Previous Section Index Home Page

23 Mar 2010 : Column 6WH—continued

23 Mar 2010 : Column 7WH

John Barrett: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I will touch on another Scottish problem that he mentioned-the ring-fencing of funds-because he was disappointed, as was I, when money allocated to the Scottish Government to be spent on those living with disabilities was not spent on that intended purpose.

Living with a disability is not only an issue for the individual concerned; it affects their family, friends, carers, employer and the entire community. It is worth remembering that whatever we have to cope with in the UK is nothing compared to the problems faced by others elsewhere in the world, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees. During my six years on the International Development Committee, I witnessed at first hand people with a range of disabilities, who often had a fraction of the help and support we see in the UK, and yet we are painfully aware that the level of support here falls well short of the mark.

I would like to pay tribute to groups and organisations that do excellent work on disability. RADAR, an organisation to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, recently invited spokesmen from all parties to say what their parties would like to see happen after the election. The subject of today's debate is disability policy after the economic downturn, but unless the economic downturn ends before the expected election date of 6 May, we are discussing disability policy for the next Government. At the RADAR event, I said that I did not believe that any one party had all the good people, ideas and wisdom. Whichever party forms the next Government, I would like to see it put dealing with the problem at the forefront, rather than use any disability-related matter as a political football, because the issues that people have to live with day by day and week by week are more important.

The debate focuses on disability policy after the downturn, and as an optimist I hope that that will not be too far in the future. Before looking to the future, however, it makes sense to look at how the downturn has affected those living with a disability today. Disabled people have been disproportionately hit by the downturn in several ways. We have seen the cost of heating, food and transport rise in recent weeks, months and years, while we know, as is detailed in Leonard Cheshire's report, that the income of a family with a disabled parent or child is often much lower than average. I hope that those people will not be forgotten during the election campaign, because that group has a much lower than average record of turning out to vote, but they feel a much higher than average impact from Government policies and they need those policies to be right.

With a general election just around the corner, now is a good time to look to the future and to learn lessons where we have made mistakes in the past. At this time, disabled people will rightly be looking for commitments from all political parties that policies for the disabled are not seen as a good idea in the boom years but unaffordable in difficult economic times. That would be exactly the wrong way to look at disability policies. The next Government, whoever they may be, should consider the huge opportunities for making use of the vast pool of untapped potential among people with disabilities in every constituency in the country.

However, for disability policy to be a priority for the next Government, we need a House of Commons that is full of MPs who recognise the importance of disability
23 Mar 2010 : Column 8WH
and related issues. One way to achieve that would be to encourage more disabled people to vote. Whether through a postal or proxy vote, every individual, no matter what their disability, has a democratic right to make their voice heard. It is therefore a real point of concern that people with disabilities continue to have one of the lowest rates of political participation in the country. At the last election, it was estimated that less than 20 per cent. of certain groups of disabled people voted. If we want a strong voice for disabled people in Parliament, we need to have MPs who have been elected with the help of disabled people and those living with disabilities, and who can be held to account by them.

If we are committed to supporting people with disabilities, we also need disabled people to be elected to this place so that we have more people who have a more direct interest in the issue. I am not saying that those who do not have a direct interest do not have awareness and cannot campaign and work for groups that are most directly affected, but disabled people would add to the mix in Parliament.

The onus is on politicians to provide something that is worth voting for. Too often, disability issues have been seen as an add-on, and tagged on to the end of other policies. In the future, we should mainstream independent living, accessibility and disability awareness. Disability should be a thread that runs through policy as a matter of course. One of the things that any new Government could do is repeal section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, which sends all the wrong signals about mental health.

The disabled people to whom I speak do not want much. They ask only for a fair deal and a level playing field. Central to that will be the drive towards independent living, which must continue in the next Parliament. I know that the current Government are not too keen on primary legislation on the subject-they do not feel that delivering independent living requires it-but I am surprised to hear that from a Government who have published more new laws than any other in living memory. They have made a mistake on that count.

