Previous Section Index Home Page

11 Mar 2008 : Column 14WH—continued

10.25 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) on triggering the debate. Recently, there have been in this hall three debates on issues linked to today’s debate about disability poverty: special educational needs, disabled children and the employment of disabled adults. The good aspect about such debates is that the issue is clearly on the agenda, but the bad aspect is that so much is yet to be done.

I congratulate all previous speakers on their excellent contributions. The hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), Chairman of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, mentioned how discrimination against the disabled is in some ways almost acceptable. For instance, it is not covered by the media with similar outrage to discrimination against black, female, gay or Muslim members of society. It is sad that while we have made progress on so many other aspects of society, so much discrimination still exists.

I will comment briefly on the Leonard Cheshire report because it includes so much good work. I do not need to go into great detail, but I recommend that anybody who has not read it from cover to cover does so because it sums up the key issues clearly and concisely.

The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) mentioned the clearly identified need for £340 million. It was identified on a UK-wide basis, and questions must be asked about where that money has been spent, or if it is going to be spent north of the border. Many Members have mentioned that the Budget statement takes place tomorrow. The Chancellor might ask why he should identify further funding if existing identified funding is not being spent. Indeed, questions must be asked in all parts of the House. I notice that no members of the Scottish National party are present to try to justify what they are doing. Once again, they are missing in action.

One of the big policy focuses in recent years has been poverty. Whether it has been the Make Poverty History campaign, or the Government’s focus on tackling child poverty, poverty has become a major focus for policy makers. However, we have yet to see sufficient focus on tackling disability poverty, which is why today’s debate is so important. With the Government having published “Independent Living Strategy” last week, now is the ideal time to re-examine disability and poverty, and whether we are doing enough to break the link between the two. In the same way that we must never accept that being born in a developing country inevitably condemns someone to a life of poverty, being born with, or developing, a disability ought not to mean that someone will live life below the poverty line. Poverty is not an inevitable consequence of disability, but looking at the statistics, one might be forgiven for thinking that it is.

11 Mar 2008 : Column 15WH

Disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people—about 30 per cent. compared with 16 per cent. The challenge for policy makers must be to break the link between disability and poverty. Although we have rightly adopted targeted strategies for tackling child poverty, not enough has been done to target disability poverty specifically. I hope that today’s debate represents one small step in the progress towards that goal.

Many disabled people continue to experience poverty of aspiration and opportunity due to physical barriers and numerous other barriers. However, we must be attuned to aspiration barriers in education, employment and access to services, too, because they are every bit as debilitating as any physical condition. In the debate about disability poverty, we must consider not only financial poverty but poverty of opportunity and poverty of aspiration. Disability poverty can develop as a result not only of low income but of poor-quality or inappropriate housing or lack of educational opportunities.

We are socially and morally obliged to tackle disability poverty, but there are also powerful economic imperatives for doing so. Addressing disability poverty is not only a matter of basic social justice; there is a clear economic case for it. Ending disability poverty would mean that more disabled people moved into the workplace, increasing net contributions to the Treasury through the tax system and reducing expenditure on out of work benefits. To use a broad estimate, if 1 million disabled people moved back into work, the Treasury could expect to gain up to £5 billion in income tax alone. The Chancellor would do well to listen to those figures before he addresses the House tomorrow.

As other hon. Members have mentioned, not only do disabled people tend to have smaller incomes, but many face additional costs due to their disability. The extra costs of managing an impairment vary according to circumstances, but they often include such expenses as mobility equipment, social care, treatment, child care, higher fuel bills and adaptations to the home. The Leonard Cheshire report on disability found that the average costs of those managing an impairment are about a quarter higher than the essential day-to-day costs of non-disabled people, and it is believed that that is a gross underestimate for many. Existing poverty figures and measures consistently underestimate the level of disability poverty. Researchers from the London School of Economics calculate that, if the additional costs of disability were factored in, the percentage of disabled people living below the poverty line could be as high as 61 per cent. It is essential to attempt to build some measurement of those extra costs into poverty indicators in order better to understand the true levels of disability poverty.

Disabled people are also far less likely to have significant savings and far more likely to be in debt than their non-disabled counterparts. The sheer scale of the gap between disabled and non-disabled people in terms of the likelihood of living in financial poverty means that specific action to tackle disability poverty is desperately needed. What is the Minister doing to factor the extra costs of disability into official calculations? Crucially, how will those work through to the benefit system?

11 Mar 2008 : Column 16WH

Only half of disabled people are in work. I need not point out what a tragic waste of human potential that represents. Although work might not be the appropriate option for everyone, the correlation between being out of work and living in poverty is clear. Being in work can help to combat many aspects of disability poverty—not just financial poverty, but poverty of opportunity and aspiration—by providing social networks and an important boost in confidence through further training and skills, which helps individuals to play a greater part in society. It is the social as well as the more obvious economic benefits of employment that make helping disabled people find meaningful work so important.

