Cost of Living: Financial Support for Disabled People Debate

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Department: Department for Work and Pensions

Cost of Living: Financial Support for Disabled People

Jim Shannon Excerpts
Monday 22nd May 2023

(1 year ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Thank you very much for giving me the chance to speak today, Sir Robert. I thank all those who signed the petitions to enable us to discuss these issues. In particular, as I always do, I sincerely and honestly thank the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for setting the scene so well. She is a lady with compassion and understanding, and she delivered a message with which, as she said, we can all concur. I also thank all hon. Members who have made contributions and those who will follow, whose contributions I very much look forward to. I also look forward to the Minister’s contribution. I think the Minister understands the issues, and I wish to ask him a number of questions. I hope that we can achieve the goals that we wish to achieve and get the answers as well.

I have stated many times, as have many others, that the cost of living impacts on many people. The issues have not yet subsided: we still see incredibly high costs for the most basic needs and many struggle to afford them. I also wish to give a Northern Ireland perspective on debates—hon. Members expect it and they will get it. My observations and contributions will reflect what others have said.

The debate is specifically about the cost of living and support for disabled people, and I wish to focus on that. I see this every day in my office, more so over the last period of time. I am not blaming the Government, by the way; that is not what this is about. It is about solutions. I am always about solutions—I am solution-led and solution-driven. That is what I wish to see.

Many people, especially those who are disabled and are financially challenged, are struggling to afford things in the current climate. It is important that exceptions are made for them and that their specific needs are taken into consideration. I see poverty every day in my constituency. I see families struggling to deal with it and mums who starve themselves so that their children can get food. Those are the realities of where we are, and that is why I look to the Minister and the Government to make these important changes so that we can address the issues that we see every day. Every hon. Member in the Chamber sees those issues as well.

As the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) said, the DWP needs to expedite its system and address the fact that progress takes so long for those who are disabled. We have asked this before in the Chamber, and we ask the same question today: can it be expedited? The week before last, on the front page of my local paper, there was a report on food bank referrals in my constituency. The manager of the food bank, which is the first Trussell Trust food bank in Northern Ireland, and a very active one, said that referrals were up as much as 50% in one year—wow, I need to take a deep breath when I say and understand that. Christians Against Poverty also states that referrals are significant. All those people come together to help, and I am encouraged by the number of churches and individuals who help such organisations.

The hon. Member for Putney also referred to benefit issues and ME as one example of how people cannot cope with the systems, and she spoke about how long the DWP appeals process takes. I would add to that those with anxiety, depression and emotional issues. People who come to my office can be quite anxious and extremely confused about the system. What is being done to help people with anxiety, depression and the emotional overtures that affect their everyday lives? I know the Minister wants to help, and I certainly do.

Complex physical needs compound the issues and sometimes confuse the DWP’s interpretation of what is needed when a person sits in front of them. I see it very clearly. I have a member of staff in my office who does nothing but benefits because not everybody understands the benefits system. People need coaxing, help and support, and we try to provide that.

One of the petitions that we are discussing concerns the £650 payment, which people with disabilities should be eligible for. People who suffer with disabilities have very specific needs, some in relation to their diet and the food that they eat. There is an important cost factor in a specialised diet.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist
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The hon. Member reminds me of the work that we have done together on rare diseases, and Muscular Dystrophy UK has produced a report on the impact of cost of living rises and how that affects wellbeing.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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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
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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
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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.

Robert Syms Portrait Sir Robert Syms (in the Chair)
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We now move on to the Front-Bench speeches.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert, and I thank the Petitions Committee for securing this really important debate. More importantly, however, I thank the petitioners and those who signed their petition.

I pay tribute to the We Care Campaign, which provided me with an excellent briefing for today. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) mentioned that I had a debate in this Chamber last week—it was last Tuesday. I immediately reprised that debate during our Opposition day on Tuesday afternoon. Some of my contribution I could probably give without notes, and I am not going to repeat every statistic that I brought up. Nothing, however, has changed since last week. Even I would not have expected it to happen that quickly.

The cost of living, and how it affects disabled people and their carers, is something that this Government have to take seriously and do something about. Everyone who has contributed already has said most of what I was going to. I am going to repeat some of it because it is far too important not to repeat. There is real agreement across the Chamber today that the Government must do more to support disabled people, who are far more likely to live in poverty than those who are not disabled. They are particularly vulnerable to the rising cost of living.

