world I am still not going to be able to get on the underground. It just will not happen, so we need to ensure that we get PIP right, and to ensure that it enables disabled people and does not hinder them.
Disability living allowance, particularly the mobility element, acts not only as a passport but as a proxy for all sorts of other things. Local authorities and organisations such as railway companies and cinemas use an individual’s qualification for upper-rate mobility allowance as a proxy for the fact that they must be disabled and therefore qualify for a disabled railcard, a disabled cinema ticket or a blue badge—or, in my local authority, a green badge, for which we also have to pay 20 quid a year, so it is not as though we are getting it for nothing. That means that people do not have to be assessed time and again, which makes things much easier. For many people, the knowledge that they have been assessed and qualify for upper-rate mobility allowance is more valuable than the money. I would not say that the money is not important—of course it is—but access to a blue badge with reasonable ease is also incredibly valuable.
I hope that the Government will look again at how they are introducing PIP. I will support my hon. Friends’ amendment on the withdrawal of the upper-rate mobility PIP from those in residential homes. I hope that the Minister can calm some of the fears that disabled people are experiencing. They fear that if the Government do not get this right, then instead of being able to get out of their homes and go to work, they will be stuck there and have a life that is not as fulfilling and worth while as it is at the moment.
It is absolutely right that we have a serious, considered and detailed debate on the reform of one of the most important benefits that we have, not only in relation to disabled people but within the whole array of benefits. It also represents £12 billion of taxpayers’ money, so they would expect us to have a good and detailed debate.
I do not like to take issue with the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), not least because she is Chairman of the Select Committee—I had the pleasure of appearing before her this morning—but if it was easy to change the current system of DLA by simplifying the claim form, making it easier to understand and streamlining its administration, then I am rather surprised that the previous Government did not address those issues before. In fact, perhaps it is not I who take issue with the hon. Lady but Opposition Front Benchers, given their stated position. The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has said:
“we recognise that it is right to reform the DLA and accept that it is perfectly sensible to use a medical test as the basis for assessment”.––[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 10 May 2011; c. 825.]
I have to take issue with the idea of a medical test, but the right hon. Gentleman obviously has his own reasons for saying that. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) has said:
“There is no doubt, and it has been plainly stated, that there is a case for reform. The Opposition and I are clear about that.”––[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 10 May 2011; c. 767.]
I think she said that when she was in the Scottish Parliament. [Interruption.] She said it recently as well. There is clearly a growing consensus on the need for reform.
When DLA is not getting the right support to the right people and £600 million is being paid in overpayments, and there are £190 million of underpayments—hon. Members will be equally concerned about that—there is a clear need for some fundamental changes. I hope that Labour Members who are feeling shaky on the need for reform can remind themselves that their party has also called for it in the past. Perhaps the position has changed, but those on the Front Bench have certainly not indicated that today.
Will the Minister give way?
I hope the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not take many interventions, because I am very conscious of the time and of the desire of Opposition Front Benchers to get through the selection list. Many questions have already been asked and I will deal with them as I go through my remarks.
Before I respond to the issues that have been raised, I will set out the three basic principles that are central to our reform. The personal independence payment will provide support for long-term needs. It is one of a wide range of benefits that are on offer. It will be based on an assessment of the impact of a health condition on an individual and their ability to lead an independent life, rather than just on the condition. Above all, it will be fair.
Amendment 43 seeks to exclude individuals from the face-to-face consultations in the new assessment process for PIP. DLA relies on a self-assessment form and I will not go through the details of why that does not work. One of my constituents had to take a four-hour course to learn how to fill out the DLA form, which shows its ineffectiveness. One of our key proposals to ensure that the benefit has a more consistent and transparent assessment is that most people will have a face-to-face consultation with a trained independent assessor. The consultation will allow the individual to play an active part in the process, rather than passively filling in a form, and put across their views on how their health condition or impairment affects their everyday life.
We recognise the importance of ensuring that the assessment process is sensitive and proportionate. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has a great deal of expertise in that area from his work on the work capability assessment. Let me be absolutely clear that when it comes to PIP, some people will not be required to attend a face-to-face consultation. I was clear about that in Committee and I reiterate it now. For such people, the assessment will be carried out on the basis of evidence that has already been gathered. Such decisions will be at the discretion of the individual triaging the assessment as it goes through.
