Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. McGuire: For the sake of accuracy, would the hon. Gentleman repeat that statement? I fear that he may have misunderstood the criteria of DLA and I certainly would not wish disabled people throughout the country to believe that somehow they are putting their DLA at risk because of the impression that he may just have given.

Mr. Hunt: I accept what the Minister says. The point I raised was made to me by a disabled person. There is a big communications problem and a great fear of personal capability assessments.

Mrs. McGuire: May I make it perfectly clear that disability living allowance is not income assessed? Many disabled people who are in full-time work have their full entitlement to DLA. It does not relate in any way whatsoever to other income. I would hope that the hon. Gentleman, as the shadow spokesman on disability, would ensure that the person to whom he spoke was appraised of that situation.

Mr. Hunt: I return to my previous point, which is that there is a great deal of concern among disabled people that, for example, if they go on a training course or do some part-time work, they might be assessed as less in need of their DLA than was previously thought. There is a huge communications problem. As the Minister is intricately involved in the reforms proposed in the incapacity benefit Green Paper, may I say to her that there is a huge problem because disabled people are concerned that anything they might do involved with part-time or voluntary work or education could compromise the benefits that they want to receive. For many disabled people it is such part-time work, attendance on a training course, or some kind of education that is the crucial first step back towards involving themselves in the world of work. They are often disincentivised from taking that first step.

Mrs. McGuire: For the sake of clarity—I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands why I am making an issue of this—there is absolutely no impact on DLA entitlement from somebody working full-time, doing voluntary work or doing no work. DLA is not income assessed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not
4 May 2006 : Column 1134
confusing two benefits, namely incapacity benefit and disability living allowance. While we in Government need to be clear about our messages, he too needs to be clear and not confuse the two to make a political point in this debate.

Mr. Hunt: I am not confused and I am not making a political point. I am perfectly aware that DLA is not income-assessed, but I am trying to explain to the Minister that many disabled people are concerned that their DLA could be affected. This is an important point. We need to do more than reform incapacity benefit; we need to look much more widely at benefits across the board, to make sure that nothing in the structures has the unintended effect of deterring people from the world of work, whether part-time or voluntary.

Communications also need to be greatly strengthened in respect of access to work. Many people are not aware of the benefits available and do not know what help they could receive to get back into the world of work. Furthermore, many social services are offered only during normal working hours, which makes it difficult for people to use them while holding down a full or part-time job. Disincentives to work are the root cause of the    link between disability and poverty and the Conservatives are determined to dismantle them.

The final question against which we shall judge new policies is whether a policy helps to support and value the role of the families and carers of disabled people. One in eight of the population is a carer; 1.25 million of them look after someone for more than 50 hours a week and 10 per cent. are themselves disabled, yet the system often completely fails to support carers as it should.

We should be considering streamlined systems such as the one in Austria, which I have raised with the Minister before, where families of severely disabled children are looked after by single assessment teams, comprising a paediatric doctor, a nurse, a physiotherapist and an   information officer. We should be looking at streamlining the benefits system, which is neither simple to understand nor generous to carers, even though those involved in carers week estimated that carers save the state £57 billion annually.

We are proud to live in a free society where we try to value people by the merits of what they are prepared to contribute, and not by accidents of birth, class or privilege, but 10 million disabled people have been left out of the deal. It is time to put that right, not just by legislation and fine words, but by a fundamental overhaul of the way services are provided to disabled people, to help them to live independently, work freely and contribute to a society that has neglected them for too long.

1.23 pm

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), who spoke for the official Opposition, and I wish him well in his new responsibilities. We can look forward to some interesting exchanges, not least because my hon. Friend the Minister is determined to make sure that the hon. Gentleman does not mislead people about their basic rights in relation to disability living allowance and other benefits. However, I genuinely wish him well. It is an important brief and we can conclude
4 May 2006 : Column 1135
from his contribution today that he is very much on-message with his new leader, as they re-assess all their policies and make very different proposals from those of the past.

Many Members in the Chamber have a track record of tremendous experience and knowledge of the important subject of policies for the disabled. I have a few remarks about disabled people in the Edinburgh, East constituency, which I have had the privilege to represent for quite a few years.

I support the Prime Minister's strategy unit report, "Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People", published in January 2005 and to which my hon. Friend referred. The report establishes an ambitious 20-year vision, stating:

That is a big challenge, but the whole House should be prepared to sign up to it, not least because, according to the report, 11 million adults are rightly classified as disabled and there is also a large number of disabled children.

