[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered changes to the Independent Living Fund.
It is a real pleasure to have you chair the debate this afternoon, Mrs Main, on the extremely important subject of the independent living fund. The subject is perhaps not discussed as much as it ought to be. It is a very complex area, relating to a fund where there have been profound changes in recent years, affecting some of the most vulnerable members of our community. Fundamental changes have occurred that we need to assess, as one of the things that this House does least well is to revisit changes that have taken place to see whether they are having a positive or negative impact on those affected.
I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for its excellent debate pack and for helping to clarify some of the complex issues in this policy area. At the outset, I would also like to say thank you to my constituent, Nathan Davies, an independent living fund recipient whose circumstances I will talk about during the context of the debate. I have great admiration for him. He is very concerned about the current state of the independent living fund in Wales and its future development.
It is important at the beginning to set the scene and to set out the background to the recent changes to the independent living fund. The fund was first set up in 1988 with the express and very worthy purpose of helping disabled people to continue to live out in the community and to contribute to society generally.
My hon. Friend is quite right to talk about the importance of the independent living fund to his constituent. My constituent Richard, who is also a recipient, told me, “Words cannot really do justice to what the ILF means to me. It is like oxygen. It allows me to get out and about and not to be isolated—to live the best life I can.” Does my hon. Friend agree that gets to the crux—
Order. Interventions should be very brief, please; this is getting rather long.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that gets to the crux of just how important this debate is?
My hon. Friend and her constituent eloquently set out the importance of the fund. It gives freedom to individuals in receipt of funds to carry out what they want to do in their lives and to contribute broadly to their community.
The fund stayed open to new applicants until 2010 and was then closed. It operated across the UK until June 2015, when it was formally closed. Funding was devolved to English local councils and to the Scottish, Northern Ireland and Welsh Governments. The devolved Governments have pursued different policies on the fund. The Scottish Government set up Independent Living Fund Scotland, and my understanding is that the Northern Irish Government’s funds are also administered through that Scottish body.
Would the hon. Gentleman agree with me, and many disability rights groups, that when the decision was made in 2010 to close the fund to new applicants and restrict it to people working 16 hours or more, that signalled the signing of its death-warrant?
What it did was create a situation that was not sustainable in the long term. Clearly, individuals who ought to have been entitled to support from the fund were not able to access it simply because of when they were applying. So we needed to put in place a different set of circumstances after 2010.
This is a difficult issue, particularly in cash-straitened times. For that reason, the can was kicked down the road from 2010 through to 2015. The decision made in 2015 was, in my view, a hospital pass from the UK Government to other institutions, whether they were devolved Governments or local councils. Budgets were transferred, but they were closed budgets, which had been restricted since 2010. A group of people who became entitled after 2010 were not gaining access to funds. That was not sustainable and had to be addressed by those bodies now responsible—the devolved Governments and the local authorities. Those difficult issues were not dealt with by the UK Government. They were passed on to local councils and to devolved Governments at a time of difficult, straitened and reducing budgets. The very difficult decisions being made on the funding were having to be made by local councils, Members of the Scottish Parliament, Assembly Members, Welsh Government Ministers and Members in the devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland. It is a very difficult issue and we need to be frank in saying that the complexity does not lend itself to easy solutions.
My constituency is in Wales, where the devolved ILF funding was used to set up the Welsh independent living grant. The Welsh Government have said that in 2018 they intend to devolve funding to Welsh local authorities to administer the fund. In that context, it is helpful to consider the experience in England, where funding was devolved to local authorities back in 2015, and very helpful in that regard is the recent qualitative analysis of the closure of the independent living fund in England and the post-closure review carried out by the Government. I make it clear that that is very helpful, but it does not go far enough, and that is an important point on behalf of all recipients of the independent living fund. In order to understand the real impact of the closure of the fund and the devolution of funding, we need to know the quantitative aspects of the results of the Government’s actions. We need to know how much individuals who were previously receiving funding from the independent living fund are now receiving.
In one sense, that is self-evident. Individuals who were in receipt of funding before 2015 used that money to do the things that they wanted to do with their lives, for example, for care support, or to work or to get to work—all those things that those of us who do not have disabilities take for granted. The great value of the fund was that it helped people who had disabilities to do the things that those of us who do not have disabilities can do every day. When some of that money was taken away from them, that caused real anguish; the prospect of dealing with whether that money is going to be taken away also causes a great deal of worry.
In Wales, that is what happening at the moment. It is proposed that later this year, the funding will be devolved to local government bodies within Wales without ring-fencing. There is a great element of uncertainty in the minds of individuals currently in receipt of the independent living fund grant about whether they will have sufficient money to continue to do what they want to do.
Given in particular the competing priorities of local authorities, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is potential for the lack of ring-fencing to result in a very negative impact on those most vulnerable in our society?
That is absolutely the case. I will be pointing out that that is exactly what has happened in some cases.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which is very timely in considering some of the hardships involved. The problem with devolving such funds to local authorities is, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned, the background of a lack of resources. Local authorities are placed in the situation of having to prioritise things, and that could inflict further hardship on people who rely on the fund. I have heard about many such cases.
