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Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is an honour to speak in this important debate. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who spoke with passion, eloquence, knowledge and detail about these important issues. I found myself immediately agreeing with him on two issues, the first of which was the consensus that we are sharing across the House. I hope that the Minister will be able to pick up on that. As some of my hon. Friends noted, her opening remarks were somewhat partisan and did not do justice to the contributions that have been made since.
Mrs. McGuire: I am astonished by the defensiveness of Conservative Members. Perhaps I could scotch this now, appropriately for a Scotswoman. I was seeking to pay them a compliment by saying that they had come a long way since 1995, when, with some honourable exceptions, they showed a disregard for the way forward for disabled people.
Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful for that clarification. If we misinterpreted the Minister's remarks, apologies are due. However, I hope that in her closing remarks she will take on board the fact that there is consensus, as was eloquently stated by the hon. Member for Kingswood. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that he is in government.
The hon. Gentleman will not be astonished to learn that I do not agree with those remarks. I was about to pay him further compliments on his speech but I do not know whether I should curtail them now.
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There is consensus across the board. I fundamentally agreed with the hon. Gentleman about the date that has been selected for the debate. Our previous debate took place on 10 June 2004, when the European elections were held. Today happens to be the date of the local elections. The single Liberal Democrat smiles. It is a shame that not one other member of the Liberal Democrat team is present to contribute to the important debate. Perhaps the next debate on the subject will be held on the day of the general election and we might thus get an idea of when it will be. Hon. Members have passionately expressed the view that we need more debate on disability. The Government have proposed plans for the next 20 years, and we simply cannot leave the subject to a debate that we hold every two years. I am grateful that the Minister acknowledged that earlier
The subject is wide ranging. It covers everything to do with disabilitymobility, manual dexterity, speech, hearing, seeing and memory. That definition is taken from the Government. I want to consider some matters that have not been discussed so far. I do not want to prompt the hon. Member for Kingswood to intervene again, but I stress that much was achieved in 1995 with the Disability Discrimination Act. Yes, more has been done since then, but it would be wrong to dismiss the Conservative Government by saying that they did nothing.
I am pleased that the latest publication from the Prime Minister's strategy unit, "Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People", includes evidence and contributions from several Departments. One Department alone cannot look after the issues, and evidence was taken from the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills as well as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I commend the report. I hope that it will affect the design of buildings, the workplace and transport, and challenge the outdated attitudes that limit the involvement of disabled people in everyday life.
It is fair to say that attitudes are changing and have changed. We have national role models who are disabled and are now recognised names. I was in the flat next door to Tanni Grey-Thompson when we were at Loughborough university. She excels at her sport and is a household name. She has done much to promote the opportunities available for those in a wheelchair and to allow those of us who are not disabled to understand and open our minds.
Adrian Adepitan is a basketball player who did well with his team and won several medals. He appears on the link clips between programmes on BBC television. That would not have happened 15 or 20 years ago and it shows the progress that has been made.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), who is no longer in her placeperhaps because she knew that I might embarrass heris a role model. I was working in the House for Tom King, now Lord King, when she entered Parliament. Again, she is a fantastic example of what can be achieved, and of breaking down barriers and challenging identities that have been associated with disability. It is a two-way processshowing what those who are disabled can achieve but, more important, educating those of us who are not disabled.
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Much remains to be done. The Government's report shows that approximately 50 per cent. of disabled people of working age are unemployed and more than 40 per cent. are of low skill. We all face those challenges, whoever is in government. We need to tackle them now.
Statistics also reflect the people who are caught in what could be labelled the disability trap. They find it difficult to work or find an opportunity of work and therefore lean on the benefits system to survive. Incapacity benefit payments highlight that. For example, since 1997, the number of claimants has increased as well as that of those claiming for more than five years. Perhaps the most astounding figure shows that the number of young people who claim incapacity benefit has increased by 70 per cent.
There are 2.7 million people claiming incapacity benefits, and it is a challenge for any Government to try to reduce that number and to get people back into work. Those who want to be economically active should be allowed to do so, and should be given the appropriate opportunities in life. I hope that the Government will be able to meet their target of moving 1 million off incapacity benefit. If we do not tackle these challenges, people with disabilities will resign themselves to being stuck on incapacity benefit for life. I commend the Government's report, and I hope that we shall have a further opportunity to debate these matters in the future.