Amendment 43 would undermine one of the key principles of PIP. It would effectively label people by health condition or impairment, rather than treat them as individuals. The disability organisations with which I am working day in, day out on the development of the assessment and the overall benefit would feel that to be a step back, not a step forward. The impact of a condition can vary greatly. Under the amendment, somebody with a severe mental impairment would not have to have a face-to-face assessment. That is a broad category, which covers a wide range of conditions that affect people in many ways. Although we accept that not everybody who has a severe mental impairment will have to undergo a face-to-face consultation, for others it will make a great deal of sense. For that reason, I cannot accept the amendment.
I deal now with amendments 44 to 47, 76 and 77. I am grateful to the Opposition for agreeing that PIP is a long-term disability benefit, and that there should be an expectation that there will be limitations for a period of not less than 12 months. The proposed qualifying period will allow us carefully to assess someone’s ability to carry out a range of activities once their condition has settled down and potentially once the effects of treatment and rehabilitation have begun. PIP will be a valuable, universal, tax-free benefit—that is carried forward from DLA—and it will be paid irrespective of whether a person is in or out of work. I emphasise that point for the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who conflated it with an out-of-work benefit. It is our view that the additional financial support that it brings should start only once other support mechanisms have played their part and once the financial burden becomes onerous for an individual over the long term, regardless of their income.
I can reassure Members that the Government have been listening to the arguments regarding the return to a three-month qualifying period, and we will continue to listen and talk regularly to disabled people and their representative organisations. We recognise that for some people there may be additional financial burdens at the outset, but we have to consider the matter within the ambit of the wide range of other support that is already available during the early months.
Will the hon. Lady forgive me if I do not give way now? Perhaps if I do not cover her point, she can intervene on me later.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen South has tabled amendments 76 and 77, about how we treat fluctuating conditions. That is absolutely an important part of ensuring that we have a successful assessment. The use of the term “every time” in the Bill has caused some concern, I believe unnecessarily. I hope that I can allay her concerns about it.
Our approach will be to have two main components to the assessment. First, we will consider whether an individual is able to carry out an activity, and whether they are able to do so reliably, repeatedly, safely and in a timely manner. If they cannot, it will be considered that they cannot complete that activity at all.
Secondly, the assessment will not be a snapshot of any one day, as I am sure the hon. Lady would expect. It will consider an individual’s ability to carry out activities over a period of time—we suggest a year. It will consider impacts that apply for the majority of the time. We will determine whether somebody has met the required period condition by considering whether they would be likely to meet the requirements of the assessment if they were assessed at any point over the period in question, which will effectively create hypothetical assessments across that period. We envisage that the assessment will not consider the effects of a disability on just one day, because the same principle will apply across the whole period. That means that we will consider an extended period of time, and that we will still apply the “majority of time” test. I think she will be reassured by that. As such, individuals will be able to meet the required condition even if their disability fluctuates over the specified period. We intend to include the treatment of fluctuating conditions in the next iteration of the assessment regulations, which is due to be published in the autumn. I hope that provides some reassurance.
I turn to amendments 66, 41 and 42. We have already announced that we will not remove the mobility component of DLA from people in residential care from 2012, as originally planned. We have also said that we will re-examine its position within the personal independence payment, which is precisely what we are doing. When that work is complete we will make a final decision, in the context of the full reform of DLA and the introduction of PIP.
Perhaps the hon. Lady can let me finish and see whether I have covered her point.
We will treat care home residents in exactly the same way as any other recipient of DLA. The views that have been expressed during, and in the lead-up to, today’s debate have been vigorous and made people’s positions clear. That is why we are not introducing the change in 2012 and are undertaking a review of the practical issues on the ground. We will not produce a review report, because we are not undertaking an official review. We are simply collecting information about the implementation of the policy at the moment, as I am sure Labour Members did when they were in government to inform their policy decisions.