Households across the UK and Scotland continue to face extremely challenging economic conditions. We know that food inflation is still at 19.1% a year, and for many disabled people on special diets the costs are even higher. We know that inflation disproportionately impacts lower income groups, and that is certainly true of disabled people, who spend a relatively higher proportion of their income on eating and keeping warm. According to Scope, disabled people are almost three times as likely to live in poverty than the rest of the population. That includes any disability benefits they get. Disabled households have to use a lot of their money to run powerful machines to help them live a more normal life. They have to pay more to get to hospital because they cannot generally use public transport. The list of things that cost more for disabled people and their households is incredible. The Government have to take it on board.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and has just brought to my mind the issue of being unable to travel. Some of my constituents cannot travel on buses because of their anxiety issues. They may have panic attacks when they are out; whenever they see a crowd of people they automatically focus on where they are. They panic, and that is why they cannot use public transport. What they need is taxis. Can they afford them? No, they cannot.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows
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The hon. Member is, as usual, absolutely right. Oh, how we missed him last week.

Last week, Scope issued its latest Disability Price Tag report. I was privileged to go to its reception last Thursday, along with the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft). It has always been the case that it costs more just to live if someone is disabled. In times when the cost of living is rising, however, and with huge inflation, it is even worse. Scope said that for a disabled household it can cost an additional £975 a month to have the same standard of living as non-disabled households. If we account for inflation, that cost rises to £1,122 per month. Not one single person in this Chamber believes that disabled households and people are actually getting that kind of money.

Against that worrying backdrop, the SNP remain deeply concerned about the UK Government’s welfare policies. The cost of living payments in 2022 and 2023 were designed to help families meet rising prices. However, according to Scope, 80% of disabled people said those payments were not enough to meet the increased costs they face. That support is welcome—no one is going to say, “No, thank you”—but one-off payments, such as the £650 petitioned for, are only a temporary fix when permanent solutions are needed. Rather than offering one-off payments to shore up the incomes of struggling families, the Government should reverse the damaging policies that are impacting our most vulnerable.

Legacy benefit claimants during the pandemic did not even get the £20 a week increase. They should have had it, they should have had it restored and it should have been increased in the meantime. In its recent submission to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Human Rights Watch not only gives a damning review of the UK Government’s restrictive social security policies, such as the two-child limit and the failure to reverse the cut to universal credit, but highlights:

“It is worth noting that the £20 weekly increase was never applied to an estimated 2 million people on ‘legacy’ benefits, who were still waiting to transition to the Universal Credit system”.

The Government have to take on board the lives of disabled people. The continual refusal of the UK Government to fix the extensive known problems with the social security system is unacceptable. I know that in the health and disability White Paper, the Government have looked at promising to do things later, but that is not good enough. We need changes now that actually help vulnerable people.

I always get a bit emotional when I speak in these debates and that is a fault of mine, so please forgive me, Sir Robert. I really think that the Government should look at examples from other places. In Scotland, we try really hard with a fixed budget to make life better for our citizens. The Scottish Government run their social security system on the idea of dignity and fairness, and look to deal more on a daily basis with people who have lived experience. I know that the UK Government are now doing that, and I commend the Minister for it, but they really need to do something along the lines of what the Scottish Government have done; a new disability equality strategy is in preparation, and they will keep working with disabled groups to make it worthwhile and to do stuff that really impacts the lives of disabled people. Recently, the Scottish Government also doubled the fuel insecurity fund to £20 million and confirmed another £20 million for 2023-24. They have introduced a new winter heating payment, which replaces the cold weather payment and provides a stable amount every year to help around 400,000 low-income individuals with heating expenses. Even though there was no statutory requirement to do so, they uprated the winter heating payment by 10.1%.

The Scottish Government have a scheme whereby they look at energy efficiency and fuel poverty. It is important that the UK Government do that, because we leak energy across the UK, especially in the parts that do not have the schemes that the Scottish Government have put in place. The Scottish Government have done everything in their limited powers, but every time they mitigate some of the policies that the UK Government impose on us, they have to take the money from somewhere else. The only answer, as far as I, the SNP and almost 50% of the Scottish population are concerned, is independence.

A social tariff for energy is something that we would support, and it is necessary. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, who is no longer in his place, said it might not work, but we have to grasp every opportunity possible to help disabled households, carers and families who are struggling on a daily basis with the cost of living. Politics is about choice and political will. Can we please see better choices and greater political will from the Government? Will they listen to disabled people and their carers and do better? The personal independence payment, for example, is meant to enhance disabled people’s lives. As has been said already, such payments do not even touch the sides. I ask the Minister to talk about this issue and to comment on social tariffs for energy. Can we please also consider that the best solution for disabled people is to spend less money on things such as replacing Trident and to use the money saved for social benefits, so that people with disabilities, their carers and their families can live better and more cheaply?

I do not think that anyone in this room does not agree that things have to be better for the disabled community, and it is up to the current Government to try their very best, to take on board what other countries are doing, to improve lives and to grant the wish of the petitioners, who were very modest in asking for a £650 one-off payment. That will not be the answer going forward; we need solutions.

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Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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Resuming from where I left off, over 8 million pensioner households received an additional £300 on top of their winter fuel payments in 2022-23, and 6 million who were entitled to an extra cost benefit, such as a personal independence payment or an adult disability payment in Scotland, received £150.

