Social Security (Disability Living Allowance) (Amendment) Regulations 2002

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Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I of course support the Government's attempt to prevent abuse of the social security system. I am sure that all members of the Committee agree that it is right that benefits go only to those who are entitled to them. I am also sure that none of us has any problems with the Government's intentions in that regard. However, it is surprising that the SSAC is so unanimous in its advice to the Government not to proceed down this route. It would be interesting to hear the Minister's response to that.

The regulations would deprive people of benefit because they do not have a specific psychiatric diagnosis. That should concern members of the Committee. You may remember, Miss Begg, along with other members of the Work and Pensions Committee, that members of the Committee and I questioned the chief medical officer and the head of medical services on how psychiatric disorders are handled by the benefits system. The Committee may be surprised to know that the medical services do not employ any psychiatrists at all. They receive outside, but not direct advice.

Other members of the Committee may have been contacted, as I was, by a man who is very concerned about that. He is worried that the assessment mechanism often involves a crude ''tick box'' form using a yes or no approach and he thinks that the medical services' approach relies on function rather than feeling. For example, people are asked to describe their day rather than how their day felt to them. The answers given by people with psychiatric conditions to such questions may be very different, depending on the approach taken, and the differences in those responses may be deeply revealing

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It is puzzling that the regulations do not even tidy up the law in the area that they cover. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) pointed out, there seem to be number of anomalies in that, for example, severe agoraphobia will qualify, but milder agoraphobia will not. Deafness and visual impairment will qualify, whereas schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder will not. There seems to be a range of ways to determine whether people with different conditions qualify.

5 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield): My colleagues have already ably gone over much of the ground, so I shall not repeat their remarks. However, I must make two specific points. We have heard that the SSAC consulted 62 different groups, and the evidence of the opinions that they submitted shows overwhelmingly that the Government's actions are wrong and they should not go ahead with the regulations. We have heard that a wide range of groups presented evidence and opinions, including the Child Poverty Action Group, the Parkinson's Disease Society, Headway, Capability Scotland, the Royal National Institute for the Blind and many others. However, they raised two points that have not been discussed so far.

First, the regulations are unnecessary. The Government argue that they need to clarify the law, but the SSAC said that the amendment is unnecessary, because section 73(1)(d) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 already provides that a person qualifies only if he is so severely disabled physically or mentally that he cannot take advantage of the faculty of walking out of doors on unfamiliar routes.

The RNIB believes that ''cannot'' is a strong enough term, which already excludes those who choose not to walk outdoors through mild anxiety rather than those who cannot walk outdoors because of severe anxiety and fear. The measure, therefore, is unnecessary. It does not clarify and it does not tighten up the regulations, which are already more than adequate in allowing discretion to be exercised to exclude those who should not qualify.

Secondly, it is argued that it would be wrong of the Government to press ahead with the regulations because, rather than clarifying the existing situation, they change legislation and overturn existing case law. The tribunal of social security commissioners has, on a number of occasions, established case law that certain people qualify for the lower rate mobility component on grounds of fear and anxiety. For example, one such ruling says that people suffering from bowel disease have qualified for that payment since 1994. They will now be denied the right to it right because of a measure that, rather than simply clarifying confusion, effectively changes the criteria and the law.

Similarly, the CPAG points out that the proposed new test embodies a change in the conditions of entitlement as set out in section 73(1)(d). Any such change should be made through primary legislation,

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not a statutory instrument. I therefore join my colleagues in urging the Government to think again, take away the regulations, consult more widely and return with other proposals.

5.3 pm

Mr. Prisk: One concern is that the proposal will, as hon. Members have said, hurt some small but very vulnerable groups. My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry pointed out that physically handicapped children will be specifically affected. However, the Committee must bear in mind another such group—epileptics.

In my village in my constituency there is a wonderful centre called St. Elizabeth's, which provides care and support for epileptics. At least half a dozen members of that community are able to join us in our village church, because they are escorted. To put the regulations in context, they could not make that journey each week if they did not have an escort.

One of my worries is the apparent inconsistency on costs. The hon. Member for Northavon rightly pointed out the wide variation, and therefore the apparent number of people affected. The figure of £35 million in the original evidence to the SSAC has been spoken of, although, to be fair to the Government, it is referred to as speculative. However, the hon. Gentleman concurred with me that the Government have made no attempt to explain it. Their only response to the SSAC was that £35 million a year was based on the 1996-97 disabilities survey, the follow-up to the family resources survey. I am new to the subject, but that explanation leaves me no clearer.

From thumbing through the information, it seems that there is no other attempt to explain the basis for that figure. If I missed it, I am sure that the Minister will highlight it for us. The only real cases on which figures are based seem to be those between October 2000 and June 2001. There were approximately 200 cases in that period involving £150,000 per annum, if the figures are extrapolated over a full year. Even if we double that to £300,000 a year because of the developing results in case law, that seems to be a peculiar reason to drive the regulations forward, given the overall departmental scheme of a budget of £115 billion. There may be other reasons, and the Minister may choose to explain them to the Committee.

