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

Debbie Abrahams 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

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
- Hansard - -

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. She is right about the figures around poverty: one in three disabled people live in poverty—twice that of non-disabled people. While I applaud the petitions’ aims, particularly the call for one-off payments as a temporary measure, does she agree that the real issue is the adequacy of social security support for disabled people, which has become emaciated over the last 12 years, and that we need to incorporate the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities into law? We have been a signatory to it since 2009, but are failing to provide adequate social protection.

Marsha De Cordova Portrait Marsha De Cordova
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is absolutely spot on. We need a wholesale review of social security but, more importantly, the Government should commit, as Labour has done, to fully incorporate the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, so that we are protecting their civil and human rights.

It is a fact that disabled people incur extra costs. Scope’s latest Disability Price Tag report found that the average disabled household faces an extra £975 a month in costs, with that figure rising to over £1,200 if accommodating the inflationary costs for the period from 2022 to 2023. The Resolution Foundation found that the gap in household income between adults with a disability and adults without a disability was 30%, including disability social security, and that the gap rises to 44% if disability social security is not included. That was across the period from 2020 to 2021. Citizens Advice data for May 2023 shows that since the first quarter of 2022 the largest cohort helped was either permanently sick people or disabled people. The Trussell Trust has reported that disabled people are hugely over-represented in food poverty demographics. And 73% of families who took part in the recent survey by the Disabled Children’s Partnership said that the cost of living crisis will have a significant impact on their disabled children.

The spending of disabled households is particularly exposed to the ongoing energy crisis, given that energy bills for medical issues, and spending on specialist equipment and food, make up a disproportionate share of all spending. In response to the Petitions Committee’s survey, 48% of respondents said that they had extra costs due to the use of specialist equipment.

In my view, there is no question that the blame lies with the successive years of a Conservative Government, whereby they have created a hostile environment for disabled people. That was compounded by the pandemic and the current cost of living crisis.

Government support has barely scratched the surface. The paltry support is woefully insufficient and the very definition of what we would call sticking-plaster politics. Of the disabled people surveyed who received the £150 cost of living payment, 80% said that it would not be enough to cover their increased costs for essentials. That prompts the question: how do the Government think that the payment will be sufficient when inflation is around 10% and official figures show the fastest annual increases in food and drink prices because of inflation in the last 40 years, at around 19% as of March this year?

The reality is that even cost of living payments are not always reaching people, for instance those on the new style employment and support allowance who do not qualify for any Government cost of living payment support. There was also the cruel decision to change the warm homes discount criteria during the cost of living crisis, despite the Government’s own impact assessment finding that 290,000 disabled people would no longer receive the discount. For them, the £150 disability cost of living payment only offsets the loss of the warm homes discount. Why?

More worryingly, the Government have not provided specific support for disabled households incurring high energy costs. Many disabled people have told me that it is pointless to prescribe medicine if a person cannot afford to run the equipment they need to stay alive.

NHS schemes in place to cover the electricity costs of oxygen concentrators and dialysis machines are currently beset with issues and the Retail Energy Code Company has argued for establishing a service tailored for those using medical equipment. On prepayment meters, 60% of the people supported by Citizens Advice between January 2022 and February 2023 who could not afford to top up were disabled people, compared with the 40% who were not disabled or who did not have a long-term health condition.

UK household energy suppliers have agreed to a new code of practice, which means that force-fitting prepayment meters will be subject to a set of voluntary restrictions, but the industry needs to go further by banning prepayment meters for disabled people and providing more help with energy debt. Why will the Government not call for an industry-wide ban of forced installations in disabled households?

The political choice of austerity has gutted our social security system, and the consequences are real. Government-funded research suggests that cuts to social care and public health caused 57,500 more deaths in England than would have been expected if spending had continued at pre-2010 trends. The long-overdue health and disability White Paper focuses on getting disabled people into work and ramping up the use of sanctions, but the Government should be focusing on improving schemes such as Access to Work, getting rid of the delays and dealing with the outstanding applications. Access to Work is one of the best mechanisms for helping disabled people—especially those living with sight loss—to stay in work. Evidence suggests that sanctions do not work and have a negative impact on disabled people’s health.

The White Paper rightly suggests scrapping the work capability assessment, but replacing it with the personal independence payment assessment is absurd, given that PIP has a totally different function. It is an extra benefit, and it does not actually meet the additional costs. We know, because we have debated this previously, that the PIP assessment is flawed and that the support that PIP offers is in many cases inadequate. The Government’s own statistics show that more than 60% of PIP decisions that are appealed are overturned in favour of the claimant. The Government have never carried out an assessment of the adequacy of PIP and whether it is fit for purpose. Will they commit to assessing its adequacy and whether it works, and make improvements to the assessment?

Disabled people who receive social care can be asked to give up to 40% of their social security income to pay for social care. That leaves many in deep poverty and forces them to make the impossible choice between meeting their basic needs such as heating or eating and essential care. Research by the BBC found that more than 60,000 people are in social care debt.

There are clear actions that the Government can take to address the situation. They must increase the disability cost of living payment, and frankly they should be making those payments now; I do not understand why people have to wait until June to receive the second payment. They should extend the cost of living payments to everybody, especially those on new-style ESA. They should bring in the universal credit uplift, remove the social security benefit cap and reverse the changes to the eligibility criteria for the warm home discount.

The Government could also push the energy industry to introduce an energy debt waiver or some sort of social tariff. We know, however it is designed, that a social tariff is in isolation unlikely to meet the needs of disabled people, so it should be developed alongside a tailored cost support policy. The Government should also look at the feasibility of the warm home prescription, which aims to help people on low incomes and those with severe health conditions that are made worse by bad weather.

Energy suppliers must improve access to information for disabled people, especially blind and partially sighted people and those with a learning disability. It is their legal duty to do so, so what pressure can the Government put on them to ensure they are compliant?

The changes outlined in the White Paper are designed to get more disabled people into work, but are the Government removing barriers to help disabled people access the labour market? Are they addressing the disability employment pay gap? Disabled people are paid an average of 21% less than their non-disabled colleagues.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) outlined, changes need to be made to the social security system to make it less cruel, unfair and hostile, and to restore it to its original purpose, which was to provide a safety net for those in need. Disabled people are not asking for more; they are asking for equity. The Government should be ashamed that disabled people are dying or reporting that they want to commit suicide. Today should be a watershed moment for the Government.

Many are angry and frustrated. They feel that the Government have abandoned them, letting down the very people they should be seeking to protect the most. An example of that was the long overdue, or late, national disability strategy, which was ruled unlawful last year. Many of us did not believe that it was credible in the first place, but what have the Government replaced it with? There needs to be a fundamental rethink and change in the Government’s approach to serving disabled people. The approach must be about making their lives better and not about causing preventable harm.

As I close, I thank the petitioners. I encourage hon. Members to say hello to Abigail and Katy after the debate. I had the opportunity to meet them last week, and hearing about the experiences that led them to start the petition was pretty harrowing. As I said, I hope that today can be a moment when the Government acknowledge their flaws and failures on the part of disabled people, seek to draw a line and bring about changes that will improve their lives.