The wider package of support for the financial year included the energy price guarantee, which capped fuel bills at £2,500 for average use. Colleagues from across the House will recognise that that support has been extended until next month. The package also included the £400 off domestic electricity bills received by every household in Great Britain, and the council tax reductions for bands A to D in England.

One part of our overall package that I think is particularly important is the household support fund, which we extended twice. Including support for the devolved Administrations in terms of consequential funding, the total has been £1.5 billion since October 2021. It is important discretionary help, which is designed specifically to allow local authorities to work with people in their communities whose particular needs are not necessarily able to be met through the wider structured package of support. This sensible, discretionary support can be provided locally on a case-by-case basis to the people who need it. It is a significant and important part of the support package, which reflects the fact that people’s circumstances are often complicated and do not fit into neat boxes.

I will turn to cost of living support for 2023-24. Again, colleagues will recall the Chancellor setting out in the autumn statement our intentions for the support package for the year ahead. Eight million low-income families on means-tested benefits will get £900. My Department has already delivered 99% of the first cost of living payment of £301 to the 7.3 million households in receipt of a means-tested benefit such as universal credit. That represents payments to a value of £2.2 billion.

The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) suggested that not much has changed since we met last week. However, I am able to provide one update that last Friday, my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Mobility, Youth and Progression laid in Parliament the regulations that will allow us to pay an additional £150 to more than 6.5 million people on an extra cost disability benefit. Those payments will land in people’s bank accounts starting from 20 June. That is important help, and I am pleased that we are now able to give certainty around the timetable. We have also laid regulations that will allow pensioner households to get an additional £300 on top of their annual winter fuel payment this winter, as they did last year.

I recognise that one of the petitions focused specifically on the disability cost of living payment, and arguments about its adequacy. I want to reiterate what I said in the debate last week, because the statistics on this are quite significant. I want to stress that the rationale for each of the cost of living payments is different. The Government believe it is right that the highest amount goes to those on means-tested benefits, given that those on the lowest incomes are most vulnerable to rises in the cost of living. Having said that, we estimate that nearly 60% of individuals who receive an extra cost disability benefit will receive additional support through the means-tested benefit payment. Over 85% will receive either or both of the means-tested and pensioner benefits, which goes in some ways to the heart of the debate.

I assure hon. Members that we are absolutely committed to ensuring that disabled people and people with health conditions receive the support that they need. That is why in 2022-23 we spent nearly £69 billion in real terms on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. We will continue that throughout 2023-24 by uprating disability benefits in line with last September’s CPI inflation figure, as I have set out, meaning that we expect to spend around £78 billion in 2023-24—3.1% of GDP.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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The Minister is setting out very clearly the Government’s support, which we all acknowledge is there, but some of the questions asked by Opposition Members, and indeed by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), were about those who have equipment such as mobility scooters, lifts to get in and out of the bath, pumps and other extra medical costs. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and I also asked about those who have dietary issues. In other words, there is an extra cost factor. Will the Minister please tell us whether the money that he has just spoken about will get to those who need it the most at this time?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I will happily elaborate on those points. A lot of points were raised during the debate that I will respond to directly, but we are of course determined that the support must get to those who need it the most. That underpins the entire ethos behind the package of support that is being provided, and I will come to some of the specifics that have been raised shortly. As I said earlier, by 2027-28 total disability benefit spending is forecast to be over £41 billion higher in real terms compared with 2010-11. Spending on the extra cost disability benefits will alone amount to some £35 billion this year, all paid tax-free in addition to any other support, financial or practical, that disabled individuals may receive.

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), I will happily meet her and the charity to which she referred. I am always happy to meet colleagues. I think that colleagues would say that I am always willing to engage as a Minister, and that I try my best to say yes to as many requests as possible. It is really important to hear the experiences of disabled people and their representative organisations, so that we have a constructive dialogue, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), indicated is important. I completely accept that, and it is reflected in the work that I do, and the engagement that I have week to week. I will happily say yes to that engagement with the hon. Member for Putney. She talked about evaluation of the adequacy of the cost of living payments. I can confirm, as I did in our debate last week, that the Department is planning to do an evaluation relating to the cost of living payments later this year.

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Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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Again, we had a good debate about awareness last week. One of the things I undertook to do was to see what more we could do to increase awareness. That is why having such thorough engagement, including with disabled people and their representative bodies, is key, because we want to ensure the reforms reflect their views, experiences and needs. The awareness piece is fundamental to ensuring that people are aware of the support available to them. With that in mind, as set out in the energy security plan released in March, the Government intend to consult on options for this new approach this summer. We will invite and welcome the public and our stakeholders to use the consultation to feedback on our proposals.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who quantifies or decides what amount of electricity or energy is used by someone with a medical device? Will there be input from the charity and from organisations to agree the figure? I welcome the Minister indicating that that will be the case. Who will agree what the final figure will be?