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I welcome this opportunity to discuss the Government's record on improving the life chances of disabled people—a record in which we can take some pride. I also hope that we can debate the challenges that lie ahead and our strategy for tackling them.
The last Adjournment debate on disability took place in summer 2004. I have read the report in Hansard, and I was struck by the focus of that debate, which was almost exclusively on civil rights, although there were, as always, some well-made points on the wider agenda.
Since then, the Government have massively extended civil rights, and I will start by setting out some of our achievements in this area. We have also undertaken a comprehensive study of the life chances of disabled people and, through the flagship report by the Prime Minister's strategy unit, set out an ambitious but deliverable strategy to ensure substantive equality for disabled people within 20 years. That ambition ranks alongside, and is indeed integral to, our ambition to eradicate child poverty. I will take this chance to update the House on our progress in implementing that strategy.
Given that the Nuffield speech and language unit is a centre of excellence that for more than 35 years has been providing specialist teaching and therapy to children aged four to seven with severe speech and language disorders for whom no comparable provision does or can exist in mainstream education, will the Minister tell the House what discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health on the importance of protecting that centre of excellence from the threat of closure?
I will not deal with the specifics of the Nuffield centre, but I will explain some areas where we are working across Departments to ensure that we dovetail far more creatively in delivering for disabled people.
In January, we set out our proposals for welfare reform, which, again, are integral to the development of our policies for disabled people. We believe that they will end the marginalisation and exclusion of disabled people from the labour market. In that report, we explicitly set out our belief in the right of disabled people to work, and I know that hon. Friends and colleagues will welcome some discussion of that key element of our strategy.
However, before I begin that discussion, I want to spend a few moments reflecting on the position just under 10 years ago, not to seek to embarrass the official Opposition—[Interruption.] No, no. We need to be clear, though, about how much the debate has moved on in that period. In today's debate, we should appreciate the dramatic changes that have been made to the environment in which debates such as this take place.
I offer congratulations to the official Opposition, who have travelled a long road since 1995. We can all accept that, in 1997, disabled people had limited rights. Indeed, they had only two substantive rights—the right not to be discriminated against in employment if they worked for a firm employing more than 20 persons, and the right not to be directly discriminated against in the provision of services. However, there was no commission to help disabled people to enforce those rights.
I hope that we can all accept that there were opportunities missed—most notably when the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was passed—to establish Britain as a beacon of civil rights for disabled people. Although the DDA was undoubtedly a small step on the right road, I suspect that in retrospect, many of those on the Opposition Benches regret that they did not respond more positively to the challenge that was presented to them at that time.
However, since then, and with increasing consensus in the House, this Government, who came to power in 1997 determined to deliver on a commitment to improve the rights of disabled people, have taken action to ensure that we meet the ambitions and aspirations of disabled people themselves.
In respect of extending rights for disabled people and those with long-term limiting health conditions, I submit that the Government's record is without parallel. I mentioned the debate in 2004, which preceded the massive extension of the Disability Discrimination Act in October of that year—a landmark in the history of disability rights. In that debate, the then Conservative spokesperson was still concerned that there might be a massive backlash from businesses, the public and the media. I am glad, however, that those prophecies of doom proved to be wide of the mark. In fact, the changes that extended the employment provisions of the DDA to more than 1 million additional small businesses and a further 7 million jobs, and brought the final access duties into force, are driving a massive cultural change in society.
As the then Conservative spokesman to whom the Minister referred, may I point out that saying that something might happen is not a prophecy? May I also ask her about the timing of the debate in 2004 to which she referred? The debate in 2004 took place on European election day. The debate today is taking place on local election day. Could she arrange for our next debate on this subject to be on a day on which local or European elections are not taking place?
The hon. Gentleman made great play of that in the previous debate, and I noted his comments. I am sure that the business managers will have heard his plea yet again. We have the opportunity to debate the issues today, and a significant number of Members who have strong views on the subject are here. I hope that we will use the time to promote the agenda rather than bothering about whether this is the right time to have the discussion—I will not go down that route to any great extent.
Further to the intervention of my hon. Friend Mr. Goodman, the Minister mentioned that the last debate was in 2004, and that the main document sets out targets for 2025. May I suggest that we have an annual debate on the subject to monitor success in meeting those targets, rather than waiting until 2025?
I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman that he will be able to monitor the targets set by the Prime Minister's strategy unit, which has given a commitment to publish an annual report. I am sure that he can highlight the issue of whether we should have an annual debate in the next business questions that he attends.
Does not this opportunity to promote the agenda of disabled people also allow us to promote the agenda of those who look after them? My constituent, Mr. Gary Murphy, has given up his job to look after his two sons full-time, and is extremely concerned that the carer's allowance to which he is entitled is not sufficient to give his sons the care that he wants to provide.
I hope to deal later with the carer's allowance, which is an issue that individual Members might want to raise. I do not want to go into the details now, but it has never been seen as a wage for carers but as a contribution to carers' income, and it is not the only income support that carers can access. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me on the specifics with regard to his constituent, I shall be delighted to respond.
I pay tribute to the Minister for the energy and imagination that she has applied to her role since she has been involved in this area. One group who sometimes feel disempowered because they are not listened to, consulted or involved are those with long-term, disabling, chronic mental health problems. Yes, we have dealt with mental capacity, and that is fine. However, I speak regularly to a consultative group in my constituency, the people's forum, and although it is happy about that provision, it feels that it is not necessarily listened to at the upper levels of government. Are such groups not included in the strategy?
They are indeed. As my hon. Friend will be aware, when we extended the Disability Discrimination Act, we did so in a way that was sympathetic to the needs of those with mental health conditions. Part of the previous definition said that such conditions had to be well recognised clinically, and we have adjusted that interpretation to ensure that mental health conditions are treated with the respect that they deserve. Some of our efforts in both welfare reform and our benefits system reflect that a significant number of people suffer from long-term mental health conditions, which can impact in a volatile way on everyday life. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that we have made great progress in working with mental health charities, stakeholders and those with mental heath conditions to ensure that our policies reflect the difficulty of such issues. I also thank him for his compliment at the beginning of his contribution.
We have made a massive cultural change. In many respects, we all now take for granted access ramps, communication aids and accessible toilets, which are at last becoming the norm, not the exception. In today's debate, however, I am sure that we will hear of gaps, and of organisations and businesses that have not taken their responsibilities in relation to such duties seriously.
There will be gaps and areas in which organisations have not matched rhetoric with reality. One of those areas, which is crucial to carers who look after those with disabilities and long-term conditions, is respite care. The situation with regard to respite care is a disgrace. When will the Government get to grips with the issue rather than just speaking about it?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I am always suspicious of sweeping statements that respite care is a disgrace. He might want to raise specific issues, but respite care is seen as an important part of the support services given to disabled people and their carers. We continue to try to improve respite care. As he will be aware, however, much respite care is delivered by voluntary organisations and local authorities in partnership.
For every example like that, I am sure that there are examples of respite care provision responding meaningfully to the wishes and aspirations of local families. If the hon. Gentleman can specify examples of major difficulties, however, I shall be delighted to consider them and meet him to discuss them.
We should not underestimate the scale of the challenge that remains in embedding the duties of the Disability Discrimination Act, especially for small businesses, which sometimes wrongly assume that improving access means a complete refit of their premises. The message that I have given to them over the past months, and that I will give again today, is that it is not about a massive building programme. Physical adaptation might be a part of the changes needed, but it might not be appropriate in all circumstances. Small businesses should consider the way in which they deliver their goods and services so that people can access them. That is about adjusting for better business, because it is good for business. We continue to engage in awareness-raising activity with employers and service providers, spending £6 million on publicity for the DDA extension in 2004 to ensure that there are no excuses, while at the same time highlighting the many ways in which employers and service providers can meet their duties under the Act.
However, we were not content simply to implement the original Disability Discrimination Act 1995 fully; we always knew that there was more to do. As I am sure Opposition Members will recall, another feature of the 2004 debate was speculation on whether it was possible to steer a disability Bill through to Royal Assent in the remaining parliamentary time before the general election. We did fulfil our commitment to put a new DDA on the statute book, although I admit that we cut it fine: the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 did not become law until the last day of the previous Parliament, just over 12 months ago.
One of the reasons why we were able to deal with the Bill so quickly was that it had cross-party support. Some may recall that after being appointed Minister for disabled people last May, I wrote to all Members to celebrate the fact that we had managed to pass the Bill in record time, thus meeting our commitment to disabled people.
As many Members will know, from December last year the new Act extended protection to a further 250,000 by covering people with HIV, cancer or multiple sclerosis from the point of diagnosis. People with mental health conditions will also find it easier to show that they are covered by the Act. Progressively, disabled people will have new rights when, for example, sitting exams, using transport services, renting property and joining or using private members' clubs.
But perhaps the key proposal in the new Act is the introduction of the disability equality duty, which will come into force in December. From that date, it will no longer be lawful for public bodies to design services or carry out functions without thinking about how disabled people are affected. Public bodies will have to demonstrate that in everything they do they are considering the impact on disabled people, and that they have due regard to the best ways of eliminating discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity.
I want to stress what I believe to be two important aspects of the duty: the need for public bodies to involve disabled people, and the need for evidence of how their policies affect disabled people. What do organisations need to know in order to promote equality for disabled people? Who are the disabled service users and employees, and how can they be involved ?
I assure the House that this is not just a tick-box exercise. Most public bodies will need to have a disability equality scheme that sets out how they will answer such questions. I am pleased to say that recently published research on public bodies by the Department for Work and Pensions found that most organisations that took part in the survey had a disability equality scheme in place. On the other hand, fewer than half had involved disabled service users or disabled employees in the drawing up of their schemes.
The new duty requires public bodies to involve disabled people in the drawing up of their schemes, as only through real involvement of disabled people will all parts of the public sector be able to identify and address properly the biggest barriers that disabled service users or employees face. We must recognise that if we are to deliver modern services that meet the needs of the whole community, we must ensure that policies, practices and services meet the needs of disabled people from the outset. That is key to getting the disability equality duty right. The duty will require public bodies to assess the impact of their work on disabled people.
Ensuring that our policies and practices work for disabled people will also contribute to our wider aims and objectives. For example, we will not meet our targets on employment or child poverty if we do not take account of the needs of disabled people. The new duties must make us work and do things differently.
We in the Government must also ensure that we meet our obligations under the duty. I am pleased that as part of the current consultation on the welfare reform Green Paper, the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform has agreed that the Department for Work and Pensions will work with the Disability Rights Commission to develop a "prototype" disability equality impact assessment of our proposals for the reform of incapacity benefit. Along with my ministerial colleagues, I am determined to play my part in making sure that our Government respond positively to the challenge of the equality duty.
We are understandably proud of our record in extending rights, but I hope that this debate will focus mainly on our plans for tackling the challenges that lie ahead. As we all know, disabled people are more likely to live in poverty, to be out of work and to have fewer educational qualifications than the population in general. They are also more likely to experience prejudice and abuse than non-disabled people. We know that it takes more than legislation to change the lives of real people, and we are not prepared to sit back and see such inequality go unchallenged. That is why the Prime Minister, in his strategy unit report, referred to the challenge of identifying practical changes to help bring about equality for disabled people.
Three main themes emerged when the report was published in January 2005. It found that users were too often expected to manage their lives around public services rather than providers' designing services to meet the needs of disabled people themselves, and that public services and support were planned and delivered in organisational silos that simply failed to reflect the complexity of real people's lives. Our lives are not organised to reflect the current organisational profile of Government at either national or local level, and we need to challenge that. The report also found that service providers rarely involved users in the design of public services. How can we ever get the design of services for disabled people right without involving the people who know best what needs to be delivered?
At the heart of the strategy unit report was the belief that disabled people should be entitled to the same aspirations and expectations as those in the population at large. It contained 60 recommendations on how to achieve that across a range of areas, from early years education and support to employment and adult social care. I believe that the Government have grasped that agenda, and as a Minister I consider it a great privilege to be responsible for driving forward a cross-Government strategy to transform the lives of disabled people.
Will my hon. Friend say something about social care workers who devote themselves to helping people with disabilities? All too often, sadly, people working in social care are poorly paid and poorly trained. We need to raise the profile of social workers, care workers and those who work transporting people with disabilities, so that we can recruit high-quality people and ensure that they are properly trained, and it becomes a real career option to do an invaluable job.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. As one who, in a previous existence, had some experience of work in the sector, I understand what she means. We need to look differently at how we deliver services. I hope that my hon. Friend is among the many who welcomed the launch of the new cross-Government unit, the Office for Disability Issues, which will bring together disabled people, Departments and service providers to deliver a real, significant and sustainable change.
We are determined to transform the way in which the Government engage with disabled people. The ODI will bring the voices of disabled people to the heart of Government through the creation of a national forum for disabled people. The advisory group that was established to help us establish the national forum has been working hard to assist us in developing the way forward, and already the ODI is bringing Departments together to improve services for disabled people.
Most obviously, such co-operation is bearing fruit in the individual budget pilots operating in several parts of the country. The pilots bring together a range of different support services for disabled people, including housing-related and other support for independent living. We all know that the current system for delivering such support can be bewildering, involving as it does several different funding streams and administrative bodies. The end result is often that people are left with little control over the services that they receive—a point to which Mr. Burns referred in the context of respite care—and how they are delivered. That, in turn, can lead to uncertainty, anxiety and sometimes isolation, presenting a barrier to, rather than enabling, independent living. Building on the success achieved through the direct payments scheme, the new pilots are intended to overcome these problems by bringing together different elements of support and putting the ability to choose how those services are delivered into the hands of disabled people themselves.
The strategy unit report also recognised that for disabled young people, the transition to adulthood is often a very difficult time. A multi-agency approach, in which young people and their families are at the centre, is the way forward. I am pleased to say that we have seen some good results from the 70 local authorities adopting a person-centred approach to transition planning. We are also examining the transition period in three of the individual budget pilot schemes—in Coventry, Barnsley and Gateshead—to see how such an approach can support young people as they move into adulthood. It is crucial that we get this issue right, because the transition to adulthood can be the most challenging time for disabled young people and their families. We need to ensure that our services are more joined up than they currently are. Many young adults and their parents have told me that they feel as if they are standing on a cliff edge—that they do not know what is going to happen as they move into adulthood. We need to pull together and to get our approach right, so that they do not feel that they are standing on a cliff edge, with no support as they grow older.
Finally, I think it appropriate briefly to touch on the welfare reform proposals that we set out earlier this year in the Green Paper, "Empowering People to Work", which has been welcomed by the disability lobby. Such a welcome is justified, as our starting point is that many disabled people want to work, and would do so if the right opportunities and support were in place. We estimate that some 85 to 90 per cent. of the 2.7 million people claiming an incapacity benefit meet the core definition of disability in the DDA. Those figures perhaps help to demonstrate why the employment rate of this group is less than 50 per cent., at a time when record numbers are in work.
We have set out clearly our ambitions in the Green Paper. We want to see 1 million fewer people claiming an incapacity benefit, and more older people and lone parents enjoying the benefits of work. That will put us on course to reach our aspiration of getting 80 per cent. of working-age people into a job. We believe that that goal is within our grasp; indeed, we have already achieved a lot. The new deal for disabled people has helped nearly 300,000 disabled people into work—I shall be interested to hear whether the Opposition will continue to support the new deal's approach—and we will continue to build on the very positive lessons learned from our pathways to work pilots.
