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

Robert Syms Excerpts
Monday 22nd May 2023

(1 year ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.