I want to consider a couple of practical matters. The Government accept, and set out in their comments to the SSAC, that better and fuller guidance is needed. However, I am not clear as to the costs of the training cited in the document. As I understand it, there must be a proper regulatory impact assessment of the costs. Perhaps the Minister will clarify them.

There is also concern—not administrative, but more to do with how individuals are affected—about how the Government will determine the causal link between fear and anxiety and mental disability. There seems to be a lack of an explanation as to how that will work. I hope that the Minister responds on that and other issues.

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Like other members of the Committee, my concern is that there seems to be a rush to change. No one doubts the need for prompt action if there is any evidence of an attempt to breach the regulations or abuse the system, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) pointed out. However, the Government seem determined to proceed in the face of 62 groups that advised the advisory committee to say no and the advisory committee's determination not to proceed.

I have a few questions to which I hope the Minister responds. What will the regulations mean for epileptics? Will they face removal of their benefits? What is the evidence for the £35 million annual cost? What are the assumptions for the numbers affected? Perhaps most importantly for those who must face the regulations, if they are implemented, what objective test will be used to determine accurately whether fear and anxiety is the direct result of mental disability? Such a question of practicalities—how individuals will be affected—is at the heart of the regulations. I hope that the Minister reconsiders her decision to press ahead with them.

5.9 pm

Maria Eagle: Aside from a brief appearance in Westminster Hall, this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. It is a great pleasure to have you to keep us in line, and you seem to be doing a good job so far.

I want to acknowledge the concerns expressed by the many Opposition Members who have spoken about the regulations. I welcome the opportunity that the debate gives me to deal with some of the misconceptions flying around, and hope to deal with all the points raised. I am an optimist, and I hope that I will have persuaded everyone by the time I have finished. We shall have to see whether that is so at the end of the debate, but I intend to do my utmost to deal with the points raised because they are serious.

DLA has some strange quirks that are not like those of any other benefit, so I hope that members of the Committee who are familiar with it and how it works will forgive me if I give a potted lesson in its workings and the relevant criteria. That will inform some of my later comments on why we have proposed the regulations.

The aim of the regulations is to clarify the circumstances in which fear and anxiety experienced by severely disabled people, when walking alone and outdoors on unfamiliar routes, can be taken into account for the lower rate mobility component of DLA. Hon. Members should take on trust at the moment—I hope to explain it later—that the regulations do not dismantle the lower rate mobility component. They do not tighten the gateways to the component, affect most claims to the component or affect the higher rate mobility component.

The mobility component is paid as a contribution towards the extra costs of disability faced by severely disabled people who are physically unable or almost unable to walk, or who can walk but need guidance or

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supervision from another person when walking outdoors on unfamiliar routes. Those are the eligibility criteria for which the component is payable.

As several hon. Members have pointed out with reference to the relevant provisions, the conditions of entitlement to the mobility component are set out in the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992. That Act has regulation-making powers to clarify those conditions by specifying circumstances in which they are or are not taken to be satisfied. That clarification is done from time to time. As people know, there are two rates of mobility component, aimed at people whose disabilities have different effects. The higher rate, to which the regulations do not apply, of £39.30 a week is for people so seriously disabled that they are unable or virtually unable to walk. The lower rate—currently £14.90 a week, as the hon. Member for Northavon rightly said—is for people who can walk, but because of severe mental or physical disability need guidance or supervision from another person when walking outdoors on unfamiliar routes.

I want to remind hon. Members that section 73(1) of the 1992 Act, the provision with which we are concerned and which is to be amended by the statutory instrument, states:

    ''a person shall be entitled to the mobility component of a disability living allowance for any period in which he is over the''

relevant age

    ''and throughout which . . . (d) he is able to walk but is so severely disabled physically or mentally that, disregarding any ability he may have to use routes which are familiar to him on his own, he cannot take advantage of the faculty out of doors without guidance or supervision from another person most of the time.''

He must be severely disabled, physically or mentally, to be considered for the component. There is no change in eligibility. Anyone who has the lower rate mobility component must be severely mentally or physically disabled. A person does not have to be both, but one or the other. The regulations do not change that.

We have introduced the regulations to clarify the circumstances in which fear and anxiety experienced by severely disabled people when walking outdoors on unfamiliar routes, without guidance or supervision from another person, can count for entitlement. The clarification has been made necessary by a decision of the tribunal of social security commissioners in June 2000. There are somewhat inconsistent and different views on the subject, and that decision—the Dualeh decision—held against decisions made by other tribunals. The decision was that fear or anxiety of any severity could count for entitlement to the lower rate mobility component, but the decision did not indicate the precise circumstances in which it might do so. That created uncertainty for our decision makers, who have to decide whether a claimant is eligible, which is one of the main reasons why the regulations are necessary. If our decision makers are to make correct decisions, it is important that they have some clarity about how to reach those decisions, and if there is a raft of inconsistent decisions from the tribunal that creates an additional problem.

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