The pathways to work pilots involve early and intensive support from a specially trained personal adviser—supported by health specialists, where appropriate—and provide access to a help menu designed to prepare people for work. Combined with the new deal and programmes such as access to work, the pilots have led to the first significant fall in the incapacity benefit case load in more than a generation. As part of our reforms, we will roll out this highly successful scheme across the whole country, so that all disabled people claiming an incapacity benefit can benefit from extra help and support.
I have set out this afternoon a hugely ambitious agenda that is central to our goal of an equal society with opportunity for all. We are transforming the way in which the Government respond to the needs of disabled people, and driving changes in the wider society to create a culture in which disabled people have choice and control over their lives. We are nearly 18 months into the 20-year strategy, and we will shortly publish and present to the Prime Minister the inaugural annual progress report, which will provide an honest assessment of the situation and enable everyone to judge whether we are achieving our aims. The life chances report was widely welcomed by disabled people; I am sure that they expect nothing less.
I believe that people will look at the progress that we have made and see that this Government have been true to our word. We have overseen the largest extension of disability rights in history, but we refuse to rest on our laurels. I genuinely welcome the official Opposition's change in attitude, and I know that certain individual Conservatives always supported this agenda. But I hope that the change in their official heart will prove to be about more than fine words, which are always easy to come up with. They have a lot to live down in this respect.
We are delivering on a strategy to improve the life chances of disabled people, but we still have a long way to go in changing society's attitudes. We still have to challenge the view that sees what disabled people cannot do, rather than what they can do. We have to change the perception that fails to value the ambitions and aspirations of disabled people. However, we have come a long way in a few short years, and in recent months we have had the support of other parties in this House, for which I am grateful. I am pleased to commend our record to the House.
I begin by welcoming the Minister to the Dispatch Box for what I believe is her first major debate on disability since taking on her new role. She was kind enough to welcome me to the Dispatch Box during oral questions on
Today, I want to talk about a new Conservative approach to disability that builds on the legislative progress made through the efforts of those in all parts of the House, but which also recognises that the challenges that disabled people face today are different from those of 10 or 20 years ago. The life chances report talks about allowing disabled people to be respected and included as equal members of society by 2025. That seems a long way off, but the reality is that we have a huge mountain to climb to achieve that goal. The challenge for policy makers is to ensure that the progress on the path towards that goal is both steady and speedy.
Before I talk about the new approach, I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to some of my predecessors in this post, who have given me enormous support and encouragement. My hon. Friend Mr. Goodman, who held this post until the general election, was enormously respected in the disability world for his grasp of policy detail. He undertook a detailed consultation of disability groups before the enactment of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. Such consultation has provided extremely useful information that helped to form our thinking. I welcomed his intervention on the Minister concerning the timing of these debates; it would be good to have a disability debate on a day when more Members are able to attend.
On the subject of elections, why were 68 per cent. of polling stations inaccessible to disabled people during last year's general election? Some Members might think that the advent of postal voting means that such access is not necessary, but it is very important for blind and visually impaired people to have access to a Braille reader when voting. Such readers can be provided in polling stations; postal voting, on the other hand, does not solve the problem.
I want also to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Boswell, who held this post before taking a different Front-Bench role. I am delighted that he has kindly spared the time to wind up this debate. He has a deep understanding of the complexity of disability issues, and enormous personal commitment to the disability agenda.
I thank the Minister for her comments. On the whole, they were more positive than those made by her predecessor in the 2004 debate. There has been much legislative progress on disability issues, and I am happy to commend that to the House.
For example, the Carers and Disabled Children Act 2000 allowed direct payments to be made to families. The Disability Rights Commission has been established, and it has done a great deal to campaign for disabled people's rights. The Special Education Needs and Disability Act 2001 made it unlawful to discriminate against disabled children seeking access to schools, and regulations introduced in 2003 made it easier for disabled people to get more choice in employment. In addition, we have had the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and the establishment of the Office for Disability Issues.
The Opposition are prepared to give credit where it is due, but I hope that the Minister will also give full credit to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I was disappointed that she chose to describe it as a missed opportunity. That Act, piloted through the House by my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague, gave disabled people entitlement to civil rights for the first time, and made it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people in employment and in the provision of goods, facilities and services. It contained some limited but important education and transport provisions, which included the requirement that all stations and airports should be accessible, and also set up the National Disability Council, the precursor to the DRC.
The 1995 Act was
"the most important discrimination legislation in a generation."
Those are not my words, but those of the Equal Opportunities Review, which is hardly a Conservative-leaning journal. The Japanese have a saying that a journey of 1,000 miles starts with one step, and the 1995 Act was that first step.
The hon. Gentleman identifies that proverb as Japanese, whereas I thought that it was Chinese, but for the record I remind him that I said that the 1995 Act was a small step on the right road. That shows that we agree about that legislation.
I am delighted to hear that clarification. The Minister's tone, both just now and earlier in the debate, is considerably different from the one that I have heard adopted on other occasions, by her and other Ministers. However, my point is that we are still very much at the start of the journey, even after all that legislation.
For example, Martine Wright is the remarkably brave woman who lost both her legs above the knees in the 7/7 bombings. Only two weeks ago, she said that her anger was directed more at the Government than the bomber, because of the poor levels of compensation that she had been offered. That lady lost 75 per cent. of her blood in the attack. She was in the Douglas Bader unit of Queen Mary's hospital for nine months, and now fears that the cost of being disabled will mean that she can no longer afford to live in London.
Martine Wright's involvement in the London bombing gave her a high profile, but there are nearly 1 million people in wheelchairs in this country. That means that every hon. Member has constituents who are being driven into poverty by disability.
I do not want to minimise the devastating impact that losing her legs in the London bombing will have had on that young woman, but the vast majority of disabled people are not looking for compensation or for someone to blame. They just want to make sure that the facilities are in place that will allow them to get on with their lives. A person born with a disability has no one to sue and cannot claim extra compensation. Sometimes the sort of argument being presented by the hon. Gentleman can be false, as it is not the reality for most disabled people.
I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Lady is respected enormously in this House for her contributions to disability debates. My point is that Martine Wright was angry about the compensation levels offered to her because she has a mortgage on a flat in London. After suffering her disability, she has been unable to work and is having to consider moving out of London. She does not want someone to sue: she wants to be able to lead her life independently, as well as she can, and I am sure that hon. Members of all parties will agree with that. I am not making a party political point when I say that we have a long way to go before we are able to give people the independent opportunities that they seek.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a difference between people who are disabled in a terrorist act, for example, and those who gain their disability in a different manner? I have met people who were involved in the Bali bombings and in the London incident of 7/7, and my experience is that the criminal injuries compensation scheme is very slow. Miss Begg is right that disabled people are not looking for someone to blame, but they do want some compensation so that they can get on with their lives. Some people hurt on 7/7 are still waiting for help with prosthesis, which is not cheap. They are not getting the support from the Government in the timely fashion that they deserve.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Regardless of the party to which they belong, all hon. Members want to help people with a disability, whether they are born with it or acquire it, so that they can lead an independent life as far as possible. The slowness of compensation is one of the issues that must be addressed if that is to happen.
I return to the broader question of disability and poverty. The Minister and many hon. Members will know that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation carried out an excellent study in 2004 that looked at the link between disability and poverty. It found that, even after all the additional benefits that disabled people get, the costs of being disabled can often amount to an extra £200 per week. It is no wonder that the proportion of disabled people living in income poverty has risen from 27 to 30 per cent. over the past 10 years, whereas the proportions of children and pensioners living in income poverty are going down.
Progress has to be made in other respects as well. In 2006, why do disabled people and their families often have to battle so hard to get the drugs that they need? In particular, people suffering from multiple sclerosis find it enormously difficult to get hold of Sativex, with totally conflicting signals coming from the Department of Health and the Home Office. If they live in Staffordshire, Sheffield or Wales, they will also find it difficult to get beta interferon, the crucial drug that can prolong active life if taken in the early stages of the disease.
Another problem is the abuse of people with learning disabilities in care homes. Just this month, in the journal Disability Now, there is a story about a man who was abused in two separate care homes in London in 2003 and 2004. Those abuses happened 10 years after the same man was in the headlines for being assaulted and neglected in the Longeve home in Buckinghamshire. Such people have a right to expect the Government, regardless of which party is in power, to take more action to prevent that sort of abuse.
I stress that the Opposition do not put the blame for all issues facing disabled people at the Government's door. Tackling discrimination is a challenge for any Government, and we recognise that good intentions in that respect have come from all sides of the House. Lord Morris of Manchester, the first Minister for Disabled People and a noted campaigner on disability issues, said that tackling discrimination needs a combination of legislation and practical action. It is in practical action, rather than legislation, that the Government have neglected two vital elements of their role.
The first element has to do with the Government's role as a major employer. With 1.3 million people in the NHS alone, the Government have a fantastic opportunity to set an example, yet some Pathways advisers say that it is much easier to place disabled people in jobs in the private sector than in the public sector, as public sector organisations can be less flexible about making reasonable adjustments. According to the Cabinet Office public appointments unit, although 19 per cent. of people of working age were disabled in 2004, only 3.5 per cent. of the appointments made to the boards of public bodies were of disabled people.
I should like the Government also to look at their crucial role as a deliverer of services to disabled people. Often, the appalling bureaucracy and waste in social service delivery in particular have meant that many disabled people and their families have not received the services that they need. According to a Mencap survey, to which I referred in the House in Work and Pensions questions on
Let me outline the Conservative approach to the disability agenda. This summer we shall hold five policy seminars with groups representing disabled people to listen to what they believe should be the basis of the policy. We shall test all policy recommendations against four fundamental questions. First, does a policy help disabled people live as equal and respected members of society? Secondly, does a policy help disabled people overcome the barriers that prevent them from living independently? Thirdly, does a policy help disabled people make their own contribution to society, whether in a voluntary or paid capacity? Fourthly, does a policy help, support and value the role of families and carers of disabled people?
The goal set in the first question is the objective of the life chances report and must be at the heart of disabled policy making. We can see from the progress in changing attitudes towards women and ethnic minorities that there is a big time lag between passing legislation, for example the first Race Relations Act was in 1965, and the Equal Pay Act was in 1970, and changing attitudes. We are right at the start of that journey for disabled people. At present, 38 per cent. of employers say that they would not take on someone with a disability. In the case of someone with a mental disability, that number rises to 63 per cent. That kind of discrimination against ethnic minorities, gays or women would be unthinkable, but it is a fact of life for 10 million disabled people. Equality of esteem for disabled people means tackling the deep-seated prejudice held by many people that disabled people are inferior. The social model of disability requires tackling disablism by changing attitudes as well as dismantling the physical barriers that prevent disabled people from getting around.
On the second question that I posed, I am new to this brief but in the short time that I have held it, it has become clear to me that what disabled people want for their lives is no different from what everyone wants for their life: the chance to make choices over their future, to control their destiny, to make the most of their talents and to make a contribution to society. We have a huge mountain to climb if we are to achieve independent living for disabled people. Given that the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 did not cover aviation and shipping, when will the Government come forward with policies to address the fact that three quarters of disabled people never use ferries and two thirds never fly? Why are disabled people often treated as second-class citizens in our hospitals? Why are social services, upon which disabled people depend so much if they are to live independently, so burdened with bureaucracy? The regulatory regime for social services means that social service departments have to prepare reports for the Commission for Social Care Inspection, delivery and improvement standards reports, 26 performance assessment frameworks, including key thresholds—whatever they are—best-value performance indicators for the Audit Commission, comprehensive performance assessments, referrals assessments and packages of care reports for the Department of Health. How can anyone possibly expect social services to concentrate on delivering good services for their disabled clients when their heads must be spinning with all the reports they must write?
Policies on independent living also need to look at housing policy. According to the charity John Grooms, 20 per cent. of physically disabled people are living in a house that they find difficult to move around in, 24 per cent. live in a house from where it is difficult to access shops and a quarter of disabled people who need adapted accommodation do not have it.
I turn now to the third question I asked. On Tuesday I visited Action for Blind People, a remarkable organisation that helps blind and visually impaired people take the first steps towards independence by setting up their own business. Remarkably, one visually impaired person was setting up a catering business, another was setting up a scanning business and someone else was setting up an office supplies business. Despite this excellent work, there is a huge range of disincentives that stop disabled people engaging in the world of work. Only some of those are dealt with in the incapacity benefit reform Green Paper. For example, a disabled person can trigger a personal capability assessment that could threaten their disability living allowance if they do voluntary or part-time work, or go on a training course. Yet for many people who become disabled and have to stop work—
For the sake of accuracy, would the hon. Gentleman repeat that statement? I fear that he may have misunderstood the criteria of DLA and I certainly would not wish disabled people throughout the country to believe that somehow they are putting their DLA at risk because of the impression that he may just have given.
May I make it perfectly clear that disability living allowance is not income assessed? Many disabled people who are in full-time work have their full entitlement to DLA. It does not relate in any way whatsoever to other income. I would hope that the hon. Gentleman, as the shadow spokesman on disability, would ensure that the person to whom he spoke was appraised of that situation.
I return to my previous point, which is that there is a great deal of concern among disabled people that, for example, if they go on a training course or do some part-time work, they might be assessed as less in need of their DLA than was previously thought. There is a huge communications problem. As the Minister is intricately involved in the reforms proposed in the incapacity benefit Green Paper, may I say to her that there is a huge problem because disabled people are concerned that anything they might do involved with part-time or voluntary work or education could compromise the benefits that they want to receive. For many disabled people it is such part-time work, attendance on a training course, or some kind of education that is the crucial first step back towards involving themselves in the world of work. They are often disincentivised from taking that first step.
For the sake of clarity—I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands why I am making an issue of this—there is absolutely no impact on DLA entitlement from somebody working full-time, doing voluntary work or doing no work. DLA is not income assessed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not confusing two benefits, namely incapacity benefit and disability living allowance. While we in Government need to be clear about our messages, he too needs to be clear and not confuse the two to make a political point in this debate.
I am not confused and I am not making a political point. I am perfectly aware that DLA is not income-assessed, but I am trying to explain to the Minister that many disabled people are concerned that their DLA could be affected. This is an important point. We need to do more than reform incapacity benefit; we need to look much more widely at benefits across the board, to make sure that nothing in the structures has the unintended effect of deterring people from the world of work, whether part-time or voluntary.
Communications also need to be greatly strengthened in respect of access to work. Many people are not aware of the benefits available and do not know what help they could receive to get back into the world of work. Furthermore, many social services are offered only during normal working hours, which makes it difficult for people to use them while holding down a full or part-time job. Disincentives to work are the root cause of the link between disability and poverty and the Conservatives are determined to dismantle them.
The final question against which we shall judge new policies is whether a policy helps to support and value the role of the families and carers of disabled people. One in eight of the population is a carer; 1.25 million of them look after someone for more than 50 hours a week and 10 per cent. are themselves disabled, yet the system often completely fails to support carers as it should.
We should be considering streamlined systems such as the one in Austria, which I have raised with the Minister before, where families of severely disabled children are looked after by single assessment teams, comprising a paediatric doctor, a nurse, a physiotherapist and an information officer. We should be looking at streamlining the benefits system, which is neither simple to understand nor generous to carers, even though those involved in carers week estimated that carers save the state £57 billion annually.
We are proud to live in a free society where we try to value people by the merits of what they are prepared to contribute, and not by accidents of birth, class or privilege, but 10 million disabled people have been left out of the deal. It is time to put that right, not just by legislation and fine words, but by a fundamental overhaul of the way services are provided to disabled people, to help them to live independently, work freely and contribute to a society that has neglected them for too long.
