I beg to move,
That this House believes that cuts to support for disabled people and carers pose a potential risk to their dignity and independence and will have wider social and economic costs; regrets that the Department for Work and Pensions has dropped the aim of achieving disability equality; whilst recognising that the disability living allowance (DLA) needs to be reformed, expresses concern that taking the DLA from 500,000 disabled people and contributory employment and support allowance from 280,000 former workers will take vital financial support from families under pressure; expresses further concern at the Work Programme’s failure to help disabled people and the mismanaged closure of Remploy factories; notes the pressing need for continuing reform to the work capability assessment (WCA) to reduce the human cost of wrong decisions; agrees with the eight Carers’ Week charities on the importance of recognising the huge contribution made by the UK’s 6.4 million carers and the need to support carers to prevent caring responsibilities pushing them into ill-health, poverty and isolation; and calls on the Government to ensure reform promotes work, independence, quality of life and opportunities for disabled people and their families, to restore the commitment to disability equality in the Department for Work and Pensions’ business plan, to conduct a full impact assessment of the combined effects of benefit and social care cuts on disabled people and carers, to reform WCA descriptors as suggested by charities for mental health, fluctuating conditions and sensory impairment and to re-run the consultation on the future of Remploy factories.
Once upon a time, the Conservatives liked to tell us that we were all in this together. Those words ring rather hollow today. After a Budget that gave us the granny tax and cuts to tax credits while giving a tax cut to millionaires, I think we can assume that the Chancellor was simply taking us for a ride. Yesterday, Bob Holman—the man who introduced the Secretary of State to Easterhouse—said it all. He said that he now had so much confidence in the Secretary of State’s belief that we were all in it together that he thought the Secretary of State should resign. Today’s debate is about many of the people Mr Holman stood up for. They are the one in four of our fellow citizens who are not all in it together with the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. They are not part of the Chipping Norton set. They do not get to go to the kitchen suppers. They are Britain’s disabled citizens. They are parents of disabled children. They are former workers, now disabled, who have paid in and paid their stamp and now find a Government determined to renege on a deal that they believed in.
In today’s debate on what I hope will be a consensual motion, there will be interventions from those on the Treasury Bench asking which cuts the Opposition support, and that is a perfectly reasonable line of argument. Let me deal with it at the outset. We do not believe that the spending review set out by this Government was wise. We warned of the risks of cutting too far and too fast. We also warned of the risks of a double-dip recession, and now we have one. The cost is astronomical. That is why the Chancellor had to explain to the House, in his last Budget, that he had to borrow £150 billion more than the Office for Budget Responsibility said Labour would have borrowed, as set out in our last Budget. In the Department for Work and Pensions, the bill for jobseeker’s allowance and housing benefit is now running out of control as a consequence of the Secretary of State’s failure to get people back into work, and £9 billion more than was originally forecast is now projected to be spent. Someone has to pay that bill, and the Government—the Cabinet and those on the Front Bench today—have decided that it should be paid by Britain’s disabled people.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned the disabled. Will he explain why Labour supports segregated employment—apartheid for the disabled—in Remploy? Are the disabled community not full members of society too?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, and I will talk about Remploy at length later in my speech. I hope that he will intervene on me again at that stage.
Welfare reform is long overdue. Will the shadow Minister explain why, when his party was in government, it did not get to grips with this matter? On disability living allowance payments, for example, there was a complete lack of transparency regarding where the money was heading. The previous Labour Government had plenty of opportunity to reform welfare, but they failed to do so. Will he explain why?
The Labour Government introduced some of the biggest reforms of the welfare system that we have ever seen in this country. That is why Lord Freud, in his review of the changes that we had made, said that the progress that had been made was “remarkable”. The hon. Gentleman would do well to study his remarks.
I want to return to the point about who is to pay the bill for this Government’s failure. Every Chancellor, every Cabinet and every Government have to make a decision on how the load is to be carried. The point at the heart of this debate is that this Government have decided that much of the load must be carried by Britain’s disabled people. New research from the House of Commons Library, which I am publishing today, shows that over the course of this Parliament, disabled people in our country will pay more than Britain’s bankers. Indeed, in the final year of the Parliament, disabled people will be paying 40% more than the banks. That tells us everything we need to know about this Government’s values.
The House should be grateful to Carers UK, and to the eight carers week charities, for the service they have done us by setting out the combined impact of these decisions. Their conclusion is blunt:
“It is a scandal that the UK’s carers are being let down in this way.”
The situation that confronts us is not going to get better; it is going to get worse. Scope reminds us that universal credit—if it is ever introduced—will hit disabled people 30% harder than non-disabled households, and that the halving of support for disabled children will cut £1,300 from their families. The Government’s arbitrary 20% cut to disability living allowance risks plunging 500,000 families into a financial black hole.
The right hon. Gentleman is talking about the cuts; perhaps he will tell us how he would reform the budget. I believe that the Government’s reforms are very sensible. Will he also tell us how many Remploy factories were shut down while Labour was in power?
I invite the hon. Gentleman to intervene on me again when I talk about Remploy in more detail—[Interruption.] No, Remploy forms an important part of our motion, and it is right that we should have an informed debate on the matter. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will let him have his say at that stage.
We believe that disability living allowance needs reform, and that an independent assessment is needed. We also believe, however, that the assessment should be designed first, and that the savings should be calculated afterwards. This Government have set an arbitrary, top-down financial cut, and they are now scrambling around trying to figure out what kind of assessment will deliver that cut. So little thought has gone into this that disabled people now face being tested for employment and support allowance, DLA and social care, as well as for a raft of other benefits. The testing alone will cost the taxpayer £710 million.
Surely we should be thinking harder about this. Surely we should be trying to determine what is the right assessment for DLA and ESA—which are different benefits—and asking how we can bring them together in a way that would be more convenient for disabled people and that would help them to secure the support that they need to live an independent life. Such a reform would save money. Indeed, when I was at the Treasury, my civil servants costed it and determined that it would save £350 million by 2015.
To this bleak picture we must, I am afraid, add more. Cuts to social care and to housing benefit will make the situation worse, £1 billion has now been cut from local council budgets for social care since this Government took office, and Ministers are still dragging their feet over long-term reform. Meanwhile, 1 million unpaid carers have given up work or reduced their hours, and four in 10 have fallen into debt, thanks to a system that does not work and is set to get worse.
I seem to recall that the Government announced some time ago that £3 billion would be transferred from national health service budgets to the social services sector each year. Is that correct, or is my recollection wrong?
The cut is from the Department for Communities and Local Government’s own figures. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the study published by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, he will see the reality of what is hitting social care services up and down the country and the vulnerable people they support.
The great tragedy of this story is that there might be some kind of explanation if this were all part of a grand master-plan to get disabled people back to work.
I am a little intrigued. The right hon. Gentleman stood at the Dispatch Box at the beginning of his speech and said that we were not cutting housing benefit enough. Labour let it run out of control; it nearly doubled in 10 years. The outturn, however, is that we will be spending £3 billion less than Labour would have done under their proposals. Now, however, he is saying that we are cutting housing benefit too much. He needs to make his mind up. He cannot have it both ways. Are we cutting it too much or too little?
This deserves better than a debating point from the Secretary of State. The fact that this Government have strangled the recovery—[Interruption.] Would the Secretary of State like to come to the Dispatch Box and repeat that?
The shadow Secretary of State should make his mind up about what he is really saying. Half his Front-Bench team have been going around saying that we are socially cleansing London because we are being too fierce on housing benefit tenants, and he goes around telling us that we are not cutting enough. It is pathetic.
I am grateful that the Secretary of State decided to temper his language, in contrast to the crass words that he used from a sedentary position.
The truth is that the housing benefit bill is spiralling out of control because this Government have strangled the recovery and put unemployment up to its highest level since 1996. There are now more than 1 million young people out of work, and long-term unemployment is up 10%. A third of the people on the dole have now been out of work for more than a year, because of the catastrophic failure of the Secretary of State’s back-to-work programme. That is why the dole bill and the housing benefit bill are going up. He should be ashamed of the record that he has presided over.
And all that from the gentleman who left us the note to say that there was no money left! Would he like to correct a statement he made earlier? This Government have already recognised that some of the eligibility criteria and some of the testing will need to be changed. They have stated that they are open to those changes, so will he correct his statement on the record?
I will believe it when I see it. As for the fiscal position, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Chancellor had to confess to the House that he was borrowing £150 billion more than would have been needed under Labour’s plans.
The truth is that there is no plan to get disabled people back to work. The reform of ESA is being so botched that 40% of people are winning their appeals, and those appeals are costing us £50 million a year. Charity after charity is saying that the descriptors used in the work capability assessment are failing. This is the point about reform: if we introduce changes, we have to adapt. We have to be flexible, and move as we learn. This Government are not doing anything. The charity Mind has so little confidence in the Government’s ability to get the reforms right that it has resigned from the advisory group. The Royal National Institute for the Blind has told me that someone who is totally blind can be found fit for work and put straight on to jobseeker’s allowance. That is why our motion, which I hope the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) will support, calls for the right reform of the work capability assessment.
Comments reported in The Guardian say that the Secretary of State has been warned by his civil servants running job centres that people are being pushed to suicide by the botched reforms of employment and support allowance—a system that costs us £50 million a year and in which 40% of people are winning their appeals. How can that reform be right?
Perhaps the hon. Lady can tell us.
Would the shadow Secretary of State like to remind us who was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury when the work capability assessment was introduced and who it was that refused to listen to the arguments of the disability lobby to improve that test? This Government brought in the Harrington review, and they are implementing it.
Actually, Mr Harrington was appointed by the previous Government. The reform of ESA is right, but the point about reform is that we need to adapt and show flexibility. What the House needs to know this afternoon is that charities such as Mind have so little confidence in the Government’s ability to get it right that they are resigning from the process. I put it to the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) that that is not a vote of confidence.
Does my right hon. Friend share my view that the interventions of Conservative Members so far, in seeking to make cheap political points, do not represent at all the view of organisations for disabled people? Sense, for example, which speaks for deafblind people, said:
“We still remain very concerned by the overall aim of reducing the future DLA spend by over £1 billion.”
Are those not the worries that the House should be addressing?
Those are precisely the kinds of worries that the House should reflect on because this is a very difficult and sensitive area of policy. The Government are not attempting to prosecute reform with any kind of consensus at all. That is why charities are resigning and resiling from their administration.
To the picture of ESA reform, I am afraid we have to add the Work programme. Once billed as the greatest back-to-work programme designed by human hand it is now missing its target for disabled people by 60%. Charity after charity says that the number of people referred to them for specialist help to get back to work is minuscule and tiny. St Mungo’s and now the Single Homeless Project have even gone to the lengths of resigning from the programme altogether.
This Government’s contempt is not reserved for disabled people without a job. There is plenty of it to go around for people with a job, including those Remploy workers in factories to whom the Secretary of State said, “You don’t produce very much at all. They are not doing any work at all. They are just making cups of coffee.” I hope that, in the course of this debate, the Secretary of State will take the opportunity to resign—I mean apologise. [Interruption.] I may not give way to calls on that point, but I congratulate the Sunday Express on its campaign, highlighting the disgraceful treatment of Remploy workers. We all know that Remploy has to change—that is the point I would make to Conservative Members—but this Government have decided to press ahead, closing these factories at breakneck speed. These factories are in constituencies where twice as many people as the national average are chasing every single job. How can it be right to say to these factories that they have until Monday to complete a business plan that, if it is not successful, will see the closure of factories in communities that need jobs and cannot afford to lose them?
Let me give the right hon. Gentleman another chance to answer the question put to him earlier. How many of these factories were closed under the last Labour Government? I know what the figure is; I wonder whether he knows what it is.
I will not deny the fact that a number of factories were closed under Labour, but that was part of a reform programme that saw £500 million added in support for the future of Remploy. The point for the House this afternoon is this: the time given to help Remploy factories figure out a future is too short.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with my constituent Christine Tyleman who wrote on behalf of the workers at the Spennymoor Remploy factory:
“I would be lost if I was not working. You cannot live on fresh air”?
In my constituency, the ratio is 9:1 of jobseekers to vacancies. Does my right hon. Friend agree that my constituent is completely realistic in her assessment of her situation?
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. For many Remploy workers, their place of work is more than simply a job; it is a community and it is vital to their life and well-being. In a community like my hon. Friend’s, where nine people are chasing every job, these people deserve real answers about a sustainable future.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that Remploy gives disabled people the dignity of work. It has been shown that, without that, both their mental and physical health suffers, with all the problems that result from it.
Of course. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have seen reports today, debated in the media and in the House, about the pressure that the national health service is now coming under. When we drag and cut away support such as work and other vital benefits, people will, frankly, be thrown on the mercies of the health service—a health service that we know is terribly overstretched.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that after closures like this, people often end up on benefits? In my constituency, a Blindcraft factory, not Remploy, was closed by the then Lib Dem council. The majority of the people who worked there have not been found jobs in the wider economy, which would have been desirable, and they are back to being unemployed and sitting around at home.
