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16 July 2008 : Column 91WH—continued

That is absolutely true. The process should be absolutely fair.

I shall ask the Minister four questions about the way forward. Will she agree to meet me and representatives of the campaign and the Trailblazers network to discuss the evidence uncovered in the interviews for the “Bridging the Gap” campaign? Will she do all she can to ensure that disability employment advisers build links with local schools and colleges to provide general employment advice to facilitate work experience for young people in the situation that I have described? Will she ensure that disability employment advisers use their relationship with employers actively to market the “Access to Work” scheme to ensure increased awareness of it? What will she do to ensure that the best possible support is provided to students with disabilities, so that they can study the subjects that they want to at the higher education facilities of their choice, which will give them a better chance of entering mainstream employment on gaining their qualifications?

Thank you, Mr. Hancock, for allowing me to make this speech. I hope that the Minister will answer my questions and that we can make progress.

11.11 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): It is a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. This is probably the first time that we have met in such circumstances, and I look forward to the experience.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) on securing this important debate. Not only here this morning but over many years he has shown significant commitment in raising awareness of the rights and needs of people living with muscular dystrophy. As he clearly identified, some of the issues cut across the concerns raised by many young people with different conditions or disabilities. The fact that my hon. Friend concentrated on issues relating to muscular dystrophy does not take away from the power of his case.

I am aware from the first part of my hon. Friend’s contribution this morning that there is a great deal of work still to be done on specialist services, particularly specialist medical services, and that the lack of those services can have a serious impact on the lives of people with muscular dystrophy and similar conditions. I am aware that my hon. Friend met the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), on Monday to discuss research and specialist services. I understand that another meeting has been arranged to examine those issues again and perhaps to resolve some of the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon has raised. I give a commitment that I will pass on the comments that have been made in this debate to ensure that that Minister is aware of them.

The Government are proud of their record on extending rights and opportunities for disabled people, and I welcome the opportunity provided by this debate to highlight some of the progress that we have made and are making towards achieving equality for young disabled
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people and to reflect on some of the challenges. In the short time available, I will try to pick up on the specific points that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon raised.

My hon. Friend gave powerful illustrations of the situation that faces many young disabled people. They still feel themselves discriminated against. They feel that their talents, experience and educational qualifications are not recognised as they should be. Indeed, at a very basic level, the need for access to an interview is not even considered to be part of the way in which an employer should treat a prospective employee who is skilled and has the relevant qualifications. Obviously, it causes me, as Minister with responsibility for disabled people, grave concern that such a situation still exists, despite the fact that we have had the Disability Discrimination Act since 1995. We have strengthened that Act over the past 11 years while we have been in government, yet young people going for their first job and full of expectation are still treated in the way that my hon. Friend highlighted.

It is fair to say, however, that despite that reservation, the UK has become a world leader on disability rights. We have legislated to provide protection against discrimination at work, while offering new support and incentives to work. We are consulting on improving our specialist disability employment services. With those measures and others that I hope to highlight in the next few minutes, we have come a long way but, as my hon. Friend’s speech clearly showed, major challenges still have to be tackled.

I place on record my support for Trailblazers, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s new network of young campaigners, which was eloquently championed by my hon. Friend. I would be happy to meet him and representatives of the network. I am keen to ensure that our policies and services are informed by the knowledge and experience of disabled people. That is why, as my hon. Friend may be aware, we established Equality 2025, which is a network of disabled people to advise the Government on policies affecting disabled people. Trailblazers can play an important role, not only in articulating the views of young disabled people but in enabling young people to develop vital skills through their involvement with the network. My hon. Friend will be similar to me in some aspects of his background. We picked up the skills of negotiation, debate and conflict resolution through our experiences in either the Labour or the trade union movement, or through involvement with other political groups and residents networks. I would be delighted to meet him and representatives of the Trailblazers network.

The Government acknowledged the specific challenges faced by disabled children and young people in our 2005 report entitled “Improving the life chances of disabled people”. We are committed to breaking down those barriers to enable disabled children and young people to achieve their full potential. The report focused on four key aspects of a disabled person’s life chances: independent living; early years and family support; transition to adulthood; and employment. My hon. Friend emphasised the latter two this morning. The report made a number of practical recommendations, which we continue to drive forward to deliver on our commitment of equality for disabled people by 2025.
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Indeed, before coming to Westminster Hall this morning, I was chairing a meeting of Ministers who are part of our life chances group.

We are making significant progress against the recommendations in the report. We have introduced many initiatives and programmes, which are having a significant impact on the life chances of disabled children and young people. They are too numerous to list now, but I will provide a few examples of the achievements so far.

We have transformed the civil rights of disabled people. We have improved the benefits system and continue to seek ways to do so. We have improved support for families with disabled children in line with the children’s national service framework. We have introduced direct payments for families with disabled children and disabled young people, which increase choice and control and empower those families. We are investing an extra £340 million over three years to transform services for disabled children and their parents, as set out in our “Aiming high for disabled children” programme. We have extended opportunities for education and employment, which I shall now talk about in more detail.

