Before I call the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) to move the motion, it might be helpful for the House if I explain that as the debate under Standing Order No. 24 began at precisely 4.24 pm, the Backbench business may continue until 9.36 pm. I understand that the second debate on the Order Paper under Backbench Business—I am helpfully getting assent from the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee on this, for which I thank him—will not be moved today.
I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to commission an independent assessment of the cumulative impact of changes to the social security system on sick and disabled people and their families and carers.
It has been a long day for everybody, but I appreciate the fact that we are able to hold this debate, as it is so important to the millions of disabled people, many of whom will be watching today. We applied to the Backbench Business Committee for this debate back in June, and I am grateful to the Committee’s members for supporting this debate, but in six months a lot has marched on.
Let me refresh everybody’s memories. Back in 2013, nearly 105,000 people signed a petition launched by the War On Welfare campaign—WOW, for short—that called on the Government to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of the effect of Government cuts on disabled people. Back in February 2014, we held that debate, and Members from all parties raised the alarm about the cumulative effects of austerity on disabled people. Disappointingly, the Government’s response at the time was to deny that the public spending cuts—not only in social security but across other Government Departments—were having such a detrimental impact on disabled people. They also said that cumulative impact assessment methodology was very difficult. At that time, Scope and Demos estimated that the cumulative effects of the changes in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 alone amounted to £28 billion-worth of cuts for 3.7 million people.
It is abundantly clear from the numerous inquiries, reports and analyses, as well as from the personal testimonies of disabled people themselves, that austerity is doing immense harm to disabled people and their families and carers. I shall expand on that in a moment, but first I wish to clarify exactly what a cumulative impact assessment—or a CIA; it is a mouthful to keep saying that every time—is. A CIA involves various methods and processes to assess the overall effect of a set of changes—for example, Government policies such as tax or welfare reforms—on a particular population, which in this case is disabled people. The assessment can not only quantify the impacts—for example, by looking at the net changes in income—but use qualitative methods to understand how the policy changes affect disabled people or other groups. As whole, impact assessments are decision-making tools. They should inform policy development based on the evidence and findings that the assessments present. They can also be used retrospectively. The power of CIAs is that they consider a number of policies together to see how they affect each other.
I believe passionately in evidence-based policy. Too often, it is the other way around: policy-based evidence—we select the evidence that suits the policies that we want. CIAs can help to avoid that. For me, they are an essential component of open and transparent policy making. If a politician says, for example, that they want to tackle burning injustices in society, CIAs will say whether or not a policy programme can achieve that. They are therefore also a way to hold politicians to account.
We should bear it in mind that the Government, at least at the two most recent general elections, wanted to save about £12 billion from the welfare budget, so all these systems are geared towards that end. That is why we have major problems with universal credit. For people with disabilities, there are issues with the independent living allowance, which really unsettled a lot of families, to say the least. More importantly, every so often a person with disabilities is subject to a review, which causes great anxiety, and in some instances leads to mental stress and strain. It is not a very fair system, and the private sector should not be involved because at the end of the day it is very much about saving money.
Yes, and I shall come to exactly some of the points my hon. Friend raised. He managed to get quite a bit into that intervention.
What CIAs have been done so far? Back in March this year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published its report on the cumulative impact of tax and welfare reforms. The report looked at the effect, since 2010, of tax, welfare, social security and public spending on people with protected characteristics as set out in the Equality Act 2010. It included assessments of the impact on disabled people. The EHRC looked at the measures introduced in both the 2012 Act and the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, including the move to personal independence payments from disability living allowance; the cuts in support to the employment and support allowance work-related activity group; the introduction of universal credit, which involved the removal of the severe and enhanced disability premiums; the freeze in the uprating of social security support payments; and more. The EHRC analysis found that, by 2021, households with at least one disabled adult and a disabled child will lose more than £6,500 a year—that is 13% of their income. Households with six or more disabilities lose almost £3,150 a year, and disabled lone parents, predominantly women, with at least one disabled child lose almost £10,000 of their net income.
My hon. Friend is outlining analysis of the loss of income experienced by disabled people, but I know that she will also want to acknowledge the work of the Social Metrics Commission led by Baroness Stroud from the other place, which has also identified the additional costs that are experienced by disabled people and which has properly, or more accurately therefore, portrayed the poverty that they experience compared with some of the measures that we have been able to use previously. Does she agree that a cumulative assessment is about drawing together many different ways of measuring the impact of cuts, changes and access to public services and the additional costs that disabled people and their families experience?
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely essential point. I will come on in a moment to the poverty that disabled people are experiencing by virtue of the additional costs that they face. She is right that a whole range of different methods can be used and we need to look at all of them to ensure that we can fully understand the impacts on disabled people.
My hon. Friend is setting out an excellent case for what cumulative impact assessments can achieve. Does she agree with me on the holistic impact of other cuts, particularly on our health services? I am seeing GPs in my constituency who are refusing to write fit notes or assessments for medical evidence for people. We are seeing cuts in voluntary services, community transport and befriending services, leaving people with disabilities feeling utterly isolated, alone and bereft.
Absolutely. Again, my hon. Friend makes an essential point. The UN Committee investigating breaches in the UN convention on the rights of disabled people found those issues as well.
That was the EHRC’s cumulative impact assessment back in March. Although October’s Budget made some changes to universal credit, it restored, as analysis of the Office for Budget Responsibility showed, just half of what was cut in 2015, and only marginally helped those disabled people who are able to work. For those too ill to work, analyses by Policy in Practice shows that they will be financially worse off compared with when they were on legacy benefits. Importantly, today’s Work and Pensions Committee report confirmed the issues that many of us have already raised about the proposed managed migration of disabled people onto universal credit and said that it needs to be stopped. Furthermore, we need to ensure that the so-called natural migration that results when there is a change of circumstances needs to be properly looked at.
Apart from the changes in universal credit, there were absolutely no other measures for disabled people in the Budget. In fact, the OBR report showed that disabled people were set to lose more social security support by 2022. For example, personal independence payment spending is to be £1 billion less in 2022 compared with March this year.
I am sure that the Government will say that they are helping disabled people to improve their living standards by getting them into work. However, just over 51% of 4 million disabled people of working age are in employment compared with 81% of non-disabled people—a disability employment gap of just over 30%, a figure that has barely narrowed since 2015 when the Conservative party manifesto pledged to halve that gap. As we also know, there are more than 8 million households with at least one person in work that are living in poverty. Work is not, as is frequently said by Government Members, a route out of poverty.
Last year, the Government set more modest ambitions with a new target to get 1 million more disabled people into work, but even this needs a radical rethink. There are many reasons why the disability employment gap has hardly been reduced in the last three years, including the lack of information and advice for employers, but we must remember that discrimination against disabled workers is still quite prevalent. In a recent survey, 15% of disabled people revealed that they had been discriminated against when applying for a job, and one in five while they were in work. Information is not enough to address this; it needs leadership and cultural change.
Absolutely. I was going to mention employment tribunals, which I think have fallen by 80% since the cuts to legal aid. A cumulative impact assessment would enable us to see the impacts there.
With the best will in the world, the Disability Confident scheme just does not cut it. There needs to be a commitment to expand and properly resource access to work. Supporting under 34,000 disabled people a year at and into work is a drop in the ocean when there are over 2 million unemployed disabled people who want to work. But as we know, not all disabled people are able to work. The consequence of the inadequate support made available through our social security system is that 4.3 million sick and disabled people are living in poverty. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) mentioned, disabled people are twice as likely to live in persistent poverty as non-disabled people; 80% of disability-related poverty is because of the additional costs that disabled people face by virtue of their disability, and these have been estimated at £570 a month on average.
The cuts to social security mean that more and more disabled people are becoming isolated in their own home as their mobility vehicles or personal support are taken from them. Many are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage. Their health conditions have deteriorated and other conditions have developed, including mental health conditions, as they face the relentless stress and anxiety resulting from a social security system that is hostile, unsupportive and even dehumanising.
The sanctions regime that has affected over 1 million disabled people since 2010, the work capability assessment and personal independence payment assessment processes are all part of this. Quite frankly, it is grotesque that people with progressive conditions such as motor neurone disease have, until last month, been habitually forced through the personal independence payment assessment process. I understand that there are still issues with that, although it was meant to have stopped last month. I would be interested in the Minister’s response to that point.
There is also overwhelming evidence of the inaccuracies—some have called them lies—in these assessment reports. Why have the Government not been able to act on this? With over 70% of assessment appeals successful, whatever contract management processes the Government have in place, are clearly not fit for purpose. All these Government social security changes will have a huge toll on the health, wellbeing and even the longevity of disabled people.
A peer-reviewed study by my former colleague Ben Barr and his colleagues showed the detrimental mental health effects of the work capability assessment, including it being independently associated with an increase in suicides. On top of this, the Government’s own data reveal that the death rates for people on incapacity benefit and employment support allowance are 4.3 times higher than in the general population, people in the ESA support group are 6.3 times more likely to die than the general population, and those in the work-related activity group are twice as likely to die as the general population. I reported these figures back in 2015. People on IB and ESA are poorly; they are not feckless as too many people have tried to suggest. But again, the Government did not listen and went on to push disabled people in the support group and originally assessed as not fit for work through another work capability assessment process into the WRAG, and then cut their support by £1,500 a year in 2016.
If my hon. Friend does not mind, I am conscious that I need to make progress.
Last month’s British Medical Journal report from King’s College and other research centres showed the impact of social care cuts on additional deaths of disabled adults and older people. They estimate that for every £10 per head cut in social care, there are five additional deaths. They also estimate 150,000 additional deaths by 2020, on 2014 trends. I will just let that sink in—150,000 additional deaths.
National and international organisations have called on the Government to undertake a cumulative impact assessment of the effect of cuts on disabled people. They include the Government’s own Social Security Advisory Committee, the House of Lords Select Committee on the 2010 Equality Act and Disability, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and, last month, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
However, I would just like to refresh everyone’s memory on last year’s findings from the UN committee investigating breaches since 2010 of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. These are breaches by this Government. It said that the Government were responsible for “grave” and “systemic violations” of the rights of disabled people, and that these failures amounted to a “human catastrophe”. Although it highlighted the poverty and shocking impact of cuts on disabled people’s ability to live adequately and independently, it went beyond social protection and social care issues, listing 60 recommendations right across all the articles of the convention and all Government Departments, from accessible physical environments, to education and access to justice. A key recommendation was that the UNCRPD should be enshrined in UK law.
The UN committee also expressed concerns regarding how the terms under which the UK leaves the European Union could affect disabled people. I noted with alarm a leaked DWP report in The Times last week that also suggests this. Since the 1990s, the UK has trailed behind Europe on the rights of disabled people. The Government’s refusal earlier this year to protect the rights of disabled people by incorporating the EU charter of fundamental rights into UK law as we leave the EU is deeply disappointing.