I am grateful for the opportunity to follow Mr. Hunt, who spoke for the official Opposition, and I wish him well in his new responsibilities. We can look forward to some interesting exchanges, not least because my hon. Friend the Minister is determined to make sure that the hon. Gentleman does not mislead people about their basic rights in relation to disability living allowance and other benefits. However, I genuinely wish him well. It is an important brief and we can conclude from his contribution today that he is very much on-message with his new leader, as they re-assess all their policies and make very different proposals from those of the past.
Many Members in the Chamber have a track record of tremendous experience and knowledge of the important subject of policies for the disabled. I have a few remarks about disabled people in the Edinburgh, East constituency, which I have had the privilege to represent for quite a few years.
I support the Prime Minister's strategy unit report, "Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People", published in January 2005 and to which my hon. Friend referred. The report establishes an ambitious 20-year vision, stating:
"By 2025, disabled people in Britain should have full opportunities and choices to improve their quality of life, and will be respected and included as equal members of society."
That is a big challenge, but the whole House should be prepared to sign up to it, not least because, according to the report, 11 million adults are rightly classified as disabled and there is also a large number of disabled children.
The centrepiece of the Government's strategy, as others in the Chamber know better than I do, is the promotion of independent living. Some Members will remember Margaret Blackwood, who set up the Disablement Income Group Scotland, of which I am privileged to be a patron. In Edinburgh, the Margaret Blackwood housing association specialises in the provision of housing to meet the needs of disabled people. The association makes an important contribution and is a fitting memorial to Margaret Blackwood. As the House knows, the Edinburgh economy is a dynamo for the whole south-east Scotland travel-to-work area, but a problem of that economic success is a shortage of affordable housing.
We need to tackle the barriers to employment for disabled people. We can all support the Government's emphasis in recent years on creating a society that provides maximum opportunities for disabled people to work in the wider economy—in workplaces in private businesses, the public sector and elsewhere.
The National Employment Panel's employers working group on disability published a report, "Able to Work", in January 2005, at the same time as the strategy unit document. The report noted:
"Fifty percent of working age disabled people are economically inactive—neither working nor actively seeking work—compared with just 15% of non-disabled people. Given that almost 20% of the UK's working age population are disabled, this represents a wasted opportunity on an enormous scale—for disabled people themselves, for employers and for the UK economy."
There can be no doubt about the importance of such opportunities, primarily for disabled people, because we want people to be able to make choices in society, but also for the collective good of the economy and society as a whole. We must do more to ensure that disabled people have the chance to work, to earn an income and develop their independence.
Many disabled people are prevented from making an effective contribution to their local community and economy, yet with support they can actively take part. Disabled people represent a significant pool of potential skills and abilities.
I want to focus on sheltered workshops. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will not mind my mentioning her family connection, as her father, Councillor Albert Long, is still remembered for his contribution to BlindCraft in Glasgow and Strathclyde. She will be interested in our experience over recent years at the BlindCraft factory, a sheltered workshop in my constituency.
A few years ago, it became clear that there was a crisis in the workshop, which was losing a lot of money. For example, in 2002–03, City of Edinburgh council had budgeted for a deficit of £75,000. In fact, the deficit was more than £1 million. The following year, the deficit was more than £800,000. Quite clearly, those losses were too large to be sustainable and action had to be taken. It was against that background that the council embarked on a strategic review. It was a time of considerable difficulty.
People in the workshop were understandably concerned about their futures being jeopardised. One thing that I have learned from our workshop is that, although there are many people who are able to work in the broader labour market—we want to give them the maximum encouragement—there are also people who need the shelter of a workshop and who can make a great contribution to their own lives and to society as a whole within the framework of that supported work in the BlindCraft factory in Craigmillar in my constituency.
As a constituency MP, I was involved in a series of meetings with the council, Councillor Kingsley Thomas, the administration's lead councillor on social work, senior officials and Joe Mann, who is a senior trade union official from the union Community. I do not want to make too much of this, but I had three aims and concerns. First, we wanted an inquiry into what had gone wrong—things had gone badly wrong for reasons that I will not go into. Secondly, we needed a new general manager. Thirdly, we were concerned that the strategy of closing the wire side and just relying on bedding was high risk.
To cut a long story short, the City of Edinburgh council has chosen to proceed on the basis of the bedding and the separate metal department, which does not include the old wire section. That section was important, because some of the most disabled people were able to work there. Of course, there have been job losses—a disproportionate number of which have been among the disabled as opposed to the able-bodied.
I am pleased to say that we have a new general manager in place and I was able to speak to him this week. He has come from the private sector, and he must be given the opportunity to turn the business round and generate a profit. I know that he is concerned about the competition between the different BlindCraft factories in Scotland. He believes that, particularly in the case of beds, if the margins are driven down further, we shall not get the profit that we need and we shall be unable to reduce the overall deficit, although some progress has been made in that respect. Above all—this is the real worry—the cost per individual worker in the plant will be too high. He faces a big challenge, but I am encouraged by what he is saying. He is making an important point. He also has some important ideas about other activities that we can develop within the framework of the workshop to provide employment and an opportunity for the people concerned.
I know that many Members want to speak in the debate, so I will make just one final point. The problem is that the workshop is not just for Edinburgh, but for the local authority areas around it. Sadly, there is no agreement about the contribution that those local authorities have to make. I do not want to go into that in great detail, but the fact is that local authorities, which provide people for the sheltered workshop, must pay their share. The disagreement about their contribution has to be resolved. We must have a framework in which we have an opportunity to make a success of the workshop. In my opinion, there are not enough disabled people working there at the moment, because the numbers have been reduced to reduce the overall deficit. The effect of that is that the subsidy per disabled person is too high.
I look forward to making real progress. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to her responsibilities, although she has held the post for some time now. I know that we can count on her support to help us to make the progress that we need, because we are talking about a great asset and an important element in the overall framework that the Government want in order to encourage more disabled people to live full lives in the workplace.
It is a pleasure to follow the distinguished contribution from Dr. Strang. The issue that he raised is common to a number of constituencies. There are similar facilities in Inverness. Many of the problems that he described will be familiar to other hon. Members.
I welcome the opportunity to hold this debate. The Minister was right to say in opening that there has been a great deal of cross-party consensus on the issues that we are debating—[Interruption.] Recently. Over a longer time scale, the Liberal Democrat party has played a role in seeing a way forward on a number of different disability issues, so it is good to have the chance to debate the matter. However, I reinforce the point that was made earlier from those on the Conservative Back Benches that it is perhaps a shame that this debate is taking place on local election day, when many hon. Members on both sides of the House cannot, for various reasons, be present. If the debate becomes an annual feature of the parliamentary calendar, as I hope it will, perhaps in future it could coincide with the publication of the annual report. It could become a regular feature—held on a day when more hon. Members could attend and take part.
After all, according to some definitions—the life chances report makes this clear—there are 11 million disabled people in this country. To put that in context, that could be more than the total number of people who will vote in the local elections today. We are talking about a tremendously important part of the population and therefore a big issue for all MPs—not just those of us who happen to be present today—and their constituents. Many issues affect the life chances of disabled people and they cut across a number of different portfolios. There are many points that I would like to cover today, but I will not have time.
There are a few issues that I would like to draw out from the strategy unit report. The Liberal Democrats welcome the report and particularly its focus on independent living, families with young disabled children, the transition into adulthood and support and incentives for getting disabled people into employment and helping them to stay there. We also welcome the Government's acceptance of the recommendations in the report.
Importantly, the report is not based on a medical or impairment-based definition of disability. Although it does not explicitly state that it is adopting the social model of disability, its focus on the disadvantages that individuals experience as a result of barriers, both physical and attitudinal, is quite close to the social model. I hope that the Government will continue to develop that approach.
Before getting to the main issues that I want to address, I should say that, earlier this year, I put a question to all the Departments asking whether they had already nominated a Minister to liaise with the Office for Disability Issues, the establishment of which I warmly welcome. The life chances report was clear that several of its recommendations were for all Departments and not just, for example, for the Department for Work and Pensions. I was pleased that nearly all the Departments responded positively. However—I hope that the Minister will take this point up with her colleagues—there are four that I would like to name and shame, if I can use that phrase. They have not, as yet, appointed a Minister to liaise with the Office for Disability Issues. Those Departments are: the Department for International Development, the Cabinet Office, the Northern Ireland Office and, last but not least, the Treasury. Perhaps the Secretary of State could ask his Cabinet colleagues in those Departments to fall into line with other Departments and appoint a Minister with responsibility for these issues.
The life chances report emphasises the interlinked issues of poverty and work. The clearest indication that disabled people do not have the same life chances as the rest of society is the extent of the poverty among them. Child poverty and pensioner poverty are decreasing—perhaps not as fast as some of us would like—but poverty among disabled people is still high and rising in some categories.
Some 55 per cent. of families with disabled children are either in poverty or at its margins, and 30 per cent. of working-age disabled adults live in income poverty—higher than the 27 per cent. figure of a decade ago and double the rate for non-disabled adults. Some 13 per cent. of working-age adults are judged to be at risk of developing a mental illness, but the figure is almost twice as high for the poorest fifth of the population at 25 per cent. About 800,000 disabled people between the age of 25 and retirement age are classed as economically inactive but wanting work, compared with only 200,000 who are officially counted as unemployed.
Addressing the barriers to work is therefore absolutely key to tackling poverty among disabled people. Indeed, the life chances report makes that very clear in a table on the employment growth needed to reach the current UK employment rate, and by far the greatest employment growth is needed for disabled people—1.7 million is the figure given—to reach the overall employment level for the country of any of the groups highlighted in the report. With that in mind, I should like to turn to welfare reform.
Mr. Hunt, the Conservative spokesman, explained the need to communicate clearly information about such issues, but we all have a responsibility to communicate clearly about the benefits that exist, so that no hon. Member reinforces whatever confusion may exist in people's minds and may be reinforced occasionally either by things that the Government say or by the way in which newspapers pick up on things that they say.
The welfare reform Green Paper is obviously welcome, although it perhaps took a little longer to reach us than we had hoped, and there is still a problem in that it is short on detail in many respects, particularly in relation to the action that needs to be taken to help not only people on incapacity benefit to get back into work but, equally important, those people who suffered a disabling event to stay in work, rather than losing their jobs and moving on to benefits.
All the evidence shows that people are much less likely to find work once they go on to incapacity benefit, whereas retaining people in employment should be the primary objective. In that context, I hope that the Minister will seriously consider the proposal for rehabilitation leave, which was recently made in a ten-minute Bill, as a way of making it explicit in law what is already thought to be a reasonable adjustment under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
Making it clear in law that there was a entitlement to rehabilitation leave for people in the circumstances that I have described would make it a good deal easier for people to assert their rights, rather than expecting people to have a detailed knowledge of the 1995 Act and what might constitute a reasonable adjustment in various circumstances. Likewise, access to condition management programmes for people who are still in work but perhaps having a period of rehabilitation leave, as opposed to only being able to gain access to such programmes when they have already lost their jobs or are on incapacity benefit, would be a valuable step forward.
I should also like to ask about the overall target in the welfare and reform proposals. Again, the Minister made it clear in her opening remarks that the target was to get 1 million people off incapacity benefit over the next 10 years. There is a subtle but important distinction between targeting getting people off benefits and targeting getting people into work. Over the next 10 years, almost 1 million people who currently receive incapacity benefit will reach retirement age and therefore be entitled to claim pension. Of course, the Minister will no doubt rightly point out that many more people will be flowing on to benefits.
Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. Yes, our aim is to get 1 million people off incapacity benefits, but it is also to reach our aspiration of having 80 per cent. of working-age people in employment—the two go side by side.
I am grateful for that sensible and well-made point, but it is also true that the targets expressed in the welfare reform Green Paper have often been reported in the media as getting 1 million people who are on incapacity benefit into work, and it is important to be clear about that distinction.
One of the issues in the welfare reform Green Paper that needs to be further developed from what the Government have so far proposed relates to the radical reform that is needed in the benefits system as it affects disabled people. The system is too complicated. The difference between incapacity benefit and jobseeker's allowance is at least in part a recognition of the fact that people on incapacity benefit are suffering from disability or ill-health conditions whereby they are likely to be out of the labour market for a substantial period. Therefore, to some degree, within the operation of incapacity benefit, there is a link between the proportion of support that they receive for being out of work and the fact that they are disabled. That question needs to be looked at in much greater detail in future.
The hon. Gentleman says that incapacity benefit is different from jobseeker's allowance and that that indicates the claimant's desire to get back into work, so does he feel that people on jobseeker's allowance have no desire to get back into work?
No, quite the reverse. In fact, one of the principal distinctions between incapacity benefit and jobseeker's allowance is that the latter makes it mandatory for benefit recipients to engage in back-to-work activity and actively seek work, whereas those obligations do not apply to incapacity benefit recipients at the moment, although the Green Paper, which is slightly fuzzy on the detail, suggests perhaps a slight change in that direction. No doubt, we will see more of that when such a Bill is introduced in due course.
The principal issue that I should like to raise in relation to the extent to which the Government's welfare reform proposals can succeed in helping to deliver the objectives of the life chances report of getting people with disabilities back into employment is the resources that are available to extend the pathways to work scheme across the whole country. The £360 million that has been allocated in the Green Paper is simply not enough, compared with the costs of the pilot schemes. I am very concerned that the roll-out might lead to a sort of "pathways-lite".
The Government's estimated cost of £400 per claimant suggests that £440 million will be needed over two years, but the Government's estimate of £360 million does not include either the cost of the back to work credit or condition management programme. We have heard several other estimates of the cost of rolling out pathways from a number of non-governmental organisations. They all suggest that the figure that the Government specify in the Green Paper is not nearly enough. The figure is, frankly, hard to estimate, because of the poor quality of information available from the Government on the cost of pathways, but the estimates that I have seen from a number of organisations all have one thing in common: they suggest that £360 million is not nearly enough for the comprehensive support programme that we would all like to see.
I hope that the Minister will address a further point in her concluding remarks. It is suggested that the £360 million that has been allocated will come from existing resources, so I should be interested to know when we will find out from which existing resources that sum will be diverted to deliver pathways to work.
Condition management is a very popular and successful part of the programme, but it relies particularly on a supply of properly qualified professionals—such as cognitive behavioural therapists, for example—yet we do not have enough people in those categories and they can take up to five years to train. Likewise, high-quality employment advisers are also needed.
The Green Paper also considers the separation of welfare to work support from benefit decision making, particularly through the use of more private and voluntary sector contractors to deliver back to work help. That is a welcome move forward. I am sure that all hon. Members have examples of organisations that are effectively delivering back to work help in our constituencies. In Inverness, for example, there is an organisation called the SHIRLIE Project, which is very successful, particularly in enabling people with learning disabilities to get back into work. It has an astonishingly high success rate, and it has been able to draw on support from various Government bodies to deliver a flexible programme. Making more use of such organisations makes a great deal of sense. The Green Paper does not deal with the specification of contracts, but that is important if those organisations are to deliver help effectively, giving providers the time scale, flexibility and stable financial footing that they need.
As my hon. Friend knows, my background is in dealing with visual impairment. Does he agree that just as important as getting people back to work is maintaining them in work, particularly in the case of progressive illnesses or late-onset conditions? Investing in initiatives to enable people to continue to do the work for which they are trained and in which they have expertise, irrespective of a disability that may otherwise hinder them, is money well spent.
I could not agree more, and my hon. Friend has anticipated my next subject.
