Sheila Gilmore: Start debate on disability benefits

The issue of the Disability Living Allowance needs to be resolved. Picture: Getty
The issue of the Disability Living Allowance needs to be resolved. Picture: Getty
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Following last year’s referendum the Smith Commission proposed giving the Scottish Parliament new powers over issues like tax and welfare.

Two weeks ago a draft law was published that all three main UK parties have committed to passing after the election to make this a reality. Now we need to start talking about how we’ll use these powers to build the fairer and more equal society that we all want to see.

One of the areas of welfare set to be devolved is supporting folk with the additional costs of living and working with a disability or chronic illness.

Since the 1990s people have been able to claim Disability Living Allowance, which is paid regardless of income, and for many is the difference between holding down a job and not. But back in 2010 the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat coalition announced it would replace DLA with a new benefit – Personal Independence Payment – to cut spending by 20 per cent.

While existing DLA claimants are set to start being reassessed for PIP later this year, I believe this should be delayed until control of these benefits passes to Holyrood. At that point we Scots will have a choice: do we want to press ahead with the switch to PIP or go back to DLA? Both options have their challenges.

If we go with PIP, many new claimants have complained of long waits to both get an appointment and receive their first payment. How would we address these delays? Should there be fewer face-to-face assessments? Should we continue to contract out this work to private companies?

Alternatively if we stick with DLA, where will we find the extra £200 million per year to pay for it? Do we ask people to pay more tax or cut spending elsewhere? And what of those who say that, once the delays are overcome, PIP is a big improvement for people with mental health conditions? Should we re-work DLA to take lessons from PIP into account? Can we develop a system that works better with care packages provided by councils?

Naturally, the focus of charities and campaigners over the last four years has been on helping individuals navigate the changing social security system, and campaigning against “reforms” based on savings rather than the needs of those affected. But we now need to think positively about what is needed.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to these questions at present, but what I do know is that we need to start having this debate now so that we are ready to craft a benefit right for the needs of Scotland.

Scottish Labour has already proposed using new powers to freeze fracking in Scotland, bring Scotrail back into public ownership, and reintroduce a 50p tax on earnings over £150,000 – now we need to start talking about DLA and PIP.

After people were so engaged in discussing where power should lie during the referendum, it would be a tragedy if they weren’t involved in deciding how we use the new powers we will now have. For the sake of the people we all want to help, let’s have this debate now.

Sheila Gilmore is Labour MP for Edinburgh East