The centrepiece of the Government's strategy, as others in the Chamber know better than I do, is the promotion of independent living. Some Members will remember Margaret Blackwood, who set up the Disablement Income Group Scotland, of which I am privileged to be a patron. In Edinburgh, the Margaret Blackwood housing association specialises in the provision of housing to meet the needs of disabled people. The association makes an important contribution and is a fitting memorial to Margaret Blackwood. As the House knows, the Edinburgh economy is a dynamo for the whole south-east Scotland travel-to-work area, but a problem of that economic success is a shortage of affordable housing.

We need to tackle the barriers to employment for disabled people. We can all support the Government's emphasis in recent years on creating a society that provides maximum opportunities for disabled people to work in the wider economy—in workplaces in private businesses, the public sector and elsewhere.

The National Employment Panel's employers working group on disability published a report, "Able to Work", in January 2005, at the same time as the strategy unit document. The report noted:

There can be no doubt about the importance of such opportunities, primarily for disabled people, because we want people to be able to make choices in society, but also for the collective good of the economy and society as a whole. We must do more to ensure that disabled people have the chance to work, to earn an income and develop their independence.

Many disabled people are prevented from making an effective contribution to their local community and economy, yet with support they can actively take part. Disabled people represent a significant pool of potential skills and abilities.
4 May 2006 : Column 1136

I want to focus on sheltered workshops. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will not mind my mentioning her family connection, as her father, Councillor Albert Long, is still remembered for his contribution to BlindCraft in Glasgow and Strathclyde. She will be interested in our experience over recent years at the BlindCraft factory, a sheltered workshop in my constituency.

A few years ago, it became clear that there was a crisis in the workshop, which was losing a lot of money. For example, in 2002–03, City of Edinburgh council had budgeted for a deficit of £75,000. In fact, the deficit was more than £1 million. The following year, the deficit was more than £800,000. Quite clearly, those losses were too large to be sustainable and action had to be taken. It was against that background that the council embarked on a strategic review. It was a time of considerable difficulty.

People in the workshop were understandably concerned about their futures being jeopardised. One thing that I have learned from our workshop is that, although there are many people who are able to work in the broader labour market—we want to give them the maximum encouragement—there are also people who need the shelter of a workshop and who can make a great contribution to their own lives and to society as a whole within the framework of that supported work in the BlindCraft factory in Craigmillar in my constituency.

As a constituency MP, I was involved in a series of meetings with the council, Councillor Kingsley Thomas, the administration's lead councillor on social work, senior officials and Joe Mann, who is a senior trade union official from the union Community. I do not want to make too much of this, but I had three aims and concerns. First, we wanted an inquiry into what had gone wrong—things had gone badly wrong for reasons that I will not go into. Secondly, we needed a new general manager. Thirdly, we were concerned that the strategy of closing the wire side and just relying on bedding was high risk.

To cut a long story short, the City of Edinburgh council has chosen to proceed on the basis of the bedding and the separate metal department, which does not include the old wire section. That section was important, because some of the most disabled people were able to work there. Of course, there have been job losses—a disproportionate number of which have been among the disabled as opposed to the able-bodied.

I am pleased to say that we have a new general manager in place and I was able to speak to him this week. He has come from the private sector, and he must be given the opportunity to turn the business round and generate a profit. I know that he is concerned about the competition between the different BlindCraft factories in Scotland. He believes that, particularly in the case of beds, if the margins are driven down further, we shall not get the profit that we need and we shall be unable to reduce the overall deficit, although some progress has been made in that respect. Above all—this is the real worry—the cost per individual worker in the plant will be too high. He faces a big challenge, but I am encouraged by what he is saying. He is making an important point. He also has some important ideas about other activities that we can develop within the framework of the workshop to provide employment and an opportunity for the people concerned.
4 May 2006 : Column 1137

I know that many Members want to speak in the debate, so I will make just one final point. The problem is that the workshop is not just for Edinburgh, but for the local authority areas around it. Sadly, there is no agreement about the contribution that those local authorities have to make. I do not want to go into that in great detail, but the fact is that local authorities, which provide people for the sheltered workshop, must pay their share. The disagreement about their contribution has to be resolved. We must have a framework in which we have an opportunity to make a success of the workshop. In my opinion, there are not enough disabled people working there at the moment, because the numbers have been reduced to reduce the overall deficit. The effect of that is that the subsidy per disabled person is too high.

I look forward to making real progress. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to her responsibilities, although she has held the post for some time now. I know that we can count on her support to help us to make the progress that we need, because we are talking about a great asset and an important element in the overall framework that the Government want in order to encourage more disabled people to live full lives in the workplace.

1.34 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page