HC Deb 24 May 1999 vol 332 cc11-4
10. Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

If he will make a statement on the proposed changes to severe disablement allowance. [84000]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley)

The proposed changes to severe disablement allowance will give more help to those with the greatest need.

Young disabled people under the age of 20—or under 25 in the case of higher education students or trainees—will be given access to incapacity benefit without having to satisfy the usual contribution conditions. As a result, after one year on benefit, they will gain by up to £26.40 a week.

Mr. Fraser

The Government set up the disability benefits forum last year, but 12 major charities with interests in disability and severe disability have since resigned from it. How does the Minister explain that? The forum was described as giving the disabled a "pivotal" role in shaping policy. How does he intend to replace those important charities?

Mr. Bayley

Naturally, I regret that the charities withdrew from the forum. They have made an important contribution to the development of the Government's welfare reform proposals on disability benefits although, ultimately, there were areas of disagreement. That is perfectly obvious to the House, and it would be extraordinary if a Government followed each and every proposal made by the charities. Any hon. Member who had read the representations made in response to the consultation document would form that view, not least because on many occasions the charities argued for different things.

However, the Government will retain the working groups. They have been extremely useful, for instance, in shaping the alternative to the benefit integrity project. Those working group meetings continue and remain useful. The Government will stay in close touch with all the bodies representing disabled people, such as Mencap, which remained in the forum. It is important that we are in dialogue with those organisations.

Mr. David Bendel (Newbury)

Does the Minister accept that the abolition of severe disablement allowance will hit especially hard those who in early adulthood have caring responsibilities for children, for people who are disabled, or for elderly parents? Such people often are unable to make national insurance contributions, and so are not eligible for incapacity benefit. If their marriage partners have incomes of their own, they probably will not be eligible for any means-tested benefits either. Is it not rather unfair that people who, through no fault of their own, become incapacitated after several years of looking after other people will get no recompense for their loss of earning capacity?

Mr. Bayley

If we were doing nothing for carers, the hon. Gentleman would be right, but we are doing a great deal for such people—as I should have thought the hon. Gentleman, who sat through the Committee proceedings on the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, would know. For example, we have taken the decision that all carers entitled to incapacity benefit will carry that entitlement through the period that they receive invalid care allowance for as long as is required. Also, carers will be credited into the state second pension. That will mean that, for the first time, people who forgo a job to care for a relative or some other person will not be left in poverty in retirement as a result.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Does not the Minister accept that disabled people, and organisations of and for disabled people, know most about their own needs? Does he not accept that the overwhelming weight of evidence given to the all-party disablement group and other Members of the House is against the Government's proposals? Last week's vote on the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill indicated that there are grave reservations among Labour Members on this matter. Will the Government therefore think again when the Bill goes before the House of Lords?

Mr. Bayley

I wish the right hon. Gentleman would read the representations from the charities and other voluntary bodies in response to the Government's consultation document. They welcomed many of the things that the Government are doing. For instance, they strongly welcomed our decision to raise people who are disabled at birth or early in life above the level provided by the severe disablement allowance. Whereas 70 per cent. of those people used to be left on means-tested benefits for life, we are providing that they should be passported on to incapacity benefits. That will leave them about £26 a week better off.

The representations also welcomed our decision to extend the higher rate mobility component in disability living allowance to children of three and four years of age. The right hon. Gentleman should look at what the charities say, as they welcome most of what the Government propose.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

As another female Conservative Member of Parliament, may I point out to the Minister how pleased I am to do something that too many of the Blair babes hardly ever do—stand up for disabled people and women? The Minister responded rather coyly to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser), saying that there had been something of a disagreement between the former members of the disability forum and the Government. It was not just a disagreement: the disability organisations thought that the Government had got it wrong. We think so too, and so do 67 of the Minister's hon. Friends. When will the Government wake up to reality? Their changes to disability benefits are not the right thing for disabled people, but a betrayal of those people.

Mr. Bayley

There are few enough women Members on the Conservative Benches. It will not have escaped the memory of Members who were here before the general election that a woman Conservative Member tabled dozens of amendments to wreck a Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), which would have extended civil rights to disabled people. For Conservative Members to pose as people who support disabled people's rights is a travesty of the truth, and disabled people and the voluntary bodies which represent them know it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does my hon. Friend remember how, in the previous Parliament, a Labour private Member's Bill to help the disabled was so badly wrecked by the Conservative Government that the daughter of the then Minister for the Disabled disowned what was being done, and the Minister himself resigned soon afterwards? Did not that incident show the Tory Government's total contempt for disabled people, and does it not expose the Tory party's present hypocrisy?

Mr. Bayley

It was a Labour Government who introduced the Commission for Racial Equality to provide civil rights for people regardless of their race. It was a Labour Government who introduced the Equal Opportunities Commission to do the same in respect of gender. The Conservatives blocked civil rights for disabled people, so it is a Labour Government who are introducing legislation that will set up a Disability Rights Commission to guarantee civil rights for disabled people.