Absolutely. It is about those difficult decisions that local authorities have to make to balance their budgets. If they are given a budget, the temptation is to do the best they can with their money but to trim, which can have a real and adverse impact on the individuals concerned.
My own efforts to get to the bottom of the financial position of disabled people who previously received money from the independent living fund have, I am afraid, met with little success to date. I tabled some parliamentary questions and the Department for Work and Pensions blandly said in response that there was no central record of the amounts received by individuals following the closure of the fund in England. If one was cynical, one could say that that was convenient but anyway, frankly, it is just not good enough.
My concern, to pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), is that we are in an era of declining local government budgets and are dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in our society, who were previously in receipt of funding from the independent living fund that enabled them to live their lives in the community. In many cases, however, they now receive less money than they did previously.
Does my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour agree that two debates are happening? One is about devolution, localism and the like—a lot of which is very creative—and the other about everything happening in the background with an agenda for cuts. That is where the problem lies and that is how people with grave disabilities could be greatly affected.
That is absolutely the case, and I want to talk about one of the people affected: the constituent I mentioned earlier, Nathan Davies.
Nathan is a proud resident of Wrexham and 40 years old. Aged 15, he was diagnosed with a degenerative condition, Friedreich’s ataxia, which I had never heard of until Nathan told me about it. In broad terms, it is a rare, progressive genetic condition and, in most cases, a person with the disease will be confined to a wheelchair, as Nathan is, within 10 to 20 years of diagnosis. It causes people to tire easily.
Despite his diagnosis, Nathan worked as a journalist for many years until his medical condition meant that he could no longer continue to do so, although that did not mean he stopped being active. Since 2010 he has received funding from the independent living fund, enabling him to live independently with the help of his family and carers. He continues to write and has published an authoritative study of football grounds in Wales—available from all good book stores—and he now campaigns on disability issues. He is not a man to be trifled with, he campaigns hard in elections and he is known as an important local character in the Wrexham area. He is also a big supporter of Wrexham association football club, which will of course return to its rightful place in the Football League next year—promotion permitting.
Last year Nathan’s contribution was recognised by his local Wrexham Glyndŵr University with the award of a richly deserved honorary degree. Today, pretty typically, Nathan is on the front page of The Leader local newspaper in Wrexham, campaigning against a council proposal to charge disabled people for car parking. His resilience and determination are admirable qualities, in particular in the face of the condition he suffers from. We should be helping, not hindering, people like Nathan.
Nathan has pointed out to me that in the past he received specialist advice from the independent living fund, the staff of which he found very helpful in discussion and for assessments. That is something I have heard from other recipients when I have attended recent consultation events on the ILF. As a result of support from the fund, Nathan has been able not only to live in the community but, as the independent living fund intended, to contribute in a really positive way to the community in which he lives, notwithstanding his disability and the challenges that he faces.
The difficulty is that doubt about the future of the fund in Wales is now causing Nathan great worry. Devolution of funding to local councils when their budgets are under great pressure means that there is no guarantee that the levels of funding will be maintained, even if an individual recipient’s condition deteriorates—for example, I mentioned Wrexham County Borough Council’s proposal to introduce car parking charges, which will be an additional expense for someone such as Nathan. The limited research available from England indicates that, as a result of the changes following 2015, more recipients have seen their income fall than increase and 22% of recipients have said that their income has “decreased a lot”; 19% of recipients have said that their day-to-day support has got “a lot worse”; and, in addition, local councils have informed 34% of the recipients of extra restrictions on how they may use their money for support.
In October 2016 the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reported on the fund:
“The Committee finds that former Fund claimants have seen the support they received from local authorities substantially reduced, to the extent that their essential needs in areas such as daily personal care are not sufficiently covered.”
My own experience is that local authorities are under great financial pressure, and their staff are subject to increasing stress as they make the budgeting decisions.
The UK-wide consistency that characterised the independent living fund funding is no more. Different national systems, as well as devolved budgets within some of those systems, mean that there is likely to be an increasing disparity in provision for individuals in different parts of the country. I struggle to understand the rationale for that approach. It seems to diminish the support given by the previous administration of the independent living fund and to create great uncertainty in the minds of recipients of the fund.
In our constituency surgeries, we all see the great complexity of payments made to disabled people—direct payments, the independent living fund and personal independence payments—and it is difficult for professional advisers to find their way around the system, let alone individual claimants. My key plea to the Minister, who I am very pleased to hear was confirmed in her post earlier this afternoon—that is hot news for everyone—is that, at the very least, the Government should be collecting the detail of the impact of the ILF changes on previous recipients.
We should know and be obtaining from local authorities details of the financial impact of the closure of the fund on individuals. The suspicion is that the transfer of the funds to local authorities is a way of shifting difficult decisions on assessments to councils with diminishing funds, and that the failure to ring-fence budgets will reduce payments. This is the worry in the minds of disabled recipients. If the Government want to assuage those worries, they need to produce real evidence that that is not happening.
