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

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Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): It is worrying is that the Government, in looking at the information relating to the matter and despite being asked by the SSAC, have failed to come up with a realistic or genuine explanation as to how the figure of £35 million was reached. It has been passed over. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can provide clarification. Does he share my concern that, perhaps, the figure was plucked out of the air and there is little substance to it?

Mr. Webb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing my question. If £35 million is to be an ongoing annual cost, rather than a cumulative figure added up over many years, and if most people lose £1,000 a year, then 35,000 people are involved. That is a serious number, and genuine anxiety has been communicated to me. I am not sure that I have done justice on a human level to the concerns of the individuals involved, as they fear that they will be unable to exercise their mobility. The Government rightly talk about independence and dignity for disabled people, and mobility is a central aspect of that. The fear and anxiety that some people experience when they go out is a barrier—we do not know how many are affected.

The Government say that only severe mental incapacity is a reason to receive even £14 or £15 a week. That is too restrictive. We are not opening the floodgates; we are telling a group of people who can go out and who might be able to get a job—and perhaps

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even pay the Exchequer back £15 a week in extra taxes—that they should be given the chance to do so. That is why we seek, through our early-day motion, the annulment of the regulations. I understand that the procedure is that we vote against the motion if the Minister is unable to meet our concerns.

I have been struck by the volume and strength of feeling about this apparently minor feature of the benefits system, and I hope that I have done justice to those who are concerned that the proposed change will not benefit disabled people.

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Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): May I say, Miss Begg, that I am pleased, as we all are, to sit under your chairmanship? Such a subject is appropriate for careful consideration, even in these echoing halls. The measure matters a great deal to a limited number of people, and it ought to matter to us all that it matters to them and that they are concerned about it.

I do not intend to speak at length. One reason for that is that the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) introduced the subject well and with characteristic modesty. He did not overstate the case. All members of the Committee, some of whom might wish to contribute, are aware of the strength of lobbying on the matter. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is unusual for a comparatively minor statutory instrument, which may, according to some interpretations, affect only 200 persons, to attract so much attention and concern. The only way to register our concern is to vote against the motion if the Minister does not wholly satisfy our concerns. I give her notice that we may want to do that, because we think that the matter is important. In so doing, we would not be providing a detailed prescription or even necessarily be saying that the Government are wrong.

I return to an exchange that I had with the hon. Member for Northavon about the SSAC report, which says in plain English that the matter is complex. The SSAC does not think that the Government have got the provision right, and none of its respondents—more than 60 of them—think that the Government have got it right. The committee is not certain even that the provision will work as intended, and it advises the Government to go steady, to consider the matter carefully and in the round, and to return with a better proposal.

That opens up a much wider agenda than is appropriate for our debate, but the committee's opinion may hold true for other aspects of disability allowance, such as the workings of functionality. I do not want to tempt the Minister into a general debate on the subject and do not necessarily feel qualified to lead one myself, but those considerations are important.

We do not think that the answer to an apparently temporary difficulty is to target a small group of vulnerable people by taking them out of benefit. Put simply, the Government have achieved what might be called in racing terms a spring treble. I am not a racing

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person, but there may be some in Committee. The Government have succeeded in making three sets of mistakes simultaneously. That, at least, can be seen distinctly from the regulations.

First, although I accept the Minister's good will and commitment to disabled people—there is no point in debating that matter, because we all feel the same way—the regulations proposed by her Government, as interpreted by the voluntary organisations that have been in touch with us, appear to target those who cannot walk outside because of their fear and anxiety. That is the effect, whether the Government intend it or not. Those people cannot receive benefit unless their inability is linked to a specific mental condition. In other words, from now on the test is to be tied to a literal interpretation of their underlying disability.

On the margins of the debate, I recall a situation that arose in relation to the learning disabilities White Paper and the treatment of autism. Children at the high performing end of the spectrum were told that they had a social disability, but that they would not receive socialisation help because they did not have a learning difficulty. At least, that was the case until the Government relented. That is a danger for any Government who become literal-minded about an interpretation, and I am sure that the Minister's Government are not the first to do that.

Secondly, only 200 claimants are apparently affected in the category that we are debating, who benefited from the recent tribunal decision taken by a consortium. I am not sure what the collective noun should be for social security commissioners, but they are a terribly important and experienced group of people. The annual cost appears to be in the range of hundreds of thousands of pounds, but probably below £200,000.