My hon. Friend makes my point for me. When the reform of ESA and back-to-work programmes such as the Work programme are failing so badly, shutting these factories down without providing real answers about their future will, I am afraid, have terrible consequences in communities all over the country.
My right hon. Friend says that Remploy must change, which it must, but in Swansea it has been changing. In fact, the order books are—partly owing to my own engagement with major possible local clients—virtually full with increasing orders from universities, the private sector, health authorities and so forth, even when the Remploy central sales and marketing function has dismally failed. In view of the fact that, given a helping hand, Remploy can succeed, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is outrageous for the Secretary of State to make out that these people do not work and sit around drinking coffee? Should the Secretary of State not at the very least apologise—and if not, resign?
I very much hope that the Secretary of State will apologise shortly. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. What we need all over the country is leadership, ensuring that work continues in these factories.
Eleven people are chasing every single job in my constituency, and there is no point in the Secretary of State going to Merthyr to tell people to get on a bus to Cardiff because there are no jobs in Cardiff either. After the last round of redundancies in the Remploy factory in the Cynon Valley in 1988, only one man ever found a job again. With unemployment now running at 9% in my constituency, I ask the Secretary of State again: where are the jobs? Tell us: where are the jobs for disabled people?
My right hon. Friend speaks powerfully. This underlines the importance of a series of tests that the Government must pass on Remploy. I shall come to that, but I give way for the last time to the hon. Gentleman.
I am listening carefully and I promise not to intervene again. Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify something for me? Is he arguing that disabled people should not be expected to be able to work in the wider workplace? The implications of that are a lowering of the expectations of the disabled community and suggest that all we all are fit for is to have a label placed around our necks and then be put out of sight and out of mind? Is that really what he is suggesting?
No, that is not my argument at all. My argument is very simple: disabled people have the same right to a job as everyone else, but at present the choice of where to work is being taken from many of them.
When I visited the Edinburgh Remploy factory, the workers were not having coffee, but working hard and bringing in new business. Unfortunately, however, that is one of the factories that is due to be closed. In Edinburgh, where five unemployed people are chasing each vacancy, every single job is important. Would it not be better to take the best possible advantage of successful Remploy factories by building on what they have done so far, rather than throwing them on to the scrapheap as the Government are suggesting?
Exactly. Workers in Remploy factories are doing a good, proper job of work, and the least that they deserve is a Government who are serious about giving them a future in work.
Trentham Lakes Remploy factory in my constituency, which serves the very deprived area of north Staffordshire, is doing fantastic work for companies such as JCB, and is also working for the DWP in fulfilling contracts. Some of its workers have tried working in the outside environment during better times, but they have returned because they need not a separated environment, but a supported environment. Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the hard work that is done by people in places such as Trentham Lakes?
Let me echo my hon. Friend’s comment immediately. I do pay tribute to the work of people in Remploy factories, and I hope that the whole House will support that sentiment this afternoon.
I met an inspirational young man in my constituency, Martin Dougan, who is now working as a sports presenter for Channel 4 News and ESPN. He told me that he had only found the confidence to take the job because of the support given to him by an assisted workplace employer. Does that not demonstrate the huge benefits that disabled people can enjoy if they are given the right support?
That is absolutely true. Disabled people need to be given the choice of work, and they need to be given a real future in Remploy factories when that is their choice.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is being very generous with his time. I assume that he will accept, in the interests of accuracy, that the level of the overall specialist disability employment budget is to remain at £320 million, and that in the last two years the Government have increased the Access to Work budget. I think that Members in all parts of the House accept Access to Work.
What concerns me is where the savings from Remploy will go, and the fact that Access to Work is currently underperforming. That is the point that has been made to me by charity after charity.
The right hon. Gentleman will of course know that the £320 million specialist employment support budget is protected, and that any money coming from Remploy will be reinvested in it.
That is an important commitment, but I am afraid that it will be cold comfort to the workers in Remploy factories where business plans must be submitted by Monday if their future is to be ensured.
My right hon. Friend will know that the Wishaw Remploy factory is earmarked for closure. We have learned that article 19 public service contracts will be available to many Remploy factories, but it has now emerged that Remploy has not even contacted the local authorities to ask them about article 19. Is that not shameful?
It is shameful, but I am afraid that it is par for the course. After all, that announcement was smuggled out on a very busy day in the House. I believe that the Minister was forced to come to the House at the end of the business to make a statement that she should have been upfront about making.
Several hon. Members
I will give way once more, and then set out a number of principles of which I think the Government should approve.
I am touched by the right hon. Gentleman’s concern for Remploy employees. I think that it is a good concern. Will he confirm, however, that the Labour Government presided over the closure of 28 Remploy factories?
That was part of a reform programme that included £500 million for modernisation. This is the point. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is missing it. The argument that we are prosecuting this afternoon is not about whether Remploy needs to change. Remploy does need to change, but is now the right time for it do so, given that long-term unemployment is approaching 1 million? Where are the real plans to ensure that these factories have a future?
We are engaged in a consultation that has been taking place over a particularly difficult period. During the council elections, it was very difficult for councils to become engaged in the process, and in the course of the consultation the Department changed the terms that were available to staff and prospective purchasers. Will the Secretary of State recognise that businesses need a reasonable length of time in which to consider the facts, and will the Minister confirm that she has considered whether the decision may be legally challengeable?
Let me deal with my hon. Friend’s intervention by listing a series of practical measures and steps that I think that the Government could and should now take.
First, why do the Government not honour every letter of the Sayce report? Why do they not honour the recommendations of Liz Sayce that factories should have six months in which to develop a business plan and two years before a subsidy is withdrawn, that the viability of Remploy factories should be decided by an independent panel of business and enterprise experts—with trade union involvement—rather than by unilateral action from the DWP, and that expert entrepreneurial and business support should be provided to develop the businesses into independent enterprises? Each of those recommendations needs to be implemented.
Secondly—here I come to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas)—the full 90-day timetable for consultation should be re-started, given that the terms were radically changed halfway through the process.
Thirdly—this is relevant to the points that have been made about procurement—may I ask what steps the Secretary of State has taken to draw together local authorities, as well as central Government Departments, to ensure that any extra work that can be put in a Remploy factory is put in a Remploy factory? Surely we should be exhausting all those opportunities before we move on.
Fourthly, we should take a more flexible approach to each and every factory. The fact is that some factories will need more support in order to continue, while others will need less. And fifthly, we should review the subsidy per worker offered to Remploy workers, given that it may be different from the subsidy that is available under Work Choice.
If the Secretary of State is in any doubt about what these factories do, I will go and do a day’s work in a Remploy factory, and I hope that he will join me. I think that we should invite the Sunday Express as well, for good measure.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for being so generous with his time.
The subsidies involved in the two separate programmes, the Access to Work programme and the social model and Remploy, are not just different but wildly different. The average subsidy per person in Remploy is £25,000 a year, whereas the average subsidy in the support programme is £2,900 a year. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be much better for the money from Remploy to be redeployed in the Access to Work programme?
Where are the jobs that those people are going to go into? When factories are closing in constituencies where the average number of people chasing each job is twice the national average and the Work programme is failing disabled people, we have a problem that needs to be solved. We need practical steps to manage Remploy’s future.
Labour Members feel passionate about this subject. We are proud of the progress that we made for disabled people when we were in government. We appointed the first ever Minister for Disabled People, and we introduced the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Supporting People, the new deal for disabled people, new strategies for disabled children, Valuing People, and the Equality Act. Poverty in disabled households fell by a fifth in the last three years of our Government.
We succeeded because we believed in co-producing policy with disabled people. It is a disgrace that Kaliya Franklin, Sue Marsh and the authors of the Spartacus report had to use freedom of information requests to draw out of the Government that the DWP’s response to the DLA consultation was so misleading. It is also a disgrace that the Government have dropped from their business plan the goal of securing equality for disabled people. They should now set about changing course. They should begin by introducing a combined, cross-governmental assessment of the impact of their reforms. I congratulate Scope on producing a “starter for 10” this week.
Labour Members believe that rights should be made a reality for disabled people. We will campaign for that justice throughout this Parliament and beyond, and I hope that the House will express its support by backing our motion this afternoon.
As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) seems to be rather hazily acquainted with some of the facts and the reality of his time as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, perhaps I may take some time to recount to him some of the facts, in particular that spending on disability living allowance increased by 40% between 1998 and 2010 and that the welfare bill rocketed by the same amount. Indeed, in a decade of unprecedented growth and rising employment, improvements in the life chances of disabled people were, sadly, few and far between.
Members do not have to take my word for that. The hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) has said:
“We need to address some home truths about the Labour government’s welfare changes…they have seriously eroded the protection of disabled people...The methodologies that underpinned much of our argument are questionable.”
Those are telling words. Labour’s something-for-nothing culture was more than just their Government borrowing money they did not have. They failed to tackle welfare reform. That has corroded people’s trust in the system, and it is disabled people who are left to deal with the fall-out.
The Minister will be aware that research shows that at least half of the 30%—or 40% now—increase in DLA payments was due to demographic changes. The Minister should not give an exaggerated picture of what has been going on.
The hon. Lady will know that that 40% figure is an absolute truth. She will also know that the majority of the increase has nothing to do with demographics. She should look at the figures more carefully. Unfortunately, now that Labour is in opposition, it is more willing to engage in the petty politics we have just heard—points scoring—than in a meaningful debate about how to transform disabled people’s lives.
We must not forget that for disabled people independent living is about far more than disability benefits or social care alone: it is about individuals having choice, control and freedom in their daily lives; it is about attitudes, and making sure disabled people receive equal treatment; and it is about us in society, and the make-up of the communities in which we live. I hope that in the winding-up speeches Labour will answer more fully why it still believes in the segregated employment that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) mentioned earlier.
As we are discussing some of the most needy and underprivileged people in our society, does my hon. Friend agree that we should look at projects such as one that is running in my constituency, through which we, together with employers, the National Autistic Society and local parent groups, are going to get young people into work in front-line jobs—not hidden away? I thank my hon. Friend for the Government’s support for that project.
I commend my hon. Friend for his work in this area. I hope to visit his constituency to see the work he has been doing, ensuring that the disabled people he represents have the job opportunities I know they want.
Shamefully, much of what we have heard today has been scaremongering. Nothing illustrates that better than the claim by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, as stated in the motion,
“that the Department for Work and Pensions has dropped the aim of achieving disability equality”.
That is an outrageous and unfounded claim, intended to frighten some of the most vulnerable people in society.
This Government enacted the Equality Act 2010, which applies to disabled people. Our approach is set out in our equality strategy, which states that
“equality will be a fundamental part of the Government’s programmes across the UK”,
and the DWP business plan explicitly states that we will
“enable disabled people to fulfil their potential”.
That is a clear and practical expression of how we have made equality a reality, rather than merely the warm words offered by the right hon. Gentleman.
I mean no disrespect to the hon. Lady in pointing out that I expected the Secretary of State to speak for the Government. If he had, I was going to put the following point to him. Was he reported correctly when he was quoted as saying:
“In other words, do you need care, do you need support to get around. Those are the two things that are measured. Not, you have lost a limb…”?
Does the hon. Lady not accept that such language and insensitivity is doing untold damage to any attempt at reform?
The right hon. Gentleman does a huge amount of work in this area, and I would not want to fall out with him. I know that we both believe that disabled people should be looked at as individuals, and that he does a lot of work to make that a reality. I do not want to categorise people simply because of a condition they have. People deal with their conditions in different ways. That is what the personal independence payment is all about. I hope we can continue to work on this matter with the right hon. Gentleman, and with many outside organisations, because we need to put right the previous Government’s failure to introduce any reforms.
Let me dispel some of the other myths we have heard, starting with those about Remploy. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill knows full well that the programme Labour put in place was unsustainable, with more than £250 million in factory losses since its modernisation programme began. Labour set the unachievable target of a 130% increase in Remploy’s public sector sales in 2008, when the right hon. Gentleman, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury at around that time, must have known public sector spending was set to fall. Under Labour, very few additional contracts were won, and what is particularly shameful is that all this did nothing more than give people false hope. The modernisation plan was designed to turn factories around through a £550 million investment, yet it now still costs more than £20,000 to employ an individual in a Remploy factory and losses last year alone amounted to £65 million.
How many meetings has the Minister had with central Government Departments and local authorities to try to find new contracts for Remploy factories?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that my predecessors and I have put a great deal of effort into looking for ways to get work into Remploy factories. He also knows that the DWP has awarded business to Remploy factories.
Why is it that since the closure of the Wishaw Remploy factory was announced, no one from Remploy has approached either North or South Lanarkshire councils about article 19 contracts under the relevant European Union directive?
Obviously, we will want to look into all such issues. The hon. Gentleman and I have already had a number of conversations about his factory, and I applaud the work he does in supporting disabled people in his community, but I should also draw his attention to the facts I gave him before: there are many thousands of other disabled people in his community whom I want to make sure are getting support, and our reform of Remploy will help to achieve precisely that.
For the sake of accuracy, can the Minister confirm that there is a period of transitional benefits for anyone leaving a Remploy factory? Can she also confirm that last year Remploy employment services found work for 15,000 disabled people whose disabilities are similar to those of employees at Remploy factories?