It is very important that the Minister clarifies exactly what is intended. Does she still intend at some point, perhaps after a review or some information gathering, to treat the people affected as a group and decide whether they are entitled to the benefit, or will each individual case be assessed? If it is the latter, how will the information be gathered?
If the hon. Lady will listen to my full remarks, I hope that she will be satisfied. We have made it clear that we want to remove overlaps, and that we do not ever want to limit severely disabled people’s ability to get out and about, so we will not do what she describes.
Will the hon. Lady forgive me if I try to complete my remarks? I will give way if I have not answered any questions. I will ensure that when we introduce PIP from April 2013, disabled people are treated absolutely fairly, regardless of their place of residence. We do not intend to undertake what the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) was talking about.
Obviously we are looking at whether an individual has access to support, not at whether a care home has access to it. I could not make it plainer than to say that we do not intend to remove somebody’s ability to get out and about. That is a plain and categorical statement, and the hon. Lady can interpret it as she chooses—I know that I interpret it as a plain and clear statement. Support for disabled individuals should be available in the social care packages that are available on the ground. If that support is not in place, there is no overlapping benefit.
We are not doing that. We are reviewing the situation. As the hon. Lady will of course know, we need provisions in the Bill to take account of other areas of overlap within PIP—it was the same under the previous Administration—so that we do not pay certain elements of the benefit to people in various types of accommodation. Any change or refinement will be dealt with in regulations, which she will be able to view for herself.
I have heard very clearly the Minister’s assurances in her remarks so far, but I am at a loss as to why the Bill refers specifically to residence in a care home as a condition for clause 83(1)(b). I am encouraged by what she has said, but I do not understand why that provision remains in the Bill.
My hon. Friend will know that we are looking at this matter in some detail, and at the evidence on the ground. If we do not feel that an overlap is in play, we will take the appropriate action. He can rest assured that any further action that we take in that regard will be defined in regulations and subject to further debate.
Amendment 73, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott) spoke, would require the Secretary of State to produce a report on the impact of regulations made under clause 83 within a year of their being laid. In the light of the explanation that I have just given, considering whether to produce a report on the impact of regulations made under the clause could be premature. I therefore hope that she does not press the amendment to a Division.
Similarly, on amendment 74, on regulations, I repeat my assurances that we take extremely seriously the concerns expressed earlier about care homes, and we are committed to responding to them in the right way. The House would expect the Government to look at the facts of how a policy would be implemented before they move forward with it, which is exactly what we are doing. The amendment would make regulations applying to the payment of the mobility component of PIP subject to the affirmative resolution in the first instance. We spoke at length about that in Committee, and I do not want to debate again whether a resolution should be affirmative or negative. We are subject to the scrutiny of Parliament in this. I would like to return to the commitment that I gave the hon. Member for Glasgow East in Committee when I said that I would reflect on whether other regulations should be subject to the affirmative procedure. I am happy to reiterate that, but at the moment I do not think that we need to go further.
We are not producing a report to consult on. What we will do is make our position clear, and then there will be the opportunity for people to give us their views on that.
Finally, I would like to speak to amendment 60. I believe that the intention of the amendment is to ensure that the new assessment for PIP is working effectively before it is used to reassess the existing disability living allowance caseload. I can reassure the hon. Member for Glasgow East that it is our intention to do that. But I can go further than that—the Government are committed to ensuring that the new assessment is working effectively before it is used for any individuals, new claimants or not.
Related to that point, although it is slightly different, I wonder whether the Minister can allay the fears of people with Motability cars. Some of them could sign a new lease this month and be reassessed for PIP before the end of that lease, so they might lose the mobility element of DLA and therefore lose their car. What would happen in such cases?
I had a meeting with Motability yesterday to talk about these issues, which was one of many meetings that I and officials have had with it. We will look at the issue in great detail. Motability provides a fabulous service to disabled people and we will ensure that the issues that the hon. Lady mentions are addressed.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, we are running very short of time.
Amendment 60 would have the unwelcome effect of allowing the automatic transfer of existing DLA claims on to PIP without any review of entitlement. PIP is a new benefit, with new entitlement criteria and a new assessment of individual need. To transfer people to PIP automatically without first determining whether they are eligible for the benefit would be inherently unfair and would perpetuate the failings of the current system. I cannot therefore accept that amendment.
