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23 Mar 2010 : Column 19WH—continued

What the initiative will do is change the way in which the power exists at the moment, so rather than disabled people being the passive recipients of what the council, the health service or whoever says, they will have far more power. They will need to be consulted on, and
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involved in, services. Perhaps that will prevent the issues in local authorities that my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill described arising.

A number of hon. Members referred to stigma, hate crime and the discrimination that too many disabled people face. We have made a great deal of progress on that front in recent years, but we need to continue to fight the battle. In some ways, in these years, we are seeing the best and the worst in terms of inclusion. We all remember the fantastic scenes just up the road in Trafalgar square when our Olympians and Paralympians came back from Beijing. They included gold medal winners, and people were celebrating their achievement, not because they had overcome adversity in the way that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West referred to, but because of their sporting prowess. It was a fantastic achievement.

Thirteen million people tuned in to the BBC's coverage of the Paralympics. That was more people than in any other country in the world. The Paralympics are a very important force for portraying a positive image of what disabled people can contribute to their country. This is about tackling attitudes, and if we can tackle attitudes, we can tackle behaviour. There is so much work to be done.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill mentioned the Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry into hate crime, which was born out of the most appalling crime that took place some two years ago. Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca were the victims of hate crime, which led to their taking their own lives. The most depressing feature of the case was that Fiona Pilkington had no expectation that anyone would do anything about it. The shame of that is shared by us all. We need to fight such crime.

The Olympics in 2012 offer us a huge opportunity to shift attitudes and change behaviour. I have no doubt-I am sure that none of us has any doubt-that we will win medals or that our Olympians and Paralympians will do a fantastic job in representing our country in our capital city and at the other arenas and venues around the UK. However, it is vital that we have a good number of disabled people working and volunteering at the Olympics. I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Olympics and disabled people's organisations to ensure that many thousands of disabled people-4,000 or 5,000-are part of the volunteer work force.

We need to look at things such as adjustments so that people who need personal assistants can take part. One can imagine people attending Olympic venues being welcomed and escorted to their seats by a young woman, perhaps with cerebral palsy, and her PA. That is one example, but what would it do to advance attitudes towards disabled people if we multiplied it by thousands? It is very powerful, and it is important that we do not miss a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use the power of the Olympic and Paralympic games.

Let me touch on access to work for people with learning disabilities. My right hon. Friend does great work with the all-party group. As hon. Members have said, we have not seen the increases that we would have liked in the number of people with learning disabilities getting employment. Shortly after I completed my social care course, I got my first paid job, as a care worker
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with people with learning disabilities, so seeing the advancement of this group of people has been a passion of mine.

As part of our "Valuing Employment" strategy, the Department recently announced that it would employ 400 people with learning disabilities over the next year or so and work in partnership with our contractors. We will make access to work more flexible not only in terms of physical adaptations, but by making job coaches available. We will build on some of the work that we have undertaken with Project Search, an initiative that works particularly with public sector bodies and hospitals.

I recently met students with learning disabilities at the Norwich and Norfolk University hospital who had been given internships and learned about different jobs around the hospital. I was delighted to hear that many of them had secured full-time employment. Indeed, one of their colleagues told me how delighted she was when one of the young men came to her to say that he would be spending the weekend paintballing with colleagues from the hospital. He was taking part in a mainstream exercise, and they were including him as a friend and colleague.

Mr. Tom Clarke: I welcome my hon. Friend's positive speech, but does he accept that various charities have produced much evidence showing that people with learning disabilities do not get the attention from the health service that they need and deserve, because they do not have the facility to express their needs and wants? Will he consider the many studies on this subject and keep in touch with those of our colleagues who deal with health matters?

Jonathan Shaw: Indeed. As my right hon. Friend will know, the "Valuing People" document highlighted the fact that there was great inconsistency. As in many public services, there are shining examples of what is best, and we all want to see them across the piece. A woman with learning disabilities is entitled to receive the same public health treatment-the same screening for breast cancer or cervical cancer-as anyone else. A number of charities and organisations for people with learning disabilities have developed Easy Read so that such people can properly understand their health needs and the various processes and procedures that they need to go through to live a healthy life. I was recently in Rochdale, where I was shown an Easy Read booklet about a whole range of matters that had been published for people with learning disabilities. However, we must continue to keep that under review.

Before I conclude, I should say that although my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), who is sitting behind me, cannot contribute to the debate because he is my Parliamentary Private Secretary, we all acknowledge that he has made a huge contribution to work on disabled people's issues in his
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time in the House. Indeed, shortly after the debate, I will be speaking on Insight Radio, which is based in his constituency and run by the Royal National Institute of Blind People. In Committee and on Report, my hon. Friend laid an amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill to ensure that a higher rate of disability living allowance is paid to 20,000 blind people, which will assist them enormously. The RNIB ran a great campaign, and I am delighted that there was cross-party support for it.

