Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, was the noble Lord asking whether the disability rights commission will be included in the Social Security Bill which is now on its way through this House?

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I said that the Statement, made in another place, which the noble Baroness repeated here the other day, stated,

I was asking the noble Baroness whether it might be possible to include that in the Social Security Bill. I listened to her reply with interest. I merely make the point because it seems that that may be an opportunity which would achieve the Government's objective of doing it as rapidly as possible.

I make only one further point, which was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. It is a classic Treasury tactic--and I speak with some experience--ahead of a Budget to spread all kinds of rumours about what awful things will happen which ultimately do not appear in the Budget. As a result, everyone says what a splendid Budget it is. Some of the rumours about disability, with the disability allowance being means tested, taxed or even handed over to local authorities, caused a great deal of concern. As we have now had the Green Paper it would be helpful if the noble Baroness could say--I understand that it is now fashionable to rule out matters for a particular Session of Parliament, ranging from Europe to national insurance and pensions--that there is no question in this Parliament of

1 Apr 1998 : Column 347

the disability allowance being in any way affected in the manner in which concerns were expressed before the Budget.

I, and I am sure the House, are grateful to my noble friend for promoting this debate. We look forward very much to the Minister's reply.

7.17 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I would like, first, to thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for initiating the debate today on this important subject. I very much regret that my noble friend Lord Ashley is unable to be here, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell said, because he raised an Unstarred Question on 26th February. He is committed to a long-standing engagement as chancellor of the University of Staffordshire. I also regret that my noble friend Lord Morris is unable to be here. However, I would like to take back from this debate to my ministerial friends and colleagues the warm, although sometimes cautious, welcome that both the Budget proposals and the Green Paper proposals, in so far as they affect disabled people, have received tonight. There is a universal feeling around the House that very many of the concerns of disabled people have been met and that both the Budget and the Green Paper, in an imaginative way, are seeking to help disabled people to come more fully into the mainstream of life.

In that context I welcome particularly the most generous remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, who has fought so hard and so well for disabled people, not only through his organisation of the Disability Benefits Consortium, but also as a member of the All-Parliamentary Disability Group where so many of your Lordships, including the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, have been so effective in advocating the rights and benefits of disabled people.

As your Lordships mentioned, the debate comes at a very interesting time. We have heard a variety of views. A week or so ago I was able to read the Green Paper which your Lordships have not been slow to quote at me tonight. Perhaps I may re-emphasise our aims in the Green Paper. We made it clear that reform will be on the basis of a new contract, keeping the welfare state from which we all benefit and on terms which are fair and clear. The principles of reform will be driven by the need for a better benefits system and not by any desire simply to cut benefits expenditure.

We made it clear in particular that we are determined to ensure that disabled people get the support they need to live a full and dignified life free from discrimination. We set out the success measures against which the Government's performance can be judged over the next 10 to 20 years, including those on reducing discrimination against disabled people and those relating to increasing the number of disabled people moving into work.

We also made it clear that we are determined to retain disability living allowance and attendance allowance as universal--that is, not means-tested--and as national--that is, not localised--benefits for those who are entitled

1 Apr 1998 : Column 348

to help. Those issues are being discussed and reviewed, but it is clear, with our reaffirmation of these principles, that we can now take the agenda forward.

We shall reform incapacity benefit for new claimants, enhancing the test of entitlement to provide constructive information about a person's capacities so that those who want to work can be helped to do so. I have used this example before but at the moment the test shows whether or not people can lift a sack of potatoes. What we actually need to know is whether they can, possibly with training, use a word processor. The test, as it stands, does not allow us to make that distinction. We believe that as more people are enabled to move into work rather than remain on benefits, savings should be released which could be used to provide greater help for those severely disabled people with the greatest need.

The final principle in our Green Paper is that we are intending to introduce a package of measures for those disabled people who want to work. Those measures include some of the proposals outlined in the Budget, such as the provision of extra help through the New Deal, and the transformation of disability working allowance into a more generous disabled person's tax credit which will, as noble Lords have identified, mean not only a higher income before the taper comes into effect, but also a slower withdrawal (through the taper) off the benefit--a lower taper of 55 per cent., down from 70 per cent. taper in DWA. It will allow us to extend the existing eight-week linking rule for incapacity benefit to 52 weeks, thus taking away so much of the risk that disabled people face if they seek to enter the labour market at the moment because if they return to benefit they move to a lower rate. We are removing that risk, thus encouraging them to make such a move.

