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The Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry: My Lords, I wish to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, in his usual characteristically compelling way. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, and the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, have rightly earned a nation-wide reputation as the most respected and knowledgeable champions of disabled people. There are no two people whose honour and integrity I more greatly admire. If they had continued to speak from the green Benches in the other place, I doubt very much whether we would have found ourselves in the mess that we are in today.
One of the most worrying aspects of this episode is the further proof of the executive's ever-increasing stranglehold over parliamentary democracy. The most remarkable point about last week's rebellion in another place was not that so many defied the pressure of the Whips but that so many succumbed to it. I hope I might be forgiven for thinking that, if the Government's supporters had half as much feeling for disabled people as they claim to have for foxes, the offending clauses in this Bill would have been strangled at birth.
If a Conservative government had behaved like this, there would have been outraged protests and demonstrations throughout the land. If the Government persist in restricting and resisting the modest offering of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, they will have every reason to dread the judgment of the ballot box in 2002.
Lord Rix: My Lords, since this Bill was last under discussion in this House, there has been much talk of brokering a compromise on the vexed question of how to reform disability benefits. Scarcely two weeks ago, I signed my name in support of the very proposals which are before us again this afternoon. However, for all the talk of compromise both here and in another place, it is easy to forget that thus far neither House has actually been given an opportunity to accept or to reject these compromises.
Commentators such as Simon Jenkins, who in The Times last Friday urged the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, to accept that it is time to give up, are quite mistaken. The debate may be well rehearsed but the options are only just being laid out before us. Only when this House and another place are given a real choice and are offered a viable alternative to the Government's cuts-led agenda, can we say that true consensus has been reached.
Of course, outside this House, we heard the nonsensical view that to lay down a choice here today somehow challenges the democratic status of the other place. How can this be so when the "Lord Ashley/ Dr Berry" compromise has never been tested in the other place? There are 8.5 million disabled people in the United Kingdom whom noble Lords on the Government Benches--for instance, the noble Lords, Lord Ashley of Stoke and Lord Morris of Manchester--have endeavoured to represent over many years, as have a steadfast number of hereditary Peers from all sides of the House, some now fortuitously restored to us including the noble Earl, Lord Russell, the noble Lords, Lord Addington, Lord
Our postbags are still full of letters from anxious disabled people. We are duty bound to act on these concerns. Why should there be any question over our mandate to attempt sensibly to revise the Bill when fewer than half the Members in another place consented to the Government's own proposals?
Time and again I have stood up in this House and welcomed measures in this Bill which offer more help to young severely disabled people. As president of Mencap, I acknowledge that those who are born with a severe learning disability are likely to be better off under the new dispensation. I do not doubt the Government's commitment to this group and believe they have acted in an exemplary fashion in seeking to improve protection for youngsters in further and higher education and seeking to ensure that the new ONE service really is a service for disabled people. But on incapacity benefit, while I recognise the Government have moved, I do not believe that tightening contribution conditions to three years offers disabled people adequate protection and I do not believe that hitting disabled people living below the poverty line with a means test in order to finance increases for other disabled people is morally justifiable.
As we have heard, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, is advancing a realistic compromise to government proposals. Instead of denying benefit to severely disabled people who have been out of employment for a mere three years, seven years at least guards against penalising those who have made every effort to find suitable work before reconciling themselves to the limitations of their disability, or those who have faced unemployment in difficult economic conditions in advance of the onset of their disability.
As the other proposal stands, as your Lordships have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, means testing incapacity benefit will hit individuals living below the poverty line, and will withdraw benefit with a taper which is harsher than anything imposed on millionaires--some of whom are sitting on your Lordships' Benches--within our tax system. To start reducing benefit instead at £128 per week, and with a taper of 23 pence in the pound, is not generous; it is realistic.
It may be worth reminding the House that one of the Government's new indicators in the first annual poverty audit is a reduction in the number of working age people living in families claiming income support for long periods of time. If incapacity benefit is tightened in the way the Minister proposes, and severe disablement allowance is abolished, the Government will find that increasingly hard to achieve.
Furthermore, the report of the National Policy Forum to this year's Labour Party conference claims to "build upon the platform" of getting more help to the most severely disabled people. Perhaps the Minister can reassure the House today that threats to jeopardise this support are empty.
