Government support for disabled people in dealing with the extra costs they face has “barely scratched the surface” of their needs, a disabled MP has told a House of Commons debate.
Labour’s Marsha de Cordova told fellow MPs on Monday that she blamed the “hostile environment for disabled people” created by successive Conservative governments, which had been “compounded by the pandemic and the current cost-of-living crisis”.
She said the support provided by the government was “woefully insufficient and the very definition of what we would call sticking-plaster politics”.
De Cordova – who met disabled people’s organisations Inclusion London and Disability Rights UK for a briefing last week – criticised the government for failing to provide targeted support for disabled households who face high energy costs.
And she highlighted those who need to run equipment such as dialysis machines and oxygen concentrators.
She said: “Many disabled people have told me that it is pointless to prescribe medicine if a person cannot afford to run the equipment they need to stay alive.”
The debate was considering two parliamentary petitions that were set up by disabled campaigners to call for government action.
One of the petitions – which secured nearly 25,000 signatures and was drawn up by disabled student Abigail Broomfield – called for disabled people and carers who did not qualify for last year’s £650 means-tested cost-of-living payment to be included in that package of support, and warned that without such support “many more disabled people could die”.
This year there will be a further means-tested payment of £900.
The other petition – which secured more than 16,000 signatures and was started by disabled mum and carer Rachel Curtis – called for an energy grant for those who rely on heating or equipment such as feeding pumps and ventilators that they need to stay alive, or who need to pay for electricity to charge their mobility equipment.
As a result of their campaigning, the Commons petitions committee launched a survey which produced nearly 11,000 responses, with 93 per cent of those responding saying that they or the disabled person they knew or cared for had had to cut back on things that were essential for their health and wellbeing (see separate story).
De Cordova said that these and other survey results were “shocking”.
She told fellow MPs that “changes need to be made to the social security system to make it less cruel, unfair and hostile, and to restore it to its original purpose, which was to provide a safety net for those in need.
“Disabled people are not asking for more; they are asking for equity.”
The Conservative disabled MP Paul Maynard focused in his speech on how to support disabled people with higher energy costs.
He backed work carried out by the Retail Energy Code Company (RECC) to examine how to deal with disabled people’s rising energy costs.
He said this work had exposed the postcode lottery in NHS schemes for those who rely on equipment such as oxygen concentrators and dialysis machines, and how such subsidies do not rise when energy prices rise and are paid in arrears.
Maynard suggested that he – like RECC – supported an approach that would “tailor support to the needs of each eligible consumer, rather than a policy targeted at a wider range of vulnerable consumers, so that they can have full confidence that the costs of the relevant equipment are being met”.
Several opposition MPs criticised government changes to the warm home discount scheme in England and Wales, which meant that disabled people not on means-tested benefits were no longer eligible, as were many living in homes that do not meet the scheme’s “pretty crude” high energy cost threshold.
Several opposition MPs also criticised the level of the £150 cost-of-living payment for those on disability benefits – less than £3 a week – with many disabled people not eligible for the more generous £900 payment for those on means-tested benefits that will be paid during 2023-24.
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said: “Disability Rights UK and many others have said that the lack of meaningful increases in disability benefits over recent years means that the extra support given to disabled people has barely touched the sides.”
And she said that figures from the Trussell Trust showed that, three years ago, nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of working-age people referred to food banks were disabled.
She said: “I ask the minister to commit to work closely with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations to find a solution to this crisis.”
In a speech that lasted three-quarters of an hour, the minister for disabled people, Tom Pursglove, admitted that the cost-of-living difficulties disabled people were facing were “pressing” and he insisted that ministers were “not complacent”.
He said the government had provided more than £94 billion in cost-of-living support over the last two years.
He defended the size of the £150 payment for those on disability benefits by arguing that the government “believe it is right that the highest amount goes to those on means-tested benefits”.
Pursglove said government estimates suggested that nearly three-fifths of those on personal independence payment and other extra costs disability benefits would receive the £900 means-tested payment.
He said ministers were “absolutely committed to ensuring that disabled people and people with health conditions receive the support that they need”.
Although he confirmed that the government was planning an evaluation of its cost-of-living payments later this year, he declined to promise Foxcroft that it would be published.
He also said there was “ongoing” work within the government’s Disability Unit that was “seeking to understand and evidence the full impact of the current cost of living on disabled people across a range of sectors”, and that this included “good dialogue and engagement with disabled people and their representative groups”.
He said this would allow the government to “look at the situation in its totality, understand the interventions that we have made to date and understand the needs that exist”.
Pursglove also said the government intended to “move away from universal energy bill support and towards better targeted support for those most in need”, including those who use energy-intensive medical equipment in the home, and that it was also engaging with disabled people’s organisations and representative groups on this issue.
He said the reform of the warm home discount scheme meant that 160,000 more households where a person is disabled or has a long-term health condition would receive a rebate.
After the debate, Broomfield praised de Cordova’s speech, and said she was happy that so many contributions had been made by MPs, and that the debate had provided “momentum to keep fighting for this campaign”.
But she said Pursglove appeared to have spent some of his speech discussing “irrelevant” topics “to either distract or to try and portray his department and government as being successful in helping disabled people and carers” when the reality was “they have not helped us enough”.
She said the months of campaigning had been “absolutely worth it, despite it taking a personal and physical toll on me.
“It has been worth it just to get disabled people heard by the government.
“I want this work to inspire other people to challenge this government.
“This isn’t the end of the campaign, and it will continue on until disabled people and carers get the help they so desperately need.”
Curtis thanked de Cordova for “holding the government to account and raising so many vital points”.
She said: “I think the evidence from the survey demonstrated the sheer desperation of disabled people, and the MPs at the debate really did push for change.
“I am disappointed in the response from Tom Pursglove as there was nothing of substance that the government intend to do to help.
“It was, yet again, a lot of words and no actual action.”
Katy Styles, a carer and founder of the We Care Campaign, which supported Curtis and promoted her petition, said there had been “an overall consensus amongst all the speakers that something needs to be done”.
She said: “Now it’s just what, how and when. The minister’s answer failed to address the urgency of the issue, but we hope he will work hard to address issues highlighted in the debate.
“We will seek a meeting with him to discuss what action he will be taking.”
Picture: Paul Maynard (above, left) and Marsha de Cordova speaking in the debate
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