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Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in today's debate and am happy to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), who is not in the Chamber at this point. I found her contribution and her first-hand experiences extremely valuable and the debate has been all the better for them.

I want my contribution to be quite brief. The objective of any Government strategy on disabled people must be to focus on improving those people's
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quality of life and opportunities. We have heard of many achievement of which we can proud, but they must be viewed as a stepping stone towards more challenging, but hopefully more rewarding, reform.

We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Minister and from other Members that, before my time here, the House passed the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999, which gave rise to the commission and its statutory duties to promote equal opportunities and eliminate discrimination in this area. The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 amended and extended the 1995 legislation. In addition, while in government, Labour has introduced the new deal for the disabled, which has resulted in more disabled people being in work than ever before—about 750,000 more than in 1998. Working tax credits for disabled workers have delivered further support to many people once they have returned to work.

The experience, however, is not always good. Difficulties are still evident as some disabled people seek out the necessary support. I would like to take this opportunity to bring to the Minister's attention instances in which people have come to me with first-hand experiences of cases in which wheelchair users and those with sight problems are not benefiting from even good advice, let alone the best advice. That can create additional damage and further isolate and demoralise the people on the receiving end of that poor advice, and it does nothing for us as a society in general.

I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to meet the small group of people who have contacted me about their difficulties so that she can hear for herself, at first hand, where there are still gaps in the system that we can address. In addressing them, we would improve the quality of life of many more people, as well as the economic and social condition of our country. It is only by listening to the people who are affected by disability that we can best deliver the help and support that is required.

The Government are removing a significant number of boundaries. The DWP document, "A new deal for welfare", to which the Minister and other hon. Members referred, sets challenging targets for increasing employment opportunities for disabled and incapacitated people. One of the aims is to reduce the number of employees who leave work because of disability. That is very important, but it is a role that employers must approach responsibly. We have heard some disturbing comments today about the role of and experiences provided by some employers.

Employers must see the value of the person, not the disability—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood. I agree with the Government that employers, local authorities and health professionals and the Government need to come together to deliver the best results, but employers must have a much better understanding of our objectives and expectations and the role that they will play in delivering the objectives, and I say that as someone who has been an employer for 20 years.

The Minister will remember attending a recent meeting with me on the very subject of support for the disabled, and I am sure that she will have been heartened
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by the general response of most of the people present that night—whether disabled or able-bodied—and the recognition that we have done a lot and that we are planning to do even more. However, in bringing my brief contribution to an end, I urge the Minister and the Department to be aware that we must always keep listening to the experts in the field—the individuals who live with disability every day in life.

5.1 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks). I was in the Chamber when he made his maiden speech, and he has just made a very good short contribution. Certainly, one of the aspects that he brings to the debate is his business experience. I hope that the Minister will meet his delegation and take on board what he said about the role of employers.

We have had a very constructive, wide-ranging and positive debate, and I have always maintained that both parties have a good record on disability and disabled people. The previous Government had an excellent record, as was pointed out by the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt). The late right hon. Nick Scott was a quite superb Minister for the disabled. Indeed, as my hon. Friend also pointed out, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was a very distinguished holder of that office. It is a pity that in the past—not so much today—Ministers and Government Members have been somewhat grudging and patronising in their view of the Conservative party's record on such matters when in government. The time has come to accept that our record in government was good. This Government's record is also good, and I certainly welcome what they have done. I give credit to them for the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, for the welfare reform Green Paper and for the report, "Improving the life chances of disabled people". They have been working hard. They have had a series of very imaginative and hard-working Ministers. Indeed, the current holder of that post is no exception.