It also strikes me as extraordinary that, if newspaper reports are true, the Government have threatened to trade welfare reform against Lords reform. We are talking about the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people, many of whom are among the poorest in our society. Decisions about their future should be taken in all conscience and in a climate of utmost seriousness, not on the basis of political calculation.
Despite all the help that the Government have given to people with a learning disability, as well as those affected by SERPS--for which I am most grateful--and despite my high regard for the care and debating skills of the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, should the House divide on this matter I shall have no option than to vote with my conscience to support the fair and balanced compromises of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley. That will then offer Members of another place a genuine alternative to what is currently on offer from the Government. I urge other noble Lords to do the same.
Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I was deeply moved, as I know my noble friend Lord Ashley will have been, by the speech of the noble Duke, the Duke of Buccleuch. As ever, he was most kind and spoke as persuasively as he was brief and eloquent. He will be very deeply missed in all parts of your Lordships' House.
Again, I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Ashley for his constancy and the clarity of his advocacy in moving his amendment. As he and I are reminded by our postbags every day now, their opposition to means testing incapacity benefit and changing the contribution conditions for entitlement have united the major organisations of disabled people as never before.
Neither my noble friend nor I approach this debate with any feeling of personal animus towards those of our colleagues who were content with the Secretary of State's original proposal in the debate in this House on 13th October. Nor is there any animus on our part towards DSS Ministers. Certainly the Secretary of State knows of the warmth and kindliness of my intentions towards him personally. For as Chairman of the Managing Trustees of the Parliamentary
The plea I shall make to him today is that of a committed supporter of this administration. My purpose is not to hurt the Government, but simply to do whatever I can further to improve the Bill in the interests of disabled people and their carers. Much apart from wanting to hurt the Government, I very much want them to succeed and passionately believe that they are more likely to do so if all of us speak with total candour.
Friendship is not friendship without candour and it is as a candid friend that I ask the Government to look again not just at the detail but also the principle involved in the proposed changes to incapacity benefit. The Secretary of State told the BBC last week that, while he had moved on "points of detail" he would not water down the principle on which his proposals were based. But how principled was it to encourage tomorrow's pensioners to save for their retirement today and, at the same time, try to impose on disabled people who have already saved for their retirement, over 30 or more years, a cut in benefit of 50 per cent of any personal pension over £50 or, as is now proposed, £85 a week?
Ministers have spoken in parliamentary debates, as I also have done, of those who will benefit from the Bill. More especially I welcome the help proposed for 20 to 24 year-olds in full-time education. But we cannot ignore the losers under the Bill as drafted, one estimate of whose ultimate number is that it will total 310,000 disabled people.
The Government have now created the Disability Rights Commission for which my Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill first made detailed provision in December 1991. Naturally I am delighted. This and the appointment of Bert Massie to chair the commission have been welcomed all across Parliament. It was, however, Bert Massie, commenting on this Bill in The Times, who put it to the Government that:
Labour Ministers rightly condemn the Major government for their encouragement of unjustified incapacity benefit claims from unemployed people to cut an ever-lengthening dole queue. But the proposals now before Parliament do not dispossess those who allegedly ought not to have the benefit. Instead they make life harder for disabled people who, having paid national insurance for a contributory benefit in good faith over many years while in work, could now lose a substantial part of the amount for which they thought they were insured. Whatever else this might be called, it is not a triumph for high principle. Indeed, the principle involved is no less unwholesome than the
Again, why should we now cut the benefits of people who become unfit for work if they have saved, year by year, for very modest personal pensions at a time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer insists that the economy has never been stronger nor Britain more prosperous?
Most disabled people are appreciative, as I am, of helpful new steps taken in their interests by Ministers all across Whitehall and, like me, they want the Government to succeed. But they say that the proposals on incapacity benefit confuse reform with retreat. They are not resistant to change, for there are many reforms disabled people want urgently to see. They want ministerial preoccupation to be with value as well as cost and disability benefits to be commended to the taxpayer not as acts of compassion, but of enlightened self-interest and moral right.
It was in that spirit that my good and right honourable friend Tom Clarke spoke and voted on the Government's revised proposals in another place. And let us all remember, on this side of the House, that it was Tom Clarke who led for Labour in explaining our policies for disabled people at the general election. In the House of Commons last week, in a speech of high distinction, he kept faith impeccably with what he told the electorate on our behalf. Let us also keep faith today.
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