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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 23 March 2010

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Disability Policy (Economic Downturn)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mrs. Hodgson.)

9.30 am

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): As always, it is a great pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Olner.

As we move towards the end of this Parliament, I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak about an issue that has been of great interest to me during my time in the House. I pay tribute to many hon. Members and peers from all parties, to the all-party group on disability and to the all-party group on learning disability, which I am privileged to co-chair with the distinguished Lord Rix, for their work on this issue. The House has been extremely well served by many organisations such as Mencap, Leonard Cheshire, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and RADAR. Their contribution has been vital not just to progress for people with disabilities, but to democracy.

In the past, many people with disabilities were subject to discrimination with regard to employment opportunities, poverty and inflexible social care. For that reason, some hon. Members, many of whom are here today, campaigned vocally for the rights of disabled people. Our fundamental objective remains the promotion of disabled people's human rights of inclusion, independence and freedom. Those rights help knit together cohesion in our society. There have been great strides over recent years, but everyone knows that there is a long way to go.

The Government can be rightly proud of their record on disability issues. I warmly congratulate the Minister and his predecessors-especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who did a first-class job. I am impressed by the work of the Office for Disability Issues, which has been headed knowledgeably by the Minister, who has long been a campaigner for disability rights. My first contact with him was in 1986 when I received a letter from a young social worker emphasising his support for my private Member's Bill on disability rights and advocacy. That Bill became the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986.

I am delighted that the Minister is still fighting hard for equality and opportunity, and that his Department has been committed to meeting the needs and aspirations of the 10 million people with a disability-through Equality 2025, by strengthening the legislation with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and by leading the way on the United Nations convention on disability rights. Through employment programmes, increases in disability benefit and an incredibly ambitious social care reform agenda, the lives of many people with disabilities have undoubtedly improved since 1997.

The past year has seen exceptional changes in the British economy as we have moved into and out of recession. The inevitable tightening of the Government's fiscal belt means that there will be changes and efficiencies
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in the public sector over the next few years. The reason for this debate is to seek to ensure that cuts in public spending are not aimed disproportionately at some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Alas, we have seen that happen in many recessions.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that just as funding for international development has been ring-fenced by my party, there is a strong case for ring-fencing the money for people who are disabled because they, too, are vulnerable? I pay tribute to him for his work on this issue and on international aid over many years.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and welcome his remarks. From exchanges in the House, he will know that in Scotland we feel strongly about ring-fencing because the additional money made available to the Scottish Government did not go where it was intended to go.

As I was saying, in previous recessions, the weak and vulnerable have tended to be targeted as part of a dogmatic free-market agenda. We have seen that again in certain local authority areas. It is vital that legislative reform and services for people with disabilities should continue to have the momentum of investment and commitment from Government and local authorities. Everybody with a disability, whether their needs are moderate or complex, deserves the opportunity to live a fulfilling and rewarding life.

I will start by discussing the issues in social care-in particular, the roll-out of the Government's ambitious and widely supported personalisation agenda, which includes direct payments, personal budgets, individual budgets and the right-to-control scheme. Those are vital tools that provide independence for people with disabilities. An excellent example of the potential of personalisation comes from Daniel, a young man in east Sussex who is deaf, uses British sign language and has Asperger's syndrome. He has worked closely with the RNID to choose a package that includes flexible care at home, assistance to increase his confidence on public transport and the vital support needed to help him get a job in Asda. Such examples provide insight into the potential of personalisation. Public spending cuts during the recovery should not stall that vital reform. I am glad to say that the new £7 million right-to-control scheme suggests a continued commitment to its implementation.

About 46,000 adult service users now have personal budgets, compared with only 60 three years ago. About 86,000 adults received direct payments in 2008-09, which is an increase of nearly 30 per cent. on the previous year. Although no social care programme should have cost-cutting as its sole objective, academic research has shown that support packages based on direct payments are on average about a third cheaper than directly provided services. I argue that we should reinvest the efficiency savings made through the personalisation programme back into social care. However, at a time of fiscal belt-tightening and demographic change, personalisation reconciles the seemingly contradictory needs of increasing user satisfaction and meeting the financial constraints in which funding streams operate.

