People with Disabilities: Access to Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:42 pm ar 16 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 12:42, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I will concentrate on access to benefits, education to some degree and work for those with disabilities. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, for tabling this debate and noble Lords for the wealth of knowledge that has been spoken in this Chamber in just the opening speeches.

The Government announced a series of reforms in April. They are looking at reforming the fit note processes—used for people to get signed off work on sick pay as well as being evidence for PIP—and to narrow the eligibility for PIP. Regarding the fit note reforms, we oppose the changes. The person best placed to determine someone’s ability to work on the grounds of their health is a medical professional, not some partly trained amateur, a point that was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Browning. It is not the fault of people who are ill or disabled that the Government have massive NHS backlogs; that is what must be tackled. A problem of “pass the buck” exists, with local authorities desperately trying to reduce the cost of social care. We are deeply concerned that the PIP proposals will simply make life harder and push more disabled people into poverty.

There needs to be a fair and independent process and for PIP descriptors to be reassessed in line with decisions made by tribunal judges. There needs to be an awareness of hidden disabilities. We must move on from not recognising mental health matters. I hope that my noble friend Lord Addington will expand on all this. We need to reinstate a form of the Independent Living Fund to help people who need it to live independently in their community and increase the role of local authorities in administering the support to ensure that it is properly responsive to local needs.

Every child, no matter their background, can achieve great things. Urgent action is needed to ensure that all children can access the tailored learning and support that they need. The template for the new EHCP—it is all initials nowadays; the education, health and care plan—will not be rolled out until 2025. The Department for Education and Department for Health and Social Care steering group will not complete its work until 2025, and no primary legislation is planned until at least 2025. We are concerned that other proposals in the plan intended to standardise the support available under EHCPs, such as tailored lists of SEND settings in each council area, will detract from the principle that the support that a child receives under an EHCP should be personalised to their needs, not a one-size-fits-all approach in order to cut costs, as the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, said.

Claimants for universal credit are required to undertake either activities relating to preparing for work or job searching to receive universal credit. Disabled people and those with long-term illnesses can apply for an exemption, but, to qualify, a claimant has to go through a work capability assessment. Claimants who are found unable to work are either categorised as belonging to the limited capability for work group—who are deemed able to undertake some work preparing requirements for future work—or the limited capability for work and work-related activity group if they are not thought capable of preparing for work at all.

By being placed in the LCW group, claimants and their partners have lower requirements in relation to preparing for work and they and their partners have a work allowance, which means that they can earn more before their UC payments taper off. By being placed in the LCWRA category—I am sorry for all the initials—claimants are not expected to take part in any work-related activities, have the work allowance and get an additional payment of £390 per month. The test is based on assessing various elements such as cognitive function, mobility et cetera. There is a further backstop test, where someone who fails the test can be exempt if it is considered that doing work-related activity would cause them serious harm.

There have been long-standing complaints that the assessors of the WCA do not fully understand disabled people and their needs and get decisions wrong. Government reforms apparently include short-term proposals to tighten the work capability assessment criteria on the basis that digital technology means more people can access work from home. The intention is to remove the mobility criteria from the WCA. They also intend to severely restrict the serious harm test. I hope that the Minister can address this when he replies.

We do not agree with the proposed changes to the WCA, short-term or long-term. This is not a serious solution to get disabled people into work but clearly just a way of taking vital funds away from people who already have additional costs which they struggle to meet. It is also vastly insulting to disabled people to suggest that they need to be forced to want to work. Most of them want to work.

Many disabled people rely on social care in order to live independently. It is therefore vital that we fix the broken social care system. All the research shows that it is more expensive to be disabled. Personal independence payments are meant to help pay for some of those extra costs. The PIP form is lengthy and complicated to complete. Disabled people say that it is confusing and stressful and can cause health conditions to decline.

There is an incredibly low level of trust between disabled people and DWP assessors. Assessments are often outsourced to people who are not really qualified to deal with them, and lots of mistakes are made. The assessment criteria do not work well for everybody. For example, they do not account for people with relapsing/remitting conditions such as MS or long Covid.

Much needs to be done. We need some reassurance from the Minister—and from the Labour Front Bench, one of whom who might be in his position in a few months—on what the Government are going to do, without kicking this into the long grass. The long grass certainly needs cutting, so that we can help people now, not at some time in the distant future.