[Relevant document: Summary of public engagement by the Petitions Committee, on the cost of living and financial support for disabled people, reported to the House on 16 May, HC 73.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 610300 and 617425, relating to the cost of living and financial support for disabled people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I congratulate Rachel Curtis, Abigail Broomfield and Katy Styles for creating the petitions. Abigail and Katy are here today, and more than 40,000 people have signed the petitions. I put on the record my thanks to the Petitions Committee staff for all their work, Inclusion London and Disability Rights UK for meeting me last week, and the many organisations that sent briefings and provided advice, including Oxfam, Scope, Mencap, the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Citizens Advice.
Ahead of today’s debate, the Petitions Committee launched a survey, which 10,854 people completed—one of the biggest responses to a Petitions Committee survey. The plight of disabled people should concern every Member, as the proportion of the UK population reporting a disability has risen to 20% over the past decade. As a disabled person myself, I know how intense it can be for someone to share their story, so I thank each and every person who completed the survey for sharing their experience. In response to the ongoing cost of living emergency and energy crisis, 93% of respondents have had to limit their use of energy, 76% are limiting their use of transport, and 60% have limited their use of specialist equipment. Over half have had to reduce their use of medication.
Those results are shocking. Unsurprisingly, testimony of poor mental health was apparent. Some respondents described feelings of despair. Others even reported being pushed to consider suicide. One respondent wrote:
“My life is hard. I survived childhood cancer to become a disabled adult. I had so many hopes for my life but now each day I regret not dying of cancer. My life is not dignified.”
A mother wrote:
“My son…is allergic to the cold. He has EpiPens and I have had to use them this winter as I can’t afford the heating on all the time or I can’t afford special clothing for him. I feel like a failed mother.”
A person who regrets not dying of cancer, and a mother who feels like she is a failure; I ask the Minister how that is acceptable in the UK in 2023. Nearly half of those living in poverty in the UK are disabled or live with somebody who is disabled.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. She is right about the figures around poverty: one in three disabled people live in poverty—twice that of non-disabled people. While I applaud the petitions’ aims, particularly the call for one-off payments as a temporary measure, does she agree that the real issue is the adequacy of social security support for disabled people, which has become emaciated over the last 12 years, and that we need to incorporate the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities into law? We have been a signatory to it since 2009, but are failing to provide adequate social protection.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is absolutely spot on. We need a wholesale review of social security but, more importantly, the Government should commit, as Labour has done, to fully incorporate the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, so that we are protecting their civil and human rights.
It is a fact that disabled people incur extra costs. Scope’s latest Disability Price Tag report found that the average disabled household faces an extra £975 a month in costs, with that figure rising to over £1,200 if accommodating the inflationary costs for the period from 2022 to 2023. The Resolution Foundation found that the gap in household income between adults with a disability and adults without a disability was 30%, including disability social security, and that the gap rises to 44% if disability social security is not included. That was across the period from 2020 to 2021. Citizens Advice data for May 2023 shows that since the first quarter of 2022 the largest cohort helped was either permanently sick people or disabled people. The Trussell Trust has reported that disabled people are hugely over-represented in food poverty demographics. And 73% of families who took part in the recent survey by the Disabled Children’s Partnership said that the cost of living crisis will have a significant impact on their disabled children.
The spending of disabled households is particularly exposed to the ongoing energy crisis, given that energy bills for medical issues, and spending on specialist equipment and food, make up a disproportionate share of all spending. In response to the Petitions Committee’s survey, 48% of respondents said that they had extra costs due to the use of specialist equipment.
In my view, there is no question that the blame lies with the successive years of a Conservative Government, whereby they have created a hostile environment for disabled people. That was compounded by the pandemic and the current cost of living crisis.
Government support has barely scratched the surface. The paltry support is woefully insufficient and the very definition of what we would call sticking-plaster politics. Of the disabled people surveyed who received the £150 cost of living payment, 80% said that it would not be enough to cover their increased costs for essentials. That prompts the question: how do the Government think that the payment will be sufficient when inflation is around 10% and official figures show the fastest annual increases in food and drink prices because of inflation in the last 40 years, at around 19% as of March this year?
The reality is that even cost of living payments are not always reaching people, for instance those on the new style employment and support allowance who do not qualify for any Government cost of living payment support. There was also the cruel decision to change the warm homes discount criteria during the cost of living crisis, despite the Government’s own impact assessment finding that 290,000 disabled people would no longer receive the discount. For them, the £150 disability cost of living payment only offsets the loss of the warm homes discount. Why?
More worryingly, the Government have not provided specific support for disabled households incurring high energy costs. Many disabled people have told me that it is pointless to prescribe medicine if a person cannot afford to run the equipment they need to stay alive.
NHS schemes in place to cover the electricity costs of oxygen concentrators and dialysis machines are currently beset with issues and the Retail Energy Code Company has argued for establishing a service tailored for those using medical equipment. On prepayment meters, 60% of the people supported by Citizens Advice between January 2022 and February 2023 who could not afford to top up were disabled people, compared with the 40% who were not disabled or who did not have a long-term health condition.
UK household energy suppliers have agreed to a new code of practice, which means that force-fitting prepayment meters will be subject to a set of voluntary restrictions, but the industry needs to go further by banning prepayment meters for disabled people and providing more help with energy debt. Why will the Government not call for an industry-wide ban of forced installations in disabled households?
The political choice of austerity has gutted our social security system, and the consequences are real. Government-funded research suggests that cuts to social care and public health caused 57,500 more deaths in England than would have been expected if spending had continued at pre-2010 trends. The long-overdue health and disability White Paper focuses on getting disabled people into work and ramping up the use of sanctions, but the Government should be focusing on improving schemes such as Access to Work, getting rid of the delays and dealing with the outstanding applications. Access to Work is one of the best mechanisms for helping disabled people—especially those living with sight loss—to stay in work. Evidence suggests that sanctions do not work and have a negative impact on disabled people’s health.
The White Paper rightly suggests scrapping the work capability assessment, but replacing it with the personal independence payment assessment is absurd, given that PIP has a totally different function. It is an extra benefit, and it does not actually meet the additional costs. We know, because we have debated this previously, that the PIP assessment is flawed and that the support that PIP offers is in many cases inadequate. The Government’s own statistics show that more than 60% of PIP decisions that are appealed are overturned in favour of the claimant. The Government have never carried out an assessment of the adequacy of PIP and whether it is fit for purpose. Will they commit to assessing its adequacy and whether it works, and make improvements to the assessment?
Disabled people who receive social care can be asked to give up to 40% of their social security income to pay for social care. That leaves many in deep poverty and forces them to make the impossible choice between meeting their basic needs such as heating or eating and essential care. Research by the BBC found that more than 60,000 people are in social care debt.
There are clear actions that the Government can take to address the situation. They must increase the disability cost of living payment, and frankly they should be making those payments now; I do not understand why people have to wait until June to receive the second payment. They should extend the cost of living payments to everybody, especially those on new-style ESA. They should bring in the universal credit uplift, remove the social security benefit cap and reverse the changes to the eligibility criteria for the warm home discount.
The Government could also push the energy industry to introduce an energy debt waiver or some sort of social tariff. We know, however it is designed, that a social tariff is in isolation unlikely to meet the needs of disabled people, so it should be developed alongside a tailored cost support policy. The Government should also look at the feasibility of the warm home prescription, which aims to help people on low incomes and those with severe health conditions that are made worse by bad weather.
Energy suppliers must improve access to information for disabled people, especially blind and partially sighted people and those with a learning disability. It is their legal duty to do so, so what pressure can the Government put on them to ensure they are compliant?
The changes outlined in the White Paper are designed to get more disabled people into work, but are the Government removing barriers to help disabled people access the labour market? Are they addressing the disability employment pay gap? Disabled people are paid an average of 21% less than their non-disabled colleagues.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) outlined, changes need to be made to the social security system to make it less cruel, unfair and hostile, and to restore it to its original purpose, which was to provide a safety net for those in need. Disabled people are not asking for more; they are asking for equity. The Government should be ashamed that disabled people are dying or reporting that they want to commit suicide. Today should be a watershed moment for the Government.
Many are angry and frustrated. They feel that the Government have abandoned them, letting down the very people they should be seeking to protect the most. An example of that was the long overdue, or late, national disability strategy, which was ruled unlawful last year. Many of us did not believe that it was credible in the first place, but what have the Government replaced it with? There needs to be a fundamental rethink and change in the Government’s approach to serving disabled people. The approach must be about making their lives better and not about causing preventable harm.
As I close, I thank the petitioners. I encourage hon. Members to say hello to Abigail and Katy after the debate. I had the opportunity to meet them last week, and hearing about the experiences that led them to start the petition was pretty harrowing. As I said, I hope that today can be a moment when the Government acknowledge their flaws and failures on the part of disabled people, seek to draw a line and bring about changes that will improve their lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert, to follow the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) and, indeed, to have a second bite of the cherry in speaking about this topic, given that last Tuesday I could not make it to the debate secured by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). It is always good to have a second coming, I have to say—although in my case perhaps not. We have had an eloquent debate so far.
I am sure that we will hear many numbers in the course of the debate. Two stick out to me. One comes from Kidney Care UK, which cites the average annual extra cost to an individual facing dialysis as £1,918. The second big figure comes from the charity Contact a Family, which works with disabled children. It says that the average cost of the energy needs for the disabled children that the charity works with is £1,596. That covers such matters as pumps, monitors, hoists and electric wheelchairs, all of which are related to an individual’s health condition. That is one type of extra cost that the disabled face in regard to energy needs.
The second type of cost does not really relate to health needs but is a consequence of a person’s disability. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for assistive technology. Many people with profound and severe disabilities, particularly cerebral palsy, rely on computer or some sort of IT aids to engage with the wider world. They are vital to their quality of life. Such aids can be voice recognition software, eyeball-controlled software and so on. All that relies on electricity, which of course costs money as well. Those needs are a consequence of their disability but are not health needs per se.