Genuine support for employers and employees so that people can remain in work is an essential part of any policy framework to deliver the objective of the life chances report by 2025. The access-to-work scheme, on which the Minister and I have had exchanges before, is very valuable indeed, and it is one of the Government's great unsung success stories. If I were her, I would be shouting that success from the rooftops and promoting it to businesses large and small. However, 80 per cent. of smaller businesses do not know anything about it. I therefore urge her to go around the country and get on her soapbox to promote it. According to a parliamentary answer, its net benefit to the Exchequer is £1,400 and the net benefit to the economy after costs is £3,000 per person helped. Employers who employ individuals who have been awarded access-to-work credits can make adjustments to enable them to remain in work, which is particularly valuable in the case of people who experience a disabling event or who have a visual impairment. I congratulate the Government on the scheme, but we need to hear more about it.
There was a gap in the Green Paper on disability awareness among employers. When will the Government publish an employer engagement strategy to encourage businesses and companies in the private sector better to understand the issues and adopt the right attitude to the employment of disabled people?
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of Remploy, which not only provides supported employment in the workplace, but helps to place disabled employees in full-time mainstream employment?
I certainly am. The hon. Gentleman has characterised its work very fairly, and it plays an important role. In the Easter recess, I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit the Working Links "Working in Neighbourhoods" project in Parkhead in Glasgow. Part of its success stems from the fact that it works closely with employers. Not only does it place people in work, but it continues to work with employers after they have been employed so that if problems arise there is a three-way discussion. That helps to prevent the problem of someone starting work, encountering difficulties and being thrown out of their job, perhaps leaving them even further behind than they were when they started work. Such initiatives should therefore be valued and promoted.
The Minister mentioned the duty to promote. Will the Government encourage more public sector bodies to attain the Employers Forum on Disability standard so that there is a better understanding in the public sector of the needs of the private sector and awareness of the forum's work to promote understanding and the right attitudes in companies? We have heard today that those attitudes would be valuable in many public sector organisations, as well.
The Government rightly accepted the proposal in the life chances report that each local authority should have a user-led organisation modelled on the existing centres for independent living by 2010, but in a survey this month by "Disability Now" magazine half the centres that responded said that they were threatened by the loss of all or part of their funding. Support for both core and project-related costs of peer-led projects for disabled people has been withdrawn. It has been given instead to organisations that are not run by disabled people or, indeed, withdrawn altogether, thus forcing centres for independent living to be excessively driven by funding demands and tendering requirements, preventing them from pursuing objectives focused on their members' needs, desires and wishes. How do the Government intend to ensure that their commitment to a network of centres for independent living is met, as the reality is that many centres are struggling to avoid closure?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of the most recent issue of "Disability Now", which reports that half the centres for independent living that responded to its survey said that
"their funding was under threat or has been in the last year"?
Not only am I aware of it, but I made that point 45 seconds ago. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, however, for repeating the point and giving some additional publicity to "Disability Now", which is an excellent publication.
Another organisation that plays a vital role in realising the goal of independent living is struggling to avoid closure. Assist UK, the umbrella organisation for centres that provide independent advice on finding the equipment that disabled people need to help them live independent lives, has lost its core funding from the Department of Health. During the Scottish parliamentary by-election in Moray, I had the pleasure of visiting the Elgin centre, which provides advice to disabled people on appropriate equipment. Such centres do fantastically important work, especially in ensuring that disabled people are not subject to doorstep selling techniques that can lead them to spend far too much on equipment that is not suited to their needs. The strategy unit report called for an independent living task force to be set up by December 2005, but that has still not happened. In answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled, the Minister said that it would be established by spring 2006. Spring was late this year, but the task force is even later, so can the Minister tell us when it will be established, as it will play an important role in promoting independent living?
Transport and getting around the community is vital to ensure that disabled people have the life chances that we all want them to have. It is important to stress that improvements are under way in many public transport sectors, thanks to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which the Minister rightly commended. Too many companies and organisations, however, have failed to abide by their obligations under the Act, and are getting away with it. Hon. Members will have received anecdotal reports of such problems. For example, last week a member of the Liberal Democrat Disability Association saw the companion of a wheelchair user ask a London bus driver to lower the ramp. As they waited by the exit door for the ramp to be lowered the driver closed the doors and sped off. The LDDA member asked the driver why he had done so, and he said that there was no room. However, that was not the case. Even if it was, he should have explained that to the person concerned. He refused to give his name, and a member of the British Transport police who boarded the bus said that they could not do anything to help.
That anecdote reflects a significant problem with people's attitude. What are the Government doing to ensure that disability awareness training is given to transport providers and that there is effective monitoring and enforcement? We need to see the full picture, but the anecdotal evidence is worrying.
I appreciate that that did not happen to the hon. Gentleman's constituents, but constituents of mine in Aberdeen have complained to me about bus drivers' rude behaviour and their failure to offer help. I took those complaints directly to their employer, First Bus, which is keen to make sure that their drivers are always polite and helpful. The company wants abuses to be reported because it does not reflect well if its drivers are rude and unhelpful.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. I would hope that all transport providers have the same attitude at a senior level that she has described.
The question of extending the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to air and sea travel has been raised. It is appreciated that there are difficulties with international travel. I congratulate the Government on having made some progress during their recent EU presidency.
There need not be any delay, however, with domestic air and sea transport. I understand that a benchmarking exercise carried out with the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee was due to report on the issue in early 2006. I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on the current position.
I have had similar experiences to Miss Begg with rail transport, where there are still significant problems with access to railway stations. That applies also to access to train services in my constituency, and I am sure that that applies to other areas. It is an issue on which we should have a continual watching brief.
I shall refer briefly to housing. In 2003, the charity John Grooms found that more than 20 per cent. of disabled people live in houses that are difficult for them to enter and move around in. It was found that 40 per cent. felt that their housing situation made them more dependent on other people. As for wheelchair users, 24 per cent. felt that they were prisoners in their own home due to poor location with lack of access to services and to transport. The lack of a proper focus on housing related issues is one of the relatively few weak spots in the life chances report. The Government need to ensure that as the life chances vision is taken forward housing does not continue to be overlooked. It was a great disappointment that the Government's review was abandoned. It would have incorporated the lifetime home standard within building regulations. I hope that that is something that can be considered again in due course.
Greater and more effective use must be made of the existing stock of accessible housing. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East referred to the lack of affordable housing. However, within all our constituencies there is a stock of housing that is accessible to the disabled. The use of accessible housing registers, for example, can help to ensure that that housing is made available more directly to those who need it most.
With elections taking place today, mention should be made in the debate of the difficulties that many people have in voting. A survey by Scope showed that in the 2001 general election 69 per cent. of polling stations were inaccessible to the disabled. I doubt whether any of us can give assurances that our party has ensured that we have provided our election leaflets in accessible formats for those who need that—for example, large print and easy read. Accessible versions of Government publications are equally sometimes hard to find. For example, the easy-read version of the welfare reform Green Paper—if anything should be provided in an easy-read version, it should be that document—arrived about a month after the Green Paper was published.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to reflect on the fact that in a written answer that I received from the Minister recently, she laid great store on the care and commitment of her Department to provide accessible formats? The case that the hon. Gentleman makes, of which I was also aware, well demonstrates that in Government Departments, too, there is a long way to go.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. As for the welfare reform Green Paper, I find it disappointing that despite the delay in publishing the easy-read version, there was no extension given to the consultation period.
We liaise closely with the organisations involved, especially those representing people with learning disabilities. We did two things. First, we apologised publicly to them for the delay in publishing the easy-read version. Secondly, we extended the time by which they could respond to the consultation. That was made clear at the time.
I am grateful to the Minister for pointing that out. As for extending the time scale for consultation, that was not made clear to me in parliamentary answers. I am pleased that the Minister has made the position clear now. That seems to be a positive step forward.
I move on briefly to the issue of funding. A study undertaken by the Department for Work and Pensions, working paper 21, concluded that disability benefits are not currently sufficient to meet the extra costs that disabled people face. It is hard to identify all of the extra costs that are involved. Therefore, it is a complicated matter. The study was clear that while it could not necessarily ascertain the full extent of the extra costs, the full extra costs were certainly not met. That is in line with the findings of other studies, not least the Rowntree study, which has already been mentioned.
It seems to me that independent living cannot fully be achieved while that remains the case. For example, disability living allowance does not provide for communication support needs, such as augmentative communication support equipment. Towards the end of the strategy unit report, it is stated:
"Although there are advocates of a step change in allocation, it is unrealistic to assume that substantive new resources can be made available".
However, the document concludes that the unit has made a constructive case for persuasive bids in the next spending review. It says:
"With the 20 year horizon of the vision it will not be credible for the recommendations to be challenged on the grounds of available resource, only timescales."
The report also suggests where the extra resources might come from. In the summary it states:
"Successful implementation of the proposals in this report will depend, where necessary, on the appropriate level of funding being made available as a result of successful outcomes from future spending reviews. But in overall terms, a more efficient approach which promotes increased economic participation should deliver a net economic benefit in the medium to long term."
So—the Minister will no doubt point this out—there may not be funds available in the short term for a step change, but it is clear that in the long term there will be a net economic benefit from greater inclusion of disabled people in the work force, both through savings on benefit spending and increased revenue from the greater level of economic activity.
I wonder whether the agenda is being driven by the Treasury. Is welfare reform seen by the Chancellor of the Exchequer simply as a savings exercise, with all spending decisions on the net benefit to come from No. 11? Perhaps the best hope that the Minister can give disabled people today is that all of the life chances recommendations will be implemented, and that she will confirm that she will make a strong case to the Chancellor ahead of the next spending review that there is a clear case for the savings that are delivered to be at least in part allocated to bringing about the vision of the life chances report and implementing its recommendations by 2020.
That would mean that disabled people throughout the United Kingdom could have confidence that not only have the Government set out worthwhile aspirations and worthwhile policy goals in the life chances report and accepted all 60-odd of the recommendations, but that over the period of the report steps will be taken, through the benefits that are delivered to the economy, to make resources available and to deliver the other recommendations.
I begin with an apology: I may not be available to stay in the Chamber for all the summing-up speeches. Unfortunately, the last plane to Aberdeen leaves earlier in the summer schedule than at other times. Last week my hon. Friend Mr. Doran and I both missed the plane, and it took us some effort to get to Aberdeen the night we were due to arrive there. I have constituency engagements tomorrow—and although things have improved quite considerably for disabled people, hiring an adapted car with an automatic gearbox at short notice at Edinburgh airport at 11 pm or midnight is not presently open to disabled people. I hope that it will be understood if I cannot stay to the end of the debate.
I intended to begin by listing all the positive things that the Government have done, but the wind has been taken out of my sails a wee bit. Mr. Hunt did the job for us. That in itself is a telling change, and I welcome the change in tone and mood from those on the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman gave credit to the legislation that the Government have put in place. He talked about changing attitudes and about how the landscape for disabled people today is quite different from the landscape that existed in 1997.
Because the changes have often been incremental and quite slow, it is sometimes useful for those of us who have been involved in the debate for a long time to reflect on how much has changed, how dramatic the change has been and how much it has speeded up in the past 10 years. People for whom the Government have made successful changes have a tendency to put those improvements in their pocket and say, "Thanks very much. What are you going to do for us now?"
There have been changes in legislation and in attitudes—not just among those on the Opposition Front Bench, although perhaps that reflects their attempt to be closer to the people. They have sensed a change in attitudes to disability among people, whether they are disabled or not. The hon. Member for South-West Surrey said there was a mountain to climb. Unfortunately that mountain keeps getting higher, because our expectations keep rising, so he will find, as we have done, that as one gets to the foothills, it is even further to the first base. I welcome the hon. Gentleman on that journey. I do not want to be churlish, but in the past his party has not even got to first base camp, so it has a long way to go to catch up with everyone else.
Attitudes have changed among disabled people themselves. No longer are they willing to sit back and accept discrimination as part and parcel of their life. Before I was elected to the House, I remember having a heated argument with someone who was involved with an organisation for disabled people. He was not disabled himself, but he worked and gave up his spare time to help disabled people. He believed that the only way to change attitudes was through education, and that legislation had no part in it. I argued that legislation set a benchmark and set the tone and the mood. People are generally law-abiding and once legislation is passed, their attitudes will fall in behind it. That is an important lesson to be learned.
The hon. Member for South-West Surrey spoke about the time lag between legislation and the change that that legislation brings about. I agree that with race and gender that time lag has been substantial, but with disability, the time lag has been foreshortened. I pay tribute to the Government because it is legislation, backed up by action, that has helped to speed up change.
I remember a time when small businesses would have been the most vehement opponents of the extension of part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. They would have said that it was impossible for them to make any adaptations as that would put them out of business, and so on, yet the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland has been one of the bodies most actively involved in changing their members' attitudes, to make them realise that those changes are good for their business. For service providers, particularly restaurants, there is money in disability. Disabled people do not go out and socialise on their own. They tend to go out with a crowd, so if a restaurant or a venue is inaccessible to someone like me it is inaccessible to all my pals, because we will not go there. There is a good business case to be made.
For businesses that are struggling to recruit new employees at a time of high employment levels, skills shortages and in some cases a labour shortage, unless small businesses look to those who have been out of the labour market for some time because of a disability or a health problem, they will not find the quality staff that they need.
Attitudes have changed. Discrimination still exists, but not to the extent that I remember experiencing it when I first started using a wheelchair. It is not as overt and in your face as it used to be. I took petty discrimination for granted and accepted it as being part of my life. It was not worth getting worked up about it, because I would have gone through life being angry and annoyed, constantly writing angry letters, constantly complaining and constantly making an issue of it. It was just too much effort, and it was often easier to say, as many people do, that that is just what happens when one is disabled.
We are not willing to put up with that any more. That is what has changed. When discrimination occurs, it is more likely to be challenged. That is a good thing. As I said with reference to transport providers, unless people are prepared to complain, service providers do not know that further down the line there is a problem in the way that their work force are behaving towards disabled people. There is now a greater tendency to complain.
Often when I have been out socially or in the course of my work and a blatant case of discrimination has occurred, I have had a sinking feeling and thought, "Oh no, not again. I'll have to write rude letters yet again." That happened to me recently. On Easter Monday I attempted to go to the cinema in London. I did not realise that that was such a foolhardy expedition. I did not think there would be any problems, but I tried three different cinemas to see three different films in the course of one afternoon in the west end of London, and I failed to gain access to any of them. That is a real condemnation.
I can name the cinemas. At Cineworld in Shaftesbury avenue the lift was out of action, so despite the fact that it took me three quarters of an hour to get to the box office, which was a complicated route in itself, and no one had told me on the way that the lift was out of action, we had to turn round and come back. I could not get to any of the screens at that cinema. The next one was the Odeon West End, where the main screen is accessible, but not the screen where the film that I wanted to see was being shown. A number of screens at that cinema are inaccessible. At the Odeon Leicester Square, only one of the screens was accessible, not the second screen.
If I had wanted to see Ant and Dec in their new movie, I might have been able to go. Unfortunately, that is not my taste in film. Of the more cerebral films that I might have wanted to see, none was accessible. The original film that I set out to see was showing at another Odeon, in Covent Garden, but the Odeon Leicester Square could not guarantee that it was showing on a screen that was accessible at the Odeon Covent Garden.
I tell that story to illustrate how difficult it must be for visitors in London, and also because it came as an incredible shock to me. I have not been refused access to a cinema for almost 20 years. I remember when I was told that I could not come into a cinema because I was a fire hazard, but that was 25 years ago. I always thought that was a dreadful thing to say. Here was I, a non-smoker, regarded as a fire hazard, whereas the drunk man who was smoking next to me—remember, smoking was allowed in cinemas in those days, although it is allowed nowhere in Scotland now—was not considered a fire hazard. The injustice was appalling. Rightly, we do not allow that to happen any more.