Another change we are making, which has been welcomed by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, in particular, is the abolition of the rule limiting people on incapacity benefit to a maximum 16 hours of voluntary work a week. This is a cause close to my heart. The change will enable disabled people to make a greater contribution to society through routes other than waged work, safe in the knowledge that they will not be penalised and lose benefit. In return, society will be enriched by the contribution they can make and the very real experience they can bring to those organisations. This is appropriate because the health of many disabled people fluctuates and their ability to work is unpredictable. Voluntary organisations can give them an opportunity to make the commitment they want to offer, and from which we stand to benefit, without the rigours of tied hours of waged work to which disability does not always lend itself.

Still on the proposals and the changes announced in the past month, there has been a review of the benefit integrity project. Several noble Lords referred to that and I have discussed the matter on various occasions with my noble friend Lord Ashley. I emphasise that, as the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said, it is right that any government must check that benefits go correctly to those who need them, but equally we must ensure that all those who are entitled to them actually receive them.

1 Apr 1998 : Column 349

However, we do not believe that the benefit integrity project is working as well as it should. We are tackling the problems one by one in consultation with disability organisations. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, mentioned that, as at 9th February, we are seeking collaborative evidence. Since then, and in discussion with disability organisations, I have been able to negotiate and agree a series of other--and, I hope, helpful--moves forward which I believe have been welcomed by the disability organisations and the All-Party Disablement Group alike.

We have agreed, for example, as part of the exercise, that those over 65 in receipt of disability living allowance and attendance allowance will no longer be contacted because it is clear from our monitoring that there is very little change of award. Therefore, we simply do not need to check. It is not a question of integrity in the sense of the person concerned being accurate in statements. If it is clear that a person's situation and needs have not changed, we do not need to monitor the benefit. Other groups may also be affected. I refer, for example, to people who come on to benefit because of one condition, such as a kidney or heart problem, but subsequently develop a terminal condition such as cancer, motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis. We are working with disability organisations to try to find ways of identifying such people so that we do not have to trouble them because they have a terminal illness although the original condition under which they became in receipt of DLA may not have been that illness. We are trying to work with disability organisations to try to respond to such problems as sensitively and as unthreateningly as we can.

We are also looking at improvements to the project literature on the basis of suggestions made by disability organisations. Clearly, we need to improve the training for staff. We are looking at how best we can do that, accepting a fact, which is perhaps not always obvious, that training should not be something that is carried out at the beginning and then forgotten about. Training needs to be an ongoing activity for both visiting staff and adjudication officers so that we can have a loop in the learning experience. What we learn from visiting we want to be able to loop back into the training of staff so that they can address those issues. Disability organisations have rightly made us aware that we need to do that.

We are also aiming to speed up the processing time for reviews and appeals following a benefit integrity programme decision. At the moment, on average it takes 11 weeks to get to the first stage of the review. We hope to more than halve that by reducing it to four or five weeks. That will allow a person who, for example, currently has a Motability car to retain the car until the review is completed. That will mean that such a person does not lose the car only to find that it is subsequently reinstated, as has happened on occasion. We hope that that and many other smaller changes will make a difference.

I refer to considering whether we can extend the concept of exempt groups to other groups, including, for example, those who become terminally ill. We may be able to help other groups also. As I have said, other

1 Apr 1998 : Column 350

changes include improving our literature and training and reducing the time taken before we reach review. We have discussed all of those matters with disability organisations and we hope that, in consequence, the benefit integrity project will do what it was meant to do, which is ensure that the right money goes to the right people and that BIP does not become the threatening exercise which so many disabled people perceive it to be. I hope that we can learn from this.

The changes have to be incremental because some of the steps have different timescales. That is why a "big bang" approach is not appropriate. As a result of the changes, I hope that we can "normalise" this situation so that the programme is regarded as an appropriate and natural step which ensures that the right money goes to the right people--no more and no less, as happens with all other benefits. Clearly, it is more difficult--it is much more sensitive--with regard to disability benefits precisely because disability conditions can fluctuate. Whereas people are in an "either/or" situation with other benefits--one is either in work or one is not--the issue is much more sensitive with regard to disabled people and it needs much more careful and considerate handling. That is what we are hoping to achieve.

I turn now to some of the particular questions raised by noble Lords. The noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Rix, asked me to make it clear that DLA would not be subject to means-testing. That was made very clear in the Green Paper and I am happy to reiterate that assurance today. I cannot, of course, give the same assurance about taxation--not because there is a hidden agenda, but simply because this matter must properly be reserved to the Chancellor of the Exchequer--but there are no such proposals currently.

The noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Higgins, asked about savings on incapacity benefit and where they would come from. We hope to achieve savings from incapacity benefit by retaining in work disabled people who are currently leaving work and by enabling disabled people who are currently not in work and who wish to go back to work to be able to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, asked about numbers. The latest figures to emerge from the disabilities survey suggest that between 3.25 to 3.5 million people of working age are disabled. Of those, research suggests that upwards of 1 million would like to return to work if they could. We also know that about one in five adults in their fifties leave the labour market and very often go on to disability benefit. If we could help them to remain in work they would not join the forces (if I may put it that way) of those on incapacity benefit. It is all about working with employers to ensure that they get the support and adaptations that they need to keep in work people who have become partially incapacitated. That is what employers, disabled people and, I am sure, all of us want.

For those employers who are recalcitrant in their obligations in that regard, I am sure that the whole House will want to ensure that the Disability Discriminaton Act as well as any subsequent changes that we make to it enforce those responsibilities on employers. But the reduction in the number of people on incapacity benefit and any concomitant savings will

1 Apr 1998 : Column 351

be a sign of success in the Government's project to help people from welfare to work and is not a cuts-led agenda.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Rix, asked how much fraud had been detected. There are no confirmed cases of fraud. I have provided this Answer to a couple of Questions but I am happy to repeat it tonight. However, some 50 cases have been referred for further investigation to the fraud unit. None or all of them may be confirmed but at the moment none has been confirmed. However, one area of concern--it was the reason why the benefit integrity project was invented by the previous administration and carried over into the next--is the worrying level of error. Between one in eight and one in five payments are in error; some are overpayments and some are underpayments. This is not surprising given that people's conditions deteriorate or improve. The process can be gradual. People may not necessarily know when their condition has so altered that it triggers a change in entitlement. But I am sure that all noble Lords agree that there is a level of error and that it needs to be corrected.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rix, identified, this is a matter of providing gateways to benefit and full and proper information to disabled people so that they are aware of the routes to benefit. We have given full assurances that all changes in the gateways or the literature will be done in full consultation with disabled people and the organisations that represent them. We do not want a climate of fear; we want all of us to own the fact that there are problems associated with gateways and ensure that together we address those problems, just as we expect the statistics associated with those problems to be owned by disabled people and their organisations. They can have that information presented in any way they wish so long as the statistics at the end of the day are not misleading.

My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley dealt with carers. On behalf of all noble Lords I pay tribute to the work of both carers and the Carers National Association that has so gallantly represented them. Carers not only care but do so at considerable cost to themselves and their health, work, pensions and finances. Carers can themselves, through the act of caring, become isolated. That is the ultimate price they pay. By caring there is no one left to care for them in turn. It is for that reason that we are determined to help carers to retain access to the labour market wherever possible.

My noble friend raised the question of earnings cut-offs and tapers and a possible rise in the threshold to national insurance levels so that carers do not lose entitlement to benefit. We are looking at all of these questions. They are complicated matters and are not just financial in character, although clearly financial considerations arise. But the complexity of the interworking of tapers produces very real problems that we must address. I assure my noble friend--as she probably already knows--that we are considering in what ways, if any, we can help to ensure that carers do

1 Apr 1998 : Column 352

what we all value, which is to support disabled people in the community while they themselves retain access to the labour market.

The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, who is a patron of DIG, welcomed the Budget proposals. As an association at the forefront of the campaign for disabled people's incomes--I pay tribute to it--DIG has raised issues about qualifying benefits under the new proposed disabled persons tax credit. We expect to move over to that benefit in October 1999 and only from the following April will it be formally integrated into the Inland Revenue proposals. As a result, we expect to be working up the detail of that benefit--if I have made any errors in the dates I shall write to the noble Lord--over the next few months in consultation with disabled people, but some of the issues, for example, the qualifying benefits, still remain to be resolved. We need to discuss them.

The noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, asked about amputees. As he anticipated, this is a matter for the Department of Health. I shall take up his concerns with my colleagues in that department. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, said that disabled people needed a case-by-case response. He is absolutely right, and that is exactly why we are piloting personal advisers in 12 areas, six this autumn and a further six next spring, to offer disabled people, on an individual basis, counselling, advice and support as they move towards work. I hope that we can do that in ways to which disabled organisations can respond.

The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, asked about the disability rights commission and whether we were thinking of introducing it. I realise that some surprises have been sprung on the noble Lord in the Social Security Bill in terms of Phoenix directors and the like. He may be asking whether we propose to do something on the lines of the disability rights commission in the Social Security Bill. That is not our intention, or certainly it has not been transmitted to me. I doubt that it would be possible to do that within the Long Title of the Bill. However, the Government are actively considering bringing forward legislation to that effect at the earliest possible opportunity. My understanding is that we are looking at the next Queen's Speech. That is not a commitment, but it is hoped that from the next Queen's Speech we may be able to bring forth legislation to that effect. That will depend upon judgments yet to be made in terms of competing priorities for the next Queen's Speech.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page