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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Social Security (Disability Living Allowance) (Amendment) Regulations 2002

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 7 May 2002

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

Social Security (Disability Living Allowance) (Amendment) Regulations 2002

4.30 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Social Security (Disability Living Allowance) (Amendment) Regulations (S.I. 2002, No. 648).

I welcome you, Miss Begg. It is slightly unusual for me to speak first in such a Committee, and the reason, as you are aware, is that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) and I have prayed against the regulations. I note that several Labour and nationalist Members of Parliament have joined us in our early-day motion 1054, which recommends that the regulations be annulled. It might help if I set out our reasons for making that argument and our understanding of what the regulations will achieve in practice.

We are discussing the specific component of disability living allowance for the lower rate of mobility. The Department for Work and Pensions has not been happy with the development of DLA case law regarding lower rate mobility. People applying for DLA have gone to tribunals to say that they need assistance with mobility because they are afraid of or anxious about going outdoors, especially on their own. The way to overcome that might be to go out with someone, and a financial benefit could help to pay a carer's costs. In such circumstances, the DLA mobility component is valuable.

We are discussing about £14.90 a week. If someone on income support receives only that sum of DLA, it becomes the passport to the more substantial sum of £23 a week premium for a single person, or £32.80 for a couple. The sums are not vast, but they could make the difference and enable people to pay someone to come on a shopping trip or another journey, so they are worth having.

We must consider who should be given those additional sums. The history of the matter is unusual, in that the Government produced a draft statutory instrument in August to tackle it and sent that to the independent Social Security Advisory Committee, which considers such matters. The SSAC report was almost entirely negative on the Government's proposals, and it is striking that 62 representations made to the SSAC were uniformly critical of the regulations. I would not claim to be an authority on the DLA lower rate mobility component, but the e-mails were heated and lobbying has taken place, so the subject struck a chord with many groups, especially but not only those representing disabled people. They clearly feel strongly.

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If regulations are presented to an expert independent advisory committee that receives universally negative feedback and produces a uniformly negative report on the Government's proposals, and if a tribunal of social security commissioners—hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but experts in social security law who consider the issues seriously—suggests that those proposals are not right, one must conclude that the Government are completely isolated.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): Has the hon. Gentleman considered what the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board has said about the regulations?

Mr. Webb: No, I have not. I hope that the Minister will share that information with us.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I agree with the substance of what the hon. Gentleman says. Does he agree that the SSAC did not recommend the opposite, but that the regulations be dropped pending a fresh look at the whole subject? That seems rational, and it may appeal to him as an academic.

Mr. Webb: I shall not go down that road, but the hon. Gentleman is right. In a sense, what is being said here is that the issue must be looked at in the round.

The SSAC says that our understanding of disability involving particular conditions has moved on since the regulations were first framed. I know that the Government are concerned that what is happening is not what the original legislators had in mind—we may come back to that point—but evidence suggests that they were not informed by medical and other knowledge of disability such as that gained during the past 10 years. There are strong reasons to think that it needs to be considered in a wider context than that of the regulations.

The intention of the regulations is ostensibly to

    ''restore and clarify the original policy intention.''—[Official Report, 15 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 711W.]

It has been suggested that various social security commissioners were making divergent interpretations of the lower rate mobility component , but it is hard to see how putting the concept of fear and anxiety into statute makes life simpler. The decision makers and those involved in the higher echelons of the appeal process considered such issues in the round without having to define fear and anxiety, but fear and anxiety have gone on to the statute book in response to apparent ambiguity, uncertainty and inconsistency. That, however, is unlikely to add clarity and certainty.

One of the SSAC's objections is that the original policy intention was not as straightforward as the Department suggests. It is not absolutely clear what it had in mind when it drafted the legislation, but a lot has moved on since. Much knowledge has been gained—for instance, our understanding of chronic fatigue syndrome has improved—but we should take note of more recent developments, particularly with disabilities, where our understanding develops over time.

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Secondly, the SSAC says that it is not persuaded on inconsistent decision making and that the Department has not made its case particularly strongly. The SSAC says that

    ''the evidence is not sufficiently clear cut to draw any inferences either way.''

It is not persuaded by the Government's argument on that front.

One of the good things about the system is that it allows some exercise of judgment; individual cases can be considered if a certain amount of elasticity is built in to allow common sense to be used. Again, the danger of trying to be too prescriptive is that we might exclude people whom we would want to include. When the legislation was framed 10 years ago, common sense would have dictated the sort of people whom we might have wanted to help. However, we might prevent decision makers from allowing benefit for the sort of people whom we want to help if we are too rigid and prescriptive.

There are conflicting messages on how many people we are talking about. Some suggest that only a couple of hundred receive benefit under this heading, yet the Government cite figures as high as £35 million in the long run, which suggests that many more will receive benefit.

The Government are trying to have it both ways. They seem to be saying that the legislation affects hardly anyone, but that those people need the money. However, if serious money is involved, the Government should be up front about it. They should say not that we might deprive only 200 people of their money, but that 1,000 or 10,000 or whatever the figure may be are involved. If the Government say that it is a significant sum—the figure of £2.3 million used by the SSAC is 0.002 per cent. of the Department's budget—a significant number of people must be involved, and the Government should come clean about it. However, if hardly anyone is involved, I wonder whether we need to take such a draconian step.

I was struck by the broad spectrum of disabled people's organisations and other groups that are concerned about the implications of the measure. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People feels particularly strongly, because of the suggestion that people who are prelingually deaf do not have severe mental problems as defined in the regulations. Although they do not suffer severe mental health problems, they suffer severe impediments in certain circumstances due to ''fear and anxiety'' when going out and about, resulting from lack of knowledge of unfamiliar places. It would help if someone could go with them to help them cope.

In my judgment, those creating the mobility component of a disability benefit should have tried to help people with disabilities to get out and about. That seems perfectly proper, but it seems unduly restrictive to use the fear and anxiety rule only for people who, as I understand the regulations, suffer fear and anxiety as a symptom of a mental disability so severe as to prevent them from going out.

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However, we have not heard only from organisations representing deaf people; there is a long list with which I shall not trouble the Committee. People concerned with those suffering from brain injury, the Parkinson's Disease Society, people with bowel problems and a raft of people with other disabilities are, appropriately, anxious about the issue. The Child Poverty Action Group, which is not normally primarily concerned with disability issues, has asked questions about physically disabled children who might need someone with them, not because they have severe mental health problems, but because they suffer anxiety and fear in unfamiliar places in which other children might be fine alone. The danger is that we could exclude needy people—albeit not necessarily a large number—from a benefit that they might reasonably expect to receive.

It is striking that an independent organisation such as the SSAC has undertaken such consideration, that 62 parties have responded and that my colleagues and I have received such an extraordinary volume of representation from disability organisations, given the small number of people who, it is claimed, will be affected by the regulations. The worry is that, over time, the numbers affected will greatly expand. If the Government are allowing £35 million, and we are considering at most £23 a week on the disability premium, what is the arithmetic? Given that £23 a week is about £1,000 a year, £35 million covers 35,000 people. If that is the scale of the problem, it is a different matter from the 200 people who have been mentioned.

 
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