The third sort of extra cost is that those with any sort of disability need to maintain their home at a higher temperature than might otherwise be the case merely to keep themselves warm. On that point, I give a small plug to my Westminster Hall debate at 4 pm on Wednesday, which is about furniture poverty and affordability. One area that I will focus on is the fact that all too often new tenants move into social housing and find that floor coverings have been removed, and they cannot afford to replace them. They end up with a much less well-insulated property, which for many of them affects their health. Those are the three areas that we need to consider.
Having read the Hansard report of last week’s debate online in preparation for this debate, and listening to questions, I think a consensus is emerging. The phrase “social tariff” crops up time and again, and there is much discussion about the role of personal independence payments and a recognition of the £150 that the Government have made available. There is also a lot of talk about the lump sum of £650, which one of the petitions refers to. There are positives and negatives with all of those, in my view.
I am always interested in how the personal independence payment works. It clearly has an important role to play, and is designed to meet the additional costs that people face due to their disability in their day-to-day lives. There has been a long-term debate over the extent to which it fulfils that goal. The purple pound—the premium that so many people face—is not always reflected in PIP. Whether a non-means tested benefit, which PIP is, is the right avenue to support the energy needs of the most vulnerable in society is a debate worth having. We should not automatically assume that PIP is the answer to every problem. If that is the argument, Members have to justify to me why millionaires should benefit equally to some of my poorest constituents, and why those constituents should not get more intense and focused support.
The second issue is around the social tariff. Social tariffs sound all well and good; everyone thinks they are a wonderful idea. A social tariff has to be paid for, and that subsidy is often taken from other bill payers’ accounts, where it often ends up on a standing charge. What we risk doing by our continual focus on solving every problem with a social tariff is that it then gets put on a standing charge, and there is an ever decreasing circle where more people will see their standing charges go up and then have cause to revert to a social tariff themselves because they cannot afford their bills, thereby increasing the standing charges. In reality, that would not occur, but it is a logical inference. Once again, we cannot keep solving every problem in our energy system and our cost of living crisis by placing them on a standing charge—other ways have to be found.
I accept that the intention behind the £650 payment is a good one. My point is that it is an arbitrary figure. It certainly does not reflect the overall costs experienced by many of the people I just mentioned, which go far above £650. While good, I do not think it is necessary the answer either.
The hon. Member for Battersea briefly made mention of the Retail Energy Code Company, and its report. I am going to give it a bit more of a plug, because I think it is much more exciting than the hon. Member suggested.
The hon. Member mentioned the Retail Energy Code Company only briefly, and I wanted to talk a little more about it because the detail in it is actually quite interesting. I am not mocking the hon. Member at all, I just have the time to cover it in more detail, whereas she had more to cover. I urge her not to take offence unnecessarily.
The Retail Energy Code Company advises energy companies on the code of conduct they must adopt towards their customers. Given some of my casework, I am not sure how much the energy companies are listening to it, but that is its role within the energy sector. Andrew Mower, who has been working with it on a set of proposals on how to deal with energy costs for disabled people, has done a superb job in exploring this area and finding some of the flaws in the proposals that have been made in recent months.
In particular, it is worth looking at the NHS schemes that exist at the moment for those on oxygen concentrators and dialysis machines. It is a perfectly good model; I am glad to see the NHS recognising that it has to help people meet energy costs, but it is not universal. It goes back to my old friend the postcode lottery. In addition, the subsidy does not go up when energy prices go up, so people are always playing catch-up. People are paid in arrears, so they have to stump up the cash to pay their bills in the hope that they will get the money back at some future date. That money may not actually reflect the bill they have to pay.
It is interesting how the NHS model, which we think may be the answer to many things, actually causes as many problems as it solves. Similarly, with social tariffs, Mr Mower points out the immense difficulty they have found in the broadband sector when trying to come up with a social tariff that actually works and does not disrupt the market in perverse ways with unintended consequences that could see social tariffs costing more than the one that is available on the market to families now. Social tariffs by themselves are quite difficult to get right and need to be extremely flexible. I am not convinced that Ofgem spending hours each week reinventing what this week’s social tariff should look like every time the energy cap changes is actually the answer either.
The hon. Gentleman is very informed and detailed on this topic so I defer to his superior knowledge, but does he not agree that the Retail Energy Code Company, Ofgem and all those involved in the market are clearly failing the most vulnerable in our society? I have vulnerable and disabled constituents who are turning off their energy just so they can survive, yet the disaster of the structure and the standing charges—which the hon. Gentleman mentioned —means they are no better off, but they are freezing cold.
I share the hon. Lady’s view about the reality that her constituents, and indeed mine, are facing. I share some of her criticisms of the energy companies themselves. The Retail Energy Code Company is trying to provide an answer, which I hope the energy companies will listen to and I hope might just persuade her that it is worth a second look, but I do not know. Time will tell, perhaps.
When coming up with proposals for the disability sector, many charities emphasise the broadness of eligibility and auto-enrolment. That is entirely logical and sensible for them to do. They have learned from the reality of the priority services register. In my constituency, I find that the people who really ought to be on that register are the least likely to be on it, so charities are right to be concerned about whether some sort of voluntary enrolment would actually get to where we want it to go. At the same time, they are missing out the potential for a more tailored scheme, which goes back to my earlier point. Everybody’s energy costs are going to be different, and one-off payments do not necessarily meet that challenge.
Something is better than nothing. However, part of the art of speech making is building an argument, as I hope the hon. Lady understands. I have not yet culminated my argument in what I think we should do. By all means, she can agree or disagree with my critique of what is being proposed, but I am about to come on to what I think should be done, which I hope might just persuade her yet again.
Mr Mower looked at what is being done in the Australian states. They have gone into great detail on this topic, looking at all the different forms of medical equipment that people are using and their energy intensity. Each piece of equipment has a different energy consumption rate. It cannot just be measured by minutes or hours; some of them are more energy intensive than others. Australian states have done calculations enabling them to oblige energy firms to discount the energy at the point of consumption. There is then no need to request a rebate from an energy company, or some supplementary top-up, because it occurs at the point of consumption of that energy. That helps to solve the problem of how we support those with energy-intensive equipment needs. However, I agree it does not meet the needs of those who have to heat their properties generally for their own health benefits.
The hon. Member for Battersea briefly mentioned the issue of the warm home prescription, which the Energy Systems Catapult has been introducing. It has had a limited roll-out in Gloucestershire, and I think it is now operating in four areas as a pilot. It has great potential, but where I issue caution is that we need to understand, if we do not already, whether it is actually saving the NHS money. The idea is that a social prescriber looks at a person’s energy consumption, the insulation in their home and their energy needs, and works out whether a form of prescription to help with energy prices is a way of forestalling more expensive treatment for more severe health conditions at some future date. That is quite hard to capture in a short period of time because we have not seen the long-term consequences yet, but that measure seems positive to me. It would deal with the issue of people needing to warm their homes over a longer period of time, so it is a twin-track approach.
I have tried to put Mr Mower’s report into my own words and not read it out verbatim, because that would be a boring way to make a speech. In his conclusion, he said that the electricity costs of these consumers—in other words, those who rely upon equipment—would best be met through a scheme that can tailor support to the needs of each eligible consumer, rather than a policy targeted at a wider range of vulnerable consumers, so that they can have full confidence that the costs of the relevant equipment are being met. To me, that is the key word in this debate: confidence. The hon. Member for Battersea mentioned it, as did other Members in interventions. Individuals with severe health conditions who do not continue to heat their properties and run their equipment are running the risk of disadvantageous health outcomes because they do not have the confidence that they will be able to afford their bills.
I urge the Minister, and the Minister for Energy Consumers and Affordability, who was present briefly, to really engage with the Retail Energy Code Company and look at the matter in great detail to bring together the NHS and the Social Prescribing Network—I know that social prescribing is the answer to everything in life these days, but in this case it might just be—and try to work out with Ofgem whether the twin-track approach could solve the problem that we are seeking to solve.
It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Sir Robert. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) on leading this important debate. We know that the serious implications of rising prices for fuel, transport and food have fallen much harder on some people. People with disabilities face a higher risk of poverty. The poverty rate for individuals who live in families where someone is disabled is 28%—nine percentage points more than those who live in families where no one is disabled. They are also less likely to be able to make savings on their bills for reasons related to their disability. We have heard a great deal about how the size of bills impacts many people.
I will talk about one of the petitioners: Katy Styles, who is here today. She is an unpaid carer for her husband who has motor neurone disease, and she is a campaigner for improved support for carers. She put it like this:
“It’s not a question of putting on an extra jumper for us. When someone has a muscle wasting disease their ability to stay warm is compromised, so homes need to be heated for longer and at higher temperatures. Not heating your home can lead to chest infections and in turn this can lead to a stay in hospital”.
We are focusing an awful lot on households with someone with a disability, but the extra costs for heating are borne by not only the person with a disability but their unpaid carers. Well over a quarter of all unpaid carers are living in poverty, and research from Carers UK found that more than three quarters of carers said that the rising cost of living is one of the main challenges that they would face in 2023, which is hardly surprising.
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning my fantastic constituent Katy Styles. Does my hon. Friend agree that campaigns such as We Care and people such as Katy make a real difference to us because they talk about the impact on real lives, and how the decisions that we make here affect them on a daily basis? It is not just statistics that we receive from charities and others: we know how each decision that we make here impacts on people’s real lives.
I very much agree. It is good that Katy Styles is here today, because I have learned a lot from her about the role of carers. It is something that I care deeply about. Like her, I would like to see improved support for carers.
Returning to the point about maintaining higher temperatures in the home, people with disabilities, as we have heard, are also being hit with the increased costs of vital high-energy equipment, additional laundry and bathing needs, and transport for visits to medical appointments, which can be very costly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea said, the charity Scope has found that, on average, households with at least one disabled adult or child need an additional £975 a month to have the same standard of living as households without somebody with a disability. In fact, those extra costs—she gave this figure too—rise to £1,122 a month after accounting for inflation. In this debate, we are throwing around the amounts of £150 and £650, but we should think about those figures, because £150 is nowhere near the increased costs.