My other concern is how disabled people, who have been very poorly served by this Government, will do with an even weaker economy. In all the exit scenarios from credible analysts, the economy shrinks both in the short and the long term compared with the situation in our current relationship with the EU. Disabled people have been at the back of the queue in public spending terms since 2010. What will happen to them with an even smaller spending pot? Although a Labour Government would make different political choices to tackle poverty and inequality, with lower levels of economic growth, how quickly we can do this will be a real issue if we are to stick to the fiscal rules we set out in last year’s general election.
In recent days, in preparation for this debate, I have been contacted by hundreds of sick and disabled people with their stories of how these cuts have affected them. I would like to share a few of those stories. L, who is a single mum in Oldham, contacted my office recently after her UC was suddenly stopped. She was told that it was because her son, who has severe learning disabilities and who L is the carer for, had reached his 19th birthday. This “change in circumstances” meant that her son had to make his own claim. Unfortunately, no one had told L this. Instead, they just stopped her support payments. She was lucky in that her family helped her out for the five weeks until she had her payment reinstated, but she told me:
“At times I just want to end it all...it’s just so hard and I get no support or respite.”
Another of my constituents, John, was refusing to have the life-saving surgery he needs for a brain tumour because he was worried he would be sanctioned. He had been sanctioned for three months earlier in the year because he did not attend a work capability assessment, although he had explained it was because of his treatment for his tumour.
Beth told me:
“I was contributing £82.50 per month for my care but in 2017 I was informed that my contribution needed to increase and I would have to pay £81 per week. Nothing in my financial circumstances such as my PIP award had changed so I queried the increase and was told that it was correct. Now I have no money for my medication or the aids I need...the impact on me has been increased pain, isolation and anxiety.”
Beth has spina bifida, fibromyalgia and anxiety disorder.
Dawn moved from one local authority to another and fell foul of the change in circumstances rule. She was put on UC and lost her disability premium of £64 a week. Lee, who has severe mental health problems, was subject to seven assessments—seven—in six years. Jayne lost her mobility car after a PIP assessment because her degenerative condition was not considered bad enough, and now she has to rely on her friends and family for help. This is happening up and down the country. The despair in the messages is palpable, and I urge everyone to read the WOW campaign’s voices e-book, which collates these experiences and is so moving.
We are the fifth richest country in the world. How this Government have treated our disabled people shames us all. We must never forget that nine out of 10 disabilities are acquired. Any one of us could have an accident or contract an illness. Like the NHS, our social security system should be there for all of us in our time of need. People should not be vilified by a system that is meant to be there to support them.
In addition to understanding the cumulative impact of Government policy, which the motion calls for, we need to radically transform our social security system and develop a new social contract with the British people. I know that my hon. Friends on the shadow Front Bench have been working on this. Since 2010, we have seen social security spending cuts of nearly £40 billion, with another £12 billion planned by 2022. Although the Labour manifesto last year and our disability manifesto, which I was proud to write, were a start, we need to do much more—I know that that is recognised—particularly regarding the financial inadequacy in the social security system. We cannot expect people who are living in such hardship and poverty to wait a few years for a real living wage to kick in. What about the disabled people who cannot work?
The 1942 Beveridge report was the basis for a new welfare state, set up after the second world war, when the debt to GDP ratio was over 250%. Under Beveridge, we established the NHS in 1948 and expanded social security and our education system. It was heralded as a revolutionary system that would provide income security for its citizens as part of a comprehensive policy of social progress. But since then, society has changed. The pressures from globalisation, automation and an ageing society mean that we need to develop a new, sustainable social security system that we can be proud of.
We need a new Beveridge report for the 21st century, defining a new social contract with the British people; addressing the poverty, inequalities and indignity that millions of people—disabled and non-disabled, young and old, men and women—are enduring; and bringing hope to a new generation as it did 76 years ago. The poverty and inequalities that disabled people are facing are unacceptable, but they are not inevitable.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). I commend her on her passionate speech.
In recent months, much has been said of the ongoing changes to the social security system. Indeed, some Opposition Members continually focus on negative experiences, to the exclusion of the positive aspects of change. I cannot agree with that often gloomy assessment, however well intended it is. I have spoken to those in my constituency who deal with the delivery of a changing welfare system at the jobcentre every working day, and who also dealt with the previous clumsy, fragmented social security system. I was pleased to note that staff are enthusiastic about the changes and advised me that the Government have listened to them on this long journey and continue to listen when areas of improvement are identified.
With the wholesale replacement of an entire welfare system that was tired and not fit for purpose, such gradual improvements are not surprising—indeed, they are an indication that the Government continue to listen to feedback from those best placed to offer it. The work coaches dealing with cases each and every day now have greater flexibility to help vulnerable individuals, assisting each in a different way, tailored to their particular circumstances. Coaches can focus on the most pertinent cases, while claimants who demonstrate their familiarity with the system through their daily work diary can be left, for the most part, to navigate the system by themselves, although assistance must always be available to them if required.
The hon. Gentleman is making some points about the universal credit system, but that system is not accessible by 50% of disabled people. They are unable to access it online or through their work journal. In my area, home visits are not being allowed either. What does the hon. Gentleman say to those people who cannot access such a system?
I can only relate that to my own experience. We have outreach workers who go and assist these individuals, and that assistance must be given when requested. I am saddened if that is the case in the hon. Lady’s area, but I am proud of the staff in Ayr and other local jobcentres.
Like many Members, I have had concerns that the implementation of such a comprehensive system may lead to errors, human or indeed systemic, in the support given in particular to vulnerable and disabled claimants. Indeed, I have referred to these concerns previously in this very Chamber. However, I have been reassured by recent measures, particularly those announced in the Budget, to ensure support during that transition. The additional £1 billion over five years to support the transition is especially welcome, but I accept that more would be welcome in that regard.
I have likewise been concerned by allegations of failings in the health assessments required under the personal independence payment scheme. However, on inspection of and after a closer look at the figures, this pessimism is not supported. I understand that only 4%—[Interruption.] There is a degree of pessimism. Of initial decisions, only 4% are overturned at appeal. Of course, we have all dealt with specific cases where errors have indeed been made—and, I hope, rectified—but the overall figures are encouraging. I repeat that the overall figures are encouraging. We need to monitor what we are doing to understand what we are doing. Almost 90% are satisfied with the PIP claim process.
Something that is often overlooked, sadly in my view, is the flexibility for those with disabilities returning to work that is encouraged by the revised welfare system. Where previously there were rigid rules—very rigid rules—there is now the flexibility to allow a phased reduction in benefits while a person builds up their hours and their confidence in a new role. This can be a challenging yet rewarding event for the individual. This is a sensible element of the new system in helping people back into work, where appropriate, and one I very much support.
The Disability Confident scheme, which has been with us for a number of years, also assists greatly with this process. I commend employers throughout the length and breadth of the country for embracing this excellent system. At this juncture, I note that disability benefits are not covered by the benefits cap, and rightly so.
On the Disability Confident scheme, will the hon. Gentleman recommend that MPs should be joining it and trying to ensure that they engage with employment practices that support people with disabilities to come and work in the House of Commons? The Speaker’s internship scheme, which has been extended to include placements for people with disabilities, is an excellent scheme. Will he also suggest that we should be looking at people with disabilities not just as employees, but as employers, and doing all we can to support their progress?
I wholly agree with the hon. Lady. Yes, we should be trailblazers and setting the example by giving employment to those who are seeking employment and want to contribute to society, and broadening that as best we can. We should also be encouraging local employers, as I am sure the hon. Lady does, to take that on board, and to build a bridge between the person who really is employable and wants to work and the opportunity for the employer that, perhaps with a minor adjustment to the workplace, can accommodate a disabled person. I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention.
I am sure hon. Members will be encouraged to note that in the United Kingdom—this proud nation of ours—spending on disability and health conditions is the second highest in the G7.
Universal credit is a comprehensive system, bringing about the much-needed modernisation of a dated and discredited welfare system. I have not found it to represent the draconian approach that some have suggested—their experiences of it are clearly different from mine—and I am encouraged by the much greater flexibility it offers in helping people return, where appropriate, to the dignity and self-esteem that employment must surely bring.
I am optimistic about the future of universal credit, should Ministers continue, as they have thus far, to listen and respond to concerns or suggestions from Members of this House, jobcentre staff and, most importantly, those who themselves rely on the support afforded by the welfare system in the United Kingdom.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and thanking the Backbench Business Committee for enabling us to hold this important debate.
I was taken aback by the roseate picture that the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) gave us. It does not square with my experience in my constituency, and I want to outline why. The problem of cuts to disability benefit has affected a lot of my constituents very badly indeed. That is largely because, although Durham is no longer a mining area, it has a legacy of heavy industry. Healthy life expectancy across the country as a whole may be 69 years; in County Durham it is 59. That means that many people under pension age are in need of support from the social security system and need disability benefits.
One problem results from the interactions with other parts of the benefit system. Those are serious and complex. Obviously, the bedroom tax—which we debated at length in 2014—has adversely affected those people who needed a spare room for a carer in their family, which they are now financially penalised for using. Another group of people who are badly affected are the WASPI women. I had a fantastic meeting with 300 WASPI women in my constituency. Some people who turned up were hale and hearty, but a considerable number were seriously ill and had a disability. Some of them were working at the age of 15; their bodies are now worn out. The Minister must know that that is an issue because she has noted the significant increase in the number of women over 55 who have had to go on to ESA.
One woman who recently came to see me had to stop work because she had cancer and her doctor said she could no longer do a part-time job. Because her job had been part time, she was not entitled to contributory ESA. Because she has an occupational pension of £60 a week, she is not entitled to any other money from the social security system.
A family came to see me. The mother was disqualified from benefit when she moved from DLA to PIP. At the stroke of a pen she lost that benefit, her son lost carer’s allowance and they lost housing benefit. They were losing £8,000 a year. Their income was halved by the change in assessment.
Then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth said, we had the problem of the Motability cuts. Everybody wants to help and support people who go out to work when they have a disability. The cuts to Motability have been one of the most destructive, futile and pointless cuts one could possibly dream up. A young woman came to see me. She had dwarfism. She had succeeded in getting a university degree and holding down a job. When her Motability was taken from her, of course her whole life was thrown into chaos. Then we had the benefit freezes, which adversely affect this group of people. We are now seeing people with disabilities and chronic illnesses being moved on to universal credit, gradually at first but there will be more in future. That means there is another group of people who will be suffering from the delays to benefit payments and pushed into debt. When Ministers talk about being fiscally responsible, having a welfare cut and the fantastic savings they have got out of the social security budget, the truth is that those savings have been achieved on the backs of people like my constituents with severe disabilities and health problems.
I want to talk in particular about the move from DLA to PIP and ESA. I cannot think of a worse-named benefit than PIP: it’s not really personal, it doesn’t give people independence and there isn’t much of a payment if they do manage to get it. There is massive confusion among the public, some of whom thought they were entitled to DLA for life. Some people who received higher-level DLA now have zero points and receive no PIP whatever. My constituency caseworker, who has dealt with hundreds of cases over the past couple of years, has an 82% success rate on appeals—82% of decisions are being overturned.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the fact that in Wales 75% of PIP and 74% of ESA decisions were overturned on appeal in 2017? Does that not lead to the conclusion that this is an utterly dysfunctional and shambolic system, which is a huge waste of resources and taxpayers’ money? It is not only callous and cruel—it is not value for money.
