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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 11 March 2008

[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Disabled People (Poverty)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

9.30 am

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): It is a pleasure, Mr. Chope, to introduce a debate on disability poverty with you in the Chair. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who has ministerial responsibility for disabled people, will respond to the debate.

As we all know, there have been significant reductions in poverty in the United Kingdom over the past 10 years. For example, there are 600,000 fewer children in poverty. Child poverty doubled during the previous two decades, when the country acquired one of the worst records of child poverty among the major European nations. I do not doubt for a moment the Government’s commitment to reducing poverty, any more than I doubt their commitment to improving the life chances of disabled people. However, much more needs to be done—very much more. That is particularly so, given the Government’s targets to reduce child poverty and fuel poverty, both of which suggest not only that much more needs to be done but that it needs to be done more quickly.

The immediate reason for seeking a debate on this issue was not another pre-emptive Budget bid—a rather late one—but the fact that in January Leonard Cheshire Disability produced a report entitled “Disability Poverty in the UK”. I strongly recommend that report to those who may not have had the chance to read it. I shall begin with three observations made in that report. First, official statistics show that three in 10 disabled people—or 3 million people—live in poverty. Secondly, disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. Thirdly, official figures seriously underestimate the extent of poverty among disabled people and their families. Why is that? Most obviously, it is because the data do not take account of the additional financial costs of disability.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. It is a privilege to be in the same Chamber as him, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), and my hon. Friend the Minister. Over the past 10 years, they have been three of the best campaigners on the subject. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) has acknowledged, the excellent Leonard Cheshire report points out that disability poverty is not only about financial poverty but about poverty of opportunity and aspiration.

A constituent e-mailed me yesterday evening. He said that

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He was told that he was setting his sights too high at school by wanting to study at university. The e-mail continued:

Such important issues are more difficult to tackle, but they are pervasive.

Roger Berry: I agree very much with my hon. Friend. They are real and pervasive issues.

One problem arises from the fact that, in order to fulfil their aspirations, disabled people often have to do things that others do not have to do. They may have to employ personal assistants, they may have to rely on personal care and home adaptations, and they may incur costs for the additional heating necessary to keep their homes warm. That package of things, which many disabled people have to take on board in addition to their impairment, can affect their aspirations. Given that they also have to face the prejudice that is sadly still prevalent in many parts of society, their aspirations can be deeply frustrated.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On the important question highlighted in the Leonard Cheshire report—the extent to which poverty is deepened by the extra costs that disabled people face—will he come on to deal with the case to be made for a more objective and empirically sourced basis for the excellent disability living allowance? Important thought it is, the DLA does not meet the costs of disability facing most disabled people.

Roger Berry: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He has made an enormous contribution in this field, and I shall come to that point later. First, however, may I make a general comment?

There are serious methodological issues in estimating the extra costs of disability. Leonard Cheshire Disability has made a good effort to come up with a modest estimate of those extra costs; it suggests something like an extra 25 per cent. above the costs of living of a non-disabled person, but I believe that that is on the conservative side. Other organisations, such the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, have over the years engaged in similar exercises and come up with higher figures. However, my right hon. Friend is right to say that the problem needs to be addressed.

If we take the modest estimate of the extra costs of disability proposed in the excellent Leonard Cheshire report, the number of disabled people living in poverty would increase from three in 10 to six. It is therefore important that we should recognise the significant extra costs of disability. We know from our constituency case work—and, no doubt, from family and friends—about the circumstances in which people on low incomes have to live, and I know of the strong feelings on the matter, both in the country and in the House. Early-day motion 637—a cross-party motion that I tabled with other Members in January—was a response to the Leonard Cheshire Disability report. It not only noted the publication of that report, but it expressed the view that the extent
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of disability poverty in the UK is unacceptable, and it called on the Government to give the need to tackle disability poverty a higher priority. The motion has attracted 218 signatures, and it is the seventh most heavily supported in the current Session.

I believe that those who are most deserving of praise in society are not the hugely rich, however important their contributions might be. The most deserving are those who live in poverty, who live on low incomes and who seek to do the best for their families and to make a contribution. Those whom we should praise, those whom we should support and those with whom we parliamentarians should engage most are disabled people and their families and carers, who live on incomes that Members of Parliament would find intolerable.

Although I have congratulated Leonard Cheshire Disability on its report, I wish to make a further point before moving on to other key issues. I do not seek to diminish the strength of the Leonard Cheshire report in saying that a number of the lines of argument deployed by the charity have been deployed by other organisations and individuals. Indeed, that strengthens the argument.

