Opposition MPs have criticised the welfare reform bill for its lack of detail and have called on the government to abandon plans to scrap disability living allowance (DLA).
But although Labour MPs queued up to criticise elements of the bill during this week’s second reading in the Commons, all but a handful of rebels abstained rather than voting against it.
Many reported the concerns of disabled constituents, particularly around DLA and its replacement with a new personal independence payment (PIP), although many MPs backed the principle of simplifying the benefits system through a new universal credit.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne said the bill’s unanswered questions and lack of detail meant there was a danger it would “unravel and unravel”. He said the government should reform DLA but not abolish it.
The disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, who chairs the Commons work and pensions committee, said disabled people had “reasons for suspicion” because they feared the assessment for PIP would be similar to the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA), which tests eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.
Dame Anne said: “Their experience… is the WCA and we know that is discredited and is not fit for purpose and they believe that is what is going to happen.”
Labour’s former disabled people’s minister Anne McGuire, who has a long-term health condition, said there were so many unanswered questions that the bill was “skeletal in the extreme”.
She said disabled people were now “beginning to think that all those things they fought long and hard for… are now going to be thrown on the scrapheap”.
The Liberal Democrat MP John Leech said he would vote against his government’s bill at a later stage if there were not amendments to improve it, including around plans to remove the mobility component of DLA from most people in care homes.
His fellow Lib Dem MP Stephen Lloyd said he believed the work elements of the bill were “tremendous” and “clearly designed” to “get people who for years have been on IB [incapacity benefit]or other benefits back into work”.
But he urged ministers to change their “language” about people on IB, and quoted a training provider who said the government must “treat people who have been on IB and on benefits for a long time with respect”.
The veteran Labour MP Tom Clarke said the bill would “devastate the lives” of disabled people.
Clarke – an MP since 1982 – said he had had “more representations on this bill from constituents and disability organisations… than any other bill in my entire time in this parliament.”
He added: “Where is the commitment to promoting social justice for disabled people with rising unemployment on the one hand and spending cuts on the other, with reduced access to social care services as a consequence of reductions in local government funding?”
But the Conservative employment minister Chris Grayling said the bill struck “a balance between fairness and responsibility”, and claimed there was “a great deal” of support for the reforms across the country.
He said: “We are challenging for the first time in far too long the cycle of deprivation that IB can represent for too many of our fellow citizens.”
And he said DLA reform was about moving away from an “unsustainable welfare state” and ensuring the government did not leave disabled people “for long, long periods, untouched, uncontacted, unchecked”.
Grayling said the government would provide detail on the bill as its measures were debated during its committee stage.
Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith told MPs that a decision on how disabled children would be affected by DLA reform would be taken “later on”.
9 March 2011