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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:25 pm ar 16 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Llafur 1:25, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, it is a great pleasure and privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester. She has fought her corner on disability issues for so many years, and it is no surprise to hear her focusing on PIP and the need for medical assessment. I am very grateful to my noble friend for introducing the debate in the way that she did, which was comprehensive, passionate and measured at the same time.

This has been an excellent debate, and I have learned a huge amount. I am not going to repeat some of the things I intended to say. The Government strike me as being very hyperactive suddenly about disability. The problem is that anything with the term “modernisation” in the title strikes the fear of God into me, because, basically, we know that modernisation means greater cuts, more difficult assessments and a narrower gate to go through. We have to be extremely careful in our response, because clearly there is so much that needs changing—goodness knows that we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, about the enormous scope of the things that need to be done.

One of the things that has struck me this morning, and in reading the White Paper and Green Paper, is the gap between what is being proposed and the reality of people’s lives on a day-to-day basis, when every encounter is a struggle. We are not even taking account of the impact of cost of living increases on the ability to live a decent life if you are disabled. The Trussell Trust has been measuring the increasing dependence of disabled people on food banks, for example. We know how difficult it is to find and keep a personal assistant; not only are they scarce but the effort that goes into having to employ them is enormous. These are things that can be simplified. It seems to me that the Government have taken a stiff broom to the wrong end of the problem. What we should be doing is just the sort of thing that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, talked about—that is, making employer contracts more robust and requiring much more changes by way of specialist support being available for people looking for work and so on.

I have a question for the Minister. Why did the Government not involve experts by experience in the design of the White Paper? They are the people who know what it takes to change things effectively, and cost-effectively as well. It is pretty outrageous that they have had to go to law to make their case about not being included. It did not improve the situation as the other White Papers came forward.

I want to raise two specific challenges which are having an effect on the ability of people to seek and keep work. They are about the people who look after disabled people. Obviously, one of the outstanding issues in recent years has been the collapse of mental health services for young people and children, but compounding that is another disaster, which is less visible but really bears down on educational opportunity.

I know that school transport for disabled children is not, strictly speaking, within the Minister’s brief, but he has a colleague who is responsible for it, and I would be very grateful if he could act as a messenger in this respect. It is no secret that transport for disabled children to go to school is reaching breaking point in many local authorities. There has been an increase in the number of children who are eligible, I believe, but there have also been huge cuts in local authority budgets. Appeals are mounting up, increasing numbers are frustrated, parents are scared and children are bewildered.

I want to give the Minister one example, and I declare an interest because the parents are known to me. Their child is 16, and she has been moved to an FE college appropriate for her age and condition. It takes her working parents three to four hours a day, driving back and forth twice a day. Previously they were able to access a taxi, which was free, with a carer. That has been withdrawn. Two appeals have failed. The child has, among other chronic conditions, epilepsy, and so she cannot travel alone.

The parents, in this case, are self-employed. They are distinguished artists who work to commission, so they cannot make up the time lost during the day because they have to care for the child, who requires intensive care when she is at home. She has become increasingly frustrated and violent towards them because she cannot go to school, which she loves and where she thrives.

What is going to happen to those parents and the child? They have no other family to support them. They are both at risk of losing not only their income but their health. How will the child be able to remain in school at all? What will be her future? This is not an isolated case; I am sure many other noble Lords will know of such cases. I have one question here. There seems to be a tendency towards discriminating against self-employed parents because their work is seen as less predictable and less guaranteed. Will the Minister ask his colleague to look at that point?

My final topic is the problem of carers who are in receipt of carer’s allowance but are finding that, mostly inadvertently, they have worked too many hours and are therefore having to pay back some of that allowance. In our Select Committee report, A Gloriously Normal Life, we showed how interdependent carers were with the people they cared for—if you harm one then you harm the other. We catalogued the many different ways in which unpaid carers were suffering from invisibility. We asked the Government to look again at the carer’s allowance—at a princely £81.90 a week, it is the lowest benefit available—and at the hours and conditions of employment.

The Government rejected those recommendations, and things have got worse. All the evidence suggests that the health of unpaid carers is getting worse, and they have little access to information. That bears down on the point I want to make. Carers who have managed to hang on to a part-time job are desperate to maintain their links with work and with normality. They are allowed to earn up to £151 a week—13 hours at the minimum wage. To add insult to injury, thousands of carers are now being pursued by the DWP for breaching the income threshold and are being criminalised. Let me explain why that is so unfair.

The DWP has an IT system that flags up when a carer’s income breaches a threshold but fails to trigger action, so that they know and can pay back their debt as soon as possible. Debts pile up. In 2022-23, 26,000 carers were asked to repay sums relating to earning breaches. Some of the sums were tiny, at £1.50, while 800 people owed between £5,000 and £20,000 and 36 people owed over £20,000. Carers have told me they cannot understand why the DWP has not been notifying carers of overpayments in a timely manner. It is very difficult to get hold of the DWP about the carer’s allowance, so they have to sort out these mistakes themselves. The impact is devastating. Many carers are now thinking of giving up their carer’s allowance because it is too risky. It is a very serious situation.

One carer says:

“This is an additional stress you choose to go without on an already stressful life. We are neither heroes or scroungers but people who care and who are doing a complex job we have no training or experience of and very little support for”.

I ask the Minister to consider with his colleagues whether the whole system should be paused so it can be reviewed at this point.