I was shocked to find that the cinemas in London have got round the DDA by saying that because at least one of their screens is accessible, they have made reasonable adjustments. The excuse was that it was an old building and they had tried very hard. The cinemas in Aberdeen have been accessible for a long time and I have not faced that problem. My expectation nowadays is that I will go out to the cinema at the drop of a hat to see a film of my choice, without major forward planning. When I was unable to do that on Easter Monday, it came as a shock and a disappointment to me. It is one thing to have the legislation in place, and another to make sure that it works.
Things have changed. I welcome the Prime Minister's strategy unit report, "Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People". I welcome it because it will make things better for individuals and their chances to lead fulfilling lives, which is at the heart of today's debate. It has been announced recently that some schools are giving happiness lessons, and here the Government have a chance to make many people happy. Disabled people do not have outrageous expectations or ambitions; they just want to get on with their lives and enjoy them, with the minimum of hassle and barriers.
If anyone wants a good night out, I would recommend going out with a group of disabled people. We often have a good laugh, even when we are being refused entry to a place. The truth is that if we did not laugh at some of the things that happen to us, we would end up crying. Disabled people are good fun in general—I realise that I am making a huge generalisation—and they have adapted to some of the worst excesses, which people who are not disabled would find appalling, and would be outraged if they happened to them.
Yes, this is all about individuals and opportunities, but it is also important to the Government's ambition to end child poverty and reduce poverty more widely. There is no doubt that the link between poverty and disability is clearer and starker now than ever. The Government have been successful in alleviating pensioner policy and in lifting almost a million children out of poverty, but an important link remains—the link to disability. We have broken the link between old age and poverty and between having a family and poverty, but the Government have not yet broken the link between disability and poverty. The most disadvantaged families will often have a member with a disability—whether it be a child, an adult or a grandparent—who requires a high level of care. If we can improve the opportunities and life chances of disabled people, we can not only lift those individuals out of a cycle of poverty, but empower their families as well. At some stage we might be able to release those families from the burden of caring, which often inflicts poverty on family members as well as the disabled person.
From my perspective, it sometimes seems difficult to speak about areas of disability because I am not really a typical disabled person. There is a danger of our ending up with two classes of disabled people. It is a horrible phrase, but there is a group of "high-functioning" disabled people—people, even with profound disabilities, who hold down permanent full-time and sometimes high-powered jobs. Last year two disabled people sought my advice on how to become an MP—obviously they think that I have the magic touch, but I am not so sure myself. Danny Alexander may want to ensure that I do not remain an MP for much longer!
The two people who sought my advice had profound disabilities. One was a young woman unable to move any part of her body, yet she works for the BBC; the other was a young man who can move only his head, yet he is a full-time barrister operating in court. People with profound disabilities thus have aspirations to become MPs, and are already in highly paid and highly skilled work. My right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett could be mentioned as falling into this category, as could Tanni Grey-Thompson and other elite athletes, such as those who took part in the London marathon recently, or in the Paralympics or the Commonwealth games.
The danger of producing a disabled elite who are doing very well is that people sometimes say, "If they can do it, what's holding anyone else back?". The sort of life that that elite leads is different from the life of most disabled people, just as the life of an average MP is different from that of a single parent living in a sink estate in our constituencies. There is a big difference between what some disabled people can do and what others can do. However, that illustrates the fact that when people are given the right opportunities, the right education and the right help, the world can be everyone's oyster. It is possible to achieve—even in a society where some negative attitudes towards disability remain, where 63 per cent. of employers would not consider employing someone with a mental health problem, and where 75 per cent. of blind people are not in work. Even in such a society, disabled people can compete and achieve against the able-bodied, or anyone else.
The reality for the majority of disabled people, however, is the key issue that we should address today—and it is that reality that the strategy unit report addresses. The problems and barriers faced by disabled people are often not the result of one Department: the problems are cross-departmental and relate to a variety of issues. It is often the silo mentality of local as well as central government that acts as a major barrier to disabled people getting the holistic help that they need to lift themselves out of poverty or other difficulties.
It is interesting to note that the strategy unit report is a joint report between the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—and I would like to add the Scottish and Welsh Executives to that list, because housing and health issues are the responsibility of the devolved Administrations, not just of the central Government here in Whitehall. Unless we get the different Departments working together to remove the barriers, the life chances of disabled people will continue to be disadvantaged, when it is just too much of an effort to access the help required.
I have a word of warning—but I am just as guilty as anyone else. When I first got involved in the disability debate and argued in favour of civil rights for disabled people, I recall that the whole issue was viewed as a matter for the Department of Health. It was seen as a health issue, and only a health issue. That provides another example of how attitudes have changed, as we realise today that it is not just a health matter; it is about social mobility, transport, housing and a range of other issues.
The danger today, however, is that we end up concentrating only on the world of work. As I said, I am just as guilty as others of thinking that work will solve all the ills of disabled people. Of course it will not—the problem is much more complex than that—but work can go a long way to help, particularly those who are able to work. Yet another example of how attitudes have changed is the fact that when I first entered the House in 1997 and expressed the view that I had held for the previous 20 years—that disabled people should be given the chance to work and that that was a good thing—I received a deluge of letters saying, "That is disgraceful. It is all right for you, but how dare you force disabled people into work?" I viewed work as providing opportunities, but encountered the attitude that we should not be bothering those poor wee things. I am pleased to say that, on the launch of the Government's Green Paper on welfare reform, that has not been the attitude to the proposals this time round. That was the attitude until very recently, although not necessarily that of disabled people themselves. Some people used to believe that it was outrageous for people who were already disadvantaged to be given help to get over it.
I have already mentioned the Green Paper and I would like to discuss my hopes for it in more detail, but I am somewhat constrained because I sit on the Select Committee for Work and Pensions, and our report on the same issue is embargoed until midnight tomorrow. I am frightened of inadvertently giving away what is in that report and I do not want to fall foul of the House in that regard. I am sorry that I cannot say more about that matter.
Moving on from my hobby horse of the importance of work, I want to discuss some of the other areas in which we must get things right. If we hope that someone will either remain in work or get another job after a major health episode, we must get the health service right. Although waiting three months for a hip operation—unfortunately, the wait is six months in Scotland—is much better than waiting 12 months or 18 months, as happened in the past, it is still too long if someone has lost their job when a new hip would have allowed them to maintain their position in the workplace. The same is true of people who could remain in the workplace if they received physiotherapy, because some of them have to wait three months to obtain an assessment of their bad back from a physiotherapist. Unless we get health services and social care services right, the Government's aspiration to help people to remain in work may count for very little.
The hon. Lady has made an important point about health services. In pathways to work pilot areas, the condition management programme provides the sort of help that she has described for people who are already on incapacity benefit. I would like to see that speedy approach to helping people deal with their condition through the condition management programme extended to people who are in work and need help to stay in work. Will she support that proposal?
I absolutely support that proposal. A mental health charity in my constituency, Momentum, has managed to obtain European social fund money to employ two specialist nurses, who go into GP surgeries and work with employees and employers to see what reasonable adjustments can be made before employees fall out of work. Very often, physical adjustments are not required, and it is a matter of talking to an employer because an individual is embarrassed to admit that they have a mental health problem, because they are frightened that their employer will automatically sack them. Working with individuals in health centres and in the workplace helps the overall situation. Momentum has got funding for next year, but it is looking for long-term funding, so I may write to the Minister and invite her to examine such projects. Such funding may not come from central Government, because it may already exist in the system and just need repackaging to go to such a worthwhile cause. Perhaps the Government should examine whether companies that can afford to pay for it should provide the same service for their employees, which would provide a funding stream for those whose employers do not have social or medical insurance. We are lucky in Aberdeen, because a number of large oil companies already provide medical insurance for their employees, which is one stream of funding that could be pulled down.
Social care is the responsibility of local government, and sometimes the easiest, simplest and cheapest options are not considered. For example, people who continue to live in their own homes face the problem of finding an accessible shower or bath. In some areas, the worst case scenario is that it will take six months before an occupational therapist turns up to assess the requirement for a flat shower area, when all that person needs is a £12.99 bath board from Argos. Sometimes the solution suggested by an occupational therapist costs £3,000, not including the £200 cost to the local authority of the home visit. Argos also sell a nice shower chair for £29.99—I know about those things, because I have just bought a new house that has not been adapted, and those purchases will work in the short term, until I can get the builders in.
That returns me to my point about the elite group of disabled people. I am lucky, because I have a job with a good income, so I do not have to wait for local government to come up with a grant, which may not meet the cost of a particular product. I can go out to source and pay for products myself, which means that I have a choice. That saves the state money, because it does not have to pay for those products, and it also saves time and effort. We should allow people to access a wider range of goods.
The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey—that must be the longest constituency name in the world—has pointed out that disabled people fall prey to salesman who provide fancy beds and other products at hugely inflated prices and use the hard sell technique. Such equipment costs an arm and a leg, but it does not serve disabled people very well.
Not only do we need enough specialist housing for those with profound disabilities, but we also need a register of those houses that have been adapted. Housing is probably the biggest barrier to people living independently. The creation of a disability housing register has been proposed, and I know that my local authority is examining the possibility of building a database of such houses.
Education is also important, and the Minister has discussed moving from childhood to adulthood. Disabled people often receive a lot of support at school, but once they leave school, that support seems to disappear. I pay tribute to an initiative in Aberdeen, "Moving on", which works with young people while they are at school and supports them when they move to college, university or into a job. People need specialist help to cross that divide.
I have talked for long enough, because other hon. Members want to contribute, but I could have said so much more. However, I shall bring one Disability Rights Commission recommendation to the House's attention: the DRC has recommended that the Minister with responsibility for disabled people should be a Minister of State, and I hope to congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on her promotion in the future.
It is a pleasure to follow Miss Begg. We disagree profoundly about a great many issues. Nevertheless, with her descriptions of her personal experiences, she brought to the debate a real flavour of what it is like to encounter some of the problems that disabled people face. She also brought it somewhat down to earth after some rather high-falutin' policy statements—I am not pointing at the Minister, but she is looking guilty—by talking about what life is really like for somebody who is disabled.
I currently experiencing, in a very minor way, what it is like to be marginally and temporarily disabled. The more observant Labour Members may have spotted that I am using a crutch. It is a self-inflicted wound in that I applied for a hip operation. I have experienced, albeit in a small way, people's attitudes towards disabled people. They do not know that I am on crutches only temporarily and that I shall, I hope, be throwing them away by October.
I am sorry that the Minister decided to be partisan on this issue, because there is a difference only of emphasis between what all parties in this House want for disabled people and how we wish to help them. This Government have done much good for disabled people, as did the last Conservative Government. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South mentioned that she had not been refused entry into a cinema for 20 years. That must have been in 1986, when those wicked Tories were in power, so changes were taking place under them as well. We are all going on this journey, and we must continue it to ensure that disabled people do not have the disadvantages that the hon. Lady described. I think that we are all united in wishing to assist those less fortunate than ourselves. Personally, I think that we have a moral duty to assist all our fellow men, particularly those who are unfortunate enough to be disabled in some way or other. That means that we must get rid of discrimination and give everybody equal opportunities, in so far as we can. That is now happening, and I applaud the Government for that, as I applaud the last Conservative Government.
I want to speak briefly about two matters: first, the importance of attitudes and proportionality towards disabled people in the UK—I noticed that much was made of attitudes in the Government's report—and then about those affected by disability in the developing world, where we truly see how disability and poverty go hand in hand.
The report states:
"According to some definitions there are currently 11 million disabled adults . . . in the UK, equivalent to 24 per cent. of the adult population".
To be fair, it goes on to explain the different forms—heterogeneity is the word that it uses—of disability. Nevertheless, that assertion, by overstating the case, diminishes the case for assisting disabled people. Of course, if one has depression, diabetes or back pain, that is a serious matter, but to describe everybody who has such an ailment as disabled, or to say that 24 per cent. of the adult population is disabled, would raise eyebrows in most places in this country.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that a condition such as diabetes, which can result in death in the event of complications, is not a disability?
The hon. Lady is putting the wrong words into my mouth. I said that there are great differences. The needs of people in wheelchairs or on crutches, or who are blind, are hugely different from those of people who have diabetes and can live a completely normal life. I am well aware that diabetes, if untreated, can lead to severe disability, blindness and all sorts of other things.
Is the hon. Gentleman therefore surprised to hear that a woman who had diabetes was recently sacked from her job on the grounds that she might have fainted on the shop floor? She won a case against the company that sacked her because of its ignorance about her condition.
I am pleased that she won her case, but that rather proves my point. There are many different conditions and needs. Most people with diabetes are able to lead their lives normally, through the treatment of insulin, without the access and mobility needs of people in wheelchairs. If one said to most people outside this place that 24 per cent. of the British adult population is disabled, they would say, "I'm not quite sure that I agree with you." Nevertheless, I am delighted that the Minister was listening to me.
Leading on from that, I should like to discuss proportionality, which sometimes gives legislation in favour of trying to assist disabled people a bad name. I want to highlight two examples. The first is public transport. What is its purpose? In London, it is for the mass transit around the city of as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. It is difficult, though not impossible, to use buses when in a wheelchair—I am sure that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South will bear me out. I suspect that it is not an attractive option in any case.
In my constituency, we have community buses—indeed, I have driven one—that assist people who are in wheelchairs and take them from door to door. One could describe them as taxis, which the community funds. I believe that it costs £1 a time. In London, the Routemaster bus, which is probably one of the best designs in the country and is much loved by everybody, has been scrapped. The Minister shakes her head, but it has been scrapped.
Every wheelchair user, every person with a fixed hip or who has difficulty in bending and every person who has difficulty getting upstairs in London is glad that the Routemaster has gone.
I am surprised that the hon. Lady believes that she can speak for everybody because no one can do that. How many people who are in wheelchairs use buses in London? Would not it be much better to provide them with taxis that can take them from door to door?
With the greatest respect, the hon. Gentleman is stuck in a mindset that ghettoises disabled people. I believed that there was a general consensus in the House about the need to examine the barriers that stop disabled people taking a full and active part in their community. Although there is role for the community bus that he mentioned, many people who, as my hon. Friend Miss Begg said, have mobility problems but are not necessarily wheelchair users and come to work in central London, welcomed the demise of the Routemaster. If the hon. Gentleman tries to get on a bus in his current condition, which he highlighted, he will find the existing buses far more attractive for meeting his needs than the Routemaster could ever be.
The Minister makes my point for me. If we want joined-up government, public transport policy in London must include disabled people but is about more than that. It covers, for example, congestion and ease of getting on and off for the majority of people, who are not disabled, including those with diabetes. It is important to realise that rather than simply saying that we must continue to ensure that, for example, we get rid of Routemaster buses. Many people, including Ken Livingstone at one stage, backed the Routemaster bus because it was such an excellent way of swiftly transporting large numbers of people around cities.
I appreciate that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South is not from London but I am sure that she reads the London newspapers. She will then know that many people in London dislike bendy buses enormously and do not travel on them because they do not have sufficient seats.
No, it is not a trivial matter and I am not implying that. Of course, it is a good thing to make public transport more accessible. That is not in doubt. The question is whether it was sensible to push out the Routemaster bus and I suggest that it was not. I am talking about holistic, joined-up government.
The hon. Gentleman speaks in clichés, so he should know. I am glad that I have stirred up Labour Members—they needed a bit of stirring up.
