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Miss Begg : I appreciate that that did not happen to the hon. Gentleman's constituents, but constituents of mine in Aberdeen have complained to me about bus drivers' rude behaviour and their failure to offer help. I took those complaints directly to their employer, First Bus, which is keen to make sure that their drivers are always polite and helpful. The company wants abuses to be reported because it does not reflect well if its drivers are rude and unhelpful.
Danny Alexander: The hon. Lady makes a fair point. I would hope that all transport providers have the same attitude at a senior level that she has described.
The question of extending the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to air and sea travel has been raised. It is appreciated that there are difficulties with
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international travel. I congratulate the Government on having made some progress during their recent EU presidency.
There need not be any delay, however, with domestic air and sea transport. I understand that a benchmarking exercise carried out with the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee was due to report on the issue in early 2006. I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on the current position.
I have had similar experiences to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) with rail transport, where there are still significant problems with access to railway stations. That applies also to access to train services in my constituency, and I am sure that that applies to other areas. It is an issue on which we should have a continual watching brief.
I shall refer briefly to housing. In 2003, the charity John Grooms found that more than 20 per cent. of disabled people live in houses that are difficult for them to enter and move around in. It was found that 40 per cent. felt that their housing situation made them more dependent on other people. As for wheelchair users, 24 per cent. felt that they were prisoners in their own home due to poor location with lack of access to services and to transport. The lack of a proper focus on housing related issues is one of the relatively few weak spots in the life chances report. The Government need to ensure that as the life chances vision is taken forward housing does not continue to be overlooked. It was a great disappointment that the Government's review was abandoned. It would have incorporated the lifetime home standard within building regulations. I hope that that is something that can be considered again in due course.
Greater and more effective use must be made of the existing stock of accessible housing. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East referred to the lack of affordable housing. However, within all our constituencies there is a stock of housing that is accessible to the disabled. The use of accessible housing registers, for example, can help to ensure that that housing is made available more directly to those who need it most.
With elections taking place today, mention should be made in the debate of the difficulties that many people have in voting. A survey by Scope showed that in the 2001 general election 69 per cent. of polling stations were inaccessible to the disabled. I doubt whether any of us can give assurances that our party has ensured that we have provided our election leaflets in accessible formats for those who need thatfor example, large print and easy read. Accessible versions of Government publications are equally sometimes hard to find. For example, the easy-read version of the welfare reform Green Paperif anything should be provided in an easy-read version, it should be that documentarrived about a month after the Green Paper was published.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con):
Would the hon. Gentleman care to reflect on the fact that in a written answer that I received from the Minister recently, she laid great store on the care and commitment of her Department to provide accessible formats? The case
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that the hon. Gentleman makes, of which I was also aware, well demonstrates that in Government Departments, too, there is a long way to go.
Danny Alexander: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. As for the welfare reform Green Paper, I find it disappointing that despite the delay in publishing the easy-read version, there was no extension given to the consultation period.
Mrs. McGuire: We liaise closely with the organisations involved, especially those representing people with learning disabilities. We did two things. First, we apologised publicly to them for the delay in publishing the easy-read version. Secondly, we extended the time by which they could respond to the consultation. That was made clear at the time.
Danny Alexander: I am grateful to the Minister for pointing that out. As for extending the time scale for consultation, that was not made clear to me in parliamentary answers. I am pleased that the Minister has made the position clear now. That seems to be a positive step forward.
I move on briefly to the issue of funding. A study undertaken by the Department for Work and Pensions, working paper 21, concluded that disability benefits are not currently sufficient to meet the extra costs that disabled people face. It is hard to identify all of the extra costs that are involved. Therefore, it is a complicated matter. The study was clear that while it could not necessarily ascertain the full extent of the extra costs, the full extra costs were certainly not met. That is in line with the findings of other studies, not least the Rowntree study, which has already been mentioned.
It seems to me that independent living cannot fully be achieved while that remains the case. For example, disability living allowance does not provide for communication support needs, such as augmentative communication support equipment. Towards the end of the strategy unit report, it is stated:
"Although there are advocates of a step change in allocation, it is unrealistic to assume that substantive new resources can be made available".
However, the document concludes that the unit has made a constructive case for persuasive bids in the next spending review. It says:
"With the 20 year horizon of the vision it will not be credible for the recommendations to be challenged on the grounds of available resource, only timescales."
The report also suggests where the extra resources might come from. In the summary it states:
"Successful implementation of the proposals in this report will depend, where necessary, on the appropriate level of funding being made available as a result of successful outcomes from future spending reviews. But in overall terms, a more efficient approach which promotes increased economic participation should deliver a net economic benefit in the medium to long term."