My hon. Friend expresses it very well. I did not know the statistics relating to Wales. Wales and Durham are obviously having a very similar experience, which is perhaps not surprising as Wales is another area where people are coping with a heavy industry legacy.
In Swansea, some of the most vulnerable people are going through the most dreadful anguish and anxiety. They are chronically ill, yet they think they will not end up with benefits. Is that not part of a wider strategy to squeeze the poorest and most vulnerable to pay for the bankers’ greed, which led to the 2008 financial crisis?
It is extraordinary that the Government have been able to find the money to cut inheritance tax for the richest, but they cannot find money for people with disabilities and mental health problems.
As my hon. Friends have said, the stress and distress caused, particularly to people with mental health problems, are a serious problem. People are put into a situation of tension because they do not know when or whether they are going to be reassessed. I have constituents who are concerned for their family members’ wellbeing, because they get so anxious and cannot face the work capability assessments.
Let me now turn to the problem of ESA. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock talked about how we need to encourage and support people back into work. That is indeed true, but the fact is that, from the point of view of an employer, employing people with disabilities means higher employee liability insurance, it very often means adjustments at work and there is simply no incentive for people—[Interruption.] The Minister is saying, “Rubbish” from a sedentary position. Would he like to come to the Dispatch Box and tell me why that is rubbish?
Both as a Member of Parliament in my constituency office and as somebody who ran a business for 10 years, I employed disabled people and I benefited. It takes good employers to have a wide-ranging workforce. If you get it right it is a win-win for everybody. I do not recognise the situation the hon. Lady sets out.
On the point about it being too expensive, does the hon. Lady recognise the support to work schemes that the Government have introduced and which now can reach up to £57,000 per employee, which can help to negate some of those costs and support disabled people in work?
If those schemes were so good, the proportion of people with disabilities in work would have gone up, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, who opened the debate, pointed out, it has not increased one jot in the last eight years.
My hon. Friend is right. She will recall that the gap between the employment rate for disabled people and the overall average was falling steadily until 2010, and she will know that it has flatlined ever since. Does she share my disappointment that the Government no longer have a target for reducing the disability employment gap—the target initially set by David Cameron but since abandoned, unfortunately?
My right hon. Friend, who had a proud record as a Minister tackling these issues in the previous Labour Government, points out the twists and turns of policy. It is patently ridiculous for Ministers, following the UN report, to be complacent in this area. There is no room for complacency.
I wish to illustrate the problem of ESA with some stories of constituents of mine. Mrs M, 63, had to stop working as a carer because of ill health. She was signed off by her GP. She has Paget’s disease and a tumour on her leg. She sees an oncologist. She needs a new hip. She is seeing a surgeon because she needs a new knee. She has heart arrhythmia on the left side and sees a cardiologist. She was refused ESA at assessment and had to apply for JSA, and she was advised to apply for jobs as a roofer and bouncer or to consider retraining as a social worker. Obviously, we supported her appeal, and ESA was awarded. It is patently ridiculous that people have to go through this sort of thing.
Mr C, 60, had previously been awarded DLA following a series of strokes. He was transferred to PIP in January 2018 and awarded a high rate for both care and mobility. He put in an ESA assessment request in September 2018, but he got confused because all his medical information had been sent to DWP for the PIP assessment, and he was then expected to pay again for the medical evidence for the ESA application. Why can the Department not sort out its administration, instead of putting these financial burdens on to our vulnerable constituents?
Mr I, 64, was previously awarded PIP and was reassessed in 2018. The award was unchanged—eight points for mobility because he cannot walk 50 metres unaided—but his ESA assessment in October 2018 failed because he could move 200 metres using a wheelchair. He is currently awaiting a mandatory reconsideration. One of the confusions is that people cannot understand how they can be awarded a high award in the PIP assessment but then be required to work under the ESA assessment. It does not stack up. One reason it does not stack up is the amateurish and unqualified nature of the staff doing the assessments. This has been a problem from the off. Ministers have had eight years to sort it out, but they have failed.
Let me tell the story of Mr J. Mr J is autistic and has various mental impairments. He had been receiving DLA, but was moved to PIP. He applied for ESA and was placed in the support group. He was unaware that his ESA was contribution-based rather than income-based. When he went to the chemist and was given the prescription form, he ticked the box because he had previously been entitled to free prescriptions, but that was no longer the case. A fine was issued, which the family had to pay. Mr J’s mother had to intervene and become the appointee to deal with the issue, as Mr J was plainly not capable of doing so himself.
Mr J is not a one-off. He is not unusual. Five years ago, 30,000 people were fined for falsely saying that they were entitled to NHS prescriptions. Last year the figure was 1 million, and it was 1 million because the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Work and Pensions are not properly co-ordinated. The Department for Work and Pensions does not give people the information that they need when they receive their benefits, and the Department of Health and Social Care is hounding them for money. For the Minister, on a nice ministerial salary of £98,000 a year, a £100 fine might not be a lot, but for people with incomes of £100-£150, it is a whole week’s income.
This is a complete disgrace. It is utterly careless. We have been raising the issue with Ministers for the last six months and they have still not sorted it out. Of course I am not saying that Ministers set out to fine a million people—that would be a ridiculous assertion—but it is sometimes culpable to be careless, and this Government are careless of disabled people.
If I may, I will bring the debate back to the actual motion, which calls on the Government to commission an independent assessment of the cumulative impact of changes to the social security system. This is an important issue, and it is right that we should discuss it today. Let me add that it is an honour to follow the impassioned speech of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman).
Of course we must ensure that the social security system works for everyone. It should be a safety net to help those who have fallen on hard times, but it should also help people to stand on their own two feet. When they cannot do that, it should be there to support them and enable them to lead decent lives.
If we are to consider the motion properly, we must recognise that, because of the Government’s actions, disability spending will be higher in every year to 2020, relative to both 2010 and today. Thanks to their reforms, the average weekly award of PIP is more than £13 higher than the old DLA award, and 87% of claimants say that they are satisfied with their claimant journeys. In this year alone, £50 billion will be spent to support people with disabilities and health conditions. There are further achievements that I could stand here and natter on about, but for the sake of brevity, I will merely say that the Government have a strong track record on disability support.
Moreover, the NHS, which has now been given a record level of funding thanks to this Government, will continue to offer unparalleled care to people with poor health. As for carers, their allowance has increased from £116 to £120 a week since 2010. There is more support for carers, and it has grown faster than wages. In the context of the motion—to which I return again—that is very good news. The changes will almost certainly have a positive impact within the wider social security system, and will benefit sick and disabled people and their families and carers. I do not think we need an independent assessment to tell us that.
Let me make a quick point about universal credit. I believe that the purpose of any social security system should be to help people into work and give them the satisfaction that work provides, rather than creating yet another culture of dependency that the country simply cannot afford. It is estimated that universal credit will help 200,000 more people into work when it is fully rolled out, and will empower people to work an extra 113 million hours a year. For disabled people specifically, they have boosted income of about £110 a month thanks to the increased support under UC. On a recent visit to my local jobcentre, my staff and I found that the majority of claimants in my constituency are happy with UC according to jobcentre staff. In fact, the staff there are very happy to be dealing with it; they prefer it to the old legacy benefits.
I had a recent case of a disabled gentleman who was struggling to find outreach support from the jobcentre. With the assistance of a local councillor we were able to help this gentleman. I raised this case with the Secretary of State this week, and I am pleased that she said that she would look at ways to promote that outreach so that people are aware of the services offered at our jobcentres.
The hon. Gentleman is painting an extremely rosy picture of circumstances in Clacton. Is he aware of the visit a month ago to Clacton of the UN special rapporteur on poverty, and his report on the serious poverty he found there and the lack of support for people, including those with disabilities?
Of course I am aware of the visit of the UN rapporteur, whom I met for two hours. He spent, I think, two hours in Jaywick, where there absolutely are problems; he arrived, spoke to the people of Jaywick and went away in two hours. That shows total disrespect for the staff and the officers of the local council who have been working so hard for so long to improve the situation in Jaywick. We are building 10 more houses there: five for council housing and five starter homes. We have bought 30 hectares of land and we are expanding our works in Jaywick, and things in Jaywick are improving. Moreover the rapporteur’s visit irritated the people of Jaywick greatly; it irritated them that somebody yet again has come to Jaywick, looked at it and said, “This is a bad place to live.” No, it is not; it is a wonderful place to live with a wonderful community who are on the up at the moment. I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, as I enjoyed that hugely.
We were the party that introduced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, a groundbreaking Act that was subsequently amended and replaced by the Equality Act 2010. On the specific point about an independent assessment, it is because of the chain of legislative changes that we started that all Departments and public bodies now have a responsibility for considering and monitoring the impact of policies on disabled people. This is the case for all policy, not just disability-related policies.
Finally—and this is the crucial point—if we commission this assessment, we must recognise that the DWP does not believe it is methodologically sound to publish a cumulative impact separately for disabled people. The main reasons are that the Department’s survey data are limited, particularly in terms of capturing the severity of disability, and because most people live in households with others, the Department does not know how incomes are shared. It is very hard to look at effects separately for the disabled. That will be the case for an independent body, too, so there is no point in commissioning a flawed and inaccurate assessment; that helps nobody.
I congratulate my colleague the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this important debate and I appreciate the Backbench Business Committee’s granting it.
This is an interesting situation, because I support some elements of UC. I remember supporting it in the coalition. There were elements of it that I pointed out at the time would cause problems. Some of what I said was taken on board, but unfortunately some was not and we have reaped the whirlwind all these years later. A key element of UC that I supported avidly was around working allowance, and I was disappointed that that was cut to ribbons in 2015, although I was delighted only a few months ago that £1.7 billion was restored, if not the full amount. So, there has been a bit of progress.
I worked with my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth—I call her my hon. Friend even though we are in different parties—on the Work and Pensions Committee between 2010 and 2015, and we saw a lot of things in the same light. That is one of the reasons that I think today’s request is not unreasonable. Anyone who was born with a disability or acquired it when very young faces an enormous challenge to get work. I know this because I have been working in this area for more than 30 years. After the kerfuffle earlier today, I should tell the House that I have been hard of hearing for 50 years and I am quite a good lipspeaker. I have kept silent about that, however. I decided that there was enough Sturm und Drang without my chucking any more into it. I am going to rise above that.
Disabled people face barriers to employment, to education and in many other areas. A Conservative Member made the point that it was the Conservatives in the early 1990s who introduced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I know that well, because I helped to campaign for it, all those years ago when I was young and had no grey hair. I met John Major at the time, and he was very impressive on the issue. The DDA was a huge game changer. Without that law, we would not have made anywhere near the number of advances on disability discrimination in services and employment that we have in fact made. However, there is a long way to go, and that is often because people do not understand the barriers that disabled people face.