My hon. Friend makes some important points, and we will ensure that support is in place for people affected by the announcements we are making. But what we are about is supporting thousands more disabled people into mainstream employment, and we have clear support for our approach from disabled people and from disabled people’s organisations.
Given that they had to be reminded, the Opposition seem to have forgotten that they closed 29 of these factories. The difference is that when they did that, little attempt was made to find any alternative buyers. Worse, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury did nothing to put in place a comprehensive support package for those made redundant. Perhaps that is why so many Labour Members know that in their own constituencies many of the people affected by the previous redundancies did not get back into work, and perhaps Labour Members should hold their previous Chief Secretary to account for that. We should contrast that with the £8 million package of support that this Government are putting in place. That shows the importance that we attach to the measure.
Would the Minister not agree that the previous Government set aside £500 million specifically to support the modernisation of Remploy factories, not to do something else on access to work? She is saying, “We will raid all that money that was for those factories where modernisation was a success and we will put it somewhere else because we judge it to be more successful.” It is all very well saying that we should have support for access to work, which I agree with, but that money was meant for a purpose. It is being robbed out of the hands of Remploy workers, and they will not get another job in the current conditions.
The hon. Gentleman just has to face the fact that at the end of the modernisation plan, which we are approaching, decisions will have to be made. Given the fiscal problems we faced when we came into government—the devastating state the country’s finances were in—we could well have made some very different decisions, but we chose not to do so. We chose to stick with Labour’s plan to modernise Remploy, and it has turned out that we had £65 million of losses last year and it still costs more than £20,000 to employ somebody in a Remploy factory. We simply cannot allow that to go on. What we want to do is ensure that that money is working harder. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill would have had to take the same decision.
The Minister has told the House:
“We want to make sure that Remploy factories are successful in the future.”—[Official Report, 18 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 599.]
What exactly did she mean then?
The right hon. Gentleman knows exactly what I meant: our very clear commitment is to work at ensuring that those factories can be set free from Government control. That is absolutely what we are doing. We are spending a great deal of time—we started in March—on the process for expressions of interest. We have received more than 60 such expressions in respect of factories throughout the country—I believe we have now received about 65—many of which have gone forward to business plans. We hope that many more will go forward successfully. That is my aim, and it is why we are taking time to do this and taking the time to talk to Labour Members about this issue.
Labour Members need to wake up to what is happening in their constituencies. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) intervened during the speech by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, and I should gently remind her that although there are, importantly, 41 disabled people working in the factory in her constituency, many, many more are not receiving that support. Yet, through employment services, we were able to support more than 500 individuals into mainstream employment, not into segregated factories. So I would rather take the £740,000 loss on the factory in her constituency last year and use the money to support the individuals in that factory into mainstream employment, so that we can actually have the sort of world that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys has been talking about.
Could the hon. Lady—
The Minister was talking about my constituency so it would be reasonable if she were to give way. She talks about the other disabled people in my constituency. They comprise 5,320 people on employment and support allowance and incapacity benefit, and 650 people who are labelled “disabled”. Does she think those people are pleased with the cuts in benefits she is imposing?
The hon. Lady will know that they will be pleased that they have a Government who have protected the specialist disability employment budget—£320 million—and we want to make sure that it is working better for more people. We estimate that we could support an extra 8,000 people into employment if we were to use the money in a more compelling way. None of this reform was the sort of reform that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill was looking at.
Let us also consider the work capability assessment, as Labour Members raised it. They will know that we inherited the programme from the right hon. Gentleman, but it was a harder, harsher and tougher process than the one we have now put in place. Since taking office, this Government have brought in Professor Harrington to renew these arrangements. Furthermore, we have listened to and implemented all the recommendations made in his independent review. The changes softened the system—
I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I try to make a little more progress, as I know that we want to cover a number of issues in this debate.
These changes have softened the system and made it fairer for people, recognising that many people with a health condition want to work and can do so with the right support. We have asked Professor Harrington to continue to review this process for us and make recommendations, because for too long under the last Government people were written off on benefits.
If the hon. Gentleman could perhaps sit down and let me make some progress, we would be able to talk about the fullness of this debate. That would be a better way of doing it.
At the moment, some 900,000 people have been on incapacity benefit for a decade or more, many of whom will be disabled. This approach is not only unfair and unkind; it is also a waste of people’s potential.
Is the Minister aware of the memo, published on The Guardian website this afternoon, from Paul Archer, the head of contact centres, headed “Supporting ESA customers”? It was sent to “all staff in operations” and it states:
“The consequences of getting this wrong can have profound results.
Very sadly, only last week a customer of DWP attempted suicide—said to be a result of receiving a letter informing him that due to the introduction of time-limiting contribution based Employment and Support Allowance for people not in the Support Group, his contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance was going to stop.”
Is it not time that the Minister and her departmental colleagues realised the seriousness of the implications of some of the decisions being taken by her Department and undertook a full inquiry into this incident and all other incidents where the real pressure being put on people is completely unfair?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to be concerned about such a difficult circumstance. I think he would only expect the Department to make sure that staff were handling such cases correctly. Of course every case like that is an absolute tragedy, and we want to make sure that the system works really well for the individuals concerned. I am sure that he will want to applaud the work that the Government are doing to try to make the system better. I repeat that the system we inherited was harsh and difficult, and we have softened that further.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, we need to make some progress in this debate or many hon. Members will not be able to contribute to it.
We are also reforming the disability living allowance, on which, again, the Opposition have failed to give any answers. Labour Members say they want reform, but the reality is that they have voted against reform every step of the way. As far back as 2005, the Labour Government found out that £600 million of DLA was being paid out in overpayments, yet they failed to do anything about it. In 2007, they found out that the independent living fund needed serious reform, but again they did nothing about it.
The hon. Lady will know that—
Order. I would ask the right hon. Lady to speak from the Dispatch Box.
The hon. Lady knows full well that when the independent living fund was running into difficulty we established an investigation into it, we reformed the fund and we had Sheffield Hallam university carry out an independent review. She does not need advice from her Secretary of State on that one.
The right hon. Lady is obviously a little sensitive on that point, perhaps because the fund was about to run out of money when we took over. We had absolutely no choice at all about the action we took and perhaps Labour Members should take a little more of the responsibility. They lost control of the situation for some of the most vulnerable groups in society and they must stand up and be accountable account for that.
By the end of the Parliament, nearly £3.5 billion will be cut from disability benefit yet only £2.5 billion net is being taken from Britain’s bankers. How can the Minister justify the disgraceful fact that the Government are taking more from disabled people than from bankers? Will she justify it now?
The right hon. Gentleman should have taken that opportunity to apologise for writing the note saying that the country had no money left. Although he knows that the banks’ actions made a difficult problem worse, he, as someone who is well versed in economics, also knows that the real foundations of the problems of our country are the structural deficit that he left behind
So you cannot justify it?
The right hon. Gentleman should perhaps keep quiet while listening to what the Government are doing.
The former Chief Secretary did not solve the problems. He and the then Labour Government ducked the important decisions when they were in power—[Interruption.] And now, as I think hon. Members can hear, he is ranting in opposition. Meanwhile, we are working hard to try to implement the new personal independence payment, which is on track for 2013, meaning that support for disabled people will be fairer. At the same time, we are doing much more to support disabled people into work, enabling them to have the same opportunities in life as anybody else: from the Work programme, in which where we are paying providers by results, to Work Choice, through which we are providing intensive back-to-work support for those facing the greatest barriers to employment, and the Access to Work scheme, through which we are investing more to help disabled people and employers with the extra costs of moving into work. None of that was done by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill in his 13 years in government.
My hon. Friend makes a strong case for reform. The all-party group on eye health and visual impairment had a very constructive meeting with the Minister about the need to ensure that those who have very serious impairment of sight do not lose access to the enhanced rate mobility element of the PIP at the same rate as wheelchair users. Will she continue to give consideration to the fact that we do not want to return to the pre-2009 anomaly?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point and I thank him for inviting me to the all-party group to hear some of the concerns expressed to him and to other MPs. Many of my hon. Friends and many other hon. Members who are present in the debate will want to ensure that the new PIP works hard for people who are visually impaired or have a sight loss. They will also be very aware of the fact that the disability living allowance required primary legislation to be changed; it took some two years to change it, because of its inflexibility and inability to take account of the real challenges people with sight impairment have to endure in getting out and about. I can give my hon. Friend a firm assurance that my objective is to consider each individual and the challenges they face, not simply the condition they have. Many people with sight loss or sight impairment face significant mobility problems and my hon. Friend’s points are not lost on me.
My hon. Friend, like me, will have constituents who have found themselves at the whip end of work capability assessments conducted by Atos. I hope that her PIP assessments will be a great improvement on that and that we have learned the lessons from Atos and the work capability assessment criteria set out by the previous Administration. Is she able to give me that commitment?
We certainly need to ensure that lessons are learned from some of the problems we inherited on the work capability assessment. Many have already been learned and there is a clear read-across in the work we are doing. Although the PIP assessment is very different from the work capability assessment, there are many lessons to be learned.
The Minister is proposing to take a substantial proportion of the current DLA budget out of the new PIP budget—the figure we have heard is 20%—and to target the spending on people with a higher level of need. Does she not accept that reducing access to financial support for those with lower levels of need who are enabled as a result to remain in paid employment is a false economy and that prevention is probably better than cure in this case?
I do not think that it can be a false economy to make a change that will see the end of £600 million going out in overpayments. The change is long overdue. We need a benefit that supports disabled people in a flexible, non-means tested way that is not related to their work status, with a firmer gateway to ensure that we get the money to the people who need it. That will mean that we are not left in the situation we are in now, where 70% of people have a benefit for life and there is no inbuilt way of reassessing that. We need to see an end to that inaccurate use of much-needed money.
Will the Minister give way?
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will make a little progress. I want to move on to an issue that I think he will find very important: the role of universal credit in our commitment to supporting disabled people. We know that universal credit is a vital part of how we will support disabled people in the future, delivering a welfare system that people finally understand.
Under the current system, some people face losing up to 96p in every pound they earn through tax and benefit withdrawals. There are seven different components associated with disability, paid at different rates with different qualifying conditions. It is little wonder that disabled people have been put off moving into work for fear of losing out under the benefit system. Under universal credit, support for the most severely disabled will remain unconditional, as it rightly should, but we will also see a more generous system of earnings disregards for disabled people and carers. When people are able to work, or choose to work in spite of their disability or health condition, work will pay. The Labour party had 13 years to make those changes, but again it dithered and failed to make the right decisions for disabled people. I hope that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) agrees that it would have been better if Labour had voted with us on welfare reform so that we had strong support for these important reforms.
May I cast the hon. Lady’s mind back to the issue of the appeals process, particularly for those on ESA? Can she assure us, and me as the Member for Strangford, that when people attend ESA appeals those on the tribunal will totally understand the issues of mental, intellectual and cognitive behaviour? I perceive that they do not and that because they do not a great many people are turned down. Is it not unusual that 40% of those who are turned down for ESA win their appeals? Perhaps that is proof of the need for change.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to bring up the challenges in ensuring that the right support is in place for people with fluctuating conditions, particularly those with mental health problems. That is why so much emphasis has been put on that in the reform of how the work capability assessment works and in other areas, too. In the reform of the DLA, we are focusing on that issue—
Will the Minister give way?
If the hon. Lady lets me finish my reply to the last intervention, that would be helpful. We must ensure that across the board we recognise that for many people who are not in employment, mental health problems are the primary cause. We need much broader understanding of how to ensure that we help people with mental health problems to get into work, whether that is through the Work programme or the work capability assessment.
I will give way to my hon. Friend, then to the hon. Lady, then I really must move on.
The Minister might be about to come on to the subject of carers—I imagine that she might wind up on that point—but will she confirm two points? Will she confirm first that households in receipt of DLA, and therefore afterwards PIP, will not be subject to the benefits cap and, secondly, that carer’s allowance will be awarded outwith universal credit?
My hon. Friend is right to pick up on those details, because such details make a real difference to family life.
Will the right hon. Gentleman let me finish my comments on this point? I think his hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) was expecting to intervene, too, so perhaps a little more civility is called for.
My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) is absolutely right to say that disability living allowance will not be counted within the benefit cap. People who are in receipt of DLA will not be subject to that cap. That is a really important point to make and it is the sort of detail that can make all the difference. The same is true of his comment about the carer’s allowance, which will be outwith universal credit although the universal credit will also recognise the important role that carers play. As this is carers week, we should pay tribute to their role in our communities and our constituencies. I also pay particular tribute to the work of the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), to make more support available for carers, especially through carers’ breaks and by ensuring that carers are able to continue their important role.
I want to follow up on fluctuating conditions. Professor Harrington has been mentioned in the debate. He endorsed work carried out by charities on the fluctuating condition and mental health descriptors, so why have the Government chosen not to follow that up?
We absolutely are following that up. I know that the hon. Lady follows such matters closely, so perhaps I need to ensure that she has more details, because I would have anticipated that she knew we are carrying out more work to ensure that there we have a robust evidence base, as she would expect.
