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11 Mar 2008 : Column 7WH—continued

I very much hope that the Government will take the Committee’s comments on board, because most people would agree with them.

We are all aware of the arguments that have been used, for example, on extending the higher-rate mobility component of DLA to some blind people. There is also the issue of allowing people over 65 to claim DLA, rather than the less valuable attendance allowance. I have always found it distinctly odd that someone can claim DLA at the age of 64 and quite a few months, but that they cannot do so when they hit 65, even though they may have exactly the same mobility needs on their 65th birthday as they did the day before. There are real issues about reforming the benefits system, and DLA is one important issue that needs to be addressed. I therefore very much welcome the Committee’s report.

One of the additional costs of disability, which I have already mentioned, is heating. Many disabled people face higher-than-average fuel bills because they are likely to be at home more and their impairment may require them to maintain a consistent temperature in their home. I do not believe that the existing rates of DLA cover that, even though we are often advised that they do. I am not the only person who does not believe that claim, and nor are the disability organisations the only organisations that do not believe it. The Work and Pensions Committee does not believe it, and in conclusion 27 of its report, it says—[Laughter.] I apologise if I am
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stealing the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North, but repetition, as I have said before, and as I am illustrating now, is always a good way to remind people of the essential points of an argument. The Committee said:

My only criticism is that the Committee has not been ambitious enough. Over the years, many of us have argued that logic and fairness would suggest that winter fuel payments should be extended to all those under 60 who receive the middle or higher-rate care component or the higher-rate mobility component of DLA. Someone who is over 60 will obviously get their winter fuel allowance, whether they need it or not, but someone who is under 60 will not. People with high mobility or care needs demonstrably have a case for saying that their heating costs will be higher. If we are to have serious winter fuel allowances, they should seriously tackle the additional costs of disability. I hope that the Government will respond positively to the recommendation of the Work and Pensions Committee by saying that it has not been ambitious enough and that they would like to extend it further.

I come to my final point, Mr. Chope, because I am aware that a number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak. I want to make a quick comment about independent living, partly because the Government published an important report last Monday, which I welcome, and partly because the social care system is failing disabled people big time. While I welcome the Government’s report about independent living and about giving disabled people the same choice, control and freedom as any other citizen, I have a caveat, which is that we are not being promised legislation—at least not yet.

My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Ashley has introduced the Disabled Persons (Independent Living) Bill in the other place on two occasions. It has been through the other place, but I do not anticipate its getting through our House, although I will do my best. The Bill identifies a number of areas in which legislation is needed. I hope that the Government will look at the matter again. As Members of Parliament, we all know that needs are not being met. We know countless constituents who are not getting the support that they need from the local authorities. We also know that the system is bureaucratic and wasteful. People have to fill out so many forms. They have to fill out forms for the benefit system. They face more paperwork if they need home adaptation and they have to have another assessment for personal care. If they have an assessment in one local authority area, they cannot carry that assessment to the area next door. Assessments are not portable.

The other day, I was talking to a disabled guy who lives in Lambeth, but wants to work in Southwark. I happen to live in Southwark, so I celebrate Southwark. None the less, the man wanted to move from one local authority to another. His perception was, “Goodness gracious me—he put it a bit firmer than that—if I go from Lambeth to Southwark, I will have to have my care needs reassessed. It will take time. I may not get the same package that I currently have in Lambeth. I do not know whether it will be better or worse.” It is absurd that care packages are not portable.

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As a former local councillor I can see merits in localism, but there are some areas in life in which localism is a fundamental problem. Saying to disabled people that they have to have a care assessment in their own local authority can make them feel imprisoned in their own immediate area. They feel unable to seek work elsewhere for fear of getting a less advantageous assessment, and unable to go to another local authority to live nearer friends and family. I genuinely believe that the inconsistencies in local authority provision and the lack of portable packages are a severe impediment to the freedom and choice that we all say disabled people should have. That is an area in which legislation may be necessary. There is a range of possible issues here, including the balance between national support and funding and arrangements for disabled people and local support. It is a mess at the moment. The problem is not easy to disentangle, but we need to move much more towards a national system that will make independent living a reality and that will give people the choice and dignity that they deserve.

In summary, to tackle poverty among disabled people we have to continue to do substantially more to increase opportunities for education, training and employment. We have to provide more generous in-work and out-of-work benefits. We need to simplify the benefits system, promote higher take-up and make rapid progress. I readily acknowledge the Government’s significant achievements in tackling many of the unacceptable disadvantages facing disabled people. However, the strategy for tackling disability poverty, particularly in relation to the substantial number of people who are not expected to work because they cannot work, is still one that needs to be addressed properly. Only then will disabled people have the same choice, control and freedom as other citizens.

