Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Higgins: Perhaps I may intervene at this stage. It is appropriate to defer to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, whose name appears at the top of the list of those noble Lords who oppose Clause 60 stand part, and also the noble Lord, Lord Morris, who, for the reasons he explained, will not be able to be here later in our proceedings today.

The effect of Clause 60 is to abolish the severe disablement allowance which is a non-means-tested and non-contributory benefit payable to people who are unable to work due to sickness or disability but who do not have the contributions necessary to claim incapacity benefit. Neither of the noble Lords to whom I have just referred is given to hyperbole, but when they use words like "disgraceful" or "weird and cruel reform" it is right that, given their record over the years in defending the interests of disabled people, we should take account of their views. However, even if that were not so, we on these Benches believe that what the Government propose here is a serious error of judgment. Indeed, it goes together with the two previous clauses which were debated very late at night the other day which restrict incapacity benefit to those who have made only recent, not long term, contributions and those who have not made their own pension provision.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that all three of these clauses are driven by the desire to reduce expenditure on social security. It is well known that both before and after the election the Prime Minister pointed out very clearly that it was the intention of the Government to reduce expenditure on social security. They have totally failed to do so. That expenditure is scheduled to rise by some £35 billion over the next three years.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lords who have also spoken in the debate have constantly stressed that it was only the intention to reduce the proportion spent on social security. That did not appear in the speeches made before the election and subsequently by the Prime Minister. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that these three clauses are effectively cost saving exercises. In reply, perhaps the Minister can tell us how much is expected to be saved from the social security bill if Clause 60 remains.

20 Jul 1999 : Column 827

I understand from the figures quoted--no doubt the Minister can confirm them--that about 16,000 people a year, 10,000 of whom will be women, will be excluded from benefit as a result of the abolition of SDA. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, gave a number of case examples provided by the CAB of the kind of people who will lose out. It will have a particularly harsh impact on severely disabled women because 61 per cent of SDA recipients are women; and that rises to 70 per cent for older women. A number of other groups will lose severely as a result of the proposed change. Instead of entitlement as at present to a non-means-tested benefit, they will be pushed on to a means-tested benefit. This has been a constant theme of the Government since they came to office, and certainly so far as concerns this Bill. There is a move more and more towards means-tested benefit. This clause is another move in that direction.

The proposals are opposed by a number of outside bodies which are concerned about the impact that they will have. I refer to MIND, MENCAP, the Disabled Benefits Consortium, the Disability Alliance, and so on. Such a change is not in line with the broad thrust of the way in which society is developing. It seems to us a mistake. I find the arguments put forward by the Minister unconvincing.

The Government may argue that these people can end up on income support. But we all know the problems of that. We have stressed a number of times that if an individual has capital of £3,000--it is a small amount--his benefits will be reduced; and they will be eliminated if he has capital of £6,000. So we do not consider that a good argument.

Alternatively, the Government may argue that such benefit may go to households which already have adequate resources. That does not seem a reasonable argument against the background of the people who are at present entitled to severe disablement allowance.

The argument is put forward that most women now go out to work; they will be eligible for IB instead. That does not prevent the people whom I have listed, on the scale which I have enumerated, from losing out as a result of the clause.

We believe that it is a bad clause. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, is right to stress that it should not be in the Bill. It is a view that we share.

4.15 p.m.

Earl Russell: We on these Benches support the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, for deletion of this clause. The Minister precisely and correctly said that severe disablement allowance was a safety net. Those who propose the removal of safety nets are either optimists or sadists. The Minister is an optimist. I like optimists, but I do not always believe what they tell me.

I shall not speculate into which of those categories the Secretary of States falls. However, I confess that I found the Secretary of State's Newham speech in this context just a little curious. There seemed a painful disjunction between the Secretary of State's rhetoric and the measures he set out to defend. He produced, as

20 Jul 1999 : Column 828

government Ministers always do, a great deal of rhetoric about the creation of opportunity and getting people into work. I know that some disabled people can do all sorts of things that people would not have expected. But I do not think that the number of people on severe disablement allowance who will go into regular work is likely to be statistically significant. I shall be glad for those who do, but I doubt whether it is a principal motive of the clause.