Sothe Minister will no doubt point this outthere may not be funds available in the short term for a step change, but it is clear that in the long term there will be a net economic benefit from greater inclusion of disabled people in the work force, both through savings on benefit spending and increased revenue from the greater level of economic activity.
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I wonder whether the agenda is being driven by the Treasury. Is welfare reform seen by the Chancellor of the Exchequer simply as a savings exercise, with all spending decisions on the net benefit to come from No. 11? Perhaps the best hope that the Minister can give disabled people today is that all of the life chances recommendations will be implemented, and that she will confirm that she will make a strong case to the Chancellor ahead of the next spending review that there is a clear case for the savings that are delivered to be at least in part allocated to bringing about the vision of the life chances report and implementing its recommendations by 2020.
That would mean that disabled people throughout the United Kingdom could have confidence that not only have the Government set out worthwhile aspirations and worthwhile policy goals in the life chances report and accepted all 60-odd of the recommendations, but that over the period of the report steps will be taken, through the benefits that are delivered to the economy, to make resources available and to deliver the other recommendations.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I begin with an apology: I may not be available to stay in the Chamber for all the summing-up speeches. Unfortunately, the last plane to Aberdeen leaves earlier in the summer schedule than at other times. Last week my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) and I both missed the plane, and it took us some effort to get to Aberdeen the night we were due to arrive there. I have constituency engagements tomorrowand although things have improved quite considerably for disabled people, hiring an adapted car with an automatic gearbox at short notice at Edinburgh airport at 11 pm or midnight is not presently open to disabled people. I hope that it will be understood if I cannot stay to the end of the debate.
I intended to begin by listing all the positive things that the Government have done, but the wind has been taken out of my sails a wee bit. The hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) did the job for us. That in itself is a telling change, and I welcome the change in tone and mood from those on the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman gave credit to the legislation that the Government have put in place. He talked about changing attitudes and about how the landscape for disabled people today is quite different from the landscape that existed in 1997.
Because the changes have often been incremental and quite slow, it is sometimes useful for those of us who have been involved in the debate for a long time to reflect on how much has changed, how dramatic the change has been and how much it has speeded up in the past 10 years. People for whom the Government have made successful changes have a tendency to put those improvements in their pocket and say, "Thanks very much. What are you going to do for us now?"
There have been changes in legislation and in attitudesnot just among those on the Opposition Front Bench, although perhaps that reflects their attempt to be closer to the people. They have sensed a change in attitudes to disability among people, whether they are disabled or not. The hon. Member for South-West Surrey said there was a mountain to climb.
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Unfortunately that mountain keeps getting higher, because our expectations keep rising, so he will find, as we have done, that as one gets to the foothills, it is even further to the first base. I welcome the hon. Gentleman on that journey. I do not want to be churlish, but in the past his party has not even got to first base camp, so it has a long way to go to catch up with everyone else.
Attitudes have changed among disabled people themselves. No longer are they willing to sit back and accept discrimination as part and parcel of their life. Before I was elected to the House, I remember having a heated argument with someone who was involved with an organisation for disabled people. He was not disabled himself, but he worked and gave up his spare time to help disabled people. He believed that the only way to change attitudes was through education, and that legislation had no part in it. I argued that legislation set a benchmark and set the tone and the mood. People are generally law-abiding and once legislation is passed, their attitudes will fall in behind it. That is an important lesson to be learned.
The hon. Member for South-West Surrey spoke about the time lag between legislation and the change that that legislation brings about. I agree that with race and gender that time lag has been substantial, but with disability, the time lag has been foreshortened. I pay tribute to the Government because it is legislation, backed up by action, that has helped to speed up change.
I remember a time when small businesses would have been the most vehement opponents of the extension of part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. They would have said that it was impossible for them to make any adaptations as that would put them out of business, and so on, yet the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland has been one of the bodies most actively involved in changing their members' attitudes, to make them realise that those changes are good for their business. For service providers, particularly restaurants, there is money in disability. Disabled people do not go out and socialise on their own. They tend to go out with a crowd, so if a restaurant or a venue is inaccessible to someone like me it is inaccessible to all my pals, because we will not go there. There is a good business case to be made.
For businesses that are struggling to recruit new employees at a time of high employment levels, skills shortages and in some cases a labour shortage, unless small businesses look to those who have been out of the labour market for some time because of a disability or a health problem, they will not find the quality staff that they need.
