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Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill

8.56 p.m.

Further consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

Clause 60 [Incapacity benefit: persons incapacitated in youth]:

Lord Ashley of Stoke moved Amendment No. 137:

Page 67, line 38, leave out (“each of").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 141 and 144.

The severe disablement allowance has a noble ancestry. It started life as a provision for a greatly neglected group--housewives. It has become of vital benefit for disabled people who, through no fault of their own, were not able to pay national insurance contributions. It has been a unique benefit, not means tested and paid solely on the grounds of severe disability, and 80 per cent disability is required.

SDA was paid at a lower rate than incapacity benefit. Therefore, many people also needed to claim income support, but 30 per cent did not. Having SDA as a right gave all severely disabled people a valuable income. It gave them dignity and a measure of independence. Ministers may feel that it is justifiable to

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abolish the benefit because 70 per cent can claim income support, which is a higher amount. However, it is utterly wrong to discard the severe disablement allowance until there is provision for all those groups of people who now benefit. I am afraid that is not the Government's current policy.

The Government have made a welcome provision in Clause 60 to allow young people with no chance of work but who have not had the opportunity to make national insurance contributions to gain access to incapacity benefit paid at a higher rate than the SDA. That is very welcome and I congratulate the Government. But apart from the provision for some carers, there is nothing for the other 80 per cent of disabled people who would receive severe disablement allowance. It is remarkable that in today's climate, a Labour Government are planning the removal of such an important disability benefit with no replacement for many people.

My Amendment No. 141 is a compromise amendment. It extends the compassion and logic of the Government's proposals for young disabled people to other small, clearly defined groups who may be disadvantaged by the abolition of the severe disablement allowance.

One group whose case I plan to argue is those people receiving the new disabled person's tax credit but who are in low-paid employment. However, my noble friend Lady Hollis has accepted this without hearing my argument. I am grateful to her for her mind reading. She is obviously psychic. I hope that she will be able to extend that psychic capacity to the other amendments. In the meantime, I am delighted that she has accepted it and I thank her very much indeed.

The other important group who will lose out as a result of the Government's proposals includes those who do not work because they stay at home to look after disabled relatives or children. Of course they are mainly women. Women, women, women: it is always the women who suffer. The Government will provide for carers, but only those carers who have previously worked but have then left work to care for disabled people. They are receiving ICA. However, there are many other carers whom I hope the Government will be able to consider.

The Government claim that the world has changed. They say that now women work and pay national insurance contributions. We know that. Further, they say that benefit should not go to women who have chosen not to build up a contribution record, and that is that. It is true that most women do now work and are therefore eligible for incapacity benefit, having paid national insurance contributions. However, there are 2.4 million women who work but who earn below the national insurance threshold and cannot build up a contribution record. That is real poverty. It is extremely unlikely that this group would have specifically chosen not to earn enough to pay contributions and thus deprive themselves of access to the benefit. They may have childcare or other caring responsibilities, and that is why they have a part-time

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job. My compromise amendment would provide compensation should they become 80 per cent disabled, which is an enormous disability.

If the Government are correct and women now have little need of the severe disablement allowance, the numbers claiming it would have fallen, but they have not. The latest government statistics from the DSS Analytical Services Division for May 1999 show that the number of people claiming SDA has remained consistent over the past two years, 1997 to 1999, having risen gradually from 1995 to 1997.

Once again, this Government are penalising one group of severely disabled people to pay for the improved benefits of another group. On 20th July this year when the House debated the case of disabled women with no contribution record and no access to means-tested benefits, my noble friend Lady Hollis said that she did not believe that disabled women had a prior claim on disability benefits over young people. My noble friend feels that this group of women should make sacrifices to pay for improved benefits for young disabled people. However, such improvements should be paid for by wealthy people or by the general taxpayer.