I do not understand what opportunity is being created, especially since, as I understand it, the savings--I join with the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in wanting to know the figure--are being ploughed back into the Treasury. The Secretary of State said a great deal about children growing up in poverty. Again, I do not see what help is given to children growing up in poverty by cutting severe disablement allowance. I cannot help suspecting that the Secretary of State is crusading up the wrong tree.

I turn to the Minister's optimism. We have here the same debate as we had between the Minister and her noble friend Lady Turner of Camden on the bereavement allowance. I am glad to see the Minister nod. I understand perfectly well the sort of pride which the Minister brings into her belief in equality. It does her a great deal of credit. But I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, that the Minister overrates the extent to which the world has changed. She believes that the degree of equality between the two genders is greater than yet it is. I have occasionally expressed in particularly sanguine moments a similar optimism in political debates inside my own party, and a great many women in the party, with very good experience behind them, have told me that it is not true yet. They convince me that that is so.

The Minister might also bear this point in mind. I regret to say that she very easily thinks in the category of "they". That is a deceptive category. People are not "they". They are a miscellaneous and utterly different collection of people. That is truer in this context than in almost any other. When we consider the use that women make of the opportunities put in front of them--and I think that men equally will make use of the choices that will be put in front of them as the pattern of division of work between the genders shifts--some seize opportunities with both hands, and some have a preference to remain the traditional wife and mother. Both are their right. It is not our business to lay down one as the normal pattern and apply "they" to it.

I shall not run through the traditional list of categories of those who are disadvantaged by the contributory principle. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, covered the ground pretty thoroughly. One should perhaps say a word about those who have several part-time jobs, each of them below the lower earnings limit. That creates a great deal of difficulty.

One should say something about how much the Government's new proposals will disadvantage students. We on these Benches are extremely grateful for the change in the kick-in date from 20 to 25. It makes a lot of difference, but not enough. People are coming to university later and later because they need

20 Jul 1999 : Column 829

to save the necessary money to cover their maintenance, which their loans will not do, and in many cases to pay their tuition fees. So we quite regularly have people coming up to university without adequate contribution records at the age of 23. These 25 year-olds will not have the contribution records necessary to qualify for IB. There will be a good deal of hardship in this area. Some further thought on this is needed.

For those, and for a great many other reasons, we think that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, is right; and whenever it comes to the issue we shall be with him.

Lord Campbell of Croy : I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, was able to make his speech earlier than some of us contrived to do, because he is now hosting a function for carers in another part of the building. I would have been one of those attending had it not been for this Committee stage. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, has made a good case and I support it in general. He went over the ground and I shall not go over it again, but I shall point to some of the main aspects of the argument.

SDA has been for people who have not been able to build up the required national insurance contribution record. Recipients are generally either people who have been disabled all their lives and have never been in the labour market or people who have become severely disabled later in life and do not have a recent national insurance contribution record. Those people, I understand, are mainly married women, and if such people were to claim in the future they would not be entitled to SDA.

Other provisions in the Bill tighten the contribution conditions for incapacity benefit--IB--so that in future severely disabled people who have been in and out of work or unemployed will be unable to qualify for IB. At present, people in that position can claim SDA, but in future SDA will not be available and that group will have only means-tested income support to fall back on, provided they do not have savings and their partner or spouse is not in work.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, mentioned Mrs Megan du Boisson. I referred to her in my Second Reading speech on this Bill. I helped her to create, in the mid 1960s, the organisation known as DIG--the Disablement Income Group--at a time when there were virtually no benefits for anybody except war disabled or those suffering industrial injuries. She was, until her untimely death, an inspiration, especially for this benefit. I am glad to be able to support the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, in general and I hope that the Government will listen carefully to what has been said in this debate.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page