The petition asked for disabled people and unpaid carers to be included in the one-off £650 cost of living support payment. We should reflect on the fact that unpaid carers are more likely to live in poverty than those without caring responsibilities: 29% compared with 20%. The Government responded to both petitions for today’s debate stating that 6 million people in receipt of a qualifying disability benefit would receive a £150 payment last September, but only those in receipt of a qualifying benefit would receive the £650 payment. I understand that that excluded 568,000 personal independence payment and disability living allowance claimants and 523,000 carer’s allowance claimants. Carers such as Katy Styles and the We Care Campaign argue that although the one-off £150 payment was welcome—as discussed earlier, any extra amount is welcome—given the additional energy costs that disabled people and their families are bearing, it was completely inadequate in the context of the ongoing cost of living crisis. We have all seen our bills: £150 hardly goes anywhere. The We Care Campaign recommends that the Government introduce a social tariff for energy that discounts energy bills for those most in need, automatically enrols eligible households and is mandatory for all suppliers, as advocated by the charities Age UK and Scope.
I am afraid I will not be able to get into all the ins and outs of the argument we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). To a certain extent, I disagree with him: it does not matter how many hours Ofgem spends on this issue. Ofgem should be spending time on it, because it is vital that we have a solution.
I want to talk a little about the work by Age UK. Research by Age UK found that cost of living pressures this winter led to more than half of older people cutting back on heat and power, and more than a quarter feeling too cold at home most or all of the time. Around 800,000 older people had left their home to seek warmth in a public space, such as a shopping centre or library. I heard from older constituents who were using their free bus passes to ride around in buses during the day, just to keep warm. That is a scandal. It is also not an option for some people, because people with disabilities and their carers will not be hopping on and off different buses just to try to keep and warm.
I turn to eligibility for the warm home discount, which is important. The We Care Campaign recommends that the Government extend eligibility for the warm home discount to include people with disabilities and unpaid carers. The warm home discount was changed by the Government this winter, but it was not extended to include people with disabilities and unpaid carers; in fact, quite the opposite. Money-saving expert Martin Lewis estimated that 290,000 existing claimants who have disabilities and who claim only personal independence payment, attendance allowance or disability living allowance, which are not means-tested, will no longer get the warm home discount.
As a constituency MP, my experience of the changes made by the Government is of being contacted by constituents who formerly received the warm home discount but found that they were no longer eligible. In most cases, the reason given by the Government was that the discount is now targeted on properties that have a high energy cost score based on their characteristics. In my experience, however, some newer properties can be cold and difficult to heat, so we cannot just base it on the age of a property. I understand that the procedure involved using Valuation Agency-set characteristics and then pushing them through an algorithm, but Martin Lewis has shown that that is mistaken.
I say to the Minister that I know from my experience that some people on very low incomes have been denied the warm home discount this winter. I feel that the changes are wrong, and I urge the Government to look at this issue again. It is time that there was extra support for people with a disability and their unpaid carers to help them cope with the unprecedented financial pressures due to the energy bill crisis and the cost of living crisis, and I hope the Government will think again after this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve with you as Chair, Sir Robert. I thank the Petitions Committee for arranging this important debate.
We know that many people are struggling at the moment as a result of the cost of living crisis generally, but, as we have heard, disabled people are struggling more than most, and households that include someone with a disability spend more on food, face higher energy costs and are more likely to have a lower household income. It was really interesting to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) talk about a survey that showed some tragic results for those experiencing such conditions, and I thank her for referring to that.
As we have heard, analysis by the disability charity Scope suggests that, on average, disabled households need an additional £975 a month to have the same standard of living as non-disabled households. That rises to over £1,100 if we account for this year’s inflation.
The figures account for disability payments such as PIP, which are designed to help address those costs. For some families, the costs have a shocking impact. Disabled people are almost three times as likely to live in material deprivation than the rest of the population, and 80% of households with a disabled person say that Government cost of living payments are just not enough to meet the increased costs that they face. Families might accrue costs due to expensive dietary requirements, running medical equipment or being unable to cut back on their heating because they need a higher temperature. Low temperatures can have adverse effects on the vulnerable.
This time last year, many of us would have attended a Marie Curie drop-in. Marie Curie published its report “Dying in Poverty” a year ago, which presented its research on the impact of poverty on terminal illness. At the drop-in, I and others met a lady with a terminal cancer diagnosis and her husband. They had a water meter and, without me asking, they said that they were running up huge costs because of the need to do constant washing in order to limit the risk of infection. What struck me from that meeting was how little is known about the help that is available for people through water companies and other initiatives. It is not enough to meet the general need, which is a tiny proportion in that case. Some people have much more significant costs than others.
The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) spoke about social tariffs. I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on water, and we have been looking at the proposals for a social tariff for water and the impact of that. We have been working with the Consumer Council for Water. I am very disappointed to hear that the Government have dropped the idea of pursuing that social tariff, as was revealed in answer to a written parliamentary question I submitted recently. I acknowledge some of the difficulties the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but I think we need to look at something that supports people much more generally. He also talked about proposals for an energy social tariff and whether that is the best idea. I genuinely think he made a thoughtful argument about that, but we need to look very closely at how people—including disabled people, who we are focusing on today—can be supported.
The rising cost of energy is affecting disabled families the most severely. One respondent to a Guardian survey said he had stopped using a CPAP machine during the day, even when he was short of breath, in order to limit his bills. Ventilators, suction pumps, feed pumps, power chairs and electric beds are all pieces of equipment that cost money to run, and families are going days without heating or showering so that they can keep this equipment turned on. It seems that there is very little understanding of what may be covered. Assurances can be given that these costs will be covered, but in many cases they are not. We need to make sure that support is available.
For some families the extra costs are coming at a time when they are desperately trying to make memories with their loved ones who have terminal illnesses. Marie Curie has reported that the costs of energy bills can rise by as much as 75% in the aftermath of a diagnosis. It has also found that 90,000 people die in poverty every year. During Department for Work and Pensions questions in December, I raised with the Minister the issue of changes to the warm home discount scheme, which removed eligibility from 300,000 disabled people, leaving many families afraid of being unable to meet their heightened energy costs.
For goodness’ sake, £150 will not address the problem anyway, but it is better to have that money than to lose it as part of the system. That happened quite quietly and was little known about at the time, and it is important that we address it. The changes suggest that the Government were not willing to address the disability price tag. Excluding disabled households from the bulk of cost of living support, unless they are on means-tested benefits, forces them to absorb the additional costs themselves by emptying their pockets.
The £150 payment is equivalent to just £2.88 per week across the year. It does not do enough to reduce the costs down to the already staggering costs faced by households that do not have a member with a disability. Why should these families be worse off because one of them lives with a disability? This is a disparity that Government policy is failing to address.
Speaking in these general terms is great for drawing attention to the broader issues, but the reality is that in our constituencies each of us as MPs meets and supports people with disabilities who face exactly these problems—that is before we start talking about PIP assessments and eligibility and the support people need there. These are real people: individuals and families living in our constituencies. They are like those I and other hon. Members meet and the people we met at the Marie Curie drop-in. They deserve not to have the additional worry of struggling to meet their energy bills or of being cold and further damaging their health.
I hope having the debate will cause the Government to look again at the issue and reconsider the support they are providing. I hope they will ask themselves how much less money and resources they are comfortable with households with people with disabilities having compared to other families. Unless the answer is tens of thousands of pounds a year, there is still a huge amount of work for the Government to do. I believe people need much more support and there is much work to do.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Robert, and thank you for your welcome help on that. I thank the Petitions Committee and the petitioners here today for shining a light on this important issue. I consider the word of the debate not to be “confidence” as the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) suggested, but “abandoned”. People right across these isles feel abandoned by this Tory Government. That applies even more so to disabled people—abandoned by an unkind, uncaring Government who fail to recognise their individual needs and to tailor financial support accordingly.
We need to remember and reflect on what we are actually debating. The cost of living isn’t a neat wee slogan to describe the tough times we are living through; we are debating how much it costs to live. We have all lived through the 2008 financial crash, and things are considerably bleaker now than they were back then. Currently, 46% of people right across these isles think their kids will be worse off than them, which, while shocking, is hardly a surprise, given interest rates, the soaring costs of goods and 13 years of Tory austerity. Food prices are up more than 19%, electricity is up 16% and gas is up 129%. In energy-rich Scotland, these price increases are harder to take. I have constituents desperately clutching energy bills at every surgery.
The cost of living is proving increasingly challenging for our constituents living with a disability. The Government’s £150 disability cost of living payment is, of course, welcome, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the astronomical bills people face. What does the Minister expect disabled people to spend the £150 payment on—a weekly shop, half or less of some assistive technology, or to mitigate sanctions from his Department? Does he really think £150 is enough to make a tangible difference in the lives of disabled people?
Disabled people are disproportionately affected by the cost of living crisis. The disability pay gap means they earn an average of almost £2 less an hour than those without a disability. The rising disabled population makes that even more pertinent; it is a damning indictment of this unkind Tory Government. In-work poverty is real: because of the policies of austerity, folk the length and breadth of these isles are living in it.
On a recent visit to Deafblind Scotland, based in Lenzie in my constituency, my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and I had a roundtable discussion with service users. We heard how challenging life can be for deafblind people, particularly given the increased cost of living and the cost of assistive technology. Across the UK, we have a public health service free at the point of need, but access to healthcare is still a class issue: 70% of people have had to limit access to medical appointments due to the lack of financial support with the increased cost of living, and we know that disabled people are less likely to be able to afford those increased costs.
I despise the word “mitigate”. The Scottish Government are not and should not be there to mitigate bad decisions made in this place. They are there to stand up and provide for our people—to lead, not mop up the mess of bad policy decisions and bad governance by the Government of Westminster. Unfortunately, that means that they now need to shield folk from the policies of austerity.
We forget that the Scottish Government are not just providing new policies relating to the social security system; they spend £594 million each year mitigating bad policies from this place, including the bedroom tax and the benefit cap. If those Tory welfare reforms had not been imposed, it is estimated that each family in Scotland would be £2,500 better off each year. The cost of living crisis would be much harsher for people in Scotland if it were not for those mitigations.
