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

Liz Twist Excerpts
Monday 22nd May 2023

(1 year ago)

Westminster Hall
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Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard
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I share the hon. Lady’s view about the reality that her constituents, and indeed mine, are facing. I share some of her criticisms of the energy companies themselves. The Retail Energy Code Company is trying to provide an answer, which I hope the energy companies will listen to and I hope might just persuade her that it is worth a second look, but I do not know. Time will tell, perhaps.

When coming up with proposals for the disability sector, many charities emphasise the broadness of eligibility and auto-enrolment. That is entirely logical and sensible for them to do. They have learned from the reality of the priority services register. In my constituency, I find that the people who really ought to be on that register are the least likely to be on it, so charities are right to be concerned about whether some sort of voluntary enrolment would actually get to where we want it to go. At the same time, they are missing out the potential for a more tailored scheme, which goes back to my earlier point. Everybody’s energy costs are going to be different, and one-off payments do not necessarily meet that challenge.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
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The hon. Gentleman is making a very thoughtful speech about a complex issue. Does he accept that having some money, while imperfect, has to be preferable to being left without that amount of money?

Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard
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Something is better than nothing. However, part of the art of speech making is building an argument, as I hope the hon. Lady understands. I have not yet culminated my argument in what I think we should do. By all means, she can agree or disagree with my critique of what is being proposed, but I am about to come on to what I think should be done, which I hope might just persuade her yet again.

Mr Mower looked at what is being done in the Australian states. They have gone into great detail on this topic, looking at all the different forms of medical equipment that people are using and their energy intensity. Each piece of equipment has a different energy consumption rate. It cannot just be measured by minutes or hours; some of them are more energy intensive than others. Australian states have done calculations enabling them to oblige energy firms to discount the energy at the point of consumption. There is then no need to request a rebate from an energy company, or some supplementary top-up, because it occurs at the point of consumption of that energy. That helps to solve the problem of how we support those with energy-intensive equipment needs. However, I agree it does not meet the needs of those who have to heat their properties generally for their own health benefits.

The hon. Member for Battersea briefly mentioned the issue of the warm home prescription, which the Energy Systems Catapult has been introducing. It has had a limited roll-out in Gloucestershire, and I think it is now operating in four areas as a pilot. It has great potential, but where I issue caution is that we need to understand, if we do not already, whether it is actually saving the NHS money. The idea is that a social prescriber looks at a person’s energy consumption, the insulation in their home and their energy needs, and works out whether a form of prescription to help with energy prices is a way of forestalling more expensive treatment for more severe health conditions at some future date. That is quite hard to capture in a short period of time because we have not seen the long-term consequences yet, but that measure seems positive to me. It would deal with the issue of people needing to warm their homes over a longer period of time, so it is a twin-track approach.

I have tried to put Mr Mower’s report into my own words and not read it out verbatim, because that would be a boring way to make a speech. In his conclusion, he said that the electricity costs of these consumers—in other words, those who rely upon equipment—would best be met through a scheme that can tailor support to the needs of each eligible consumer, rather than a policy targeted at a wider range of vulnerable consumers, so that they can have full confidence that the costs of the relevant equipment are being met. To me, that is the key word in this debate: confidence. The hon. Member for Battersea mentioned it, as did other Members in interventions. Individuals with severe health conditions who do not continue to heat their properties and run their equipment are running the risk of disadvantageous health outcomes because they do not have the confidence that they will be able to afford their bills.

I urge the Minister, and the Minister for Energy Consumers and Affordability, who was present briefly, to really engage with the Retail Energy Code Company and look at the matter in great detail to bring together the NHS and the Social Prescribing Network—I know that social prescribing is the answer to everything in life these days, but in this case it might just be—and try to work out with Ofgem whether the twin-track approach could solve the problem that we are seeking to solve.

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Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you as Chair, Sir Robert. I thank the Petitions Committee for arranging this important debate.

We know that many people are struggling at the moment as a result of the cost of living crisis generally, but, as we have heard, disabled people are struggling more than most, and households that include someone with a disability spend more on food, face higher energy costs and are more likely to have a lower household income. It was really interesting to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) talk about a survey that showed some tragic results for those experiencing such conditions, and I thank her for referring to that.

As we have heard, analysis by the disability charity Scope suggests that, on average, disabled households need an additional £975 a month to have the same standard of living as non-disabled households. That rises to over £1,100 if we account for this year’s inflation. 

The figures account for disability payments such as PIP, which are designed to help address those costs. For some families, the costs have a shocking impact. Disabled people are almost three times as likely to live in material deprivation than the rest of the population, and 80% of households with a disabled person say that Government cost of living payments are just not enough to meet the increased costs that they face. Families might accrue costs due to expensive dietary requirements, running medical equipment or being unable to cut back on their heating because they need a higher temperature. Low temperatures can have adverse effects on the vulnerable.

This time last year, many of us would have attended a Marie Curie drop-in. Marie Curie published its report “Dying in Poverty” a year ago, which presented its research on the impact of poverty on terminal illness. At the drop-in, I and others met a lady with a terminal cancer diagnosis and her husband. They had a water meter and, without me asking, they said that they were running up huge costs because of the need to do constant washing in order to limit the risk of infection. What struck me from that meeting was how little is known about the help that is available for people through water companies and other initiatives. It is not enough to meet the general need, which is a tiny proportion in that case. Some people have much more significant costs than others.

