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Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I, too, welcome the debate and the tone of the contributions made to it on both sides of the Chamber. There is a common message coming from this debate, that although we have made progress there is still a great deal more to do.
I thank the Minister for setting the tone of the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), who made his first appearance at the Opposition Dispatch Box to make a full speech, for his kind personal remarks about both my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) and myself. If I may say, without any patronising whatever, my hon. Friend has a fantastic grasp of the subject, which he displayed both in principle and in detail.
The House would also expect me to thankand I do so genuinelymy hon. Friends the Members for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), for
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Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) for the interesting and challenging contributions that they made, sometimes grainy and sometimes not without criticism, but always well meant, well spirited and to the point. I do not exclude Members on other Benches, but if in the interests of time I do not go comprehensively through the list, I think that the House will forgive me. I hope not to be invidious if I single out the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), who is always extremely interesting. We did have a little flurry, but I found myself in agreement with nearly everything that he had to say.
I shall also mention the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who has done more about this subject than almost anybody else and made an interesting contribution, including his comment about the role of the voluntary sector and its relationship with the statutory sector, and the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), who made a remarkably eloquent contribution. What emerged from it, if I may say so, is the one attribute that persons who have disabilities must havea very strong will, or a pair of elbows to push aside the difficulties. She has the articulacy, the ability and the passion to do that. Sadly, many people lack the resolve, spirit or capacity to argue for themselves, or to access the services that could do so on their behalf.
The debate has been largely constructive. I shall touch briefly on two aspects that might have caused a flurry or a certain difficulty in the exchanges across the Benches, then I shall touch on four general themes and end with a personal comment.
On points of difficulty, we probably ought to move on from history. There will always be a difference of emphasisit would be slightly unhealthy if there were notbetween the parties as to their relative contribution. It was acknowledged by the Minister, who said that she was trying to pay compliments to the Opposition, that a fairly substantial contribution was made by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. However, that was not the first thing to be done by a Conservative Government. Having been a Minister in the Department for Education in 199293, I happen to recall, modestly, that we legislated for special educational needs and the new tribunal, for example. The historic record over the years shows that Governments have begun to see needs, have become sensitive to them and eventually have begun to respond to them.
As for the attitudes of people in my party, there may have been some coded messages about individuals. All I would say for myself is that it is almost seven years since I assumed Front-Bench responsibility for my party on disability issues, and three years since I passed that to others. I do not think that in the whole of my time, my attitude to these matters has changed very much. I certainly do not intend it to have done. It may just beto draw an analogy from the sun now streaming through the windows of the Chamberthat one can see the issues in a clearer and sunnier light than one might have done seven years ago.
On the second possible cause of prickliness, I have allies across the Chamber. From the remarks made by a number of hon. Members, it is clear that the
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Government and the business managers must not get into the habit of using disability issues as a convenient filler on election days. It would be difficult to send a more eloquent signal of the marginalisation of disability issues. As a final challenge to the Minister, she will have heard the requests for an annual debate, and I would be glad to hear her concede that principle tonight. If she feels unable to do so, all I can do, with allies across the Chamber, is to point out that the all-party disability group will be queuing up in Westminster Hall every year to debate the subject. So we should. Disability issues affect large numbers of our constituentsnationally, perhaps one in five of the adult population, their families and their carers. We should respond generously and appropriately to them.
On the four themes that I promised to deal with, first, I welcome the general shift in the debate towards outcomes of disability policy. That is intended not to sideline or downplay the rights-based approach, but to emphasise that that is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for improving the life chances of disabled people.
I look forward with interestan interest that I have developed since I first became engaged in these matters, and so in wider equality issues tooto the results of the inquiry that Trevor Phillips is leading in the equalities review. In the end, what our disabled constituents and their families want is, as far as possible, equality of outcome or a greater approximation to equality than we have had hitherto. To those who raise the other equality issues of race and gender, I should say that it has taken a very long time in those strands, too, and we are still not yet there.