Now for the clear blue water between the Tory Government down here and the Scottish Government up the road—a tale of two Governments. The Tory Government have removed the very welcome £20 a week increase to universal credit, whereas the Scottish Government have not just uprated social security but introduced brand new payments, including the Scottish child payment, lifting children out of poverty. We do not pay for prescriptions in Scotland, which means that everyone can access the medication they need to manage their health conditions. The Government down here have failed to do likewise, which means that 51% of people have had to limit their access to medication.
The Tory Government are failing our constituents, and Labour has no policies to turn that around. Fortunately, although Westminster continues to fail the people of Scotland, they can rely on the Scottish Government to deliver fairness and equality. Of course, we look forward to our future as an independent nation within the European Union.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and serve under your chairship, Sir Robert. I thank my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), for her very powerful opening speech, in which she set out many of the issues faced by thousands of people across this country, including in my constituency of Putney. I thank Rachel, Abigail and Katy for starting the petitions and enabling thousands of people to say that not enough Government time is spent in this place debating these issues on behalf of the people who are affected by them.
I want to highlight the difficulties faced by three groups of people who have come to me in my constituency: young people with cancer, people who have myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome, and people who have had stem cell or bone marrow transplants. All of them face unique situations. The cost of living crisis is worsening people’s physical and mental health conditions and driving them into poverty. These situations are also faced by many other people with long-term illnesses and disabilities.
Research suggests that tens of thousands of 18 to 39-year-olds with cancer are struggling to pay basic living costs. More than half of the 18 to 39-year-olds with cancer surveyed by Macmillan and Virgin Money said they needed more financial support to manage the rising cost of living. One in four young people are getting further into debt or have fallen behind paying their rent or energy bills because of increased living costs, according to a survey of 2,000 people. The research found that almost three quarters of younger people with cancer were worried about the cost of food over the next 12 months. It is hitting them particularly hard at a time of life when they have not been able to save up and do not have a safety net of their own to fall back on. They were looking forward to a different kind of life from the one they are suddenly facing. More than a tenth of those surveyed said that they have to delay or cancel medical appointments because of the rising cost of petrol to get to those appointments. That is a false economy: people will be iller for longer because of the payments that they are not receiving.
People with cancer already face significant extra costs of nearly £900 when they are diagnosed—for example, for buying extra clothes or food or because of increased heating costs—but now inflation has driven those costs up. Macmillan has seen a surge in demand for its means-tested financial grants to help cancer patients with costs. Macmillan and Young Lives vs Cancer are calling on the Government to give more financial help to cancer patients. But this is not just about money. Macmillan has found that delays in the payments are also causing financial crisis. Surely that can be rectified. There is on average an 18-week wait to claim a disability allowance that could help young people with travel and heating costs. The money is there; they are just not able to get it because of that 18-week delay. Macmillan is asking the Government to take “urgent steps” to reduce those delays.
The second group of people that I want to highlight is those who have ME or CFS. I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group on myalgic encephalomyelitis, which has produced a report on this issue, which I recommend to all hon. Members and all those reading the record of this speech. It is clear from the evidence presented to the all-party group that too many people with ME are being refused the payments that are being allocated to others. They are being refused PIP by the DWP. They can decide to appeal, and many people with ME who have taken that action have gone on to win their case, but that indicates that there are flaws in the system. However, many are not able to go through the appeals process, which is complex and requires a considerable amount of preparation by the claimant, which would exacerbate their symptoms. As a result, many people with ME are existing without the financial support that they need.
There are some issues with the welfare assessments that are particular to the condition of ME. As the condition is variable throughout the day, a snapshot can sometimes not be applicable to people’s general circumstances. The next issue is the length of time for which an activity can be maintained. People with ME are often scored by assessors as being able to carry out a task even though they would not be able to carry it out for a long time because of their fluctuating symptoms. Also, there are after-effects from carrying out tasks. People with ME may be able to carry out a task for an assessment but then have extreme post-exertional malaise following the completion of that task, but that does not get assessed as part of it. And people with ME are being pressured by their private health insurers to undertake a course of graded exercise therapy, or GET, in many circumstances—despite detrimental effects for many—in order to keep their insurance-based health and disability payments.
There are many recommendations from the all-party group, which I urge the Minister to look at, in relation to the ways in which people with ME are assessed and whether they are receiving the payments that will allow them to meet their needs in the cost of living crisis.
The third group of people that I want to highlight is made up of those who have stem cell therapy or bone marrow transplants. A recent survey by Anthony Nolan found that two thirds of people who have had stem cell therapy struggled to heat their home. More than half struggled to afford food. Half struggled to afford travel to hospital. Half have taken on debts or had to move home because of this. Three quarters have had to give up work or cut their hours because of their stem cell therapy, but then are not able to get back into work. Ninety per cent. say that their physical health has worsened as a result of the financial problems that they are facing.
Often, people who have had stem cell therapy have to have very regular check-ups—once a week—after the original operation, and they may have to go further away to specialist hospitals as well, so they incur greater costs. One parent of a stem cell transplant patient said:
“The rising cost of living has crucified me…I’ve had to walk 12 miles a day to take my children to school.”
That was because she was not able to afford the transport. There is a healthcare travel costs scheme for certain patients, but it has a very high threshold for eligibility. As well as increased heating costs, this group of people highlights increased travel costs. A patient travel fund for stem cell patients—there are about 4,000 a year in the UK—has been recommended, as has the extension of the warm home discount. They also highlight timely access to benefits as one of their top three financial problems with the cost of living crisis.
People being on long-term sick leave presents a cost to our economy and a personal cost to people with disabilities and their families. The Government need to understand the needs and extra costs incurred by people with disabilities and the physical and mental health results of those, which drive more people into poverty.
To conclude, will the Minister meet with me and the affected groups of people with additional needs who are facing the cost of living crisis? Will the Government review the impact of the cost of living crisis on people with disabilities, which is highlighted by these petitions and so many others? Will the Government increase travel and heating payments in the short term to alleviate the current crisis, but in the long term will they overhaul the social security payment system to put the needs of people with disabilities at its centre?
Thank you very much for giving me the chance to speak today, Sir Robert. I thank all those who signed the petitions to enable us to discuss these issues. In particular, as I always do, I sincerely and honestly thank the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for setting the scene so well. She is a lady with compassion and understanding, and she delivered a message with which, as she said, we can all concur. I also thank all hon. Members who have made contributions and those who will follow, whose contributions I very much look forward to. I also look forward to the Minister’s contribution. I think the Minister understands the issues, and I wish to ask him a number of questions. I hope that we can achieve the goals that we wish to achieve and get the answers as well.
I have stated many times, as have many others, that the cost of living impacts on many people. The issues have not yet subsided: we still see incredibly high costs for the most basic needs and many struggle to afford them. I also wish to give a Northern Ireland perspective on debates—hon. Members expect it and they will get it. My observations and contributions will reflect what others have said.
The debate is specifically about the cost of living and support for disabled people, and I wish to focus on that. I see this every day in my office, more so over the last period of time. I am not blaming the Government, by the way; that is not what this is about. It is about solutions. I am always about solutions—I am solution-led and solution-driven. That is what I wish to see.
Many people, especially those who are disabled and are financially challenged, are struggling to afford things in the current climate. It is important that exceptions are made for them and that their specific needs are taken into consideration. I see poverty every day in my constituency. I see families struggling to deal with it and mums who starve themselves so that their children can get food. Those are the realities of where we are, and that is why I look to the Minister and the Government to make these important changes so that we can address the issues that we see every day. Every hon. Member in the Chamber sees those issues as well.
As the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) said, the DWP needs to expedite its system and address the fact that progress takes so long for those who are disabled. We have asked this before in the Chamber, and we ask the same question today: can it be expedited? The week before last, on the front page of my local paper, there was a report on food bank referrals in my constituency. The manager of the food bank, which is the first Trussell Trust food bank in Northern Ireland, and a very active one, said that referrals were up as much as 50% in one year—wow, I need to take a deep breath when I say and understand that. Christians Against Poverty also states that referrals are significant. All those people come together to help, and I am encouraged by the number of churches and individuals who help such organisations.
The hon. Member for Putney also referred to benefit issues and ME as one example of how people cannot cope with the systems, and she spoke about how long the DWP appeals process takes. I would add to that those with anxiety, depression and emotional issues. People who come to my office can be quite anxious and extremely confused about the system. What is being done to help people with anxiety, depression and the emotional overtures that affect their everyday lives? I know the Minister wants to help, and I certainly do.
Complex physical needs compound the issues and sometimes confuse the DWP’s interpretation of what is needed when a person sits in front of them. I see it very clearly. I have a member of staff in my office who does nothing but benefits because not everybody understands the benefits system. People need coaxing, help and support, and we try to provide that.
One of the petitions that we are discussing concerns the £650 payment, which people with disabilities should be eligible for. People who suffer with disabilities have very specific needs, some in relation to their diet and the food that they eat. There is an important cost factor in a specialised diet.
The hon. Lady sets the scene very well. I thank her for that intervention because it reminds us all of the impacts on a section of the community across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We see the impacts every day, and we are trying to convey that to the Minister so that he can grasp what we are focusing on and give us the answers that we seek.
Inflation rates for food have gone up in the last year by 13.1% in Northern Ireland. Expanding the payment to people who suffer with disabilities would help them to stick to their routines and be able to rely on what they need to stay alive. I am not exaggerating the matter—they need it to stay alive. That is what I see in my constituency on a regular basis.
In addition, I have had numerous constituents raise concerns with me regarding the amount it costs to run certain types of medical equipment; the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) said the same thing. I deal with these matters every week: people with stairlifts, pumps for feeding tubes, electric wheelchairs, bath seats, and, more than ever, mobility scooters. Those of us who are able-bodied do things for ourselves, but we have constituents who cannot, without help, deal with the extra charges that come their way. I compassionately and respectfully urge the Minister and the Government to provide some form of grant to help ease the costs for the many people who must run medical equipment. Such issues are not momentary; they are there for a lifetime. The sad reality is that some people require those pieces of equipment to survive and continue to live. It is often a matter of life or death for them. That is the cold reality of where we are today with some of my constituents and those of others who have spoken.
