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23 Jan 2007 : Column 1367

Danny Alexander: That is right—and to me, as someone who will, God willing, in due course be welcoming an additional member to my own family, it is also particularly important.

Charities estimate that it costs three times more to bring up a disabled child than it does to bring up a non-disabled child. In the UK, 3.6 million children are living in poverty—that is, 28 per cent. of such children—compared with 55 per cent. of disabled children who are living in, or on the margins of, poverty. It is important to recognise that poverty is not only likely to result from disability, but that it also might cause it. For example, children born into low-income families are more likely to have low birth-weights, which can lead to future health problems. The interrelationship between childhood disability and poverty is clear, and so are the consequences of that for the services that people consume.

Of families with a disabled child, one in 13 receives support from social services departments. Disabled children are 13 times more likely to be excluded from school than non-disabled children, and eight out of 10 families with disabled children say that they are “at breaking point”.

So the clearest indication that disabled children do not have the same life chances as non-disabled people is the extent of poverty faced. Only some 6 per cent. of families with disabled children reported that they were “comfortably off”. By way of contrast, 92.8 per cent. reported experiencing some kind of financial difficulty. It is important to talk a bit about the causes of such poverty. I shall come back to the extra cost of services, but there is also the question of the extra cost of living. Let us consider fuel poverty. Disabled children might have particular needs in terms of keeping the house warm, so turning down the heating, which many people are encouraged to do, is not an option. That expense simply has to be met, leading to greater fuel costs for the families of disabled children than those experienced by the general population. The proposal to extend the winter fuel payment to severely disabled people would therefore have some impact in this regard.

There are a number of inadequacies in the benefits system, to which I shall return, but in addition to that issue and the cost of services, the other big barriers for families with disabled children are the barriers to work. This issue is not adequately addressed in the Welfare Reform Bill, and we perhaps need to return to it. For example, social care services, to which the hon. Member for South-West Surrey referred, often assume that parents can pick up any additional hours that such services cannot provide. That obviously impinges on parents’ ability to work, especially full time, because there might be an unexpected requirement to provide care for their child when the system lets them down, thereby removing them from the workplace. That is reflected in the fact that only 16 per cent. of mothers with disabled children are in work, only 3 per cent. of whom are in full-time employment. By way of comparison, 61 per cent. of mothers of non-disabled children are in work. That is a huge disparity.

Let me give a quotation from the “Every Disabled Child Matters” campaign. One mother of a disabled child said that

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): The hon. Gentleman rightly refers to the difficulties that many parents with disabled children experience in getting out of the house. Does he share my concern that such parents are not eligible to apply for blue badges for their children if they are aged under two?

Danny Alexander: I certainly do share that concern. I had not intended to highlight it, but I am grateful that the hon. Lady has.

The poverty and worklessness figures are even more worrying in cases where there is a disabled adult in the house, as well as a disabled child. According to the Department for Work and Pensions,

as a household with no disabled family members. That throws into stark relief the poverty-related problems that disability can often cause. According to the charity Working Families, 70 per cent. of parents with disabled children find it difficult to obtain appropriate child care. By definition, therefore, only 30 per cent. can find appropriate child care, which affects their ability to work as well as, importantly, the well-being of the child.

The Liberal Democrat approach to these issues was set out very clearly by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) in his major speech on poverty in December. Like the Minister and the hon. Member for South-West Surrey, we have committed ourselves to supporting the target to eliminate child poverty by 2020. There has been a welcome reduction in child poverty under this Government but it has yet to go far enough, which, of course, is why the interim targets have been missed. For the reasons that I described earlier, tackling poverty among disabled children is now critical if the 2020 target is to be reached. We need a different approach. We need to move away from the mass-means-tested, complex and bureaucratic dependency system that we are increasingly seeing under this Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Given the article in Monday’s edition of The Times, I, like the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown)—he is no longer in his place—had hoped that we might hear a little more from the hon. Member for South-West Surrey about the Conservatives’ plans for reform. He was long on criticism, some of it legitimate, but there were zero policies for dealing with the reasons behind such criticism. It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman is hiding his light under a bushel. If the article in The Times is to be believed, he and the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) have submitted a lengthy policy proposal to a particular working group. I am surprised that the hon. Member for South-West Surrey did not take the opportunity to extol the virtues of that proposal. Perhaps the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who will wind up for the Conservatives, will do so. It is important in these debates not just to highlight problems, but to describe solutions if one can.