The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) spoke about social tariffs. I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on water, and we have been looking at the proposals for a social tariff for water and the impact of that. We have been working with the Consumer Council for Water. I am very disappointed to hear that the Government have dropped the idea of pursuing that social tariff, as was revealed in answer to a written parliamentary question I submitted recently. I acknowledge some of the difficulties the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but I think we need to look at something that supports people much more generally. He also talked about proposals for an energy social tariff and whether that is the best idea. I genuinely think he made a thoughtful argument about that, but we need to look very closely at how people—including disabled people, who we are focusing on today—can be supported.

The rising cost of energy is affecting disabled families the most severely. One respondent to a Guardian survey said he had stopped using a CPAP machine during the day, even when he was short of breath, in order to limit his bills. Ventilators, suction pumps, feed pumps, power chairs and electric beds are all pieces of equipment that cost money to run, and families are going days without heating or showering so that they can keep this equipment turned on. It seems that there is very little understanding of what may be covered. Assurances can be given that these costs will be covered, but in many cases they are not. We need to make sure that support is available.

For some families the extra costs are coming at a time when they are desperately trying to make memories with their loved ones who have terminal illnesses. Marie Curie has reported that the costs of energy bills can rise by as much as 75% in the aftermath of a diagnosis. It has also found that 90,000 people die in poverty every year. During Department for Work and Pensions questions in December, I raised with the Minister the issue of changes to the warm home discount scheme, which removed eligibility from 300,000 disabled people, leaving many families afraid of being unable to meet their heightened energy costs.

For goodness’ sake, £150 will not address the problem anyway, but it is better to have that money than to lose it as part of the system. That happened quite quietly and was little known about at the time, and it is important that we address it. The changes suggest that the Government were not willing to address the disability price tag. Excluding disabled households from the bulk of cost of living support, unless they are on means-tested benefits, forces them to absorb the additional costs themselves by emptying their pockets.

The £150 payment is equivalent to just £2.88 per week across the year. It does not do enough to reduce the costs down to the already staggering costs faced by households that do not have a member with a disability. Why should these families be worse off because one of them lives with a disability? This is a disparity that Government policy is failing to address.

Speaking in these general terms is great for drawing attention to the broader issues, but the reality is that in our constituencies each of us as MPs meets and supports people with disabilities who face exactly these problems—that is before we start talking about PIP assessments and eligibility and the support people need there. These are real people: individuals and families living in our constituencies. They are like those I and other hon. Members meet and the people we met at the Marie Curie drop-in. They deserve not to have the additional worry of struggling to meet their energy bills or of being cold and further damaging their health.

I hope having the debate will cause the Government to look again at the issue and reconsider the support they are providing. I hope they will ask themselves how much less money and resources they are comfortable with households with people with disabilities having compared to other families. Unless the answer is tens of thousands of pounds a year, there is still a huge amount of work for the Government to do. I believe people need much more support and there is much work to do.

Robert Syms Portrait Sir Robert Syms (in the Chair)
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I call Amy Callaghan. You can speak seated if you would be more comfortable.

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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.

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Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I will ask the Minister who was here earlier to provide an update to the hon. Lady on that particular point. Given that it relates to interaction with energy companies, it is important that the Minister is given the opportunity to comment on the point in question.

Before I move on to energy costs, I want to touch on the point that the  hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) made about water schemes. Again, I am happy to take that away. I recognise that, as she said, water companies provide support, and I am happy to raise that issue with ministerial colleagues with a direct responsibility for water policy.

The hon. Lady mentioned the work that Marie Curie is doing and spoke about people at the end of life. I want to put on the record my thanks to Marie Curie for its brilliant advocacy and campaigning, and the work it did with my Department and officials at the DWP to help us get the changes to the special rules for end of life right. That will be a significant help to many families across the country; they should be spending that time with their loved ones—their family and friends—not worrying about their finances. The changes to the special rules for end of life, which allow the fast-tracked help to be provided for longer, are important. Members of this House and the charitable sector campaigned for them—I am proud that we introduced them collaboratively —and gave us fantastic insight, guidance and support to help us get that policy right. The changes were introduced a few weeks ago, and will be helping families across the country today. The second tranche of benefits is now subject to the changes. I am pleased to say that when those applications come in, they are dealt with very quickly—within a matter of days—so that people can get that important help. I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight that.

Looking to the future, the Government recognise that we need to consider energy affordability in the longer term, and as part of that we intend to move away from universal energy bill support and towards better targeted support for those most in need. As set out in the 2022 autumn statement, we are working with consumer groups, charities and industry to explore possible options for a new approach to consumer protection, such as a social tariff from April 2024 onwards as part of wider retail market reforms. There is ongoing engagement between Ministers and disabled people’s organisations and representative groups to understand what that might look like. We will ensure those views are included as we do that work.

That work includes thorough engagement with disability organisations to consider the costs for people with medical equipment and assess the potential need for specific support for vulnerable and disabled people using energy-intensive medical equipment in the home. That new approach will be aligned with our objectives of delivering a fair deal for consumers, ensuring the energy market is resilient and attractive to investors over the long term, and supporting an efficient and flexible energy system. Any new approach will also need to promote competition within the energy markets and be consistent with our wider objectives of improving energy security and delivering net zero.

We are looking at medical equipment on a cross-Government basis. The Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England are supporting the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero’s review of the energy rebates and refund schemes that are currently available for users of medical equipment at home. They are also supporting the Department’s policy development work in this area, which they plan to publish for low-income, vulnerable energy consumers post April 2024. I understand that there are arrangements in place involving specialised NHS services and integrated care boards, which we will no doubt want to consider carefully as we move forward with the energy reforms I have described.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist
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On the costs for machinery, it seems that there are different understandings of what support is available. Will the work that is currently being done ensure that it is widely known and widely available to people who need it?

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.