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Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con):
Further to the intervention of my hon. Friend the
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Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), the Minister mentioned that the last debate was in 2004, and that the main document sets out targets for 2025. May I suggest that we have an annual debate on the subject to monitor success in meeting those targets, rather than waiting until 2025?
Mrs. McGuire: I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman that he will be able to monitor the targets set by the Prime Minister's strategy unit, which has given a commitment to publish an annual report. I am sure that he can highlight the issue of whether we should have an annual debate in the next business questions that he attends.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Does not this opportunity to promote the agenda of disabled people also allow us to promote the agenda of those who look after them? My constituent, Mr. Gary Murphy, has given up his job to look after his two sons full-time, and is extremely concerned that the carer's allowance to which he is entitled is not sufficient to give his sons the care that he wants to provide.
Mrs. McGuire: I hope to deal later with the carer's allowance, which is an issue that individual Members might want to raise. I do not want to go into the details now, but it has never been seen as a wage for carers but as a contribution to carers' income, and it is not the only income support that carers can access. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me on the specifics with regard to his constituent, I shall be delighted to respond.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I pay tribute to the Minister for the energy and imagination that she has applied to her role since she has been involved in this area. One group who sometimes feel disempowered because they are not listened to, consulted or involved are those with long-term, disabling, chronic mental health problems. Yes, we have dealt with mental capacity, and that is fine. However, I speak regularly to a consultative group in my constituency, the people's forum, and although it is happy about that provision, it feels that it is not necessarily listened to at the upper levels of government. Are such groups not included in the strategy?
They are indeed. As my hon. Friend will be aware, when we extended the Disability Discrimination Act, we did so in a way that was sympathetic to the needs of those with mental health conditions. Part of the previous definition said that such conditions had to be well recognised clinically, and we have adjusted that interpretation to ensure that mental health conditions are treated with the respect that they deserve. Some of our efforts in both welfare reform and our benefits system reflect that a significant number of people suffer from long-term mental health conditions, which can impact in a volatile way on everyday life. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that we have made great progress in working with mental health charities, stakeholders and those with mental heath conditions to ensure that our policies reflect the difficulty of such issues. I also thank him for his compliment at the beginning of his contribution.
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We have made a massive cultural change. In many respects, we all now take for granted access ramps, communication aids and accessible toilets, which are at last becoming the norm, not the exception. In today's debate, however, I am sure that we will hear of gaps, and of organisations and businesses that have not taken their responsibilities in relation to such duties seriously.
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): There will be gaps and areas in which organisations have not matched rhetoric with reality. One of those areas, which is crucial to carers who look after those with disabilities and long-term conditions, is respite care. The situation with regard to respite care is a disgrace. When will the Government get to grips with the issue rather than just speaking about it?
Mrs. McGuire: With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I am always suspicious of sweeping statements that respite care is a disgrace. He might want to raise specific issues, but respite care is seen as an important part of the support services given to disabled people and their carers. We continue to try to improve respite care. As he will be aware, however, much respite care is delivered by voluntary organisations and local authorities in partnership.
Mr. Burns: May I allay the Minister's suspicions with specifics? The biggest problem facing people who want respite care is either that they must go on a waiting list to get it, or that they have minimal control over whether they have it at a time suitable to them?
Mrs. McGuire: For every example like that, I am sure that there are examples of respite care provision responding meaningfully to the wishes and aspirations of local families. If the hon. Gentleman can specify examples of major difficulties, however, I shall be delighted to consider them and meet him to discuss them.
We should not underestimate the scale of the challenge that remains in embedding the duties of the Disability Discrimination Act, especially for small businesses, which sometimes wrongly assume that improving access means a complete refit of their premises. The message that I have given to them over the past months, and that I will give again today, is that it is not about a massive building programme. Physical adaptation might be a part of the changes needed, but it might not be appropriate in all circumstances. Small businesses should consider the way in which they deliver their goods and services so that people can access them. That is about adjusting for better business, because it is good for business. We continue to engage in awareness-raising activity with employers and service providers, spending £6 million on publicity for the DDA extension in 2004 to ensure that there are no excuses, while at the same time highlighting the many ways in which employers and service providers can meet their duties under the Act.
