Cost of Living: Financial Support for Disabled People Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for Work and Pensions

Cost of Living: Financial Support for Disabled People

Amy Callaghan Excerpts
Monday 22nd May 2023

(1 year ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Amy Callaghan Portrait Amy Callaghan (East Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Robert, and thank you for your welcome help on that. I thank the Petitions Committee and the petitioners here today for shining a light on this important issue. I consider the word of the debate not to be “confidence” as the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) suggested, but “abandoned”. People right across these isles feel abandoned by this Tory Government. That applies even more so to disabled people—abandoned by an unkind, uncaring Government who fail to recognise their individual needs and to tailor financial support accordingly.

We need to remember and reflect on what we are actually debating. The cost of living isn’t a neat wee slogan to describe the tough times we are living through; we are debating how much it costs to live. We have all lived through the 2008 financial crash, and things are considerably bleaker now than they were back then. Currently, 46% of people right across these isles think their kids will be worse off than them, which, while shocking, is hardly a surprise, given interest rates, the soaring costs of goods and 13 years of Tory austerity. Food prices are up more than 19%, electricity is up 16% and gas is up 129%. In energy-rich Scotland, these price increases are harder to take. I have constituents desperately clutching energy bills at every surgery.

The cost of living is proving increasingly challenging for our constituents living with a disability. The Government’s £150 disability cost of living payment is, of course, welcome, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the astronomical bills people face. What does the Minister expect disabled people to spend the £150 payment on—a weekly shop, half or less of some assistive technology, or to mitigate sanctions from his Department? Does he really think £150 is enough to make a tangible difference in the lives of disabled people?

Disabled people are disproportionately affected by the cost of living crisis. The disability pay gap means they earn an average of almost £2 less an hour than those without a disability. The rising disabled population makes that even more pertinent; it is a damning indictment of this unkind Tory Government. In-work poverty is real: because of the policies of austerity, folk the length and breadth of these isles are living in it.

On a recent visit to Deafblind Scotland, based in Lenzie in my constituency, my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and I had a roundtable discussion with service users. We heard how challenging life can be for deafblind people, particularly given the increased cost of living and the cost of assistive technology. Across the UK, we have a public health service free at the point of need, but access to healthcare is still a class issue: 70% of people have had to limit access to medical appointments due to the lack of financial support with the increased cost of living, and we know that disabled people are less likely to be able to afford those increased costs.

I despise the word “mitigate”. The Scottish Government are not and should not be there to mitigate bad decisions made in this place. They are there to stand up and provide for our people—to lead, not mop up the mess of bad policy decisions and bad governance by the Government of Westminster. Unfortunately, that means that they now need to shield folk from the policies of austerity.

We forget that the Scottish Government are not just providing new policies relating to the social security system; they spend £594 million each year mitigating bad policies from this place, including the bedroom tax and the benefit cap. If those Tory welfare reforms had not been imposed, it is estimated that each family in Scotland would be £2,500 better off each year. The cost of living crisis would be much harsher for people in Scotland if it were not for those mitigations.

Now for the clear blue water between the Tory Government down here and the Scottish Government up the road—a tale of two Governments. The Tory Government have removed the very welcome £20 a week increase to universal credit, whereas the Scottish Government have not just uprated social security but introduced brand new payments, including the Scottish child payment, lifting children out of poverty. We do not pay for prescriptions in Scotland, which means that everyone can access the medication they need to manage their health conditions. The Government down here have failed to do likewise, which means that 51% of people have had to limit their access to medication.

The Tory Government are failing our constituents, and Labour has no policies to turn that around. Fortunately, although Westminster continues to fail the people of Scotland, they can rely on the Scottish Government to deliver fairness and equality. Of course, we look forward to our future as an independent nation within the European Union.

--- Later in debate ---
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady sets the scene very well. I thank her for that intervention because it reminds us all of the impacts on a section of the community across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We see the impacts every day, and we are trying to convey that to the Minister so that he can grasp what we are focusing on and give us the answers that we seek.