Attitudes have changed. Discrimination still exists, but not to the extent that I remember experiencing it when I first started using a wheelchair. It is not as overt and in your face as it used to be. I took petty discrimination for granted and accepted it as being part of my life. It was not worth getting worked up about it, because I would have gone through life being angry and annoyed, constantly writing angry letters, constantly complaining and constantly making an issue of it. It was just too much effort, and it was often easier to say, as many people do, that that is just what happens when one is disabled.
We are not willing to put up with that any more. That is what has changed. When discrimination occurs, it is more likely to be challenged. That is a good thing. As I
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said with reference to transport providers, unless people are prepared to complain, service providers do not know that further down the line there is a problem in the way that their work force are behaving towards disabled people. There is now a greater tendency to complain.
Often when I have been out socially or in the course of my work and a blatant case of discrimination has occurred, I have had a sinking feeling and thought, "Oh no, not again. I'll have to write rude letters yet again." That happened to me recently. On Easter Monday I attempted to go to the cinema in London. I did not realise that that was such a foolhardy expedition. I did not think there would be any problems, but I tried three different cinemas to see three different films in the course of one afternoon in the west end of London, and I failed to gain access to any of them. That is a real condemnation.
I can name the cinemas. At Cineworld in Shaftesbury avenue the lift was out of action, so despite the fact that it took me three quarters of an hour to get to the box office, which was a complicated route in itself, and no one had told me on the way that the lift was out of action, we had to turn round and come back. I could not get to any of the screens at that cinema. The next one was the Odeon West End, where the main screen is accessible, but not the screen where the film that I wanted to see was being shown. A number of screens at that cinema are inaccessible. At the Odeon Leicester Square, only one of the screens was accessible, not the second screen.
If I had wanted to see Ant and Dec in their new movie, I might have been able to go. Unfortunately, that is not my taste in film. Of the more cerebral films that I might have wanted to see, none was accessible. The original film that I set out to see was showing at another Odeon, in Covent Garden, but the Odeon Leicester Square could not guarantee that it was showing on a screen that was accessible at the Odeon Covent Garden.
I tell that story to illustrate how difficult it must be for visitors in London, and also because it came as an incredible shock to me. I have not been refused access to a cinema for almost 20 years. I remember when I was told that I could not come into a cinema because I was a fire hazard, but that was 25 years ago. I always thought that was a dreadful thing to say. Here was I, a non-smoker, regarded as a fire hazard, whereas the drunk man who was smoking next to meremember, smoking was allowed in cinemas in those days, although it is allowed nowhere in Scotland nowwas not considered a fire hazard. The injustice was appalling. Rightly, we do not allow that to happen any more.
I was shocked to find that the cinemas in London have got round the DDA by saying that because at least one of their screens is accessible, they have made reasonable adjustments. The excuse was that it was an old building and they had tried very hard. The cinemas in Aberdeen have been accessible for a long time and I have not faced that problem. My expectation nowadays is that I will go out to the cinema at the drop of a hat to see a film of my choice, without major forward planning. When I was unable to do that on Easter Monday, it came as a shock and a disappointment to me. It is one thing to have the legislation in place, and another to make sure that it works.
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Things have changed. I welcome the Prime Minister's strategy unit report, "Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People". I welcome it because it will make things better for individuals and their chances to lead fulfilling lives, which is at the heart of today's debate. It has been announced recently that some schools are giving happiness lessons, and here the Government have a chance to make many people happy. Disabled people do not have outrageous expectations or ambitions; they just want to get on with their lives and enjoy them, with the minimum of hassle and barriers.
If anyone wants a good night out, I would recommend going out with a group of disabled people. We often have a good laugh, even when we are being refused entry to a place. The truth is that if we did not laugh at some of the things that happen to us, we would end up crying. Disabled people are good fun in generalI realise that I am making a huge generalisationand they have adapted to some of the worst excesses, which people who are not disabled would find appalling, and would be outraged if they happened to them.
Yes, this is all about individuals and opportunities, but it is also important to the Government's ambition to end child poverty and reduce poverty more widely. There is no doubt that the link between poverty and disability is clearer and starker now than ever. The Government have been successful in alleviating pensioner policy and in lifting almost a million children out of poverty, but an important link remainsthe link to disability. We have broken the link between old age and poverty and between having a family and poverty, but the Government have not yet broken the link between disability and poverty. The most disadvantaged families will often have a member with a disabilitywhether it be a child, an adult or a grandparentwho requires a high level of care. If we can improve the opportunities and life chances of disabled people, we can not only lift those individuals out of a cycle of poverty, but empower their families as well. At some stage we might be able to release those families from the burden of caring, which often inflicts poverty on family members as well as the disabled person.