However, we were not content simply to implement the original Disability Discrimination Act 1995 fully; we always knew that there was more to do. As I am sure Opposition Members will recall, another feature of the 2004 debate was speculation on whether it was possible to steer a disability Bill through to Royal Assent in the
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remaining parliamentary time before the general election. We did fulfil our commitment to put a new DDA on the statute book, although I admit that we cut it fine: the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 did not become law until the last day of the previous Parliament, just over 12 months ago.
One of the reasons why we were able to deal with the Bill so quickly was that it had cross-party support. Some may recall that after being appointed Minister for disabled people last May, I wrote to all Members to celebrate the fact that we had managed to pass the Bill in record time, thus meeting our commitment to disabled people.
As many Members will know, from December last year the new Act extended protection to a further 250,000 by covering people with HIV, cancer or multiple sclerosis from the point of diagnosis. People with mental health conditions will also find it easier to show that they are covered by the Act. Progressively, disabled people will have new rights when, for example, sitting exams, using transport services, renting property and joining or using private members' clubs.
But perhaps the key proposal in the new Act is the introduction of the disability equality duty, which will come into force in December. From that date, it will no longer be lawful for public bodies to design services or carry out functions without thinking about how disabled people are affected. Public bodies will have to demonstrate that in everything they do they are considering the impact on disabled people, and that they have due regard to the best ways of eliminating discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity.
I want to stress what I believe to be two important aspects of the duty: the need for public bodies to involve disabled people, and the need for evidence of how their policies affect disabled people. What do organisations need to know in order to promote equality for disabled people? Who are the disabled service users and employees, and how can they be involved ?
I assure the House that this is not just a tick-box exercise. Most public bodies will need to have a disability equality scheme that sets out how they will answer such questions. I am pleased to say that recently published research on public bodies by the Department for Work and Pensions found that most organisations that took part in the survey had a disability equality scheme in place. On the other hand, fewer than half had involved disabled service users or disabled employees in the drawing up of their schemes.
The new duty requires public bodies to involve disabled people in the drawing up of their schemes, as only through real involvement of disabled people will all parts of the public sector be able to identify and address properly the biggest barriers that disabled service users or employees face. We must recognise that if we are to deliver modern services that meet the needs of the whole community, we must ensure that policies, practices and services meet the needs of disabled people from the outset. That is key to getting the disability equality duty right. The duty will require public bodies to assess the impact of their work on disabled people.
Ensuring that our policies and practices work for disabled people will also contribute to our wider aims and objectives. For example, we will not meet our
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targets on employment or child poverty if we do not take account of the needs of disabled people. The new duties must make us work and do things differently.
We in the Government must also ensure that we meet our obligations under the duty. I am pleased that as part of the current consultation on the welfare reform Green Paper, the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform has agreed that the Department for Work and Pensions will work with the Disability Rights Commission to develop a "prototype" disability equality impact assessment of our proposals for the reform of incapacity benefit. Along with my ministerial colleagues, I am determined to play my part in making sure that our Government respond positively to the challenge of the equality duty.
We are understandably proud of our record in extending rights, but I hope that this debate will focus mainly on our plans for tackling the challenges that lie ahead. As we all know, disabled people are more likely to live in poverty, to be out of work and to have fewer educational qualifications than the population in general. They are also more likely to experience prejudice and abuse than non-disabled people. We know that it takes more than legislation to change the lives of real people, and we are not prepared to sit back and see such inequality go unchallenged. That is why the Prime Minister, in his strategy unit report, referred to the challenge of identifying practical changes to help bring about equality for disabled people.
Three main themes emerged when the report was published in January 2005. It found that users were too often expected to manage their lives around public services rather than providers' designing services to meet the needs of disabled people themselves, and that public services and support were planned and delivered in organisational silos that simply failed to reflect the complexity of real people's lives. Our lives are not organised to reflect the current organisational profile of Government at either national or local level, and we need to challenge that. The report also found that service providers rarely involved users in the design of public services. How can we ever get the design of services for disabled people right without involving the people who know best what needs to be delivered?
At the heart of the strategy unit report was the belief that disabled people should be entitled to the same aspirations and expectations as those in the population at large. It contained 60 recommendations on how to achieve that across a range of areas, from early years education and support to employment and adult social care. I believe that the Government have grasped that agenda, and as a Minister I consider it a great privilege to be responsible for driving forward a cross-Government strategy to transform the lives of disabled people.
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