Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns). I congratulate him on his comments on people with mental illness, as his views are widely shared in the House. They are important, and we should all act on them.
I very much welcome today's debate, if not the date on which it is being held. In the foreword to the life chances document, the Prime Minister says that life chances for disabled people are not a marginal issue. I very much hope that the business managers will note that comment, and act appropriately in future. I strongly support and endorse the report's strategy. Its recommendations, all of which have been accepted by the Government, are of critical importance if we are to tackle the inequalities and exclusion experienced by many disabled people. I welcome the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) to his new post, and I am genuinely pleased that there is great consensus on disability issues across the House. However, it was a Labour Government who, after their election in 1997, set up the disability rights taskforce, established the Disability Rights Commission, introduced the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, the new deal for disabled people and so on, culminating in the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 could have made provision for a disability rights commission. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and many other Members will recall, that was precisely what some of us spent hoursnay, daystrying to persuade the then Government to do. It would have been possible for the DDA 1995 not to exclude the subject of education. The requirement not to discriminate on the grounds of disability in the provision of services could have been applied to education, but the Government decided not to introduce such a provision. Transport provisions that have since been introduced could have been introduced in the DDA 1995. That would have been perfectly possible, as such provision was not unknown. Hours were spent in the Chamber and elsewhere urging the Government of the day to do more in the DDA.
Indeed. The 1995 Act imposed a requirement on access to stations in theory, but it specifically excluded trains from any requirements whatever. The policy was, "We think that it's a good idea for disabled people to have access to railway stations, but we don't care whether they can get on the train or not." That was the nature of the debate. I believe
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passionately that if a Labour Government had not been elected in 1997, the DRC, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, and the report that we are debating today would not have been introduced. I am glad that things have moved onI look forward to the new conservatism with excitement beyond measurebut we would not be where we are if the Government had not made progress.
I now move on to the welfare reform Green Paper, which is critical. Jobs are not everything, but jobs are probably the most effective way of enabling people to get out of poverty if they are able to secure employment. The subtitle of the Green Paper"Empowering people to work"shows precisely the right attitude. That is what I have always understood by welfare reform. I am pleased that that is the approach to welfare reform in the Green Paper. It must be said that that is in contrast to the approach set out in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999. I am delighted that the contrast is great.
Anyone who is in doubt about whether the Government are going in the right direction on these matters has, as always, only to read the Daily Mail. I read the Daily Mail the morning after the Green Paper was published, and there was a shock, horror headline, "Crackdown?" The article went on:
I thought, "That's great. That's fine." I did not expect welfare reform to be about taking money away from disabled people, so it was good news. The fact that the Daily Mail was irate encouraged me enormously. I must add, in all seriousness, that we then had the usual diatribe about scroungers and people living on handouts.
I am delighted that no one in the Chamber today has resurrected the sort of language that not so long ago was used about people who were being asked to survive on incapacity benefit. I am sorry for the hon. Member for South-West Surrey, who speaks from the Opposition Front Bench, but the Daily Mail went on to say:
Mr. Hunt: Will the hon. Gentleman explain what the contradiction is between "radical welfare reform", which we on the Opposition Benches would certainly welcome, and having a better benefits structure that helps more disabled people get into work?
Everybody knows that the concern was whether there would be benefit cuts. That is what the tabloids had been flagging up month after month. When we were told that the Tories had attacked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for not doing that, that was a point of some significance.
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Let us stay with the spirit of harmony and unity in the Chamber this afternoon. Let us accept that that to which I have referred is no longer Conservative party policy. I am delighted to hear that. I am sure that in due course the details of the Opposition's view on the benefits part of welfare reform, as opposed to the pathway to work part, will be interesting to observe. I hope in all sincerity that the focus is, as it is in the Green Paper, on tackling the problem by rolling out pathways to work, on giving people opportunities to work and on removing the barriers that prevent so many disabled people from working. This is not about taking away people's benefits.
The focus of the Green Paper is absolutely right. It is not that the state provides a generous benefit to people through incapacity benefit. The problem is that many people cannot secure waged employment because of illness or disability and require assistance to do so. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) was Secretary of State, he introduced the pathways to work pilot, which I warmly welcomed. That was exactly the right thing to do. I am delighted that the Minister and her colleagues have been building on that policy ever since.