I shall draw my remarks to a close. Given that this is an Opposition day debate, I had hoped that we would hear some clear ideas from the Opposition about what they would do; instead, we have heard the same confusion.
The right hon. Gentleman was clear about what he would not do—he would not make reforms to DLA; he would not modernise Remploy; and he would not make the WCA fairer—but we heard nothing about what he would do. It is not much of an opposition when rant replaces engagement, when dithering replaces determination, and when there is such political opportunism, including attempting to intervene on someone who is trying to finish their speech. It is no wonder the Leader of the Opposition sacked the right hon. Gentleman as his policy guru; perhaps, for once, the Leader of the Opposition got it right.
Several hon. Members
Order. To facilitate as many hon. Members as possible, there will be a six-minute limit on speeches, with the usual injury time for two interventions.
The economic crisis that engulfed the developed world in 2008 was not, of course, caused by the number of people on disability living allowance. Indeed, the proportion of the population on out-of-work benefits fell between 1997 and the beginning of the crisis. Although reform is needed, that point gives the lie to the suggestion that the scale of the situation required us to introduce the kind of measures that are causing such distress and grievance to hundreds and thousands of people with disabilities throughout the country, and leading to such a number of appeals. That is evidenced by the terrible e-mail that emerged from the Department for Work and Pensions today.
Rather than discussing benefits, I want to talk about the social care agenda because, unlike the situation with working-age benefits, we face an emerging crisis in that area. Over two years, the Government have failed to make progress on a way forward on paying for social care, which would be of value to those who need that care and their families who worry about them. In addition, several events that are unfolding, especially in local government, are undermining the agenda.
We have heard from the Government about scaremongering, but nothing can compare with the advertising campaign that ran in the preamble to the general election that featured gravestones alongside a warning about the “death tax” that Labour would apply to fund a social care programme. If there was ever an example of an inability to hold a constructive debate about such a major challenge facing our country, that was it.
The costs of care have been increasing due to a rise in the numbers of the elderly and people with disabilities, as a result of progressive and thankful improvements in medical science. Those costs will double from £14.5 billion today to £27 billion by 2030, and there will be a 100% increase in the number of people who have to pay for their own care.
Changes are taking place in the national health service. A consultation will shortly be held in my NHS region on the closure of five out of nine accident and emergency units as part of a reform to the health service that is designed to move people away from hospitals and into social care in their communities. In itself, that is a positive development, but only if that social care is available and affordable, and we are seeing that the opposite is the case.
On the Sunday before the election, the Prime Minister said on Andrew Marr’s television programme:
“What I can tell you is any cabinet minister, if I win the election, who comes to me and says: ‘Here are my plans’ and they involve frontline reductions, they’ll be sent straight back to their department to…think again.”
After the election—on 28 February 2011—the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government told the House:
“If councils share back-office services, join forces to get better value from their buying power, cut out excessive chief executive pay, and root out overspending and waste, they can protect key front-line services.”—[Official Report, 28 February 2011; Vol. 524, c. 13.]
I will leave it to the House to decide whether there has been a complete lack of understanding on the part of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, or whether this is mendacity, but we know that there has been a £1 billion cut from social care in local government. Councils are front-loading a 28% cut in Government support and producing graphs of doom showing that care costs will swallow up so much of local government’s agenda in the next 15 years that councils will be able to provide only care and waste collection services.
A quarter of Westminster’s £52 million savings programme has come from adult and social care. Some 3,000 older and disabled people have lost care, while £15 million has gone by reducing meals for older people and day care for vulnerable people by 50%. An adult social care survey ranked my local authority as one of the worst in the country. Mr Ash Naghani, one of my constituents, told a local newspaper:
“The attitude before last year was how my council could help you to become more independent and contribute to society…since last year, it’s been as if I’m not important any more. All they are talking about is ways to cut down my care package to see how much money they can save.”
In addition to the cuts in social care, the removal of the taxi card from everyone above a benefit threshold has taken away independence from elderly and disabled people who cannot use public transport. Many of them have pointed out that their savings from a frozen council tax are heavily outweighed by the amount they must spend on travelling now that they are without their taxi card.
Times are tough and the pressures of an ageing population are inescapable. Not all needs will be met, but we must avoid denying what is going on. The Government, however, continue to be in denial about the impact of local government cuts on front-line services, in denial about the reality of more intensive means-testing, and in denial about the extent to which the drip, drip of scepticism about the reality of disability, especially invisible disability, is poisoning the atmosphere, and even feeding into hate crime and abuse.
We have certainly heard strong words in the debate, but a careful study of the motion suggests that it tells us about those areas on which the Opposition agree with the Government. It says that DLA “needs to be reformed” and that the work capability assessment, which was introduced in the final years of the Labour Government, is in “pressing need” of reform. It even suggests that the principle of the closure of Remploy factories is not in dispute, because I thought that the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), was asking whether now is the right time. There is also agreement throughout the House about the importance of recognising the contribution made by carers, and I suggest that such recognition is reflected by the £400 million that the Government found to support respite breaks for carers. We should clarify where there are points of disagreement.
All parties can agree that the Government’s aim should be to create a system that ensures that every disabled person is treated with dignity and respect, and that they have access to the services and support that they need to fulfil their potential. That is reflected in the aim in the Government’s business plan, although we do not know what change of approach that represents. Despite difficult economic times, that remains the Government’s intention, and Liberal Democrats have already made a difference to the policies that can help to make that a reality. Although we support a cap on the total amount of benefits that a household can receive, we considered it vital that the cap was set at the right level, to protect those who are unable to work through disability or ill health. That is why Liberal Democrats welcomed the original exemption of DLA from the cap, but pressed further to exempt all those in the support group of employment support allowance as well, to which the Government agreed.
Liberal Democrats in the Lords amended the qualifying periods for the personal independence payment to match the existing qualifying periods for disability living allowance. This should ensure that those who need support up front, perhaps to deal with the costs of a new condition, will get that support quickly. However, the principle remains that personal independence payments are a long-term benefit. On the Floor of the House I repeatedly highlighted a campaign in support of disability charities to get the Government to rethink—and ultimately abandon—the proposal to remove the mobility component from the disability living allowance of local authority-funded care home residents.
There is much on which we have been able to agree, but there is certainly still more work to do, especially on getting the work capability assessment right. Liberal Democrats support the plans of the independent reviewer, Professor Harrington, to develop new, evidence-based descriptors, covering chronic fatigue and pain, which would help better assess those with fluctuating conditions. During the exchanges earlier in the debate, I was amazed at the refusal to acknowledge that the work capability assessment as it was operating at the start of this Government barely two years ago was that created by the Labour Government. It relied too heavily on the contracted-out, face-to-face assessment performed by Atos, with decision makers just rubber-stamping a decision that Atos had made. I therefore welcome the Harrington proposals to give DWP decision makers more flexibility to look at evidence other than the Atos assessment in coming to their decisions.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will happily give way because I hope we can at least agree that what was put in place by the previous Government was unacceptable and, in the words of the shadow Secretary of State, needed to be adapted.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to remind the House that after the work of the Select Committee and after the pilot areas had highlighted a number of flaws in the system, it was his Government who put in place the migration of people on incapacity benefit to ESA through the work capability assessment. If the Government were so concerned about getting it right, perhaps it would have been a better course to make the changes to the system before starting the migration.
I have read speeches in Hansard from before I was elected when colleagues of mine pleaded with the previous Government to make changes to the work capability assessment that they were introducing. On the timing of those changes, they should have been made even before the present Government came to office.
I turn to the matter of Remploy. [Interruption.] Changes are being made now. It is worth noting—
I have already given way and I have moved on to the subject of Remploy. It is worth noting that of the 6.9 million disabled people in the UK, fewer than 2,500 are supported by Remploy’s enterprise businesses. As we heard from the Minister, changes to Remploy are not cuts. Every penny of the £320 million budget that we are discussing will be reinvested in getting disabled people into work and supporting them while they are there, and rightly so. [Interruption.] I heard that clearly, and I am sure we will hear more about it later.
It is worth remembering, although the shadow Secretary of State found it difficult to do so, that Labour closed 29 Remploy factories as a result of a decision in 2008. Perhaps it was because the answer was “not more than 30” that the shadow Secretary of State was not able to bring that answer to us earlier. [Interruption.] Indeed. The figure was 29. Clearly, the Labour Front-Bench team did know the answer to the question.
The consultation referred to in the motion is still in progress, and it is not appropriate for us to deliver a verdict on it before it is completed. Proposals for commercially viable factories are still being considered, which may mean that redundancies will not be as extensive as has been reported. To call for a re-run of an ongoing consultation is premature and unwarranted.
There are some key areas on which I hope the Minister will be able to shed some light. What discussions has she had with unions and Remploy managers to ensure that those disabled people who are made redundant are made aware of, and are able to utilise, the support packages—almost £8 million, I believe—that are being made available? Will the Minister ensure that details of the bids to continue and sustain Remploy factories via other means are made public as soon as is reasonably possible in order to give some reassurance to those Remploy workers who will benefit? What discussions has the Minister had with the Remploy board and with voluntary and community groups about how to facilitate organisations wishing to continue Remploy factories as social enterprises? We have heard a great deal of sound and fury in this debate, but Members in all parts of the House need to support disabled people.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) on securing it as part of the Opposition day. If I had more time, there are many topics in the motion on which I would like to speak, but I shall limit my comments to the work capability assessment and, to some extent, follow on from the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) about some aspects.
The work capability assessment is a fundamentally important issue and I shall speak about some of the difficulties that I have encountered in trying to uncover the detail of the contractual conditions and information about the relationship between the Department for Work and Pensions and Atos Healthcare. I welcome the part of the motion that refers to the WCA. Members are aware of many of the concerns surrounding the work capability assessment. In an earlier intervention I made the point about the migration, so I will not repeat it. That, to me, sums up the fact that if the Government wanted to get it right, they would have done so before rolling it out further, and they would have applied the lessons from the pilot areas, Aberdeen and Burnley, and from the very good report from the Select Committee that followed from that.
All of us have many constituency cases to which we could refer. I have had a number, including a constituent with Parkinson’s disease who was assessed as fit for work, went through an appeal, won the appeal—as we heard, 40% of people do—and almost immediately underwent another assessment, was assessed as fit for work, went through another appeal and underwent a third assessment. People with fluctuating and other conditions are not necessarily well served by the work capability assessment. Parkinson’s, as Members know, is a progressive and incurable condition. Although people with Parkinson’s may have good days and bad days, in the case of my constituent he could not come to see me; I went to see him, and it was obvious that he was in severe discomfort and barely able to answer the door to let me into his flat.
To go through a process, win an appeal, be assessed yet again, and then repeat that whole sequence—this crosses over the period of the implementation of some of the changes recommended in the first Harrington report—strikes me as a waste of time and money, quite apart from the stress and anxiety that it causes individuals. Someone who has that condition is not going to get better. I am not saying that everybody with Parkinson’s is unable to work. Many people with Parkinson’s do, but once they get to a certain stage, they are not going to get better. To go through such stress and anxiety as they go round and round in the system does not help anybody get back into work, which is the stated purpose of the work capability assessment.
I support the work capability assessment and I think it is the right thing to do. Many of my constituents who have encountered problems have said that they object not to the assessment, but to the way in which that assessment is carried out. I want to make a few points about the contract between the DWP and Atos Healthcare. I know that I have made a thorough nuisance of myself to Ministers by tabling about 200 written questions about various aspects of that. I have done so because it is very hard to get to the detail. Although the high level contract has been published, every time I ask questions about some of the performance indicators, I get the blanket answer, “We cannot disclose that information for commercial reasons.”
In February this year a BBC Radio 4 programme uncovered the fact that there are potentially financial penalties for Atos within some of the conditions of the contract, yet I cannot get to the detail of those conditions. Some £110 million is being spent in carrying out the assessments, which lead to a huge number of appeals. Those are adding to the cost because the appeals are referred to the tribunals service, extra judges are being taken on and tribunals are being kept open at the weekend. The additional cost for this year will be £50 million to £60 million to get right what Atos has got wrong. Why is it in the interests of the public purse to pay that money in effect twice to get the right decision? I understand and will always accept that there will be decisions that are not necessarily right and that there needs to be an appeals process, but that volume of appeals in the system suggests that there is something wrong.
Why is Atos not being penalised through its contract for getting so many decisions wrong, because the decisions, although made by the decisions makers, are based on the assessment, and in many cases almost completely on them, and so we go round and round in this system? Why is it still the case that—perhaps the Minister can answer this point—after someone goes through an appeal and has another assessment, the information that the tribunal has to make its decision is not available for the next round of assessment? If this was actually about being fair, equitable and helping people, surely that information should be available so that those decisions are better informed.
I think that the root of the problems with the work capability assessment is the contract and the way the assessment operates. It is a great shame that this third report will be Malcolm Harrington’s last and that there will be someone else for the next two years. Perhaps the Minister could explain why that is the case and who will replace him. I have met him and understand that he has had some frustrations in getting some of the detail on the issues. He will be coming to Scotland in the near future to meet the citizens advice bureau in my constituency and understand some of the real issues. The Government must get this right. We are not against people being assessed, but they should be helped into work, not hounded.