I am pleased that we now have the Independent Living Scrutiny Group to review progress on implementing the independent living strategy, but I believe that primary legislation could make a contribution and clarify disabled people's entitlements. That would be the best way to proceed.

Independent living must be at the core of our approach to disability in the future. Personal budgets that give people the right to choose their own priorities are the right way forward. At the same time, we must ensure that we create a system that does not allow independent living to be abused as a way of giving people more say over less funding. A real concern in the economic downturn is that we may pass the buck-whether to individuals or local authorities, who have to work with restricted budgets.

In 1997, a Government were elected who admirably made cutting child poverty a key priority. However, they talked the talk but did not walk the walk. Yesterday, the Child Poverty Bill went through its final stages in the House, but it includes a new definition of eradication of child poverty which would not be acceptable in any other walk of life. To say that something has been
23 Mar 2010 : Column 9WH
eradicated means that we have got rid of it; saying that it is as bad as in neighbouring European countries is not the same.

I would like the next Government to take a much more determined approach to tackling disability poverty. Leonard Cheshire Disability has gone into that in great depth in several reports over the years, and, for those who are following this debate, following its work would be a wise thing to do. It is simply not right or fair that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. Much of that is down to an insensitive system that does not adequately take into account the higher living costs that often come with having a disability.

One young mother mentioned to me that the bicycle that her able daughter uses cost £50, yet her disabled child's bike-with stabilisers, supports, controls and so on-cost four times as much. Shoes for an average child may cost about £20; for a child who needs built- up shoes, foot splints and so on, a pair of shoes can cost £200.

The Minister will know that some local authorities and financial institutions still consider the care component of disability living allowance as part of an individual's disposable income when calculating social care entitlements or whether someone can apply for credit or loans. We must agree that there ought to be a change so that the system takes account of the extra costs of living with disability when conducting income assessments for benefits or measuring disability poverty. If we are to start to make a dent in disability poverty, we must recognise that DLA is not additional income but is for meeting the additional costs of living with a disability. Might I suggest that the tax system proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), which would lift the lowest earners out of tax altogether, would be a good place to start?

I would also like us to banish the idea that people are in some way acting altruistically by acting on disability issues. Not only do we have an obligation to act but the reality is that society as a whole benefits when disability is treated as a priority. Properly investing in people with disabilities to help them back into work and live independent lives will save billions of pounds a year in unemployment and other benefits. It is also simply the right thing to do.

Looking forward, we will start to deliver fairness for people with disabilities only when we begin to build disability awareness into every Government Department and every aspect of employment. Disability issues impact on every sphere of government, from transport, health, education and housing to Department for Work and Pensions benefits and much more. I have touched on the work that the Department for International Development does on disability abroad.

Disability policy affects millions of people. If we are to consider disability policy after the downturn, we should consider how best to build disability awareness into the priorities of every Government Department. Fairness for people living with a disability will not be achieved by treating disability as an afterthought. It ought to be at the forefront of our mind when we make policy.

I trust that the issue will be at the forefront of the mind of the next Government, and I would like to hope that in the next 25 years we will move forward on disability as much as we have moved forward over the
23 Mar 2010 : Column 10WH
past 25 years on race, religion, age and gender discrimination. I often feel that disability issues have fallen behind. I wish whoever forms the next Government all the best in dealing with the serious problems that those who live with disabilities experience every day, week and month.

10.8 am

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) on securing this debate. He made a wide-ranging speech in which he covered the waterfront of these issues.

The only disappointment is that it takes the right hon. Gentleman to have a good debate on disability policy. It is a shame that the Government have not had more debates on the Floor of the House. It is not necessarily the Minister's fault-I have been pressing the Leader of the House for more frequent debates on this topic. The Government had debates in 1999, and in 2004 and 2006-sadly, both coincided with the days of European and local elections-but they have not had one since. The opportunity that the right hon. Gentleman has given us to discuss these important issues is very welcome, and many of the points that he made are shared by Members on both sides of the House.