I cautiously welcome the Government's tendency to promote the empowerment of disabled people to take their own decisions. It is set outrather inelegantly, in my judgmentin the terms of reference for the independent living fund review published yesterday, as a
I do not much like the language, but I like the theme. What we must do now is carry out the pilots in good faith and evaluate them carefully, for two reasons. First, any appropriate help that may be required for disabled people to take decisions should ensure that such people function as their own best purchasers. I believe that they can. Secondlyand this amounts to a warningwe must ensure that the whole exercise does not become a cynical one of shuffling between different budgets resources that are inherently inadequate to meet the needs.
Beyond that, I shall mention three specific issues. One was touched on by many hon. Members in the debate, and may be described broadly as access. Part of the issue is a matter of compliance by service providers and owners of premises with their full legal obligations under the whole suite of disability legislation, including that on access to premises. Recent correspondence with one of my constituents suggests that, despite the efforts that the two district councils in my constituency have certainly made, she is profoundly sceptical about what is available. I am wheeling her in to meet the town council so that she can give it the benefit of her advice. I do not believe that there are many public or private sector organisations whose performance in this area is wholly satisfactory.
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The new arrangements for the Office for Disability Issues have also been touched on, but the relationship between that organisation and the Disability Rights Commission has not yet been fully explained. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House how she sees those two bodies working together to monitor achievements. One of the difficulties is that the DRC deals with complaints, legislation and legal challenges, while the ODI will be examining outcomes. Their different philosophies may not make it easy for them to work together. As part of the reporting process, we need a proper accountsome samples, surveys or mystery shoppingof what is actually happening on the access agenda. I am pleased to see that the Minister is responding positively to that point.
The second part of access is access to work and several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Kingswood, have spoken eloquently about its importance. Part of the problem is about the readiness of employers to meet their own obligations not to discriminate and to make reasonable adjustments. A great deal also hinges on access to work. It is, frankly, a hidden treasure and I fear that that is so because if it were not, it would cost too much on ministerial budgets. That is not a satisfactory or stable outcome. If it is that good, we ought to use it. As the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) said, it would save money in the end. I shall say more in a few moments about spending to save in a different context.
I also want to mention housing, which I am pleased to say is now taking on greater importance. From the work that I did some years ago on the valuing people initiative, I remember the concern about the sufficiency of accommodation for people with learning disabilities, which a number of hon. Members have touched on. However, the issue goes far wider than that, because it covers adequate housing for people and families with all kinds of disabilities, and I welcome the recent changes in the disabled facilities grant.
In its briefing, the DRC specifically calls for more action to build adaptable and accessible housing by adopting the lifetime homes standards for new housing and using existing housing more efficiently by ensuring the more widespread use of the accessible housing register. It goes on to say that it believes that the code for sustainable housing was a missed opportunity in that respect. Many housing authorities currently judge disability issues to be peripheral to their main duties, but, as the DRC has rightly pointed out, in December local authorities' disability equality duty will kick in, which means that they must handle the issue more positively.
Technology is not a substitute for effective care or services, but it can enhance care or services. It clearly relates to housing, and I was fascinated to visit the demonstration house in Northampton, which is a joint project between the borough and specialists in social services. The house draws on expertise to develop technologies for people with deteriorating mental capacity to enable them to stay in their own homes safely for longer. That technology is also invaluable in the context of workfor example, in helping visually impaired people to operate computers. However, we must accept that it creates a crunch in attitudes, and sometimes results in public authorities having to make
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particularly difficult decisions. A better piece of equipment means the imposition of an up-front cost; that also applies to analogue and digital hearing aids, and manual and electric wheelchairs. It is likely that the capital costs will be substantial, and public authorities may have to adjust their budgets to spend to save, and to benefit the life chances and employment chances of users.