In Wales, there is real concern about the Welsh Government’s intention to devolve ILF budgets to local councils. Nathan Davies has arranged an exhibition, characteristically, at Theatr Clwyd in Mold, to highlight his concerns and to put his campaign out there. I will raise those concerns directly with the Welsh Government and I will rely on the evidence from the all too limited research in England to show the adverse impact of the changes in ILF on the income of previous recipients. The lives and experiences of some of those vulnerable individuals have been adversely affected by the changes in recent years. In order to address those concerns, we need more information from all the local authorities in England, to find out the real impact on the individuals concerned, and to take action to improve the situation for those people.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) on making such a cognisant speech and describing the issues very well. He mentioned Northern Ireland and, obviously, I will take the chance to refer to that. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) intervened to give some thoughts on what might come. We may be a wee bit disappointed not to have many people participating in the debate, because those who have an interest in the independent living fund will know the good it brings. Perhaps Members’ interests are on a much more taxing issue in the main Chamber.
The independent living fund is a national resource dedicated to and specifically tasked with delivering financial support for disabled people. Every one of us deals with all sorts of people in our constituency offices, and a large number of those are disabled. I have always been encouraged by the fact that the independent living fund enables people with clear disabilities to have some sort of a normal life, like we all have. Who in their right mind would not say that it is right to do that? Why should someone who is visually disabled, has behavioural problems or problems controlled by medication not have the opportunity for some independence? Just because people are disabled does not mean that they cannot look after themselves and that they should not be encouraged to do things. The fund enables those disabled people to live normal lives in the community, rather than live in residential care. There must be a great pride and enjoyment in independent living, with people being on their own and not needing residential care. Although the fund is not available in the way that it has been in England and Wales, we retain that in Northern Ireland—it is also retained in Scotland. We continue to support former independent living fund recipients.
Obviously, it is a pleasure to see the Minister in her place. We are here not to give her a hard time—that is not what it is about—but to suggest that, although it is a devolved matter, we recognise its good. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that in a positive way, and to the very salient points made by the hon. Member for Wrexham. Why should those who have disabilities not have recourse to an independent living fund? Why should they not be able to live a normal life? I believe they should, and I say to the Minister gently that it is discriminatory to do otherwise. The hon. Gentleman referred to that in his introduction, and I will focus on that in my contribution.
I refer the Minister to the inquiry carried out by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was conducted under article 6 of the optional protocol to the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, to which the UK has been a signatory since 2007. I understand that a number of UK groups and organisations have contacted the committee with fears that Government reforms were having a negative impact on the basic but critical right of disabled people under articles 19, 27 and 28 of the convention. It is important that we do not ignore that. I am my party’s spokesperson on human rights, so it is an issue close to my heart, and I want to focus on it in the short time we have.
Articles 19, 27 and 28 of the convention are concerned with living independently, employment and social protection—all three are critical things that we have every day in this Chamber as able-bodied people, but that other people may not have in some parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Library briefing states:
“The Independent Living Fund in the State party has been closed to new claimants since 2010 and was definitively closed in June 2015. The funds transferred from the central administration to local authorities under the scheme of localization were not ring-fenced in England”—
the hon. Member for Wrexham referred to that in his speech—
“affecting the majority of former Fund users.”
Therefore, the ones who are most impacted are those who were recipients of it and now are not. The impact on them is greater than ever. The briefing states:
“The Committee finds that former Fund claimants have seen the support they received from local authorities substantially reduced, to the extent that their essential needs in areas such as daily personal care are not sufficiently covered.”
We encouraged them to be involved in the scheme and then we took away that scheme. We took away the independence that they once had. That concerns me. It continues:
“The Committee takes note of the decision made by the devolved administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland for the maintenance of schemes equivalent to the former Independent Living Fund”.
The briefing also cites an article titled “Government’s failure to ring-fence ILF funding ‘is leading to postcode lottery’” across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
One issue—I am sure the hon. Gentleman has come across this as well—is young people with mental illnesses, which very often imposes a burden on the families concerned.
I have come across that issue—many of my constituents are affected. Often, for those people with mental problems, the medication and their families monitoring, assisting and supporting them is all part of it. They want to have that independence as much as they can within the restrictions of their lifestyle and medications, with the support of their families.
We cannot forget the press headlines of the last few years—I will quote some of them to have them on record. I am not a Welsh MP, and none of us here is a member of the Welsh Government, but one headline in relation to the Welsh independent living grant states that the Welsh Government have “sold disabled people down the river”. Another headline reads: “Disabled activist ‘is fighting for his life’ as he hands petition to Welsh government”. I know and understand that it is a devolved matter for which the Minister is not responsible, but these are indications of where we need to do things. Another headline, dated 13 July 2017, reads: “Disabled people call for return of UK-wide Independent Living Fund”, to which everyone should subscribe. The last of the recent headlines is: “Years of austerity have left personal assistance in ‘very fragile state’”.