I wish to speak briefly about four issues, the first of which is Remploy. Only 46% of disabled people are in employment, compared with 76% of non-disabled people, so there is a huge problem that must be addressed, but I think we have to ask ourselves whether an organisation that employs 2,800 people, compared with the 40,000 currently looked after by Access to Work, is the right answer to the question being asked. Furthermore, Remploy’s latest report, for 2010-11, shows that the DWP spent £68.3 million supporting Remploy that year, which equates to £25,000 a head, as I mentioned earlier, and that is £5 million more than in 2009-10, and more than 20% of the total budget available to help disabled people back into work. With the average cost of an Access to Work award at £2,900, as I also mentioned earlier, surely this differential is not sustainable.
We have already heard that Labour announced the closure of 29 Remploy facilities in 2008. I think it knew then, as I think it knows now, that this model is essentially unsustainable. The real issue is that money is much better spent on access to employment and the social model, as has been recommended by not only the Sayce review but many mainstream disability groups. We have to acknowledge that a scheme designed to help disabled ex-servicemen after the second world war is no longer fit for purpose in the modern environment.
What is so surprising about the motion is that it does not seem to recognise that the Government are simply continuing work that the previous Administration put in train, in addition to protecting the £320 million budget for specialist disability employment support.
Turning briefly to the work capability assessment, again we need to recognise some facts. WCA was introduced in 2007 as part of the Welfare Reform Act 2007 under John Hutton. It was then implemented over the following four years by three further Secretaries of State: the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), James Purnell and, finally, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). In fact, in the previous nine years there had been eight different Secretaries of States for Work and Pensions, which does not suggest the greatest grip on the portfolio. None of those four Secretaries of State since WCA was introduced sought to change it. There were internal reviews in November 2007 and October 2009, but the Government did not implement them, although the current Government have done so.
Professor Harrington has been commissioned to advise on changing WCA. I am going to quote from the foreword to his second review, published in November last year:
“Even without Incapacity Benefit reassessment, the changes I proposed to the WCA system would have presented a big challenge… DWP rapidly adopted my proposals as policy and DWP Operations set about the necessary changes with energy and commitment. Atos, who are contracted to DWP for their part of the WCA, fulfilled their contractual requirements.
I have seen these improvements in the day-to-day running of both DWP Operations and Atos. This has taken time and some observers have told me that they have seen no change. I advise patience. The process of improvement is happening, but is not yet in evidence everywhere. It will take time to have the desired impact and the year three Review will closely monitor the impact of the changes and ensure there is continuing progress in improving the assessment.”
It is a clear, long-term commitment to making WCA work, and the observations from within say it is the right process. Again, we see that the Government are carrying on with a programme introduced by the previous Government and succeeding in improving the outcomes from it.
What about the replacement of disability living allowance with the personal independence payment? DLA was introduced 20 years ago and the world has changed enormously since. A great deal of credit has to go to the Opposition for some of those changes. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 secured rights for disabled people, which were strengthened greatly by the Equality Act 2010 and a good deal of legislation and effort from the Opposition when they were in office. However, much has been changed in the past 20 years, including attitudes. The materials, machines and many other facilities available to disabled people have improved markedly, but DLA has not changed, and undoubtedly that is a mistake. It needs to change.
There is no objective way of assessing entitlement, no systematic reviews and there are significant over and under-payments. More than 70% of the DLA caseload has an indefinite award. PIP will be fairer and more objective, will deliver more consistent benefits and will be sustainable for the future. Support will be focused on those with the greatest need and a higher proportion of individuals will receive the highest rates under PIP than under DLA. It is odd that even the motion before us recognises that change to DLA is required, so what exactly are we supposed to be debating? I am increasingly puzzled.
Finally, I will say a word or two on carers. I acknowledge the enormous contribution that they make to our society. They are an absolutely vital part of the machinery that keeps this country ticking, and the Government recognise that. As I mentioned in an intervention, carer’s allowance will remain outside the assessment of universal credit. There will also be a carers element within universal credit which will not require the carer to be entitled to carer’s allowance. That is a welcome change. The Government have said that any carer who has regular and substantial caring responsibilities will be entitled to the extra carer amount.
The Labour party has not opposed the change to universal credit or, as far as I know, suggested any changes to the measures that apply to carers within it, so once again I find myself somewhat puzzled by the words of the motion. I am afraid that as I sit and sum all this up in my mind, I reach one inescapable conclusion: the motion is not so much something to be debated but a press release in search of an audience.
I am disappointed that the Minister focused mainly on scoring political points. She will be well aware, because my colleagues have made many representations to her, that Remploy workers see many problems with the process for the transfer of the factories, but she addressed none of those. It is the Opposition’s job to oppose, but she has ministerial responsibility and I would have liked to hear her view on some of the points that have been raised.
I will focus my remarks on the Remploy factory in my constituency and the broader context in which it is trying to function. The Aberdeen factory was scheduled to close in the most recent round of closures, but we managed to save it. In the past couple of years people in the factory, with the fine assistance of the manager, Mr Ben Mardall, have been planning to develop a programme that would see five or six types of business in the existing factory. Currently, the factory works in the textile business and furniture refurbishment; it also has a small market garden, which has been sponsored by BP, a canteen, and aspirations for a commercial laundry, and it is reaching out to other social enterprises in the area. I have organised a meeting quite soon with representatives of a number of those social enterprises to consider the development of a social enterprise hub. Added to the industries would be a development programme for work placements so that long-term unemployed and disabled people would have the opportunity to work, gain proper training and experience a variety of different types of work to improve their skills and build up a CV. We see the possibility of such a facility as an important contribution to the city’s resources. Remploy’s management have never been particularly commercially minded—I think this is the first time that any commerciality has been seen in the Remploy process.
Experience in the company is limited, but the management seem to have become completely hung up on commerciality and to have abandoned almost completely the principles of social service, which were the hallmark of Remploy’s previous 70 years’ operation. For example, the process for transferring the factories is long, cumbersome and often difficult to interpret. The management’s communication with the work force is in business-speak, convoluted and, most of the time, inaccessible to most workers, many of whom are vulnerable individuals. Many workers are completely bamboozled.
Most Remploy businesses and workers have had their hands held for the past half century—it is not the way in which I would operate, but it is the way in which Remploy has—and they are finding it difficult to understand what exactly is expected of them in order to move forward.
When the Government’s decision on Remploy was announced, social enterprises wanted to look at the factories and businesses that might become available, but they were told that they could not have access because a consultation period was under way. It may be hard to get these people who were interested in the factories back again.
There are also tight deadlines for the applications, and I know that many representations have been made to the Minister on this point. It is a virtually impossible timetable—partners have to be brought in and business cases put together, and finance has to be raised for any new start-up. It is worth remembering that the previous round of redundancies started with a consultation in May, ended in November and was not implemented until January—and the factories closed with redundancies in March. The 90-day period, which mirrors the consultation period on redundancy, is totally inappropriate to a business situation, so I hope that the Minister understands why we think that the Sayce report was much more realistic than the current arrangement about what to expect and what could be achieved.
There is also a growing sense also that the process is not there to help Remploy staff to move on and create new social enterprises, which many wish to do. There are also strong rumours of a likely management buy-out of the remaining 18 functioning factories, and of the work of the closing factories being transferred to those remaining factories, but that would diminish the viability of any social enterprise that might emerge out of the closing businesses. That is a serious conflict of interest for the board, so I hope that the Minister will examine the issue and consider whether new management, or at least arm’s length, independent consultants, should be engaged to consider the whole process of factory transfer.
In the meantime, I urge the Minister to take a more hands-on approach to what is happening to Remploy. She can change things. When the closures were announced, the press were extremely critical of the Government, even though the main problem lay with Remploy management over many years.
From years of contact with my local Remploy factory in Aberdeen and with others throughout the country, I know that there is potential for something very real and very positive to come out of this process. There is an opportunity for disabled people to run their own social enterprises and businesses, and to develop facilities to help others to find employment, which is what will happen at the Aberdeen factory if we are given the chance. All they need is a fair chance. They are not being given one by Remploy at the moment, and it is the Minister’s responsibility to ensure that they are.
I oppose the motion, muddled as it is, and support the Government, based on the principle, which underpins their benefits system reforms, that people should always be better off in work than on benefits; on the fact that disability living allowance needs to be reformed and overhauled for the benefit of the people who receive it; and on the fact also that the Government are increasingly committed to putting in place social care reforms and reforms that benefit carers and people who look after those with disabilities.
It is important to pay tribute to the previous Government’s laudable aims on a number of those objectives, and in that respect we are all Blairites. Tony Blair said, as we believe, that people should be better off in work than on benefits, that we have an over-complex benefits system, and that we live in a country where there is generational worklessness on many estates throughout the land. Those problems are all unacceptable, but it has fallen to this Government to tackle them, and it is a great pity that after the previous Government’s 13 years in power, many still exist and, in fact, became worse rather than better.
The principle that underpins the reforms under discussion is the idea that people should always be better off in work than on benefits. This Government have inherited an over-complex benefits system that is comprehensible only to experts, and the fact that it is so complicated means that the people most in need of benefits find it difficult to access the benefits to which they are genuinely entitled.
The system often lets down the most vulnerable in our society, too, and DLA is in great need of reform. People who have historically been categorised as disabled under the system that we inherited have sometimes been written off by it, even though we know that someone with a mental health problem, or with a physical illness, can greatly benefit from engagement in the workplace. The act of working, and of being part of the workplace, is an important part of the rehabilitation and medical care of somebody who suffers from a mental health condition.
The hon. Gentleman makes the mistake of confusing DLA with incapacity benefit, which has now become employment and support allowance. DLA is not a benefit that writes people off into unemployment; it exists to help people to meet the additional costs of disability, and many people who receive it are, indeed, in work.
I am not making that mistake at all. The point is that the previous Government’s benefits system put people in a category in which they were characterised as not fit for work, often for the long term. But it is important that somebody who has a mental health problem, or who has an intermittent or a lapsing physical illness such as multiple sclerosis, can, if they are able to, work. People with mental health problems—there is very good medical evidence to support this—often benefit from engaging in work. It improves their mental health and is an important part of their recovery.
Will the hon. Gentleman therefore accept that DLA acted as a facilitator for some of those people to whom he refers and who needed to get into work? It met some of their extra costs, and, to echo my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), I think that he is confusing two different benefits. I hope that he will consider the exact point that he is making.
The point I am making is that the benefits system, which was complicated, wrote off a certain group of people. There were laudable aims, because it is right, for example, to give additional support to people with mental health problems, but an important part of their recovery also involves engaging in the workplace, often on a part-time basis and then, if suitable to that person, by moving on to more permanent employment. The previous system did not, however, help enough people with mental health problems to engage properly with the workplace. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) earlier represented the position of Mind, which has historically taken that position, in agreement with the comments that I have just made.
On support for, and reform of, the care system, my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) said in an intervention that the Government are providing an additional £3.8 billion to the NHS to support better integration with social care. The key to improving and supplying better support for carers, and for other people who look after the long-term disabled, is to ensure that the NHS and social care services are better integrated.
We inherited from the previous Government a system of silo working, with the NHS traditionally working in one of them. For example, the payment-by-results system in many hospitals reinforces the fact that not enough attention is paid to the discharge of people with illness, or to the prevention of people becoming unwell in the first place, and what we need to move away from in the NHS, for financial and human reasons, is a crisis management service that fails to invest in proper preventive care. This Government have already put an additional £400 million into talking therapies, which will help to support people with mental health problems.
The £3.8 billion investment in the NHS to provide such integrated working with local social services will provide the support that carers need on the ground to make sure that many people with mental health problems and physical disabilities get the preventive care that they need. It will also provide an important link in making sure that the frail elderly and people with dementia are no longer inappropriately rushed into hospital but are better cared for and better looked after in the community, and that their carers get the care and support that they need, which keeps carers and patients well.
For all those reasons, the Government have a very strong programme that will deal with several of the problems that this country faces as a result of an over-complex benefits system. Their reform of the benefits system will help people with mental health problems and the long-term disabled to engage with the workplace, which is good for their mental health and their recovery. The reformed system will also ensure that the important role that carers play in health care and in social care is properly recognised and properly funded.
It is only under this Government that there has been a genuine approach to integrating health care. It is only through the establishment, through the health care reforms, of health and wellbeing boards that there will for the first time be a genuine joining up of social care, housing care and NHS care at a local level which will allow carers and the disabled, and everybody who is in need of a better and more joined-up community-based care, to be put together in the right way. Those are the very good principles behind the reforms to the health care and benefits systems, and I am proud to support the Government today.
I want to speak about one of the worst days that I have ever had as a Member of Parliament. On the day that workers at the Croespenmaen Remploy factory were told that it was to close, I was rung up by a union official and asked to go there to address them in their canteen. I remember standing in that canteen and telling them about the Government’s proposals to close their factory. I had been to that factory many times before when people were working to capacity, flat out, and had to come off the shop floor to speak to me because they were so busy. But on that day, everyone was there, and everyone was scared. They were worried, fearful and upset—and who could blame them? They were facing a bleak future in a local economy where 11 people are chasing every jobcentre vacancy and youth unemployment has gone up by over 250% in the past year.