My deepest area of concern across the whole field has not been touched on today as much as I expected. Public administration in general, and the benefits system in particular, are driven by rules made in the interests of fairness and clarity. That need for precision inevitably conflicts with the practical experience of disability issues, where conditions may be complex and, above all, fluctuate from day to day. At best, even if someone's condition is stable, it may show either an improving or deteriorating trend. It is very difficult, and also rather invidious, to fix a disability in time and for ever.
I am pleased by the emphasis that a number of hon. Members have put on mental health conditions, which account for a striking 40 per cent. of all new incapacity benefit claims. The benefit system is understandably based on yes or no answers to questions such as, "Are you at work?" "Should you be at work?" "Could you be at work?" and "Are you qualified for this benefit or not?" Even if the original decision on, for example, a personal capacity test is correct, it may very soon be obsolete. Moreover, in spite of recent welcome changes in the linking rules and the greater sympathy, which I acknowledge, shown by Ministers to this issue, the fear still remains among disabled people that if they go back to work, if they try work and break down, or even if they find that they cannot work for a full week at a time and need a shorter working time, they will somehow have surrendered their benefit and be left exposed.
I say that particularly in the context of any change in welfare reform and the safeguarding of historic incapacity benefits. If somebody goes back to work, the question will arise as to what happens if they then find that they cannot carry on and run the risk of losing their old benefit or having to re-enter at a lower rate. I do not have a precise prescription in this area. We must simply keep plugging away collectively at making the whole system more flexiblewithout, of course, devaluing it.
I want to close on a rather more personal note. The broad facts about inequality of outcome for disabled people are pretty well known, certainly to all participants in this debate. They are not contentious, but they are alarming. For young people, the position is particularly depressing, with disabled 16-year-olds twice as likely not to be in education, employment or training as their non-disabled contemporaries. Furthermore, a study carried out in 2002 estimated that a quarter of disabled young people with learning disabilities will have left compulsory education with no transition plan in place. There is already a pre-existing legal obligation to provide transition planning, but that seems not to have been donecertainly in relation to education, but also more widely.
There is always a need to be sober and remember that even if we have legislated in the past, the things that we legislated for may not be happening because of the pressures on local authorities, inadvertence or lack of attention. As we have heard, the position is hardly better for disabled adults, with research for the Joseph
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Rowntree Foundation showing that about a third of disabled adults of working age live in income poverty. Incidentally, that is a somewhat higher proportion than 10 years ago.
The issue for us allthe reason why we are here this afternoon when we could be electioneeringis what we are going to do about it. I think that there is a common will that we should do something about it, and that there is for us, and indeed for the country, a fork in the road in terms of attitude. We have the chance to say yes or no in tackling these issues. Some columnists in certain newspapers, most of which we could predict, will say from time to time that we should not take this too far. In fact, they usually have something of merit to say, at least in challenging us before we pick up this agenda too comprehensively or glibly. In my view, if we were to turn away from this and say that it is not worth it, that political correctness has got out of hand, or that the resources are not great enough, we would be letting ourselves and our constituents down.
At the extreme of that attitude, I suspect that quite a number of businesses, particularly but not exclusively small and medium-sized enterprises, and not a few public authorities, would do nothing about this unless and until they were forced to. I happen to know of a recent employment tribunal casebecause it involved a constituent of minein which the Department for Work and Pensions itself was found to be not compliant, and had to pay compensation to one of its staff. I am not saying that that happens often, but it clearly happened once. It is more likely that public authorities will pay lip service to the new disability equality duty, and then do the least that they can. For example, they will shift budgets to somebody else wherever possible, and take the line of minimal compliance with standards. That, in brief, is what I call the no approach.
I believe that we cannot leave it there. We must be prepared to say yes to disabled people. First, a large part of the population has one disability or another, or a family member or someone for whom they care in that position, or know that they may be in that position in the future. Secondlyand perhaps more positively, given the wonderful concept of reasonable adjustmentsdisabled people can, are prepared to and want to make a significant economic and wider contribution to society. Finally, there is the moral case. We should be in the business of building a more inclusive and confident society. Nobody should knowingly or wilfully be left out.
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