Those constituents are no stranger to the increases in electricity and gas, and it is unfortunate that so many of my constituents have to deal with the impacts of that. We must do more to speak on behalf of those who are disabled and struggling to pay the increased cost of electricity and heating payments. There is certainly a conversation to be had about disabled people and employment. We need to air that today as well—today’s debate is perhaps a chance to do so—but in a constructive way. For some of those on non-means-tested benefits, there is an option for getting into employment, which must be made accessible to them. I welcome the many employers who have made a constructive and positive decision to be disability friendly. It is wonderful to see so many encouraged into work by so many, but there is still more to do.
On that point about accessible work spaces, it is very hard to get this place, which legislates for equality, to adapt for people with disabilities, so how can we expect other workplaces to take the onus themselves and make work spaces more accessible for people?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She speaks with knowledge, understanding and a really deep request for change that she has put forward clearly and capably. When the Minister responds, perhaps he can say how this place can improve its disability access. I know that much has been done, but we live with an old building and a lot more probably needs to be done than would normally be the case.
Being able to reliably apply for extra money will always be of help to people. I understand Government policy, I welcome it and think it is positive, but will the Minister outline the Government’s strategy for those with a disability who are returning to part-time work, if possible? Again, I speak with knowledge and experience. I am not smarter than anybody else—definitely not—but in such debates I just try to reflect what people tell me.
Some of those disabled people have a fear about returning to work, because they are not quite sure if they can do it. They want to go back to work, but the reality is that some of them cannot. Whether they have three days a week or perhaps two weeks together for which they cannot cope, for some people the return to work is not an option. Real compassion and understanding has to be paramount in trying to give people with disabilities the option to return to work. I seek from the Minister a clear understanding of Government policy on how that will be done in a way that reflects what people need. The fact is that they want to work, but the days and weeks that they are unable to work mean that they cannot, and we need to make that right.
In January 2023, the Resolution Foundation found that for the financial year 2020-21 the gap in household income between adults with a disability and adults without a disability was about 30% if disability benefits were included, which is quite a significant gap, and 44% if disability benefits were excluded. Furthermore, a third of adults in the lowest income group are disabled. Those figures are not the Government’s fault, by the way. Those are facts. That is where we are. That is the data. But it is about how we respond in a positive fashion.
One-off payments are all very well and good, and the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys referred to that. It is good that the Government have reached out and given that extra money, but perhaps what we really need is an ongoing vision for the next year or the next period of time, whereby those benefits and the help with energy payments and so on are provided in a constructive and statistical way, to ensure that there is a vision for the future for those people who are disabled? The assessment is good when it comes to whether there is a positive impact on the efficiency of paying bills, and the one-off payment takes pressure off, but I believe that it needs to be negotiated in a different way. Of course, the Government have reached deep into their pockets to ensure that there is help for people. However, the benefits must be felt over a longer time to truly help.
I will conclude with this comment. There is no doubt that the cost of living crisis has had an impact on everyone, but we do and we must look to the Government to consider the specific impacts right now. Again, I request the Minister and the Government to support people when times are increasingly difficult—and they are really not only difficult, but very uncertain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert, and I thank the Petitions Committee for securing this really important debate. More importantly, however, I thank the petitioners and those who signed their petition.
I pay tribute to the We Care Campaign, which provided me with an excellent briefing for today. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) mentioned that I had a debate in this Chamber last week—it was last Tuesday. I immediately reprised that debate during our Opposition day on Tuesday afternoon. Some of my contribution I could probably give without notes, and I am not going to repeat every statistic that I brought up. Nothing, however, has changed since last week. Even I would not have expected it to happen that quickly.
The cost of living, and how it affects disabled people and their carers, is something that this Government have to take seriously and do something about. Everyone who has contributed already has said most of what I was going to. I am going to repeat some of it because it is far too important not to repeat. There is real agreement across the Chamber today that the Government must do more to support disabled people, who are far more likely to live in poverty than those who are not disabled. They are particularly vulnerable to the rising cost of living.
Households across the UK and Scotland continue to face extremely challenging economic conditions. We know that food inflation is still at 19.1% a year, and for many disabled people on special diets the costs are even higher. We know that inflation disproportionately impacts lower income groups, and that is certainly true of disabled people, who spend a relatively higher proportion of their income on eating and keeping warm. According to Scope, disabled people are almost three times as likely to live in poverty than the rest of the population. That includes any disability benefits they get. Disabled households have to use a lot of their money to run powerful machines to help them live a more normal life. They have to pay more to get to hospital because they cannot generally use public transport. The list of things that cost more for disabled people and their households is incredible. The Government have to take it on board.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and has just brought to my mind the issue of being unable to travel. Some of my constituents cannot travel on buses because of their anxiety issues. They may have panic attacks when they are out; whenever they see a crowd of people they automatically focus on where they are. They panic, and that is why they cannot use public transport. What they need is taxis. Can they afford them? No, they cannot.
The hon. Member is, as usual, absolutely right. Oh, how we missed him last week.
Last week, Scope issued its latest Disability Price Tag report. I was privileged to go to its reception last Thursday, along with the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft). It has always been the case that it costs more just to live if someone is disabled. In times when the cost of living is rising, however, and with huge inflation, it is even worse. Scope said that for a disabled household it can cost an additional £975 a month to have the same standard of living as non-disabled households. If we account for inflation, that cost rises to £1,122 per month. Not one single person in this Chamber believes that disabled households and people are actually getting that kind of money.
Against that worrying backdrop, the SNP remain deeply concerned about the UK Government’s welfare policies. The cost of living payments in 2022 and 2023 were designed to help families meet rising prices. However, according to Scope, 80% of disabled people said those payments were not enough to meet the increased costs they face. That support is welcome—no one is going to say, “No, thank you”—but one-off payments, such as the £650 petitioned for, are only a temporary fix when permanent solutions are needed. Rather than offering one-off payments to shore up the incomes of struggling families, the Government should reverse the damaging policies that are impacting our most vulnerable.
Legacy benefit claimants during the pandemic did not even get the £20 a week increase. They should have had it, they should have had it restored and it should have been increased in the meantime. In its recent submission to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Human Rights Watch not only gives a damning review of the UK Government’s restrictive social security policies, such as the two-child limit and the failure to reverse the cut to universal credit, but highlights:
“It is worth noting that the £20 weekly increase was never applied to an estimated 2 million people on ‘legacy’ benefits, who were still waiting to transition to the Universal Credit system”.
The Government have to take on board the lives of disabled people. The continual refusal of the UK Government to fix the extensive known problems with the social security system is unacceptable. I know that in the health and disability White Paper, the Government have looked at promising to do things later, but that is not good enough. We need changes now that actually help vulnerable people.
I always get a bit emotional when I speak in these debates and that is a fault of mine, so please forgive me, Sir Robert. I really think that the Government should look at examples from other places. In Scotland, we try really hard with a fixed budget to make life better for our citizens. The Scottish Government run their social security system on the idea of dignity and fairness, and look to deal more on a daily basis with people who have lived experience. I know that the UK Government are now doing that, and I commend the Minister for it, but they really need to do something along the lines of what the Scottish Government have done; a new disability equality strategy is in preparation, and they will keep working with disabled groups to make it worthwhile and to do stuff that really impacts the lives of disabled people. Recently, the Scottish Government also doubled the fuel insecurity fund to £20 million and confirmed another £20 million for 2023-24. They have introduced a new winter heating payment, which replaces the cold weather payment and provides a stable amount every year to help around 400,000 low-income individuals with heating expenses. Even though there was no statutory requirement to do so, they uprated the winter heating payment by 10.1%.
The Scottish Government have a scheme whereby they look at energy efficiency and fuel poverty. It is important that the UK Government do that, because we leak energy across the UK, especially in the parts that do not have the schemes that the Scottish Government have put in place. The Scottish Government have done everything in their limited powers, but every time they mitigate some of the policies that the UK Government impose on us, they have to take the money from somewhere else. The only answer, as far as I, the SNP and almost 50% of the Scottish population are concerned, is independence.
A social tariff for energy is something that we would support, and it is necessary. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, who is no longer in his place, said it might not work, but we have to grasp every opportunity possible to help disabled households, carers and families who are struggling on a daily basis with the cost of living. Politics is about choice and political will. Can we please see better choices and greater political will from the Government? Will they listen to disabled people and their carers and do better? The personal independence payment, for example, is meant to enhance disabled people’s lives. As has been said already, such payments do not even touch the sides. I ask the Minister to talk about this issue and to comment on social tariffs for energy. Can we please also consider that the best solution for disabled people is to spend less money on things such as replacing Trident and to use the money saved for social benefits, so that people with disabilities, their carers and their families can live better and more cheaply?
I do not think that anyone in this room does not agree that things have to be better for the disabled community, and it is up to the current Government to try their very best, to take on board what other countries are doing, to improve lives and to grant the wish of the petitioners, who were very modest in asking for a £650 one-off payment. That will not be the answer going forward; we need solutions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Robert, and I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the shadow Work and Pensions team. Like the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), I may repeat some stuff from last week, but it is important to do so, because we need changes so that we do not have to keep coming back and debating this issue. There is no doubt that disabled people are being disproportionately impacted by the cost of living crisis, and it is right—sadly—that we are debating it again in this place.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for her passionate opening contribution, for sharing the experiences of so many people and for explaining why it is unacceptable that people live in those situations in 2023. Like her and others, I thank Abigail and Katy for organising the petition. I also pay tribute to the countless disabled people, friends, families, advocates, disabled people’s organisations and charities who signed the petitions that triggered this debate and who campaign tirelessly to promote disabled people’s rights.
The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) eloquently put forward the extra costs of having a disability. As he said, the costs will vary, depending on an individual’s specific disability, but they may include assistive equipment, care and therapies. As noted in one of the petitions that triggered the debate, some people may need to run ventilators, pumps for feeding tubes and CPAP machines, and so the list goes on.
