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In relation to Ofsted's observations on schools that do not meet requirements on social inclusion, I draw on my experience in education and the numerous investigations by the Education and Skills Committee into secondary education over the past two years, which have led to critical reports by that Committee, although it is dominated by Government Members. I am concerned that unless the obligation on all schoolsnot only those that grasp such opportunities wholeheartedly, as many dois crystal clear, this will not go as far as we want. At a recent meeting, representatives of the Disability Charities Consortium pointed out that the slow progress that many schools are making in implementing their duties under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 justifies their concern about what might happen in future.
Many other matters, some of which have already been mentioned, would normally be considered in more detail in Committee, but I doubt that we will able to do that. I absolutely welcome and support what has been achieved by this good and much improved Bill as it has gone through the process from pre-legislative scrutiny onwards, and I regret that we will probably not be able to finish the job properly because of the imminent general election.
We all bring our different perspectives to a subject such as this and it is only fair for me to start, if the House will indulge me, by displaying the two main elements of mine. The first is personal, in that, for nearly 30 years,
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my mother has battled a very cruel and debilitating disabilityosteoporosis. That started with an horrendous accident that she had about two days before my A-levels, which gives an idea of the time span. During that period, she has battled strongly, in a very feisty way, and has probably taught me as much as I learned, before becoming a Member of Parliament, about the practicalities, limitations and challenges of being disabled, particularly with that disability.
Osteoporosis affects around one in two women over the age of 50 and, as people are increasingly aware, one in five men over the age of 50. Sadly, just as haemophilia can have disastrous effects on people as regards the blood, osteoporosis does the same with bones. Despite all that, my mother has managed to battle her disabilities with great perseverance. Over the years, she has managed to travel to the Holy Land and other places by airthe aviation aspects of the Bill are particularly welcome.
I pay tribute to the National Osteoporosis Society, which has battled tirelessly to raise awareness of the condition, and to its local representatives in the Blackpool and Fylde areaJean Marsh and otherswho have lobbied tirelessly.
Of course, my mother would not have been able to do much of what she did without the support and devoted contribution of my late father as her carer. That is an important aspect that we should bear in mind when considering the Bill. Carers are the glue that binds together many disabled people's self-esteem. In many cases, they are the people who help disabled people to maintain their struggle for quality of life. It is right that we should remember the relatives, friends and, indeed, thousands of young peopleoften teenagerswho act as carers.
The Carers National Association does a great job, as does the carers association in Blackpool. I was delighted to support the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004, successfully promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis). The Bill is for carers as well as for disabled people. It will help to encourage and empower many carers and people with disabilities.
A second influence that underpins my commitment in this field has been my experience as Member of Parliament for Blackpool, South. Disabilities are a major issue in seaside and coastal towns, because they have a larger than average number of older people who are more prone to disabilities. Furthermore, a larger than average number of people with health problems and disabilities move to such towns. I might gently point out, in a wholly non-partisan fashion, that that is not always fully recognised in funding formulae.
In Blackpool, 37 per cent. of my constituents have a limiting long-term illness and 11,600 of them receive disability living allowance or attendance allowance, which gives some indication of the issues in my constituency.
Although my hon. Friend is correct in saying that there are costs associated with a high number of disabled constituents, and indeed visitors, is not it also the case that some parts of the tourism industry do better than others in attracting the disabled
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pound and making their services more attractive to disabled people, who have not always been well catered for in the past?
Seaside towns obviously offer leisure and relaxation, but they face the challenge of building on the market to which my hon. Friend referredfor accommodation, shopping and visiting restaurants and clubsso the way in which they cater for their disabled visitors as well as for their disabled residents is crucial. That is why the recognition of responsibilities that the Bill provides in those aspects is so vital.
I am proud to have been the honorary president of the Disability Services Organisation for Blackpool, Wyre and Fylde, which provides a number of services with only a small number of paid staff and volunteers. Two key services are rideability and shopmobility. As Members will appreciate, millions of people visit Blackpool every year and it is important that disabled people should be able to use the motorised vehicles and other equipment that shopmobility can provide.
In places where there is a high concentration of people with disabilities, there is also a high concentration of champions of people with disabilities, and I want to pay tribute to some of my constituents in that respect. Mr. Chris Williams of Layton fought tirelessly against the anomaly whereby disabled people had to swap a flat-rate concessionary fare for a half-price one when they reached the age of 65. That is why I, like many others, welcomed the Chancellor's announcement about free transport for disabled people in the Budget. I praise Mr. Ray Ball of the Macular Disease Society and all the other members of that society who have fought tirelessly on that issue, and also to get a proper crossing point for a busy road in South Shore in my constituency, near the Princess Alexandra home for the blind. The role of disabled people in terms of work is important, and I pay tribute not only to the Princess Alexandra home, which operates a bed factory in Blackpool, and to its secretary, Mr. Kevin Winkley, but also to my constituent Mr. Martin Penfold, who is a member of the Blackpool trades council and a doughty fighter for the rights of disabled workers.