Mr. Clarke: I am sorry if I appear to be pursuing my hon. Friend, but he is so interesting and he is giving us many ideas. I would like to have had time to raise an issue that has worried me and many others for many years-the number of people with learning disabilities who find themselves in prison. It is often thought that the courts send them there because they cannot think of anywhere else to send them. Baroness Stern has had a great deal to say on the issue, as have Nacro and Sacro, and that will not have escaped the attention of my hon. Friend and other colleagues. It really is very worrying to see such things in this modern age.

Jonathan Shaw: That is right. Before I conclude, I will refer to the report by Leonard Cheshire. If we tackle poverty, that will have a significant impact on tackling the number of people in prison. I am not saying that there is a direct link and that being poor means that people will commit crime, but we know that people living in poorer conditions can be tempted down that route. To tackle the numbers that my right hon. Friend mentioned, we need to ensure that we have better educational outcomes, better skills and better employment opportunities, and we need the hope that disabled people can contribute to mainstream society. That would have an impact on the number of people with learning disabilities going to prison, and I have been in correspondence with colleagues at the Ministry of Justice about the issue.

A couple of weeks ago, my right hon. Friend kindly chaired a meeting to discuss the 40th anniversary of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. At that meeting, my right hon. Friend Lord Morris of Manchester talked about how he had managed to get the Act on to the statute book. He reminded us that when he first introduced his Bill in 1969, he had drawn first place in ballot for private Member's Bills, but only one organisation for disabled people contacted him after he wrote around. Oh, how times have changed-and that is a good thing.

As Lord Morris told us, organisations did not write to him because they had no expectations, given that disability issues had not been debated since the 1940s. We have made great progress in the past 40 years, but we need to do more for the advancement of the 10 million disabled people in this country. We need to do that for the sake not just of those 10 million people, but for the sake of all 60 million people who live in our society.

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Physics Research

10.59 am

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): It is a pleasure to have the debate, and I am delighted that there is so much interest in it among parliamentarians and the public, given that we are competing with astronauts and the like at the launch of the new space strategy. Of course, those matters impact on physics and its funding, and the future and health of physics research in this country impact on our ability to exploit discoveries in space.

I want to concentrate on two different areas: the funding problems and other problems at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which is one of the funding bodies for physics, although not the only one, as physics is funded also by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and several physics projects are funded by other research councils; and future careers in physics and the supply of physicists for teaching and research.

It would be inappropriate in what will, I think, have to be a short speech, to go through the whole history of the creation and funding of the STFC, but right hon. and hon. Members will know that it has been beset by problems from its birth. I remember being in a Delegated Legislation Committee dealing with the regulations setting up the STFC. It was a merger of the old Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, which managed the large facilities. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) were concerned, in that debate, about whether the STFC had a sound financial basis, given the liabilities that were being carried forward into the new research council by the CCLRC. We were given assurances by the Science Minister at the time that everything would be fine and that the STFC would not be destabilised by any funding problems and concerns that affected the large facilities council that was to be one of its parents.

It is clear, objectively, that that assurance was not delivered on. The recent report by the Select Committee on Science and Technology, about research council allocations, which looked closely at the STFC, made several criticisms of the way it had been put together, and of funding decisions. Two years ago the council had a flat cash allocation. Despite spin from the Government to the effect that it received a significant funding increase, it clearly did not, going by the funding that could actually be spent, as opposed to allocations relating to the value of buildings and facilities. That has led to great distress in the science community at large and the physics community in particular among those people who rely on grants to fund their research in particle physics and astronomy. A number of other areas are funded by the STFC.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that astronomy, which is the area of greatest interest to me, is financially beleaguered because, despite our having world-class resources and facilities, such as those in Armagh, those concerned are always fighting for what feels like a very tight fund? The Government commissioned a report on near-Earth objects, which made 14 recommendations, only one of which has been implemented. Does he agree that, if the Government are serious about astronomy, they need to make a serious and long-lasting funding commitment to it?

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Dr. Harris: I agree. The failure to capitalise on initiatives and drive them through is symptomatic of the problem. There is not money for the here and now, and it becomes difficult to plan for the future. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his commitment to astronomy and for his significant role in the all-party group on astronomy, and to his family for their contribution to space research and discovery.

It is well recognised that there is a problem in the funding of astronomy and particle physics, and I hope that the Minister will at least recognise that. It is a problem that cannot be allowed to fester; it must be solved. There are at least two ways to solve it. The Government's proposal is to accept all the planned cuts, make a new start at a lower level of funding, and see whether we can find a way to protect and give stability to the STFC and physics research budgets. Alternatively, we could say "No, we will not accept that serious damage should be done now. We must find a way to rebalance the position to the status quo ante-the position before the significant cuts in funding, and particularly grant funding, that are proposed for the community."