I wish to conclude by saying that I hope that the Government will feel able to accept my compromise amendment. It would give the higher rate of incapacity benefit to several groups of severely disabled people who deserve it. If the Government accept Amendment No. 141, I shall not seek to press for the deletion of Clause 61, which ends the severe disability allowance. However, if the Government cannot accept my compromise, I shall seek a Division on Amendment No. 144. I beg to move.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, again I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ashley for the force and clarity with which he moved his amendments. As he knows, any debate about the severe disablement allowance--SDA--is of special importance to me because it was one of the four major new benefits for disabled people and their carers introduced in my five years as Minister for Disabled People from 1974 to 1979. They also included the invalid care allowance which was discussed on an earlier amendment.

When official rhetoric about it was in full flood, the boldest claim for this Bill was that, more than 50 years on, it revised and modernised Beveridge. But if Clause 60, as drafted, stays in this Bill we shall see a reversion to one of the ugliest features of Beveridge; namely, the denial of an income support benefit in their own right to disabled married women and others.

Beveridge was revised and modernised by an historic decision of the last Labour government to provide a non-contributory income support benefit as of right to people who, due to severe disability, had never been able to work and pay national insurance contributions. Before that decision they were non-people in terms of statutory income support and it was this that led the late Megan du Boisson and Berit Thornbury to found the Disablement Income Group in the 1960s.

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In a recent letter Berit Thornbury said she was “appalled" by this clause in the Bill. She and many others see it as a weird and cruel “reform" that turns the clock back to 1977 and consigns disabled married women once again to being nonentities in the social security system.

Let me strongly re-emphasise that Clause 60 is in truth not a reform of Beveridge but a return to one of the worst features of the system his report created.

In previous debates I have spoken of those who will benefit from the changes this Bill proposes. I welcomed in particular the help envisaged for 20 to 24 year-olds in full-time education. But today we must also consider the losers. Around one-third of SDA claimants who are not eligible for income support will be the main losers. They include every severely disabled person whose partner works on average more than 24 hours a week.

One of them is a married woman suffering from Guillan-Barre syndrome, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. She is a wheelchair user, now receiving £52.70 a week in severe disablement allowance. Her husband works 40 hours a week. So under Clause 60 she will not be entitled to income support when she loses her SDA. Nor it appears will she be able to claim earnings replacement benefit in her own right.

The Government have stated that they want disabled people to lead a fulfilling life with dignity, but the Citizens' Advice Bureau, commenting on this and other cases, says that,

    “abolishing SDA moves away from rather than towards this goal".

In his “moral crusade" speech at Newham on 18th July the Secretary of State said,

    ““Failing to embrace radical reform would let down people who look to Labour to represent their needs".

I very much hope he will now recognise that many such people will be very badly let down by headlong retreat from the radical reform that created a non-contributory income benefit as of right for severely disabled housewives in the 1970s.

I ask again tonight: what kind of radical reform is it that inflicts gratuitous and unmerited further hardship on severely disabled people? And what kind of moral crusade is it that hurts them at a time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer insists that our economy has never been stronger or more prosperous?

Lord Rix: My Lords, first I must apologise to the House and to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, for not being in my place when he moved Amendment No. 141. I can only claim that the enunciator was a few seconds behind. It is the first time that I have been off since 1942, when I was appearing with Sir Donald Wolfit at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, and unfortunately I was ogling the chorus girls in “Chu-Chin-Chow" at the theatre opposite, the Empire Theatre, Nottingham, at the time and failed to be on my cue in “King Lear". I was severely reprimanded, as I am sure I shall be for tonight's indiscretion.

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I would like to support the noble Lord, however, in seeking to protect disabled carers and disabled low earners. I hope that the Minister in replying will be able to reassure your Lordships that at least some of those the amendment seeks to protect are already or will indeed be protected.

The logic of the Government's position, as I understand it, is that they wish to rule out those who could have worked but chose, for whatever reason, not to work. By that same logic, it would be unfair to exclude those whose caring responsibilities and personal disability prevent work, or who have in fact been working but have had low earnings because of disability. Some are easier to identify than others, but the focus of this amendment is on those who have already been identified and singled out for social security purposes.

I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively to this amendment.

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