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In the absence of such efforts, one has to go back to the speech of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). He looked at poverty issues more generally, and described an approach based on

That is not so much a big idea for the future as a small idea from the past—an approach that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife referred to as one of “compassionate inactivity”. In the absence of hearing more from the hon. Member for South-West Surrey, we have to assume that that is what he has in mind.

There are some big issues to do with how the benefits system affects disabled people. I shall highlight one or two examples of the real experiences that disabled children and their parents have of the benefits system. According to the Child Poverty Action Group’s “Out of Reach” report, some 46 per cent. of parents of disabled children

That is nearly half. Some 43 per cent. of parents of disabled children had not claimed disability living allowance or it had taken more than two years to find out that their child could be entitled to it. Those issues relate to both the adequacy and the complexity of the benefits system.

On the issue of adequacy, the Minister made some fair points about the rising levels of benefit in recent years, but it is also true to say that the levels of most benefits have been progressively eroded in recent years.

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) mentioned earlier the Rose project in Havering, which is run out of Havering college and allows disabled young people with moderate or severe learning disabilities to access work. One of the disincentives, also mentioned earlier, is that they can sacrifice benefits. The Minister dealt with that point, but a second disincentive is that once they come off benefits it is very hard to go back on. They sometimes will not seize opportunities put before them for that very reason.

Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The linking rules for certain benefits have been improved in recent years, which means that people can spend a longer period in work before going back on benefits. For incapacity benefit, for example, the period is now two years. However, whatever the rules are, they are often not explained properly to the people in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. In the absence of proper information and understanding, the fear of losing benefits is a powerful demotivating factor for people who otherwise wish to get back into work. When one talks to disability groups, the enormous desire of disabled people to get back into work is evident, but they are frustrated by the lack of support available and the disincentives in the benefit system. Those disincentives also include the marginal deduction rates, which can lead to some people on low incomes facing effective income tax rates of 70, 80 or even 90 per cent. when they go off benefit and into work.

23 Jan 2007 : Column 1370

Instead of allowing benefits to wither away in relation to earnings, we need at least once in every Parliament to hold a review of benefit levels against objectives for poverty reduction, although of course—I am conscious that my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) is in her place—that must be in the context of public spending discipline and the overriding need to help people back into work.

The hon. Member for South-West Surrey rightly highlighted the issue of complexity. The forms are clearly a nightmare and provision of information about benefit entitlement is massively inadequate. It was disappointing that the Government refused to accept an amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill that would have made it explicit that information about all benefits to which someone might be entitled should be made available to them at the time of their first claim. That would be a big step in administrative terms towards solving some of the problems.

It is also true to say, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out in The Times, that the system is too complex : there are 51 benefits, with 250 different rates. Conceptually, benefits have two roles—first, to meet extra costs, for example in relation to the extra costs of having a disability; and secondly, to replace lost income when someone is out of work, for whatever reason. On the latter role, the case for a single working age benefit—a single benefit level to replace the lost income of someone out of work for whatever reason—is quite powerful. The New Zealand Government are pursuing that approach at the moment and I hope to be able to say more about it in the next few months. Such a single rate would release additional funds to be added to the extra costs elements, such as the disability living allowance, so as to beef them up.

One of the limitations of DLA is the restrictive number of components in terms of care and mobility. A communication element could bring the DLA into the 21st century. However, I am not convinced that a single disability benefit alongside a single working age benefit would be as attractive, but I look forward to hearing more of the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. Disability is a very wide spectrum indeed. The word “disability” covers a huge range of different conditions and impairments. Although we must get rid of the complexity when it comes to filling in forms that causes so many problems for so many people, we must also ensure that that does not create a less variegated system.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Ministers constantly assure us that they are looking at the complexities of the forms, but does my hon. Friend share my surprise that nothing seems to happen and that the forms are still 23 pages long, or longer?

Danny Alexander: I certainly do share that very important concern. It may be that Ministers struggle to read through the forms and guidance as much as anyone else does, and that that is impairing their ability to reform them. The Minister said that the matter was being considered with some urgency.

