§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]11.40 pm
§ Mr. Terry Patchett (Barnsley, East)
I am most grateful for the opportunity of raising this issue on the Floor of the House as there has been burning contention in my constituency and nationwide about the great injustice whereby sufferers under the age of five are denied mobility allowance.
A lot of money has dribbled through the Government's fingers, and many rich people have got richer. The Government had the money and, with a little effort, could have provided for the sad cases in which young couples have disabled children under the age of five but are denied benefit.
In July I asked the Secretary of State if he would bring forward proposals to amend the Social Security Act 1990 to grant disabled under-fives the right to mobility allowance. As expected, the Government announced that they had no plans to do so. I am bitter about that. When reading the document, "The Way Ahead", I noticed that once again those children are denied that benefit.
While I appreciate that this is a national issue, a case in my constituency highlights the seriousness of the problem. Mr. and Mrs. Jow in Bolton on Dearne were blessed with triplets, but unfortunately two of them suffer from cerebral palsy, which denies Mrs. Jow the chance to go out to earn a living to supplement her husband's income as she is a full-time carer for the children. As they suffer from different degrees of the problem, the two children go to separate schools, which creates a transport problem and extra expense. Five or six times each month, they have to go to hospital, and—believe it or not—while there is a guideline of five years of age for benefits, it costs just as much to run a car for a three-year-old as it does for a five-year-old.
I am pleased that in recent months the Government have set a precedent in relation to attendance allowance and have wiped out the age limit there. I am therefore hopeful that the Minister will think carefully about this matter when she responds to my comments.
I do not intend to go on at length as 1 am sure that all hon. Members present, including the Minister, are aware of the problem. It is a crying shame that so many rich people have benefited while other people suffer this terrible financial burden and the country cannot help them out. It is a disgrace that the Government will allow them to live in such hardship when a few pounds could help them out and make a great deal of difference to the quality of their lives.
I have explained the case of the triplets, two of whom are disabled. Mr. and Mrs. Jow have another child—four children in all—and the two invalids should be receiving mobility allowance. They are not the only case in my constituency. I know of at least a dozen similar cases.
I cannot understand the hard and fast stance that the Government have taken on this matter, given that they relented and recognised the problem for attendance allowance. I see no difference with mobility allowance. Nor can I see any difference in the price of petrol to run a three, four or five-year-old kiddie to hospital.
I hope that we can convince the Government that They ought to recognise that this is a problem. To solve it would 1187 not break the bank. It would help many young couples who suffer this heavy financial burden. It is the Government's duty to assist those people.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mrs. Gillian Shephard)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, East (Mr. Patchett) on raising this subject so soon after our return from the summer recess and for the responsible way in which he has put the case. I know that he tried to raise the subject during the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill before the summer recess but was unsuccessful because his name was too far down the list. However, both of us were briefed on that occasion, too.
The hon. Gentleman generously referred to the fact that the Government have made changes in the arrangements for disabled children and for disabled people in general. The Government are very much aware of the difficulties faced by disabled people and by the people who look after them. I am particularly conscious of the problems faced by the parents of severely disabled young children.
I was interested to hear which case the hon. Gentleman would raise to highlight his concern. The problem has concerned him for some time as he has tabled a number of parliamentary questions about it. The case that he raised relates to triplets, two of whom are disabled. The hon. Gentleman raised specifically the question of entitlement to mobility allowance, but he also referred to other areas of disability provision. Therefore, I should like to place mobility allowance in the wider context of the total social security provision that is made for disabled people and their carers.
In the past few months there has been an increase in the amount of help provided for families with disabled children. The social security system offers a network of provision for families with disabled children, in addition to mobility allowance. Extra help is available in the premiums which are paid with the income-related benefits—income support, housing benefit and community charge benefit. Help for carers is given through the invalid care allowance. The main benefit for disabled children, however, is attendance allowance, which provides £37.55 per week for people—children as well as adults—who need attention or supervision both during the day and at night, and £25.05 per week for those with lesser attendance needs.
When attendance allowance was introduced in 1971 the lower age limit was set at the age of two. The Government have been aware of the case that has been made on behalf of families with disabled children—that many handicapped children have additional attendance needs.
§ Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)
The Minister may remember that my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) and I pressed her colleague, the Minister of State, to review the decision that children under the age of two were not, until recently, entitled to attendance allowance. When the Government decided to conduct a review and then to give about 3,000 families entitlement to the £37 attendance allowance for children under the age of two, why did they not also take the opportunity to consider what my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East (Mr. Patchett) has advocated—a review 1188 of the age limit which bars those same familes from entitlement to mobility allowance for young children? That is the nub of this Adjournment debate.
§ Mrs. Shephard
I shall deal later with the distinction between the criteria used for attendance allowance and for mobility allowance. With the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist), I was a member of the Committee which considered these matters in great detail. I am sure that he is as glad as I am that the Government were able to make the change in the attendance allowance. I shall deal later with what the Government believe is the essential difference between the criteria for the two allowances. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that some 3,000 families have gained from the change.