The Government cite a far bigger figure—up to £35 million, as the hon. Member for Northavon said—in what I believe is an attempt to cloud the issue. The matter represents either a tiny anomaly, in which case there is little point in pursuing it, or a major problem of cost, in which case the Government should explain why their actions are appropriate.

The third point, which is remarkable, is that the Government have rejected not merely the original findings of the tribunal of social security commissioners, whose judgment allegedly triggered the situation, but those of the independent SSAC, which drew on the experience of numerous representations from specialist bodies. Those three factors make a cogent reason for praying against the regulations.

I want to exemplify the points made by the hon. Member for Northavon about the range of people who are concerned about the regulations. Although I do not often receive representations from Capability Scotland, I am pleased to hear from that organisation:

    ''I am writing on behalf of Capability Scotland to urge you and your colleagues to vote against the Statutory Instrument in this afternoon's debate.''

Mind says bluntly:

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    ''We do not agree that the regulations simply clarify current law. We are concerned that disabled people with mobility needs, including some people with mental health problems, will face a stricter test of eligibility and may be deprived of benefit because they do not have a specific psychiatric diagnosis.''

The West Oxfordshire Carers Consortium, which, I think, is responsible for two of the test cases considered by the tribunal and which was drawn to my attention by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), is also very concerned. The Government have run into a range of problems of some intensity, which is all the more strange because, as the hon. Member for Northavon said, that has taken place in the context of us all becoming much more comfortable with considering the psychological aspects of disability.

Sometimes, one reflects on one's own experience of temporary disability—a practice that I do not often adopt, and which can be derogatory in relation to permanently disabled people. For example, I remember smashing up a shoulder some years ago. My concern was not so much my shoulder, which was being put right, but the fact that, because the incident happened outside the United Kingdom, I needed help to get on the plane. That was a small incident from which I recovered, but it reminds one of the difficulty that people experience when they have a physical condition, which is definable, diagnosable and may even be limited. However, if it is accompanied by psychological concerns, that is a real and wider problem with which we should concern ourselves.

Even if the regulations are approved, in trying to solve one alleged anomaly, they may create a new one, because they would create a distinction between those whose reluctance, fear and anxiety to go outside is tied to a mental disability—whether definable or not, and that is a separate matter—and those whose condition is tied to a physical disability.

However, the fear and anxiety may have the same disabling effects. As the hon. Member for Northavon said, perfectly reasonably, they may also affect the understandable wish to use the mobility component to help people to get about, but if it is not available to them, they will lose out—possibly even compared with someone who has a lesser condition that happens to fit in with the framework. We must be clearer about how many people will be affected—that is an issue to which the Minister must return—and about the long-term cost to the Revenue of the current situation.

There is also the interesting matter of what will happen to those who already receive the benefit. I have received representations from Headway, the brain injuries specialist organisation:

    ''Headway understands that people already in receipt of the lower rate mobility component will not be affected until their claim comes up for renewal. However a change in the law like this will count as a change in circumstances, and Decision Makers will therefore be obliged to reassess existing claims.''

It continues:

    ''Due to 'clarification' of the eligibility criteria, some people who survive a brain injury, and have mobility needs as a result, will no longer be eligible.''

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It will be regrettable if the rules change and people who are by definition among the most vulnerable in our society—those who have been properly receiving a benefit and who have had their claim validated by a tribunal—find that they no longer receive that benefit.

On the face of it, the issue affects comparatively few people, but it has attracted a high degree of concern. That is typical of the Government's approach to welfare reform; they cannot do the substantial job of welfare reform. It might be appropriate, for instance, to reconsider the whole issue of disability living allowance—I say that as a neutral without any specific agenda. The regulations are an example of an approach that picks away at the system and damages the interests of individuals.

My abiding impression on reading the regulations is that sometimes Governments fail not because of some dramatic or knockout blow that they receive, though this Government will in due course receive such a blow, but because of an accumulation of silly, niggling mistakes. The regulations show that when confronted with some of the most vulnerable people in situations that undoubtedly generate fear and anxiety, the Government's response is silly, niggling and wholly inadequate.

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