I have already referred to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, but many arguments made in the Leonard Cheshire report echo those made, for example, by the former Disability Rights Commission, RADAR, “Disability Now”—the monthly magazine published by Scope, which last year published a range of articles on the circumstances of disabled people living in poverty—the Disability Alliance, which is specifically concerned with the income problems of disabled people, the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign, which is currently lobbying Members of Parliament, and the Prime Minister’s strategy unit.

In his introduction to the strategy unit’s report, “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People”, published in January 2005, the then Prime Minister said:

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The hon. Gentleman mentioned work, which is one of the key routes out of poverty, towards self-esteem and a better quality of life, and towards avoiding social exclusion. Does he look back, as I do, with nostalgia at the 1980s when we had the wonderful sheltered work scheme? In Poole in Dorset, I employed a number of disabled people and people with learning difficulties, and they added an enormous amount to my company. They brought more than they took from my company, and that enabled them to build their quality of life and to escape a little bit from poverty with a wage packet. Does he think that the Government should look at that scheme as a way forward?

Roger Berry: The issue of sheltered employment as opposed to mainstream employment, which has been the focus of the debate about the future of Remploy, is a very important one. Disabled people ought to have the opportunities that suit them best. I must say that I support Remploy’s strategy to expand the number of places that they support in mainstream employment.
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That is precisely the reason why disability organisations, too, support the Remploy programme. In addition, one can create more jobs in mainstream employment than one can for the same expenditure in sheltered employment. The strategy of moving in that direction, which Remploy has pursued for a number of years, is right. I believe that many of the criticisms of Remploy’s recent plans are fundamentally misdirected.

Before responding to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), I was listing relevant organisations. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) is in the Chamber, and last week, the Work and Pensions Committee, which he chairs, published an excellent report entitled, “The best start in life? Alleviating deprivation, improving social mobility, and eradicating child poverty”. Many of the arguments that Leonard Cheshire used in its report are echoed in that Select Committee report, although no doubt my hon. Friend can speak for himself later if I have maligned him.

The problem is not that the basic facts are disputed, nor that the Government are not doing anything—they are doing a lot. The problem is that we are not doing enough. I made the point earlier that tackling disability poverty is desirable in its own right, but at the same time we need to recognise that it is absolutely necessary if other Government targets are to be met—the targets on child poverty and fuel poverty are the two obvious ones. Of the 2.8 million children living in poverty in this country, about 1 million are affected by disability. They are either disabled children, or their parents or carers are disabled. That has enormous significance for a strategy to tackle child poverty, because unless disability poverty is tackled more vigorously, we will miss our targets on child poverty.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate. Does he agree that another area of higher cost is the cost of child care for disabled children? That is a serious impediment, given the supply and the cost of such care, for parents who are trying to find work.

Roger Berry: I agree with the hon. Lady. The cost of child care for disabled children is an issue that, for example, the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign, to which I have referred, stresses, among other matters. Child care is not only an additional cost; it is very often the most significant additional cost. When one contemplates such a scenario, the estimated 25 per cent. extra costs for a disabled family, as compared with those for a non-disabled family, seem, I repeat, a very modest assumption. In many circumstances, the additional costs for a disabled family are significantly higher.

The same is true when it comes to targets for reducing fuel poverty, particularly at a time when fuel prices are rising. As with child poverty, it is very difficult to believe that the Government’s fuel poverty targets can be met without specific measures to help disabled people and their families. What is to be done? We all know that, broadly speaking, the most effective measures to tackle poverty fall under two broad headings: on the one hand, labour market policies; and on the other hand, policies in relation to the tax and benefit system. I have
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always argued, as the Government have, that improving the opportunities to work is undeniably the best route out of poverty for those who are able to work. That is why full employment matters; that is why a national minimum wage matters; that is why the new deal for disabled people matters, and why Pathways to Work matters. All those initiatives are important. Undeniably, for those who can work, work is the best route out of poverty. Today, however, one in three of working age disabled adults and their families still live in poverty, because 50 per cent. of them are not in jobs and for those who are not in employment, the levels of social security benefits are simply too low.

There has been significant progress on the jobs front. Fifty per cent. of working-age disabled people are in work, which is 10 per cent. more disabled people in work than was the case 10 years ago. There is therefore no doubt that measures of the kind to which I have referred have helped to provide more employment opportunities for disabled people, but neither is there any no doubt that more effort in that area is absolutely necessary.

It is difficult to know exactly why 10 per cent. more disabled people are in work now than, say, 10 years ago. Clearly, there are 2.7 million more jobs in the economy; there have also been special measures to support disabled people in getting into work. Legislation has been introduced to outlaw discrimination in the labour market, and I believe that employers’ attitudes are changing. It is difficult to identify which of those factors has been the most important. My guess is that the rapid growth in the number of jobs overall and the specific labour market policies that have been introduced to enhance opportunities for disabled people have probably had the most impact. Thankfully, it is not much debated any more that more needs to be done to improve employment opportunities for disabled people.

