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5.37 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): These are always good debates in which to take part, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who knows and cares about this subject very deeply. I agreed with many of his later remarks, but I shall avoid the difficulties of the politics for a while. It is always, however, a pleasure to listen to him, as it is to listen to the Front Benchers and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell).

I make two comments based on my time as Minister for Disabled People. Many distinguished colleagues, such as the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), who is sitting on the Government Front Bench now, have followed me into that position. I remember someone asking me to do more as a Minister to ensure that people with disabilities could access polling stations. That happened early on in my time as Minister, and before the meeting I thought, "What's this about? Everybody has the right to vote, you can vote by post, it doesn't really matter if you can't physically go down to the polling station. You've still got the same right to vote. What's the point?" By the end of the meeting, I had got the point: there is a very early conversion for Ministers and Members who are involved with people with disabilities. They realise that, for those with disabilities, one of the most important things is to be able to do the things that everybody else does-without thinking about them, without it being a big deal-and to have the same access to things which everybody else takes for granted.

My second observation is to offer a memory of Nicholas Scott. I know that we are in the heat of battle and that the Secretary of State for Health gets well stuck into such encounters, but if he looks back at some of his previous press releases he may come to see that crass politicking-the phrase that he used-is reflected in them. No doubt it will feature in future press releases, too. Nevertheless, he gave an impression that Opposition Members either had an artificial interest in disability or did not care very much. Well, those who knew Nicholas Scott and worked with him in the House know how unfair that impression is. I remember talking to Nick about the independent living fund, the disability living allowance and other such issues. He said to me: "One of
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the great things about disability issues is that by and large there is a benevolent ratchet. It does not always proceed at the pace those in the disability lobby would like, but it moves inevitably to a position of greater individual choice and the opportunity to exercise more individual power. That is really important for people with disabilities. There is a process whereby we have moved from a position of giving things to people to their then being able to access them entirely of their own accord." I begin my remarks about the motion on that basis.

I do not dispute with Ministers the difficulty of dealing with this matter, nor the issue of quantum. It will be extremely expensive and difficult to manage this for the future-there is no argument about that. It is of course partly about how much money goes in, but it is also about how that money is applied and who has control over it. Serious questions have been asked about precisely what a national care service might mean, how it might be handled locally, and what power there will be for the individual. Those issues are at the heart of our discussions here and the confusion outside that has led so many individuals, including those from disability organisations, to raise the concerns that they have. No matter what politicians may have added in trying to develop the policy in one way or another, those fears are genuine and worrying. I will turn in a moment to some of the things we have heard today as supposed clarifications of the policy.

Let me quote from a letter from one of my constituents. It was produced at the time when the policy had been announced in the Green Paper and people were not sure where it was going, and it reflects a concern that we now know is met because existing benefit holders will not be affected. Nevertheless, it might just as well have been written today by somebody anticipating what the future may hold. I suspect that most of us have similar letters. My constituent wrote:

On one of the websites that discuss these matters, a gentleman called Mick Hall says:

When I spoke today to Yvonne Clark, the excellent chief executive of Carers in Bedfordshire, she reiterated that that fear about loss of control was of major concern to people. We have dealt with that a little bit today, or I think we have, in terms of what the policy is, but I am still not quite sure about that. It is important to know how we have got to where we are, and the Minister who
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winds up will have to clear up the confusion that appeared to exist before half-past 3 and about where we are now.

The Secretary of State almost used the words, "Read my lips-no cash losers." However, that is not what he was saying on 20 November; the quote is included in the excellent pack prepared by the Library. On the same day, Martin Green, chief executive of the English Community Care Association, said this about the Green Paper:

On the same day, the Secretary of State was quoted in The Independent:

that is his view, and he is good at saying so-

If the phrase "Read my lips-no cash losers" was on his mind then and always had been, and if it was never in any doubt, why did he not make it clear to The Independent that there would not be anyone who would be compensated with an "equivalent level of support", because no one would actually lose out? I am not certain that The Independent was contacted to say, "You've got this wrong".

Mr. Dorrell: Even if what the Secretary of State says today is now the Government's position, it deals only with today's benefit recipients. All the letters that my hon. Friend read out are a cogent argument about a policy that affects the next generation independently of today's benefit recipients.

Alistair Burt: My right hon. Friend makes the obvious point, although until today I would maintain that there was still a reasonable element of confusion about exactly who would be affected. I suspect that there probably still is. If what the Secretary of State has announced today was so blindingly obvious, why was it not made clear when the policy was being discussed, just two or three weeks ago? Why have so many people been disturbed about it? It is not simply a question of politicians making something out of it; it could have been squashed at a very early stage, but it was not, and it was not squashed because the Secretary of State had not developed the policy far enough. I submit that what we have extracted from him today was not in his brief this morning.

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), had a similar opportunity to explain what the policy was in his interview with Disability Now. The magazine asked whether older people would be affected adversely if attendance allowance were abolished under a reformed social care system. The Under-Secretary rightly said:

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Again, when the concern was raised there was no suggestion whether that would apply now or in the future. It was left hanging. I suggest that there are real concerns about that matter, so my right hon. and hon. Friends are quite right to have tabled a motion that is widely supported and endorsed by agencies outside.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: Does my hon. Friend feel that had the policy of "no cash losers" been in place this morning, the Government's amendment would have been phrased differently and not included the words

Alistair Burt: I must admit that if I had been the Secretary of State this morning, I would have ensured that "no cash losers" was written in pretty clear terms, so that we would not have had these exchanges about what an equivalent amount of support means. The door was left wide open, and I suspect that it has been closed at a very late stage during the course of the day. However, we may get further information about that later.

