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23 Jan 2007 : Column 1355

Mr. Streeter: Before my hon. Friend warmly commends me, may I ask him whether he agrees that one of the most poignant moments for all of us in our surgeries is when parents of severely disabled children explain their story to us? They always look exhausted, and they hate to complain, but the one thing that they always ask for is access to respite care or to a short break. Is it not worrying that, for a variety of reasons that we all understand—pressure of budgets and so on—respite care is being cut back in many parts of the country? In addition to warmly commending me, will my hon. Friend encourage the whole House to be here on 23 February to support the Disabled Children (Family Support) Bill? That Bill will place a duty on local authorities and health authorities to make adequate short break provision available. Is not that the right way forward?

Mr. Hunt: I warmly commend my hon. Friend for bringing that issue to the attention of the House. Why cannot the Government look into the possibility of reforming and streamlining the assessment and commissioning process, so that funds could be found to finance the important respite care that my hon. Friend has described?

I mentioned earlier that a major consequence of our failure properly to support families with disabled children is a lack of progress on the child poverty targets. We know that more than half the families with disabled children live either below the poverty line or on the margins of poverty. We also know that disabled children are twice as likely as other children to be receiving free school meals. The Government’s strategy on child poverty has essentially been based on income transfer and on ensuring that vulnerable families have enough money in their pockets to buy what they need to live on. I want to adapt a well-worn phrase to suggest to the Government that, as well as being tough on poverty, we need to be tough on the causes of poverty. That means looking not only at income transfer, but at removing the barriers to social mobility. The complexity and bureaucracy of the system prevent social mobility at the moment.

I spoke to the mother of a disabled child recently, and she told me that she earned £2 a week more than she was allowed to on the carer’s allowance—the limit is £84 a week—and that she was now being asked to repay £1,600, which of course she does not have. I remember the parent who spoke to the parliamentary inquiry and described how having to juggle 21 professionals made it impossible for her to think about work. I put it to the House that the role of social mobility in combating poverty is one of the main areas of difference between ourselves and the Government. We all support the aspirations of the child poverty targets, and I urge the Government to look at the role of social mobility as they review their child poverty strategy.

The policies that we adopt on families with disabled children must be central to social policy because it is about the family. A healthy society has healthy families—social breakdown occurs when we have family breakdown. There is much that is wrong with our support for families with disabled children, but perhaps the thing that is most wrong is the poverty of ambition in regard to what can be achieved. Some people say that there are no heroes any more, but every hon. Member knows that the true heroes and heroines
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of our time are the parents and carers of disabled children. They want nothing more than to focus all their energy, attention and efforts on bringing up their much-loved children. Instead, we make them battle against the system. Let us scale up our ambition and give them a system worthy of their great efforts.

7.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I thank the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) for his opening comments. We have had an opportunity to get to know each other over the past year or so, especially during the progress of the Welfare Reform Bill, and I certainly do not doubt his integrity or his commitment to the cause that he espouses. Having said that, I want to say that, contrary to the words in the Opposition’s motion, the Government do have a record to be proud of in extending the rights and opportunities of disabled people and in supporting disabled children.

Having paid the hon. Gentleman a compliment, I must observe that there are other members of the Opposition who have come very late to the disability debate. However, I very much welcome their interest and their contribution to the debate, both on the specific agendas around disabled children and on the wider issues.

Bob Spink: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. McGuire: Not at the moment. I have not yet said very much for the hon. Gentleman to comment on, so I hope that he can hold it for a second. I hope that it will give him some comfort if I say that there have always been hon. Members on the other side who have championed disability rights, and I shall go on to talk about some of the difficult times had by the Conservatives in trying to champion those issues.

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This debate is timely because of the emerging findings of the children and young people review carried out by Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills, which was published on 9 January. As the hon. Member for South-West Surrey said, the review considers specifically what action needs to be taken to improve outcomes and equality of opportunity for disabled children and their families, and it will feed directly into this year’s comprehensive spending review.