There is a very long way to go indeed. When one looks at some of the statistics, one sees that disabled people have a lower employment rate than any group. Only about 50 per cent. of disabled people of working age are employed. Furthermore, disabled people who are working earn 30 per cent. less than non-disabled people. More than 40 per cent. of disabled people are low-skilled. About 25 per cent. of disabled people of working age are over 50. More than 50 per cent. of families with disabled children are in or near child poverty—so there is still a long, long way to go.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) mentioned one of my concerns when he referred to the life chances report. According to the report, the target is that

That is a very long way off, and we must all have the ambition of ensuring that we achieve those goals well within the 19 or 20-year framework that has been laid down. Any Government should have ambitions to achieve those targets before 2025, so we must try to do so.
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Her Majesty's Government are right to advance a programme to tackle welfare reform, but that is largely a debate for another day. I applaud the Minister, however, on her comments on the transition to adulthood. I think that she used the words, "cliff edges", to characterise the position of young adults who suddenly find that the support that was in place suddenly disappears: they have nowhere to turn, as there is no provision for them. I am pleased, too, that hon. Members on both sides of the House drew attention to the serious problems faced by parents who have children with learning difficulties. My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has a great deal of experience in this area, and he pointed out that the statementing system for children of school age is onerous, bureaucratic and in dire need of reform. When those children become young adults and take part in training schemes, many of them live at home with their parents, but often things come to a crunch when they reach another cliff edge and they have to move out, perhaps because their parents have to go into a residential home or they pass away. I have dealt with many constituency cases in which young adults with learning difficulties become middle-aged adults with learning difficulties. Often, the support system does not offer them anything once their parents pass away. The Government should look at that problem very carefully, and I hope that the Minister will address it in her winding-up speech.

We heard some good examples of initiatives that are under way in hon. Members' constituencies. I pay tribute to the West Norfolk disability information service in my constituency and its director, Jonathan Toye, who works tirelessly to ensure that disability rights are always at the top of agenda of local authorities and other Norfolk bodies. King's Lynn and West Norfolk borough council and Norfolk county council have an excellent record of doing all that they can to help disabled people and ensuring that their service provision takes into account the rights and interests of disabled people. Both councils have a long and distinguished record of doing their level best and achieving very high standards indeed.

I asked Jonathan Toye to update me on facilities for disabled people in my constituency and the immediate priorities. Overall, the picture is encouraging. Most local businesses have responded to the challenge, and are doing exactly what they should. It is not just a question of helping disabled people and of providing facilities for them but of making the right business decisions. He cited a couple of food outlets in my constituency. Pauline's Pantry is a small sandwich bar in King's Lynn that has recently invested in disabled facilities and has gone from strength to strength. It is very disabled-friendly, and it has been awarded an accolade by the Eastern Daily Press. He cited a larger delicatessen/restaurant called Norbury's, which has recently undertaken a major refurbishment programme and has taken on board the requirements suggested by      WNDIS. Both those businesses should be congratulated. I visited one of them recently, and I know that both are going from strength to strength.

Mr. Toye said that there is a slightly larger business in King's Lynn, the Duke's Head hotel, which has not listened entirely to the advice that was put to it. He hopes that some of the larger businesses will take on
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board exactly what he and his colleagues have said. As I have said, it is good for businesses to be disablement friendly.

Mr. Toye mentioned also the dial-a-stop bus service, which collects people with limited mobility from their homes and is working well. Unfortunately, the space that has been allocated for the service is quite a long way away from the main part of the bus station. Most of the people with limited mobility who come into the centre of King's Lynn want to shop at Sainsbury's. They want to visit the shops and the services in the middle of the town. It would be a great deal easier if they could be set down near to King's Lynn museum, where there is an available stop. Unfortunately, the county council is not being as helpful as it might be. I have written to the council and I hope to have a positive reply.

At the margin, life for disabled people can be made a great deal easier where authorities put a certain amount of imagination and common sense into the equation, think first about disabled people and work out whether taking a small step in the right direction could make a significant difference to people's lives.

I will not speak for much longer because I was not in the Chamber for the entire debate. However, I think that we have had a constructive debate. It has brought into focus several key issues. I hope that the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), will touch on other points, such as the role of carers and the problems that many disabled people face not because there are not enough benefits, but because accessing the benefits is extremely complicated. Quite often, disabled people are given different opinions and advice.

Carers, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey said, are saving the Government £57 billion a year. I hope that the Minister will touch on respite care. I hope also that the Minister and the shadow Minister will take up the serious problems that we are all facing in our constituencies because of the added burdens and regulations that are placed on small care homes. It is a sad fact that many of these homes are closing.

The UK has come a long way in its treatment of disabled people. It has come a long way also in how it has opened up many new horizons for disabled people. I hope that we will achieve the aims laid down by the Government long before 2025.

5.13 pm

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