Disability, poverty, and the House of Lords

By Bernadette Meaden
December 10, 2015

In the latest figures available for House of Lords expenses, we can see that in July 2015 Lord Blencathra claimed £4,200 for attending on fourteen days. This is the  equivalent of just over a year's Jobseekers Allowance - fifty seven weeks worth in fact.  

In a Lords debate yesterday, Lord Blencathra, who himself has Multiple Sclerosis, spoke in favour of cutting Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for people in the Work Related Activity Group to the equivalent of Jobseeker's Allowance. This would mean that future claimants, who have been found unfit to work, would receive about £30 per week less than they get now, and would get in a year what Lord Blencathra received for fourteen days attendance at the House of Lords.

Despite charities such as Parkinson's UK, Macmillan Cancer Care, Mencap, Scope and many others saying that the proposed cut would be extremely harmful to such claimants, Lord Blencathra argued against even delaying it for an official impact assessment to be done. He said we had had an assessment from George Osborne in his Budget speech, when the Chancellor described the extra money received by people unfit to work as a "perverse incentive" which deterred them from getting a job.

Lord Blencathra continued, "As far as saving money is concerned, I would simply say the following, although it may not be popular in all quarters. When I see, participate in and indeed benefit from some of the extraordinary medical improvements that are being made daily, I cannot understand why expenditure on disability benefits has risen so much by £2 billion in the last Parliament. I cannot believe that as a country we are becoming more disabled, but maybe we are." (Column 1625)

This displays a lack of knowledge which one would expect from a tabloid newspaper but which is very depressing from a legislator. In May the Institute for Fiscal Studies published a very detailed analysis of disability benefit spending, in which they found,

"Spending across Great Britain on disability benefits in 2014-15 totalled £13.5 billion. At 0.8 per cent of national income this is half the level of disability benefit spending when it was at its peak in 1995–96.

"The overall number of individuals receiving disability benefits has fallen slightly since the mid-1990s. But this is in the presence of underlying demographic change that would have tended to push up the numbers receiving considerably – both overall population growth and the baby boomer generation reaching older working ages. The proportion of older men receiving disability benefits has actually fallen sharply since the mid-1990s..."

One would have hoped that someone in Lord Blencathra's position could have discovered these basic facts before speaking in favour of benefit cuts for people so much less fortunate. One would also have hoped that they could understand the difference a little money can make to a person who is ill or disabled.

If disabled people could have a fraction of the money Lords can claim in expenses, allowing them to heat their homes and eat properly, that would make a huge difference to them. Lord Blencathra also claimed, perfectly legitimately, £441 in travel expenses for his fourteen days travel. Meanwhile, over a hundred disabled people a week are losing their Motability cars as the transition from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments takes effect.

To be ill or disabled with money is to live in an entirely different world to those who are ill or disabled without money. There seems to be a complete lack of understanding of that fact amongst those who are currently removing vital support.

Fortunately, not all peers are unaware. Very good contributions from Baroness Meacher, Baroness Gray-Thompson and others brought some reality and compassion to the debate. And as Baroness Doocey said, "The argument that cutting benefits for disabled people will incentivise them to work is, frankly, insulting."

We know that the numbers of disabled people living in poverty has risen very significantly. To suggest this is some kind of lifestyle choice that can be discouraged by creating further poverty is incomprehensible.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.