The warm words of the Government are all very well when they say, “But we’re making an offer.” It seems strange to me that nobody ever gets sacked or made redundant any more—they are given an offer or future options to take. Well, the future that those workers face is very bleak. Things have been made worse by the crass comments of the Secretary of State. As we heard from my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, he said that people working in Remploy were good enough only to make a cup of coffee. He also said, “Let’s get away from the Victorian era of employment segregation.” Has he has ever visited a Remploy factory? Has he ever been round one of those modern facilities? Has he ever seen the skills that some of those people have when they operate woodworking machinery that cuts wood to within a fraction of an inch? These are really skilled jobs. If they are in sheltered employment, as he keeps saying, why do blue-chip companies such as BAE Systems want to take out contracts with them? The Government have presented Remploy as merely outdated and outmoded, whereas in my experience it is a modern, forward-looking company with a very motivated work force. If anyone wants further evidence of that, they should consider the fact that the workers at Croespenmaen tell me that they have had sales of £0.5 million since the closure announcement on 9 March. For a company that is supposedly failing, they are still motivated and still want to make things work.
As we face the end of the consultation on Monday, the question is what can be done. I say this: having changed the rules halfway through, the Government need to rip up the rulebook and start again. They could take on Liz Sayce’s recommendations and give the company six months to get a business plan together. When I spoke to the workers, they asked me, “How are we going to save our jobs and our factory, and talk to people who might want to take it over, if we only have three months?” Those workers should be given two years so that they can go about trying to save their business, and the Government should not take their funding away from them straight away and cut their legs off from under them, as they are proposing to do.
The cruellest thing about what is happening to the workers at Croespenmaen is that there is a solution for them. I remember my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), in Prime Minister’s questions, asking the Prime Minister whether he would devolve the Remploy budget to Wales for the next three years. At that time, he seemed quite optimistic, and gave them false hope, but when we had the official letter, we got a big fat no. Maybe, just for once, this arrogant, blind Government, who think they are right about everything, might have been proved wrong by those proud workers who are trying to save their factory, but we got a no, and they are facing a bleak future. We have already heard the Minister say that the disability budget is going to be ring-fenced at £320 million, so what do the Government have to lose by devolving that budget to the Welsh Assembly? The answer is absolutely nothing. To me, it is a no-brainer. If it works, that is great, because those 44 people in the Croespenmaen factory will keep their jobs. If it fails, the Government can do what they have always done and blame the Labour Government.
People are always saying that this is all about sheltered employment. As I said, the Secretary of State referred to segregated employment. It is not about employment; it is about something that the Tories used to say they represented—choice. There are people at Remploy who cannot go into mainstream work but want the choice of being able to stay at Remploy, and that choice is being taken away. I sincerely hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, he will think of all those people who are still worried about their future.
One day, Mr Deputy Speaker, you, like me, God willing, will grow old. I want to concentrate on the UK’s care system for the elderly. We have heard much today about benefits and changes to Remploy, but I want to focus a bit more on something that was touched on earlier—the need to provide social care for our elderly and for those with permanent and long-term disabilities, and the urgent need for reform.
I am motivated in this by thinking not only of my own growing old—I hope—and of all those in this Chamber, but family experience and my experience of supporting a friend of my age who, at the age of 28, sadly had a stroke and is now confined to a wheelchair and has to live with permanent care. Supporting him, and starting a trust to support him, gave me the personal experience of trying to navigate the care system for those with permanent disabilities, and it brought into sharp relief the difficulties that that brings to many people who support disabled people, whether they are of what would otherwise be working age or in old age.
The Dilnot commission has been the most important step forward in this area for many years. Criticisms of inaction can be levelled not only at the previous Government but at previous Governments. This is an area where cross-party support and a lack of political tension is necessary.
Over the past decade, 200,000 people have sold their homes to pay for their care. Yet more people, who did not have assets, have had to survive with substandard care. BUPA has estimated that in a decade, there will be a shortfall of 100,000 care home places unless action is taken. In the same period that spending on the NHS has risen by about £25 billion, spending on social care for the elderly has risen by only £43 million. Given that 400,000 elderly people are in care homes and that more than £7 billion was announced for this area in the spending review, we need to ensure that Government support is focused and that financial support is brought in from wherever possible to strengthen this crucial sector.
I pay tribute to the work that the Minister has done to bring forward proposals and ensure that we are moving in the right direction. The introduction of carers breaks is a welcome step forward. I warmly welcome the linking of social care and health care budgets in the Health and Social Care Act 2012, which will tie together what have too often been disparate functions.
It is clear that there is also a need for reform in self-funding. There must be support for vulnerable elderly people who do not have access, but we must also ensure that those who do have access do not have to lose their home to pay for their care. The problem is the lack of an insurance market. We can insure all sorts of things in life. The moustache of Mervyn Hughes, the great cricketer, was once insured for £200,000, Kylie Minogue’s rear was insured for $5 million, Heidi Klum’s legs for $2 million and Cristiano Ronaldo’s legs for €100 million. However, I cannot take out insurance for the possibility that I will have to spend many years in social care. Nobody in this country can insure against the small chance that they will need very expensive care in their old age.
The problem is the uncertainty over the cost. For many of us, there will be no care costs at all. For most of us, the costs will be relatively small. For a small proportion of people, however, there will be very high and uncertain costs. There is a role for Government in ensuring that the market works in tackling the uncertainty. There is uncertainty over not only what the cost will be, but who will be hit with the cost.
That brings me to the final point about why this matter is so important. This is not only a practical problem, but a problem of values. Those who save hard and work hard for their whole life feel that they are penalised by a care system that takes away what they have worked for. Those who put money aside and save for their retirement look for a something-for-something system in which people get out according to what they put in. We must look after our most vulnerable and end the scandal of people being forced to sell their homes to pay for their care. I hope that we will come forward soon with serious proposals to take this injustice away.
The Opposition motion highlights the many problems with disability benefits and social care. There is undoubtedly an attack on benefits for disabled people. Disabled people face many acute problems, many of which have been mentioned this afternoon. The changes to disability living allowance will impact on nearly 500,000 people. The problems associated with employment and support allowance will impact on nearly 280,000 people. We have not seen how universal credit or the personal independence payment will work, but I fear that there will be chaos in the benefits system when they are introduced.
I concur with what Members on both sides of the House have said about Atos. It is wholly inefficient and cannot operate the work capability assessment. Some might say that it is wholly incapable. The problem is not the work capability assessment, but the way in which it is carried out, including the way in which people have to tick boxes and the fact that people are being assessed by people who are probably not qualified to carry out such assessments. If I called for nothing else in this debate, I would call on the Government to look again at the way in which Atos is delivering the system on their behalf.
Like many other speakers, I want to focus on Remploy, which is very dear to my heart. The discussions and consultations between the trade unions, individuals, employers and the Government have been nothing but a shambles. I will ask a few questions of the Government about what will happen to Remploy. Each factory is being tret completely differently. They are all being given different advice on what is happening and about whether they are or are not in the consultation period.
I was outraged by the suggestion of the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) that Remploy was a form of disabled apartheid. That is outrageous. Remploy was established just after the second world war to look after disabled people, and we should be looking after disabled people now. Nothing has changed. For someone to suggest that it is disabled apartheid is outrageous.
The Remploy ethos was developed by George Tomlinson, who was an MP for a Bolton seat. He wanted there to be secure and open employment for disabled people. Remploy factories have given their employees an income, independence, self-respect and self-esteem. It is often said that society can be judged by how it looks after its most vulnerable people.
I am the Member of Parliament for Bolton South East and it was a Bolton MP many years ago who was involved in setting up the Remploy factories. I have visited the factory in my constituency on a number of occasions and the people there have told me that they take great pleasure in coming to work every day and getting a decent wage packet. They do not want handouts or disability benefits; they want the opportunity to work and to increase their self-respect. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I have met every member of the Remploy work force in my constituency and in Newcastle, and I wholeheartedly concur with my hon. Friend.
I will ask a number of questions in the short time that I have left. What is happening with the Remploy pension fund? Is it being closed or kept open? That is important to the people who work there. What is happening to the five-year modernisation plan that was put in place by Labour? Why is it being cut short? What about the huge management structure of people who are not disabled, who have been looking after the Remploy factories but have not implemented the modernisation plan? What is happening to the burdensome costs of that management structure?
Last year, there were 2,500 trainees in Remploy, and it is important that we get an answer to what will happen to them if, as we all believe, the Remploy sites are eventually closed. It is clear that the vast majority of the factories will close, if not all of them, which will mean the end of a working life for many people. Their health will decline. The Minister mentioned the problem of unemployed people who have mental health problems, and said that they should be taken off benefits and given a job. I cannot understand that. If someone who is unemployed has mental health problems and we take them off unemployment benefit and try to get them a job when there are no jobs available, that will be disastrous for them.
If people are taken out of work at Remploy, there will be a cost impact for the Government from what will happen to their health. The Government’s estimate is that benefits given to individuals in that situation could range from £10,200 to £27,000 a year. It is easy and cheaper to keep people in employment than to give them up to £27,000 a year of housing and other benefits. We should give them self-esteem and self-respect by allowing them to go to work, as every one of us enjoys doing.
I appeal to the Government to restart in full the consultation period, which started a few months ago. Things have changed rapidly since the beginning of the process, which makes it wholly unfair. We should restore dignity and self-esteem to people in Remploy and keep them in employment as far as we possibly can.
In supporting the Opposition’s motion, I should like to bring to the debate the perspective of Northern Ireland, where there are separate but basically parallel social security systems.
Our society owes an enormous debt to individuals and organisations that care for friends, family and loved ones. That does not just make our society richer, but in Northern Ireland alone unpaid carers are worth more than £4 billion to the local economy. However, although the Government pay lip service to the work that our voluntary sector does, they are undermining it at every turn through their welfare policies, including the new work capability assessment for employment and support allowance and the move to personal independence payments from the existing disability living allowance.
In Northern Ireland, it has been estimated that some £500 million will be removed from the welfare budget as a result of the Government’s policies. That is clearly a move designed to cut expenditure rather than a constructive reform of the benefit system. By taking away financial support and introducing more stringent qualifications for personal independence payments and the work capability assessment, the Government will take a degree of freedom away from many people. That will only increase the pressure on the thousands of carers who will be left to carry the slack on top of their already demanding role.
In Northern Ireland, we have more disabled people and more carers than elsewhere. Does the hon. Lady feel that the impact will be greater on people in Northern Ireland than on those in any other part of the UK?
I agree, and when I was a Minister in Northern Ireland with direct responsibility for benefits, I saw every day of my working life the high proportion of people in receipt of benefits, particularly disability living allowance. That was a result of our divided and conflicted society and a legacy of the conflict itself, because we had a high proportion of people with mental illness. The new policies do not take that on board.
The Department’s subtext is clear—a presumption that many people receiving benefits do not need them. The Government claim that they are restricting the new benefit arrangements to those who need them most, but surely benefits should be granted simply to those who need them, without qualification. That is what any notion of the big society should be based on.
One of the main problems with the work capability assessment for employment and support allowance is the reasonableness of the mobility test. The test is whether a person can mobilise
“unaided by another person with or without a walking stick, manual wheelchair or other aid if such aid can reasonably be used.”
I know of constituents who have arthritis in their back, hips, legs and feet but are physically able to use a wheelchair. The test is hypothetical; even if a person has never been assessed for such a mobility aid, and such an aid has not been considered by their medical professional, they can be considered able to mobilise, despite their having a serious medical condition that would prevent them from mobilising without a wheelchair.
The incongruous element of the test is that, in many cases, a medical professional would not recommend a manual wheelchair for a condition such as arthritis, as it is a hugely life-changing and extreme intervention on someone’s mobility. Frustratingly, without the wheelchair element of the mobility test, many people with a physical illness would meet its criteria.
I am aware from constituents’ experiences at appeal tribunals that legal professionals also struggle with the lack of clarity on “reasonableness”. Such serious problems have left many facing uncertainty, which can cause severe stress to people who already face incredibly challenging circumstances.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on the comments she makes on behalf of those who are disabled. One issue with appeal tribunals is that doctors do not appear when they should, another is that people are asked whether they are mobile enough to get out of the building if there is a fire. If they say they cannot, they have to return home. Like me, the hon. Lady believes that those simple matters should be sorted out beforehand. Does she agree that a straightening of the appeal process is needed to make the process easier for applicants?
Like me, the hon. Gentleman would agree that that is not the responsibility either of the Department for Work and Pensions in England or of the Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland; it is the responsibility of the Appeals Service in Northern Ireland. That is a separate organisation, and those questions need to be directed to it for a resolution.
The Government must acknowledge that the introduction of personal independence payments might have a different impact in Northern Ireland. Approximately 100 people per 1,000 currently receive disability living allowance, compared with 50 people per 1,000 in Britain. We simply cannot ignore the fact that Northern Ireland society is emerging, as I have said, from decades of conflict, which have left many people emotionally and physically scarred.