Governments on all sides often point out that, under the DDA, someone who acquires a disability while working can keep their job. That is a great thing, and it is really important, but I know loads of disabled people who would give their right arm just to get in the door and be given a job. The system is now much better at protecting people who, sadly, acquire a disability through illness, for example, and that represents fantastic progress. However, the thing that has not changed in all the years I have been in politics, and all the years before that when I was involved in this area, is that it is still incredibly hard for a disabled person to get a job.
On top of that, people have to deal with the incredibly unwise move by the DWP a couple of years ago—before the present Ministers were in situ—to change elements of the capability assessment. The Government kept the support group and a couple of the other groups, but they changed the part of the employment and support allowance that helps disabled people to get work. They changed the income so that it was the same as that of jobseeker’s allowance, or just above it, rather than retaining the higher amount that was available to the support group. That was such a foolish move. I was not an MP at the time—I had a brief two-year period after 2015 when I was not an MP, then I came back—and I remember writing to my colleagues and to the then Ministers about the decision.
Human nature is human nature, and if the additional payment is reduced by 20% for disabled people who are prepared to try to find work, with support, those people will of course strive darn hard to get into the support group. That is not wrong; that is what happens. If I had been off work for six or seven years, and I had been persuaded by my work coach at the Jobcentre Plus to go into an ESA cohort that would give me a little more money than pure JSA—a little less than in the support group but more than JSA—I would be willing to go into that group because there would be more income and also because the work coach would be there to help me to find work. If the rules were then changed, so that my money was exactly the same as it would be on JSA, I would try to stay in the support group—it would be bonkers not to, to be perfectly honest. That is just human nature. That was really frustrating, so I was not surprised to learn that there have been real problems in that area over the ensuing years, and that a lot of people have moved over to the support group who perhaps would not have done so.
There are still some really odd anomalies. I have recently been helping a constituent who had worked for the DWP at the local Jobcentre Plus for x number of years. Unfortunately he became ill, and after a few years it was clear that his illness was stopping him working effectively, even part time. The DWP did its best to help him through the process, but eventually he was let go, under proper due process—I have no complaints about that, and neither did he. Two years later he was on ESA and had to go for a work capability assessment, because the DWP’s system had said, “No, you’re not disabled enough to have these benefits.” He was disabled enough to be made redundant but not disabled enough a few years later to actually get the benefits, which was ridiculous. I do not believe that it was a conspiracy; I believe that it was classic dim bureaucracy. I try to provide support at tribunals where possible, so one member of my office team—I am training up a second colleague—joined my constituent to act as an advocate at tribunal. He won and is now getting all the benefits to which he is entitled.
My point is that that clunkiness happens more often for someone who is disabled. I know so much about this subject, having worked with so many thousands of people over the years, so that is why I believe we need an assessment. I do not think that is unreasonable. I do not agree with all the things that it is suggested are required. My colleague the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth would be surprised if I agreed with her on everything, but I agree with her on this. We need a specific assessment of the impact that the changes are having on disabled people. If we do not have that, I fear for the really huge migration—the million migration—although I accept that the Government have been making some good amendments to universal credit, sometimes through gritted teeth. That is why I do not think that it is unreasonable to ask for an independent impact assessment that is focused on disabled people.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Centre for Welfare Reform recently published an analysis of the Government’s reasons for not producing a cumulative impact assessment? In summary, it found no good reason why the Government should not evaluate the combined impact of their policies.
I was not aware of that, but it makes my case perfectly. As the hon. Lady knows, that is a good lobby group, from a different perspective—from the right of centre. What we have is left of centre, centre—an empty void these days, but that is by the by—and right of centre all telling the Government to have the impact assessment.
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, with genuine respect, that I think the Department is spinning to him on that. I know a lot about disability statistics, including all the different Government and DWP statistics, and I do not believe that it would be beyond the wit of man to come up with the model that gets over the particular hurdle he has talked about. My view is that the hurdle is not as dramatic as the DWP is saying. We might have to agree to disagree, but I genuinely believe that, and I have worked a lot with the DWP over the years under different Governments.
I will now close, as I know others wish to speak. The request for an independent assessment is not unreasonable, and it would do the Government credit to accept it. On that basis, I hope the Minister is listening.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), who is clearly well informed on these issues and who shares my love of statistics.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this debate. Opposition Members have talked about the UN report and the Government’s supposed complacency, and I make it clear that, in the 18 months I have been here, not one of my colleagues or I have been complacent about the welfare policies we see play out in our constituencies every single day. I will elaborate on some of the areas where I think we are doing quite well and on other areas where there is still scope for further reform, on which I am sure colleagues will want to work with me and, of course, with Ministers in trying to deliver.
We are having this debate against the backdrop of significant changes to our welfare policy. DLA is being phased through to PIP, along with attendance allowance for pensioners with care needs. We have seen a big difference in how the money is being spent, too.
Some Opposition Members have criticised the Government, saying that costs have been cut on the backs of the most vulnerable in our society. I have heard that allegation made against Ministers time and again, which is why I went to the Library to look at the overall expenditure within our welfare system. Breaking it down, around £10.3 billion was being spent on DLA in 2009-10—we did not have PIP in 2009-10—and in 2017-18 around £16 billion was being spent on DLA plus PIP. In cash terms, there has not been a reduction in overall expenditure.
The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who is no longer in her place, said that we are cutting costs on the backs of the most vulnerable, which is neither fair nor accurate. If we are to have a proper debate on how to help the most vulnerable in our society, we should speak to the right facts. The facts and statistics have come up as an issue time and again, including in the House this week. We owe it to all our constituents to speak to the facts, and if Opposition Members dispute the facts, they should take it up with the Library.
In looking at how the policies have come across, not only has the way in which the money is distributed changed, but so has how services are delivered. What has happened with a lot of the welfare reforms—I have seen it, and my constituents have come to my office to speak about it—is that many people on legacy benefits are, for the very first time, having some of the assumptions challenged and are being asked for reassessments. Sometimes that is for the good, but sometimes there has been a detrimental impact where they have fallen through the different changes. They might have had a change of circumstances, or they might have moved between counties or to different parts of the country, which has had a negative impact. I have asked questions of Ministers in the House to try to tackle those issues.
I could not agree more. I find it interesting that we have had an increase of around 800,000 people aged 16 to 64 who are now being classified as disabled. I understand that they had previous classifications within the welfare system and were receiving different benefits, so a simple change in the denominator would not indicate the impact.
The Government have made commitments to people in receipt of cash benefits. [Interruption.] It is a fair point. The hon. Lady asked me a direct question, and I gave her a direct answer. Again, I would happily debate the number of people who are now being classified as disabled.
There have been some positive movements in the Government’s changes. We have seen the employment rate for disabled people go up from 43% to 51%, which is welcome. I referred to Access to Work earlier, and £104 million went into the scheme in 2016-17, providing support to around 25,000 people.
Again, no Conservative Member is complacent. We are very clear that changes still need to be made. A number of my constituents have talked to me about their experiences of the assessment process, taking me through the paperwork. I have gone through that page by page with them to understand where they are having difficulties. From that, we can see that some of these changes have brought people into our offices; they have brought them into the welfare system. For a long time, they have lagged in the dark, whereas now assumptions are being challenged and new benefits are being offered. As a result, new questions are coming from our constituents, and we should try to answer them as best we can.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for giving a far more honest portrayal of his experience of his constituents than other Government Members. May I just challenge a point he made earlier about the figures? Of course, when he refers to these figures, he is being somewhat selective. The rate of inflation means costs have risen since 2010, so naturally the costs, output and spend he refers to will be higher, but that does not necessarily mean that people are not being affected disproportionately.
We are looking at a 38% increase in cash terms, but if the compound inflation rate over the same period is taken into account, this would come out as less than 38%. I am happy to go through the calculations with the hon. Lady separately, but we would still find a real-terms increase in the benefits that are being paid out.
On all these policies, we, as constituency MPs, see people who come into our offices. They come to see me and my staff in my Alloa office and in my Crieff office, and we see some of the human impact of the changes made in welfare. I support looking at how we assess the impacts on disabled people, because we are putting in a considerable amount of money. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) made the point about the amount being spent on disabled benefits, and we are one of the highest spenders in the developed world, which should be applauded, but if the money is not getting to the right people at the right time, we need to see exactly how it is being administered and how our services are being delivered on the frontline right across our country.
Like other Members here, I have hosted debates on Disability Confident, which is a fantastic scheme. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) talked about how MPs should be signing up for that. My office is a member of the scheme and the same applies to colleagues from right across the House. The Minister visited the Glenalmond Timber Company in my constituency, and I hope everyone will be able to join me in congratulating Jed Gardner, its production manager, who now has Disability Confident leader status—the first in Scotland. I hope everyone will congratulate him on the fantastic work being done in Methven to give people with disabilities opportunities to work. When I visited the company and when the Minister did, too, we could clearly see the impact this has on not only individuals, but their family and friends. So some incredibly positive work is being done by this Government, although there are also areas where we need to review and assess continually.
Furthermore, in my constituency, we recently held a joint event with my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) on Disability Confident in Alloa, which the local community and the DWP attended. It was hosted in Inglewood House, which, I am glad to say, signed up to the Disability Confident scheme immediately following that event. Again, that is an incredibly positive action, showing that companies in Clackmannanshire, Perth and Kinross are taking Government initiatives from the green Benches here and applying them in a daily way where we can see real improvement in our constituents’ lives.
As I said, I have a number of concerns about how the assessment is taking place, and I would support looking at having an assessment of how these things are being delivered. I hope to work with my Government colleagues on how that would be done. I hope that such an assessment would be independent, or certainly objective, to make sure that our constituents, our Government and ourselves will have the best possible view on how these disability benefits are being delivered.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the recommendation in the Work and Pensions Committee’s report published this week that, while someone is waiting for a work capability assessment, it is unreasonable of the Department not to pay universal credit, because that is leaving people high and dry?
The short answer is yes. I led the inquiry on universal credit in the Public Accounts Committee, and I refer all Members to the inquiry and subsequent report, where we identified the strengths and shortfalls of the UC system. I hope that Government colleagues have read that report and taken those recommendations into account.
I wish to make one or two final points before summarising. We have talked a lot about statistics. One concern I have—this is often not appreciated in this House—is that the devolution of certain levels of statistics around the country means we often have different levels of government in the UK producing different statistics, which makes like-for-like comparisons quite difficult. When preparing for this debate and for the mental health debate that was pulled, I struggled to get figures from the Library, because in Scotland we are now not going along with certain NHS quality-for-delivery frameworks. Even if different parts of the United Kingdom and different levels of government use different methods, we have to find a statistical method to find a uniform measure so that we can have a meaningful debate in this place. Otherwise, we are not comparing apples with apples and we cannot get a real view of how services are being delivered for our constituents.
In that same vein, the devolution of welfare powers has been debated in the past, and I am sure that the debate will be ongoing in this place in the coming years. I have a real concern about the devolution of welfare powers—not because I think that all powers should remain here and I want to sit on the green-Bench throne, but because when we speak to the most vulnerable people in our constituencies, as I know every Member does, we find out that adding another agency or two into the equation would make it even more difficult for them to get the help that they need.