Hon. Members have a duty, to which I think we all subscribe, to reach out to ordinary people who just happen to have a disability that restricts their ability to have a normal life, to protect them and to enable them at least to aim for a much better lifestyle. It is the duty of elected Members of the House from all parties to ensure that we offer support to those who, unfortunately, do not have the ability to look after themselves. Let us do that in a suitable way. I look to the Minister, with great respect, for a response that enables us all to do that. I know that we have it in Northern Ireland, but parts of the mainland do not. Let us get it all together.
I thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) for bringing forward this debate and for his considered and thoughtful approach.
A number of Members expressed concerns about changes to the independent living fund. The hon. Gentleman set out clearly and poignantly the case of his constituent, Nathan Davies, and reminded us why the fund is so important. The fund is worthy of our attention because it is vital to people who live with disabilities. It is specifically designed to help people with a disability to live independently in our communities, and provides additional financial assistance to those already in receipt of support from social services to enable them to access essential support. We should all be able to support that without equivocation. Threats to the fund, or threats to reduce it, make it harder for people with disabilities to live independent lives. Who on earth would support that?
By the DWP’s own admission, the UK Government’s closure and transfer of the scheme to local authorities in 2015 caused many recipients severe hardship. We have heard repeated examples of that happening in constituencies throughout the United Kingdom. I say to the Minister with utter sincerity that that feeds into the perception held by a number of people that this Government are cruel and callous when it comes to supporting the sick and the disabled. I know that the Minister will reject that analysis—I would expect her to—but that perception exists, and that is a problem for the UK Government. I hope she is mindful of that and does her best to address it. The closure of the independent living fund does not help to counter that perception but feeds it. I am sure the Minister wants to seek to address that, and I know that she will take the point on board carefully.
Many Members mentioned the UK Government’s short-sighted and hugely concerning decision not to ring-fence the fund when devolving it to local authorities. Lord Freud, who was then Under-Secretary of State at the DWP, told the House of Lords in 2014 that
“local authorities need to be allowed to meet their statutory responsibilities in a flexible and responsive way and the ring-fencing of funding prevents this.”
I am sure that the intentions were honourable, but we have heard repeatedly that there can be no doubt that that created, by accident or design—it does not really matter to people suffering from the policy—a postcode lottery. We heard that from the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Wrexham. That is because local authorities now determine their own eligibility criteria, and they often do not provide the same funding as the independent living fund did. Considering that the fund is about vital support, that cannot be acceptable, and that decision needs in all good conscience to be revisited. I urge the Minister to do so, and I hope that she is minded to.
I very much take the hon. Lady’s point. Is that not made worse by the fact that budgets are broadly decreasing at the same time? Local government bodies have the unenviable task of somehow maintaining funding to individuals at a time when their income is falling.
I very much agree. Local authorities across the United Kingdom face difficult choices, but many people, particularly in England, believe that they face unprecedented funding crises. In Scotland, we have tried hard to protect local funding as far as possible—it is not always possible—under budgetary constraints, but Welsh and particularly English local authorities have faced deep, biting cuts. Thankfully, we are working hard to avoid the worst excesses of those cuts in Scotland, but devolving something and not ring-fencing it when there are so many budgetary pressures creates a difficulty with regard to what is prioritised and what it is possible to do.
On the hon. Lady’s point about local authority budgets, to take the west midlands as an example, Birmingham, the largest local authority, has to make cuts of just under £1 billion. In Coventry, that figure is more than £100 million. That is the type of pressure there is on budgets. My view, frankly, is that central Government should never have devolved—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a speech rather than an intervention. I call Patricia Gibson.
I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says. We have heard that there is a sense that devolving vital support to local authorities without either ring-fencing it or properly funding it is a way of dodging responsibility. I know that the Minister will seek to address that. Considering how important that support is for people living with disabilities, the situation is not sustainable.
It was deeply disappointing that, in 2010, the Labour Government tightened the fund so that it would accept applications only from people who were working 16 hours or more a week. That was done essentially with no consultation, and it was one of the last acts of the outgoing Labour Government. That was greatly disappointing to many people, particularly given how important the fund is and how many disabled people throughout the United Kingdom looked to the Labour Government at that time to champion their rights and support them. Many would argue—disability organisations certainly have—that tightening the eligibility criteria was the first step towards signing the death warrant of the fund itself, which is deeply unfortunate.
We in Scotland have chosen a different path. The devolution of powers permits various constituent parts of the UK to do things differently if they see fit. That is what devolution is all about. I say in just about every debate that I participate in that I do not really care where a good idea comes from: if it is a good idea, we should all seek to emulate it. I urge the Minister to look carefully at the independent living fund in Scotland. This issue should not be party political. It should be about seeking to do what is best for those who rely on this essential support. Party politics should not come into it. I urge the Minister to look carefully at what is going on in Scotland and to learn whatever lessons she thinks are of use to help to give people in England essential support.
