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Following up the meeting with my right hon. Friend, we had a further meeting with our good friend the Secretary of State. That meetingagaincame down to the question Can we afford it? We said that we had to afford it. When we left his office that day, I think that the words that were ringing in his ears were If we need to go to the Treasury as a delegation, we will go there to make the case for the funding to make this happen for people.
I have attended a number of events organised by the RNIB. On one of those occasions, I was told that there was a message for me. The message came in the form of a compact disc from a constituent of mine, a lady called Charlotte Bennie, whom I had met a couple of times. There were a number of different messages for different Members of Parliament, but the message to me was clear, and I listened to it as I travelled across my constituency one day. It took the best part of 40 minutes. The message described the difficulties that Charlotte experienced in life, getting around, and the difference that a little additional money would make.
Let me make a comparison. I ask Members to think of the difference that they could make to peoples lives. I look back to the early 1990s, when I served on Dumfries and Galloway regional council. At that time, as a minority administration, we introduced free bus passes for the elderly, which was ground-breaking stuff in those days. It opened up a new world to so many elderly people who had been confined to their homes. The small sum that is now being not just requested butI must say this to my hon. Friend the Ministerdemanded this evening may open up other areas that have been forgotten by those who are partially sighted and blind.
I hope that the Department has listened, because I see this as the last chance saloon. Notwithstanding what was said by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), there is a great fear among Labour Members that should my party be defeated at the next electionalthough I will not be defeatist in that regardand should we not have secured what we seek tonight, it may not be delivered by those on the Conservative Benches. I think that, in 2009, there could be no more appropriate celebration of the bicentenary of Louis Braille than a Labour Governments agreement to what is being requested. We all wait to hear what our good friend the Minister has to say.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): This has been a very good debate, which has encapsulated the excellent campaign by the RNIB. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) on tabling the new clause. I well recall his eloquent words in Committee. Then as now, he was able to grasp and express the sense of injustice felt by many blind people in the absence of this important benefit. I am also grateful for what was said by many other Members, with which I shall deal later. They put forward compelling arguments in favour of making this important change.
As the House knows, the campaign to extend the higher rate mobility component has been running for well over two years now, and throughout that time I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire)the former Ministerhave been engaged in numerous and fruitful discussions with the RNIB to see how we can progress this measure. Those discussions have been enormously helpful and have greatly assisted us to come to a shared understanding of what it would mean to extend the higher rate mobility component of the disability living allowance to severely sight-impaired people. For many, it can be very difficult to get out and about and to enter work. That means that thousands of people can become socially isolatedunable meaningfully to become independent, unable to indulge in the normal social pursuits non-disabled people take for granted, and unable to enter work or actively seek work.
Through working with the RNIB, we have been able to come to a shared understanding of how we can define those with the most severe visual impairments such that they have no useful sight for orientation purposes. I am also grateful for the help and assistance we have received from numerous other organisations and professional bodies. In particular, I would like to thank the medical experts we have consulted such as ophthalmologists and optometrists, as well as Moorfields hospital, for the valuable professional and statistical advice and information they have been able to give us. I
should also like to thank more generally the many thousands of peoplemany of whom have no sight difficultieswho have written, through their Member of Parliament, to me as the Minister for the disabled. This House has spoken with a consistent voice, as has been articulated by many Members this evening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West began his remarks in moving this new clause by saying it was supported by the most popular early-day motion in this Parliament. Potentially then, I could perhaps become the most popular Minister. I am looking at my boss, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State; if that were to be the case, he could do my Adjournment debates and sign all my letters. He is not looking very enthusiastic, but there we are. That early-day motion had an extraordinarily high number of signatures from Members of different parties. My hon. Friend also rightly mentioned the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), who is not in his seat at present, and the support he received from him and their working together.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) spoke in his usual way, setting out clearly for the House the difference this would make for blind people. Obviously, nobody in this debate is in a better position than him to inform us of such matters.
The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) talked about the cold temperature in Westminster Hall even though, as other Members have said, many of our constituents made the difficult journey to come and lobby us. It is a journey people have to make every day, and he brought that home to us.