I also take this opportunity to wish all the best to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), who will not be standing again. Having listened to his speech, I have to say that he sounds as passionate about these issues as ever. He listed a range of challenges for the future, so perhaps he should stand again so that he can take his part in campaigning on them. I recognise, as the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill did, that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West has been campaigning on these issues for many years, so perhaps he feels that he has done his bit, but it certainly sounded as though there is still much more that he wishes he could do. I wish him very well for the future.

Bob Spink: Whoever forms the next Government will, in forming policy, have to consider the operation of the disability facilities grant. We must give the Government credit for increasing the grant over the past three years from £146 million to £166 million. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should go even further, because that is money well spent and it will save even greater sums in the longer term? Does he agree that the grant should be changed to introduce a rapid repair and adaptation service for minor works, so that people do not have to wait months and sometimes years for adaptations that will allow them to live with dignity and independence?

Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point when saying that a lot of the money that is spent on things that the disability facilities grant buys is well invested. It often enables people to stay in their own homes, meaning that they do not have to go into expensive residential care. Investing in such things often makes a great deal of sense.

The point made by the hon. Gentleman links well to one of the central points made by the right hon. Gentleman, which was that whoever forms the next Government will face a challenging set of public finances and that the vulnerable should not suffer in such circumstances.
23 Mar 2010 : Column 11WH
The right hon. Gentleman put his finger on why that does not need to be so. Even if the Government have to reduce public spending-whoever forms the Government will have to do so-that does not mean that they will have to cut public services. He mentioned some of the changes in the personalisation of social care leading to money being spent in better, more effective and more innovative ways.

The public sector has to focus on delivering some of the things that the private sector has delivered over the past few years during this difficult economic period by improving productivity, doing things smarter and doing more for less to ensure that we can still deliver good services to people with good outcomes, even in a challenging situation. In respect of personalisation, the right hon. Gentleman put his finger on the way in which that circle can be squared and where money can be better spent. The points made by both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Castle Point highlight that, regarding the public finances overall, spending money wisely is smart spending. We need to see more of that.

It is worth focusing on one interesting aspect of this recession that is a good thing -this is where I slightly disagree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West-which is that the impact on employment for disabled people has not been too bad. Disabled people have not suffered as much as others from the downturn. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission produced a report recently, last July, looking at the impact of the recession on various groups, including disabled people, which said that they had not been disproportionately affected. Clearly, they have been affected just the same as everybody else, but they have not been disproportionately affected. The only caveat to that is that the EHRC said that part of the reason for that was that disabled people were not as employed as everyone else: they started from a relatively low base. However, having said that, it is good that the recession has not had a disproportionate effect on disabled people and that the gains that they have made in terms of getting into work have not been reversed by the recession. That is welcome.

It is worth remembering that one of the key reasons that disabled people, before, during and after a recession-several hon. Members made this point, and the right hon. Gentleman also made it when mentioning the excellent Leonard Cheshire report about disability poverty-are poorer is that they are less likely to work. Whoever forms the next Government will have to improve the number of disabled people who get into work.

I am happy to say that the Government have made some progress-the employment rate has gone up, as the right hon. Gentleman said, but I think that everyone would agree that it has not increased as much as we hoped. The big challenge for whoever forms the next Government is to make serious inroads on the significant number of people on incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance who still have not been able to get into work. The tragedy is that there are now more disabled people on those two benefits than there were in 1997 when the Government came into power. The figure has increased by a bit-about 13,000-but it still stands at just over 2.6 million people, 800,000 of whom have been on those benefits for more than 10 years, so they have not been helped.

23 Mar 2010 : Column 12WH

John Barrett: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. Does he agree that it is not just a question of what the Government can do and about Government policy; it is also about what employers must do? Many major employers to whom I have spoken in my constituency would go that extra mile to help employees who develop a disability to continue at work, but they do not take that extra care or consideration into their recruitment practice. It is vital to get employers on board in that respect.

Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman is right. He cautions us about one thing in particular. We spend a lot of time talking about those disabled people who are not working and what we need to do to give them help and support to get into work. The other side of that equation is ensuring that employers understand that the reasonable adjustments that they might have to make to employ someone with a physical disability, a mental health or fluctuating condition or, as the right hon. Gentleman said, people with learning disabilities, are often not that great. By making some relatively modest changes, we can ensure that such people have the opportunity to work and make a contribution and, equally, employers can take that into account in respect of people in the existing work force who develop a disability.

There cannot be an employer of any size that does not have someone on its staff with a mental health problem, for example, given that one in four of us will have one at some point in our life. An employer may not know that they have employees with mental health problems, but I am sure that they do have such employees. It is about encouraging employers to make changes to keep those people in work and help them to remain effective. Perhaps that is one of the gaps.

There are some good employers. The Employers' Forum on Disability has some good members who do excellent work. Perhaps that knowledge is not widely shared. That is a challenge not just for the Government, but for Members of Parliament when talking to employers in their constituencies. I always try to do that when talking to employers in mine. I ask them what they do to employ disabled people. Do they think about that? Do they think about their recruitment practices? We can all do that. All the campaigning groups, a number of which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, campaign on that all the time.

When talking about getting disabled people into work, we must look at what the Government can do. The statistics on disabled people employed in the public and private sectors show that the public sector as a whole has a pretty good record, although it could do better, and that it employs a significant number of disabled people. The Minister will not be surprised, because he and I have had this little joust before, that central Government are not impressive at hiring disabled people. His Department has been working on that matter and he may say something about it in his speech: he has led some initiatives and employs someone with a learning disability in his private office, which is welcome. However, only 3.6 per cent. of employees in the two central departments of the Department for Work and Pensions-corporate services and shared services-have a known disability. That figure is not high enough: it is not as good as other Departments. Given that the DWP is the Department with the Minister for Disabled People, it
23 Mar 2010 : Column 13WH
ought to be doing better. The Minister has started work on that and whoever forms the next Government needs to continue doing it and taking it further.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): An important feature of the percentage of disabled people in Departments is that it is measured on self-declaration. The Employers' Forum on Disability does not advocate that people should be forced to declare. When we do anonymised surveys, the percentage rises to around 13 per cent.

Mr. Harper: That is interesting, but it highlights an issue. Why are employees happy to say that they have a disability in an anonymous survey but not prepared to be open about it? It is important, not just for the Government but for companies, to create an environment in which people are not forced to disclose a disability, but feel comfortable about doing so and feel that their disability will not be a disadvantage and that, if they need any adjustments, those will be made without fuss and they will be treated exactly the same as everyone else.

The Minister's point perhaps shows that more progress has been made, but it is worrying-this is not just true in Government-that a significant number of people are concerned about being open about their disability, not necessarily because of the reaction of their managers, but perhaps because of the reaction from their colleagues. They are not confident that disclosure will not set back their chances of success. That is not just an issue in Government: it is an issue in society as a whole and we all need to work on it.

I have some specific questions for the Minister on welfare reform and on getting some of those on incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance into work. Notwithstanding the progress that has been made, there is evidence that there are issues with some of the Government's programmes. For example, when I asked the Minister how many and what proportion of those claiming employment and support allowance had left the benefit to go into work since its introduction, he could not give me the information and said that it simply was not available. If the Government do not know how successful the benefit has been, and how many people leave it and get into work, it is difficult to assess how successful their employment programmes are.

There seem to be some worrying signs that the Government's flagship employment programme for disabled people on out-of-work benefits-the pathways to work programme-is not working as well as we hoped. Employment programmes will be critical as we emerge from the recession, the economy starts to grow, and we try to get people back into work. The Government's White Paper in December 2009 said:

Next Section Index Home Page