Disabled households tend to spend more on essential goods and services such as heating, food and travel, and some disabled people find it difficult to keep warm if their movement is restricted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) said, those costs are also borne by unpaid carers, and we must look at the We Care Campaign. Some disabled people might need to purchase more expensive foods if they have specific dietary requirements or have difficulty preparing raw ingredients. As we know, high inflation in 2022 and 2023 has been driven by high food and energy costs. It stands to reason that disabled people are among those most affected by the cost of living crisis.
Last month, as my hon. Friends the Members for Battersea, for Worsley and Eccles South, and for Blaydon (Liz Twist) said, disability equality charity Scope released updated research on the extra costs associated with having a disability—the so-called disability price tag. When Scope last calculated the price tag in 2019, it stood at £583 per month; over the past four years, it has risen to a shocking £975 per month, equivalent to 63% of household income. That means that disabled households need to find almost £12,000 extra per year to achieve the same standard of living as non-disabled households.
My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) articulated the challenges for young people with cancer: not having built up a safety net; the extra costs they face; and, particularly, many missing hospital appointments due to not being able to afford their travel costs. That is wasting money in the system, as well as delaying essential treatment. It is heartbreaking.
[Sir Mark Hendrick in the Chair]
The impact of such rising costs is exacerbated further by the fact that disabled people also tend to have lower than average earnings. In a January 2023 report, the Resolution Foundation found that the gap in household income between adults with and without a disability was about 30% including disability benefits and 44% excluding them.
As we know, disabled people who are not able to work are entitled to claim income replacement benefits. In addition, all disabled people can claim extra-costs benefits to help cover the extra costs of having a disability. I am sure that the Minister, when he responds, will remind us that in his autumn statement the Chancellor committed to uprating benefits in line with inflation. That, however, only took effect from the start of the 2023-24 financial year. No doubt, the Minister present will also tell us that the Government have taken steps to support disabled people through the crisis by delivering the disability cost of living payments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon said, however, 80% of disabled people said that that was not enough to live on.
At a similar debate last week, I reminded the Minister that hundreds of thousands of people are no longer entitled to the warm home discount—many Members have mentioned that today—since the Government excluded those who claim disability living allowance, the personal independence payment and attendance allowance. I therefore hope he responds to our many questions about that.
In addition, Disability Rights UK and many others have said that the lack of meaningful increases in disability benefits over recent years means that the extra support given to disabled people has barely touched the sides. Trussell Trust figures show that even in early 2020, 62% of working-age people referred to food banks were disabled. A Mencap survey revealed that 35% of people with a learning disability have skipped meals to cut back on costs and that 38% had not turned on their heating despite being cold.
My hon. Friends the Members for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and for Battersea talked of the importance of incorporating the UNCRPD into law, so I will finish with what I said last week, because it relates to that: I ask the Minister to commit to work closely with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations to find a solution to this crisis.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. May I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for introducing this debate? We do not always agree on everything, but she undoubtedly speaks with great passion about these issues. I also thank Abigail and Katy for the work they have done to bring forward these petitions.
I thank Members from across the House for their heartfelt and thorough contributions. There is no question that any right hon. Member or hon. Member is not acutely mindful of the enormous pressures and challenges that people feel in the current climate. It is right that we come together and debate these issues. We debated them last week and are doing so again. I have no doubt there will be further opportunities going forward.
I want to set out the picture on disability benefit spending more generally to put the debate in context. Then I will go on to explain the package of support we have in place and the work that is ongoing to respond to the many issues that have been raised today. It is worth saying that we will spend around £77 billion in 2023-24 on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions, which is around 3.1% of GDP. In 2023-24, spending on PIP, DLA and attendance allowance will be £12.5 billion higher in real terms than in 2010. Total disability benefit spend in 2027-28 is forecast to be over £39.8 billion higher in real terms compared to 2010. This is despite Scottish disability spend being devolved in 2020-21.
That is not to minimise for a moment the challenges that households face in the current climate, particularly those that include members who are disabled. The difficulties they are experiencing at this time, particularly around energy affordability and the cost of living, are pressing. All of us are familiar with the root causes of costs being higher. The situation in Ukraine is a significant one, and it has resulted undoubtedly in energy market volatility. That has translated into households here in the UK being put under real strain.
I said this last week, but it is important to get it on the record again: we as Ministers are not complacent. We are adamant that vulnerable energy users must be able to afford their bills, and we recognise that there are inevitably higher costs associated with many of those households’ usage. That is why the Chancellor and the Prime Minister acted decisively to introduce the cost of living payments and provide structured support worth over £94 billion in 2022-23 and 2023-24. That is an average of over £3,300 per UK household.
As was mentioned in a number of contributions, we have also uprated benefits in line with inflation at 10.1%, which was the right thing to do. We listened to the views of disabled people, their representative groups, Members in this House and our constituents across the country, regardless of which party we represent. We concluded, having listened to the compelling arguments, that the right thing to do was to uprate benefits in line with inflation.
The Government prioritised paying cost of living payments worth up to £1,100 for some households during the 2022-23 financial year. The Department for Work and Pensions can be proud of the work that officials did to help us to ensure that the payment hit people’s bank accounts. Some 30 million cost of living payments were paid during the course of last year, including 8 million households receiving up to £650 across two payments, over 8 million pensioner households —[Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Resuming from where I left off, over 8 million pensioner households received an additional £300 on top of their winter fuel payments in 2022-23, and 6 million who were entitled to an extra cost benefit, such as a personal independence payment or an adult disability payment in Scotland, received £150.
The wider package of support for the financial year included the energy price guarantee, which capped fuel bills at £2,500 for average use. Colleagues from across the House will recognise that that support has been extended until next month. The package also included the £400 off domestic electricity bills received by every household in Great Britain, and the council tax reductions for bands A to D in England.
One part of our overall package that I think is particularly important is the household support fund, which we extended twice. Including support for the devolved Administrations in terms of consequential funding, the total has been £1.5 billion since October 2021. It is important discretionary help, which is designed specifically to allow local authorities to work with people in their communities whose particular needs are not necessarily able to be met through the wider structured package of support. This sensible, discretionary support can be provided locally on a case-by-case basis to the people who need it. It is a significant and important part of the support package, which reflects the fact that people’s circumstances are often complicated and do not fit into neat boxes.
I will turn to cost of living support for 2023-24. Again, colleagues will recall the Chancellor setting out in the autumn statement our intentions for the support package for the year ahead. Eight million low-income families on means-tested benefits will get £900. My Department has already delivered 99% of the first cost of living payment of £301 to the 7.3 million households in receipt of a means-tested benefit such as universal credit. That represents payments to a value of £2.2 billion.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) suggested that not much has changed since we met last week. However, I am able to provide one update that last Friday, my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Mobility, Youth and Progression laid in Parliament the regulations that will allow us to pay an additional £150 to more than 6.5 million people on an extra cost disability benefit. Those payments will land in people’s bank accounts starting from 20 June. That is important help, and I am pleased that we are now able to give certainty around the timetable. We have also laid regulations that will allow pensioner households to get an additional £300 on top of their annual winter fuel payment this winter, as they did last year.
I recognise that one of the petitions focused specifically on the disability cost of living payment, and arguments about its adequacy. I want to reiterate what I said in the debate last week, because the statistics on this are quite significant. I want to stress that the rationale for each of the cost of living payments is different. The Government believe it is right that the highest amount goes to those on means-tested benefits, given that those on the lowest incomes are most vulnerable to rises in the cost of living. Having said that, we estimate that nearly 60% of individuals who receive an extra cost disability benefit will receive additional support through the means-tested benefit payment. Over 85% will receive either or both of the means-tested and pensioner benefits, which goes in some ways to the heart of the debate.
I assure hon. Members that we are absolutely committed to ensuring that disabled people and people with health conditions receive the support that they need. That is why in 2022-23 we spent nearly £69 billion in real terms on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. We will continue that throughout 2023-24 by uprating disability benefits in line with last September’s CPI inflation figure, as I have set out, meaning that we expect to spend around £78 billion in 2023-24—3.1% of GDP.
The Minister is setting out very clearly the Government’s support, which we all acknowledge is there, but some of the questions asked by Opposition Members, and indeed by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), were about those who have equipment such as mobility scooters, lifts to get in and out of the bath, pumps and other extra medical costs. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and I also asked about those who have dietary issues. In other words, there is an extra cost factor. Will the Minister please tell us whether the money that he has just spoken about will get to those who need it the most at this time?
I will happily elaborate on those points. A lot of points were raised during the debate that I will respond to directly, but we are of course determined that the support must get to those who need it the most. That underpins the entire ethos behind the package of support that is being provided, and I will come to some of the specifics that have been raised shortly. As I said earlier, by 2027-28 total disability benefit spending is forecast to be over £41 billion higher in real terms compared with 2010-11. Spending on the extra cost disability benefits will alone amount to some £35 billion this year, all paid tax-free in addition to any other support, financial or practical, that disabled individuals may receive.
On the point raised by the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), I will happily meet her and the charity to which she referred. I am always happy to meet colleagues. I think that colleagues would say that I am always willing to engage as a Minister, and that I try my best to say yes to as many requests as possible. It is really important to hear the experiences of disabled people and their representative organisations, so that we have a constructive dialogue, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), indicated is important. I completely accept that, and it is reflected in the work that I do, and the engagement that I have week to week. I will happily say yes to that engagement with the hon. Member for Putney. She talked about evaluation of the adequacy of the cost of living payments. I can confirm, as I did in our debate last week, that the Department is planning to do an evaluation relating to the cost of living payments later this year.
What the Minister says about an evaluation is interesting. I have asked many parliamentary questions and made freedom of information requests and so forth around the Government publishing and being open and transparent with their evaluations. When that evaluation takes place, will he ensure that it is published?
The Secretary of State and I, and other Ministers in the Department, have been very willing to try to provide more information to the House. The hon. Lady shakes her head, but that is not right: we have come forward, for example, around the structural reforms in the White Paper. The decision that I have made within the Department, because I think that it is important for Parliament to have this information, is to provide a significant statistical release around it so that colleagues on both sides can look at the reforms and reach informed decisions when it comes to votes on the specifics of the policy. There are good reasons for the policies that we intend to pursue, and that statistical release will allow colleagues to form their judgments. I will happily take away her specific request around publication.