However, there are still enormous problems. For example, the percentage of people of working age with a mental health condition who are in work is not 50 per cent. but 20 per cent. Similarly, the percentage of people with learning difficulties who are in work is not 50 per cent. but 25 per cent. Again, employment for people in these groups has increased, but not hugely, and they are still way behind most citizens in terms of their employment prospects and opportunities. So I strongly support the measures that are being taken—measures that should be taken—to provide more specialist and individual support for people in these circumstances.

We could debate some of the relevant programmes and the organisation of those programmes, but I do not want to do that. I think that we have got those programmes and their organisation about right, or we are getting them about right. In a sense, I am asking for more of the same there. However, the point that I would make about labour market policies is that we should not be stingy with the money. I realise that it is too late for a pre-Budget bid and some people have heard me say this before, so I hope that they will forgive me, but sometimes one repeats things because they are so obviously true.

For example, the access to work programme is referred to in the Leonard Cheshire Disability report and many of us have referred to it over the years. The Leonard Cheshire Disability report, like many other reports, calls for the Government to do more to increase awareness of the access to work programme and to increase its
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funding. I would not say that the access to work programme is one of the most closely guarded secrets in Whitehall, because I do not believe that people in Whitehall are deliberately not trying to promote it. However, it is astonishing that 75 per cent. of employers have never heard of the programme. It costs £64 million a year, which is more than four times as much as was being spent 10 years ago, for which the Government deserve credit, but that is about £8 a year for each disabled person of working age. It is not a lot of money.

More important, however, is what the Department for Work and Pensions gets back when it spends £1 million on access to work. I have it in writing that if the Department spends £1 million on enabling people to return to work or take up employment through the access to work programme, the Treasury will gain £1.7 million. Why? Because those people will no longer rely on the same benefits and will pay tax on their income. The Government therefore spend £1 million to get £1.7 million—it is investing to save, a no-brainer. If the Chancellor is short of a few bob tomorrow, I suggest that he puts a load of money into access to work.

There is, however, a more general point, because, in fairness, I have picked only a tiny part of the Government’s package. To their credit, the Government have said that they will take 1 million people off incapacity benefit and that that will save the Treasury £7 billion. That is obviously quite a good idea, given that supporting people to get into employment means that they pay more tax and receive less benefit. Can we not perhaps ensure that we have joined-up government and that the benefits to the Treasury of active employment programmes are recycled to enable more people to get into work? I am sure that that is what the Government have in mind and that they will be nothing other than generous in funding employment programmes, but it is always good to make the obvious point.

Much more attention should be devoted to those disabled people who are not expected to work. In recent years, there has been enormous activity on the jobs front, and the Government deserve credit for that. Although I can see their strategy for helping people out of poverty through work, I have more difficulty working out precisely what the strategy is for tackling poverty among disabled people who are not expected to work. The benefits system is critical to the quality of life of those disabled people who are not in work and it determines whether they languish in poverty.

Many disabled people who are out of work find themselves and their families in poverty for two reasons. First, many do not claim the benefits to which they are entitled, and that is particularly true of families with disabled children. Secondly, disability benefits are, to put it mildly, not generous or adequate. Much more needs to be done to promote the take-up of DLA among disabled adults and parents of disabled children, and I hope that the Minister will mention that.

As we all know from our experience, our casework and the statistics, the inadequacy of benefits is such that many people are forced to live in great poverty. For example, someone who loses their job as a result of an impairment will experience a dramatic, life-changing loss of income. Similarly, most people do not have a good insurance policy that says, “If you lose your job because of an impairment, do not worry—you are part
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of a system that will ensure that your income is maintained.” As a result, most people who lose their job because they acquire an impairment at work face a shattering loss of income. As Members of Parliament, we all know of people in such circumstances who have got into debt, lost their home and ended up in an appalling situation. I do not want to be misunderstood; we must, of course, do more to enable those who acquire an impairment at work to stay in employment—that is the first thing. However, we must also recognise that the social security system is the only thing that keeps many people out of poverty, and it is currently failing to do that.

I have another question for the Minister. We are moving into a new system, with employment support allowances and so on, and I hope that the Government will make sure that the higher rate of employment support allowance is enough to ensure that those who are not expected to work do not live in poverty. That is an important issue, which needs to be addressed, and I ask the Minister to comment on it.

Along with other right hon. and hon. Members, I have discussed the additional costs of disability. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) specifically asked whether existing benefits were adequate to take into account those additional costs, and I do not believe that they are. Perhaps more significantly, however, the recent report by the Work And Pensions Committee makes it clear that they are not adequate. In conclusion 24, for example, the Committee unanimously said:

In conclusion 25, it said:

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