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Houses of Lords backs government plans for new disability payments

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e507 (Published 19 January 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e507
  1. Nigel Hawkes
  1. 1London

The government has won a key vote in the House of Lords, defeating attempts to delay the introduction of new disability payments. It is now expected to overturn in the Commons three amendments to the bill passed in the Lords last week, and will seek to have the bill certified as a “money bill” by the Commons speaker, which would prevent the Lords from imposing any further delays.

Baroness Grey-Thompson, who gained fame as a successful disabled athlete, sought to postpone the introduction of a new benefit, personal independent payment (PIP), which will replace the existing disability living allowance. Her amendment would have introduced a pilot scheme to test the working of PIP before full introduction. She said that this was necessary because of uncertainty about who would qualify for the new benefit and who would not.

Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, said that the effect would be to delay the full introduction of the scheme by at least a year and the future savings it is expected to bring. He put the extra cost of this delay at £1.4bn (€1.7bn; $2.1), and sought to win over doubters by promising there would be two reviews, at two year intervals, during the first four years after the bill came into force, and that PIP would be introduced slowly, with only a few thousand claims being assessed per month in the first few months, to enable any difficulties to be ironed out. When the house divided, the coalition won a narrow majority, 229 to 213, to reject the amendment.

The government had already signalled in advance that it was prepared to accept an amendment reducing the qualifying period for PIP from six months to three months, and that the benefit would be extended to those living in care homes, who the government had previously intended to exclude. The aim of the bill, Lord Freud said, was not to cut the present cost of allowances to disabled people, running at £12.6bn a year, but to try to limit future increases by ensuring that the benefit was paid only to those who needed it. Disability Living Allowance, which is worth up to £125 a week, has in many cases been paid to people for life with no periodic checks to see if they still qualify for it.

Ministers have claimed that £600m a year is going to claimants who no longer qualify, though the figure is contested by opponents of the bill. A further £220m is lost through fraud and error, according to the Department of Work and Pensions. Maria Miller, work and pensions minister, said: “We have to make sure the money is getting through to people who need it most. At the moment, we know that isn’t the case.”

An assessment by the Department of Work and Pensions of the payment thresholds for PIP, published for consultation just a day before the Lords debate, estimates that by 2015-16, a total of 1.7 million people will be receiving it. If disability living allowance had remained in force, the numbers would have been 2.2 million. The gap of 500 000 was focused on by critics in the Lords as proof that the government was seeking to save money by denying benefits to many people who would otherwise have received them.

Lord McKenzie of Luton, shadow welfare minister, criticised the late publication of the consultation paper, and said its calculation that 500 000 people would be excluded was “startling”. He said: “Before causing this to happen, the government should be called to account for the impact that this may have on the disabled people who are missing out.”

However, the government won the division, enlisting more support than it managed last week when three amendments were passed on eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA). These had the effect of retaining automatic eligibility for ESA for young disabled people who are unable to work, imposing a two year time limit for claiming ESA rather than the government’s proposed 12 months, and exempting cancer patients from benefit limits. The government will now seek to reverse these changes in the Commons.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e507

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