I hope that I have started to give hon. Members a flavour of the scale of work that is being undertaken by the Department in putting forward a new benefit of this scale. I hear the loud reiteration of many of the arguments that I have had with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations over the previous months in hon. Members’ comments today. I am sure they will be reassured that disabled people and disabled people’s organisations are at the heart of the development of our assessment, which is now fully available for people to look at and comment on online. Some of the amendments proposed today are wholly inconsistent with the principles that I have set out for our reform of PIP, while others are unnecessary. I hope therefore that the hon. Member for Glasgow East will withdraw the amendment.
I will be brief because many other hon. Members wish to speak, and under the timetabling motion we have to conclude by 6 pm, which is very inadequate given the seriousness of the issues. I shall speak specifically to amendments 43, 76 and 77. Amendment 43 was tabled by my Front Bench colleagues and I am happy to support it. I have added my name to it and I hope that they have noted that. Amendments 76 and 77 were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg).
This morning, I was at a commendable place known as Centre 404 in Islington, which provides support and activity for those with physical disabilities and learning difficulties, as well as support for their carers and families. It has been going for 60 years and is a very successful and effective organisation. The large numbers of people there this morning were discussing the introduction of PIPs and the issues surrounding carers week. Before we go into the details of the amendments, we should think for a moment about the enormous amount of work done by carers, who are inadequately recompensed and save the economy vast sums of money. If they were they not doing this work and giving up their careers and lives to care for those who desperately need their help and support, that care would simply not be provided and the costs to the state would be far greater, so we should recognise the economic contribution they make in a decent and humane way.
The Minister said that I conflated the question of jobseeker’s allowance interviews with PIPs. In a sense I did, because I was drawing attention to how people were dragged in for interview. For example, a lady told me—she is a much respected member of the community active on these issues—that her doubly incontinent adult daughter, who has learning difficulties, was told to go to a jobcentre for a jobseeker’s allowance work interview. It is expensive, unpleasant, wasteful, stressful for everyone concerned and an utter waste of time, and considerable damage and humiliation is caused to the individual and their family. That is why amendment 43, which would exempt those with prescribed medical conditions, would be a sensible, important and useful change to the Bill.
The Disability Alliance described to me how PIPs are likely to come in and how the assessments will take place, and the word that kept recurring was “continual”—continual prompting, continual help, continual assistance, continual support—which is interesting, because a person with a sporadic mental health difficulty does not need absolutely continual help and support, yet they do need help and support on a continuing basis. Do they then lose out on PIPs?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that definition also perfectly describes people with multiple sclerosis, which is a fluctuating condition? Someone with multiple sclerosis might need very little support one day, but literally within 24 hours might require substantial support.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South pointed out that there are some conditions that although not terminal or immediately life threatening are nevertheless very debilitating. MS fluctuates in its intensity and the intensity of care and support needed.
People with a long-term, continual and severe disability should be exempt, and should not be forced to go through this interview process. In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran), who sits on the Front Bench, I raised concerns about the costs of taking people in for interview, refusing them and then putting them through an appeals process, only for them to end up, months later, exactly where they started—with lots of costs, lots of time, lots of humiliation and lots of waste at the end of it. Amendment 43 would make a pretty appalling Bill very slightly better by recognising that those with permanent and long-term conditions should not have to go through this process. I therefore hope that the House will recognise the amendment’s importance and be prepared to pass it today.
Whether or not amendment 43 is needed, I am quite sure that the officials and others who do the assessments would not expect people with those conditions to be able to go to work. I do not think that this would be a great problem in practice; however, there is always a problem at the boundary.
When I was getting on the Jubilee line this lunchtime I met a young man in a wheelchair—in fact, he turned out not to be that young, because 20 years ago he was helping to build the Jubilee line. He said, “What do you do?” “I work at the House of Commons”, I replied. “Are there any jobs there?” he asked. “650”, I said. “They come up every five years.” He said, “I’m a cook.” “There’s no reason why a cook can’t be a Member of Parliament as well”, I said. I did not ask him whether he lived at home, in a hospital or in a residential care home, or whether his residence was in a home with others.