Let me consider my second example. I used to be a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham. I do not know whether any hon. Member who is present knows Hammersmith town hall, but it was built in the 1930s on the main A4. The front entrance was therefore on that road. When the A4 became a six-lane highway, the front entrance was moved to the back. Cleverly, there was a lift installed at the original back entrance in the 1930s so that disabled people could go up and down every floor. When the entrance was moved to the back, people were faced with an appalling number of steps at the front entrance. In about 1990, the council decided to build a ramp that ran for about 100 yd alongside the steps to provide wheelchair access to the foyer. It cost about £100,000. However, as soon as the wheelchair users got into the foyer, they were immediately faced with steps, so they could go no further. But if they went round to the back of the building, they could take the lift to any floor and any meeting. I raised the matter with the Labour councillors there, and they said, "It's a statement." I believe that most people with mobility problems would prefer to be able to access the rooms than to live a statement.
I would not wish examples of bad adaptations to be used as an excuse not to make buildings wheelchair accessible. I commend to the hon. Gentleman the publications produced by English Heritage that show some of the really imaginative ways in which buildings have been made not only wheelchair friendly but people friendly, even though they were built centuries ago.
The hon. Lady thinks that I am disagreeing with her, but I am not. I am saying that there should be proportionality, and that we should help disabled people in the best possible way—thoughtfully and pragmatically—rather than making statements that cost a lot of money and do not help them.
I want briefly to talk about attitudes. In the past two weeks, I have learned about attitudes towards people on crutches. I have found the attitude of most people towards me to be pretty good. A man slammed the door behind me yesterday after I had scrambled into a taxi at Euston station. He was just walking past and decided to help me. That was excellent. As hon. Members might imagine, the Tea Room staff here could not be more helpful with carrying things for me. Occasionally, however, I have met people such as the minicab driver who tried to pick a fight with me when I was leaving the hospital. I would have thought that people who were on crutches or in a wheelchair were pretty safe from people trying to pick a fight with them for no reason at all, but apparently not. However, that is another matter, and it is one that I subsequently discussed with the police.
People's attitudes are important. I was appalled to hear the story related by Danny Alexander about someone being refused access to a bus. In 1991, I trained as a bus driver. I was not very good at it. Indeed, I had to become an MP instead. I hit a trader's barrow in the street market in North End road, actually. However, my point is that, when I was training to be a bus driver, the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee—DPTAC—already existed. I was shown films about access to buses—the Minister will remember that this was under the wicked Tories in 1991—and about the colour coding of handles and steps. I was amazed to discover that, some 15 years later, bus drivers are not so well trained and that they now refuse access to disabled people. Of course that should not be happening, and I am astonished that it did. Disabled people do not want warm words and statements; they want genuine assistance, so that they can lead their lives independently, as far as possible. I can understand that.
I want to talk about people in the developing world who are affected by disability. When we see people in the developing world who have very little, and who are also disabled because of disease, for example, we realise how poverty strikes the disabled the worst. Until last week, I was chairman of the Halo Trust, a charitable trust that clears landmines around the world. Indeed, it is the biggest mine clearance agency in the world. When clearing the landmines, we also see the disabling effects that landmines can have, especially when they blow off people's lower limbs.
People ask why we do not just leave the mines where they are. I know only a little about this, but I have seen villages in Cambodia in which anti-personnel mines have been laid underneath houses that people are still living in. The people must follow a particular path to get out of their houses, because if they stray from it, they will get their legs blown off. That helped me to understand how the mines impact on people's lives. But poor people who live in squalor in the developing world have to go out to tend their cattle and to hoe the ground. And they are subject to the most awful impact that disability can have. In the streets of Maputo, Phnom Penh in Cambodia or wherever, we can see what effect disability—brought on early, particularly by land mines—has on young people. They are then reduced to poverty and cannot raise themselves out of it. Their life chances are very slim.
Hon. Members might not know that 1 million people have been killed or maimed by anti-personnel mines in recent years or that 26,000 people a year become victims, which is 70 a day. Of course, such mines do not just injure or kill an individual; they create long-term costs to communities, and the most immediate problem is medical costs, which people often cannot bear.
I said that I would be brief, and I am glad that I have stirred up Members on the other side of the House. I wanted to check that they were listening and not going to sleep. Before moving on, I pay tribute to the Department for International Development, which has been extremely good in funding not only land mine clearance, but the victims of land mines—the disabled in the developing world. I suggest that, there, small investment pays huge dividends in a way that it does not here.
In conclusion, we should all care, and I hope we do, but we should not treat disabled people as in some way inferior beings. We should give them every opportunity to live their lives to the full. However, we should be not just offering warm words, but taking effective and concrete action in our policy development. The Government are doing much that is good here, but statements are not always enough. We need positive action that is pragmatic and helpful.
It is always a pleasure to follow Mr. Robathan, whose remarks towards the end of his speech were particularly telling, especially from someone whom we know has a long record of being involved in international development. I am sure that we all wish him a speedy recovery as well.
This has been an interesting debate, opened robustly, as one would expect, by my hon. Friend the Minister. She is doing a first-class job, and is right to contrast our approach to disability, say, 10 years ago with the much greater urgency that we now see in the Chamber day by day. Under her stewardship, that is all the more clear and all the more profound. I am pleased to give her my support in today's extremely important debate.
I also welcome Mr. Hunt to his duties. During the period to which I am referring, I was the shadow Cabinet spokesperson on disability, working with Mr. Hague. I welcomed then, as I do now, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was an important step forward. Because of the hon. Gentleman's style, I do not want to be particularly controversial, but I take the view that his right hon. Friend probably feels, on reflection, that the DDA would have been even better if he had accepted our proposal to introduce the Disability Rights Commission. With me, he will regret that we merely got within 13 votes of achieving that. In that spirit, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to this wonderful portfolio. I am sure that he will find great fulfilment in it.
When I initiated a debate just three years ago this month during the European year of disabled people, the Government's document, "Valuing People", was the main focus of our discussion. I realise that, today, the publication of the welfare reform Green Paper, "A New Deal for Welfare: Empowering People to Work", is the backdrop to our debate. That is inevitable.
I want to touch on a few issues, some of which have been dealt with, but primarily I shall discuss employment and then disabled children. As the House might be aware, I co-chair with Lord Rix the all-party group on learning disability. Not surprisingly, I want to deal with some of the issues that that group has discussed. There is considerable concern, as has been expressed today on both sides of the House, about employment. That concern makes sense: among people with learning disabilities, there is 90 per cent. unemployment. Even the 10 per cent. who are employed are mostly in part-time jobs. Seventy-nine per cent. of people with mental health problems also experience unemployment. Indeed, the employment rates for those two groups is less than half the overall rate for disabled people, which is itself less than satisfactory, as we have heard today.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that great strides have been made in recent years to deal with the problems faced by people who suffer from disabilities? Does he also agree that, apart from continuing that work, the greatest challenge that we now face is to break down the stigma and prejudice against those suffering from mental illness, given that 20 per cent. of people in this country will at some time in their lives suffer a form of mental illness?
I hope to touch on that important issue later, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I look forward to hearing the speech of my hon. Friend Roger Berry, who has made a remarkable contribution on these issues. I am sure that he, too, would agree that it is an important matter.
On employment, particularly with respect to those with learning disabilities, I am afraid that it must be recorded that we have not seen the improvement in the past three or four years for which we would have wished. We keep pushing for that, however, and rightly so. The situation is not helped by the fact that disabled people are twice as likely as non-disabled people to have no qualifications.
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the question of the numbers of people with learning disabilities taking up employment, does he reflect on the fact that that rather poor performance is at a time when the Government claim credit for high levels of employment in the labour market? Is not the growing mismatch between people without disabilities who can apparently pick up a job easily, and people with learning disabilities who find it proportionately ever more difficult, especially worrying?
It is not like the hon. Gentleman to make what appears to be a party political point, and if he does not mind, I shall resist the temptation to respond. If I may, I shall simply refer him to the speech that I made during the Budget debate on the Government's record on employment generally.
On the issue of disabled people—particularly those with learning disabilities—seeking employment, RADAR, like so many other disability organisations, has done a magnificent job. It has used the slogan that disability does not mean and should not mean "cannot work". It is right. It explains its view by saying that there are other factors besides a person's disability. Two people with the same condition may be in or out of work based on their own ability to manage their impairment, and based on the accessibility of their working environment and support provided to overcome barriers.
Whatever we might think about the proposals in the Green Paper, to which, on the whole, disability organisations have responded positively, our policies simply must take into account the obstacles that disabled people face in taking up employment; provide a fair, objective basis for establishing eligibility for the reformed disability benefit; and ensure that absolutely no one is labelled unemployable.
I believe that the Government should continue to focus their resources on those who face the most significant barriers to employment. The truth is that the targets set for Government programmes may not always encourage providers to work with people with learning disabilities, who may need more time and support to secure jobs. That is why the RADAR/Remploy task force—RADAR is the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation—which was set up last August to find new solutions to the problems, has already drawn clear conclusions. I congratulate it on its work.
The task force points out that individual support needs should be recognised in non-stigmatising ways, a point made a few moments ago by Mr. Burns. It also observes that work placements seem to work better than training courses, compensating for an individual's lack of confidence and inappropriate interview techniques. It is important to recognise the special needs of people with learning disabilities.
A significant number of people with moderate to severe learning disabilities need to be helped both into and in work. If they are to gain mainstream employment, tailored ongoing support must be available. According to anecdotal evidence, people with learning disabilities are not being helped by pathways to work to the extent that the Government would wish, owing to the emphasis on condition management and rehabilitation in the system. That emphasis is not appropriate or relevant to the support needs of people with learning disabilities, or other disabled people whose condition is lifelong. Specialist incapacity benefit advisers must have experience of learning disabilities: that is profoundly important in the context of the Green Paper. Niche providers such as Mencap do not have nationwide coverage, so it is crucial for Jobcentre Plus to provide the programmes and support that are appropriate to people with learning disabilities, rather than relying on external agencies.
I entirely accept that no Government can solve all those problems. We can create the climate, and I believe that this Government are doing exactly that, but employers have responsibilities as well. To be fair, there are examples of best practice among some small and large employers. More work must also be done to make the business case for employing disabled people, and employers who have seen the benefits of employing them are best placed to lead that work. The Employers Forum on Disability has done a first-class job, as has the Scottish Federation of Small Businesses. When I had an opportunity to examine the American experience, it seemed to me that American employers were the people who were explaining to the world how important it is—not just to jobs, and not just to disabled people—for society to accept its responsibilities to others, and to accept that the fact that a person is disabled does not justify the automatic discrimination that has existed in the past.
More could be done to ensure that disabled people can retain their current jobs when acquiring and/or managing impairments and fluctuating conditions. When people experience temporary setbacks after several years of managing conditions such as epilepsy or depression, that should not cost them their jobs or, indeed, promotion.
I note that the joint working group report of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health, on employment for people with learning disabilities, has not yet been published. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us, when she winds up, when it is expected. She will be aware that although I accept the main thrust of the Green Paper, I continue to urge the need for the utmost sensitivity. The spirit of such an approach was impressively put by RADAR in its response to the Green Paper:
"Many disabled people have felt threatened by the Government's plans to impose sanctions on those who do not participate in work-focused interviews. The non-attendance rate for work-focused interviews amongst those currently involved in the Pathways to Work programme is less than 2 per cent. Given this low figure, RADAR sees no reason to place an emphasis on sanctions in the new system. To do so would mislead people into thinking that the driver behind the reforms is the reduction of the number of claimants, rather than helping more disabled people into work. Disabled people want to work, and if these reforms are successful then there should be no need to sanction people for non-participation in activities that will assist them back into the workforce."
The DRC offered its views—it was not alone in doing so—on the Office for Disability Issues in its briefing for this debate. It said:
"The Life Chances report established the Office for Disability Issues . . . to act as a co-ordinating body for disability policy across government. It reports to the Minister for Disabled People and must produce an annual report for the Prime Minister on the progress towards achieving equality for disabled people. The DRC supports this and the high level political recognition that it gives towards achieving equality for disabled people."
I also agree wholeheartedly with its view that the ODI
"also needs to ensure strong links with the Commission for Equality and Human Rights . . . to ensure that disability is addressed in a concerted way as an issue of equality and human rights."
In turning to children with disabilities, I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Ed Balls, who recently introduced a ten-minute Bill entitled the Disabled Children's Assessment and Services Bill. It is supported by Contact a Family, the Council for Disabled Children, Mencap and the Special Educational Consortium, which have been working together for several years to raise awareness of the issues that the Bill addresses, and to press for change.
The reason for the Bill's introduction is the lack of entitlement to services on the part of disabled children and their families. It would give disabled children the right to local authority assessment and to receive services such as short breaks, respite care and accommodation. It would also help to deliver on the Government's commendable May 2005 manifesto commitment, which states:
"We will also ensure that services are designed to meet the additional needs of disabled children and their families".
I am delighted that the Bill is receiving all-party support.
The Bill's relevance is that some 770,000 children in the UK—7 per cent.—are disabled. Since 1975, there has been a 62 per cent. increase in the numbers of disabled children. That is due largely to medical advances, especially in the perinatal setting, that fortunately mean that more children survive. It costs three times as much to bring up a disabled child as it does to raise one who is not disabled. To their great credit, the Government have taken a huge number of children out of poverty, but 55 per cent. of disabled children's families still live in poverty.
As the DRC has reminded us, 84 per cent. of mothers of disabled children do not work, compared with 39 per cent. of mothers of non-disabled children. It has also said that two thirds of families in which neither parent works include at least one disabled parent.
I know that the Government want to resolve those problems. The Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton would make it clear in law for the first time that local authorities must assess disabled children and provide a range of services, such as short breaks and respite care, where they are deemed to be necessary. It would also encourage parents to ask for assessments, and for the services and support that they so desperately need. I welcome the proposals to encourage local authorities to think creatively about how to meet disabled children's needs, and the requirement that NHS bodies should work co-operatively with local authorities to promote the health and welfare of disabled children in England and Wales.
My hon. Friend the Minister may think that I am overlooking Scotland. However, I assure her that I have put down an oral question on that very issue, for answer by the Secretary of State for Scotland next Tuesday.
On the wider matter of children with disabilities, organisations of and for disabled people have argued consistently that adequate family support is crucial to improving the life chances of people with learning disabilities. They welcome the scrapping of the means test for the disabled facilities grant, which means that more families are able to make the vital adjustments to their homes that make it possible to provide appropriate care for disabled family members. However, other bodies, such as Mencap, want the limit for the grant to be increased from £25,000 to £50,000, in line with the recommendations of the review commissioned by the Government.
Again and again, hon. Members are reminded at our surgeries that a few alterations—such as a walk-in shower, a ramp or better access to a bedroom—would make a world of difference to the quality of so many people's lives. That underlines how even the limited resources available to local councils can genuinely improve our approach to community care.
The House would be surprised if I were to complete a speech on disability without referring to advocacy. Advocacy was at the heart of the Disabled Persons Act 1986, which I managed to steer through the House, and is especially urgent in respect of the needs of disabled children. The Children's Society has said:
"Very few disabled children and young people currently have access to an advocacy service. Local authorities are only required to provide advocacy for children and young people making a complaint under the Children Act 1989. In practice, the majority of disabled children and young people placed away from home are not aware that they have the right to complain."
It points out too that recent research shows that
"only 5 per cent. of advocacy services targeted disabled children and young people".
That figure is clearly far too low, and much more needs to be done if disabled children are to experience the fulfilment that I know that the House wants them to have. However, I am sure that we all very much welcome the decision by the Department for Education and Skills to provide funding, with the aim of promoting advocacy, to the Children's Society's disability advocacy project, and that we all wish that project well.