There are issues that need to be addressed. There is the question of the financial resources that are necessary to deliver the ambitious targets in the Green Paper. I welcome the commitment that we already have to £360 million of new money, but I agree with those who observe that if we are to achieve the target of enabling a million people on incapacity benefit to secure employment in the next 10 years, we will almost certainly require more resources than that. As the Government have rightly pointed out, if another million people secure employment the Exchequer makes a substantial saving: people in work do not receive the benefits to which they were previously entitled, and instead pay income tax and national insurance contributions. The saving that has been mentioned in previous debates is £7 billion.
Others have alluded to the fact that joined-up Government should recognise that those savings would follow from an ambitious programme and could be invested in getting people back to work. I notice that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) said, the life chances report was cross-departmental. Four Departments have been involved in drafting an excellent report. Not surprisingly, the one Department whose name is not on it is the Treasury. I say that not as a criticismI am second to none in my admiration for the Chancellor[Interruption.] Somehow I do not think that my view on regime change will determine any such outcome.
On the life chances report, as on similar cross-departmental reports, we do not have the Treasury's signature. That is understandable, but I hope that my good friend the Minister and her colleagues are having talks with the Treasury about ensuring that a substantial part of the savings in welfare benefit payments that come from people going into work will be used for further investment in achieving the target of a million people off incapacity benefit and into jobs. Some people speak of Treasury rules as if those drop from the clear blue sky. The Treasury makes its own rules. The
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Government make the rules. There is nothing to stop money being transferred in a sensible way. Not to make that transfer would be silly.
I have argued before, and others have made the same point, that there is in the UK a powerful case for spending more on labour market programmes for disabled people, not just because, as I suggested, those programmes pay for themselves to a significant extent, but because UK spending on such programmes is quite low. It is about a fifth of the European Union average. Other EU countries are spending more on labour market programmes to support disabled people. I very much hope that we can move closer to the EU average, as we are doing, happily, in other areas.
As my final comment on the finance issue, I shall take up what has been said about the access to work programme. I agree with the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) who spoke for the Liberal Democrats: the access to work programme is probably one of the best kept secrets in Governmentso secret that 75 per cent. of employers have never heard of it. To the Government's creditthe Minister will correct me if I have the figures wrongthe spending on access to work has been quadrupled under this Government. It has gone up from a miserly £15 million to £60 million a year. That is a significant improvement.
Since the Department for Work and Pensions has notedI almost said conceded, but I will not say thatthat if it spends £1 million on access to work it gets £1.7 million back, because, as I said, people do not receive benefits but pay national insurance and income tax. The decision on any scheme that enables us to spend £1 million and get £1.7 million back in three or four years is a no-brainer. In that context, the £60 million does not seem very much. Recognising the simple economics of access to work, I join the Disability Rights Commission, and just about every other disability organisation, in saying, "Please, please can we consider putting more money into access to work?"
Some of my constituents illustrate the case. I remember a teacher who became a wheelchair user after a motorcycle accident. The reason why he returned to his classroom so quickly was the support that he received from South Gloucestershire council and the access to work scheme. Money was available to help him make some basic adaptations and he was back teaching in his classroom far more quickly than he ever anticipated and far more quickly than I ever thought possible. Access to work is a very important instrument, helping disabled people to get back to work.
As always, however, there is more to the issue than finance. When people require advice on employment opportunities and strategies for getting back to work, the advice that they receive from their personal advisers is critical, so there must be enough of them and they must be of good quality. There is a very ambitious target in the welfare reform Green Paper. Speaking as someone who visits job centres and voluntary organisations that assist disabled people to get back to work, I simply point out that, as of today, we are hardly suffering from an excess number of highly skilled personal advisers who fully understand mental health issues, access issues, the labour market and so forth.
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Given the likely salaries, it is not surprising if the advisers do not have the experience that is now demanded of them.
We must ensure that our ambitious programme does not run into difficulties because of an insufficient number of skilled personal advisers. In that context, voluntary organisations play a crucial part. Many voluntary organisations that provide support for disabled people have contracts from Jobcentre Plus to do the work, precisely because they have the requisite expertise. I am not necessarily suggesting that it would not be better if more people in Jobcentre Plus appreciated the issues, but the important consideration is what delivers for the individual clientthe disabled person seeking a joband many voluntary organisations possess the expertise that many Jobcentre Plus units do not have.
There is a real problem here. I visited a voluntary organisation in Bristol recently and found that the people working there were, like many others, on one-year contracts. If we are to achieve the ambitions of the Green Paper, we should try to ensure that where voluntary sector organisations have proved that they are delivering a good service and are benefiting many people by getting them back to work, the funding that we secure for them is rather better than one-year contracts. I hope that the Minister will take account of that. When I visited that voluntary organisation, I found that many of the people who had delivered for the last nine months were busy applying for jobs elsewhere, because they were unsure about funding for the next 12 months. That is not a sound basis on which to build active voluntary sector involvement in such an important sphere of activity.