From my perspective, it sometimes seems difficult to speak about areas of disability because I am not really a typical disabled person. There is a danger of our ending up with two classes of disabled people. It is a horrible phrase, but there is a group of "high-functioning" disabled peoplepeople, even with profound disabilities, who hold down permanent full-time and sometimes high-powered jobs. Last year two disabled people sought my advice on how to become an MPobviously they think that I have the magic touch, but I am not so sure myself. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) may want to ensure that I do not remain an MP for much longer!
The two people who sought my advice had profound disabilities. One was a young woman unable to move any part of her body, yet she works for the BBC; the other was a young man who can move only his head, yet he is a full-time barrister operating in court. People with profound disabilities thus have aspirations to become MPs, and are already in highly paid and highly skilled
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work. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) could be mentioned as falling into this category, as could Tanni Grey-Thompson and other elite athletes, such as those who took part in the London marathon recently, or in the Paralympics or the Commonwealth games.
The danger of producing a disabled elite who are doing very well is that people sometimes say, "If they can do it, what's holding anyone else back?". The sort of life that that elite leads is different from the life of most disabled people, just as the life of an average MP is different from that of a single parent living in a sink estate in our constituencies. There is a big difference between what some disabled people can do and what others can do. However, that illustrates the fact that when people are given the right opportunities, the right education and the right help, the world can be everyone's oyster. It is possible to achieveeven in a society where some negative attitudes towards disability remain, where 63 per cent. of employers would not consider employing someone with a mental health problem, and where 75 per cent. of blind people are not in work. Even in such a society, disabled people can compete and achieve against the able-bodied, or anyone else.
The reality for the majority of disabled people, however, is the key issue that we should address todayand it is that reality that the strategy unit report addresses. The problems and barriers faced by disabled people are often not the result of one Department: the problems are cross-departmental and relate to a variety of issues. It is often the silo mentality of local as well as central government that acts as a major barrier to disabled people getting the holistic help that they need to lift themselves out of poverty or other difficulties.
It is interesting to note that the strategy unit report is a joint report between the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills and the Office of the Deputy Prime Ministerand I would like to add the Scottish and Welsh Executives to that list, because housing and health issues are the responsibility of the devolved Administrations, not just of the central Government here in Whitehall. Unless we get the different Departments working together to remove the barriers, the life chances of disabled people will continue to be disadvantaged, when it is just too much of an effort to access the help required.
I have a word of warningbut I am just as guilty as anyone else. When I first got involved in the disability debate and argued in favour of civil rights for disabled people, I recall that the whole issue was viewed as a matter for the Department of Health. It was seen as a health issue, and only a health issue. That provides another example of how attitudes have changed, as we realise today that it is not just a health matter; it is about social mobility, transport, housing and a range of other issues.
The danger today, however, is that we end up concentrating only on the world of work. As I said, I am just as guilty as others of thinking that work will solve all the ills of disabled people. Of course it will notthe problem is much more complex than thatbut work can go a long way to help, particularly those who are able to work. Yet another example of how attitudes have changed is the fact that when I first entered the
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House in 1997 and expressed the view that I had held for the previous 20 yearsthat disabled people should be given the chance to work and that that was a good thingI received a deluge of letters saying, "That is disgraceful. It is all right for you, but how dare you force disabled people into work?" I viewed work as providing opportunities, but encountered the attitude that we should not be bothering those poor wee things. I am pleased to say that, on the launch of the Government's Green Paper on welfare reform, that has not been the attitude to the proposals this time round. That was the attitude until very recently, although not necessarily that of disabled people themselves. Some people used to believe that it was outrageous for people who were already disadvantaged to be given help to get over it.
I have already mentioned the Green Paper and I would like to discuss my hopes for it in more detail, but I am somewhat constrained because I sit on the Select Committee for Work and Pensions, and our report on the same issue is embargoed until midnight tomorrow. I am frightened of inadvertently giving away what is in that report and I do not want to fall foul of the House in that regard. I am sorry that I cannot say more about that matter.
Moving on from my hobby horse of the importance of work, I want to discuss some of the other areas in which we must get things right. If we hope that someone will either remain in work or get another job after a major health episode, we must get the health service right. Although waiting three months for a hip operationunfortunately, the wait is six months in Scotlandis much better than waiting 12 months or 18 months, as happened in the past, it is still too long if someone has lost their job when a new hip would have allowed them to maintain their position in the workplace. The same is true of people who could remain in the workplace if they received physiotherapy, because some of them have to wait three months to obtain an assessment of their bad back from a physiotherapist. Unless we get health services and social care services right, the Government's aspiration to help people to remain in work may count for very little.
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