I do not think that I can go through the list now. It can only be described as a bonfire of the acronyms-the projects whose funding is due to be abandoned or significantly reduced. Behind those acronyms lies a great deal of good science, and many good people have planned their careers on the basis of being able to see through those projects and of UK participation in those projects. Even if the Government, and politicians more widely, do not think long term about research priorities, the individuals who do the work-particularly those in the public sector, who are not well paid compared with their private sector colleagues or, indeed, compared with what their skills could get them in the private sector-must think long term. They must plan their careers, and where they and their families will live.

Behind each budget cut is an individual story of great distress, and of people's planned careers being cut. That is happening not because of anyone's inability to make a scientific case in open competition through peer review, on a level playing field-that is always the risk in science-but because of what those people see as near-arbitrary cuts in the programme, and an arbitrary or at least non-transparent decision that means that, although the Government have boasted of an increase in the science budget, the funding for research grants in their field has fallen. That means that the success rate for grant applications in that area of work, which was already low because of the tough competition-which is a good thing-has fallen even further. In addition, of course, the bonfire of the acronyms means a blow to the UK's credibility as a long-term partner for projects involving scientists, research institutes and funding from other countries and their Governments.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that blue sky research is most important, and that it should not stall under the current difficult economic conditions? The large hadron collider is one such case. We do not know whether it will tell us much about the Higgs boson or what it will tell us about fundamental particle physics, but it is likely to lead to discoveries that could help to resolve the world's key problems, including medical problems, so it is not something that we should discard lightly. We should continue to support it, and other blue sky research projects.

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Dr. Harris: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is greatly missed on the Science and Technology Committee, where he made a unique contribution, and a strongly supportive one in certain areas. I remember him particularly being a great advocate of embryo research. As an engineer he will recognise that it is not only our commitment to the large hadron collider, which has been protected in all that has been happening, that is important; experiments based on, but separate from, the subscription to the large hadron collider are part of some of the projects that are threatened. The funding of those-and our participation-seems doomed to end unless alternative funding can be found.

That is one of the tragedies of having large facilities that cost a great deal of money to build and run but do not maximise our country's and the physics community's exploitation of those facilities, because the funding to maximise the use of the resources is not available. Those are the fundamental problems with the planned cuts to specific, named projects. In addition, of course, there is the lower success rate for grant applications, because of the shortage of funding for direct grants.

It is appropriate at this point to consider how the Government propose to solve the problem. It varies between refusing to accept that there is a problem and launching a review of the structure of the STFC. Indeed, Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, did the latter on 16 December 2009. That was the right thing to do, because there is a problem. One does not come up with proposed solutions, however strong, unless one first recognises that there is a problem. It was unfortunate that on 16 December Lord Drayson should have said that he welcomed the results of the STFC prioritisation, because one person's prioritisation is another's posteriorisation. It is not appropriate for politicians to hide behind words when talking about significant cuts in funding.

According to the press release, Lord Drayson said that there are

However, the proposal that has emerged is that the research council should not be split. There is a difference of opinion about that, but I do not want to dwell on that aspect. I have a series of questions about the meaning of some of the alleged solutions emanating from the announcement of 4 March on the new arrangements for the STFC.

According to the press release, the proposal is that

I am not sure that reducing the pressures would substantially remove the risk. Eliminating them would substantially remove that risk. Unexpected pressures resulting from changes in the exchange rate and the cost of running facilities would lead to disproportionate pressure on the STFC's grants portfolio.

What the physics community is looking for from the review is not the promise of another review, future negotiations or other ways of reducing the risk, but clear solutions to the problems that do not further disadvantage physics funding and do not set the STFC's budget for grants at its current low level. That is the subject of my questions.

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The press release said:

That means, I think, that according to the Government the STFC needs to adhere to its new reduced budget for grants. So much money is being given in subscriptions because of the low rate of sterling against the euro and other currencies. Will the Minister confirm that adherence to the new balanced budget means that there will not be a readjustment of the funding in grants up from the current level-that we are where we are, and that we have to get used to living without British participation in a number of projects, and with a lower rate of success in grant applications?

The press release goes on to state that there are two

I think that this is the right analysis-

I think that that is correct. However, they are not short-term pressures if the damage that is done to the available funding for grants is not corrected. If that is not done, what would have been short-term pressures will become long-term funding reductions. Will the Minister say whether the STFC's grant budget is fixed in stone at its current level? Whatever solution is introduced, it will not redress that problem.

The press release pointed to the

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