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

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Mr. Boswell: I simply want an opportunity to put it on the record that I have had the opportunity to see some of the work carried out by Schlumberger-Sema in training its staff to do the assessments, with the knowledge and encouragement of the Department. It was, broadly, approached highly professionally—there has been a real effort to do the job properly. As a lay person, I suspect that it is done much better than it used to be; progress is being made. In this sensitive area, the diagnosis is central; it is important for it to be right. That requires a professional and sensitive approach.

Maria Eagle: I thank the hon. Gentleman for sharing his experience with the Committee. I am glad to say that I agree that progress is being made. However, that is not to say that we have reached perfection. We are continuing to try to do so, but we still receive complaints, some of which are valid. All hon. Members will have received them and I hope that they have passed them on to me, because we take them seriously.

I want to deal with some points that have been made. The hon. Member for Northavon asked about specific conditions. He referred to brain injury, Parkinson's and bowel problems and mentioned questions from the Child Poverty Action Group about physically disabled children without stating what the questions were. However, many of those conditions are physical disabilities. If they are severe enough for an individual to meet the eligibility criterion of the benefit, there is no reason why the regulations should affect that individual. The change in the regulations does not prevent people who have severe physical disabilities, and who might have an additional fear and anxiety, from qualifying for lower rate mobility

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component, although many who have written to Committee members have expressed a general fear that that is the case. It is not.

Mr. Webb: I intervene for the last time. For the avoidance of doubt, will the Minister tell the Committee what physical conditions are suffered by the 200 people who, if the regulations became law, would be reassessed as if they came fresh to the system, and would not receive any money? What is wrong with them?

Maria Eagle: They may have a physical or a mental disability that is not so severe as to qualify them for the benefit in the first place, but, on the basis of the decision, they may have a fear and anxiety about going out. Perhaps they have agoraphobia that is not so severe as to qualify them generally, but they have expressed a concern. There will be many individual instances.

Mr. Webb: Such as?

Maria Eagle: For example, prelingually deaf people and blind people who are no longer able to qualify because they have fear and anxiety because of a physical disability. The problems that have been raised with us are based on misunderstandings about what the regulations do. It is not the case that all those people will lose their benefit.

The DLA is subject to the fact that eligibility is on the basis of the effects of the disability—whatever it is—on the requirement of the individual for care or mobility; it is a subjective test. Hon. Members may recall the case of a young lad who had lost his leg and who had his mobility benefit taken away because he adapted so well that he was deemed no longer to need the benefit. That was seen as some kind of nonsense, because he clearly did not have his leg; it had not grown back. The fact was that he had adapted very well to dealing with the fact that he no longer had his leg. Many of us cannot move as fast as some disabled athletes who do not have legs. That emphasised the fact that the benefit is payable to people on the basis of the effect of the disability, not the fact of the disability—the effect that it has on their requirement for care or mobility. That has not changed; it is the nature of the benefit.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the Minister. She has sought to be helpful to the Committee and has given some reassurances. She has just said that the benefit is paid with regard to the effect on the individual. Is not the essence of the concern that we have expressed from the Opposition Benches that somebody may be disabled and accompanied by fear or anxiety as a consequence of that disability? The ensemble is enough to constitute severe disability, which requires help. When the Minister made the point that it is about the effect—whether the individual needs help with mobility—she overlooked the fact that she had already specified that there had to be severe disability, either of a mental or a physical nature, to trigger the benefit in the first place. In a way, although I appreciate that that

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comes from the head legislation, the concern is partly that people with the same degree of problem may be treated differently according to whether the single problem constitutes a severe disability. That is the essence of that concern.

Maria Eagle: There are certainly some physical disabilities—epilepsy may be one in certain circumstances, and head injuries of various kinds that have caused a mental disability. The decision maker has to take all such things into account when deciding whether the eligibility criteria of severe mental or physical disability are met. That will not change.

The hon. Member for Northavon and others have suggested that physically disabled children who are severely disabled will, all of a sudden, not qualify. As with all components of DLA, there is a need for guidance and supervision substantially in excess of that for non-disabled children of the same age, but there is no reason why severely disabled children should not qualify. The change will not impact on that.