Invalid care allowance may also be payable where a person has given up work to look after a child who is receiving attendance allowance. A family with a very severely disabled baby can qualify for as much as £65 a week extra. If there are two severely disabled babies, they qualify for £65 a week extra and £37.55 for the other baby. At a time when there are many pressing demands on the social security budget, the House will agree that that represents a significant improvement for families with disabled babies.
When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the abolition of the lower age limit for attendance allowance on 25 October last year, he also announced some other changes to the benefit system to help families with disabled children. First, the child's disability premium, which is paid with income support for families with a disabled child, was aligned with the adult rate. That meant an increase from £6.50 to £15.40 a week. It took effect in April and it is estimated that it will help 20,000 families.
A further change that will help families with disabled children came into effect at the beginning of this month. From October, we have introduced a carer's premium of £10 a week into income support for those receiving invalid care allowance. We hope that that will help 30,000 carers. The premiums in income support carry through into the calculations for housing benefit, giving help with rent, and community charge benefit.
I should like to draw the House's attention to the surveys undertaken by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys into disability and its effects on expenditure for families with disabled children. Its findings showed that the extra expenditure as a result of disability was obviously affected by the severity and type of disability, but the relationship was less clear for children than for adults. Children require a certain amount of care and attention, and the amounts of extra expenditure varied little in the lower categories—about £4.55, rising to a peak of an average of £12.53 a week in the highest severity category. The higher rate of attendance allowance is £37.55 a week and the lower rate is £25.05 a week. There is a considerable gap between those figures.
The abolition of the lower age limit for attendance allowance showed that the Government were concerned about the needs of families with young handicapped children. What I wish to say about mobility allowance must be considered in the light of the full range of social security provisions and the improvements that we have made rather than in isolation.
To explain that, it would be helpful to remind the House of the background to mobility allowance, which 1189 was introduced in 1976 as a cash benefit to help severely disabled people with the extra costs that they incur in getting out and about. The Government of the day decided that, in the light of the resources available, the main medical eligibility criteria for the allowance should be inability or virtual inability to walk due to physical disablement. That means, in practical terms, that entitlement to the allowance is based on an assessment of walking ability.
Since mobility allowance was introduced, the lower age limit has remained at the age of five. The choice of the lower age limit is a matter of judgment, in which two important factors must be borne in mind. The first is the walking ability of young children and the second is the deployment of finite resources. All of us are born unable to walk and all healthy children require supervision and guidance for a few years to make use of their walking ability. There is a case, therefore, to place a lower age limit on mobility allowance.
The assessment of walking ability involves difficult judgments. Children acquire walking ability from 10 months upwards, but it may be difficult to pinpoint an age below five at which one could make a simple and dispassionate judgment about walking ability. I quote the words of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) when he was introducing the allowance in a debate in 1975. He said:
very young children are given mobility help whether able-bodied or disabled.The choice of age five represents the judgment of successive Governments on where it is reasonable to draw the line. To reduce the lower age limit—or to abolish it—would cost several million pounds. All decisions to spend money are a matter of competing priorities—more money here means less money to spend elsewhere. The cost of reducing or abolishing the lower age limit for mobility allowance might well be a lower priority for social security spending than some of the other measures that have already been introduced by the Government specifically to help families with young, disabled children.
§ Mr. Nellist
I am grateful for a second opportunity to intervene. Does not the Minister have a sense of déjà vu? She reminded the House that she served on the same Committee as I was on. We got the same arguments about the attendance allowance and the need to wait until two years before one could assess whether a disabled baby would need the additional help of the attendance allowance. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East (Mr. Patchett) has given a family case in his constituency. We are talking about people about whom doctors say that, from an early age, their parents will have many problems in trying to cope. If the children were put into the care of local authorities, or of a hospital, we should be talking not about £30, £50 or £60 a week, but about £150, £200 or £250 a week of the nation's resources to look after them. Cannot the Minister see that this is the same argument as we got on the attendance allowance?
§ Mrs. Shephard
I certainly have a sense of déjà vu. To quote again from the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe, he said:we are trying to spread the finite resources as equally and as well as we can.—[Official Report, 11 June 1975; Vol. 893, c. 503.]1190 I could not put it better than the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East when he says that there is a sense of déjà vu.
§ Mr. Patchett
On assessment, I recognise the Minister's argument to a certain extent. However, surely we are speaking about cases that are confirmed and that require hospital treatment. That means that transport is needed. I thought that the intention of the mobility allowance was to assist couples with the problem of transport. The issue of assessment does not come into it when it can be confirmed, by doctors and from medical evidence, that the cases require hospital treatment and, therefore, transport, which the children would get if they were five years of age. As I said earlier, I do not follow the logic of saying that the cost of petrol for the journey to the hospital is negligible when, if the children were five years of age they would have some assistance. I am arguing about confirmed cases.