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In the post-recession world of economic reticence, there can be no let up in the roll-out of personal control because it is only through widespread provision that the number of services provided for service users will increase. People often say that we cannot allow a postcode lottery to develop and that uneven implementation across local authority areas should not occur. That is why I applauded the move towards a more nationwide perspective on the issue of social care, and I look forward to a future of national assessment and social care portability.

I know from the experience of the Act that I sponsored that safeguards also need to be built in and pursued, so that there is full implementation of the intended programme. Brokerage must be available, accessible and not open to exploitation. In some excellent documents produced by Unison, a compelling case has been made for local authorities to carry out at least a part of the brokerage system. For people who are uncomfortable and unable to cope with the prospect of becoming an employer and managing their own budget, we need to ensure that social services provide the necessary practical provision. We know from experience that one size does not fit all.

Where there are popular, well established services, often provided by local authorities on a larger scale, they must not be used by councils-some of which, frankly, are incompetent-as an expendable and disposable resource to cover their own financial priorities. Too many local authorities have used personalisation as an excuse to slash costs and repair the damage caused by their own mismanagement. Personalisation is a process through which we improve social care provision; it is not a political football to kick around town halls.

As a former president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, I mention this with a heavy heart, but one example relates to Aberdeen city council, where financial mismanagement led to a multi-million-pound overspend that needed to be plugged. Who are bearing the brunt of the council's ineptitude? Disabled people, because the council has been closing day centres, care homes and respite centres.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that personalisation should not mean isolation? Personalisation at home is potentially good news, but people need to get out and have support. Day centres are important, and volunteer groups should not be undermined by an aggressive system of tendering. Often if we want to encourage volunteers in the community, it takes many years to build up well trained and informed voluntary groups.

Mr. Clarke: I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman. When I was preparing for this debate, I met and heard from a number of voluntary organisations, many of which echoed the view that he just expressed.

I turn to the issue of Scottish local government. Aberdeen city council is tightening its eligibility criteria to exclude people from care; it is hard to believe that that is happening in the United Kingdom today as we speak. To raise eligibility criteria in such a way is fundamentally short-sighted, because continued care and support reduces the number of cases in crisis and helps to encourage people into work.

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We also need to remember the staff, some of whom are low paid and many of whom are female care workers. They are the backbone, and central to the survival of these care services. There needs to be reskilling to enable people to adapt to changing roles, but staff are not expendable; they are precious. Safeguards must be built in, so that those employed by service users are given full employment rights and know where they stand in relation to liability insurance and tribunal awards.

Mr. Cash: Is the right hon. Gentleman concerned about the potential connection between the important point that he is making and the scandal that appears to be emerging, which is that primary care trusts in our part of the world-in England, Wales and perhaps also Scotland-are not receiving the amount of money that was supposed to be allocated by the Government? That money is being absorbed into the general budgets, which is outrageous.

Mr. Clarke: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. If we have what many have called a national care service, I hope it will be easier to identify where the problems that he mentioned are occurring.

Tony Baldry: I should like to echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) just said, and be slightly more specific. It is not just about cuts; it is about ensuring that the money that the Government have allocated to various parts of the system gets to the people for whom it is intended. For 2010-11, the Government have allocated £100 million for carers' services in England-for things such as respite care and breaks. Research from the Princess Royal Trust for Carers shows that only about a quarter of that money will be used for carers and, shockingly, that a quarter of primary care trusts will be spending less money on carers next year than last year, despite substantially more money being earmarked by the Government for carers' services.

Mr. Clarke: Again, the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I think we all recognise that the system would break down if it were not for carers, who often give up 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We acknowledge the contribution of such people.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Last week, I met carers in my constituency, who do a wonderful job. The right hon. Gentleman may have seen my recent work on the disability facilities grant-I tried to get a debate on that subject today, but he pipped me to the post. The grant enables disabled people to live in dignity and independence, and to remain in their homes. An increase in that grant might well cut the overall cost of caring for people in the long run, so it would be financially prudent. Will he join me in asking for a review of how the grant operates? People are waiting far too long for their facilities.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members that we are talking about disability policy after the economic downturn.

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Mr. Clarke: Thank you, Mr. Olner. I acknowledge what the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) said; it would not be a Westminster Hall debate if he did not make an intervention.

