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Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend say something about social care workers who devote themselves to helping people with disabilities? All too often, sadly, people working in social care are poorly paid and poorly trained. We need to raise the profile of social workers, care workers and those who work transporting people
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with disabilities, so that we can recruit high-quality people and ensure that they are properly trained, and it becomes a real career option to do an invaluable job.

Mrs. McGuire: My hon. Friend makes a good point. As one who, in a previous existence, had some experience of work in the sector, I understand what she means. We need to look differently at how we deliver services. I hope that my hon. Friend is among the many who welcomed the launch of the new cross-Government unit, the Office for Disability Issues, which will bring together disabled people, Departments and service providers to deliver a real, significant and sustainable change.

We are determined to transform the way in which the Government engage with disabled people. The ODI will bring the voices of disabled people to the heart of Government through the creation of a national forum for disabled people. The advisory group that was established to help us establish the national forum has been working hard to assist us in developing the way forward, and already the ODI is bringing Departments together to improve services for disabled people.

Most obviously, such co-operation is bearing fruit in the individual budget pilots operating in several parts of the country. The pilots bring together a range of different support services for disabled people, including housing-related and other support for independent living. We all know that the current system for delivering such support can be bewildering, involving as it does several different funding streams and administrative bodies. The end result is often that people are left with little control over the services that they receive—a point to which the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) referred in the context of respite care—and how they are delivered. That, in turn, can lead to uncertainty, anxiety and sometimes isolation, presenting a barrier to, rather than enabling, independent living. Building on the success achieved through the direct payments scheme, the new pilots are intended to overcome these problems by bringing together different elements of support and putting the ability to choose how those services are delivered into the hands of disabled people themselves.

The strategy unit report also recognised that for disabled young people, the transition to adulthood is often a very difficult time. A multi-agency approach, in which young people and their families are at the centre, is the way forward. I am pleased to say that we have seen some good results from the 70 local authorities adopting a person-centred approach to transition planning. We are also examining the transition period in three of the individual budget pilot schemes—in Coventry, Barnsley and Gateshead—to see how such an approach can support young people as they move into adulthood. It is crucial that we get this issue right, because the transition to adulthood can be the most challenging time for disabled young people and their families. We need to ensure that our services are more joined up than they currently are. Many young adults and their parents have told me that they feel as if they are standing on a cliff edge—that they do not know what is going to happen as they move into adulthood. We need to pull together and to get our approach right, so that they do not feel that they are standing on a cliff edge, with no support as they grow older.
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Finally, I think it appropriate briefly to touch on the welfare reform proposals that we set out earlier this year in the Green Paper, "Empowering People to Work", which has been welcomed by the disability lobby. Such a welcome is justified, as our starting point is that many disabled people want to work, and would do so if the right opportunities and support were in place. We estimate that some 85 to 90 per cent. of the 2.7 million people claiming an incapacity benefit meet the core definition of disability in the DDA. Those figures perhaps help to demonstrate why the employment rate of this group is less than 50 per cent., at a time when record numbers are in work.

We have set out clearly our ambitions in the Green Paper. We want to see 1 million fewer people claiming an incapacity benefit, and more older people and lone parents enjoying the benefits of work. That will put us on course to reach our aspiration of getting 80 per cent. of working-age people into a job. We believe that that goal is within our grasp; indeed, we have already achieved a lot. The new deal for disabled people has helped nearly 300,000 disabled people into work—I shall be interested to hear whether the Opposition will continue to support the new deal's approach—and we will continue to build on the very positive lessons learned from our pathways to work pilots.

The pathways to work pilots involve early and intensive support from a specially trained personal adviser—supported by health specialists, where appropriate—and provide access to a help menu designed to prepare people for work. Combined with the new deal and programmes such as access to work, the pilots have led to the first significant fall in the incapacity benefit case load in more than a generation. As part of our reforms, we will roll out this highly successful scheme across the whole country, so that all disabled people claiming an incapacity benefit can benefit from extra help and support.