Earlier this afternoon, I spoke indirectly—I will now speak directly—about St Bridget’s in Rustington, the place mentioned in the first line of the second verse of “The Gnu Song” by Michael Flanders. For those with long memories, “The Gnu Song” comes when he is talking about someone parking a car across his dropped kurb with “GNU” on the registration plate. There are people in Rustington who live in their own homes, and others who also live in their own homes, but who share it with others. The definitional problem is just as great as it might be at the Princess Marina home—again in Rustington—which is a Royal Air Force benevolent fund home that is dual registered. Part of it counts as a hospital, part of it counts as a home and part of it counts as a residence. Incidentally, “residential homes” are not defined in the legislation; rather, it talks about “care homes”.
In Worthing, in the other part of my constituency, there is Gifford house—the Queen Alexandra hospital home—which is not just for former service personnel, but for many others. Although I have not had representations from them, I do not want to exclude them from consideration. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for kindly coming to St Bridget’s—the Leonard Cheshire home—among her many visits. I pay tribute to the people who live there, their families and my hon. Friend the Minister, because it was one of the best meetings that I have seen for a long time.
I trust my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Minister and those working with them to come up with the right answer. My preference is for amendment 42 to be agreed to, and then for the Government to come forward with their solution to the problem after they have received the result of the review. They can then come back, either here or in another place, and make an adjustment if they choose to do so. At the moment, however, the way I read the Bill is that someone whose residence happens to be in, say, St Bridget’s—this is not exclusive to St Bridget’s or Leonard Cheshire homes generally—could easily be excluded.
I shall not make the sort of speech that I might make in opposition, about how the Henry VIII clause in clause 83(4)(e) allows
“such other services as may be prescribed”
to be covered, nor shall I go on about subsections (5) or (6), which would allow almost anybody to be divorced under their provisions. However, I believe that we can trust the Government and that they are setting about this in a way that is rational. However, unless the legislation is amended or we receive other assurances, this is not a Bill that this House ought to pass.
Dorothy Sayers, in her book “Unpopular Opinions”, distinguishes between the English—by which she meant the British—and, say, the French by saying that whereas they believe in equality, we believe in fairness. There are currently three issues where fairness concerns me, and this is one of them. Another is the question of those women born in the mid-1950s losing more than a year’s pension, and another is overseas pensioners in the old dominions or elsewhere who cannot get pension increases. We have to take those issues one by one. I believe that the Government will solve the problem of the extra unfairness for those women born in the 1950s. I want the Government to find the solution to the problem that we are discussing in this debate, and later we can come to the overseas pensioners.
On the subject of this debate, why should we necessarily risk solving the so-called overlap by taking away the higher-level mobility component, rather than taking away what the county council might otherwise provide, which is a far smaller amount? I met a woman in a wheelchair, like the man I met on the underground—he said that he was interested in politics, so I gave him yesterday’s Hansard to cheer him up—who wanted to go to her father’s birthday party and then attend a college course. Those two journeys by themselves, at the subsidised rate of the St Bridget’s minibus, would have exhausted her money if she had not had the mobility allowance.
Obviously people’s circumstances vary, but rather than make a long speech—we have heard rather too many of those this afternoon—let me end by saying that if amendment 42 comes to a vote, I shall vote for it. I trust that the Government will come back and make things plain in the Bill, rather than our having to rely on positive resolutions on statutory instruments or the results of the consultation or assessment that they are currently undertaking.
I very much regret that the Minister did not give way to me on the one occasion that I asked her to do so, particularly because I had planned to ask her to make an apology. I also invite the Secretary of State—if he would just listen to the debate for a moment—to join in making that apology to the 80,000 people living in residential homes who have been threatened since the comprehensive spending review with the removal of the mobility element of their disability living allowance.