We provide significant statistical releases as a Department, as well as reports that are put into the public domain at their conclusion. We are in the early stages of that work, but I am happy to look at it through that lens. We provide information to support parliamentary debate and to support those we work with to get packages of support right, and it is not unhelpful, wherever possible, to provide that information in a way that is accessible beyond the Department.
The disability unit is also seeking to understand and evidence the full impact of the current cost of living on disabled people across a range of sectors. That work is ongoing. There is good dialogue and engagement with disabled people and their representative groups about it, so that we can look at the situation in its totality, understand the interventions that we have made to date and understand the needs that exist. That is relevant to some of what I will go on to say about the other points that were raised in the debate.
Let me turn to energy costs specifically. It was helpful that the Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), was here, albeit for a short time. She heard some of the debate, and I will happily relay to her the contributions that were made, because of course the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero leads on energy policy. Many hon. Members understandably referenced energy costs, particularly in relation to the cost of equipment. The Government supported families across the UK last winter through the energy price guarantee, which places a limit on the price that households pay per unit of gas or electricity. As announced at the spring Budget, households continue to be supported throughout the spring with the extension of EPG at £2,500 per year for the average household until June 2023. That will give the average British family an average saving of £160 per household throughout this period. Support is also provided through cold weather payments and the warm home discount.
I want to touch, as I did last week, on the priority services register, which is run by energy suppliers. It offers additional free services to people who are of pensionable age, are registered disabled, have a hearing or visual impairment, or have long-term ill health. The register helps to ensure that people in vulnerable situations can access extra help when needed, such as when there is a power cut.
I wonder whether the Minister will say more about the warm home discount, which many of us raised on behalf of people who found that they could not get it, including people who had the discount before: I felt that that was very harsh this winter. It is unacceptable that people were excluded from it because of assumed characteristics of their bills. We had quite a long exposé of various ideas about how to calculate it, but I hope that the Minister will admit that the scheme that he adopted is pretty crude. I know that it has left people on very low incomes in cold homes, and it should be looked at again.
I want to take the Minister back very briefly to what he said about priority customers and those who are elderly or disabled. In my speech, I mentioned that accessible information is not being provided to a number of disabled people, whether those who have a learning disability or those who are blind or partially sighted. What analysis or work is the Department doing on that? Providers have a legal duty to ensure that information is being provided to people in the right format. There is no point in having a priority scheme if providers are not meeting the needs of those they are prioritising.
I will ask the Minister who was here earlier to provide an update to the hon. Lady on that particular point. Given that it relates to interaction with energy companies, it is important that the Minister is given the opportunity to comment on the point in question.
Before I move on to energy costs, I want to touch on the point that the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) made about water schemes. Again, I am happy to take that away. I recognise that, as she said, water companies provide support, and I am happy to raise that issue with ministerial colleagues with a direct responsibility for water policy.
The hon. Lady mentioned the work that Marie Curie is doing and spoke about people at the end of life. I want to put on the record my thanks to Marie Curie for its brilliant advocacy and campaigning, and the work it did with my Department and officials at the DWP to help us get the changes to the special rules for end of life right. That will be a significant help to many families across the country; they should be spending that time with their loved ones—their family and friends—not worrying about their finances. The changes to the special rules for end of life, which allow the fast-tracked help to be provided for longer, are important. Members of this House and the charitable sector campaigned for them—I am proud that we introduced them collaboratively —and gave us fantastic insight, guidance and support to help us get that policy right. The changes were introduced a few weeks ago, and will be helping families across the country today. The second tranche of benefits is now subject to the changes. I am pleased to say that when those applications come in, they are dealt with very quickly—within a matter of days—so that people can get that important help. I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight that.
Looking to the future, the Government recognise that we need to consider energy affordability in the longer term, and as part of that we intend to move away from universal energy bill support and towards better targeted support for those most in need. As set out in the 2022 autumn statement, we are working with consumer groups, charities and industry to explore possible options for a new approach to consumer protection, such as a social tariff from April 2024 onwards as part of wider retail market reforms. There is ongoing engagement between Ministers and disabled people’s organisations and representative groups to understand what that might look like. We will ensure those views are included as we do that work.
That work includes thorough engagement with disability organisations to consider the costs for people with medical equipment and assess the potential need for specific support for vulnerable and disabled people using energy-intensive medical equipment in the home. That new approach will be aligned with our objectives of delivering a fair deal for consumers, ensuring the energy market is resilient and attractive to investors over the long term, and supporting an efficient and flexible energy system. Any new approach will also need to promote competition within the energy markets and be consistent with our wider objectives of improving energy security and delivering net zero.
We are looking at medical equipment on a cross-Government basis. The Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England are supporting the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero’s review of the energy rebates and refund schemes that are currently available for users of medical equipment at home. They are also supporting the Department’s policy development work in this area, which they plan to publish for low-income, vulnerable energy consumers post April 2024. I understand that there are arrangements in place involving specialised NHS services and integrated care boards, which we will no doubt want to consider carefully as we move forward with the energy reforms I have described.
Again, we had a good debate about awareness last week. One of the things I undertook to do was to see what more we could do to increase awareness. That is why having such thorough engagement, including with disabled people and their representative bodies, is key, because we want to ensure the reforms reflect their views, experiences and needs. The awareness piece is fundamental to ensuring that people are aware of the support available to them. With that in mind, as set out in the energy security plan released in March, the Government intend to consult on options for this new approach this summer. We will invite and welcome the public and our stakeholders to use the consultation to feedback on our proposals.
Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who quantifies or decides what amount of electricity or energy is used by someone with a medical device? Will there be input from the charity and from organisations to agree the figure? I welcome the Minister indicating that that will be the case. Who will agree what the final figure will be?
I entirely recognise the challenge of identifying that figure because inevitably people’s circumstances will differ, which is exactly why, as I explained earlier, we introduced the discretionary household support fund to ensure there was that discretionary support in place in the wider health landscape to capture those circumstances. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a specific figure today, but I go back to the point that this is exactly why the engagement piece is so important. These are issues we will no doubt want to explore in conversations to work out precisely what people need, what the average cost is and how costs above that average might best be met.
There are also other variables at play. We talked about how the situation in Ukraine has played into the higher costs that people are experiencing, particularly around energy. All of us hope the conflict will come to an end in short order, but inevitably the timings and nature of the conflict play into the levels at which those costs come through and the ways in which they are presented to people here in the UK. They are reflected in the energy bills turning up in people’s letterboxes or in their emails, which people are often worried about and, of course, are having to find the money to pay. We need to look carefully at these issues in a way that tracks the nature of the energy market and how it is being affected by what is going on in the world. It speaks to the Prime Minister’s determination to get inflation down and, as a Minister in his Government, I absolutely support him in that because, again, that plays into the costs people are experiencing.
I want to touch on the warm home discount scheme, which has been mentioned. We reformed the scheme in England and Wales to provide more rebates automatically and to focus the support on households in fuel poverty and on the lowest incomes. As the overall funding for the scheme is limited, we have focused support towards those on the lowest incomes and those who receive means-tested benefits. Disability benefits are not means-tested.
Overall, our analysis showed that 160,000 more households where a person is disabled or has a long-term illness would receive a rebate. In addition, the proportion of rebates received by households where someone has a disability or a long-term illness would remain higher than the proportion of the fuel-poor population with a disability and higher than the proportion of the overall population with a disability. Again, I will happily take away and reflect on the views expressed in the debate and will ensure that Ministers elsewhere in Government are aware of them.
On prepayment meters, which were briefly touched on, Ofgem published a new code of practice on 18 April. That has been agreed with energy suppliers to improve protections for customers being moved to a prepayment meter involuntarily. That is, of course, a step in the right direction, with better protections for vulnerable households, but the code of practice is not the end of this process. We have always been clear that action is needed to crack down on the practice of forcing people, especially the most vulnerable people, on to prepayment meters. The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero will continue to work closely with Ofgem and the industry to see that the code leads to positive changes for vulnerable consumers and will not hesitate to intervene again if necessary. And I have no doubt that if we do not see the progress that we want, we will have more debates in this House around this issue. I know it is of real concern to people, having seen egregious cases reported in the media, which is also reflected in our inboxes as constituency MPs.
I also want to say something about energy efficiency, because the best way of protecting households is by lowering the costs of the energy that we consume and reducing our usage, and that means taking further steps on energy efficiency. This Government have set a new and ambitious target to reduce final energy demand from buildings and industry by 15% by 2030, and we have created the new energy efficiency taskforce, which is charged with driving improvements to bring down energy bills for households and businesses.
Based on proposals announced last year as ECO+, our new energy companies obligation scheme will deliver £1 billion of additional investment by March 2026 in energy efficiency upgrades, such as loft and cavity wall insulation. It will extend help to a wider group of households in the least efficient homes in the lower council tax bands, as well as boosting help for those on the lowest incomes.
The Minister is absolutely right to talk about energy efficiency in one context. On the other hand, however, it is important to truly acknowledge that disabled people face additional energy costs because of their disability. Energy efficiency is one thing, but really this issue is about addressing the challenge faced by disabled people right now in relation to the costs of living, in particular energy costs.
I entirely accept that, and I do not think that I have suggested otherwise, but of course where we can help with people’s energy costs in the whole, we should do that. It is right that as a Government we do our bit to try to help, through those schemes, to provide that insulation support, which inevitably assists with some of those challenging costs that we are dealing with through the wider support that I have described.
We plan to lay legislation by the summer to take forward those measures that I have just set out. Energy efficiency measures in the fabric of our buildings, such as loft and cavity wall insulation, will lead to less demand on the electricity and gas grids, which in turn could help us to mitigate the impact of high and volatile international gas prices. This could also reduce energy bills for consumers, as well as helping vulnerable households out of fuel poverty.
