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Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), whose remarks towards the
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end of his speech were particularly telling, especially from someone whom we know has a long record of being involved in international development. I am sure that we all wish him a speedy recovery as well.

This has been an interesting debate, opened robustly, as one would expect, by my hon. Friend the Minister. She is doing a first-class job, and is right to contrast our approach to disability, say, 10 years ago with the much greater urgency that we now see in the Chamber day by day. Under her stewardship, that is all the more clear and all the more profound. I am pleased to give her my support in today's extremely important debate.

I also welcome the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) to his duties. During the period to which I am referring, I was the shadow Cabinet spokesperson on disability, working with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I welcomed then, as I do now, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was an important step forward. Because of the hon. Gentleman's style, I do not want to be particularly controversial, but I take the view that his right hon. Friend probably feels, on reflection, that the DDA would have been even better if he had accepted our proposal to introduce the Disability Rights Commission. With me, he will regret that we merely got within 13 votes of achieving that. In that spirit, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to this wonderful portfolio. I am sure that he will find great fulfilment in it.

When I initiated a debate just three years ago this month during the European year of disabled people, the Government's document, "Valuing People", was the main focus of our discussion. I realise that, today, the   publication of the welfare reform Green Paper, "A   New Deal for Welfare: Empowering People to Work", is the backdrop to our debate. That is inevitable.

I want to touch on a few issues, some of which have been dealt with, but primarily I shall discuss employment and then disabled children. As the House might be aware, I co-chair with Lord Rix the all-party group on learning disability. Not surprisingly, I want to deal with some of the issues that that group has discussed. There is considerable concern, as has been expressed today on both sides of the House, about employment. That concern makes sense: among people with learning disabilities, there is 90 per cent. unemployment. Even the 10 per cent. who are employed are mostly in part-time jobs. Seventy-nine per cent. of people with mental health problems also experience unemployment. Indeed, the employment rates for those two groups is less than half the overall rate for disabled people, which is itself less than satisfactory, as we have heard today.

Mr. Burns: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that great strides have been made in recent years to deal with the problems faced by people who suffer from disabilities? Does he also agree that, apart from continuing that work, the greatest challenge that we now face is to break down the stigma and prejudice against those suffering from mental illness, given that 20 per cent. of people in this country will at some time in their lives suffer a form of mental illness?

Mr. Clarke: I hope to touch on that important issue later, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I look forward to hearing the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who has made a remarkable contribution on these issues. I am sure that he, too, would agree that it is an important matter.
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On employment, particularly with respect to those with learning disabilities, I am afraid that it must be recorded that we have not seen the improvement in the past three or four years for which we would have wished. We keep pushing for that, however, and rightly so. The situation is not helped by the fact that disabled people are twice as likely as non-disabled people to have no qualifications.

Mr. Boswell: Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the question of the numbers of people with learning disabilities taking up employment, does he reflect on the fact that that rather poor performance is at a time when the Government claim credit for high levels of employment in the labour market? Is not the growing mismatch between people without disabilities who can apparently pick up a job easily, and people with learning disabilities who find it proportionately ever more difficult, especially worrying?

Mr. Clarke: It is not like the hon. Gentleman to make what appears to be a party political point, and if he does not mind, I shall resist the temptation to respond. If I may, I shall simply refer him to the speech that I made during the Budget debate on the Government's record on employment generally.

On the issue of disabled people—particularly those with learning disabilities—seeking employment, RADAR, like so many other disability organisations, has done a magnificent job. It has used the slogan that disability does not mean and should not mean "cannot work". It is right. It explains its view by saying that there are other factors besides a person's disability. Two people with the same condition may be in or out of work based on their own ability to manage their impairment, and based on the accessibility of their working environment and support provided to overcome barriers.

Whatever we might think about the proposals in the Green Paper, to which, on the whole, disability organisations have responded positively, our policies simply must take into account the obstacles that disabled people face in taking up employment; provide a fair, objective basis for establishing eligibility for the reformed disability benefit; and ensure that absolutely no one is labelled unemployable.

I believe that the Government should continue to focus their resources on those who face the most significant barriers to employment. The truth is that the targets set for Government programmes may not always encourage providers to work with people with learning disabilities, who may need more time and support to secure jobs. That is why the RADAR/Remploy task force—RADAR is the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation—which was set up last August to find new solutions to the problems, has already drawn clear conclusions. I congratulate it on its work.

The task force points out that individual support needs should be recognised in non-stigmatising ways, a point made a few moments ago by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns). It also observes that work placements seem to work better than training courses, compensating for an individual's lack of confidence and inappropriate interview techniques. It is important to recognise the special needs of people with learning disabilities.
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A significant number of people with moderate to severe learning disabilities need to be helped both into and in work. If they are to gain mainstream employment, tailored ongoing support must be available. According to anecdotal evidence, people with learning disabilities are not being helped by pathways to work to the extent that the Government would wish, owing to the emphasis on condition management and rehabilitation in the system. That emphasis is not appropriate or relevant to the support needs of people with learning disabilities, or other disabled people whose condition is lifelong. Specialist incapacity benefit advisers must have experience of learning disabilities: that is profoundly important in the context of the Green Paper. Niche providers such as Mencap do not have nationwide coverage, so it is crucial for Jobcentre Plus to provide the programmes and support that are appropriate to people with learning disabilities, rather than relying on external agencies.