Inflation rates for food have gone up in the last year by 13.1% in Northern Ireland. Expanding the payment to people who suffer with disabilities would help them to stick to their routines and be able to rely on what they need to stay alive. I am not exaggerating the matter—they need it to stay alive. That is what I see in my constituency on a regular basis.

In addition, I have had numerous constituents raise concerns with me regarding the amount it costs to run certain types of medical equipment; the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) said the same thing. I deal with these matters every week: people with stairlifts, pumps for feeding tubes, electric wheelchairs, bath seats, and, more than ever, mobility scooters. Those of us who are able-bodied do things for ourselves, but we have constituents who cannot, without help, deal with the extra charges that come their way. I compassionately and respectfully urge the Minister and the Government to provide some form of grant to help ease the costs for the many people who must run medical equipment. Such issues are not momentary; they are there for a lifetime. The sad reality is that some people require those pieces of equipment to survive and continue to live. It is often a matter of life or death for them. That is the cold reality of where we are today with some of my constituents and those of others who have spoken.

Those constituents are no stranger to the increases in electricity and gas, and it is unfortunate that so many of my constituents have to deal with the impacts of that. We must do more to speak on behalf of those who are disabled and struggling to pay the increased cost of electricity and heating payments. There is certainly a conversation to be had about disabled people and employment. We need to air that today as well—today’s debate is perhaps a chance to do so—but in a constructive way. For some of those on non-means-tested benefits, there is an option for getting into employment, which must be made accessible to them. I welcome the many employers who have made a constructive and positive decision to be disability friendly. It is wonderful to see so many encouraged into work by so many, but there is still more to do.

Amy Callaghan Portrait Amy Callaghan
- Hansard - -

On that point about accessible work spaces, it is very hard to get this place, which legislates for equality, to adapt for people with disabilities, so how can we expect other workplaces to take the onus themselves and make work spaces more accessible for people?

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She speaks with knowledge, understanding and a really deep request for change that she has put forward clearly and capably. When the Minister responds, perhaps he can say how this place can improve its disability access. I know that much has been done, but we live with an old building and a lot more probably needs to be done than would normally be the case.

Being able to reliably apply for extra money will always be of help to people. I understand Government policy, I welcome it and think it is positive, but will the Minister outline the Government’s strategy for those with a disability who are returning to part-time work, if possible? Again, I speak with knowledge and experience. I am not smarter than anybody else—definitely not—but in such debates I just try to reflect what people tell me.

Some of those disabled people have a fear about returning to work, because they are not quite sure if they can do it. They want to go back to work, but the reality is that some of them cannot. Whether they have three days a week or perhaps two weeks together for which they cannot cope, for some people the return to work is not an option. Real compassion and understanding has to be paramount in trying to give people with disabilities the option to return to work. I seek from the Minister a clear understanding of Government policy on how that will be done in a way that reflects what people need. The fact is that they want to work, but the days and weeks that they are unable to work mean that they cannot, and we need to make that right.

In January 2023, the Resolution Foundation found that for the financial year 2020-21 the gap in household income between adults with a disability and adults without a disability was about 30% if disability benefits were included, which is quite a significant gap, and 44% if disability benefits were excluded. Furthermore, a third of adults in the lowest income group are disabled. Those figures are not the Government’s fault, by the way. Those are facts. That is where we are. That is the data. But it is about how we respond in a positive fashion.

One-off payments are all very well and good, and the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys referred to that. It is good that the Government have reached out and given that extra money, but perhaps what we really need is an ongoing vision for the next year or the next period of time, whereby those benefits and the help with energy payments and so on are provided in a constructive and statistical way, to ensure that there is a vision for the future for those people who are disabled? The assessment is good when it comes to whether there is a positive impact on the efficiency of paying bills, and the one-off payment takes pressure off, but I believe that it needs to be negotiated in a different way. Of course, the Government have reached deep into their pockets to ensure that there is help for people. However, the benefits must be felt over a longer time to truly help.

I will conclude with this comment. There is no doubt that the cost of living crisis has had an impact on everyone, but we do and we must look to the Government to consider the specific impacts right now. Again, I request the Minister and the Government to support people when times are increasingly difficult—and they are really not only difficult, but very uncertain.