I first raised this matter in a debate in Westminster Hall on 30 November. The Minister responded to that debate, so she cannot claim that she did not know what the issues were. In a moment, I shall talk about the remarkable review that very few people know anything about. People living in residential homes, and their Members of Parliament, can tell her exactly what the situation is, even in the absence of a review. We do not like the idea that 80,000 people have been led up to the top of the hill and marched down again as a result of the various approaches of the coalition Government.
I hope to come to that point later. I welcome the fact that hon. Members from Northern Ireland have played such an excellent part in these debates, both on 30 November and since. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) made an intervention on that occasion, and his arguments were as sound then as they are today. The Minister has virtually no support for her position. In a moment, I shall discuss the disability organisations.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the huge disappointments of the process is that, despite the fact that hon. Members as well as people outside the House and local charities initially supported the principle of welfare reform, they are still unable to support the Bill, even at this late stage, because of the lack of detail and assurance that it offers?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point.
The people who know the most about DLA know that it is very difficult to secure. Claims have been made, if not by Members on the Government Benches then certainly by newspapers that support the Government, that the system is being abused, but the people who know about abuse are those who experience DLA for themselves. It is not a question of not dealing with that. As a result of the Government’s proposals, people who live in residential homes have experienced uncertainty, inconsistency and pledges being reneged on. Today, when we are being asked to make a specific decision on a Bill that will impact on those people, we have yet again heard a series of vague statements from the Minister that mean absolutely nothing.
To be fair to the Minister, she is not alone. The Secretary of State is equally culpable, as is the Prime Minister.
No, I will not. I should like to carry on.
The Prime Minister has given contradictory statements to the House on this issue. In January, he said that
“our intention is very clear: there should be a similar approach for people who are in hospital and for people who are in residential care homes. That is what we intend to do, and I will make sure that it happens.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 282.]
He has been questioned on the issue at Prime Minister’s Question Time on four or five times. On 23 March, when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked him whether there were plans to push through this proposal, he said:
“The short answer is that we are not.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 944.]
Despite that, and despite what we have heard again today—I repeat that I found it completely unconvincing—the intention remains in clause 83 of the Bill that we are being asked to support.
There is also the Red Book. Towards the end of the Budget debate—this has been going on for a long time, as I said earlier—I tried to intervene on the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Why did he not give way? He did not, but there is at least consistency from Ministers in that respect when it comes to me. He did not give way.
I am talking about Ministers. The Chief Secretary did not give way, because I was going to ask him whether in the Budget vote we were being asked to support the page in the Red Book that took more than £470 million away from the people we are discussing today or a section that said we were going to have a review. Answer came there none. We have had statements; we have had a Budget; we have had the Prime Minister’s comments; and we have had the Bill that is being thrown at us today—yet 80,000 people still do not know what the future holds for them. That is wholly unacceptable.
As a result of the measures, 80,000 people will suffer. People on higher rate DLA mobility stand to lose out by £51.40 a week, which will impact on their ability to exercise independence and choice—things that we are told again and again by the Government they support when it comes to community care.
No, I am not giving way, so the hon. Gentleman might just as well relax. If he had spoken to as many people in residential care as I have, he might not be so willing to defend the indefensible.
The denial of independence in this proposal means that people will not be able to pay for buses; they will not be able to go to bingo or to football matches. In my constituency, a couple will not even be able to meet each other, yet the Minister had the effrontery to use the word “fairness” in presenting her reply.
Despite what the Minister had to say, we know that disability organisations continue to express grave concerns about the proposals. Indeed, 40 organisations collaborated to compile the “Don’t limit mobility” and the “DLA mobility: sorting the facts from the fiction” reports, which not only outlined the negative impact of the measures on disabled people, but explained why the Government’s rationale behind them is simply incorrect.
On Monday, we heard the Minister refer again to organisations dealing with disability. Let us go through them: Mencap, RADAR, Scope, the United Kingdom Disabled People’s Council and People First. Again and again, those organisations have sought to highlight the failings of DLA—yes, they have said that. However, if the Minister is going to quote them to justify the Government’s actions—she is entitled to use these organisations’ views—she must also be willing to accept their view that they are utterly opposed to the proposals.