We need to be bold in tackling the problems of economic inequality and poverty for people with disabilities, and doing so should motivate hon. Members from all parties. Leonard Cheshire's 2009 disability review, which is an excellent document, shows that 42 per cent. of respondents found it difficult or very difficult to manage on their personal income. Some 63 per cent. of respondents were in fuel poverty and 55 per cent. did not have any savings. Leonard Cheshire's 2008 report, "Disability Poverty in the UK," found that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. Many of those issues have been exacerbated by the recession.

We need to consider ways to increase employment further, reduce discrimination, improve educational provision and ensure that the welfare system works effectively for disabled people, who are, in many cases, unable to work. Although employment is not the panacea for ending all disability inequality, it plays an important role in reducing social, economic and cultural barriers by providing many disabled people with that vital sense of meaning and independence. The employment rate for disabled people has increased from 38 per cent. in 1998 to 48 per cent. in 2008. However, only 10 per cent. of all people with a learning disability work, which is why the extension of targeted Government programmes, such as the Jobs First pilot scheme, is essential.

The recession has made finding a job much harder for everyone in society, and people with disabilities start at a clear disadvantage.The unemployment rate for disabled people increased from 8.1 per cent. in October-December 2007 to 10.4 per cent. in October-December 2009, and the economic inactivity rate of disabled people at the end of last year was 44.1 per cent, compared with 16 per cent. among people without a disability. Sadly, stigma and discrimination are still present. More than half the respondents to Leonard Cheshire's 2009 report believed that they had been discriminated against in the workplace, which is totally unacceptable in any circumstances.

The Government are working hard to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and that needs to continue with even greater ferocity in the post-recession climate. Pathways to work, which has helped more than 180,000 people into work, should continue to be delivered robustly and fairly. Indeed, £1 billion of investment has been promised for the period between 2008 and 2011. However, payment by in-work results, a key part of the programme, can occasionally result in the most able jobseekers being creamed off and the least able clearly being neglected. It would be wrong to ignore those who face the most challenging obstacles to employment.

The access to work scheme has also proved a great success, helping some 44,000 people into employment. There is an ambitious Government promise to double the budget from £69 million to £138 million by 2013-14, which I hope will be achieved. Access to work provides support for adapting premises and people travelling into work, but there is more to be done to highlight the
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scheme to employers-ensuring that portability is built in and forcefully making the moral and economic case for employing people with disabilities.

Earlier, I mentioned benefits. Part of the programme for encouraging employment has been to reclassify incapacity benefit as employment and support allowance. That has been supported by disability charities as a much-needed change that judges people by their potential and removes the expectation that certain people with disabilities cannot work. Continued safeguards are required to ensure that the work capability assessment does not force some disabled people on to jobseeker's allowance, which can fail to meet their longer-term needs.

Inequality and discrimination are not only present in the economic sphere. Great steps have been taken to extend equality legislation to people with disabilities, the disability equality duty in 2005 being just one example of the Government's legislative commitments. However, problems and challenges remain. Of all adult protection referrals to social services, 15 per cent. involve crime or abuse against people with learning disabilities. In order to deliver real disability equality in the economic upturn, disabled people need more than economic rights, vital though those are.

Significant cultural changes are also required. We need to tackle in no uncertain terms disability hate crime, which is currently the subject of a formal inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission; the lack of political representation; and a cultural refusal to integrate disabled people fully into many aspects of modern society. That is why the Equality Bill, which has been welcomed by the Disability Charities Consortium, is so important. The Bill will put a new equality duty on public bodies, use public procurement to improve equality and extend the use of positive action in political life, which has been welcomed by the great united voice of those involved in disability who rightly make their views known to us as parliamentarians.

In the post-recession climate, it is incredibly important that the Government should enforce the relevant provisions of the Equality Bill so that service providers do not adopt a policy of doing the least possible. It is by delivering those wide cultural, social and political changes, alongside a legislative programme for social care reform and economic assistance, that disability policy after the recession can bring about real change for disabled people. That is the hallmark of a caring society and of a modern and inclusive Britain.

9.55 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I thank the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) for securing the debate and making a detailed and thoughtful contribution. He listed several groups, organisations and individuals, including the current Minister and his predecessors, who have made a significant contribution-I will not name them all today, but they know who they are.

Mr. Tom Clarke: One of the things that pleases me about the debate is that it gives me the chance to wish the hon. Gentleman well, as he has decided to stand down from Parliament. He was a stalwart in the fight for disability rights and will be very much missed.

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