Finally, I wanted to say something about the White Paper reforms that the Government proposed six weeks or so ago. It is absolutely right that we unlock the potential of those who wish to work and to do that with the right support. I mention this issue because there have been a few comments about it and I was able to say that we will be providing that statistical release, which I think will give colour to those reforms and allow people to make judgments about them and understand the rationale behind the direction of our proposals.
However, I regularly hear from disabled people who would like the opportunity to work, but that structural barrier within the system—that worry, or jeopardy, about trying work and it not working out, and then having to go through reapplication and reassessment processes—just cannot be right. Undoubtedly, though, that is getting in the way of so many people unlocking their potential and taking on work, if that is something they want to do.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) touched on opportunities for part-time work. Those are exactly the sort of opportunities that we want to unlock for people. Getting rid of the jeopardy that people feel is in the system and, undoubtedly, that work opportunity will help with households’ resilience when it comes to the costs that they experience more generally.
The hon. Gentleman asked specifically what sort of support we are putting in place around that. For example, there was the announcement that the Chancellor made around universal support. The pioneers for that are the individual placement and support in primary care. We know that works; it has a 68% success rate with the supported employment model of identifying an employment opportunity that is right for someone, supporting them into that role and then helping them to retain it.
Schemes such as Access to Work Plus are also exciting and provide great opportunities. We are currently evaluating some of our initial testing of that scheme, but it is about crafting a job role and working with an employer that is keen to take on a disabled person, ensuring they are able to unlock that opportunity in a way that is right for that individual. It is about working with them on a tailored, personalised basis, which is exactly the basis that I am determined we will progress the White Paper reforms on. The overarching sentiment, and the fundamental safety net, is that we would never ask anyone to do something that is inappropriate for them.
Alongside those measures, we also want a better journey through the benefits system for people who need support. I am not complacent about that. There have been contributions today that touched on PIP journey times, and I can confirm that they are down to 14 weeks. That is where we wanted to get to. Previously, people were experiencing unacceptable waits. I am also asking officials to stretch and see what more we can do to take that further and get certainty for people as early in that journey as possible.
Some of the measures we talked about in the White Paper speak to the wider effort we want to make to improve experiences of the benefits system. With the severe disability group, for example, I hope to be able to say more about the work we will do to kick that on and test that model. We think the model is right, because it reduces the assessment burden on people, particularly where their conditions are unlikely to improve. I would argue that scrapping the work capability assessment provides a good opportunity. We have many debates in this House on that over the years. I am also thinking back to debates before my time here—that was a very controversial issue. Scrapping that assessment is the right thing to do, and it allows us an opportunity to focus on quality decision making over and above the current picture.
We want to better gauge fluctuating conditions in the benefits systems, and we want to test that to see what we could do to provide better-quality support and help for people navigating the benefit system with fluctuating conditions. That is as well as the feedback that came through loud and clear in the responses to the Green Paper: they said that they wanted to see the Department matching expert assessors with their particular conditions, because they think that greater understanding will lead to better outcomes. I am looking forward to the opportunity to debate those issues in the weeks and months ahead.
It seemed like the Minister was winding towards his last few sentences, so I did not want us to end the debate without once again thanking carers and the We Care Campaign, who have done such a wonderful job. The Minister has not mentioned carers much, which is disappointing given that carers were mentioned such a lot previously. The Minister talked about people with disabilities wanting to get back into work, which is admirable, but we ought to be constantly thankful for the hundreds of thousands of people who have given up work so that they can care. We owe them a massive debt.
I think I am right in saying that his Government have not done anything like as much work as previous Governments have for carers. They do not have a national carers strategy any more, which we did under previous Governments. It is a pity that, it having been raised so many times in this debate, he has not mentioned carers more.
I have not finished my remarks yet. It is important to thank carers, who do a remarkable job and provide incredible support, often to loved ones, family members, and friends. I recognise that is often very challenging, which is why we provide support through the carer’s allowance. The hon. Lady was not in last week’s debate, but I committed to look at carer’s allowances and the thresholds. It is an issue that is being raised fairly regularly in the context of these debates, and I repeat that commitment today. I want to see if the balance relating to carer’s allowance is right, and whether there is more that we can do.
I would just like to add the needs of young carers to this conversation. There is an all-party parliamentary group on young carers and young adult carers, and we have heard powerful testimonies from young carers, as I have from my constituents. It is welcome that the delay to payments is being reduced from 18 weeks to 14, but that is still over three months’ rent, which is unaffordable for many people. They will often lose homes and have to give up many opportunities, and it is very crippling. I have been to the national assessment centre for PIP, and I do not know what the barrier is—I do not know why the delay is not coming down further and why the process cannot be streamlined. I wonder whether the Minister could say what is stopping it coming down any further. Has the national PIP assessment centre been set a target date?
Where we are at the moment is that the journey time for PIP is 14 weeks. I am happy to provide the hon. Lady with some more information separately, and I will gladly write to her, but the whole thrust of the reforms that we are seeking to introduce is about trying to get journey times down as much as possible and getting more decisions right the first time. I think all of us would want to see greater certainty for people as quicky as possible, and I am keen to hear people’s experiences and expertise about how we can best do that, which is precisely why the tests and trials were included in the White Paper package. The package features a holistic set of reforms and is undoubtedly the largest welfare reform that we have seen for over a decade, but we have to get it right, because there is such an opportunity here. I really hope that over the course of the coming weeks, months and years, we can have a constructive debate in the House about how we take such opportunities forward. I think that would be a valuable insight as we progress with that work.
Can the Minister elaborate a bit more? We all know that an personal independence payment is an extra costs benefit, but under the proposals in the White Paper, the Government are seeking to use that assessment framework as a replacement for the WCA. We have called for it to be scrapped for years, and we are really pleased that the Government have finally listened to disabled people, the Opposition and others, but does he recognise that PIP is an extra costs element of support? Therefore, using it to try to replace an income replacement form of social security cannot be right.
The feedback that we hear time and again is that people want to see the assessment burden considerably reduced. I would like to hope that all of us can rally round and say that we think that is the right thing to do, so that we can respond to the feedback and act on it. I am not envisaging fundamental change to the PIP assessment being required but, again, what we will do within the new system—we will come forward with more detail about the specifics and the mechanics of how it will work—is to see greater tailoring and a greater opportunity to work with people to understand their needs, aspirations and requirements.
Where work is appropriate, we will work with people to try to explore that work outcome. Things such as universal support and IPSPC—individual placement and support in primary care—are important parts of that. The additional work coach time commitment that we have made, which has just gone live in the second third of jobcentres and will go live in the final third in very short order, is really important in helping to set out the direction of travel that we are looking to take, and it will give a feel for the system that will be in place. But we obviously require primary legislation to deal with the fundamental challenge, which is the jeopardy that people feel within the current system around trying work, it not working out and then having to go back through reassessment and reapplication processes, which is highly undesirable. It is right that we address that, but I am not anticipating there being fundamental reform to the PIP assessment.
I want to add a bit more on carers before concluding, because it is a theme that came up consistently during the course of the debate. We are focusing support on the carers who need it most, and about 380,000 carer households on UC can already receive around £2,000 extra through the carer element. Where a household is in receipt of UC with a carer element, they will be entitled to up to £900 in cost of living payments and, if the disabled person lives in the same household, a £150 disability cost of living payment. For carers who can undertake some part-time work, we increased the carer’s allowance earnings limit to £139 a week from April.
But I hear the arguments that the hon. Lady makes. I made a commitment last week that I would go away and really think hard about the thresholds and the levels at which they are set. I will consider the wider context of these debates and also the structural reforms and the wider picture. Undoubtedly, the learning from covid and opportunities for people around work are perhaps markedly different from what they were prior to the pandemic, and different people’s care and responsibilities will take a different form. Fundamentally, I am willing to look at that issue. There is a lot of cross-Government work going on around a host of issues relating to disabled people and people with health conditions. I am very willing to raise her wider points with DHSC colleagues.
I agree with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys: there is a lot more consensus in these debates than is often credited. All of us want to see the same outcome, which is that people are properly supported and receive the help that they need to get them through these difficult times. As I said earlier, it is right that the Prime Minister wants our Government to focus on getting inflation down, because inflation is playing a significant part in the costs that people are experiencing.
We have been responsive to date in the support that we have provided, but our minds are not closed. We continue to engage and will continue to keep under review the package of support. There are some important measures coming down the track and there will be a lot of opportunity for colleagues and disabled people and their organisations to help influence that to make sure we get it right.
I start by briefly thanking all of the speakers. It has been a good debate. I thank my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), for Blaydon (Liz Twist), and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan), and for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). I thank them all for their contributions.
The Minister outlined a lot in his response. He mentioned a lot of work that he is looking into, taking back or that is being done, but what has been overwhelming in this debate is that disabled people need support now and any further delay will not help them. If he has not read the survey responses, I ask him to please take time to read them because they really signify the urgency of this debate and the urgency of the support that disabled people need. I highlighted in my speech that this is on the back of 13 years of austerity and the hostile environment that his Government have unfortunately created, compounded by the pandemic and now the cost of living crisis. Although I appreciate some of his words, it is really important that he takes that on board.
Everybody has mentioned the warm home discount, but the Government’s impact assessment highlighted that nearly 300,000 disabled people will lose out. What about those people? We did not hear anything about how we are going to support them. We all know the challenges that disabled people face. I hope that the Government will use this debate as an opportunity to think hard and fast and introduce proposals to provide immediate financial support.
The Minister did not acknowledge the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which was signed by the previous Labour Government and will be implemented, but why will his Government not implement it now, given that they no longer have any strategy in place to support disabled people?
I want to thank our petitioners Katy and Abigail, who are here this afternoon, for their tireless hard work and for sharing their own experiences. I know the challenges that they face and how difficult it is to live independently with a disability, so I thank them once again.
Finally, we need to look at the social model of disability as opposed to looking at the medical context. If we think about it from a social model perspective, we recognise that it is the societal barriers that need to be broken down to enable disabled people to live an independent life with their human rights preserved.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 610300 and 617425, relating to the cost of living and financial support for disabled people.