10.5 am

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope, and also to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who introduced the debate with an excellent and well informed speech. He and I have shared many a platform, been in many a debate, and supported many a Bill. We welcome my hon. Friend the Minister and acknowledge the role that she has played in many of the achievements in this area. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said, much more remains to be done. I appreciate that many hon. Members want to speak so I shall try to summarise the main points that I want to make.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood dealt with the issues of poverty, which afflicts disabled people and their families. He quoted from the excellent report by Leonard Cheshire. I want to address most of my remarks to the evidence of poverty among disabled children and their families. I worry, as my hon. Friend does, about the poverty of opportunity. Although income and the right level of benefits are important factors, we must look at what is happening to public expenditure and seek to ensure that there is a desire to influence the quality of life of disabled children and their families in so far as we can do so. I welcome what he said about fuel poverty. I took part in a debate on that issue a few weeks ago and I initiated one in the Chamber last January.

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In the review that I chaired last year on disabled children and their families, we made a specific recommendation that the allowance should be extended to disabled children and their families. Like my hon. Friend, I think that we would have gone further and addressed disabled adults, but that was not part of our remit.

When I was talking about poverty of aspiration in our debate in Westminster Hall on 16 January, I mentioned briefly the case study of a young lad called Stephen in my own constituency. Although he had received much assistance from North Lanarkshire council, his quality of life would have been better if the policy on short breaks, which involves resources from public expenditure, had been extended in a better way to suit him. I am very pleased that since that time, he has been given respite care in a place that suits his individual needs.

I thank North Lanarkshire council and my local newspaper, The Kirkintilloch Herald—that paper tends to give move coverage to such debates than, for example, the BBC in Scotland—for helping Stephen to ensure that he gets suitable short breaks. It is all about the quality of life. We all know the demands and would love to have more time to go into them. However, I want to move beyond that. My hon. Friend the Minister will know what is coming, as will the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett). During the all-party review of support for disabled and their families, the Government response was very welcome. They allocated an additional £340 million to England and specific amounts, based on the Barnett formula, to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland—£34 million to the latter. Again, I am appalled that we simply do not know where the Scottish Executive have put that money, which was made available by the Treasury on the basis of evidence presented and following an excellent response by the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills.

None of us should be taken in by the red herrings about ring-fencing and the rest. That money was expected to be spent not simply on local government services—important though they are—but on the NHS in Scotland and, specifically, on disabled children and their families. Unless we have accountability, transparency and a clear indication of where that money has gone, some of us will return to the issue again and again.

I know that others are keen to speak in this important debate, so I shall simply summarise the issues that I think remain to be addressed, important though the progress is that we have made. It is right that we consider the poverty and, in particular, the quality of life of disabled children and their families. When considering public expenditure in the health service, transport, employment opportunities, the arts and creative industries, and the rest, we should set our sights much higher and focus on the millions of disabled children in Britain, including those whose needs we have addressed. In that spirit, and with an eye on tomorrow’s Budget—I know that the hour might be late—we encourage the Chancellor to consider how, in fiscal terms, he can influence the quality of life of disabled people, including by looking at energy companies, who have not done too badly in recent years, and asking them to make a contribution.

This has been a very worthwhile debate and I look forward to hearing the comments of my colleagues and the Minister. Again, I thank very warmly my hon.
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Friend the Member for Kingswood, who has done so much in the fight for the rights of disabled people. I am sure that he will continue to do so.

10.13 am

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) on securing this debate. Nobody in Parliament doubts his commitment over many years to the issues before us. I am delighted to see the Minister in the Chamber; she has often heard me say that she is the finest Minister for disabled people that we have ever had. In repeating those comments, I hope that one day she will reward my niceness to her.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has left the Chamber, not least because he is a friend of mine, partly because he is from Keighley, which makes him a pure bred Yorkshireman—that is always good in my book. He talked about the 1980s, my memory of which is of continual recession, massive de-industrialisation and people, with and without disabilities, losing jobs in their hundreds of thousands—we touched 3 million unemployed twice. We also saw the return of the spectre of the 1930s and marches for jobs, but those marches were about white, able-bodied men getting jobs, not black and minority ethnic communities, disabled people or women. Nevertheless, it was terrifying to see that spectre return, because nobody thought that we would ever see it again.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood mentioned that 50 per cent. of disabled people are in work, but that is a false figure. The more disabled a person is, the less likely they are to be in work. There are some horrific examples of blatant discrimination, particularly against people with mental illnesses, which I shall come on to later. I want to concentrate on work for those with disabilities, because I think that it is a basic, crucial civil right. Disabled people have the same civil right to work as anybody else, but there are too many barriers in the system and too much discrimination in society. In particular, there are too many barriers in the benefits system preventing people from accessing benefits. We need to do something about that. Particularly for families with disabled children, child care is crucial. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) referred to last year’s package, which was extremely welcome, but for families, particularly with the most severely disabled children, the cost of child care is astronomical.

The child care tax credit, which is 80 per cent. of £175 a week, is a very welcome initiative, although the take-up has been very poor. However, £175 goes nowhere in providing child care for a disabled child. The Work and Pensions Committee report gave the example of a 60 per cent. premium on the going child care rate, if the child is disabled. We heard evidence of some institutions charging five times as much for child care for a disabled child as for an able-bodied child. Those institutions are clearly saying, “We don’t want these children, so we will price them out.” That is wrong and those institutions need to be taken to task over it.