§ Mrs. Shephard
I understand that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about these particular cases, as everybody would. However, I have tried to demonstrate that that particular family and others in a similar position are given extra resources to meet the extra needs of those children when they are very young through the attendance allowance and through other help such as income support and invalid care allowance, which I have already outlined. That is the way in which the extra needs are provided for financially through the social security system.
We have, of course, extended the upper age limit for the payment of mobility allowance from 75 to 80—because the oldest recipients were due to reach the original upper limit. The extension was an interim measure introduced while we were considering the findings of the OPCS surveys of disabled people. I do not want to belittle the concern for the family that the hon. Member for Barnsley, East feels, but I must remind him of my earlier quotation from the OPCS survey about the level of extra expenditure for disabled children. I have tried to illustrate the fact that the expenditure that the survey found necessary is far exceeded by what is given through attendance allowance and through the other allowances available through income support.
Let me say something about the other responses to the OPCS surveys and about "The Way Ahead", the basis for the Government's new structure for benefits for disabled people. Mobility and attendance allowance are to be subsumed by the new disability allowance. I believe that I am right in saying that the hon. Member for Barnsley, East has a copy of "The Way Ahead". He will therefore have seen that, while we intend to remove altogether the upper limit of 80 for the payment of mobility allowance when that allowance is incorporated in the disability allowance, we do not have any plans to extend the age limit downwards.
In the past 10 years, we have spent a great deal on developments for disabled people. The proposals that we outlined in "The Way Ahead", along with the changes that we announced last October, will add about £300 million to our expenditure on benefits for the long-term sick and disabled by 1993. We estimate that about 850,000 people will receive extra help.
In addition to the extension of the upper age limit for the mobility allowance from 75 to 80, we further extended the allowance in the changes that we announced last October. We introduced special arrangements from last 1191 April to help deaf-blind people who need to be accompanied when they are out of doors because of their dual handicaps. We have estimated that that change will help about 3,000 people, including quite a large number of children.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)
I greatly appreciate the benefits that are already available to such unfortunate families. But surely the main reason for the debate is this. The two children to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East (Mr. Patchett) referred are aged four. What is the difference between taking two children aged four to hospital and taking two children aged five to hospital? There is none, and some families might find it extremely difficult to purchase a motor vehicle to transport their children without the mobility allowance. If we accept that the mobility allowance is necessary, should not we reduce the lower age limit? I realise that there are financial constraints, but I should have thought that only a small amount would be required to reduce the age from five to two.
§ Mrs. Shephard
I appreciate the concern of the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) who often takes part in debates on disability and who speaks with much knowledge of families with such difficulties.
I had hoped that I had made the position clear. We are faced with a combination of the difficulty of assessing young children for mobility allowance, given that they would anyway need some help in being mobile and the lack of resources. That was stated clearly by the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe when mobility allowance was introduced. I cannot put it better than the right hon. Gentleman, who said that there were two constraints—the difficulty of assessing young children and the question of finite resources.
All the hon. Members who have spoken have given a sympathetic account of their concern for young children with disabilities. I hope that I have tried to express the Government's concern and the ways in which we have tried to help families with disabled children with the undoubted extra expenses that they incur as a result of having disabled children.
§ Mr. McKay
I am sorry. It must be my bifocals.
Surely the Minister's argument about why the age limit cannot be reduced from five falls when we consider that the allowances given to children at the age of three are also given to children aged four, five and six. At five an additional allowance, the mobility allowance, is available. Is the Minister trying to tell us that the assessment arrangements and the ability of people to assess have not changed since 1974?
§ Mrs. Shephard
No, of course I am not saying that. I am saying that perhaps children have not particularly changed since 1974. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the debate that took place at that time and the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe stated then that he thought that school age was about the right age at which to set the mobility allowance.
However, all Opposition Members tonight, including those wearing bifocals, which is obviously a particular handicap in recognising Members on the other side of the House, have demonstrated their sympathy for disabled children. I have tried to explain the network of provision that we are trying to extend through social security to families with a disabled child.
I have explained how the allowances have been brought in, slightly changed and increased. It might be worth while stating that over the past 10 years expenditure on the long-term sick and disabled has risen by £4 billion in real terms. There has been an increase of 98 per cent. in those receiving invalidity benefit; an increase of 77 per cent. in those receiving non-contributory disability benefits; a 200 per cent. increase in those receiving attendance allowance; and a 547 per cent. increase in those receiving mobility allowance.
I recognise that the line that I am taking is a disappointment to the hon. Member for Barnsley, East because I know that he feels strongly about this particular case. I just want to remind him of the improvements that we have been able to make and I thank him again for making such a serious and responsible presentation of his case to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.