The hon. Member for Wrexham is absolutely right that these are not easy decisions—thinking about how to spend taxpayers’ money is never easy—but most people in society would agree that supporting people with a disability to live independently in their communities and contribute in the best way they can to those communities, which is what they want to do, is worth looking at seriously. This is not easy, but some things are too important for us always to be guided by pounds, shillings and pence.
Can the hon. Lady tell me whether the Scottish fund is open to new applicants?
I can: it opened at the end of 2017, and I will make a few remarks about it. In 2015, the Scottish National party Government created the public body, the Independent Living Fund Scotland, on the back of the UK Government closing the UK scheme. There was £47.2 million of the former independent living fund to be administered to support 2,600 people in Scotland, with 99% of recipients stating that the fund helped them to live their lives more independently. In addition, the Scottish Government injected an additional £5 million to support those aged between 16 and 21—a transitional fund to help them into adulthood. From the end of last year, it is open to new applications.
We must not lose sight of what the fund is for: to help recipients of all ages to contribute to and participate in their communities, which we can all support and get behind. We want all people—people living with a disability or not—to live as independently and productively as they possibly can. The Scottish Government have worked with those living with a disability to develop the fund to ensure they have choices and are treated with dignity, respect and fairness.
The Scottish Transitions Forum, a national network of more than 850 professionals, young people, parents and carers, funded by the Scottish Government, has helped to inform the progress of policies. It is essential and should go without saying that the voices of the people directly affected by the policy should help to shape it from the bottom up. I urge the Minister to ensure that, across the United Kingdom, policies and initiatives, particularly with regard to those living with a disability, heed their voices and put them at the heart of the process to help improve the situation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) on securing this important debate and I thank everybody for their valid contributions and interventions this afternoon. My hon. Friend makes a really good point in that this issue has probably not been discussed. Given it has been nearly two and a half years since the fund was closed, it is worth our revisiting it today. He points out that this is a technical issue. Also, he made the really important point that we need to know the quantitative impact of the devolving of funds on existing claimants. He rightly set out the importance of the fund and the part it has played in many disabled people’s lives to enable them to live an independent life and able to fully participate in society.
My hon. Friend set out how the fund made a contribution and how it was devolved to local authorities, particularly in England. That is a good example of the impact it could have when the scheme is changed in Wales. As it stands, it will potentially be devolved to local Welsh authorities, as has happened here in England. He made the point that local authorities’ budgets have been put under great strain, given the funding cuts they have had to endure over the past seven years. We need to take a fresh look at the way funding is given to support disabled people.
I pay tribute to Nathan Davies, a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham and a recipient of the fund. He is a disability rights campaigner and I thank him for all that he does. We need to hear the voices of disabled people so that we fully understand the impact that decisions made here have on disabled people outside.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the fears that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham, I and others have is that, because there are such pressures on council budgets, there will be great campaigns on locally based issues—the closure of a library or the like—but individuals with disabilities will not have that same sort of voice and could therefore be left unheard and with financial problems as a result of the changes?
My hon. Friend makes a really valid point. She is right. We need to ensure that the voices of disabled people are heard. I can refer back to my own experience here in London in a particular local authority when the campaign on the closure of the independent living fund began. A lot of campaigning took place. It is important that we encourage and empower disabled people to ensure their voices are heard. I totally take her point that we need to ensure disabled people’s voices are not lost in any of the debates. As a disabled woman myself, my role is to ensure disabled people are empowered and their voices always heard.
From the outset it is fundamental that any support for severely disabled people is adequately funded so that we can ensure people with disabilities can live independently. We know that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty compared with non-disabled people, in part due to the extra costs associated with living with a disability. I cannot carry on further without talking about the Government’s past record in terms of the disproportionate impact that their cuts have had on disabled people. There are 4.2 million disabled people living in poverty and over the past seven years many disabled people feel they have been scapegoated by the Government. A 2016 inquiry by the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities found that since 2010 the UK Government have been responsible for “grave or systematic violations”.
The independent living fund—I will refer to it as the ILF—closed in June 2015. The funding was devolved to English local authorities and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments. Devolved Governments adopted their own different policies. We have already heard about the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish policies. The ILF was originally set up in 1988 to help cover the extra costs of being severely disabled. It was also to ensure that disabled people could lead a full and active independent life in their community, rather than living in institutions or in residential care. At the time of the fund’s closure, more than 16,000 disabled people in Britain were receiving an average of around £350 a week towards the costs of living independently.
The ILF was a vital financial resource for many severely disabled people that enabled them to live independently. It helped to cover the everyday tasks that many of us take for granted such as cleaning, washing, cooking, going out and being able to participate fully. At the time of the closure the coalition Government stated that all existing recipients would continue to be funded by their local authorities. In reality, that has not always been the case. It was suggested that many local authorities would not ring-fence funding and the grant would simply be absorbed into a general pot.
For example, Disability Rights UK research suggested that only 29 councils in England would ensure non-ring-fenced funding would be allocated. Indeed, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,
“observed that social care packages have been reduced in the context of...budgetary constraints at the local level.”