I congratulate the Government on making that funding available, on their many other achievements in respect of disability rights, and on today's debate. As colleagues have often said, it may not be possible to add years to the lives of disabled people, but we have a chance to add life to their years.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Clarke. In her opening speech the Minister paid tribute to Alf Morris, to whom the House owes a debt of gratitude. To paraphrase the late Iain Macleod, a debate on disabilities without the contribution or presence of the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill would be a bit like a production of "Hamlet" without the gravediggers. [Laughter.]
The Government document on improving and enhancing the life quality of those suffering from disabilities ranges widely over many areas, but I should like to focus on two in particular. The first concerns education and children, albeit in a narrow and specific sense: children who suffer from dyslexia and dyspraxia. Dyspraxia, which is not as well known as dyslexia, is a neurological condition that causes children to suffer from varying degrees of short-term memory loss or concentration. It is becoming far more common place among young people, partly, I suspect, because it has only relatively recently been recognised and understood as a problem.
We have known about dyslexia for far longer. I find it staggering that I have been a Member of this House for 19 years—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]—and that it was only after I had been here for three years that my county council recognised the existence of dyslexia. One shudders to think what happened to children who previously were told that no such condition existed. Logically, no help was provided to assist them and to minimise their learning difficulties.
Great improvements have been made over the past 15 years, but there is still a problem with statementing children and thereby recognising the problems that they are having with dyslexia. The problem is even more acute with dyspraxia and identifying the assistance that children need to secure the same opportunity to a full education as any other child. Such children need to be assisted with extra lessons and help from special needs teachers. When they are statemented, which sometimes can be a long and time-consuming process, the problem is ensuring that they receive enough time and help from the teaching assistants and specialist teachers who are best qualified to assist them.
Dyspraxia remains less well understood and less well known. The help necessary is more complex, which in itself is a problem. Is it in the best interests of children with dyspraxia to remain in mainstream schools or to be educated in special educational schools that are devoted, conditioned and organised to give direct help? I believe that the latter is better. One cannot generalise because each child must be judged on his or her individual merits, but it is most unfair on children to be kept in a mainstream school if they cannot cope.
I know a little boy who suffers from dyslexia and dyspraxia. He started his educational life aged five in a mainstream school. It was two years before anyone, including his parents, realised that he suffered from dyslexia and dyspraxia. For those who do not fully understand some of the manifestations of dyspraxia, a five, six or seven-year-old boy with a short-term memory will not necessarily remember what he is being told. If parents ask that child something, particularly a multiple-choice request such as "Go upstairs, put your pyjamas on, put your slippers in the bathroom and bring the towel downstairs," half an hour later when they go upstairs they find the little boy playing with his toys in his bedroom. Their immediate reaction is that he is misbehaving and being naughty, that he does not want to do as he was told because it is more fun and more interesting to play with his toys. In fact, because he had been given more than one instruction, by the time he got to his bedroom he had completely forgotten what he had been asked, so he did what he wanted to do. If parents and school teachers do not realise that the child is suffering from that condition they think that the child is misbehaving and not doing what he is told. The child will then suffer because he will be told off.
Thus, at school, because of the lack of short-term memory, the ability to learn to read and write and to take very simple instructions from a teacher is lost; the child's concentration goes very quickly and teachers and parents feel that he is misbehaving and cannot be bothered to concentrate on his work when, through no fault of his own, his concentration has long since gone.
Ritalin is one way to assist such children; on strict medical advice, under proper supervision it is a tremendous help for some children. I know that it is a controversial drug and that there are strong views on either side of the argument, but there is evidence that it can significantly help children, particularly during the school day, to concentrate and get on with their work.
One must recognise, however, that a mainstream school may not be the best place for those children and their education. The little boy whom I knew started off in mainstream schooling, but within a year his teachers felt there was a problem because he was slow in developing his reading and writing and recommended extra lessons at the end of the school day. He had the extra lessons, which were extended to extra lessons on a Saturday, but it did not make that much difference. By the end of the next year, the school told his parents that he was dyslexic, and might be dyspraxic, and that it was not in his best interests that he remain at the school because, although he was getting extra lessons, he was not getting the help that his condition and abilities demanded but was holding back the rest of his class.
I fully support the judgment of that little boy's teachers and parents. He was taken out of mainstream school and went to a specialist school—Fairley House, just behind the Tate, down the road from here—that looks after children who suffer from dyslexia and dyspraxia. The teaching ratio in some cases is 1:1 and the school helps children tremendously.
The boy is now 14. He left mainstream schooling with a reading age three years behind his age, although one is meant to have a reading age about 18 months ahead of one's age. His reading age is now 12 months ahead of his age. His writing abilities are still 18 months behind his age—they should, of course, be ahead of it—and his writing is poor, but he has developed computer skills, which are a great help. He can concentrate and read fluently and he is beginning to contribute to his education in a way that a 14-year-old boy should. He can now be taken out of the special school and placed back in a mainstream school where there are specialist teachers to assist children among the mainstream pupils who need help with dyslexia and dyspraxia, without holding back his classmates and colleagues.
That classic example shows that one cannot have a policy that says that all children who suffer from dyslexia or dyspraxia must be in mainstream schooling because that is inclusive. In theory, it might be a brilliant idea, but, in practice, it is too generalised and it is not such a brilliant idea. It can be harmful to both the individual child and other children, and the education of all of them can suffer as a result. Of course, in an ideal world, emphasis must be placed on as many children as possible, particularly with dyslexia and dyspraxia, being placed in mainstream schooling. However, in reality, either for the whole educational process or even just—
I just want to be clear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I was following his arguments on dyspraxia, but is he now saying that children with dyslexia should be placed in specialist schools?
No, I am not saying that that should happen as a matter of course. Each child should be judged on his or her individual capabilities. For some children who have extreme dyslexic problems, a school that specialises in helping children with dyslexia and dyspraxia is a better option than a mainstream school. The degree of their problems means that such children suffer in a mainstream school, because they cannot get the 100 per cent. attention that they require during school hours. In a way, they also cause other pupils in their class to suffer, because they hold them back by placing a disproportionate demand on the teachers' time, at the expense of those other children. I am afraid that, in reality, that does happen.
Of course, I am not saying that a mildly dyslexic child should not be in a mainstream school, but in the case of certain degrees of dyslexia—depending on the individual child—such a school is not suitable. I want to make a plea that the idea of special needs schools should not be dismissed because people rightly want to have as inclusive a society as possible. However wonderful it sounds to be inclusive, it can be damaging, both to the individual and their peers in the classroom. There has been a view that there should be more mainstreaming of pupils, when, in practice, that is not that sensible.
I have three pleas. First, the statementing process should be far easier for parents to access. Secondly, when the statements have been completed, the analysis carried out and the recommendations made about what extra help a child should get, the help should be provided immediately—without a time lag. If one were being cynical, one could say that the longer the process of statementing, identifying needs and meeting them is strung out, the cheaper it is for the state. Thirdly, we should not over-concentrate on seeking to treat all pupils the same and insisting that they attend a mainstream school when, because they have an impact on each other's education, it is not in the best interests of individual pupils or their fellow pupils to be educated together.
The other area that I would like to discuss, which I mentioned when I intervened on the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, is mental health. This Government—and other Governments, albeit using different phraseology—have sought to promote social inclusion over the past nine years, and rightly so: no one would criticise that. The Minister and other hon. Members said that great strides have been taken in dealing with the inherent problems, attitudes and practical difficulties that people with disabilities face. There is more to be done, as every hon. Member has said, but steps have been taken and improvements are being made not simply because of legislation—important though that is—but because of changes in attitudes and mindsets.
Mental health, sadly, lags dramatically behind, in what is supposed to be a civilised century. In the past, to no one's credit, the mentally ill were put out of mind by putting them out of sight. That stopped, ironically, when Enoch Powell was Minister of Health back in the early 1960s. He made great strides in seeking to integrate many people who suffered from mental illness into the community, rather than having them locked up and hidden away. That has been the policy of successive Governments of every political persuasion, but there has been a knock-on effect, which is deeply tragic and a blot on a civilised society.
Of course, many people who pose no threat whatsoever to the community live in hostels or in homes that are converted into single-bedroom units, but as soon as a building in a residential area—it may be the house next to any of us—has been allocated for conversion into single dwelling units for people who have been or are still suffering from mental illness, we see the petitions, the uproar, the rumours, the speculation about what may happen and the rather unpleasant accusation that house prices will fall as a result. I am sure that many hon. Members have probably had that distasteful experience.
What usually happens? The proposal usually goes ahead, the establishment is created and people move in. They live good, meaningful lives there, and no one in the street ever has a single problem with the people who live in that house. All the scaremongering, all the petitions and the hot air prove to be totally erroneous. That shows the great fear in society about mental illness, part of which is due to people's total ignorance. They are fearful of something, so they stigmatise and attack it.
The House, the Government and the Opposition must do more, and we must do it faster, to break down the barriers. I was the Minister responsible for mental health 10 years ago. We were talking about it and we were doing things then. Health Ministers under this Administration have talked about it and have done something about it. The trouble is that the fear and stigma are so great that it is like chipping away at Mount Everest. All I would say to the Minister is that we must do more; we must accelerate it; and we must focus on it just as people who are interested and involved more generally with disabilities have concentrated and fought for rights and improvements in society. That is what we must do more with regard to mental health.
I make no criticism of anyone or any Minister over the past nine years or the past 29 years, because they have done a lot, but we must now put the spotlight on mental health. Instead of just talking about such things, we must bring them to fruition and ensure that people suffering from mental illness enjoy a life of comparable treatment to those who suffer from flu, cancer or appendicitis, because, quite frankly, there is very little difference between them in principle; the only difference in practice is that people are sympathetic to those who suffer from cancer or flu. People want to be around them, offering help and sympathy, but as soon as someone suffers from mental illness, people do not want to know, and hon. Members know the epitaphs and expressions that are used about those individuals. They are often so scared about what they are suffering from that they do not want anyone else to know, so that they do not get criticised or shunned as a result. That is a contradiction and an abomination, and we must do more about it.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Burns. I congratulate him on his comments on people with mental illness, as his views are widely shared in the House. They are important, and we should all act on them.
I very much welcome today's debate, if not the date on which it is being held. In the foreword to the life chances document, the Prime Minister says that life chances for disabled people are not a marginal issue. I very much hope that the business managers will note that comment, and act appropriately in future. I strongly support and endorse the report's strategy. Its recommendations, all of which have been accepted by the Government, are of critical importance if we are to tackle the inequalities and exclusion experienced by many disabled people. I welcome Mr. Hunt to his new post, and I am genuinely pleased that there is great consensus on disability issues across the House. However, it was a Labour Government who, after their election in 1997, set up the disability rights taskforce, established the Disability Rights Commission, introduced the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, the new deal for disabled people and so on, culminating in the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 could have made provision for a disability rights commission. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Clarke and many other Members will recall, that was precisely what some of us spent hours—nay, days—trying to persuade the then Government to do. It would have been possible for the DDA 1995 not to exclude the subject of education. The requirement not to discriminate on the grounds of disability in the provision of services could have been applied to education, but the Government decided not to introduce such a provision. Transport provisions that have since been introduced could have been introduced in the DDA 1995. That would have been perfectly possible, as such provision was not unknown. Hours were spent in the Chamber and elsewhere urging the Government of the day to do more in the DDA.
I am reluctant to interrupt my hon. Friend while he is in full flow, but may I point out that while access to stations was included in the 1995 Act, in practice it is still not available?
Indeed. The 1995 Act imposed a requirement on access to stations in theory, but it specifically excluded trains from any requirements whatever. The policy was, "We think that it's a good idea for disabled people to have access to railway stations, but we don't care whether they can get on the train or not." That was the nature of the debate. I believe passionately that if a Labour Government had not been elected in 1997, the DRC, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, and the report that we are debating today would not have been introduced. I am glad that things have moved on—I look forward to the new conservatism with excitement beyond measure—but we would not be where we are if the Government had not made progress.
I now move on to the welfare reform Green Paper, which is critical. Jobs are not everything, but jobs are probably the most effective way of enabling people to get out of poverty if they are able to secure employment. The subtitle of the Green Paper—"Empowering people to work"—shows precisely the right attitude. That is what I have always understood by welfare reform. I am pleased that that is the approach to welfare reform in the Green Paper. It must be said that that is in contrast to the approach set out in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999. I am delighted that the contrast is great.
Anyone who is in doubt about whether the Government are going in the right direction on these matters has, as always, only to read the Daily Mail. I read the Daily Mail the morning after the Green Paper was published, and there was a shock, horror headline, "Crackdown?" The article went on:
"The 2.7 million on welfare won't lose a penny!"
I thought, "That's great. That's fine." I did not expect welfare reform to be about taking money away from disabled people, so it was good news. The fact that the Daily Mail was irate encouraged me enormously. I must add, in all seriousness, that we then had the usual diatribe about scroungers and people living on handouts.
I am delighted that no one in the Chamber today has resurrected the sort of language that not so long ago was used about people who were being asked to survive on incapacity benefit. I am sorry for the hon. Member for South-West Surrey, who speaks from the Opposition Front Bench, but the Daily Mail went on to say:
I am delighted that the Daily Mail got it wrong. The language today is entirely different from the sort of language that was printed in the Daily Mail.
Well, nothing. The full quote from the Daily Mail was:
Everybody knows that the concern was whether there would be benefit cuts. That is what the tabloids had been flagging up month after month. When we were told that the Tories had attacked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for not doing that, that was a point of some significance.
Let us stay with the spirit of harmony and unity in the Chamber this afternoon. Let us accept that that to which I have referred is no longer Conservative party policy. I am delighted to hear that. I am sure that in due course the details of the Opposition's view on the benefits part of welfare reform, as opposed to the pathway to work part, will be interesting to observe. I hope in all sincerity that the focus is, as it is in the Green Paper, on tackling the problem by rolling out pathways to work, on giving people opportunities to work and on removing the barriers that prevent so many disabled people from working. This is not about taking away people's benefits.
The focus of the Green Paper is absolutely right. It is not that the state provides a generous benefit to people through incapacity benefit. The problem is that many people cannot secure waged employment because of illness or disability and require assistance to do so. When my right hon. Friend Mr. Smith was Secretary of State, he introduced the pathways to work pilot, which I warmly welcomed. That was exactly the right thing to do. I am delighted that the Minister and her colleagues have been building on that policy ever since.
There are issues that need to be addressed. There is the question of the financial resources that are necessary to deliver the ambitious targets in the Green Paper. I welcome the commitment that we already have to £360 million of new money, but I agree with those who observe that if we are to achieve the target of enabling a million people on incapacity benefit to secure employment in the next 10 years, we will almost certainly require more resources than that. As the Government have rightly pointed out, if another million people secure employment the Exchequer makes a substantial saving: people in work do not receive the benefits to which they were previously entitled, and instead pay income tax and national insurance contributions. The saving that has been mentioned in previous debates is £7 billion.
Others have alluded to the fact that joined-up Government should recognise that those savings would follow from an ambitious programme and could be invested in getting people back to work. I notice that, as my hon. Friend Miss Begg said, the life chances report was cross-departmental. Four Departments have been involved in drafting an excellent report. Not surprisingly, the one Department whose name is not on it is the Treasury. I say that not as a criticism—I am second to none in my admiration for the Chancellor—[Interruption.] Somehow I do not think that my view on regime change will determine any such outcome.
On the life chances report, as on similar cross-departmental reports, we do not have the Treasury's signature. That is understandable, but I hope that my good friend the Minister and her colleagues are having talks with the Treasury about ensuring that a substantial part of the savings in welfare benefit payments that come from people going into work will be used for further investment in achieving the target of a million people off incapacity benefit and into jobs. Some people speak of Treasury rules as if those drop from the clear blue sky. The Treasury makes its own rules. The Government make the rules. There is nothing to stop money being transferred in a sensible way. Not to make that transfer would be silly.