I wonder what the Government think of the Social Security Advisory Committee, which is an equally important organisation. Its view was known to the Minister at an early stage. We should remember that this is a very important, heavyweight viewpoint:
“We consider the proposal to remove the mobility component from people in residential care should not go ahead. This measure will substantially reduce the independence of disabled people who are being cared for in residential accommodation, which goes against the stated aim of the reform of DLA to support disabled people to lead independent and active lives.”
Why are the Government rejecting that crucial view?
What do we know about the Government’s plans? We are entitled to ask that question when we are being asked to support this Bill at what is virtually the twelfth hour. We know that they claim that there are overlaps in funding for mobility support for people in residential care, but we do not have the evidence to back up that claim. By seeking to remove the payment of the DLA mobility component to such individuals in order to avoid any possible overlap, the Government are shifting the burden of funding those mobility needs on to local authorities. As we have heard—some of us from Scotland heard it yesterday from representatives of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—local government simply does not have the resources. It is quite absurd to say that the Government will cut away this funding and that local councils will make up the gap, when they are telling us again and again that they simply do not have the resources.
What is more, we do not know how these needs will be properly met if local authority resources are already too stretched to cope. Given that the cost of the Government’s proposal will shift to the social care budget, will the Minister tell us what discussions she has had with the Department of Health, for example? We have not even been told that in the context of this mysterious review. It is a dangerous precedent to replace benefits with social care provision, particularly when social care eligibility criteria have been tightened so that more and more people stand to slip through the net.
Let me turn now to the much-promised review. The Government announced that they would review the proposals and it was hoped that that would offer greater clarity. Such clarity did not emerge today. The review is internal, within a Department; it is not transparent; and it has no terms of reference. There will be no reports to this House of which I am aware about what it actually does. Regardless of the review, all that has happened is a six-month delay to the implementation of the proposal. No disabled people who stand to be affected have been consulted and the findings will not be made public. What sort of review is that? Is the House seriously expected to support that?
We are being asked to decide on an issue about which we do not have the full facts. Even when the Government come to a decision, there will be no scope for an informed discussion, because the details will not be in the public domain. Although the review of the reforms in the Health and Social Care Bill was far from perfect, at least it enabled scrutiny, public participation and transparency—something that is certainly not taking place in this review.
Given what we know, these proposals are in all candour absolutely cruel and stand to the disadvantage of tens of thousands of vulnerable people. No further clarity has emerged today to suggest otherwise and one reason I shall support amendments 41 and 42 is that the Government have been given so many opportunities—from the debate in November to the Budget debate and from questions in the House to this debate today—to make their position clear, but they have failed abysmally to do so. I am therefore obliged to reach the conclusion that these welfare reforms are not meant to take us forward, they are not part of a progressive society and they are not addressing the real problems of the millennium. They are taking us back to the ’20s and the ’30s. The expression “Out of sight, out of mind” came into my head again and again during today’s debate.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and commend him for his contribution. Is not the situation he describes not even more grotesquely surreal when one considers that, whatever form the review takes, people in local government and those running care homes are being questioned by the Government not about the funding crisis undermining the financial certainty for those care homes, which has people suffocating with worry and dread about what will happen to them, to their relatives and to the staff, but in pursuit of a mythical notion that duplicate payments are being made in respect of the mobility component and contracts with care homes? Should not the Government be addressing the real crisis that is facing care homes and not the nonsense with which they have obsessed themselves?
As always, the hon. Gentleman has put his case beautifully.
As we head for the Division Lobby tonight, we are asked to choose between the interests of people with disabilities, many of whom have been in residential care for more than 20 years, the concerns of their families and the support of their communities, and the Government’s wish to rush through legislation that in all candour is completely indefensible. Tonight is a real test for the House, and by that I also mean Members of the Liberal Democrat party. I understand that they did not take part in the vote on this in Committee, but they are free to do so tonight. If the Government do what they seek to do and interfere with the lives of the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens in the way that the Bill intends, they do not deserve support and, frankly, people outwith the House, including disability organisations, will be asking about the standing of this Parliament if we allow such a monstrosity to be endorsed in the Lobby. It does not deserve support and I hope that the House will support my hon. Friends’ amendment. I hope also that the Government will think again. I hope that they will think of the shame with which they have burdened themselves and try to redeem themselves from the situation in which they alone have placed themselves.