There are other organisations in my constituency, such as Action on Access, the Disability Services Organisation and the carers association, to which I have already referred, run by Mr. Doug Slimming. About four minutes' walk from my home in Blackpool is the BLESMABritish Limbless Ex-Service Men's Associationhome. Many people will know of the good work it does for ex-servicemen and their dependants. In all communities, there are individuals who feel strongly about and fight on disabled issues. They do best when they have the support of crusading local journalists. I pay tribute to my local paper, the Blackpool Gazette, and to its feature editor, Jackie Morley, who has done so much to raise awareness and advance change.
Those people need a framework for all that campaigningwhat Neil Kinnock memorably described in another context as a platform on which to build. The Bill helps to provide another layer on that platform. I want to touch on some of its detailed
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provisions. I welcome its widening of the definition of disability to relate to people with HIV infection, multiple sclerosis and cancer. There were important discussions across the Floor about the important questions to be resolved on the definition of cancer, but I ask the House to remember two important things about the extensions the Government have proposed in the Bill.
First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) said, disabilities do not automatically mean wheelchairs, a point that would be echoed by macular disease sufferers in Blackpool. Incidentally, the Bill gives reassurance to small businessesthere are many in my constituency, not least in the leisure and hotel tradewhich will be concerned about access and the major adjustments that they may have to make under its provisions. Most Members are familiar with the provisions that reasonable attempts should be made to provide access.
The second important implication of the changes is their meaning for those who may be attempting to claim DLA and other benefits, which can be a mountain for many people to have to climb. I am dealing with the case of a constituent who has throat cancer. He has undergone two severe operations but is still knocked back in his claim for the personal care element of DLA. Although that is very necessary for him, he has found it extremely difficult to claim. The Bill has important implications in that regard.
I welcome what has been said about the extension of responsibilities in relation to transport, especially the fact that exemptions will no longer apply to infrastructure or service features. We have a strong local interest in Blackpool, where the tram network is not easily accessible for disabled people and where our light-rail transit bid submitted to the Department for Transport stresses the need for access for people with disabilities. In Blackpool, we are making progress on the bus front, and I pay tribute to Blackpool transport services and its managing director for what they have done in that respect.
There is much more in the Bill about putting the onus on operators to make reasonable adjustments. That is important, but so, too, is advancing understanding and attitudes. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South said about that earlier: there is a seamless web between legislation and improving attitudes.
Let us consider, for example, access to taxis for disabled people who use wheelchairs, most of whom need ramps. People with severe osteoporosis certainly have to use them. As my mother would strongly testify, there is nothing more terrifying and stressful than being physically manhandled into a taxi, however well meaning the taxi driver might be. Attitudes among some, although not all, airline carriers also need to be improved and the Bill sets the context for that.
The Bill will also be of assistance in changing hearts and minds, and encouraging commitment. As with reassuring people in hotels and guest houses that they need to make reasonable provision, we need to ensure that people in the transport industry, having made
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reasonable provision, get the improvements road-tested by disabled people to make sure that they do the job that they are intended to do.
Clause 12 is welcome, in that it brings private clubs with 25 or more members within the scope of the Act. The change in attitude involved here is very important. Not so many years ago, I remember a doughty member of my constituency Labour party who had a disability threatening direct action against a club in my constituency that did not have proper access or toilet facilities. Thankfully, much has now changed in that regard, and those changes will be strengthened even more by the Bill. There are also issues around meetings and activities that take place in historic properties. Again, the Bill has struck the right balance. It does not propose blanket expensive changes, but reasonable attempts to provide access. English Heritage's booklet, "Easy Access to Historic Buildings", deals with this matter well.
I want to pay tribute to the thoughtful and sensible way in which many people in the leisure and tourism industries, particularly those with small guest houses and small businesses, have responded to the proposals. I have seen that among the hoteliers' organisations and business improvement district co-ordinators in my constituency, as well as in the work that is being done nationally through the various task forces operating through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
I also want to mention the important extension of the responsibilities and duties of public authorities. The House of Commons briefing note on the Bill talks about clause 3 encouraging participation and positive attitudes, and promoting equality of opportunity. Those are all key elements of the Bill. It is important that public authorities not only assist with needs but provide that assistance as naturally as possible. It should be seen not as a concession but as a right.