We are strongly committed to ensuring that our education system fosters the ambitions and aspirations of young disabled people. Since September 2002, schools and local authorities have been under a duty not to treat disabled pupils or students less favourably than those who are not disabled. We have made it perfectly clear that when parents want a mainstream place for their child, everything possible should be done to provide that. I note that the two individuals to whom my hon. Friend referred in his illustration have been through mainstream education at both primary and secondary level.

We have significantly increased funding for the Learning and Skills Council to support disabled learners through further education, specialist providers, work-based learning, school sixth forms and personal development and community learning. We recently launched “Progression through Partnership”, which sets out a vision for how Departments across Whitehall, such as the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Department of Health, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions, which is my Department, will work together to deliver high quality support and incentives for disabled young people and adults in further education and training. It sets out a joint programme for change over five years and requires that the principal delivery agents and local delivery partners, including the Learning and Skills Council, local government’s adults and children’s social services and Jobcentre Plus, mirror that approach in delivering sustainable, positive changes for disabled learners.

Mr. Anderson: I thank the Minister for the kind words that she has said so far. The cross-departmental group that she mentioned seems to be exactly the sort of thing we need, but was any of the work behind that driven by people such as those who are with us today and who live with those experiences? We might think that we know what those people are going through, but the truth is that we do not.

Mrs. McGuire: I hope to give my hon. Friend and the colleagues with whom he works through Trailblazers some confidence that we work closely with disabled
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people to ensure that the policies and initiatives that we are developing not only are thought about in an office in Whitehall or even by politicians, but reflect the real life experiences of young disabled people. Many of the members of Equality 2025 are young disabled people in their late teens and early 20s who have recent experience of being part of an educational system and are looking to achieve their life ambitions. We take seriously not only the consultation with disabled people, but their involvement at all points in developing these proposals and monitoring how well we are implementing them. It is one thing to consult at the beginning, but we need to test ourselves all the way through the programmes. We always seek to do that, and to improve when we do not do it well.

We are also providing increased funding through the Higher Education Funding Council to institutions to help them support disabled students as well as providing disabled students’ allowances directly to students. That support helps to remove the obstacles that prevent disabled students from entering and completing higher education courses of their choice.

My hon. Friend mentioned employment, and we continue to open up opportunities for disabled people to move into work. We have significantly expanded the range of specialist disability employment services, such as Workstep and the Access to Work programme, which I shall talk more about shortly. Those programmes have opened up work options for many thousands of disabled people across the country. My hon. Friend might be aware that we recently completed a review of those services to ensure a higher and more consistent quality of service to ensure a clearer focus on the individual needs of every disabled person we support, so it is not a template approach.

In response to my hon. Friend’s question about the Access to Work programme, information on that is already readily available to employers through their relationships with Disability Employment Advisers and through Jobcentre Plus. We have increased the budget for the Access to Work programme year on year—from £15 million in 1997 to £69 million this year. We will continue to work with employers to raise awareness of their responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. We are also always looking for different and better ways for publicising that flagship policy, which supports so many in employment.

My. hon. Friend mentioned the necessary support for the transition from education to employment, which is crucial for many young people and their parents or guardians. For many young disabled people the transition into adulthood is not only about leaving school, often takes place over a longer period of time and involves many more aspects of a young person’s life than it would for a non-disabled young person. So crucial do
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the Government think that that transition is, my hon. Friend will be interested to note that Ministers have made transition to adulthood a standing item on their agenda at their quarterly meetings of the life chances group. We listen to young disabled people when they say that transition planning and service provision do not work for them, which is often the case, and we are certainly taking action to improve the situation.

I have already mentioned our “Aiming High for Disabled Children” programme, which commits £19 million to a co-ordinated transition programme due to begin in September. Our five-year independent living strategy, which we published in March 2008, commits the Government and all of our agencies to ensuring a seamless transition into adulthood for young disabled people, including those with complex health needs. That will cover all aspects of their lives, including transition between children’s and adult services, housing, transport, employment, education and training. That will bring together those commitments across a number of Government Departments. Over the five years of the strategy, we expect to see significant improvements in the number of young disabled people who have transition plans and who have access to a person-centred planning and advocacy service. It is allright having the plans in place, but we need to ensure that they are fulfilled. We are also committed to reducing the proportion of young people aged between 16 and 18 who are not in education, employment or training, and that also covers disabled young people.

In response to my hon. Friend’s points on the links between the disability employment advisers and schools, those links already exist and undoubtedly add value, but I am looking for ways in which that engagement between education and our disability employment advisers at local level can be improved. He also highlighted the issue of accessible housing. The Government have substantially increased funding for the disabled facilities grant programme, from £57 million in 1997 to £146 million in 2008-09. That grant now helps around 35,000 disabled people by providing assistance with major housing adaptations, which enable them to remain living independent lives in their own homes, which is crucial for the individual’s stability and development. Our independent living strategy has also commissioned further research.

