House of Lords rejects Lady Grey-Thompson’s proposal for pilot scheme before disability allowance cuts are introduced
The government fought off a fresh challenge to its controversial welfare reform bill on Tuesday night, when peers rejected a proposal to delay the full introduction of slashed new disability payments after ministers offered concessions.
As the cabinet hardened its tactics by agreeing to overturn a series of defeats in the House of Lords last week, a cross-party group of peers failed to introduce a pilot scheme before a new regime for disability allowances can be fully introduced.
Peers voted by 229 to 213, a government majority of 16, to reject an amendment tabled by Lady Grey-Thompson, one of Britain’s most successful disabled athletes, after the government warned her plan would cost £1.4bn. The government is planning to replace the working age disability living allowance (DLA) with a new personal independent payment (PIP) which will involve a more rigorous assessment system. The government aims to cut costs by 20%.
Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, promised to test the operational processes of the new payment system. He said the government would hold two biennial independent reviews in the first four years of the new PIP system. The failure to amend the bill
is likely to embolden the cabinet which agreed at its weekly meeting on Monday to overturn the triple defeat it suffered last Wednesday, when peers rejected plans on proposed benefit cuts in the welfare reform bill. Only two Liberal Democrat peers rebelled on Tuesday.
Lib Dem cabinet ministers agreed with their Tory colleagues to overturn the amendments when the bill returns to the Commons. Ministers are planning to call for the Commons speaker, John Bercow, to grant the bill financial privilege, which would prevent the lords from delaying it.
The prime minister’s spokesman said of the cabinet meeting: “There was some discussion about the passage of bills in the Lords and the various amendments that went through in the Lords last week and the government’s intention to reverse those and stick to our plans. There wasn’t a discussion of this evening’s debate. … We will reverse those amendments.”
The government made clear its determination to fight off challenges to the welfare reform bill, even from disabled peers, when Freud warned of the high costs of the Grey-Thompson scheme. He said: “If we do it that way, it would push back the implementation of the benefit. Our estimate is that the loss is £1.4bn of savings over the reassessment window. Clearly that needs to be found somewhere else. That is an assessment based on the delays we anticipate from this amendment which would have the effect of delaying the whole process.”
The minister added that Labour’s support for the amendment meant that it now refused to endorse £5.2bn of welfare cuts. This prompted a furious response from Lady Hollis of Heigham, the former Labour welfare minister, who said: “I am sorry to see a minister, whose integrity and whose respect of evidence has been apparent to the whole house, go back into that box-ticking, false assumption that there are no political choices available to this House. There are plenty of political choices, from freezing council tax to looking at pension tax relief. It is not clear to me that the economic growth of this country depends on taking DLA away from some of the most disabled people in this country.”
Grey-Thompson said it was important to introduce a pilot scheme because of deep concerns about the impact of the reforms. The athlete, who won 11 Paralympic gold medals, said: “There is huge concern about the effect of DLA reform. The thresholds for the new benefit were only announced yesterday [Monday]. The modelling suggests that the second draft would produce a 2015-16 caseload of 1.7 million people receiving PIP. Without introducing a new benefit, we would expect the number of 16-64-year-olds claiming DLA in 2015-16 to be 2.2 million. That is a reduction of half a million people who will not receive any help with the cost of disability who would have been receiving DLA.
“I just don’t believe there has been time to analyse who will lose out … with the threshold only being published yesterday it is impossible to look in detail at who will lose out. Without it, it is almost impossible to have an informed debate about this part of the bill.
“So why an independent review and trial period? Some early analysis has suggested that one of the groups who may lose out would be those with mental health conditions who currently receive the lower rate of mobility. Many people with a mental health condition find it impossible to use public transport. They frequently use their DLA to pay for taxis. If they are unable to get out it is likely to make them more socially excluded and push them further from the job market. This is just one possible unintended consequence. there needs to be careful scrutiny of who will be affected by these changes.”
Lord Low of Dalston, the vice-president of the Royal National Institute for the Blind, who read his speech from braille and who receives DLA, said: “This amendment is every bit as important as those we passed last week. People are looking to us to ameliorate the worst excesses of this welfare reform bill. Though it has some very sensible and progressive things at its core, in the shape of the universal credit, nevertheless it goes too far to most people’s consciences in the way in which it takes vital support away from some of the most needy in our society.”
Lord Newton of Braintree, who served as social security secretary under Margaret Thatcher and John Major and who introduced DLA in the early 1990s, strongly defended the government’s reforms. “If somebody had told me 20 years ago that that structure was to be seen as anything near as settled a state for nearly 20 years I would have been surprised. There were obvious ways with which it could be developed and carried forward to build on what we managed to achieve That is what the government are now seeking to do. I am not sure it is right now to try to slow that process down by yet another review.”
Grey-Thompson had earlier withdrawn a separate amendment to give a role to an individual’s GP when they undergo PIP assessments.
Grey-Thompson said: “The healthcare professional doing the assessment only sees the claimant for a relatively short time on one day which may well be a good day. They are unlikely to be a specialist in the condition and so know the likely effects and how they vary and will not have access to all the medical records and the tests which have been done establishing the level of seriousness of that condition.”
Lady Browning, who was briefly a Tory home office minister last year, made a strong plea for the assessment system to take account of different forms of disability. Browning, who stood down from William Hague’s frontbench team in 1998 to care for her autistic son, said: “Because the spectrum, particularly on the more able end, includes people who may be very articulate, on a good day it may be quite difficult to actually see that this is a communication disorder. On the other hand, you could have an assessment where, with the benefit of somebody in support in the same room, the person on the autistic spectrum may actually have some difficulty answering any question themselves as they struggle to put the words together or to make contact with the person or to answer the questions.
“I would encourage [Lord Freud] in terms of this particular group to be aware of the variation in the way they present. However confident they appear or not, this will inevitably be a very stressful situation for them to be in a room answering questions from somebody they are unfamiliar with. [We need] to make absolutely that the people doing these assessments haven’t just mugged up in some book on what autism is, or any other disability, but really are people who understand and have a working knowledge of the disciplines on which they are assessing people.”