I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling. It is an honour to follow her in holding this ministerial post. The work she has done on this issue, and on many others, will stand the test of time. She is held in high regard in this House and among all those involved in disability issues. She worked very hard on this issue, and her hard work has made my work load that much easier. I thank her for her work.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West has a proud and honourable record of campaigning on these matters. He talked about the lower rate mobility component having been introduced and the untapped pool of talent among blind people. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) reminded the House that 70 per cent. of blind people are not in work. Not only is their not being in work their loss, it is the rest of societys lossnot just for social reasons, but for economic reasons as well. That applies among people with all the ranges of disabilities. We need to do more, working with businesses to ensure that that untapped pool of talent can be fully utilised; that must be done for the business case, as well as for the social case.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South spoke of the clarity of the RNIBs argument, and I think all colleagues would agree with her on that. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) spelled out in his usual way how important it is for blind people to get this extra benefit, and the difference it would make to their lives. He also talked about the active campaign that has been run in Northern Ireland, and we are grateful to him for his contribution.
The House recognises that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) has been a champion for disabled people for a long time, not just when it becomes
a fashionable cause and many people seek to latch on to it. [Interruption.] As an individual, however, he is extremely fashionable of coursefar more so than the hon. Member for Northavon, and I am sure my hon. Friend can recommend a good tailor. My hon. Friend has a proud record, and he talked about the barriers that people face. He talked about how the mobility component was not just a social justice issue, but that it was necessary for employability. Members will know that we have increased the access to work budget that helps people to get a firm job offer or get into work. Obviously however, they need to do the round of interviews in the first place, and this measure would help.
Social justice and employability go hand in hand. They are part of this Governments programme, and run through all the welfare reforms we are debating in this House this evening. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said the £29 was not a massive amount, but he challenged the Opposition to say whether that was a massive amount when it came to providing millionaires and billionaires with tax cuts. That is, of course, about priorities, and shows which side of the argument we are on.
I want to illustrate that point and refer to the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), who is a nice man. If the House will indulge me, I am going to provide a quote from the Committee stageand it is a quote from me. I wish to do so not because it was a particularly good speech or contribution, but because it illuminates the Conservative position and how that has perhaps changed tonight. I said:
I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale for bringing forward a case on behalf of the hon. Member for Twickenham, and the hon. Member for Forest of Dean for setting out the information that I was able to supply.
His lack of comment about whether he supported the proposal was deafening. Perhaps we will hear at a later stage whether he and the Conservative party have an opinion on this.
I am listening to you.
And we listened to the hon. Gentlemans very succinct remarks, which offered no opinion. I invite him...to give me an opinion.
There we are, we have heard the opinion of the Conservative party. [ Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 269.]
Mr. Harper: What the Minister is not saying, of course, is that I listened very carefully to what he said in Committee and that just two weeks ago he made it very clear that the Government did not have the funding to support thisas I said in my remarks, as late as yesterday they did not have the funding to support it. So I hope that he tells us what has happened between now and then, and exactly how they are going to fund it. I said that if they are able to fund it, we would be pleased to support ittwo weeks ago, he was not able to offer that guarantee.
Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman has a policy on inheritance taxhe has made it clear that he wants to give millionaires and billionaires tax cuts. He is not prepared, however, to offer his view on thishe is not prepared to say whether this is the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do. I will provide him with the answer to his question shortly. If he purports to be a member of a party that wants to govern, he must demonstrate leadership and, on this issue, get off the fence that he has been on for a long time. He did not come to the Westminster Hall meeting that was described tonight by the hon. Member for Northavonthe Liberal Democrat spokesman came, and I spoke at it as did the hon. Member for Bournemouth, Westand neither did the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman. The Government have made our position clear: that we want to introduce this measure and it is a case of how and when we will be able to do so. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean has not been able to tell the House until this eveningwe still do not think he haswhether he has a view on this.
In my role as Minister for disabled people, I have also been able to voice my support for this measure. Indeed, when I spoke at the lobby that I mentioned, I gave an unequivocal nod towards the Governments commitment to it, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State equally demonstrated his support for the measure when he said on Second Reading:
The Government do not have any objection to it in principle. They totally understand the case that is being made.[ Official Report, 27 January 2009; Vol. 487, c. 186.]
In the past I have said that progress was not a matter of if, but when and how. The howin terms of who may be within the scope, which we have discussed this evening has been largely worked out. As I explained in Committee and on the Floor of the House, the when has been about how we finance this important measure, given that we are in the midst of an economic downturn. In Committee, I explained that we did not have the resources to fund this measure but were committed to this important change. I said:
When we are in a position to finance a change to the rules, we are firmly committed to make that change an urgent priority and to do so at the earliest possible time. [ Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 271.]
The costs are not inconsiderable and a commitment to change must be taken in the broader context of stabilising the economy and helping people remain in, or return to, work. We have considered this measure in the context of these issues, and recognise that it will bring about considerable economic and social benefits to severely sight-impaired people. I am therefore delighted to announce today that we are now in a position to agree to fund this proposal, and I take great pleasure in accepting new clause 10, as tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West.
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