I support this issue, because we should have an objective assessment of what these changes are doing for our constituents and for the most vulnerable people. We are spending the money, but we have to make sure that it goes to the right place. For too long, benefits have been a party political issue. When it comes to disability and helping the most vulnerable people in society, we can look past our party affiliation and deliver for our constituents.
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing this important debate.
On a daily basis, my office sees at first hand the horrendous and appalling impact that the Government’s changes to the social security system have had on some of the most vulnerable people in my Aberavon constituency. Many of my constituents who come to my advice surgeries are at their wits’ end, worried that their benefits are going to be stopped and that they will not be able to pay their rent or put food on the table for their children. We have seen hundreds of vulnerable constituents put through the humiliation of shambolic health assessments that cast doubts on their physical disabilities or mental health issues. Following that humiliation is the awful uncertainty and fear of the appeals process, which we almost always win.
Some people have been awarded no points following PIP or ESA assessments, when it is quite clear that they are struggling with a disability, or when information has been inaccurately recorded. This has eroded confidence in not only the assessment process but the whole system. Universal credit has landed people in rent arrears for the very first time. Some people’s experiences are simply harrowing.
In one case, a woman who had suffered with a degenerative disc condition for 27 years, along with depression and anxiety, waited for more than a year for her ESA assessment, only to have it cancelled on the day. A month later, she was assessed, but the anxiety and stress of the wait, followed by the degrading assessment itself, led to a mini-stroke two days after the assessment. She now has high blood pressure, which puts her at risk of a further stroke. Despite all that, she was put into the work-related category. That decision was overturned following a mandatory reconsideration. She is not alone in having had to go through this process. In Wales in 2017, 75% of PIP decisions and 74% of ESA decisions were overturned on appeal. This high rate is symptomatic of the fundamental flaws in the initial assessment process. If the correct decisions were made from the outset, a lot of the misery, worry and suffering would be avoided.
When we raise these problems with the Government, we get the same response time after time: they do not recognise these big problems and will carry on regardless. They are like an ostrich with its head buried in the sand. But that is indicative of the Government’s track record: they carry on until they are shamed into doing something about it. What can be more shaming than when a United Nations poverty envoy says that changes to social security have meant that
“great misery has also been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty”?
That was published in his report.
It is appalling and inexcusable that this is happening in a G7 country. Our social security system is there as a safety net for the most vulnerable people. Right now, that safety net is failing. MPs, the EHRC and the United Nations have all called on the Government to conduct a cumulative impact assessment. If the Government are so confident that they are doing the right thing, they have nothing to fear over commissioning this assessment. Ultimately, the Government must stop burying their head in the sand over this and wake up to the reality that their punitive and callous policies are causing misery and hardship to hundreds of my constituents and hundreds of thousands of people across the country.
I very much want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and the Backbench Business Committee for bringing this debate before Parliament, because it allows us to shine a spotlight on the experiences of our constituents who are living with a long-term illness or disability and who are relying on financial support from the Government.
Support has dwindled for these people in recent years, including for the nearly 6,000 people in Bristol South who are currently claiming employment and support allowance because they are unable to work owing to illness or disability. The national evidence is already clear. “The cumulative impact of tax and welfare reforms” report published earlier this year by the EHRC found that changes to taxes, benefits, tax credits and universal credit announced since 2010 affect the poorest the hardest, with ill and disabled people being among the worst hit. It is not just a loss of income, shocking as it is, that has an impact on disabled people; there is something very wrong with the Government’s instructions to the staff at the Department for Work and Pensions and the culture that has been created. The number of constituents in Bristol South who have been forced to appeal and initially refused ESA or personal independence payments is appalling, as others have mentioned.
Fantastic work is being done by South Bristol Advice Services, based in Withywood. It does a great job in supporting those who need help, but the determination required simply to make a claim is often too much for those suffering with long-term conditions or life-changing illnesses. There is little evidence of compassion in the system. Sadly, universal credit is making that situation worse in both financial terms and the complexity of the claim process. The Government have already admitted that the most disabled people’s incomes will not be fully protected, and I am already seeing constituents who are losing out simply because of a change in circumstances.
Promises about future backdated transitional payments ring hollow when a person cannot afford the rent because their universal credit claim is in disarray three months after moving to a bungalow adapted for their disability. Rent arrears have spiralled. In one case, a blind constituent was informed only in writing that universal credit now included an element for rent. No one contacted her to inform her verbally.
I want to pay tribute to the persistence and resilience of my constituents who daily face the challenge of their medical conditions and who must also deal with the current benefits system. I applaud those who have come to accept that a mandatory reconsideration and an appeal to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service are just part of the claims process. My constituent who informed me that he has completed his third successful appeal has my admiration and respect. However, there are far too many others who simply do not carry on with their claims, who get ground down by the bureaucracy, who miss out on vital financial support and whose health, as others have mentioned, suffers greatly as a consequence.
Of course the Government should commission an independent cumulative assessment of the impact of changes in the social security system on sick and disabled people, their families and carers, but they should also act now, immediately stopping the roll out of universal credit to ill or disabled people.
I am glad that the Minister is disagreeing and I very much hope that she will put me right and will agree to this.
There are plenty of figures out there. We know that 30% of families including someone with a disability are in poverty. That is 10% higher than the rest of the population. In fact, according to the Social Mobility Commission, half of people in poverty—nearly 7 million people—are in a household with an adult who has a disability. Fixing the problems of poverty for people with disabilities will go a long way to fixing the problems of the UK’s high level of poverty.
Over the last eight years, we have seen successive cuts to benefits that affect people with disabilities. From 2013, we saw a 1% benefit uprating for three years. Employment and support allowance lost over 5% of its value compared to the retail prices index and 3% compared to the consumer prices index. The four-year benefits freeze will take off 6.5% compared to the CPI and a full 10% compared to the RPI; 15% of the value of that benefit will be lost over seven years. These are not generous benefits in the first place.
In addition, many disabled people have had to cope with the cuts to local housing allowance, which is down to 30% of median rents. They therefore have to bulk up their rent out of their meagre ESA. Child tax credit has been frozen. The childcare element in tax credits has been at the same maximum since 2005, and the amount of help people can get with childcare costs has reduced from 80% to 70%. In addition we have the bedroom tax, which affects so many people with disabilities, and £30 a week has been abolished for those in the work-related activity group under ESA.
People with disabilities have been facing all those cuts, even before the cuts under universal credit. That is why people with disabilities feel so strongly that there needs to be a cumulative impact assessment of the full impact of the history of serious cuts to their income. Under universal credit, we are also seeing cuts that affect children with disabilities. The Government claim to support and protect the most vulnerable in society, but my constituent—a single parent with a son with a disability—wrote to me saying, “My son is six years old. He is practically bed-bound, yet the Government want to transfer me on to universal credit because I can no longer work to support him, and his support will be reduced. If my disabled son is not one of the most vulnerable people who needs protection and support, then who is?” I put that question to the Minister today.
The difficulties in claiming universal credit for people with disabilities have been set out in many cases elsewhere, but because roll-out so far has been mostly to people who have been on JSA—not to people with disabilities on employment and support allowance—we have not seen the scale of support that is needed. However, as I mentioned earlier, I am already seeing problems in my constituency with regards to people with disabilities getting the home visits that they feel they need.
Families in particular are feeling the cuts, including parents who are disabled with children who are disabled. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth set out the appalling level of cuts—a reduction in income of nearly £10,000 a year—that those families will see under universal credit. It is no wonder that families fear universal credit. A constituent with a four-year-old son who is autistic and non-verbal wrote to me to say that she has had to give up work to care for him because she cannot get care in the school holidays, so as well as losing her own wage, she has also lost tax credits. The family looked to claim housing benefit, but found that they would need to claim universal credit instead. Given that they have already racked up rent arrears because their income has been so reduced, if they faced five weeks’ wait for support under universal credit, they could end up losing the house they have been tenants in for the last 21 years. I hope that the Government will be listening to these real stories of people who are already suffering. I have had universal credit in my constituency for only two and a half months, and I am already seeing constituents who are suffering under it.
That is on top of all the constituents who are suffering from employment support allowance and PIP assessments. In the Work and Pensions Committee, I set out to the Minister the very harrowing account that I had heard of a group of survivors of sexual violence and their experiences of PIP assessments—how one woman was curled up on the floor crying and sobbing uncontrollably while the assessor simply repeated the questions at her deadpan and offered her no support or understanding whatsoever. I was very pleased that the Minister agreed that that was a disgusting situation that should not be allowed to continue. In response to the Committee’s report on PIP and ESA assessments, the Government promised to look at the recording of those assessments and to bring that in. However, on questioning the permanent secretary today in the Committee, we heard that he had no idea how that was being rolled out, although the commitment to do so was made eight months ago.
A constituent who was looking to claim PIP said that she was forced to purchase her own recording equipment if she wanted her assessment to be recorded, whereas she knows that in the past the assessment centre had used its own equipment. She was also looking to get support with getting to the assessment centre. She was told that she could get there in a taxi but that it would cost £100 up-front and she could only claim that back 30 days after her assessment. People with disabilities are not being treated in the way that they should be treated. I am afraid that this is a culture that we are coming across time and again in what we hear in our constituency surgeries.
The Disability Benefits Consortium found that eight out of 10 people who underwent a PIP assessment found that it made their health worse. Two thirds felt that they had been poorly assessed. Constituents with mental health difficulties, in particular, find that those difficulties are not adequately assessed. One constituent said that, although she presented with serious mental health difficulties, the bulk of the questions she was asked were aimed at her physical health, where she has only minor conditions that do not prevent her from working. Only a third of the time was spent covering her mental health, and those questions were loaded. When she tried to expand and explain her answers, she was told to stick to the questions.
My constituent has been left on the verge of suicide by that assessment and the struggle of waiting for a response as to what will happen as a result. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth set out so starkly, there has been an increase in suicides by people who have been undergoing work capability and PIP assessments. None of us want to see this happen. In Committee, I raised with the Minister the fact that constituents of mine were being asked why they had not yet committed suicide. I was very pleased that she again took up the issue. That question has not come up in the cases that I have received more recently, so I very much hope that that practice is spreading through the privatised companies that do these assessments. However, there is so much more to do, as cases just from my one, very rural and relatively affluent constituency show.
The hon. Lady is making an extremely powerful speech. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for disability, and we have heard that there are particular difficulties for people with acquired brain injury and epilepsy in relation to the types of questions asked in assessments. Does she agree that assessments should be more sensitive to the different types of disability?
The hon. Lady makes a very relevant point. The evidence from my constituents with mental health issues and brain injuries is that assessments are centred on physical health and physical difficulties.
I know from my 20 years working for the shop workers’ union, USDAW, that work is not easy these days, particularly for people with long-term health conditions. Employers now have sickness absence procedures, and employees often cannot have more than three periods of sickness absence, however short, in any six-month period. People with disabilities—particularly those who do not have a union representative to support them under the Equality Act 2010—are simply slipping through the net, not performing and being left out of the workplace.