We must banish the assumption, which has persisted for too long, that many disabled people either cannot or do not want to work. Disabled people continue to face barriers to employment, including discrimination, lack of support from employers, inaccessible public transport and inflexible social care arrangements. I am sure that the Minister will accept that, although progress has been made in those areas, it has been too slow. Even when disabled people find work, they are more likely than non-disabled people to be in low-paid, short-term jobs. We need to focus not just on employment but on suitable and sustainable employment.

For those who cannot work, we need a benefit system sufficiently sensitive to the specific barriers faced by disabled people. Too often, disabled people on benefits are the victims of the race to prove which party is toughest on so-called benefit scroungers. Those with the severest impairments face the lowest likelihood of employment, combined with the highest extra costs of disability. The welfare benefit system must support that group better. It must ensure that no one is written off and that those for whom a return to work is particularly difficult are not left to languish in poverty. No one should be abandoned to a life of poverty and benefits.

The application and appeals processes for benefit claimants can be daunting and complicated for the best of us, which leads many not to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. Those forced to leave work due to an acquired or worsening disability almost always face an accompanying drop in income. Often, partners must leave employment to become carers, leading to a further drop in income. Targeted help and assistance for that group is therefore essential. I support what has been said by previous speakers and appeal to the Chancellor to extend measures such as the winter fuel allowance in his speech tomorrow.

Transport is a significant obstacle faced by disabled people. To access services and engage fully with society, accessible transport is key. Poverty of opportunity and social exclusion are inextricably linked with inaccessible public transport. An accessible and integrated transport network is essential to tackling disability poverty, as it would facilitate improvements in the disabled people employment rate as well as their community engagement and quality of life.

The Government have acknowledged the scale of many of the challenges discussed today in their strategy document “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People” and the subsequent strategy published last week. Although I welcome much of what was included, I would be extremely interested to hear whether the Minister believes that the Government’s ambitions can be translated into practical change on the ground for those who need
11 Mar 2008 : Column 17WH
it. The links between disability and poverty are maintained by continuing barriers in society—both physical barriers to accessibility and the barriers formed by negative attitudes and a lack of understanding about what disabled people can achieve.

The Government should make tackling disability poverty one of their key priorities. Doing so will require first a commitment to understand and monitor disability poverty and its causes and then the strategic development of social policy initiatives to eradicate it. Ending disability poverty is not just a way to drive down poverty throughout the UK and improve the nation’s economic health. It is also an absolute necessity of social justice.

10.37 am

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) on securing this debate. I know from our frequent meetings at the all-party group on disability and from his record over many years that he is an acknowledged expert on the matter. I listened to his words with great care and, not for the first time, found myself agreeing with much of what he said, although—I say this for the benefit of the shadow Chancellor—not with any of the proposals that would increase expenditure. I do not want to get myself into dreadful trouble, as I am sure the Minister would if she pre-empted the Chancellor’s Budget speech tomorrow.

I join the hon. Member for Kingswood in mentioning early-day motion 637. The number of Members from all parties who have signed it increases daily. As he said, it is the seventh best supported early-day motion, which shows the interest in the matter across all parties. Our friends in the media would be wise to recognise that the issue is of great interest among parliamentarians. When they report debates such as this and the proceedings of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions on the subject, as well as when they write stories involving discrimination against disabled people such as those mentioned earlier, they might consider whether they cover them to the extent to that they would if they were reporting issues affecting others.

I should like to draw attention to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) about child poverty. It is perfectly true, as he says, that the Government have made some progress, although it is worth pointing out that they are likely to miss their child poverty targets for 2010. It is also worth saying that the latest figures published, those for 2005-06, showed that what progress they have made has gone into reverse and an extra 200,000 children now live in poverty. Does the Minister think that the Government will hit their 2010 child poverty targets? It would be useful to get that on the record.

As the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) said, it is true that there has been some progress in getting people with disabilities into the workplace, although not as much as the Government or indeed any of us would wish. In looking at the statistics produced by the Office for National Statistics on working-age people with work-limiting disabilities, I am afraid that I could not go back to 1997. The data do not go back that far, although I know that Government Members like starting with the year zero. In 1999, 46.2 per cent. of long-term
11 Mar 2008 : Column 18WH
disabled people were in employment; by 2007, that percentage had increased to 50.5 per cent. That is a welcome improvement, but, as other hon. Members have said, it is not as big an improvement as one would hope.

The hon. Member for Kingswood is absolutely right that the best route out of poverty for disabled people who can work is to get into work. He made some interesting comments that flow nicely into some points that I want to make about the welfare reform proposals that my party has published, on which we are consulting. He made an important point about using the savings that are gained from not paying incapacity benefit and other out-of-work benefits to disabled people whom we get back into work. Those savings, and the tax and national insurance contributions that they pay, can be used to fund the help and support that are required to get disabled people back into work. He drew attention to the current Treasury rules, which make it difficult, if not impossible, to invest those savings in getting such people back into work.