As I have alluded to, we know that since 2010 local authorities have come under extreme pressures and have seen their budgets cut. They will continue to have to make cuts and it is unsure how much support disabled people will receive. For example, when an individual who received 27 hours of support a week through the ILF was reassessed under the local authority arrangement, he was to be given just nine hours’ support. Potentially he would have to make contributions as well, and naturally that would have been unaffordable.
The extensive cuts to local government funding have ensured that in many cases some disabled people have been restricted or limited in the lives they could lead. As has been pointed out, there were local campaigns; I was not in this place at the time but I am led to believe that there was a protest here, by disabled people who wanted to change Government’s decision to end the independent living fund in its current form without devolving it to a local level. Despite assurances from the Government of the day, support has been removed from some disabled people, and reduced for those with the highest support needs. In England in particular, there is pretty much a postcode lottery; the level of support that people get is almost dependent on the local authority area they live in. We would all agree that it is fundamental that disabled people’s independence should not be dependent on the level of funding or eligibility criteria set by an individual local authority. Distribution of funding should also be based on need; therefore there should be some sort of universal policy for how that is done.
I want to speak briefly about eligibility. That is determined by the local authority, and we do not see, in many cases, whether recipients’ support has decreased or increased. A decrease would undoubtedly have an impact on someone’s ability to live independently. I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham and hope that the Minister can respond on the important issue of what the impact of the changes to the independent living fund has been. How many recipients’ support packages have been reduced, and how many have remained the same? Are there any instances, among so many disabled people, of the support being enhanced? It is also important that we should know that disabled people’s voices will be included in the future when decisions are made about them. That is something that I believe and take a stand on, as does the Labour party. Since 2013 disabled people have experienced £27 billion in welfare cuts, affecting social security and social care support.
As I said at the start of my speech, we believe that it is fundamental that adequate funding is provided to enable severely disabled people to live independently. The Government must ensure that local authorities and devolved Governments are adequately funded. I urge the Minister to touch in her response on how we will deal with working-age disabled people.
I remind the Minister that Mr Lucas has the right of response, so perhaps she will leave a couple of minutes at the end of her remarks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and I appreciate that reminder.
I welcome the debate secured this afternoon by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas). It is important, and I agree with him: although I have been in the House seven years, and obviously we legislate for a lot of changes, we do not spend enough time going back over them to see whether they delivered on our good intentions. It is important to scrutinise, debate and revisit what we have done. There are of course always lessons to be learned, and we should do that—learn the lessons as we go forward. I welcome the contributions made by the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I can clearly see that they and other Members who intervened in the debate deeply share my commitment to disabled people, and that they want to ensure they can play as full as possible a part in society. They spoke passionately about their constituents and people who have benefitted from the independent living fund.
From the outset I want to assure everyone present for the debate that the Government are absolutely committing to provide the right support for disabled people so that they can live independently. I want to address the detailed points that were raised, but it is important to take up the challenge set by the hon. Member for Wrexham to look back and explain the reasons for deciding to close the fund in the first place. It is clear to me, looking back at what my predecessors aimed to do, that the decision was driven by a clear case for reform, rather than any desire to cut costs. The way disabled people are supported to live independent lives has changed significantly in the past 20 years, so the ILF model was becoming increasingly outdated. There have been significant changes to the social care landscape over the period, which have meant that mainstream provision now offers the type of control and choice that we have heard about this afternoon. That is far more available in mainstream provision than it was at the time when people thought we needed an independent living fund because those services, and that support, were not available.
I do not think it was right that the ILF was a discretionary fund. As with any discretionary fund, that inevitably led to quite a lot of inequity; people with similar disabilities did not get equal access to services. I was proud to be a member of the Bill Committee on the Care Act 2014, which I remind hon. Members secured all-party support. It was recognised as a huge, significant reform to social care—probably the most significant for 60 years. It was clear that the Act was intended to promote greater independence as well as to increase disabled people’s control over their care and support. It incorporated and built on many of the features of the ILF. Of course, importantly, the Act introduced national eligibility criteria for access to adult social care. That was no longer discretionary, with people having to apply to a fund and others deciding how it should be spent. Criteria were nationally set. Local authorities have a statutory responsibility to deliver on it, but of course they have discretion to do more. We have heard examples from Scotland. Wales takes a different approach, and local authorities throughout the country can innovate. They can join up with other services, such as supported housing, and there are huge opportunities to innovate and join up services.
The Care Act 2014 established not only eligibility criteria but standards. Like any hon. Member present this afternoon, when I work with my constituents we are interested in the quality of care. It is important to focus on that, and not always just on the amount of money, although funding is of course important. The Act brought in consistency in eligibility and in quality of care, and that was a huge step in the right direction.