Unfortunately, universal credit and the cuts to that benefit will trap people who have disabilities more without work, and particularly those who are on a higher-level benefit with premiums and then take up a short period of work. For example, one of my constituents took a job working for Royal Mail for six weeks over the Christmas period, because he felt relatively well and wanted to do it. He has just found out that when he finishes that job, he will be transferred on to universal credit and will lose his transitional protection and support. That is not a message that says to people with disabilities, “Try to work. Try to do your best.”
We see even more problems with the system where people with disabilities are being refused work capability assessments and are not seeing any money at all. One of my constituents was presented to me by a support charity six months ago. It has been trying for six months to get him some money, since he failed his ESA assessment. He had a fit note and should have been getting money. Only with my intervention did he get support. For six months, he was living off friends, family and food bank parcels.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend saw this comment from Professor Alston in his report:
“great misery has also been inflicted unnecessarily…on people with disabilities who are already marginalized”.
Ministers have sought to dismiss that criticism, but does that not sum up pretty well the experience of a very large number of people up and down the country?
I thank my right hon. Friend for making that important point, on which I was going to end my speech.
I want to quote a constituent with a disability who wrote to me to set out her experience. She was not asking for support—she was able to fight the system—but she said:
“The reason I’m writing to you is to encourage you to keep fighting for us in Westminster, to be the voice that is being taken away from the disabled people in this country. Fight to put an end to this barbaric, humiliating assessment system, where the person who makes life or death decisions doesn’t even get to meet you, isn’t medically qualified (specific to the individual condition) and is meeting targets to refuse claims.”
That is the view of people with disabilities. They want Parliament to be seen to be supporting them. The changes to universal credit in the Budget did not affect people with disabilities, who are some of the worst impacted by cuts to universal credit. I very much hope that the Minister and the Government are listening.
I am pleased to contribute to the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing it.
Benefits are the biggest issue in my office. I have one member of staff who does nothing else but deal with benefits five days a week; to be honest, she works outside her hours because she is a compassionate lady. The rest of us in the office, including myself, have done DLA appeals, and we still continue to do them. We deal with the benefits system as well, and these are incredibly difficult issues. The Government have indicated that they will review some of the universal credit system, and may I say that that cannot come soon enough?
I want to say something to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who is in his place, and to the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, who has left but will no doubt be back shortly. I am not saying this to give them a big head, but both Ministers are very affable and engaging, and they do try to address the issues. I know that because I have spoken to them both. They have come to me to say, “Look, if there’s anything at all that you want to speak about, please speak to us about those things”.
Both the Ministers are keen and eager to help—I say that in advance because I do not want them to think I am attacking them, because I am not doing so—but there are things I have to say tonight about universal credit and where it is, and the fact that it is having an impact on my constituents. It would be remiss of me to come to this Chamber and not to say that. I wanted to say that first, because I know the Under-Secretary always responds; he knows that, because I have spoken to him before about it. None the less, we are where we are on these issues.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has done a very in-depth analysis, which I and others have read; indeed, some right hon. and hon. Members have referred to it. It shows that the bottom two deciles will lose, on average, approximately 10% of their net income, with much smaller losses for those higher up the income distribution. Negative impacts are particularly large for households with more disabled members and for individuals with more severe disabilities, as well as for lone parents and those on low incomes.
For some family types, these losses represent an extremely large percentage of income. For example, for households with at least one disabled adult and a disabled child, average annual cash losses will be just over £6,500—over 13% of average net income. Here is a specific figure, because I have some people from Bangladesh in my constituency: the impact of changes to direct taxes and benefits is to reduce the income of Bangladeshi households by some £4,400 per year on average. These are specific points, and I want to say them in a very constructive way to the Under-Secretary, because I know he responds. I am happy to say these things, because I know he will come back, as he always does.
At an individual level, women will lose on average considerably more from changes to direct taxes and benefits than men. Women will lose some £400 per year on average, and men will lose some £30.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful point. The figures he is talking about are true in my constituency as well. I know one family that is losing just under £500 a month. As we in the Chamber all know, the reality is that these are substantial sums of money for some of our poorest disabled fellow citizens. There is no point arguing about it any more. That is why I think the request from the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for an independent impact assessment is reasonable and fair, and it needs to be a matter of priority, otherwise there will be many more of the stories the hon. Gentleman is talking about.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and yes, I totally agree. At the very end, I will make a similar recommendation to what the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.
This does affect low-income families. Some of the figures I have mentioned are for men and women, but the figures conceal very substantial variation within both genders. Lone parents in the bottom quintile—the bottom fifth—of the household income distribution lose some 25% of their net income, or £1 in every £4 on average. The hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) referred to this earlier, and mentioned very clearly the income impact on those in the lower income brackets.
On average, disabled lone parents with at least one disabled child fare even worse, losing almost £3 out of every £10 of their net income. In cash terms, their average losses are almost £10,000 per year. That is massive, and we cannot ignore those things. Those things really quite annoy me, and I think they annoy us all. In fairness, I think they probably annoy Ministers as well, but we do need a response from Ministers if we are to deal with them.
Around 1.5 million more children are forecast to be living in households below the relative poverty line. These are massive issues; in Northern Ireland, and in my constituency, children are sliding into poverty as a result of these reforms. I am being completely honest, Madam Deputy Speaker: these things are happening, in my constituency! And they are happening in everybody else’s as well.
We quite recently had the roll-out of universal credit, so we know these things come in almost like a storm breaking over people. The statistics carry on, but this gives a very clear picture to me. We were told that universal credit would be beneficial to households in need. I have to say honestly, I do not see that happening at this moment. To see disabled homeless people being so massively affected is totally unacceptable. For that reason, I support the recommendations of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It recommends that the UK Government should:
“1. Monitor and publish the impact of welfare reforms on disabled people, including assessment of the cumulative impact of tax and social security changes.”
I think that if we get those facts, they will tell the tale.
“2. Review the levels of benefits to ensure they provide an adequate standard of living.”
It is so important. People are falling into poverty, and children in particular. I always get annoyed when I hear of children living below poverty levels; I think others might as well.
“3. Ensure that work coaches are trained to deliver tailored employment support so that the specific needs of disabled people are being met.”
How important that is.
I think the Minister is nodding his head, and I think he accepts that, but we need to have people that can do that for them. We deal with them every day of the week in my office, and in every other hon. Member’s office. I am not different from anybody else—we are all the same.
The EHRC also recommends that the Government should:
“4. Make the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities…part of UK law”—
that is what the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) referred to in his intervention—
“so individuals can effectively challenge rights violations in the domestic legal system, and develop a clear and coordinated plan for how the UK and devolved”
“will systematically address the UN’s recommendations on disability rights.”
I have been contacted in the last two days by some constituents. The hon. Member for High Peak referred to a quotation from some of her constituents. My constituents have asked me to highlight the fact that universal credit simply isn’t working. Those are real-life responses from real people with real problems. They have asked me to make contact with the Department, especially with Ministers, to ensure that their voices were heard in the midst of everything that has happened in this House today. We all know about it—I get a sore head just thinking about it. I assured my constituents that I would ensure that I voiced their concerns today, in the presence of the responding Minister. The concerns are as follows.
The Government say that no one falls through the cracks and ends up losing their benefit, because they will make sure that everyone claiming benefits under the old system is moved automatically on to universal credit and not forced to make a new claim. The Government say that no one is left without the money they need to survive, because they are continuing to pay people all of their old benefits until their new ones have kicked in. The Government say that everyone is protected from becoming worse off under the new system, especially vulnerable groups. I say that is a very honourable assumption to make. I do not for one second say that that is the purpose of what the Government have put forward, but currently the Department is failing people.
I know of many people who went to the jobcentre and went through the online process with a member of staff and then came into my office. The benefits office—what we would have called the bru office many years ago—is just around the corner from my office, so most people come to me when they have a problem, to talk to my staff members. Although they went through the online process with a member of staff, they then came to my office, in tears, as they simply could not understand what was happening to them. They could not understand that they had not got their benefits. They could not understand the paperwork system. I do not want to be too critical, but I have to say these things, as that is what has happened.
People are sick with worry, not understanding what is happening or what is required of them. They are very worried about their benefit, and when we think that many of those who are on universal credit are ill, and that the stress of this makes things worse, it is clear that we are failing. We are failing the most vulnerable, and much as I would love to help every person on universal credit, my staff are doing nothing else but that.
I observe, by the way, in the news that staff in one of the jobs and benefits offices were enjoying a celebratory cake for doing an excellent job and seeing the end of the roll-out in Northern Ireland. There was not much of a celebration in Newtownards about it, and that is a fact. Nor was there a celebration anywhere else. That is not saying that they should not have enjoyed the cake; I am just saying, celebrate when it is good but do not celebrate when it is not. Too many people are anxious and concerned. I would ask the Minister to assure me, and others in the House, that changes are on the way for the most vulnerable in the practicality of the roll-out, and changes in how it is affecting all of those I listed earlier.
I understand that we need all those who are able to work to do just that. That is very constructive and helpful, but let us be honest: are people on benefits and sickness benefits because they want to be? No, they are not. They want to work the same as the rest of them. It is perfectly plausible to put that forward. But I also understand that forcing those who are not able to work to worry and make themselves ill is cruel and unnatural. It must not happen. We need changes, yes. We also need assurances and action. I look to the Minister and the Department as to how and when that will happen.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I appreciate your fortitude, and that of the previous occupant of the Chair, at this time of the evening. It has been a long week. I thank the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for bringing forward this important debate and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it.
Welfare reform has had a huge impact on my constituents, in particular on the lives of disabled people. That is the case not just in my constituency, but across the UK. Regardless of the rhetoric of those on the Government Benches that welfare reforms are helping people back into work, the reality is that the conditions are getting harder for those who are most in need of assistance.
Despite the War on Welfare petition with over 100,000 signatures calling on the Government to introduce cumulative impact assessments, the Government have been unrelenting in introducing these changes. For many, they have earned a reputation for having a hostile environment when it comes to these welfare changes, coupled with the Government’s austerity measures, notwithstanding the impact of Brexit and the potential for a further weakened economy. The reality is that it will be the most vulnerable and the disabled who will be hardest hit by Brexit. Whether it is Brexit, the initial 2012 changes or the 2016 welfare reforms, we have to acknowledge that they are not working as well as they could be in practice. That is not a political statement; it is a matter of fact that they are not working as well as they could be. Unlike some Ministers, I know that the Minister of State for Disabled People cares deeply and she will want to get this right.
We have heard many contributions from across the House from right hon. and hon. Members, who have conducted themselves, may I say, immeasurably better in the Chamber than in recent weeks. They have served their constituents admirably better on this important matter. It is worth highlighting some of those valuable contributions. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth rightly highlighted the WOW campaign and the disproportionate impact on disabled people, families and carers. This is not a political statement, but something we all, across the House, want to get right. I know the Minister shares the same passion to get it right.