I am pleased to put it on the record that my hon. Friends in the shadow Treasury team agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that we propose to use private and voluntary providers that will get paid only on results, when they get people into work for sustained periods. We would use those savings to fund programmes. Only in that way can we address the issue of all the people on out-of-work benefits, including those who have been on such benefits for some considerable time. If we do not make that change, we must limit our ambitions to the people who newly enter such benefit programmes. I am pleased that we have been able to do that, and I would like nothing more than if the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his Budget statement tomorrow—

Mr. Rooney: I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman was more assiduous. There is already an agreement between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury for just such an arrangement: a proportion of the savings made on incapacity benefit through the new Pathways To Work programmes will return to the DWP to finance further programmes. That has already been done.

Mr. Harper: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I know that that is done in a limited way, but it does not enable the Government to focus their employment and support allowances on all of those who are on out-of-work benefits. I think that the hon. Gentleman gave the statistic that if one is on incapacity benefit for more than two years, one is more likely to die or retire than to come off it. A significant number of people are on incapacity benefit. More people are on incapacity benefit now and have been on it or its predecessor benefits for more than five years than in 1997. A significant number of people under 35 are on incapacity benefit. It cannot be right to allow them to spend their entire lives on out-of-work benefits without trying to extend programmes to everyone on out-of-work benefits and to get them all back into work if they are able to work. As has been said, that is the best route out of poverty.

The right hon. Member for Oxford, East made another wise point, which was followed up by other hon. Members, about the extra costs that disabled people have to bear,
11 Mar 2008 : Column 19WH
and whether they are properly reflected in the disability living allowance. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point. On what basis are those figures calculated? Some transparency would be helpful, because at least then we could engage in a proper debate. In its excellent report, which has been mentioned by several hon. Members, Leonard Cheshire has had a good stab at doing that work and has come up with an estimate. Other organisations have done similar work, and it would be good if the Government were to undertake an official version of such work, which could be built into the calculation of such benefits and allowances, to give those disabled people a level playing field on which to compete with everyone else in the workplace.

The hon. Member for Kingswood talked about the access to work programme. I know that the Minister agrees that it is one of the Government’s best-kept secrets, because I have heard her say so before. I know what she means, and I agree that it is an excellent programme, but I have found from both empirical and anecdotal research that a significant number of employers, particularly smaller employers, have never heard of it. In debates such as this, we should all take the opportunity to reiterate that the programme exists and how good it is. That is why I am talking about it even though other hon. Members have already done so. More employers should be aware of the programme and should take it up where necessary to enable more disabled people to get back into work. It is easier than employers might envisage.

I shall make only a few more points, because I want the Minister to have time to answer the many points that the hon. Member for Kingswood made. First, the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) again made the point about Scotland that I have heard him make several times. If he wants a UK-wide approach to disability poverty, he should remember that his party devolved such matters to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, which is controlled by the Scottish National party. The place to have these arguments is, therefore, in that Parliament and not in this place.

Mr. Tom Clarke: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to my comments, because I had a feeling that he was not going to say a word on them. I think that the charming Annabel Goldie will be hanging on his every word. She and I would like to know whether he believes that, given devolution, which we accept as a reality, transparency and accountability should apply to resources that are made available specifically for disabled children and their families.

Mr. Harper: Absolutely; I am a great believer in transparency, and I have no problem with the right hon. Gentleman pressing for the SNP Government to be open about where they spend such money. Unfortunately, however, even if he disagrees with the priorities of that Administration, we in this place can no longer influence them, because those matters have been devolved. I am sure that he will continue raising this issue. His campaigning work and his arguments about disabled children are well made and are often supported by the Conservatives.

11 Mar 2008 : Column 20WH

In closing, I thank the hon. Member for Kingswood again for securing this debate, which has given us an excellent opportunity to make several points on the record. Finally, as the hon. Member for Bradford, North mentioned the Minister’s fine qualities, it is worth mentioning, by way of balance, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who was an excellent Minister for disabled people. Indeed, he put the first Disability Discrimination Act on the statute book in 1995. On that note, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.

10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Let me say at the outset that I am not going to compete with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I have congratulated him on the Floor of the House on challenging a significant majority of his own party on the Disability Discrimination Act. I pay tribute to my colleagues, including those present—my hon. Friends the Members for Kingswood (Roger Berry) and for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke)—for campaigning to encourage the then Conservative Government to put that Act on the statute book.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Chope, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood on securing the debate. He has shown significant commitment to this issue over many years. I also thank other hon. Members for their contributions. I am particularly pleased to note that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, was present at the debate earlier. It is significant that, although he is no longer the Secretary of State, he continues to take a great interest in the subject and attends debates such as this one.

I shall try to answer as many of the questions that have been raised as possible, but let me get one thing out of the way and then I will be able to settle down a bit. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) mentioned this Government’s child poverty targets. I just want to say, colleagues, that I welcome his interest in child poverty, but we have a target for which we are being held to account, and we welcome the fact that we are held to account for it. His party does not have a target. It once had an ambition to eradicate child poverty, but demoted it to an aspiration, and now we are not even sure whether it has that.

Mr. Harper: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. McGuire: No, I will not. I am not quite sure whether the hon. Gentleman’s party has even an aspiration. He said that he had heard me say certain things. I have certainly heard his colleagues challenged on that issue on the Floor of the House.[Official Report, 19 March 2008, Vol. 473, c. 8MC.]

Next Section Index Home Page