I would like briefly to remind the House of the commitments made in the Prime Minister’s strategy unit report, “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People”, which the hon. Member for South-West Surrey mentioned. I shall also talk about some of the progress being made in respect of disabled children. Finally, I shall reflect on some of the challenges ahead.

Before I begin, however, I must take the Opposition to task for their attempt to airbrush out of history some of the actions and—dare I say it?—inaction that characterised their approach when they were in government and in a position to do something about some of the issues that have been highlighted today. At best they did not improve the lives of disabled children, and at worst they exacerbated some of the problems— [ Interruption.] The issues raised here this evening did not miraculously appear on the scene in 1997.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), who will hope to catch your eye later in the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, will remind the House of some of the difficulties in trying to take on the disability agenda.

When the Opposition were in power they had a golden opportunity, over 18 years, to make a real difference to the lives of disabled children. They did not take it.

Mr. Hunt: I know that it is one of the coldest days of the year but I was not expecting such a frosty account from the Minister. In the interests of a balanced picture, will she congratulate the Conservative Government on the introduction of the disability living allowance in 1992, the introduction of the first Disability Discrimination Act, in 1995, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), which was described by the Equal Opportunities Review as the most significant piece of discrimination legislation in a generation, the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995, and the introduction of direct payments in 1996?

Mrs. McGuire: I will refer to some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman highlights. He did not mention that a Conservative Government introduced the Education Act 1981, which defined special educational needs and set out the process for identification and multidisciplinary assessments, including statements. They forgot, however, to make that right enforceable: there were no time limits for assessments or statements, and no clarity about the role of local authorities. It took 13 long years to get those rights established for the very parents about whom he talks, albeit under a Conservative Government, in 1993. When his party was in a position to make a difference to the lives of disabled people in this country, it either acted reluctantly or not at all.

Mr. Hunt: Will the Minister give way?

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Mrs. McGuire: No.

Credit ought to be given to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and the previous Prime Minister, the former Member for Huntingdon, for the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, because they had to force that Act through in the teeth of opposition from many Conservative Back Benchers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, who was in the vanguard of some of those campaigns, will remember that.

Mr. Tom Clarke: I must disappoint my hon. Friend: I had not planned to speak. However, may I lend some support to her advice to the Opposition? If they really want to change policies and make progress, which may be the case, they would be extremely wise not to refer too often to their record in government, not least because, even in the Disability Discrimination Act, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) steadfastly resisted the introduction of the Disability Rights Commission. I remembered that when I saw in the new year’s honours list that its chair, Sir Bert Massey, had received a well-deserved knighthood—although I am not sure that that would have been widely shared.

Mrs. McGuire: My right hon. Friend has highlighted the very point that I was going to make: the Disability Rights Commission was established by this Government to give teeth to the DDA, because the previous Conservative Government forgot to think about how that Act would be enforced. The previous Conservative Government could have made a significant difference. However, the child poverty statistics show that they oversaw the greatest ever increase in child poverty in this country, when one in five families had no one in work, and one in every three families were living in poverty. That is a terrible legacy, which the Government are committed to overturning, and I welcome the support of the hon. Member for South-West Surrey for that.

In welcoming the conversion of Conservative Members to the cause—with the honourable exception of those Conservative Members who were always part of the campaign, to whom I give credit—may I confess to the House that I have sometimes taken a rather jaundiced view of their contribution to the debate in past years?

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. McGuire: Not just now.

I believe that political parties should be judged on what they do in government, not by the rhetoric that they use in opposition.

Bob Spink: If the Minister believes that political parties should be judged on what they do, will she readdress, in a spirit of working together, the policy that has seen 100 special schools close under the Labour Government?

Mrs. McGuire: As the hon. Gentleman knows, that issue causes grave concern across the country. It is also an issue for local authorities. Conservative local authorities are making some of the difficult decisions about special needs education. If I have time, I shall refer to special needs education in a few moments.