The hon. Members for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) and for Clacton (Giles Watling), I am sorry to say, gave a rather rosy depiction. I am afraid I do not share the same optimistic view. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) for being a bit more realistic about the experience of his constituents. The fact is that there are elements of this that can be reviewed and reformed, and we all want to do that.
The hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) highlighted the range of cuts. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) spoke passionately, as always, about the impact on WASPI women, who are working longer and harder under the pension changes. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) rightly highlighted that many disabled constituents want to work but cannot. That reminded me of the phrase that a good friend, Susan Douglas-Scott, said to me: often, it is society that disables individuals, not the individuals themselves. The hon. Members for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) highlighted the UN report and the EHRC report, and the joint calls for cumulative impact assessments. Of course, no debate would be complete without the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who needs no further words.
My constituent Liam from Hamilton has been trying to get the limited capability for work element for his universal credit, but so far he has been unsuccessful in his work capability assessment. His doctor, however, is adamant that Liam should not be working. Liam was a heavy goods courier. After a work-related injury, he cannot stand for any length of time and he cannot walk without fear of falling or his knees giving way. He has experienced heart palpitations, high blood pressure, numbness of limbs and sleepless nights as a result of various medical treatments. Despite all that, the gravity of his disabilities is not reflected in his medical assessment. Many of the conclusions of the assessment were based on assumptions rather than evidence. That seems to be a theme in many of the assessments.
Liam was therefore required, as part of universal credit, to claim to search for jobs for which he is physically unsuited and to attend training sessions for jobs he cannot do. This included a session with Remploy, the specialist charity for disabled employment, whose staff are experts in this area, but which refused to put Liam forward for any jobs because he was physically unsuitable for anything it could offer.
It is a shame that Liam is in this position. He has a very strong work ethic and wants nothing more than to get back to work. He is becoming increasingly frustrated by this situation because he is unable to provide for his children. He is a single parent with shared custody and often unable to see his own children because there is no food in the house and he is unable to feed them. Is it right that families should be forced to make these decisions? The system is clearly flawed and not working. This man cannot work, yet he cannot even see his own children because he cannot afford to feed them. It is heartbreaking.
For many of those claiming PIP and employment support, the situation is not much better. The assessment criteria for these benefits do not appear to have been written by disabled people with disabled people in mind; rather they are tick-box exercises carried out by ill-trained staff. It is abundantly clear from many of the cases that have come through that my office and the assessors do not pick up on all the issues faced by disabled constituents. Yet I am asked daily to advocate on their behalf, when I do not even know the half of their situation or the magnitude of their disability. How can a work capability assessment or adviser assess that in less than five minutes, 20 minutes or half an hour? It is not possible. We have to be realistic.
On Friday, I visited a local charity in my constituency, Esteem, which I sponsored this year for my annual Christmas card competition and which supports people with mental ill health. It highlighted the experience of many of the clients it sees on a day-to-day basis who have gone through the jobcentre and faced horrible experiences. I know that that is not everyone’s experience, or the intention of any staff member in the local jobcentre, but Esteem has identified that employees and staff do not feel adequately trained or qualified to assess individuals and are bending over backwards to prevent people from receiving further cuts. They are doing everything they can. It is not the fault of staff that the policy is flawed, and I do not blame them for administering the policy set by the Government.
This flawed assessment process is resulting in inaccuracies being reported to the DWP and leading to far lower amounts of benefit being given than what is needed to fit people’s circumstances and to give them the right level of support. In some instances, DWP staff are advising people not to switch because it would be less beneficial for them. There might be issues with the legacy system, but clearly there are also issues with this system, if DWP staff are having to give that kind of advice to get people through the process. We have to acknowledge the flaws.
Having to fight to overturn a case causes huge stress to claimants as well as putting extra pressure on agencies, citizens advice bureaux and MPs’ offices. It is admirable that, as we have heard, Members across the House have gone out of their way to help individuals to fill in forms, go through mandatory reconsiderations and get the right support, but, ultimately, if the system worked as it should, we would not have to do that; we should not have to do that. It is not a good use of our office resources, staff or processes.
We have to get to the root cause. This situation demonstrates how unfit for purpose the current system is. Another of my constituents, Darin, suffers from a chronic condition as well as mental health issues, but he lost his entitlement to an enhanced rate of PIP and mobility element in a recent reassessment. The assessor clearly did not consider the full range of his needs. For example, he is deemed personally able to manage his own treatments, but in reality he relies on his mother to take care of his medication and to wake him up every morning to make sure he gets the appropriate medication and support. He cannot do that on his own, yet his mother’s caring role was completely disregarded. It was Darin’s mother who approached my office, which helped to get the case overturned under a mandatory reconsideration, but we should not have had to do that. That anxiety and stress could have been avoided altogether had the assessment been accurate in the first place.
Another constituent approached my office after losing the Motability element of his PIP reassessment. He had an adapted car, which was necessary for him to get to appointments and to maintain his independence. However, the assessor who carried out the review found that he did not require help with mobility, despite having lost one of his legs. He also lost all his entitlement to PIP during that reassessment. Again, he dealt with the matter through my office, and had to undergo the process of mandatory reconsideration—not to mention the impact on his family of the shock, the stress and the senseless removal of support. The fact was that he simply had no alternatives.
The system can be senseless and excessively technocratic, although that is not always the case. It takes no account of how the removal of financial support or help in the form of, for instance, a mobility car will affect disabled people, making their lives far more difficult.
In a similar case, my constituent Margaret, from Carluke, lost her Motability car during her transition from DLA to PIP, which left her housebound. She successfully disputed the distance that she could walk, reducing it from the 20 to 50 metres in the assessment report to 1 to 20 metres. Her Motability car was returned but, in the meantime, unfortunately, she had bought another. That meant that, although she was receiving the correct level of support, her living standards had been needlessly reduced by the reassessment process.
If the system works as well as we have heard it does in so many accounts, why does every single one of our offices, each and every day, have to help people to counter it? The fact is that it simply is not working as it should. I think it not unreasonable to suggest to the Minister that the motion offers the Government an opportunity to conduct a thorough review of the assessment criteria, with the meaningful involvement of disabled people and those with long-term conditions, to ensure that the criteria are fair and truly reflect the extra costs that people face and the myriad conditions that affect them. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire rightly admitted that a continual review and assessment were required.
Let me end by asking the Minister a simple question. If the Government can spend limitless amounts on Brexit and on planning for no deal, why can they not introduce an independent cumulative impact assessment of their welfare reforms?
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for securing this important debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for initiating a similar debate four years ago and pay tribute to his hard work in championing the rights of disabled people. I thank the War on Welfare campaigners for their work over the past six years in making the voices of disabled people heard in the House, along with other disabled people’s organisations and campaigners. More than 100,000 people signed the WOW petition which first brought the debate to the House.
Today, we have heard accounts from Members on both sides of the House. Let me mention just a few. My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) described the devastating impact of social security cuts and, in particular, the impact of cuts in the Motability scheme. Many disabled people have lost that vital support. She also spoke of the impact of the movement of many recipients of disability living allowance to the personal independence payment. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) shared personal and powerful testimonies from his constituents, but also highlighted the shocking statistics relating to the number of decisions on both employment and support allowance and PIP that were overturned in tribunals.
We are not asking the Government to reveal the truth about the effects of cuts on disabled people; we are asking them to own up to creating a social security system for disabled people that the UN report on extreme poverty described as “callous”, “punitive” and “mean-spirited”; a system that the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has labelled as responsible for “grave” and “systemic” human rights violations; and a system that the Council of Europe concluded does not conform with the European social charter’s guarantee of the right to social security.
We are demanding that the Government own up to the effects of over £40 billion of cuts to disabled people’s social security since 2010, to imposing a sanctions regime on sick and disabled ESA claimants, to a cruel and callous assessment framework for both PIP and ESA and to the human catastrophe that is UC.
In the past eight years, disabled people have been forced to bear the brunt of the Tory austerity programme. They have been consistently and disproportionately impacted by cuts to social care, legal aid, housing, education and social security, as well as cuts to the independent living fund. The Centre for Welfare Reform has found that disabled people have been hit nine times harder by austerity than the rest of the population. Disabled people have been punished by this Government’s austerity agenda. They have been punished by the abolition of the DLA and the introduction of PIP in April 2013, and we know the policy intention for abolishing DLA was to reduce expenditure on disability benefits by 20%, a move that has left hundreds of thousands without the support they need. Those people include a constituent of mine who suffers from chronic kidney disease and has been HIV-positive for 30 years and who was given zero points on his PIP assessment, despite being unable to undress or prepare food by himself and despite being in receipt of DLA for 20 years.
Disabled people have been punished by the gutting of ESA, by introducing the 12-month time-limited payments for those on the contributions-based element, by the tightening of the ESA criteria and by the devastating cut to the ESA work-related activity component, worth £30 per week, introduced in 2017, which has hit over 50,000 people this year. And disabled people have been punished by an inaccurate and callous assessment framework that denies them dignity and respect—an assessment framework that has forced over a quarter of a million disabled people to take the DWP to tribunal to get the social security that they are entitled to and under which 72% of PIP decisions brought to appeal are overturned.
Since 2010, disabled people have been punished by a “pointlessly cruel” sanctions regime, which has hit more than 1 million disabled people in the past eight years and which the Welfare Reform Act 2012 ensured was more severe, more punitive and more long-lasting than ever before, resulting in disabled people facing severe debt, skipping meals and taking out loans because they missed appointments at the jobcentre or did not fill out enough job applications. Figures released by the DWP last month show that 10% of ESA sanctions last longer than 26 weeks, so sick and disabled people are losing six months-worth of their income.
Most importantly, disabled people face the Government’s flagship UC system, which acts as little more than a vehicle for cuts. Today’s Work and Pensions Committee report has confirmed the devastating truth of the impact of UC on disabled people and of the structural problems inherent to UC such as the five-week wait and an online claims system that is inaccessible to many people. Under UC, just one in three disabled people receive their payments on time and in full, with the rest having to wait weeks on end before receiving payment. Severely disabled people moving on to UC are losing vital social security support that they need in the form of disability premiums, including the severe disability premium that they would have had under legacy social security worth £64.40 a week—payments that severely disabled people relied on to cover extra costs for ready meals and help with household tasks.
For one severely disabled person, UC meant that they received no money for six weeks, on top of losing their SDP. The delays in payment and losing the premium meant that they were forced to get help from the council, which gave them food vouchers so that they had something to eat. In their own words, they felt “embarrassed and degraded” by a system that left them destitute. It took a year for their UC payments to be sorted out, with endless calls that
“were too physically and mentally painful to make.”
The Government made a grave error in cutting disability premiums for those who are most in need. The transitional protections that this Government were forced to give as a result of a High Court ruling earlier this year do not apply to new applicants or to those who naturally migrated to universal credit, whose conditions remain the same but who will lose that vital support. So I ask the Minister today to commit to ensuring that no severely disabled person who moves on to universal credit will lose their premiums.
