Disability benefits debate: How benefit cuts will affect people on the ground

Yesterday I spoke in a debate in the House of Commons on Disability Benefits and highlighted how Government cuts will affect people on the ground. I’ve reproduced my speech below, and you can view the whole debate here.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): A lot of strange things have been said by Government Members: they say that the Labour Government did nothing to reform benefits, yet say, “You invented the work capability assessment, so you’re responsible for it.” It cannot be both. As a new Member in 2010, I came here intent on criticising the implementation, not the principle, of WCA, regardless of who formed the Government. I made that clear in one of my first speeches. The fact that someone might think it a good thing, in principle, to carry out an assessment does not mean that the specific form of assessment we have been using has worked.

I want to talk, in particular, about how the change from disability living allowance to personal independent payments is likely to take place. I draw attention to a report published in Scotland and based on work by the Learning Disability Alliance Scotland, which took the proposed test, as published, and ran workshops with about 135 people with learning disabilities to see how the test would work in practice. It found that 12% of DLA recipients would not be awarded PIP. Given that there are 24,500 people with learning disabilities in Scotland, nearly 3,000 could be at risk of losing their entitlement.

The report refers to one case study involving a woman with Down’s syndrome living in the Gorgie area of Edinburgh. At the moment, she receives the low level of the care and mobility components of DLA, which makes a huge difference to her life. The care component means that she can cook meals with fresh food, which is particularly important to people with Down’s syndrome, and the mobility component allows her to get reliably to and from her part-time job in a local supermarket. She can afford the bus fares and can get a taxi if she makes a mistake or gets lost. The awards also help her to cover additional costs. For example, a learning disability means that sometimes she leaves the heating on by mistake and so has higher heating bills. Her DLA means that she can pay these bills without too much worry and difficulty. Under the proposed test, however, she scored only four points, which would mean her losing £41 a week, or £2,000 a year.

The report found that 30% of those in receipt of the mobility component and 40% of those in receipt of the care component would receive less under PIP. For example, Frankie, who lives in a small town in a small group home run by a voluntary organisation, receives nine hours of support a week from paid staff as part of his living accommodation. He has a learning disability, cannot read, has a long-term health condition that requires periods in hospital and has mobility problems. At the moment, he receives the medium rate care component and higher rate mobility component of DLA. Under the PIP assessment, he scored some points in some areas, such as living needs—he needs help using appliances and understanding written communications—but that amounted to only seven points. That means he would not get those benefits and would be £85 a week worse off—£4,400 a year.

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the changes to the legal aid system whereby access to welfare benefits advice will either be severely curtailed or not available at all will severely affect people’s attempts to appeal these decisions, which appear perverse?

Sheila Gilmore: As my hon. Friend says, there are considerable problems with people being able to access legal advice on making appeals, but it is extremely difficult to access advice generally, given the cuts. We are certainly seeing that in my city, where the advice shop—one of the main advice centres—cannot see people for two weeks. Consequently, appointments are made two weeks in advance. Following an assessment result, people sometimes get a letter telling them that they have three weeks in which to appeal, yet it is difficult for them to get even basic advice in order to make an appeal. That is the reality that people are facing on the ground, so we need to look hard at the proposed tests.

Another important aspect of this debate—the Select Committee on Work and Pensions draw attention to this, and I hope that the Minister will consider it seriously—is that if we follow the pattern used with the employment and support allowance, people will be tested and re-tested, even though nothing in their circumstances has changed. One of the Select Committee’s recommendations was that limits should be placed on the number of re-tests under the new PIP. That is not to say that people should not be tested, but if they are re-tested constantly we may run into the problem of people having their next test virtually before they have finished their last test or their last appeal. That is not helpful, particularly for people with mental health problems, for example.

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a balance to be struck, in as much as those in long-term care—the very vulnerable people she is talking about—should perhaps not be subjected to re-testing in future, whereas the others are entitled to a face-to-face reassessment, and that that is what should happen?

Sheila Gilmore: I do not disagree with the hon. Lady, in the sense that there has to be the flexibility to look at people’s exact circumstances. The point I wanted to make is that we need to impose some limitations, because the stress of having to go through the process is extremely great for some people, and their illness can be made worse.

Although I have taken interventions, and therefore have extra time, I do not want to take up too much time, because one or two other people still want to speak. The Minister who opened the debate would no doubt respond by saying that we are scaremongering—that what we have described will not come to pass under the test and that everything will be fine. Indeed, she has gone further than that. She has said on numerous occasions that one of the reasons for having a new benefit and not simply changing DLA is that people who currently do not qualify—people with communications difficulties, she has suggested, or people with mental health difficulties—will now qualify under the new benefit. That suggests that more people will be entitled to PIP. I want to know how she can square that with making savings of the size that the Government say they want. If more people who do not currently receive the benefit will qualify, that suggests that even more people will claim than at the moment.

The Minister has also said that we should not worry about the tests because they are going to be a “conversation”, and are not really going to be a test. She has also said that we should not worry about the time limits on tests because a test should take as long as it takes. That all sounds wonderful, but I would like to know—the Minister has to answer for us—how it squares with cutting costs. Indeed, it will add to the administration costs, so is that included in the contract with providers? We do not really know what the terms of the contract are, and if those things are not in the contract, they will not happen. Therefore, for all the warm words about having conversations, being relaxed and the tests taking as long as they take, what the Minister has described will simply not happen unless we are given clarity on whether it is in the contract.