Northern Ireland also faces a common transition difficulty with Scotland, England and Wales. In Northern Ireland alone, some 117,000 people will have their cases reviewed on the introduction of PIPs, which will require the testing of more than 1,000 applicants a week. How will so many people be re-tested in a manner that is just, reasonable and fair? That is an enormous concern. It is especially worrying given the aforementioned fiasco of the introduction of the work capability assessments for ESA. As I have seen in my constituency, the number of successful appeals demonstrates what happens when the Government make ill-advised and poorly thought-out changes to the welfare system. I am extremely concerned that we will face exactly the same problems when PIPs are introduced.
Although it is important to pay tribute to carers this week, we must remember that they are carers for 365 days of the year. They are at the heart of our families and our society, and the Government should help them rather than introduce ill-considered and ideologically motivated welfare cuts that will do nothing more than simply increase financial stress and burdens, and many other burdens within the family and the community. I urge—even at this late hour—the Government to reconsider. The Social Democratic and Labour party firmly supports the Opposition motion.
A lot of strange things have been said by Government Members: they say that the Labour Government did nothing to reform benefits, yet say, “You invented the work capability assessment, so you’re responsible for it.” It cannot be both. As a new Member in 2010, I came here intent on criticising the implementation, not the principle, of WCA, regardless of who formed the Government. I made that clear in one of my first speeches. The fact that someone might think it a good thing, in principle, to carry out an assessment does not mean that the specific form of assessment we have been using has worked.
I want to talk, in particular, about how the change from disability living allowance to personal independent payments is likely to take place. I draw attention to a report published in Scotland and based on work by the Learning Disability Alliance Scotland, which took the proposed test, as published, and ran workshops with about 135 people with learning disabilities to see how the test would work in practice. It found that 12% of DLA recipients would not be awarded PIP. Given that there are 24,500 people with learning disabilities in Scotland, nearly 3,000 could be at risk of losing their entitlement.
The report refers to one case study involving a woman with Down’s syndrome living in the Gorgie area of Edinburgh. At the moment, she receives the low level of the care and mobility components of DLA, which makes a huge difference to her life. The care component means that she can cook meals with fresh food, which is particularly important to people with Down’s syndrome, and the mobility component allows her to get reliably to and from her part-time job in a local supermarket. She can afford the bus fares and can get a taxi if she makes a mistake or gets lost. The awards also help her to cover additional costs. For example, a learning disability means that sometimes she leaves the heating on by mistake and so has higher heating bills. Her DLA means that she can pay these bills without too much worry and difficulty. Under the proposed test, however, she scored only four points, which would mean her losing £41 a week, or £2,000 a year.
The report found that 30% of those in receipt of the mobility component and 40% of those in receipt of the care component would receive less under PIP. For example, Frankie, who lives in a small town in a small group home run by a voluntary organisation, receives nine hours of support a week from paid staff as part of his living accommodation. He has a learning disability, cannot read, has a long-term health condition that requires periods in hospital and has mobility problems. At the moment, he receives the medium rate care component and higher rate mobility component of DLA. Under the PIP assessment, he scored some points in some areas, such as living needs—he needs help using appliances and understanding written communications—but that amounted to only seven points. That means he would not get those benefits and would be £85 a week worse off—£4,400 a year.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the changes to the legal aid system whereby access to welfare benefits advice will either be severely curtailed or not available at all will severely affect people’s attempts to appeal against these decisions, which appear perverse?
As my hon. Friend says, there are considerable problems with people being able to access legal advice on making appeals, but it is extremely difficult to access advice generally, given the cuts. We are certainly seeing that in my city, where the advice shop—one of the main advice centres—cannot see people for two weeks. Consequently, appointments are made two weeks in advance. Following an assessment result, people sometimes get a letter telling them that they have three weeks in which to appeal, yet it is difficult for them to get even basic advice in order to make an appeal. That is the reality that people are facing on the ground, so we need to look hard at the proposed tests.
Another important aspect of this debate—the Select Committee on Work and Pensions draw attention to this, and I hope that the Minister will consider it seriously—is that if we follow the pattern used with the employment and support allowance, people will be tested and re-tested, even though nothing in their circumstances has changed. One of the Select Committee’s recommendations was that limits should be placed on the number of re-tests under the new PIP. That is not to say that people should not be tested, but if they are re-tested constantly we may run into the problem of people having their next test virtually before they have finished their last test or their last appeal. That is not helpful, particularly for people with mental health problems, for example.
Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a balance to be struck, in as much as those in long-term care—the very vulnerable people she is talking about—should perhaps not be subjected to re-testing in future, whereas the others are entitled to a face-to-face reassessment, and that that is what should happen?
I do not disagree with the hon. Lady, in the sense that there has to be the flexibility to look at people’s exact circumstances. The point I wanted to make is that we need to impose some limitations, because the stress of having to go through the process is extremely great for some people, and their illness can be made worse.
Although I have taken interventions, and therefore have extra time, I do not want to take up too much time, because one or two other people still want to speak. The Minister who opened the debate would no doubt respond by saying that we are scaremongering—that what we have described will not come to pass under the test and that everything will be fine. Indeed, she has gone further than that. She has said on numerous occasions that one of the reasons for having a new benefit and not simply changing DLA is that people who currently do not qualify—people with communications difficulties, she has suggested, or people with mental health difficulties—will now qualify under the new benefit. That suggests that more people will be entitled to PIP. I want to know how she can square that with making savings of the size that the Government say they want. If more people who do not currently receive the benefit will qualify, that suggests that even more people will claim than at the moment.
The Minister has also said that we should not worry about the tests because they are going to be a “conversation”, and are not really going to be a test. She has also said that we should not worry about the time limits on tests because a test should take as long as it takes. That all sounds wonderful, but I would like to know—the Minister has to answer for us—how it squares with cutting costs. Indeed, it will add to the administration costs, so is that included in the contract with providers? We do not really know what the terms of the contract are, and if those things are not in the contract, they will not happen. Therefore, for all the warm words about having conversations, being relaxed and the tests taking as long as they take, what the Minister has described will simply not happen unless we are given clarity on whether it is in the contract.
I will be brief. I was out of the Chamber earlier because I was in the Welsh Grand Committee.
People working in Remploy in particular, but also the disabled community generally, feel very much that they have been kicked in the teeth. They feel as if they are having to pay the price for the mistakes of the bankers. We all know that we had a deficit, but we also know that two thirds of it was caused by bankers, with the other third caused by the previous Administration investing more than they were earning at the time to keep growth going—and being successful in that. Now we have got zero growth and the deficit is going up.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not give way. I do not have time.
Let me turn to Remploy, which was set up after the war. When I started becoming actively involved with my local Remploy factory about a year ago, the orders it was receiving were not high enough. I went round to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the local health service, the local university, and so on, and now the factory is working flat out, getting more and more orders. That just shows that if the central command in Remploy were more effective, the factories could be successful and could work.
As for the finances, yes, the previous Government closed 29 factories, but they also left a legacy of £500 million to modernise and reinvest. However, we now find that the residue of that—about £320 million—is being put elsewhere. It might be used to get people with disabilities into mainstream work, but that mainstream work does not exist, because of record unemployment and record numbers of people in part-time work, and we now have the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which will enable employers to get rid of people who are weaker without tribunals and all the rest of it. It all stinks, to be honest.
In regard to the financial literacy of the arrangements, the average subsidy has dropped from £25,000 to £20,000, and it costs £10,000 in lost tax and benefits to put a normal person on the dole. Lord Layard has just produced a report on the cost of unemployment in terms of mental health, and it is clear that people in Remploy will end up with other difficulties that will put an enormous cost on the health service. There will be no real economic benefit at all.
Alongside that, there is uncertainty about the pension fund, the factories and the assets. The Welsh Government have, in good faith, offered to take over the factories. They have said, “We’ll have the subsidies if you let us use the factories and make this work. Let us use procurement positively and smartly to make it work.” Of course, the offer has been turned down, because success in Wales would illustrate that similar success could have been achieved in England, and the Government do not want to see themselves failing. This is just a case of asset stripping of the most vulnerable people in our society, and it stinks.
This has been a helpful discussion about policy, but the best policy is informed by our own experience of what is happening in our own constituencies. I want to put on record what my constituents are experiencing at the moment. In addition to surgeries, we now have an open-door policy four days a week, and in some ways I wish that we had not. Sometimes we want to hide, because we have been inundated with people who have problems with lost benefits.
I also help with disability living allowance appeals. This is not just about legal aid cuts; it is about the cuts overall. We have lost advisers in the area, so I represent people at DLA appeals, and we mainly win. That is not because of my articulateness, as you can tell; it is because once those presiding over the appeal see the people concerned, they can see that they have been wrongly assessed. Another problem is that people’s appeals are taking so long to arrange, once they have lost their benefits. They can wait for up to six months for their appeal, having lost their benefit, which is causing immense problems.
On the work capability test, I opposed the privatisation of the process and the bringing in of Atos, but if we are going to have a private company doing this work, we should at least be able to understand the contract involved. We should at least be given open access to what has been agreed with that company in our name, and be told what level of performance it is supposed to undertake. I am not sure what other Members have found, but when people come to see me, having gone through an Atos assessment, they tell me that they feel degraded, shamed and abused. I raised the point about suicides with the Secretary of State some weeks ago, and I was not exaggerating. Other Members will have experienced this as well. People come into my constituency office and tell me: “I can’t take any more of this. I’ve had enough.” I am really worried by the anecdotal reports of individual suicides, and it behoves the Government to monitor the situation and assess what is happening on the ground.
People have had enough of being called scroungers. We have seen the increase in hate crime towards people with disabilities because of the atmosphere that has been created by the media and by some politicians using loose language on this subject. Those people feel shamed, simply because they are claiming the benefits to which they are entitled. That is the experience in my constituency office at the moment, and it just goes on.
This is carers week. Other London MPs will also tell the House about constituents who have gone on to personal budgets, and that those budgets do not cover the wages of the carers whom we want to care for our people. It is virtually impossible to pay enough to get someone to stay overnight. Most of these arrangements have now been privatised, and people are getting a different carer coming in every day. The relationships with the carers have been broken down by this process.
Respite provision is now critical in my constituency, but what is my local Conservative council doing? It is closing the centres where people used to get respite. This is all part of the modernisation programme. It is closing three centres and modernising one. Of course, two of the centres that are being closed completely are in the most needy area of my constituency; a working-class area. It just goes on.
After the Southern Cross debacle, the company was broken up and some of the residential homes were given back to their original owners. I give this warning now: that arrangement is beginning to break down already, because the management in those individual homes are not competent to manage the process of disaggregation and the long-term planning of care. Why? The local authority role in providing those services has been so undermined and the resources have been cut, even for the management of those individual contracts. We are facing a crisis. A number of people are trapped in this whirlpool of deprivation, and it will be almost impossible to pull them out if we continue with these policies.
I went to the GMB conference last week, spoke to the manufacturing section and met many Remploy workers. They are now absolutely desperate, and they feel completely betrayed. They might not have agreed with the Sayce report, but at least there was a process there that they saw they were working through. That has now been torn up and everything in that report has been reneged upon. They feel absolutely vulnerable, with some saying, “We will not work again.”
In the early 1980s, I sat on the first committee established to remove restrictions against people with disabilities. It was called CORAD— the Committee on Restrictions against Disabled People. I was nominated to sit on it by the TUC. It took us 25 years before we secured anti-discrimination legislation. I congratulate the last Government on achieving that. I was one who wanted to mainstream employment. In fact, I was an ardent advocate of that; over the years, experience taught me that we always need an element of supported employment. That is what Remploy does well. What does it do badly? As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) argued, the management have been abysmal. All the workers are saying is, “Listen to us; we can manage these resources more effectively than the current management, but we also need the support of the Government.” As my hon. Friend said, what happened to the commitments about public procurement that we were promised over the last two years? If it had not been for the individual efforts of people such as my hon. Friend and others, as exemplified today, no procurement would have happened because the Government have done nothing.
Finally, the Government should not think that this issue or these people are going to go away because they are not: these people are mobilising. We now have a disability movement in this country of which we have not seen the equal before. Black Triangle occupied Atos offices in Scotland; members of DPAC—Disabled People Against Cuts—chained themselves in Trafalgar square. These people are not going to go away. They will be in our face—and rightly so. I will support them, including if Remploy workers opt to buy their factories.
I am delighted to welcome the contributions to this afternoon’s debate of my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), for Islwyn (Chris Evans), for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) who just spoke so powerfully, for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) and for Westminster North (Ms Buck). They all made their contributions in their own distinctive ways. We have covered some of the areas identified in the motion.
I kick off by talking about the social care crisis, identified by the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) and highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North. I hope that we are now at a point in discussion where we can reach a cross-party consensus on social care. Both those Members identified the major difficulties. I think we should remember that it was my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition who invited the Government to come into those cross-party discussions, having had a pretty bruising experience prior to the last general election when we thought we might have had a basis for moving forward. I certainly welcome the fact that we are treating this issue with the seriousness and urgency that it deserves. However, my image of the contribution of the hon. Gentleman is that he goes around working out how much people’s bottoms and legs can be insured for. He is not normally prone to humour, but I thought that was a bit of light-heartedness on his part.