I shall try to answer some of the other questions put by hon. Members. The hon. Members for Daventry and for Northavon asked how many people will be affected. It is always difficult to predict what affect a change might have. It is not easy to say what impact this change will have on the number of people succeeding in their claim to DLA. The benefit has not yet reached maturity, so, in a sense, we do not quite know what need is out there.

The primary reason for the change is to make clear to our decision makers where they ought to be pitching their decisions. We believe that only a small number of people will be affected annually. A figure has been bandied around, but it is difficult to be 100 per cent. clear on it. We are certainly not talking of the high numbers extrapolated by the hon. Member for Northavon from the evidence given to the SSAC.

The hon. Member for Daventry mentioned the strength of lobbying and spoke of some of the concerns that have been expressed. I hope that I have dealt with some of those. However, I do not accept that we are targeting a small number of vulnerable disabled people as a sort of punishment. We are trying to make sure that our decision makers, who have a difficult job, are able to do so as consistently as possible, and are able to minimise the requirement for appeals. We want things to be as clear as possible in order to ensure that those who think that they may be eligible can be clear about it; we do not want people to be put through the somewhat stressful and lengthy process of making an appeal if they have no chance of success. From a public policy viewpoint, everybody should welcome that. That is the main reason for doing it.

The hon. Gentleman made some points that were raised with him by Capability Scotland. I have seen its briefing paper, which was sent to a number of people; and it was quite rightly passed on to me by several hon. Members, who asked for my comments. The briefing suggests that the effect of these changes would be that

    ''people with visual and/or hearing impairments; epilepsy; severe asthma; heart conditions; bowel and bladder diseases''

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would not be eligible. That is not the case. Some people in that situation—perhaps severely disabled people with conditions such as epilepsy—may prefer to have someone with them when walking outdoors, often for reassurance rather than being necessary to enable them to go out. However, severely disabled people who need supervision or guidance when walking out of doors on unfamiliar routes because of that disability will continue to qualify. People at the severe end of the scale—those with epilepsy or with other specific disabilities—will still qualify, whether or not they suffer from anxiety. We shall not say, ''Well, you're only anxious, so you don't get lower rate mobility.'' I hope that that reassures some hon. Members who have made specific points about specific conditions.

Some hon. Members referred to head injuries. The effect of a head injury may include a mental impairment, in which case the full effects of fear and anxiety as a result of physical disability will be considered by a decision maker. There may be instances at the lower end of people who are found to be ineligible, but that will be on the basis of the statute, not the regulations.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire kindly said that he and his colleagues supported any attempts to prevent abuse of our benefits system. However, I should make it clear that the regulations relate not to abuse but to a lack of clarification in how case law has emerged. We are not here to say that those who claimed on the basis of fear and anxiety are lying or abusing the system; there has been a lack of clarity, and we are simply introducing clarification. Of course, we are as concerned as anybody to ensure that benefits systems are not subject to abuse, but that is not what the regulations are doing. They simply make it clear to people who may be eligible and to decision makers where eligibility lies.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield suggested that the regulations might be unnecessary because only a small number would be affected and the current law was adequate to allow the required discretion. After our experience from the Dualeh case, we think that clarification is necessary; we would not have laid the regulations if that were not the case. Although I understand his point of view, I do not agree with it. He referred to the concerns expressed by the SSAC, but the DLAAB said that the changes were necessary. We have our own views, listen to what people say and come to a conclusion.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) raised issues about epilepsy, which I hope that I answered. He also asked about the cost of training. We do not believe that it will be much more than minimal. Our decision makers and those who need to be highly skilled undertake ongoing training programmes in any event. We do not foresee an enormous increase in our training budget resulting from the regulations.

I have said all that I wanted to say. I hope that I have allayed the serious concerns that Opposition Members have expressed. I live in hope that they will not see the need to divide the Committee, although, of course, that is a matter for the hon. Member for Northavon to decide. I am glad that I have had the opportunity to

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clarify some of the misunderstandings that have arisen from the regulations and explain more fully what the Government are trying to achieve and why.

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