There is concern about why the change is being made. We know about the difficulties in the amounts of money involved, but then we come to a point raised in the letter from my constituent and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood. It is how services are provided that matters. One reader of Disability Now wrote:

That concern about the personal element being taken away is widespread, and the fear is that if the Government do not control it, they do not like it.

Neil Bateman, a welfare rights specialist, has written about the discrepancy in the numbers of those who receive social care and those who receive allowances. That can be interpreted in different ways, but he asked:

those allowances

He is picking up on that dilemma. It looks as though there is a gap somewhere, and even from what the Secretary has said today, we are not sure how it is going to be closed.

I shall conclude with one last point. The Minister and the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, asked whether we know where the benefit money is currently applied, which is very important. I maintain that the Department for Work and Pensions does not know, but it ought to before making changes. I say that because of an excellent DWP working paper-working paper 58 of this year-in which a researcher is given this task:

The planned research programme will look at how disability benefits are spent and used, which is precisely the information people need before introducing a Green
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Paper, and certainly before a White Paper. The proposal is for three major studies, which is exactly what colleagues have been discussing today. It states:

That will be supplemented by a

The document goes on to state:

It is intended that two of those surveys will start next year, but for the third, which looks at take-up of DLA and AA,

If the Department acknowledges that it needs and wants information on how those allowances are spent, why do we not have it before working out a new way to subsume them into a benefit? I maintain that this is perhaps not the right time to do that. It is certainly not the right time to worry those who are going to come on to the benefit about its future. That may not be the right way to use it.

I return to how I started, and the letter from my constituent and what Nick Scott said. Giving individual people with disabilities the power to choose gives them the sense that they can do exactly what everyone else can do, without having to make major changes and without being supplicants and dependent on someone else. If a national care service in any way replaces that sense of individual power with the sense that something is being given to people with disabilities, however well intentioned that is, we will be missing something. We will be losing what Nick and the hon. Member for Kingswood have always fought for and what we care about. The Minister could begin to clarify the matter this evening, but I suspect that he will have to go some distance to convince those who are rightly concerned about a possible change for the worse in the way this ratchet has been working for so long.

5.53 pm

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who made a reasoned argument. Of course, I accept none of it, but it was done beautifully.

Care of the elderly was my first love when I completed my nurse training and it has continued for many years, because I believe that a society is judged by the way it treats elderly people and by how we prepare for our lives as we grow older and more dependent. That is what this debate is all about, and I very much welcome it. I am relying not on briefing notes from the Library or from my party, nor am I reading out news releases prepared by the Conservative party for its candidates; rather, I relying on the great good sense of my constituents.

In the later part of the summer, I held a consultation with more than 40 individuals, including people from the caring professions, carers and those who are cared for. It was to their comments on disability that I listened. We came together to discuss the White Paper. It was clear in our conversation that those people were not going crazy about benefits or getting upset or anxious.
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We were having a conversation because the proposals were undergoing consultation. It was a reasonable, adult, mature conversation between a representative of the Government and those who would be most greatly affected by the proposals, and I very much welcomed it. Following our morning's deliberations, we were able to prepare a submission in response to the Green Paper. I hope that our comments will be taken seriously. I am glad that a solution has not already been offered, apart from the assurances, which were given early on-weeks and weeks ago-about the safeguarding of those benefits.

I know that scaremongering is the reason for today's debate, but I am absolutely delighted about it because it has given me the opportunity, as a Member of Parliament, to engage many more people than I thought I would at the beginning of the consultation. I wrote to many people. I have no interest in what happens to me-this is about the future of older people. Whatever happens at the next general election is of no importance compared with what the future may hold for older people. That is why it is important to have this debate without making silly, snidey remarks to each other.

I was interested to hear the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), because the 60th anniversary of the NHS was a great opportunity to revisit the arguments that were had when the then Labour Government were determined to introduce it. In his very reasonable way, he tried to explain why many of the proposals are unaffordable-that was the gist of his contribution. I only hope that we do not listen to that argument. I believe we have a responsibility to step up to the plate and to tackle what I believe is one of the biggest omissions in care today-bringing together health and social care, and ensuring that we adequately help people as they become infirm and those with disabilities.

I welcome the debate, and I am now able to correspond with many more people. They made some quite interesting suggestions-they are not out of briefing notes or anything else. I have been assured that the benefits are certainly no longer under consideration, but people ask me why the Opposition, who have produced a news release for the next general election, say they are.

I take issue with that. We are talking about a matter of great concern, and our constituents rightly tell us to explain to the Government why we do not believe in wrapping up those benefits and why a national care service, which is a fantastic innovation, is a good idea, but the campaigning has gone on long beyond when those reassurances were made. That brings into question how that whole campaign has been conducted. That brings that campaign into disrepute, and I hope that none of my hon. Friends will support the Opposition motion tonight.

Two constituents of mine, who suffer from severe disabilities themselves, run two excellent groups in Crawley. First is Mrs. Carslake, who runs the Jackdaw club; last weekend the whole club went to Butlins at Bognor, where they had an excellent time-using their DLA to get out and about. The people in that club understand that it is this Government who are committed to their care in the future. The second is Mrs. Kay Turner, whom I visited at home following some concerns that she raised. She runs the GEMMS club, which looks after people with neurological conditions. The members have discussed the Green Paper and the national care service proposal.

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