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Welfare Reform Bill: Peers hear of “terror” and “anxiety” over DLA plans

(14 September 2011)

Many “terrified” disabled people in the UK expect to lose their independence because of measures within the government’s Welfare Reform Bill, disabled peers have told a House of Lords debate.

Five disabled peers described the fear, anxiety and even terror expressed by disabled people about aspects of the bill, particularly proposals to replace disability living allowance (DLA) with a new personal independence payment (PIP).

They were debating the bill for the first time, during its second reading in the Lords.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell, a cross-bencher, said successive governments had provided financial support to enable disabled people to be equal citizens, which “lifted us from being passive recipients of care and welfare to independent people with life opportunities”.

She said: “From my mailbag, it is obvious that many disabled people expect to lose their independence. Do the government believe that returning disabled people to levels of dependence last seen 30 years ago makes good economic sense?”

She said it was “obvious from the PIP proposals so far that the government know very little about independent living”.

And she said the government appeared to have abandoned the method of “co-producing” reform with disabled people’s organisations, returning instead to “old forms of consultation, merely inviting contributions from such organisations rather than working together”.

Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Celia] Thomas said the government’s pledge that PIP would be “better targeted” than DLA was “more than a bit chilling” and “smacks of having a rather crude pecking order of disability, which could mean that people who genuinely need the benefit will be excluded”.

Labour peer Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins said: “DLA is a complex benefit because disability is hugely complex and any reform needs to be done with great awareness of that complexity if it is not to leave disabled people more deprived and impoverished, denying millions the hope of living the independent lives that we have come to expect.”

She said she believed disabled people had “every reason to fear this bill”, as they would bear a “disproportionate amount of the cuts”, while the government was proposing no “mitigating action”.

She said she hoped peers could take such action to improve the bill during its committee stage.

Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson said she and many other peers had been contacted by disabled people who were “terrified” that the bill was the “first step towards an insurance-based, perhaps Americanised system which will further discriminate against those in need”.

She said: “Will the minister assure us that all disabled people will continue to get the support that they need to live equal lives? Can I have his assurance that we are not dooming a generation of disabled people to a life of hardship?

“Does he consider that I have disability-related costs? People like me are afraid that we will lose vital allowances. Will we?”

Lord [Colin] Low, another crossbench peer, said the most “flagrant” example of the government penalising those not in work was the proposal to limit to just one year the period of time claimants in the work-related activity group could claim the “contributory” form of employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit.

It is estimated that 280,000 disabled people would lose their entire ESA, currently worth up to £94.25 a week, which he said was “a breach of faith”.

But Lord Freud, the Conservative welfare reform minister, claimed that a simplified welfare system would increase take-up of benefits, “potentially lifting 600,000 adults and 350,000 children out of poverty”, while the “combined effects of welfare reform could mean up to 300,000 fewer workless households”.

He insisted that the government was “committed to supporting disabled people to exercise choice and control and to lead independent lives”, and that PIP would “focus support on those individuals who experience the greatest barriers to remaining independent and leading full, active and independent lives”.

He said time-limiting contributory ESA to one year “strikes the right balance between the need to restrict access to contributory benefits for those under pension age while allowing those with longer-term illnesses to adjust to their health condition”.

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