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Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the distinguished contribution from the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang). The issue that he raised is common to a number of constituencies. There are similar facilities in Inverness. Many of the problems that he described will be familiar to other hon. Members.

I welcome the opportunity to hold this debate. The Minister was right to say in opening that there has been a great deal of cross-party consensus on the issues that we are debating—[Interruption.] Recently. Over a longer time scale, the Liberal Democrat party has played a role in seeing a way forward on a number of different disability issues, so it is good to have the chance to debate the matter. However, I reinforce the point that was made earlier from those on the Conservative Back Benches that it is perhaps a shame that this debate is taking place on local election day, when many hon. Members on both sides of the House cannot, for various reasons, be present. If the debate becomes an annual feature of the parliamentary calendar, as I hope it will, perhaps in future it could coincide with the publication of the annual report. It could become a regular feature—held on a day when more hon. Members could attend and take part.

After all, according to some definitions—the life chances report makes this clear—there are 11 million disabled people in this country. To put that in context, that could be more than the total number of people who will vote in the local elections today. We are talking about a tremendously important part of the population and therefore a big issue for all MPs—not just those of us who happen to be present today—and their constituents. Many issues affect the life chances of disabled people and they cut across a number of different portfolios. There are many points that I would like to cover today, but I will not have time.
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There are a few issues that I would like to draw out from the strategy unit report. The Liberal Democrats welcome the report and particularly its focus on independent living, families with young disabled children, the transition into adulthood and support and incentives for getting disabled people into employment and helping them to stay there. We also welcome the Government's acceptance of the recommendations in the report.

Importantly, the report is not based on a medical or impairment-based definition of disability. Although it does not explicitly state that it is adopting the social model of disability, its focus on the disadvantages that individuals experience as a result of barriers, both physical and attitudinal, is quite close to the social model. I hope that the Government will continue to develop that approach.

Before getting to the main issues that I want to address, I should say that, earlier this year, I put a question to all the Departments asking whether they had already nominated a Minister to liaise with the Office for Disability Issues, the establishment of which I warmly welcome. The life chances report was clear that several of its recommendations were for all Departments and not just, for example, for the Department for Work and Pensions. I was pleased that nearly all the Departments responded positively. However—I hope that the Minister will take this point up with her colleagues—there are four that I would like to name and shame, if I can use that phrase. They have not, as yet, appointed a Minister to liaise with the Office for Disability Issues. Those Departments are: the Department for International Development, the Cabinet Office, the Northern Ireland Office and, last but not least, the Treasury. Perhaps the Secretary of State could ask his Cabinet colleagues in those Departments to fall into line with other Departments and appoint a Minister with responsibility for these issues.

The life chances report emphasises the interlinked issues of poverty and work. The clearest indication that disabled people do not have the same life chances as the rest of society is the extent of the poverty among them. Child poverty and pensioner poverty are decreasing—perhaps not as fast as some of us would like—but poverty among disabled people is still high and rising in some categories.

Some 55 per cent. of families with disabled children are either in poverty or at its margins, and 30 per cent. of working-age disabled adults live in income poverty—higher than the 27 per cent. figure of a decade ago and double the rate for non-disabled adults. Some 13 per cent. of working-age adults are judged to be at risk of developing a mental illness, but the figure is almost twice as high for the poorest fifth of the population at 25 per cent. About 800,000 disabled people between the age of 25 and retirement age are classed as economically inactive but wanting work, compared with only 200,000 who are officially counted as unemployed.

Addressing the barriers to work is therefore absolutely key to tackling poverty among disabled people. Indeed, the life chances report makes that very clear in a table on the employment growth needed to reach the current UK employment rate, and by far the greatest employment growth is needed for disabled people—1.7 million is the figure given—to reach the
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overall employment level for the country of any of the groups highlighted in the report. With that in mind, I should like to turn to welfare reform.

The hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), the Conservative spokesman, explained the need to communicate clearly information about such issues, but we all have a responsibility to communicate clearly about the benefits that exist, so that no hon. Member reinforces whatever confusion may exist in people's minds and may be reinforced occasionally either by things that the Government say or by the way in which newspapers pick up on things that they say.

The welfare reform Green Paper is obviously welcome, although it perhaps took a little longer to reach us than we had hoped, and there is still a problem in that it is short on detail in many respects, particularly in relation to the action that needs to be taken to help not only people on incapacity benefit to get back into work but, equally important, those people who suffered a disabling event to stay in work, rather than losing their jobs and moving on to benefits.

All the evidence shows that people are much less likely to find work once they go on to incapacity benefit, whereas retaining people in employment should be the primary objective. In that context, I hope that the Minister will seriously consider the proposal for rehabilitation leave, which was recently made in a ten-minute Bill, as a way of making it explicit in law what is already thought to be a reasonable adjustment under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Making it clear in law that there was a entitlement to rehabilitation leave for people in the circumstances that I have described would make it a good deal easier for people to assert their rights, rather than expecting people to have a detailed knowledge of the 1995 Act and what might constitute a reasonable adjustment in various circumstances. Likewise, access to condition management programmes for people who are still in work but perhaps having a period of rehabilitation leave, as opposed to only being able to gain access to such programmes when they have already lost their jobs or are on incapacity benefit, would be a valuable step forward.

I should also like to ask about the overall target in the welfare and reform proposals. Again, the Minister made it clear in her opening remarks that the target was to get 1 million people off incapacity benefit over the next 10 years. There is a subtle but important distinction between targeting getting people off benefits and targeting getting people into work. Over the next 10 years, almost 1 million people who currently receive incapacity benefit will reach retirement age and therefore be entitled to claim pension. Of course, the Minister will no doubt rightly point out that many more people will be flowing on to benefits.

Mrs. McGuire: Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. Yes, our aim is to get 1 million people off incapacity benefits, but it is also to reach our aspiration of having 80 per cent. of working-age people in employment—the two go side by side.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful for that sensible and well-made point, but it is also true that the targets expressed in the welfare reform Green Paper have often
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been reported in the media as getting 1 million people who are on incapacity benefit into work, and it is important to be clear about that distinction.

One of the issues in the welfare reform Green Paper that needs to be further developed from what the Government have so far proposed relates to the radical reform that is needed in the benefits system as it affects disabled people. The system is too complicated. The difference between incapacity benefit and jobseeker's allowance is at least in part a recognition of the fact that people on incapacity benefit are suffering from disability or ill-health conditions whereby they are likely to be out of the labour market for a substantial period. Therefore, to some degree, within the operation of incapacity benefit, there is a link between the proportion of support that they receive for being out of work and the fact that they are disabled. That question needs to be looked at in much greater detail in future.

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