In the words of one WOW petition campaigner, in the past eight years this Government have created
“a hostile environment for sick and disabled people”
“has turned life into a living hell”.
They have created a hostile environment in the form of a punitive social security system that is stacked against disabled people. It is a system that is littered with errors such as the underpayment of ESA to almost 200,000 claimants by this Government. Disabled people have had to rely on the High Court to right the terrible wrongs in the social security system. In the past year alone, the High Court found that the Government unlawfully discriminated against hundreds of thousands of PIP claimants and that they unlawfully discriminated against severely disabled people who lost disability premiums.
Conservative Members continue to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to the suffering that they have caused. Over the past months, we have heard Ministers, including the former Secretary of State, label cuts to disabled people as “fake news” and the issues surrounding universal credit as “teething problems”. They dismiss the findings of UN investigations as politically motivated, and they dismiss calls to conduct a cumulative impact assessment that would offer a definitive analysis of the human cost of eight years of austerity for disabled people. The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Social Security Advisory Committee have joined the call for that assessment to be done. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has carried out an impact assessment, and its findings were stark. We know that an impact assessment can be done by the Treasury, and if not, the Institute for Fiscal Studies can carry out an independent assessment.
How many more disabled people have to suffer under this Government’s austerity programme? How many more reports will link the Government’s policies with mental distress and suicide, yet be ignored? The fact that the Government refute the findings of the UN on the effects of austerity on disabled people is shameful, but the fact that they refuse to conduct an assessment of the human impact of their own policies is downright denial.
I should like to add my voice to those congratulating the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing such an important debate. It is to the great credit of the House that, after what have been an emotional, long and tiring few weeks here, Members from every country of Great Britain are here tonight to speak up so well and so passionately for their constituents. This is probably our last full debate before the Adjournment debate tomorrow, and it is right that we have focused on such an important issue as the disabled people in our country and the amazing contribution that they make.
Of course, we should rightly focus all our efforts on what more we can do for those who are vulnerable and need our support, and I am sure that all hon. Members will want to ensure that we are doing everything we can to live up to the ideals of the United Nations conventions, which we helped to design, and to those of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which a Conservative Prime Minister introduced in this House. There is also cross-party support for the Equality Act 2010, which underpins so much of what we are doing. These are important issues that should unite the House, and I am pleased to have heard a lot of constructive comments this evening. I have very little time, and I will not be able to answer all the questions that have been raised, but I will write to hon. Members if I have not been able to address their concerns. I want to focus on the motion, as it is so important.
I want to reassure hon. Members that the Government do publish distributional analysis of the cumulative impact of Government decisions on household finances at every fiscal event. The last publication was in October, to accompany the autumn Budget, and assessed the tax, welfare and public spending changes announced from the 2016 autumn statement onwards that carry a direct and quantifiable impact on households. Her Majesty’s Treasury uses its intragovernmental tax and benefits microsimulation model to produce that analysis, and the underlying data comes from the Office for National Statistics annual living costs and food survey.
Her Majesty’s Treasury uses the LCF survey, because it is the primary source of data about what income people have, how they spend their money and what public services they have accessed. The survey is unique in capturing all that information. Only by assessing the impact of Government policy on each of these areas can an accurate and fully comprehensive assessment of the total impact of all Government policies on welfare, taxes and spending on public services be made. Looking at only one aspect, such as changes to income from benefits, does not provide a complete picture and is misleading. For example, the Government have committed to increasing spending on the NHS by £20 billion, which will have a positive and direct impact on the lives of millions of disabled people. To look only at benefits would be really misleading.
The LCF survey came into existence in 2007, but a household food consumption and expenditure survey has been run by Government since the 1940s. The primary purpose of these surveys has always been to collect detailed expenditure data for a sample of people, which is then used to assess changes in people’s spending patterns in order to adjust the basket of goods used to estimate inflation. The survey does not collect information from the sample of individuals that would allow us to assess whether a person is disabled—it has never been able to do that. As with all Government surveys, taking part is voluntary and a difficult balance has to be struck between the amount of information we are asking respondents to provide, and therefore the time it takes to complete the survey, and the proportion of the sample who are willing to take part. The survey sample is designed to be representative of the population, and the more people who do not respond, the more the estimates from the survey potentially suffer in quality.
Therefore, the lack of information about disability means that the information does not exist for the Treasury to estimate the cumulative impact of all Government policies on disabled people. However, the Office for National Statistics is currently undertaking developments to its household surveys to integrate various surveys and to link various sources of administrative data held by the Government, which means it might be possible to have the required information on disability status in future. The ONS is consulting users, and I have instructed my officials to raise the issue of disability status in the living costs and food survey. I encourage stakeholders, and all Members who care about this as much as I do, to contact the ONS, which is independent, and raise the issue. If we had that information, and if the ONS proceeds in the way I have just described by linking datasets, it would be possible for us to undertake the sorts of assessments that people have articulated so well this evening.
However, although a cumulative impact assessment is not possible now, the DWP does undertake a wide range of other research and analysis to assess and monitor the impact of policies on disabled people. The DWP runs its own household survey—the family resources survey—which collects information from a sample of households, with detailed information on sources of income, the amount of income families receive and detailed information on the characteristics of the people in those households.
I have said that I will not take interventions, in order to answer all the questions, but I will write to any Members I am unable to answer in the time available.
The family resources survey collects the information required to make an assessment of the disability status of people in a household. The information is then used to provide estimates of the amount of income that families with disabled people have. The DWP publishes estimates of the numbers and percentages of people within households with disabled people who have low incomes in the annual “Households below average income” publication.
In the 2016-17 survey, we saw that 16% of people in families with a disabled person were described as in absolute low-income poverty before housing costs, with a weekly income after tax of £280 or less for a couple with no children, compared with 19% in 2009-10. Absolute low-income poverty, on a before housing costs basis, has actually improved by three percentage points since 2010 for families with a disabled person.
Looking at all four measures of low-income poverty—before and after housing costs, and on a relative and on an absolute basis—poverty for people in families with a disabled person has improved since 2010 on three of the four measures, and there was no change in the fourth. I am not complacent. One person living in poverty in this country is one person too many, which is why we are determined to do everything we can to put more money in people’s pockets.[Official Report, 5 February 2019, Vol. 654, c. 2MC.]
Let me make these points. I have been asked to address a lot of issues, and I really want to do that.
As well as the poverty figures, the Department for Work and Pensions publishes impact assessments for every new policy that carefully consider the potential impact of those policies on people with protected characteristics, in line with its legal obligations and its strong commitment to promoting fairness. The DWP has a continual and broad programme of research and evaluation of policies affecting disabled people, which is often contracted to independent research bodies, and all the findings are published. A recent example of such work is the research into the experience of PIP claimants, which was published in September and provided valuable insight into how PIP is working to inform policy development.
We have had some appalling misuse of statistics tonight. Of all the people who have applied for PIP, 9% have gone to appeal and 4% have been overturned. I work with a great number of colleagues in this House, with the Select Committees, with the all-party parliamentary groups, with disabled people and with those who represent disabled people. When we hear recommendations on how we can improve the process, we implement them. The Work and Pensions Committee did an extremely valuable piece of work on assessments for ESA and PIP, and we are delivering on implementing those recommendations.
The hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George), who is a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, spoke about the video recording of PIP assessments. I am determined to see that happen, because it will restore a lot of confidence in the process. We spent the summer carefully speaking to people with disabilities and to those who undertake the assessments—let us not forget that they are fully qualified healthcare professionals—about video recording. Putting all that information together, we started live testing the video recording of PIP assessments only a few weeks ago. That work will be completed in the new year, and we will be able to report back to the Select Committee and to the House on our progress and on how we will roll it out.
We are also undertaking a huge, large-scale test—it is actually the largest randomised control trial of its kind in the western world—as well as research into the employment and support package, to look at all the things that work to enable people with disabilities who want to work to get into work. It was interesting to listen to the personal experiences of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), and there are many disabled people who want to work but face unacceptable barriers to work, although we have made a lot of progress.
The latest data from the ONS shows that 900,000 more people are in work over the last five years, which is a steady increase in the employment rate from 43% to 51%, but we are very ambitious and want to see that gap close completely so that employers can draw on all the talents of the nation. We have set ourselves the goal of having 1 million more disabled people in work, on which we are making good progress.
Not only are we helping those people who can work into work, but we are always looking at what more we can do to improve our main health and disability-related benefits. Let us be absolutely clear that we are spending record sums on those benefits—over £50 billion this year, which is much larger than our defence budget. The figure has grown by more than £5.4 billion since 2010, and it is forecast to rise in every single year of this Parliament. All those benefits that are about the additional costs of disability were not frozen and were not part of the benefits cap, and include payments for carers, so it is simply not true to say, as Members have this evening, that we have been reducing the amount of money that we spend on the social security system.
Professor Alston produced a punchy report, and it made some telling points. He referred to
“the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the least well off in this country.”
“The Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial.”
From what the Minister is saying, it seems she is confirming Professor Alston’s point. There has, has there not, been a dramatic decline in the fortunes of the least well-off?
I was very pleased when the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth opened this debate by saying that she is an evidence-based policymaker, because I am too. I spent time serving on the Science and Technology Committee, where I was instrumental in having social science brought into its purview, and I was on the board of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. It is very important to me to make sure we use statistics, data and research accurately, and I am quoting from independent, impartial information.
As I said, one person in poverty is one too many, but let us not forget that we have had to deal with the legacy we were left by the previous Government of “There is no money”. We have had to make difficult choices about public expenditure, but we made sure that we increased the amount of money for people with disabilities and we increased money for the NHS. That extra money going into the NHS is directly benefiting people with health conditions and disability.
I have little time to wind up, but I want to mention that we have talked about other barriers that people face to fulfilling their aspiration to play a full part in our society, on which I completely agree. Employment is really important. All of us will be going back to our constituencies. We will do some Christmas shopping, go to carol services and enjoy a panto—we will be doing things with our families—but so many disabled people in our country will not be able to do that. We are absolutely determined through what we do with our sector champions and on our inter-ministerial working groups to make sure that every disabled person in our society can play their full part. We are removing those barriers. We are absolutely committed to living up to all the UN standards that we have signed up to, which are certain to make positive differences and changes.
Again, let me thank the Backbench Business Committee and all contributors to the debate, who have been fantastic, highlighting what is happening in their constituencies up and down the country. I also wish to thank the thousands of people who have been in contact with me over the past months and days. I thank the disability people’s organisations—WOW, Disabled People Against Cuts, Disability Inclusion and the many charities that have provided their briefings, including the Centre for Welfare Reform, which said that such a cumulative impact assessment would be possible. Given that the Treasury accepts the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s cumulative impact assessment modelling, it seems bizarre that the Minister is saying that it cannot happen. I am conscious that if I do not finish before 9.36 pm, we cannot have a vote on this motion. So, once again, I ask us all to remember the stories we have discussed this evening as we leave to go on our Christmas breaks.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House calls on the Government to commission an independent assessment of the cumulative impact of changes to the social security system on sick and disabled people and their families and carers.