Many of the initiatives and programmes that I have outlined today will take time to have an impact, but I echo my hon. Friend’s comments that it is only by listening to the views of disabled people, and young disabled people in particular, through networks such as Trailblazers, that we will achieve our vision of equality for all disabled people by 2025.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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2.30 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on Belarus ahead of the important parliamentary elections there in September.

I should first like to condemn the recent spate of bomb attacks in Minsk. Whether they were motivated by extreme hooliganism, terrorism or other factors, they are to be condemned, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the 50 or so people who were injured, many seriously. I hope not only that the perpetrators will soon be brought before the courts and the necessary justice dispensed, but that the police investigation will not be used as a pretext for curbing the freedoms of civic society and those religious, political and media organisations that espouse only peace.

Belarus stands at an important juncture in its history. The choice could not be more stark: the parliamentary elections in September will either provide a continuance of the status quo or an opportunity for a new dawn in which all the people of Belarus will be able to realise their full potential, and fulfil their dreams and those of their families.

For too long, political discussions inside and outside Belarus have been unhelpfully trapped in silos, too often accompanied by the outdated rhetoric of yesterday rather than the lexicon of the future and the language of hope. It is a false dichotomy to talk of Belarus choosing between east and west, for Belarus is strategically and geographically positioned to take advantage of both relationships, as it should—it is in its national interest to do so. One relationship does not have to suffer because of the desire to deepen ties with other partners. Belarus can be politically polygamous.

Although it may be convenient for some to talk in immediate, post-Soviet language, such language may rally to history, but it does not champion the future. Belarus can never cast aside its close ties with Russia—the Slavic and Russian influences on it remain strong—but no one is calling for that. Indeed, I believe that the Belarusian people would not countenance such a mistaken proposition. However, the European characteristic of Belarus is equally unmistakable and evident, and is a proud element within the make-up of Belarus, which is a fine, cultured country of brave people. Recently, a marker was placed in Polotsk to denote the geographical centre of Europe. Of course, it is not the only candidate—there are several rival claims—but it is another indicator that Belarus is part of the family of European nations. That is why I hope the country will move towards realising its true and full European potential, with the many benefits that closer co-operation will bring, not least in these difficult economic times. Belarus, like all nations, needs to minimise its risk to the vagaries of the global economy, and part of that process means seeking out new markets and opportunities, be they for large companies or small and medium-sized business. For the impressive Belarusian entrepreneurs, of which I know there are plenty, the future holds many opportunities.

What about UK-Belarusian relations? We enjoy good relations with Belarus—I would even say very good relations—in combating organised crime. Trade and investment are growing all the time, although the pace of growth is slow and could increase much further,
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given the right conditions. That is why Belarus’s international reputation is important. I know of several UK companies that would like to expand into Minsk and other Belarusian cities, but they are worried that their reputations could be damaged in the process. Those justified, multi-million pound concerns should be taken seriously. They are a huge missed opportunity for the Belarus economy, but I do not believe that such opportunities are lost for ever. That is a matter for the Government of Belarus. Although Belarus might seek to improve its own image, the reality rather than the perception of progress matters.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): When Belarus looks westward, who does my hon. Friend think will have more influence over the future direction of the country: the United States or the European Union?

Mark Pritchard: My hon. Friend, as always, asks a pertinent and relevant question. Belarus’s relationship with the United States is a matter for the Belarus Government, and I am talking today predominantly about the Belarus-UK relationship and its relationship with the European Union. As I set out briefly already—I hope to set it out in more detail—there are a great many opportunities for Belarus to engage at all sorts of levels with the European Union. The difference between the types of discourse that the Belarusians could have with the Americans and the EU is not an issue, because Europe and the UK agree on the things that America is concerned about.

To reiterate, although Belarus might seek to improve its image, the reality rather than the perception of progress matters. A decision for progress will capture the imagination of international investors and increase foreign direct investment. The City of London is waiting to increase business with Belarus when conditions are right.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): My hon. Friend is a great champion for the City of London and an assiduous constituency MP, and I am delighted that he has brought this important issue to the House before the recess. Does he think that non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International also have a part to play in developing the international community’s perception of Belarus’s performance on human rights reforms and the development of democratic institutions? I think it is genuinely trying to do those things, and it needs encouragement to make progress.

Mark Pritchard: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I mentioned civic society in my introduction, and I shall refer specifically to NGOs later in my speech. I am grateful for that intervention and look forward to responding to that point.

The process of parliamentary elections in September 2008 is important. The word “process” is significant, because the process rather than the outcome matters to the international community. The EU and hundreds of businesses within it, including in the UK, as I said, are eagerly awaiting a democratic nod from Belarus.

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