I have set out this afternoon a hugely ambitious agenda that is central to our goal of an equal society with opportunity for all. We are transforming the way in which the Government respond to the needs of disabled people, and driving changes in the wider society to create a culture in which disabled people have choice and control over their lives. We are nearly 18 months into the 20-year strategy, and we will shortly publish and present to the Prime Minister the inaugural annual progress report, which will provide an honest assessment of the situation and enable everyone to judge whether we are achieving our aims. The life chances report was widely welcomed by disabled people; I am sure that they expect nothing less.

I believe that people will look at the progress that we have made and see that this Government have been true to our word. We have overseen the largest extension of disability rights in history, but we refuse to rest on our laurels. I genuinely welcome the official Opposition's change in attitude, and I know that certain individual Conservatives always supported this agenda. But I hope that the change in their official heart will prove to be about more than fine words, which are always easy to come up with. They have a lot to live down in this respect.

We are delivering on a strategy to improve the life chances of disabled people, but we still have a long way to go in changing society's attitudes. We still have to
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challenge the view that sees what disabled people cannot do, rather than what they can do. We have to change the perception that fails to value the ambitions and aspirations of disabled people. However, we have come a long way in a few short years, and in recent months we have had the support of other parties in this House, for which I am grateful. I am pleased to commend our record to the House.

12.56 pm

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I begin by welcoming the Minister to the Dispatch Box for what I believe is her first major debate on disability since taking on her new role. She was kind enough to welcome me to the Dispatch Box during oral questions on 13 March, and it is a pleasure to return the compliment.

Today, I want to talk about a new Conservative approach to disability that builds on the legislative progress made through the efforts of those in all parts of the House, but which also recognises that the challenges that disabled people face today are different from those of 10 or 20 years ago. The life chances report talks about allowing disabled people to be respected and included as equal members of society by 2025. That seems a long way off, but the reality is that we have a huge mountain to climb to achieve that goal. The challenge for policy makers is to ensure that the progress on the path towards that goal is both steady and speedy.

Before I talk about the new approach, I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to some of my predecessors in this post, who have given me enormous support and encouragement. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), who held this post until the general election, was enormously respected in the disability world for his grasp of policy detail. He undertook a detailed consultation of disability groups before the enactment of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. Such consultation has provided extremely useful information that helped to form our thinking. I welcomed his intervention on the Minister concerning the timing of these debates; it would be good to have a disability debate on a day when more Members are able to attend.

On the subject of elections, why were 68 per cent. of polling stations inaccessible to disabled people during last year's general election? Some Members might think that the advent of postal voting means that such access is not necessary, but it is very important for blind and visually impaired people to have access to a Braille reader when voting. Such readers can be provided in polling stations; postal voting, on the other hand, does not solve the problem.

I want also to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who held this post before taking a different Front-Bench role. I am delighted that he has kindly spared the time to wind up this debate. He has a deep understanding of the complexity of disability issues, and enormous personal commitment to the disability agenda.

I thank the Minister for her comments. On the whole, they were more positive than those made by her predecessor in the 2004 debate. There has been much legislative progress on disability issues, and I am happy to commend that to the House.
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For example, the Carers and Disabled Children Act 2000 allowed direct payments to be made to families. The Disability Rights Commission has been established, and it has done a great deal to campaign for disabled people's rights. The Special Education Needs and Disability Act 2001 made it unlawful to discriminate against disabled children seeking access to schools, and regulations introduced in 2003 made it easier for disabled people to get more choice in employment. In addition, we have had the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and the establishment of the Office for Disability Issues.

The Opposition are prepared to give credit where it is due, but I hope that the Minister will also give full credit to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I was disappointed that she chose to describe it as a missed opportunity. That Act, piloted through the House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), gave disabled people entitlement to civil rights for the first time, and made it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people in employment and in the provision of goods, facilities and services. It contained some limited but important education and transport provisions, which included the requirement that all stations and airports should be accessible, and also set up the National Disability Council, the precursor to the DRC.

The 1995 Act was

Those are not my words, but those of the Equal Opportunities Review, which is hardly a Conservative-leaning journal. The Japanese have a saying that a journey of 1,000 miles starts with one step, and the 1995 Act was that first step.

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