The Select Committee’s report on incapacity benefits a couple of years ago touched on parents of disabled children going to work, and considered Pathways to
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Work and various other things. We reported—and this was striking—that it is seldom the disability itself that prevents an individual from going to work, but other factors, around the home or whatever. A key factor for parents with a disabled child is that that child is more likely than other children to need regular doctors or hospital appointments, requiring the parent to take time off work. The Government have been good on family-friendly policies, but they involve the right to request leave, not automatic entitlements.

Scarier is the fact that a disabled child is 16 times more likely than an able-bodied child to be excluded from school. If a parent is at work and receives a phone call at quarter-past 10 saying, “We are going to exclude your child”, they go to the school. That does not have to happen very often before an employer, understandably or not, thinks, “Hang on a minute, what’s going on here? Something needs to be done about this.” We need to take another look at the state education system to find out why those children are 16 times more likely to be excluded.

I want to touch on two things on which I think the Government have been particularly good in assisting disabled people back into work. I am really pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) here, because I think that he changed the dynamics in that system during his time as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. We should pay tribute to him. The first thing was that we changed the linking rules, which meant that someone could take a job and that, within two years, they could return to the benefit that they were on before, if it did not work out. That provides security for people with disabilities so that they can see whether employment works out for them.

The second thing that the Government did was to get rid of therapeutic earnings, which were an insult to disabled people, and brought in permitted work rules, which are more flexible. However, if we are going to have permitted work, we should have one rule, not four separate regimes—a point that I have raised before. It is insulting, too, to say that, under permitted work, the maximum that can be worked is 16 hours at minimum wage, which pays about £6 an hour. If those who have been on incapacity benefit for two, five, 10 or 15 years manage to find a job, I would tell them, “You go and do that job. Come back in three or six months and tell us how it is working out. Keep your benefit and whatever wages you get. Test it out and see if it works for you.” If they manage to break that gap of many years, we must be much more flexible in how we operate the benefits system to allow such people to get back to work. There is no loss to the Treasury in doing so. There is the fantastic statistic that someone on incapacity benefit for two years is more likely to retire or die than go back to work. If people are making the effort, we should encourage them and not have artificial rules that restrict what work they can do and how much they can earn.

Returning to the issue of discrimination, we have the much improved Disability Discrimination Act 2005. We had the Disability Rights Commission and we now have the Equal Opportunities Commission. However, it is more than 30 years since we passed the Race Relations Act 1976 and, frankly, we have not abolished race discrimination. We have had the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 for about the same period and we have not abolished sex discrimination. The one advantage of
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disability discrimination—if I may be forgiven for putting it that way—is that sex and race discrimination are generally malicious, whereas disability discrimination is generally down to ignorance. There is therefore a better opportunity to work through that problem.

A couple of years ago, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development carried out a survey in which 70 per cent. of companies said that they would not even interview somebody who disclosed a history of mental illness. That survey was released to all media outlets, but not one of them covered it. If the survey said that 70 per cent. of companies would not interview a black person, it would have been on the front page of every newspaper; it would have been the lead story on the BBC “Nine O’clock News” and so on. If 70 per cent. of companies said that they would not interview a woman, there would have been similar press coverage. Because the survey said that companies would not interview somebody who had had a mental illness, it was buried and did not go anywhere. That is a measure of how far society still has to go on this issue.

I find it appalling that Rethink, an organisation well known to everybody in the Chamber, led a consortium that submitted to the lottery fund a bid that received £17 million to work on educating employers, as it should not have been necessary to do so. The Government should have done a lot more to educate and train employers, and to punish those who do not alter their attitudes. It is tragic that it is left to mental health charities to make a bid to the lottery fund to do what the state should be doing in the first place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood mentioned access to work, which is a well chewed-over bone. It is the Government’s best kept secret and the way in which it operates needs to be examined. These days, given that we are increasingly engaging with the private and third sectors on the delivery of services, the access to work budget should be devolved to the providers of job placement services. A formula can easily be worked out that would not be dissimilar to how the social fund is distributed to district offices. A sum could be retained centrally to deal with crises.

If we are serious about the new approach to getting people back to work, the providers need a range of tools at their fingertips. They do not want to have to wait for three to six weeks for a response from a Department somewhere else. They would have to be put on trust because abuse must always be guarded against, but we must be much more imaginative about how we administer and use the access to work budget.

Finally, I shall make just a couple of points, because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. It is important that we set the support allowance at a level that recognises that these individuals will never work again. That would send a real signal about Government commitment. I do not want to be particularly damning about colleagues in the Treasury, but for many months, rumours have circulated that the Treasury has been saying, “Five pounds and no more.” That is an insult, and it will cause insurrection in the ranks. I do not want to issue threats, but nobody will tolerate that. I understand that the support allowances will be announced in the next few weeks. That will be seen either as a declaration of intent or as a surrender. I would much rather that the Government make it a declaration of intent.

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Tomorrow, the Chancellor will make his Budget statement. We are all hopeful, and anticipate that further energies and moneys will be applied to the child poverty strategy. I hope to see particular emphasis on disabled children and poverty. The Government have a fantastic track record, but we need to keep up the momentum and take the issue forward because that community has been forgotten for far too long.

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