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

Paul Maynard Excerpts
Monday 22nd May 2023

(1 year ago)

Westminster Hall
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Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert, to follow the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) and, indeed, to have a second bite of the cherry in speaking about this topic, given that last Tuesday I could not make it to the debate secured by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). It is always good to have a second coming, I have to say—although in my case perhaps not. We have had an eloquent debate so far.

I am sure that we will hear many numbers in the course of the debate. Two stick out to me. One comes from Kidney Care UK, which cites the average annual extra cost to an individual facing dialysis as £1,918. The second big figure comes from the charity Contact a Family, which works with disabled children. It says that the average cost of the energy needs for the disabled children that the charity works with is £1,596. That covers such matters as pumps, monitors, hoists and electric wheelchairs, all of which are related to an individual’s health condition. That is one type of extra cost that the disabled face in regard to energy needs.

The second type of cost does not really relate to health needs but is a consequence of a person’s disability. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for assistive technology. Many people with profound and severe disabilities, particularly cerebral palsy, rely on computer or some sort of IT aids to engage with the wider world. They are vital to their quality of life. Such aids can be voice recognition software, eyeball-controlled software and so on. All that relies on electricity, which of course costs money as well. Those needs are a consequence of their disability but are not health needs per se.

The third sort of extra cost is that those with any sort of disability need to maintain their home at a higher temperature than might otherwise be the case merely to keep themselves warm. On that point, I give a small plug to my Westminster Hall debate at 4 pm on Wednesday, which is about furniture poverty and affordability. One area that I will focus on is the fact that all too often new tenants move into social housing and find that floor coverings have been removed, and they cannot afford to replace them. They end up with a much less well-insulated property, which for many of them affects their health. Those are the three areas that we need to consider.

Having read the Hansard report of last week’s debate online in preparation for this debate, and listening to questions, I think a consensus is emerging. The phrase “social tariff” crops up time and again, and there is much discussion about the role of personal independence payments and a recognition of the £150 that the Government have made available. There is also a lot of talk about the lump sum of £650, which one of the petitions refers to. There are positives and negatives with all of those, in my view.

I am always interested in how the personal independence payment works. It clearly has an important role to play, and is designed to meet the additional costs that people face due to their disability in their day-to-day lives. There has been a long-term debate over the extent to which it fulfils that goal. The purple pound—the premium that so many people face—is not always reflected in PIP. Whether a non-means tested benefit, which PIP is, is the right avenue to support the energy needs of the most vulnerable in society is a debate worth having. We should not automatically assume that PIP is the answer to every problem. If that is the argument, Members have to justify to me why millionaires should benefit equally to some of my poorest constituents, and why those constituents should not get more intense and focused support.

The second issue is around the social tariff. Social tariffs sound all well and good; everyone thinks they are a wonderful idea. A social tariff has to be paid for, and that subsidy is often taken from other bill payers’ accounts, where it often ends up on a standing charge. What we risk doing by our continual focus on solving every problem with a social tariff is that it then gets put on a standing charge, and there is an ever decreasing circle where more people will see their standing charges go up and then have cause to revert to a social tariff themselves because they cannot afford their bills, thereby increasing the standing charges. In reality, that would not occur, but it is a logical inference. Once again, we cannot keep solving every problem in our energy system and our cost of living crisis by placing them on a standing charge—other ways have to be found.

I accept that the intention behind the £650 payment is a good one. My point is that it is an arbitrary figure. It certainly does not reflect the overall costs experienced by many of the people I just mentioned, which go far above £650. While good, I do not think it is necessary the answer either.

The hon. Member for Battersea briefly made mention of the Retail Energy Code Company, and its report. I am going to give it a bit more of a plug, because I think it is much more exciting than the hon. Member suggested.

Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard
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The hon. Member mentioned the Retail Energy Code Company only briefly, and I wanted to talk a little more about it because the detail in it is actually quite interesting. I am not mocking the hon. Member at all, I just have the time to cover it in more detail, whereas she had more to cover. I urge her not to take offence unnecessarily.

The Retail Energy Code Company advises energy companies on the code of conduct they must adopt towards their customers. Given some of my casework, I am not sure how much the energy companies are listening to it, but that is its role within the energy sector. Andrew Mower, who has been working with it on a set of proposals on how to deal with energy costs for disabled people, has done a superb job in exploring this area and finding some of the flaws in the proposals that have been made in recent months.

In particular, it is worth looking at the NHS schemes that exist at the moment for those on oxygen concentrators and dialysis machines. It is a perfectly good model; I am glad to see the NHS recognising that it has to help people meet energy costs, but it is not universal. It goes back to my old friend the postcode lottery. In addition, the subsidy does not go up when energy prices go up, so people are always playing catch-up. People are paid in arrears, so they have to stump up the cash to pay their bills in the hope that they will get the money back at some future date. That money may not actually reflect the bill they have to pay.

It is interesting how the NHS model, which we think may be the answer to many things, actually causes as many problems as it solves. Similarly, with social tariffs, Mr Mower points out the immense difficulty they have found in the broadband sector when trying to come up with a social tariff that actually works and does not disrupt the market in perverse ways with unintended consequences that could see social tariffs costing more than the one that is available on the market to families now. Social tariffs by themselves are quite difficult to get right and need to be extremely flexible. I am not convinced that Ofgem spending hours each week reinventing what this week’s social tariff should look like every time the energy cap changes is actually the answer either.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)
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The hon. Gentleman is very informed and detailed on this topic so I defer to his superior knowledge, but does he not agree that the Retail Energy Code Company, Ofgem and all those involved in the market are clearly failing the most vulnerable in our society? I have vulnerable and disabled constituents who are turning off their energy just so they can survive, yet the disaster of the structure and the standing charges—which the hon. Gentleman mentioned —means they are no better off, but they are freezing cold.

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.