I will be brief, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I know that others wish to catch your eye, and so I shall not take interventions. I am reassured by what the Minister said about the mobility component, but I should emphasise that its proposed withdrawal has caused a lot of worry and anxiety in my constituency. Residents of Shaftesbury Court residential home in Lowestoft are heavily reliant on the mobility component and if it had been simply withdrawn a number of disabled and vulnerable people would effectively have been confined to Shaftesbury Court. Visits to day centres and journeys to colleges would have been a thing of the past for them, and social outings to the cinema, bingo and local sports centres would no longer have been possible.
In addition, visits to the family home would have been increasingly difficult. Not all the residents of Shaftesbury Court come from the Lowestoft area. Some come from further afield, including Ipswich, which is 45 miles away, Canvey island, which is 103 miles away, and even Kent. Such home visits invariably take place only once or twice a year and are very important to the residents and their families, and the removal of the mobility component would have made it very difficult for them to continue. I have heard it said that the local authority or the care home operator would have stepped into the gap and taken on those responsibilities, but under the existing contract at Shaftesbury Court, there is no obligation on either party to do so. Suffolk county council does not have the funds to provide those services and Sanctuary Care, which runs the home, does not have the staff, resources or vehicles to take on the role.
A further issue that needs to be considered, which the Minister touched on, is how Motability would deal with any change for people who currently use their mobility component to purchase a vehicle. This is a complex area and I do not believe that the Government intend to penalise a particularly vulnerable group of people. I am reassured by what the Minister said and I look forward to learning the results of the review, but I urge her not to let down the residents, families and carers of those at Shaftesbury Court.
I am delighted to contribute to the debate. I want to speak in particular about the review and possible removal of the mobility component of DLA, or PIP as it has become, and the extension of the qualifying period for PIP from three to six months.
I listened carefully to the Minister during the whole debate. I also attended a debate in Westminster Hall where many of the issues that came up today were raised, yet it appears that we are no further on in finding an answer to our questions. The Minister seemed to think that she weakened the Opposition’s case by saying that we agreed with the need for reform of DLA, but the point Opposition Members and our Front-Bench team have consistently made is that, yes, reform is needed but the Government have got it wrong in the Bill. I often understand the rationale and politics in some of the Government’s decisions and proposals, but I really feel that the proposals in the Bill that the amendments address are actually cruel. I thought long and hard about those words.
Constituents have contacted me from cancer, mental health and disability organisations, including the Disability Benefits Consortium, which represents 50 charities and thousands of people with disabilities and their families. Their mission is clear. The DBC document states that it is to use their combined knowledge, experience and direct contact with disabled individuals, people with long-term conditions and carers to ensure that Government policy reflects and meets the needs of all disabled people. But the Government simply are not listening. When so many people have come together, the Minister should take the time, as others in the Cabinet have done, to pause and reflect. We have seen in the movements to oppose some of the measures a unity and solidarity that has never been seen before. Is it not time to pause?
I agree and I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution. I listened with interest to the speech the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott) made about her amendment. [Interruption.] She is thanking me now, but she may not thank me when I have made my comments, although I shall again try to be careful. It is extraordinary that a member of the Government should support legislation and an amendment, yet time and again blatantly admit that she did not know what the Government were proposing. The hon. Lady kept pointing us in the direction of the Minister, saying that she would answer our questions. She was not in the Chamber for the whole of the Minister’s speech, so I have to tell her that the Minister did not answer the questions.
In that case, I suggest that the hon. Lady holds back her support for the Government until she knows what they are going to do. She spoke to us about the review, but when she looks at the record she will see that she thought it entirely appropriate for disabled people not to play a part in it. The Government ask us to have confidence in this information-gathering review, but its findings will be secret, disabled people will not be part of it and there will be no consultation on it. The hon. Lady thinks those are reasons for us to have confidence. I see Members on the Government Back Benches putting their heads into their hands, and well they may. These are the facts. What is being presented to the House is clearly unacceptable.