HL Deb 10 November 1998 vol 594 cc622-5

2.39 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their estimate of the number of people entitled to disability living allowance who have yet to apply for the allowance.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, provisional estimates from the first findings of the disability follow up to the 1996–97 family resources survey, published in March 1998, are available in the Library. They suggest that the number of people entitled to disability living allowance who have yet to apply for the allowance is around 1 million for the mobility component and 1.4 million for the care component. There is considerable overlap between the two figures as most recipients receive both. These estimates are necessarily very tentative.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply and for bringing new help to disabled children and young people.

Is it correct—"whisper who dares!"—that underclaiming will this year exceed £6 billion? Is my noble friend aware that disabled people talk increasingly now of the "stigma" attached to claiming benefits Parliament intended for them, due not least to baseless allegations of widespread fraud when the benefits integrity project started in 1996?

What more can now be done to remove that stigma and increase take-up? For example, are we doing enough to inform carers and to simplify the application process?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, my noble friend is right that the amount potentially or theoretically unclaimed could well exceed £6 billion. At the moment, about half those who claim are not entitled to DLA. We estimate that half those who may be entitled to DLA do not claim it. My noble friend is right. The reason is that the DLA is a complex benefit. It is not compensation for disability but, as your Lordships know, it is extra help to meet some of the costs of care needs.

One explanation for the low take-up may be that disabled people find it difficult to gauge whether they qualify for DLA, whether they are entitled to claim it. It is also true that the forms, the system of claiming and self-assessment may be difficult to handle. It may also be that carers are so hard-pressed that they do not always know the full range of benefits available. We are working closely with the Disability Benefits Forum and discussing the issues now.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, is the Minister aware that among those people who are entitled to and are claiming DLA are some who are concerned that it may be taxed? In the light of what she has just said, does she accept that in principle it is designed to meet the extra cost incurred by disabled people and therefore it is quite inappropriate that it should be taxed?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that the Prime Minister has repeated that there are no proposals to tax DLA. Equally, the noble Lord will be aware from his previous incarnation that taxation is a matter for the Chancellor.

Lord Addington

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it would help if adjudication officers received greater awareness training as regards disability problems so that more expertise could be brought to bear in the delivery of services? Does the Minister agree that in many cases people cannot find their way through the maze of problems and that even if they are familiar with the paperwork they are unaware of the reality of the situation with which they are dealing?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, is correct. Our officials receive disability awareness training. One of the leading organisations in this field, the Disability Income Group, has been helping us with that training over the past couple of years. We also have a benefits inquiry line, a form completion line and so on. But the basic point behind the noble Lord's question is correct. The forms and the benefit are complex and people require further help in both claiming the benefit and filling in forms to get it.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is the Minister aware that even those people who have gone through this process and have received a notice to say that they have the benefit for life read reports in the press that "life" no longer means "life"? Can the Minister clarify exactly what "granted for life" means?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, when the benefit is given for life it is given for that period while a person's medical circumstances remain unchanged. It is for life while one's condition remains unchanged. Clearly, if one gets better or worse one's benefit level may need to be changed.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, as disabled people fall into so many different categories, such as physical disability, mental disability, learning disabilities and so on, is it not simpler to have different forms? I am sure the noble Baroness agrees that the forms are extremely complicated.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I accept that the forms are complicated even though they have been revised and made simpler over the past year or two. They are complicated because to acquire DLA people basically have to keep a diary. They are self-assessment forms. We are trying to have one form that covers all. The noble Baroness may well have a point. This is a matter that we have discussed with the Disability Benefits Forum. That body has helped us to produce the latest set of forms following discussion over the past year. But I shall put this point to the forum.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is this not the other side of the coin of the benefits integrity project which the Government pursued so enthusiastically to check on whether the benefits of severely disabled people were justified? Does my noble friend agree that the Government should pursue this just as enthusiastically and energetically to ensure that the take-up is as comprehensive as possible? Given the power of the Government's publicity machine, does my noble friend also agree that this problem can be solved overnight with the political will?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I wish that my noble friend were right. If it could be solved overnight we would be doing it now. But if there are problems about people's knowledge of eligibility, assessment, the forms or understanding of what the benefit is about it is not simply an advertising campaign that is required. That was precisely why yesterday, for example, the Disability Benefits Forum met my honourable friend in the other place to discuss how to ensure better take-up of a benefit to which people are entitled and which we all want them to have.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, will the Government consider moving staff from work such as the benefits integrity project to the activities that have been mentioned today: the take-up of benefits and the complexities of the paperwork?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, will be aware that the Government propose to bring to an end the benefits integrity project. We are discussing its replacement with the disability groups. Having said that, with every benefit one must ensure that people get that to which they are entitled. Sometimes they may be overclaiming or underclaiming. One must have those checks particularly with disabled people who get better and worse. The problem with the BIP—there have been some huge problems—is that it was imposed without consultation on disabled people, who found it extremely threatening. We have to ensure that we make routine the act of checking to ensure that people get the benefit to which they are entitled—it may be more or less than they receive at the moment—in a way that they believe to be fair, decent and reasonable.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, does the Minister agree that when the applicant has correctly filled in the form he or she goes into an office where the money is paid in response? Does she agree that very often the queues are enough to put off the applicant who does not have time to queue in order to receive his or her entitlement?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, as far as I am aware most disabled people fill in the forms at home and post them back. If there is a problem in the delivery of those forms to people in the first place I should be grateful if the noble Baroness would supply me with further details. Normally, the form is requested over the telephone and is sent to the applicant by post. In my experience it is fairly unusual that people are expected to queue in an office.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the chronic problem of under take-up of benefits has bedevilled the welfare system since its inception? Perhaps the Crick proposals for education in schools may engender more confidence in the taking up of benefits.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, that may well be right. My noble friends Lord Morris and Lord Ashley have identified two major problems. The problem is not confined to disability living allowance. We know that there are major problems of take-up on income support for pensioners. The House has been rightly concerned about that. We know that only about 75 per cent. of those entitled to family credit take up the benefit to which they are entitled.

The problems for disability are compounded over and beyond the usual problems either of a means test or complexity because the DLA is not a direct compensation. It is based on fair needs. Two people with the same disability may be able to manage their disability very differently; and as a result they have very different entitlements to benefit. Getting people to appreciate that and to understand the benefits to which they may be entitled is complex. Whether that can be done through citizenship in schools I do not know; but that the Government must take action, I entirely agree.