When responsibility for the ILF was transferred to local authorities and devolved Administrations, of course it was very much part of the Government’s thinking on supporting the principles of localism. Local bodies are accountable to local people in their areas, and are best placed to make the decisions about how to support people. Just like other Members, I get frustrated and even angry with the local authority in my area when it does not prioritise the most vulnerable people. I do not shrink from the fact that because of the financial situation that we inherited in 2010 there have had to be cuts to local authority budgets, but they still have substantial amounts of money. They have to make choices, and when anyone asks me I am clear that they should prioritise the most vulnerable.
We have heard comments this afternoon about the legality of what the Government are doing, and that in some way we are in breach of our obligations under the Equalities Act 2010. I wish to respond to that and emphasise that the Government’s decision to close the independent living fund was challenged in a judicial review, and throughout the process the DWP won on all points. It was judged that the consultation was fair and that it had paid due regard and proper attention to the public sector equality duty. At appeal we were directed to prepare a new equality analysis, which we did, and that informed the decision to transfer funding and responsibility to local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales. That was announced in March 2014, and it was all put in place at the time of the transfer.
At that time, a huge amount of support was given to local authorities and the devolved Administrations, which people very much welcomed. The ILF was fully funded when it was transferred to local authorities, and the Government guaranteed funding for former ILF users until at least 2020. The funding forecasts used to calculate local authority grants were based on the ILF’s own models. That was an independent body—a charity—and the forecasts were based on its models. The budget for the final year of the ILF was £262 million, and in England £363 million was transferred in two years following the closure of the scheme. A further £498 million will be transferred to local authorities between now and 2020, to cover ongoing local authority payments to former ILF recipients. Funding per person has been maintained, and that is what matters to individuals.
As has been said, the funding was not ring-fenced, because I firmly believe that local councils are better placed than central Government to take decisions about their own area, including how they spend their budget. Any attempt to dictate the terms of the transfer would have frustrated the aim of enabling local authorities to join up services that they often already provide to disabled people in their communities.
The Minister said that funding to individuals has been maintained. How does she know that when she does not keep records of the amounts paid by local authorities to individual recipients?
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. We transferred the money for that purpose—I was going to come to this point later in my speech, but I will say it now. The hon. Gentleman gave various numbers for losses, cuts, and people not receiving money that came from the research that he has done, including work with third-party organisations. Before this debate I asked him to come and see me so that we could talk the issue through, because the fund was certainly transferred in the full expectation that its recipients would have their funding maintained. If there is evidence to the contrary I would like to sit down with him and go through that.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the independent review of the impact of the fund. That was carried out by leading social scientists and showed that the majority of people interviewed during the research were seeing the same level of expenditure, or more, and that the level and quality of support were going up. However, there was variability in that research, and I would be delighted to sit down with the hon. Gentleman and make sure that the money is being spent in the way that was intended.
Through the devolution of the fund, the vast majority of recipients of ILF—94%—were also recipients of care and financial support from local authorities. There was a lot of duplication, and that has enabled local authorities to have the person-centred approach that the Care Act 2014 was always about. We need to join up services around the individual because no two people are the same. No two families have the same circumstances, so we must ensure that support meets the needs of the individual and enables them to live as independently as possible. As the hon. Gentleman recognised, these are devolved matters, and it is for the Welsh Assembly to make these decisions. The Welsh Minister for Social Services and Public Health said that funding of the ILF will continue in Wales, as that will equalise support and “make it more sustainable”. That is certainly a point that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in Wales recognise.
We have a clear commitment to ensure that disabled people have the support to lead independent lives, and that is demonstrated in the fact that the Department spends well over £50 billion a year. This year, £52 billion will be spent on benefits to support disabled people and those with health conditions. That is around 2.5% of our GDP, and more than 6% of Government spending, and it is up by £7 billion in real terms since 2010. It is simply wrong when colleagues stand up in the House and say that the Government are cutting benefits for people with disabilities. These are indisputable facts, and when hon. Members stand up in the Chamber, and elsewhere, and wonder why there is a perception that the Government are being cruel and heartless to disabled people, I think they should look at themselves in the mirror. When Members constantly misrepresent the facts, of course people will be worried and scared. Like any other constituency MP I hold weekly surgeries, and I am frankly dismayed when people come along holding their Labour leaflets and showing me what they are being told. They are scared about cuts that are not happening.
It is not right to say that we are not being truthful because there have been severe cuts to support for disabled people. The introduction of the personal independence payment and the abolition of disability living allowance means that fewer people will receive additional support to help meet the extra costs of living with a disability. The time limiting of contributory employment and support allowance has also led to a reduction in the number of recipients who are eligible for support—
Order. This is an intervention, not a speech. The Minister is replying to the debate.
As I said, we are spending more than £7 billion more than in 2010, and the changes we have made to the personal independence payment mean that more people are now eligible for support. People with conditions such as multiple sclerosis and those with variable conditions are now eligible, as are people with mental health problems. We have widened the range of people with health conditions and disabilities who can apply for the personal independence payment.