Other hon. Members have observed that, sadly, a large proportion of disabled people are still living in poverty, and I should like to add to the debate. Extensive studiesparticularly the Joseph Rowntree Foundation research published 18 months ago, to which the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) referredhave demonstrated that disability benefits are not out of control: for some reason, I am thinking of the Daily Mail. The benefits, which are substantially below the level that would ensure a decent standard of living, are not generous.
There is also a danger of official Government statistics understating the extent of the poverty, because there are many costs of disability that obviously do not affect non-disabled people. The most expensive is probably the cost of personal assistants, interpreters for deaf people and so forth. Disabled people incur the costs of disability and, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation pointed out, when we take that into account, we find that the proportion of disabled people living in poverty is higher. The statistics quoted in the strategy unit reportI have checked them carefullysuggest that 27 per cent. of households with disabled people are likely to be poor, compared with 20 per cent. of households without disabled people.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report shows that that seriously underestimates the true extent of poverty among disabled people. If we are talking about life chances, we must bear that point in mind. As I have said, we must also consider whether the cost of heating for people whose condition requires them to keep warm should qualify them for the winter fuel allowance. The
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Government are not responsible for and cannot control fuel prices, but they can make the winter fuel allowance, which is welcome, and which is currently available to people over 60, available to severely disabled peoplefor example, those on the middle or higher rate of the disability living allowance care component or the higher rate of the mobility component, who we know must spend more on heating than others.
A few days ago, the Minister and the Secretary of State attended a meeting with the all-party group on disability, where I pointed out that there is age discrimination in disability benefits. If someone secures DLA before they are 65, the benefit continues after 65, but if someone applies for DLA aged 65 years and one day, they cannot get it. It is an injustice that people who acquire a mobility impairment after the age of 65 cannot apply for DLA, which means that they cannot obtain the DLA mobility component. Without the DLA mobility component, they cannot apply for the Motability scheme, which means that they suffer because of age discrimination.
I am aware that to remove age discrimination for DLA completely would be an expensive business, and there is no point my standing here and pretending that I do not know that. [Interruption.] The last figure that I saw was £3 billion, which is a lot of money. We must acknowledge in principle that age discrimination in disability benefits is wrong and that the attendance allowance that people can claim after the age of 65 is not adequate compensation. If it is not possible to correct that injustice immediately, I hope that the Government will consider moving in that direction by, for example, finding ways in which people can access Motability schemes without being in receipt of the DLA mobility component.
Like several other hon. Members, I want to comment on independent living. User-led organisations are local organisations run and controlled by disabled people, and they are vital in supporting independent living. Recommendation 4.3 in "Improving the life chances of disabled people" states:
centres for integrated living. Well, 2010 is only four years away. Will the Minister comment on that target in her winding-up speech? To my knowledge there are 35 CILs in this country, and some of them are losing local authority contracts, which is a matter for serious concern. I want to know how that recommendation will be achieved in four years' time, which will be a challenge.
I echo my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) in saying how pleased I was when the Government removed means-testing for disabled facilities grants for families with disabled children. That was a major step forward. Constituents of mine have been pushed into debt because of means-testing, or have been unable to go ahead with making adaptations. The statistics clearly indicate that a large proportion of those who apply for DFG to try to adapt their homes so that their disabled children can access facilities better do not go ahead because of the means-testing involved. I welcome that change, and thank the Government for it.
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I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill that the £25,000 maximum for the DFG needs to be updated. I support his suggestion that it should be increased to £50,000, as recommended in the Government-commissioned review undertaken by Bristol university. As a former employee of Bristol university, I naturally have to support its recommendations, but I generally do so in any case.
I strongly believe that the Government have an outstanding record on disability. We have seen nothing like it before, and it would not have happened had not this Government been in office. Ever since the Ministerwho is, rightly, widely respected inside and outside the Housegot the job, she has, with her colleagues, engaged in discussions with disability organisations and other interested parties on how to go forward. We had a year's consultation before we got to the welfare reform Green Paper. I congratulate the Minister on that. Making policy after lots of consultation is far better than doing it before consultation. The life chances strategy has been widely welcomed by all hon. Members. Now we need a speedy and effective implementation of the report's recommendations. I very much welcome the Government's clear commitment to that objective.