I entirely accept that no Government can solve all those problems. We can create the climate, and I believe that this Government are doing exactly that, but employers have responsibilities as well. To be fair, there are examples of best practice among some small and large employers. More work must also be done to make the business case for employing disabled people, and employers who have seen the benefits of employing them are best placed to lead that work. The Employers Forum on Disability has done a first-class job, as has the Scottish Federation of Small Businesses. When I had an opportunity to examine the American experience, it seemed to me that American employers were the people who were explaining to the world how important it is—not just to jobs, and not just to disabled people—for society to accept its responsibilities to others, and to accept that the fact that a person is disabled does not justify the automatic discrimination that has existed in the past.

More could be done to ensure that disabled people can retain their current jobs when acquiring and/or managing impairments and fluctuating conditions. When people experience temporary setbacks after several years of managing conditions such as epilepsy or depression, that should not cost them their jobs or, indeed, promotion.

I note that the joint working group report of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health, on employment for people with learning disabilities, has not yet been published. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us, when she winds up, when it is expected. She will be aware that although I accept the main thrust of the Green Paper, I continue to urge the need for the utmost sensitivity. The spirit of such an approach was impressively put by RADAR in its response to the Green Paper:

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The DRC offered its views—it was not alone in doing so—on the Office for Disability Issues in its briefing for this debate. It said:

I also agree wholeheartedly with its view that the ODI

In turning to children with disabilities, I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Ed Balls), who recently introduced a ten-minute Bill entitled the Disabled Children's Assessment and Services Bill. It is supported by Contact a Family, the Council for Disabled Children, Mencap and the Special Educational Consortium, which have been working together for several years to raise awareness of the issues that the Bill addresses, and to press for change.

The reason for the Bill's introduction is the lack of entitlement to services on the part of disabled children and their families. It would give disabled children the right to local authority assessment and to receive services such as short breaks, respite care and accommodation. It would also help to deliver on the Government's commendable May 2005 manifesto commitment, which states:

I am delighted that the Bill is receiving all-party support.

The Bill's relevance is that some 770,000 children in the UK—7 per cent.—are disabled. Since 1975, there has been a 62 per cent. increase in the numbers of disabled children. That is due largely to medical advances, especially in the perinatal setting, that fortunately mean that more children survive. It costs three times as much to bring up a disabled child as it does to raise one who is not disabled. To their great credit, the Government have taken a huge number of children out of poverty, but 55 per cent. of disabled children's families still live in poverty.

As the DRC has reminded us, 84 per cent. of mothers of disabled children do not work, compared with 39 per cent. of mothers of non-disabled children. It has also said that two thirds of families in which neither parent works include at least one disabled parent.

I know that the Government want to resolve those problems. The Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton would make it clear in law for the first time that local authorities must assess disabled children and provide a range of services, such as short breaks and respite care, where they are deemed to be necessary. It would also encourage parents to ask for assessments, and for the services and support that they so desperately need. I welcome the proposals to encourage local authorities to think creatively about how to meet disabled children's needs, and the requirement that NHS bodies should
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work co-operatively with local authorities to promote the health and welfare of disabled children in England and Wales.

My hon. Friend the Minister may think that I am overlooking Scotland. However, I assure her that I have put down an oral question on that very issue, for answer by the Secretary of State for Scotland next Tuesday.

On the wider matter of children with disabilities, organisations of and for disabled people have argued consistently that adequate family support is crucial to improving the life chances of people with learning disabilities. They welcome the scrapping of the means test for the disabled facilities grant, which means that more families are able to make the vital adjustments to their homes that make it possible to provide appropriate care for disabled family members. However, other bodies, such as Mencap, want the limit for the grant to be increased from £25,000 to £50,000, in line with the recommendations of the review commissioned by the Government.

Again and again, hon. Members are reminded at our surgeries that a few alterations—such as a walk-in shower, a ramp or better access to a bedroom—would make a world of difference to the quality of so many people's lives. That underlines how even the limited resources available to local councils can genuinely improve our approach to community care.

The House would be surprised if I were to complete a speech on disability without referring to advocacy. Advocacy was at the heart of the Disabled Persons Act 1986, which I managed to steer through the House, and is especially urgent in respect of the needs of disabled children. The Children's Society has said:

It points out too that recent research shows that

That figure is clearly far too low, and much more needs to be done if disabled children are to experience the fulfilment that I know that the House wants them to have. However, I am sure that we all very much welcome the decision by the Department for Education and Skills to provide funding, with the aim of promoting advocacy, to the Children's Society's disability advocacy project, and that we all wish that project well.

I congratulate the Government on making that funding available, on their many other achievements in respect of disability rights, and on today's debate. As colleagues have often said, it may not be possible to add years to the lives of disabled people, but we have a chance to add life to their years.

3.19 pm

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