Mrs. McGuire: I can give the hon. Gentleman some news. We have developed a new form for disability living allowance, and it has been road tested with people entitled to that benefit. It has received a very positive response, and will be rolled out when appropriate.

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Danny Alexander: That is probably good news, and I welcome the Minister’s immediate response to the pressure that I applied to her. It would be useful if she could deposit copies of the new form in the Library of the House, so that hon. Members can judge its length and degree of complexity, but it is good to hear that, after nine years, the Government are taking the matter seriously.

I want to touch on some of the issues to do with services for disabled children that the hon. Member for South-West Surrey mentioned in his opening remarks. It is important to make it clear at the outset that we are not dealing with a homogenous group, as every disabled child needs his or her own package of services. Therefore, support services such as respite care or therapy should not be regarded as luxuries for disabled children and their families. For many children with specific needs, such services are necessities.

The Minister referred in her remarks to the social model of disability. In that context, we should take “services” to mean anything that helps children to live independent and normal lives and ensures that they do not miss out on any experience enjoyed by children who are not disabled. Parents of disabled children often say, “Our children have the right to have fun, like any other child.” That is as important in this debate as any of the service provision that has been mentioned so far.

I have listened with interest to the constituency cases that have been described. It is true that the system sometimes discriminates against families who are unwilling or unable to fight or shout loudly, or to pay independently for services, assessments and legal support. For example, information about services is less likely to reach families from ethnic minority communities.

I am conscious of the time, so I shall end my remarks by saying that although all hon. Members are very aware of the needs of disabled children, we must do more than introduce policies in the piecemeal fashion of the past few years. Instead, we must look across the system to determine how we can introduce more thoroughgoing reforms, so that the interests of disabled children are placed at the top of our agenda.

8.43 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Last May we debated, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, the No. 10 strategy unit report about the life chances of people with disabilities. My hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) were to be found in their respective places, the report was excellent and well informed, and our debate was 99 per cent. good natured.

I am a little saddened, therefore, that we are debating the subject on an Opposition day, because it has led to some adversarial comments and criticisms of political parties on both sides of the Chamber. This debate is too important for us to be point scoring. We should all be working together in the best interests of children with disabilities and their families, for the reasons that many contributors have already given—there are real concerns.

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As we have already had some arguments about figures, I am reluctant to cite numbers, but I will anyway. Since 1975, children aged 0 to 16 have formed the fastest growing group of disabled people. In 1975, there were 476,000 such children; now there are 772,000, which represents an increase of 62 per cent. Those demographic changes are one of the reasons why there are so many pressures on services for children and their families. There has been an increase not only in the number of children with disability but also in the nature and profundity of disabilities. Young people born with severely handicapping conditions now survive childhood and into adulthood, and good luck to them. I am pleased that medical advances enable them to do so, but there are huge pressures on the families and life style of those children.

There is much data about that group, which highlights the pressures on families. Last year, the John Grooms inquiry into the needs of young disabled people produced the report “Young, disabled and forgotten”. Less than two weeks ago, we received the report, “The state of social care in England 2005-06” from the Commission for Social Care Inspection, which discussed services for children with disability and council expenditure. Last week, the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills published its review of services for children and young people, which included a detailed section on the needs of children with disability.

The report I particularly want to discuss was produced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), me and several other Members, supported by a consortium of children’s charities—Children Now, Contact a Family, the Council for Disabled Children, Mencap and the Special Education Consortium. The Government had previously recognised the importance of the issue. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that the comprehensive spending review would include consideration of

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and I were pleased to be asked to contribute to the review, and we invited Members from all political parties to join us. With the support of the consortium we set about organising hearings at Westminster, which produced powerful testimony from parents about the pressures they experience.

It is abundantly clear that disabled children do not enjoy the same life chances as other children, so it is vital that all the reports lead to positive action. Before I set out the key recommendations arising from the parliamentary hearings, I want to pay tribute to the Government for their work. Much has happened over recent years. The Office for Disability Issues was set up, with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), as the lead Minister. There are new disability equality duties for public authorities. There is a 10-year child care strategy. The Childcare Act 2006 prioritises the needs of disabled children and the children’s national service framework specifically refers to disabled children. As the recent CSCI report points out, there has been substantial financial investment by the Government in social care for children.

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