Does the Minister agree that there is a stark difference between perception and reality, and that while some may use that perception for partisan reasons and to play politics, the reality on the ground is that the Government are supporting those who are disabled to live fulfilled and full lives, and helping them to gain choice and control over how their support is delivered?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. The numbers clearly show a significant contribution to helping people live independently, but these things are not the only things we are doing. He is completely right to talk about enabling people to play their full part in society, including in work, and I am delighted that so many more disabled people are in work. The vast majority of disabled people want to play their full part in society and to be able to work, and we have set up very ambitious plans to ensure that more people have more support.
Let us look at some of that support. Not only do we have ESA and the personal independence payment, but enhanced and tailor-made support is available through the work coaches in Jobcentre Plus—that is more than £330 million. The marvellous Access to Work programme enables people to receive support of up to and over £40,000 a year so that they can go to work and stay in work. The subject of the newly launched Work and Health programme brings me on to the point raised by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran about working collaboratively with Scotland. I am delighted that in Scotland people are working so constructively on some of that innovation, and testing new ways that we can support people to get into and stay in work. We have a constructive working relationship with Scotland, and Scotland is benefiting from some of the considerable investment we are putting into that programme. Just this year we have two funds, one of nearly £80 million and another of about £35 million. I will, of course, always look to work with colleagues in any part of the country where we can work collaboratively and constructively to learn from each other, so that we can enable more people to play as full a part in society as they possibly can.
We have also talked about other parts of the funding. Adult social care is incredibly important for disabled people, and we have committed to publishing a Green Paper by the summer, setting out how we will reform the system and have a longer-term settlement on social care. An inter-ministerial group has been set up to do that, because it is an essential reform that we need to achieve. It is also important to have a cross-party, whole nation approach to doing that, because various Governments have tried to get it right, but we have yet to come up with a settled view we can all support. I think that is long overdue, and I will work hard to support that inter-ministerial group in coming up with a set of proposals that will aim to command the support of the whole House. Any hon. Members here who would like to join would be welcome.
I am really pleased that there will be a cross-ministerial group. Can the Minister confirm that working-age disabled people will also be considered in the Green Paper and in the reform of adult social care?
We definitely have two pieces of work under way. One is part of adult social care and is about the care of elderly people, and one is for working-age disabled people. That is incredibly important. We are always looking to see what more we can do to support disabled people to live as independent a life as possible, and I also want to ensure that, as we look ahead, we draw on the lessons we will learn through the considerable investment in innovation that we are putting in through the Work and Health programme. I want to ensure that we have an evidence base for the reforms we want to put in place.
In the meantime, we know we need to put more money into the system. We have put in an additional £2 billion over the next three years. That money was committed in March last year, and will mean that local authorities have the funds they need to support disabled people in living as independent a life as they can and to meet their social care needs. Councils have access to £9.25 billion more in dedicated funding for social care over the next three years. I think that, with this additional funding, local authorities have the ability to meet the needs that have been clearly set out there and to meet the responsibilities set out in the Care Act. It is important to analyse the impact of the closure of the independent living fund and I am happy to meet the hon. Member for Wrexham, because what I really want to do is focus on what more we can do in the future.
I hope that hon. Members who have been present for today’s debate will see that we have a big ambition, through a whole range of programmes, to enable disabled people to live independently and play their full part in society, helping them into work. I believe that the challenge we face as a nation is above party politics; it should be above party politics. Those colleagues who want to work with me to improve, learn and move forward to realise that bold ambition are very welcome to join me in a meeting and in that great challenge.
I thank the Minister for her response. The first step I would like to see is for the Government to begin collecting the information from local authorities on the real impact of the closure of the fund on individuals within each local authority area in England, so that we are informed about that situation and can hopefully put at rest the minds of those individuals who face the closure of the fund, such as my constituent Nathan Davies. As a matter of policy, it should always be the case that the Government collect information arising from their own policy decisions. I am amazed that that has not happened to date.
On the issue of the impact of cuts to individuals in receipt of disability benefits, the reality is that, as constituency MPs, we see individual people whose income has been reduced because of political decisions made by the Government. Whether or not the Government have paid an extra £7 billion into the Department for Work and Pensions fund, those individuals have had a reduction in their income. That is what we are campaigning on, and why we are arguing in favour of supporting those people and making political cases.
The Minister is a politician, as I am. We take different views, but I do not doubt her integrity and she should not doubt ours. We campaign because we are representing those individuals who have had their incomes reduced as a result of the political choices the Government have made. We will continue to make that political point, because we see a different vision from the one she sees. That is what our democracy is about. For the most part, this has been a non-partisan debate, and I am rather surprised that the most partisan element was introduced by the Minister, because it is a hugely important issue. We all want to support disabled people. I would be happy to meet the Minister to discuss matters. I will have discussions with members of my own party about the future of the fund in Wales, because I am not convinced that the evidence from what has happened in England supports devolution to local authorities as a good way forward. If the Minister can convince me otherwise, so be it. I will meet Welsh Ministers to discuss the issue with them too.
I am grateful for the debate, which has been helpful and has clarified a number of issues, and I am grateful for the manner in which you have chaired it, Mrs Main.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered changes to the Independent Living Fund.