Devolution of disability benefits

Hannah Hyams argues that further devolution could improve the quality of life for children with disabilities in Wales

I knew very little about Welsh nationalism when I began my Hansard Society internship with Plaid Cymru. The term “devolution” was one I’d heard maybe a handful of times, and it hadn’t dawned on me that devolution was not applied equally across all parts of the United Kingdom.  Once I started working for Plaid Cymru, I very quickly grew to see that not only is Wales trampled on in terms of devolution, but that the tangible impact of the UK’s lopsided devolution can be seen directly in the outcomes for people with disabilities in Wales. 


I’ve always been very passionate about disability rights.  Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I was mute until I was ten years old and was able to attend school with my peers thanks to my headstrong mother and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).  Now, entering my final year at Cornell University, I study Industrial and Labor Relations, and have tailored my coursework to focus on educational and employment rights and accommodations for people with disabilities. 


Back in my days of mutism, my parents had to fight with my school district to make sure I was given adequate accommodations, even though laws were in place that theoretically guaranteed me a “free, appropriate public education.”  This is a reality that families of children with disabilities know all too well: even if something is a right on paper, in practice, often you need to fight for that right to be actualised. 


It was my experience having a disability in the American education system coupled with my time interning for Plaid Cymru that inspired me to further research disability in Wales, and led me to conclude that reforming the education system and devolving some elements of social security would markedly improve the quality of life of children with disabilities. 


Better joined up working


For children, life is generally divided into home and school.  The onus is largely placed on school systems to provide for children in the school arena of life and on parents to provide in the home arena of life.  In Wales, education is devolved, but social security is not, and for financially-dependent families, social security payments are often what allows families to choose what is best for their children’s future. 


The interface between heavily interdependent devolved and reserved policy areas is a minefield for both Welsh and UK Governments. The Department for Work and Pensions is at best notoriously difficult to navigate. Even if it were to try and consult with the devolved administration responsible for education in Wales when devising and distributing disability benefits, I am not confident it would be able to do so in a transparent and robust way that had the needs of the people of Wales at its heart. Devolving some elements of social security to Wales would go some way in increasing the joined-up and efficient working children so desperately need.  


Tailor-made solutions 


Having a child with a disability hands a family an extra £581 on average in costs each month, compared to a family that does not have a child with a disability. That figure is just an average: almost a quarter of families of children with disabilities in England and Wales incur extra costs of over £1,000 each month.  Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for families of a child with disabilities can be as low as £23.20 per week, amounting to a monthly sum of just under £100 a month – not nearly enough to cover the additional costs the family is likely to incur.   


A recent Wales Governance Centre report concluded that when applying the formula Westminster uses to devolve benefits to Scotland, devolution of some benefits to Wales would bring an estimated surplus of £200 million each year to the Welsh Government allowing it to develop tailor-made solutions to the injustices families across Wales face. The Welsh Government might want to use this surplus to alleviate the financial burden caused by the inadequate social security measures of the UK Government. In doing so, they could greatly improve the quality of life of families of children with disabilities. 


More transparent and accountable


Another facet of my argument is that the devolved status of the Welsh education system is fundamentally preferable to the reserved model of social security in terms of transparency and accountability.  I do not intend to argue that the existing education system in Wales is exemplary; I believe that it has fundamental flaws that must be addressed, such as minimally-comprehensive Accessibility Plans and inaccessibility of physical spaces.  


Rather, I think that those best placed to make decisions about education and indeed, social security, in Wales are elected politicians representing Wales. I believe that the devolved status of education gives people in Wales greater control over the development of such an essential policy field, closer to home. It allows the parents of children with disabilities to directly advocate on behalf of their children, without having to leave the nation they call home. Compare this with the reserved areas of social security whereby Ministers in Whitehall representing other parts of the UK can introduce blanket, one-size-fits all benefits for the whole of England and Wales. 


Devolution of social security in practice: Scotland


The Social Security (Scotland) Act 2016 passed into law last year. We can already see the real advantages devolving control over certain benefits will have for the people of Scotland. Since this Act came into force, the Scottish Government has put over £35 million of additional funding into the pockets of people in Scotland – delivering the first two payments of the Carer’s Allowance Supplement, and the Best Start Grant Pregnancy and Baby Payment.

In relation to the newly devolved disability-related benefits, next summer the Scottish Government will introduce new Disability Assistance for Children and Young People, extending eligibility for this benefit from age 16 to age 18. This will allow continuity for families during those crucial transition years when a child becomes an adult. Also from next year, children who receive the highest care component of Disability Assistance will be entitled to Winter Heating Assistance too – meaning 16,000 children and their families will get a £200 lump sum to help towards their heating costs.

Here we can see the tangible benefits of devolving certain aspects of social security for children, young people and their families and could act as a very effective blueprint for any future Welsh Government in the event of the devolution of those powers. 


Broadly, I believe that more widespread devolution would benefit everyone in Wales.  But, to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities in Wales, devolving some areas of social security is a great place to start. If this progress were to be combined with education system reform, the result could be a Wales where families of children with disabilities have more financial autonomy, where every child receives an exceptional quality of public education, and where Welsh children with disabilities are awarded the same educational opportunities as their peers without disabilities. 


Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

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Hannah Hyams was a Hansard Scholar working for Plaid Cymru in the House of Commons from February to April 2019

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