I have done some research recently on disability issues in Bournemouth. As hon. Members will be aware, we have quite an aged population and an awful lot of care homes. However, the new regulations that have been introduced into the care home environment have, unfortunately, resulted in a decrease in the number of such homes in Bournemouth. Over-regulation and red tape are forcing some of the smaller homes to close because they cannot afford to meet the new standards of regulation being imposed on them. For example, in a care home with only six residents, every room now has to be en suite.
I understand the need for certain dimensions and standards in order for a care home to operate correctly, but I do not think that it was the Government's intention that the end result would be that homes would close. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what is being done to review the regulations, and whether there will be any changes to allow care homes, particularly the smaller ones, to continue to work without being threatened by closure because of the high costs that they are now incurring.
We are also concerned about schools, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) eloquently spelled out some of the issues facing specialist schools. Will the Minister tell us what are the Government's intentions in regard to specialist schools? Many have been closed as a result of reduced funding. What is going to happen to the integration of pupils? As the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South said, the important factor is choice. We should not force parents to send their children to specialist schools, or force children to be integrated into the main school system. A choice should be available. At the moment, with specialist schools closing, that choice is being reduced.
One of the drawbacks of the disability legislation is that it is so far-reaching that it affects every single classroom and hallway in a school. King's Park primary
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school in Bournemouth is in a very old building, yet it has managed to meet 99 per cent. of the requirements that have now been placed on it. That is entirely appropriate. However, one classroom on the top floor has three steps going up to it. The school does not have the money to put in a special short stair lift to allow wheelchair access to the room, but no one requires wheelchair access at the moment. Why cannot the school be granted a dispensation to be able to use that classroom, if no disabled people need to use it? Or, if necessary, classes could even be moved round so that the facility could be used. At the moment, it is standing empty, and the school has neither sufficient space nor the money to rectify the situation.
A recent Government initiative has involved the merging of three large bodiesthe Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commissioninto a single body: the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. I understand that the budget for the new body represents an increase on the budgets for the three former bodies. Where will the extra money go? How will it be accounted for?
I want to talk briefly about the mental health facilities in the Dorset Health Care NHS Trust. The budget for Bournemouth was £59 million in 200304, and it went up to £66 million in 200405. We should rejoice at that, because it was an excellent increase. However, when we looked at the figures for the staff costs, the heating costs and all the other costs, we realised that they had gone up so much that they overshadowed the increase that I have just mentioned. The net consequence is that the trust has had to make cuts of about £1 million. That includes the closure of a halfway house called Torch, based in Hahnemann house in Bournemouth. This popular facility has been used for those people who were in intensive mental care, but who wanted a stepping-stone to get back into the community. The facility, I am afraid, has been cut simply because Bournemouth cannot afford to run it. That is very sad indeed.
Dorset is one of the best performing areas in the country, as the statistics will show, but, unfortunately, it is now one of the worst funded. That is not an isolated problem, as I understand that about £20 million has been cut from the mental health care budget nationally. The Mental Health Foundation has called that a "cruel and insane" action by the Government. Again, I would like the Minister to comment on why there have been so many cuts to something so fundamentally important.
I also want to comment on the criminal injuries compensation scheme, which was mentioned earlier in relation to the terrorist aspects of 7 July. There has been a lot of media coverage of those who have asked for compensation but have yet to receive it, and I understand that the Prime Minister himself had to intervene to get the scheme to provide the funding for those who were caught up in that horrific disaster.
When I made that intervention, there were rumblings on the other side of the House, but whether we agree that the money should come from that scheme and whether we agree that those who are disabled should be receiving funds are separate arguments. It should not matter whether people are getting money from incapacity benefit, disability living allowance or the criminal injuries compensation scheme: if they deserve that money and are legally entitled to it, it should be
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provided. However, there is an inherent delay in the system. Worse, if people are affected by a terrorist bomb abroad, they receive absolutely no compensation, whether it be for prosthesis or for loss of limb. I hope that the Government will take that point on board and address it.
To conclude, I am glad to have contributed to the debate and I think we have learned an awful lot today. I emphasise the concern that we should be having such debates regularly. Much needs to be done to help those who are disabled to fulfil their potential and to provide them with the same opportunities that we all have. Disabled people continue to be more likely to live in poverty, have fewer qualifications and experience a poorer standard of living.
I hope that today's debate focuses minds on what is required. While the actions referred to in the report from the Prime Minister's strategy unit are welcome, 20 years is too long to wait to see whether they work. I would like the Minister not to ask me to bring these matters up during business questions, but to say, "Yes, I endorse the idea of having an annual debate to see what progress has been made," rather than leaving it two or three years or until enough pressure has been applied for her to be called to the House. I am sure that she shares those sentiments, although I would like that to be confirmed.
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