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The Government have made real progress in putting the life chances of disabled people, and especially of disabled children, at the heart of our policy: extending educational opportunities; improving the benefit system and raising levels of benefit; opening up opportunities for disabled people to move into work; transforming the civil rights of disabled people; ensuring that public authorities put equality for disabled people at the core of their activities; and tackling poverty.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Last week, the BBC alerted my constituents to the fact that more than 100 young people with profound learning disabilities have been kept in Muckamore Abbey hospital, and have not been able to get out into the community, because there is no care in the community available or place for them to go. It also found that 20 young people are in locked-up wards in that hospital, when there should not be locked-up accommodation at all. Surely something ought to be done about that.

Mrs. McGuire: I do not have any difficulty in agreeing with the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

I shall shortly refer in turn to the issues that I have identified. Let me also state, so that there can be no doubt, that we are not at all complacent about what must be done, and nor are we afraid to listen to the concerns of disabled people. That is why the Prime Minister’s strategy unit conducted the first comprehensive study of the life chances of disabled people, leading to the first ever cohesive cross-government strategy to deliver equality for disabled people. That is also why the Government asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill to establish the recent Parliamentary Hearings on Services for Disabled Children, which were cross-party, open and transparent—and, yes, critical—so that Parliament could hear at first hand about the pressures and difficulties that parents, carers and children face on a daily basis. I think that my right hon. Friend will agree that that is probably the first time that a Government have specifically charged a group of parliamentarians to undertake such an exercise. The report of the evidence gained was delivered officially to the Government by him and his committee, and it will inform the discussions that are currently taking place as part of the comprehensive spending review.

Yes, there were some tough messages in the report, and we will not run away from them. But there were also some positive comments. The early support system was highlighted as having produced a dramatic change in the lives of families with disabled children. According to the report, evidence given at the parliamentary hearings made it clear that the early support programme is one of the Government’s great success stories in relation to disabled children. It was not all gloom and doom.

Let me turn briefly to how the strategy has been undertaken and what progress we have made. The life chances report marked a real step change in the way that Government think about the impact of their policies and services on the lives of disabled people. Why is that? Because for the first time ever, a Government took as their starting point the belief that people are disabled not by their impairments but by the way in which society responds to them—or, in many cases, fails to respond to their needs and aspirations. The report set a
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clear and ambitious vision for Government: that by 2025 disabled people should have the same opportunities and choices as everyone else, should be respected as equal members of society, and should be able to participate as equals in every aspect of family and community life.

We can bandy various figures, but according to the life chances analysis, 700,000 disabled children and young people in Britain face a number of specific barriers, some of which have been identified this evening, which make it more difficult for them to achieve their full potential. Their families often experience high levels of stress, they are more likely to live in poverty, and they are more likely to face an increased risk of social exclusion. Their future life chances are critically affected by the support and services that they receive. This was a Government report, this was a Government strategy unit, and this was a Government who were prepared to face up to difficult issues.

Angela Watkinson: May I commend to the Minister the ROSE—real opportunities for supported employment— project at Havering college of further and higher education, which helps students with learning difficulties into work? It is highly successful, and an example of good practice that could be copied throughout the country. The main difficulty is not finding employers who are sympathetic and willing to take on such students, nor is it persuading the students to take on jobs, because they are keen to do so. The main difficulty is that parents are worried about losing benefits if their children work for more than 16 hours a week. That is a problem that we could easily overcome.

Mrs. McGuire: As I am sure the hon. Lady will appreciate, there is always a balance to be struck. Deciding where the dividing line should be for the disregard of income for people on benefits is always tricky. Interestingly, more often than not people come to me with the opposite problem: rather than wanting to work for more than 16 hours, they want to work for less than 16 hours. I believe that the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) raised that point during the Committee stage of the Welfare Reform Bill. In any event, it is a delicate balance: too much and we call the benefits system into question, too little and it may act as a disincentive for young people to try work. We are constantly trying to find ways of finessing the system.

Mrs. Humble: Part of the question asked by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) concerned a difference of opinion between parent and child. Such disputes do occur. Does the Minister agree that we need good-quality advocacy services so that the voice of the child can be heard? Sometimes young people want something other than what their parents want, which is often because parents are, understandably, being over-protective.

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