I am privileged to have discussed many of these issues with two party members in my constituency, one of whom is the chair of the disability services organisation to which I referred earlier, and who has also been a non-executive member of the health trust. The other, Nick Gradwell, is a past councillor and a disability activist. Incidentally, neither of those people has wheelchair needsthey have sight impairments.
The balanced proposals on residential premises in clause 13 are important to a town such as Blackpool that has a large number of rented properties and houses in multiple occupation. The majority of such properties are well run, but some have absentee landlords who do a very poor job. I remember from my casework some terrible examples, ranging from problems with a constituent's guide dog to a case of a landlord being unwilling to make the necessary adjustments for a tenant's children who had disabilities. The explanatory notes make it clear that what the Bill suggests is very reasonable, namely that
Clause 16 deals with recognising people's rights and dignity with good will and good sense, and I am particularly pleased that Baroness Hollis tabled the Third Reading amendments to ensure that disability
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adaptations would be included when a lease entitled a tenant to have such improvements with the landlord's consent.
Legislation can do only so much, and there will need to be a proactive attitude on the ground. Local co-operation will be needed to make the Bill work. In Blackpool, we have a good relationship between the local council and the landlords' forum, but it is important that such bodies see themselves not as antagonists but as joint enablers when it comes to implementing these measures.
Clause 15 deals with qualifications and education, and I very much welcome it as a further step towards ensuring that general qualifications bodies do not discriminate against disabled candidates for prescribed qualifications. It will be important, for example, in regard to practical issues such as the provision of ramps for wheelchairs in examination halls. The measure also deals with providing redress to candidates if they are denied those facilities, and I again praise the amendments that were tabled by the Government on Report in the Lords in that regard.
My experience as a part-time Open university tutor over 20 years involved a number of disabled students. I was full of admiration for them and how they overcame their problems, but I must also pay tribute to the Open university for how it assisted them in that process. That example has not always been followed by other more mainstream and traditional universities, but we are getting there.
The inclusion of schools has been mentioned this afternoon, and the Disability Rights Commission has also rightly raised it. I know from my own experience that provision for disabled children in schools can be patchynot because of lack of willingness or sympathy, but because of lack of awareness, of a framework and, sometimes, of finance. That has been strongly present in higher and further education, but it is beginning to change. I am convinced that the measures in the Bill will assist that process.
In that respect, I again pay tribute to a local person, Professor Alan Hurst of the university of Central Lancashire, who has done much to raise awareness of the issues for disabled students in further and higher education. When we had a conversation on that subject, he made an important point to me. He said, "In all these areas, there is a threefold process. You start by recognising what the problem is. You then apportion an access officer to begin to deal with it. Then you have to move on and ensure that all staff, all teachers and all lecturers gain awareness of the students' needs. It is not just a question of being able to box it off."
Those things have had to take place to combat discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, and we need to bear that in mind when we consider the issues in relation to schools, which is why I welcome wholeheartedly what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said this afternoon about duties for schools. I urge him and other Ministers to take carefully on board the points made by the various bodies that have lobbied in this respect when they draw up the regulations under clause 3.
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My experience in Blackpool is that children with multiple disabilitiesoften, such children have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism, which can be associated with other disabilitiesand their parents in particular need the maximum framework of support. We would not consider it acceptable to tell schools that they had a general duty of care only to their gay, lesbian and ethnic minority students, or that they must not be proactive or take specific steps to improve the self-worth of such students, or maximise their ability to achieve and to be treated equally. That is an important point to bear in mind when we are thinking about the issues for children with disabilities and drawing up the regulations.
I want to end by praising all that the Government have done on disabled issues. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who is the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, and all at the Department for Work and Pensions have worked tirelessly, and they have been assisted by all the disability organisations and the DRC. The Bill is another vivid example of the Government's commitment to the active championing of disabled people's equality rights. It is a tribute to the hard work of MPs of all parties, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), secretary of the all-party disablement group, who unfortunately is not in the Chamber today.
There has been a sea change in attitudes since the pioneering initiative of Alf Morris in the 1970s. As I speak, an ambitious project is under way in Blackpool, involving Heritage Lottery Fund money, to modernise and spruce up Stanley park, which many Members might know. Central to the bid accepted by the HLF, and to the planning, is better access for and use of the park by people with disabilities. The Blackpool Bears, a disability sports club in Blackpool, is central to the planning process. That is real change and real progress.
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