The Minister with responsibility for disabled people paints a picture that, frankly, bears no relation to the reality of the lives of disabled people and their families and carers. When I heard her contribution, I wondered which world she was living in. She is a quiet and impressive speaker, although she showed today that she can sometimes be provoked. She somehow gives the impression that it will be all right on the night and that tens of thousands of people out there can be expected to say, “Well, that’s fine, Minister for Disabled People. We know that we are suffering”—as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington identified—“but we do not know what is in front of us; we have been vilified in the press, not just by media reporters, but by some ill-considered briefings from some politicians.”
The words of the Minister do not chime with the reality of what people are feeling out there. Over the past couple of years disabled people have been undermined and their confidence shattered, and they are living in a climate of fear. There has been an increase in hate crime. According to a recent report by the university of Glasgow for Inclusion London, the amount of negative reporting of disability in the print media has increased dramatically. People out there who are not claiming disability benefits now think that everyone who is claiming a disability benefit is a skiver. I hope that one day the Secretary of State will rebut the comments that are being made in some tabloid newspapers.
Let me dispel one or two of the myths that have been perpetrated here today. One is that lifetime and indefinite awards will never see the light of day again. In fact the lifetime award was replaced in 2000, because we recognised that it conveyed a mixed message. There has also been a dodgy use of statistics on all sorts of disability benefits, particularly by the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). He said that 75% of incapacity benefit claimants were fit for work, but when the position was examined properly, the figure proved to be as low as 37%.
An image or background has been created to justify a welfare reform programme that is flawed, at least in its implementation. We talk in general terms about disabled people and those who receive disability living allowance, but hundreds of thousands of people who have arthritis, learning disabilities or psychosis rely on the additional cost payment provided by DLA for their everyday lives.
Let me deal very briefly with Remploy, which has already been dealt with extensively today. Yes, we had to wrestle with some of the difficulties—I am certainly not going to run away from that—but the Minister gave only part of the picture. Any Member who was in the House before the last modernisation programme for Remploy knows that we engaged in an extensive and lengthy consultation. All Members of Parliament had all the figures in front of them from the moment that we embarked on that modernisation programme. What we did not do was organise a 90-day consultation involving people who were already feeling vulnerable because of all the other stuff that was going on around them, and embark on a factory programme without building elements of support into it.
Particularly important is the cumulative impact, which has not been addressed today. The Joint Committee on Human Rights said in its report:
“Given the breadth of the current reforms, the Government should publish a unified assessment of the likely cumulative impact of the proposals”.
The Government replied:
“The ability to undertake cumulative analysis is limited because of the complexity of the modelling required”.
So a Government who have tens of thousands of civil servants in the DWP are telling disabled people that, despite all that expertise, they cannot put together a cumulative assessment of what is happening to their lives. I think that it is to the shame of the Secretary of State that he is not prepared to put the big picture out there in front of people. The Joint Committee also said that we were in danger of breaching our commitment under the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities by posing a threat to their right to independent living.
Let me put a very brief cumulative impact assessment before the House. The DWP’s own analysis concluded that the benefit cap would have a disproportionate impact on households containing a disabled person, which were
“more likely to be affected”.
The Prime Minister has always dodged and weaved on this, but the reality is that the sum will be reduced by half under the new universal credit. The “Counting the Costs 2012” report by Contact a Family found that it costs three times more to raise a disabled child, and 73% of its respondents said they believe welfare reform will make them poorer. Mencap says 32% of local authorities have cut day care services in the past three years. The cumulative effect is growing. Some 57% of people with a learning disability currently receive no services at all, despite being known to their social care departments. Disability Rights UK has highlighted how losing DLA will impact on disabled people’s opportunities to get a job.
The right hon. Lady talks about the need to see the big picture. Will she therefore correct something the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) said in his opening speech? He said unemployment is rising, when today’s figures show a fall in unemployment and a rise in employment, and that should be welcomed.
I know the hon. Gentleman from our days serving together on the Public Accounts Committee, so I know how good he is with figures, and how he can bandy them around. The reality is that £9 billion more will be needed to pay for unemployment benefit. That is the real statistic.
That is the real statistic. We in this House bandy figures around, but the reality is that we are talking about people who are finding themselves—day after day, week after week, month after month—being unable to get a job. That is the reality: 2.5 million unemployed.
In my constituency, and in the north-east region, unemployment has increased again, yet the Minister with responsibility for employment did not even turn up to a Westminster Hall debate today to respond to the comments of MPs from the north-east whose constituencies face serious problems. That is a total disgrace.
And that is the issue this Government need to attend to. We have a crisis in social care. The directors of adult social care services have identified in excess of £1 billion of cuts to social care budgets.
What in this motion do the Government disagree with? It recognises there should be reform of DLA. It raises concerns about the WCA. It recognises the role of carers. It promotes independence, choice and control for disabled people. It asks the Department to restore, in writing, its commitment to equality for disabled people. It calls for a full cumulative impact assessment of the effect of what is happening on the lives of disabled people. It asks for reform of the WCA descriptors.
I always think it is faintly amusing that when we talk about disabled people in this House, Cabinet Ministers often find more time to talk among themselves—as some of them are doing now on the Treasury Bench—than to listen to the debate. I hope the Minister replying to this debate will recognise that this is a sensible motion that is looking for consensus, and that he will respond in keeping with that spirit of consensus.
First, I want to say on behalf of my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), who has responsibility for disabled people, that she has had to attend a Westminster Hall debate to respond to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn). She would have liked to attend the conclusion of our debate, however.
Last week, the House debated mental health on a Backbench Business Committee motion, and it made a powerful statement about the need to challenge stigma in mental health—a topic we have also touched on today. That earlier debate was made all the more powerful by a number of personal stories told by Members on both sides of the House. It was a debate that will be long-remembered by those who participated, and I know from the many e-mails and letters I have received that it reached well beyond the usual suspects who avidly follow our proceedings. That is also the case in respect of some of the issues raised in today’s debate.
Let me begin by referring to an issue raised in the opening speech by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne). It is an issue very dear to my heart as Minister with responsibility for mental health, and in respect of which the Government will shortly be coming forward with a suicide prevention strategy. I am talking about the issue of concerns that some constituents bring to our surgeries. I cannot talk about the individual case, but I will make sure that a ministerial colleague writes back to him once the details are known. What I can assure him and other hon. Members is that all staff are trained in dealing with vulnerable groups, including those with potential for self-harm. Occurrences of self-harm are rare, as are suicides. It is also worth saying that Atos has appointed mental health and cognitive intellectual champions to provide advice on handling any aspect of these cases, including dealing with cases of potential self-harm and suicide. I wanted to put that on the record because talk about suicide can itself be damaging, and I want to ensure that we address these issues correctly.
I have so little time—I have minus 10 minutes, in theory—that I would like to ensure that I respond to the points that have already been made.
Disability living allowance has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. It is worth saying that Labour left the assessment process as a piece of unfinished business; it did not properly take into account all those with sensory, mental health and cognitive impairments. The move that this Government are making to the personal independence payment gives us the opportunity to ensure that we do take proper account of the impact of mental health needs and fluctuating conditions. The right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) said in her summing up that the Labour Government dealt with the issue of life awards in 2000. Yes they did—they changed the name to “indefinite awards”. Some 70% of those are still on the case load and they have just been given a different name. The reality is still the same.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) talked about PIP assessments, and I want to tell her that the Government are still considering the findings of the consultation on the assessment process. The consultation closed on 30 April and we will be publishing the response to it, along with the current consultation that we are doing on the detailed design, in the autumn, before this House properly debates those matters as part of the regulations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) talked about Labour’s legacy of subcontracting out to Atos the decision-making process, and fettering, in a way, the way in which decision makers could act. He is absolutely right about that, which is why we have given back flexibility to decision makers. Indeed, we have moved away from the hard, harsh and tough approach taken on work capability assessments by the previous Government. We have taken the recommendations of Professor Harrington’s independent reviews seriously and implemented all of them. We are building on his recommendations, following his engagements with charities, on how we make sure that the assessment process is more accurate and does properly reflect fluctuating conditions and takes into account those with mental health conditions. Again, that point was raised by my hon. Friend.
I cannot give way during this debate. A question was asked about whether Professor Harrington will continue to undertake reviews. He will be conducting a third and final review—the legislation commits to two further reviews—but I think that after three reviews he gets time off for good behaviour. The Government are not telling him to go—if he wanted to stay, we would be happy for him to do so. The reality is that he has done a good piece of work on behalf of this Government and we want to make sure that that is followed through.
The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) asked a number of questions, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham and others, about Remploy. Let me be clear about the consultation process: the objective is to preserve jobs. We made a number of announcements, on wage subsidies and on the £10,000 to support employee-led bids. We did that in response to expressions of interest that we have already received. Discussions have taken place between Remploy and bidders, as part of the normal commercial process. My hon. Friend asked about social enterprise businesses, and there has been engagement with them. The whole process will run for five and a half months. The previous Government’s modernisation plan was meant to turn this sector around, but we still face a £68 million loss, which is why we are making the changes that we are having to make now. My hon. Friend asked whether the consultation report will be published. Yes, it will. We are also making sure that when individual discussions take place with employees, there is a discussion about the contribution that the £8 million support package constitutes. The hon. Gentleman also asked a question about the accrued rights of existing members of schemes, and I can assure him that those will be protected.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) made a very good point about independent advisory groups, and there will be one to examine all the business plans and advise the Remploy board prior to decisions being made about those plans. I also understand the importance of ensuring that any conflicts of interest are carefully handled, and my ministerial colleagues at the Department are certainly very focused on that.
I am the Minister responsible for social care and so I want to address those parts of the debate. We should be honest: successive Governments have failed to tackle social care. In the past 13 years, in a time of plenty, Labour failed to get a grip on the issue. We have a system in this country governed by laws that were written in the 1940s and look back to Poor Law principles. Social care and social work should enable disabled people, older people and their carers to live the lives they want to and that is why we will shortly set out a comprehensive overhaul of social care law in this country, placing people’s wellbeing at the heart of decision making and focusing on goals that matter to individuals. We will build on the excellent report by the Law Commission on social care law reform to ensure that we have a legal framework that supports a much more personalised approach.
As the Government consulted with charities last year and worked with families, carers and others, we heard many criticisms of the social care system we inherited. We heard a long and deep-seated set of concerns about the variability of quality, about people feeling bounced around different systems and not always getting the personalised support that they wanted, and about the system being focused too heavily on crisis and not enough on prevention. We will address those issues in the White Paper we will publish shortly.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) and others spoke about funding reform and we will publish a progress report on that matter. We certainly understand the point made in the debate about the unfairness inherent in the system we have today. The flaws in that system penalise thrift and hard work and lead to people facing catastrophic costs. Those hon. Members who have said that we need a cross-party solution are absolutely right and the Government are committed to talks so that we secure just that.
Some hon. Members have talked about social care funding. The truth is that the Government took some difficult decisions during the spending review, but they were the right decisions and social care budgets were protected through the investment of an extra £7.2 billion up until 2014. It is clear that councils that have broadly the same resources available are making very different decisions. Some are cutting services, but many are being smarter and are working with disabled people, older people and carers to come up with better ways of delivering care and support in their communities. Indeed, the most recent survey of councils by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services found that councils were getting smarter and finding more efficiencies than they had in previous years, as well as fewer cuts. Indeed, this year 77p in every pound that councils have saved in social care budgets has come from smarter working and greater efficiency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) rightly talked about the need to break down the silos in health, social care and housing and we will break them down to ensure that people are not bounced around the system and are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
In conclusion, I want to talk about carers, who have been mentioned—rightly, as this week is carers week—by my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham and others. It is right that we should pay tribute this week to the immense contribution of family carers, but, as others have said, we need to ensure that we do not focus on carers only in carers week. That is why the Government have committed £400 million through the NHS to provide breaks for carers and it is why we are requiring primary care trusts to draw up the plans to demonstrate how they will provide support to carers. This September, they will have to publish those plans and set out how breaks will be provided for carers as well as how many will be provided. Just this Monday, I had the opportunity to visit Crossroads Care in Cambridgeshire to see for myself the difference that those breaks make. A scheme has been introduced whereby GPs can prescribe carers’ breaks. We have discussed carers staying in employment, and tomorrow we will host with employers a carers summit to focus specifically on how we break down barriers so that we can ensure that carers do not feel tipped into crisis and find themselves out of work as a consequence.
The coalition Government are clearing up the mess left by the previous Labour Government—a huge deficit and an unbalanced, debt-ridden economy, after tough decisions had been ducked time and again. The Leader of the Opposition’s motion lacks vision. It shows Labour running away from its responsibilities and record, but the coalition Government are committed to reforming the way in which the country works so that people are in a situation in which work pays. We will ensure that disabled people are included in society and able to contribute to it, and that social care, after decades of neglect by successive Governments, is at long last reformed.
20 June 2012
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
I now have to announce the result of a deferred Division on the motion relating to the draft regulations on community right to challenge. The Ayes were 282 and the Noes were 196, so the Question was agreed to.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]