I have argued before, and others have made the same point, that there is in the UK a powerful case for spending more on labour market programmes for disabled people, not just because, as I suggested, those programmes pay for themselves to a significant extent, but because UK spending on such programmes is quite low. It is about a fifth of the European Union average. Other EU countries are spending more on labour market programmes to support disabled people. I very much hope that we can move closer to the EU average, as we are doing, happily, in other areas.
As my final comment on the finance issue, I shall take up what has been said about the access to work programme. I agree with Danny Alexander who spoke for the Liberal Democrats: the access to work programme is probably one of the best kept secrets in Government—so secret that 75 per cent. of employers have never heard of it. To the Government's credit—the Minister will correct me if I have the figures wrong—the spending on access to work has been quadrupled under this Government. It has gone up from a miserly £15 million to £60 million a year. That is a significant improvement.
Since the Department for Work and Pensions has noted—I almost said conceded, but I will not say that—that if it spends £1 million on access to work it gets £1.7 million back, because, as I said, people do not receive benefits but pay national insurance and income tax. The decision on any scheme that enables us to spend £1 million and get £1.7 million back in three or four years is a no-brainer. In that context, the £60 million does not seem very much. Recognising the simple economics of access to work, I join the Disability Rights Commission, and just about every other disability organisation, in saying, "Please, please can we consider putting more money into access to work?"
Some of my constituents illustrate the case. I remember a teacher who became a wheelchair user after a motorcycle accident. The reason why he returned to his classroom so quickly was the support that he received from South Gloucestershire council and the access to work scheme. Money was available to help him make some basic adaptations and he was back teaching in his classroom far more quickly than he ever anticipated and far more quickly than I ever thought possible. Access to work is a very important instrument, helping disabled people to get back to work.
As always, however, there is more to the issue than finance. When people require advice on employment opportunities and strategies for getting back to work, the advice that they receive from their personal advisers is critical, so there must be enough of them and they must be of good quality. There is a very ambitious target in the welfare reform Green Paper. Speaking as someone who visits job centres and voluntary organisations that assist disabled people to get back to work, I simply point out that, as of today, we are hardly suffering from an excess number of highly skilled personal advisers who fully understand mental health issues, access issues, the labour market and so forth. Given the likely salaries, it is not surprising if the advisers do not have the experience that is now demanded of them.
We must ensure that our ambitious programme does not run into difficulties because of an insufficient number of skilled personal advisers. In that context, voluntary organisations play a crucial part. Many voluntary organisations that provide support for disabled people have contracts from Jobcentre Plus to do the work, precisely because they have the requisite expertise. I am not necessarily suggesting that it would not be better if more people in Jobcentre Plus appreciated the issues, but the important consideration is what delivers for the individual client—the disabled person seeking a job—and many voluntary organisations possess the expertise that many Jobcentre Plus units do not have.
There is a real problem here. I visited a voluntary organisation in Bristol recently and found that the people working there were, like many others, on one-year contracts. If we are to achieve the ambitions of the Green Paper, we should try to ensure that where voluntary sector organisations have proved that they are delivering a good service and are benefiting many people by getting them back to work, the funding that we secure for them is rather better than one-year contracts. I hope that the Minister will take account of that. When I visited that voluntary organisation, I found that many of the people who had delivered for the last nine months were busy applying for jobs elsewhere, because they were unsure about funding for the next 12 months. That is not a sound basis on which to build active voluntary sector involvement in such an important sphere of activity.
Other hon. Members have observed that, sadly, a large proportion of disabled people are still living in poverty, and I should like to add to the debate. Extensive studies—particularly the Joseph Rowntree Foundation research published 18 months ago, to which Mr. Boswell referred—have demonstrated that disability benefits are not out of control: for some reason, I am thinking of the Daily Mail. The benefits, which are substantially below the level that would ensure a decent standard of living, are not generous.
There is also a danger of official Government statistics understating the extent of the poverty, because there are many costs of disability that obviously do not affect non-disabled people. The most expensive is probably the cost of personal assistants, interpreters for deaf people and so forth. Disabled people incur the costs of disability and, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation pointed out, when we take that into account, we find that the proportion of disabled people living in poverty is higher. The statistics quoted in the strategy unit report—I have checked them carefully—suggest that 27 per cent. of households with disabled people are likely to be poor, compared with 20 per cent. of households without disabled people.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report shows that that seriously underestimates the true extent of poverty among disabled people. If we are talking about life chances, we must bear that point in mind. As I have said, we must also consider whether the cost of heating for people whose condition requires them to keep warm should qualify them for the winter fuel allowance. The Government are not responsible for and cannot control fuel prices, but they can make the winter fuel allowance, which is welcome, and which is currently available to people over 60, available to severely disabled people—for example, those on the middle or higher rate of the disability living allowance care component or the higher rate of the mobility component, who we know must spend more on heating than others.
A few days ago, the Minister and the Secretary of State attended a meeting with the all-party group on disability, where I pointed out that there is age discrimination in disability benefits. If someone secures DLA before they are 65, the benefit continues after 65, but if someone applies for DLA aged 65 years and one day, they cannot get it. It is an injustice that people who acquire a mobility impairment after the age of 65 cannot apply for DLA, which means that they cannot obtain the DLA mobility component. Without the DLA mobility component, they cannot apply for the Motability scheme, which means that they suffer because of age discrimination.
I am aware that to remove age discrimination for DLA completely would be an expensive business, and there is no point my standing here and pretending that I do not know that. [Interruption.] The last figure that I saw was £3 billion, which is a lot of money. We must acknowledge in principle that age discrimination in disability benefits is wrong and that the attendance allowance that people can claim after the age of 65 is not adequate compensation. If it is not possible to correct that injustice immediately, I hope that the Government will consider moving in that direction by, for example, finding ways in which people can access Motability schemes without being in receipt of the DLA mobility component.
Like several other hon. Members, I want to comment on independent living. User-led organisations are local organisations run and controlled by disabled people, and they are vital in supporting independent living. Recommendation 4.3 in "Improving the life chances of disabled people" states:
"By 2010, each locality (defined as that area covered by a Council with social services responsibilities) should have a user-led organisation modelled on existing CILs"— centres for integrated living. Well, 2010 is only four years away. Will the Minister comment on that target in her winding-up speech? To my knowledge there are 35 CILs in this country, and some of them are losing local authority contracts, which is a matter for serious concern. I want to know how that recommendation will be achieved in four years' time, which will be a challenge.
I echo my right hon. Friend Mr. Clarke in saying how pleased I was when the Government removed means-testing for disabled facilities grants for families with disabled children. That was a major step forward. Constituents of mine have been pushed into debt because of means-testing, or have been unable to go ahead with making adaptations. The statistics clearly indicate that a large proportion of those who apply for DFG to try to adapt their homes so that their disabled children can access facilities better do not go ahead because of the means-testing involved. I welcome that change, and thank the Government for it.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill that the £25,000 maximum for the DFG needs to be updated. I support his suggestion that it should be increased to £50,000, as recommended in the Government-commissioned review undertaken by Bristol university. As a former employee of Bristol university, I naturally have to support its recommendations, but I generally do so in any case.
I strongly believe that the Government have an outstanding record on disability. We have seen nothing like it before, and it would not have happened had not this Government been in office. Ever since the Minister—who is, rightly, widely respected inside and outside the House—got the job, she has, with her colleagues, engaged in discussions with disability organisations and other interested parties on how to go forward. We had a year's consultation before we got to the welfare reform Green Paper. I congratulate the Minister on that. Making policy after lots of consultation is far better than doing it before consultation. The life chances strategy has been widely welcomed by all hon. Members. Now we need a speedy and effective implementation of the report's recommendations. I very much welcome the Government's clear commitment to that objective.
It is an honour to speak in this important debate. I am pleased to follow Roger Berry, who spoke with passion, eloquence, knowledge and detail about these important issues. I found myself immediately agreeing with him on two issues, the first of which was the consensus that we are sharing across the House. I hope that the Minister will be able to pick up on that. As some of my hon. Friends noted, her opening remarks were somewhat partisan and did not do justice to the contributions that have been made since.
I am astonished by the defensiveness of Conservative Members. Perhaps I could scotch this now, appropriately for a Scotswoman. I was seeking to pay them a compliment by saying that they had come a long way since 1995, when, with some honourable exceptions, they showed a disregard for the way forward for disabled people.
I am grateful for that clarification. If we misinterpreted the Minister's remarks, apologies are due. However, I hope that in her closing remarks she will take on board the fact that there is consensus, as was eloquently stated by the hon. Member for Kingswood. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that he is in government.
The hon. Gentleman will not be astonished to learn that I do not agree with those remarks. I was about to pay him further compliments on his speech but I do not know whether I should curtail them now.
There is consensus across the board. I fundamentally agreed with the hon. Gentleman about the date that has been selected for the debate. Our previous debate took place on
The subject is wide ranging. It covers everything to do with disability—mobility, manual dexterity, speech, hearing, seeing and memory. That definition is taken from the Government. I want to consider some matters that have not been discussed so far. I do not want to prompt the hon. Member for Kingswood to intervene again, but I stress that much was achieved in 1995 with the Disability Discrimination Act. Yes, more has been done since then, but it would be wrong to dismiss the Conservative Government by saying that they did nothing.
I am pleased that the latest publication from the Prime Minister's strategy unit, "Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People", includes evidence and contributions from several Departments. One Department alone cannot look after the issues, and evidence was taken from the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills as well as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I commend the report. I hope that it will affect the design of buildings, the workplace and transport, and challenge the outdated attitudes that limit the involvement of disabled people in everyday life.
It is fair to say that attitudes are changing and have changed. We have national role models who are disabled and are now recognised names. I was in the flat next door to Tanni Grey-Thompson when we were at Loughborough university. She excels at her sport and is a household name. She has done much to promote the opportunities available for those in a wheelchair and to allow those of us who are not disabled to understand and open our minds.
Adrian Adepitan is a basketball player who did well with his team and won several medals. He appears on the link clips between programmes on BBC television. That would not have happened 15 or 20 years ago and it shows the progress that has been made.
Miss Begg, who is no longer in her place—perhaps because she knew that I might embarrass her—is a role model. I was working in the House for Tom King, now Lord King, when she entered Parliament. Again, she is a fantastic example of what can be achieved, and of breaking down barriers and challenging identities that have been associated with disability. It is a two-way process—showing what those who are disabled can achieve but, more important, educating those of us who are not disabled.
Much remains to be done. The Government's report shows that approximately 50 per cent. of disabled people of working age are unemployed and more than 40 per cent. are of low skill. We all face those challenges, whoever is in government. We need to tackle them now.
Statistics also reflect the people who are caught in what could be labelled the disability trap. They find it difficult to work or find an opportunity of work and therefore lean on the benefits system to survive. Incapacity benefit payments highlight that. For example, since 1997, the number of claimants has increased as well as that of those claiming for more than five years. Perhaps the most astounding figure shows that the number of young people who claim incapacity benefit has increased by 70 per cent.
There are 2.7 million people claiming incapacity benefits, and it is a challenge for any Government to try to reduce that number and to get people back into work. Those who want to be economically active should be allowed to do so, and should be given the appropriate opportunities in life. I hope that the Government will be able to meet their target of moving 1 million off incapacity benefit. If we do not tackle these challenges, people with disabilities will resign themselves to being stuck on incapacity benefit for life. I commend the Government's report, and I hope that we shall have a further opportunity to debate these matters in the future.
I have done some research recently on disability issues in Bournemouth. As hon. Members will be aware, we have quite an aged population and an awful lot of care homes. However, the new regulations that have been introduced into the care home environment have, unfortunately, resulted in a decrease in the number of such homes in Bournemouth. Over-regulation and red tape are forcing some of the smaller homes to close because they cannot afford to meet the new standards of regulation being imposed on them. For example, in a care home with only six residents, every room now has to be en suite.
I understand the need for certain dimensions and standards in order for a care home to operate correctly, but I do not think that it was the Government's intention that the end result would be that homes would close. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what is being done to review the regulations, and whether there will be any changes to allow care homes, particularly the smaller ones, to continue to work without being threatened by closure because of the high costs that they are now incurring.
We are also concerned about schools, and my hon. Friend Mr. Burns eloquently spelled out some of the issues facing specialist schools. Will the Minister tell us what are the Government's intentions in regard to specialist schools? Many have been closed as a result of reduced funding. What is going to happen to the integration of pupils? As the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South said, the important factor is choice. We should not force parents to send their children to specialist schools, or force children to be integrated into the main school system. A choice should be available. At the moment, with specialist schools closing, that choice is being reduced.
One of the drawbacks of the disability legislation is that it is so far-reaching that it affects every single classroom and hallway in a school. King's Park primary school in Bournemouth is in a very old building, yet it has managed to meet 99 per cent. of the requirements that have now been placed on it. That is entirely appropriate. However, one classroom on the top floor has three steps going up to it. The school does not have the money to put in a special short stair lift to allow wheelchair access to the room, but no one requires wheelchair access at the moment. Why cannot the school be granted a dispensation to be able to use that classroom, if no disabled people need to use it? Or, if necessary, classes could even be moved round so that the facility could be used. At the moment, it is standing empty, and the school has neither sufficient space nor the money to rectify the situation.
A recent Government initiative has involved the merging of three large bodies—the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission—into a single body: the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. I understand that the budget for the new body represents an increase on the budgets for the three former bodies. Where will the extra money go? How will it be accounted for?
I want to talk briefly about the mental health facilities in the Dorset Health Care NHS Trust. The budget for Bournemouth was £59 million in 2003–04, and it went up to £66 million in 2004–05. We should rejoice at that, because it was an excellent increase. However, when we looked at the figures for the staff costs, the heating costs and all the other costs, we realised that they had gone up so much that they overshadowed the increase that I have just mentioned. The net consequence is that the trust has had to make cuts of about £1 million. That includes the closure of a halfway house called Torch, based in Hahnemann house in Bournemouth. This popular facility has been used for those people who were in intensive mental care, but who wanted a stepping-stone to get back into the community. The facility, I am afraid, has been cut simply because Bournemouth cannot afford to run it. That is very sad indeed.
Dorset is one of the best performing areas in the country, as the statistics will show, but, unfortunately, it is now one of the worst funded. That is not an isolated problem, as I understand that about £20 million has been cut from the mental health care budget nationally. The Mental Health Foundation has called that a "cruel and insane" action by the Government. Again, I would like the Minister to comment on why there have been so many cuts to something so fundamentally important.
I also want to comment on the criminal injuries compensation scheme, which was mentioned earlier in relation to the terrorist aspects of
When I made that intervention, there were rumblings on the other side of the House, but whether we agree that the money should come from that scheme and whether we agree that those who are disabled should be receiving funds are separate arguments. It should not matter whether people are getting money from incapacity benefit, disability living allowance or the criminal injuries compensation scheme: if they deserve that money and are legally entitled to it, it should be provided. However, there is an inherent delay in the system. Worse, if people are affected by a terrorist bomb abroad, they receive absolutely no compensation, whether it be for prosthesis or for loss of limb. I hope that the Government will take that point on board and address it.
To conclude, I am glad to have contributed to the debate and I think we have learned an awful lot today. I emphasise the concern that we should be having such debates regularly. Much needs to be done to help those who are disabled to fulfil their potential and to provide them with the same opportunities that we all have. Disabled people continue to be more likely to live in poverty, have fewer qualifications and experience a poorer standard of living.
I hope that today's debate focuses minds on what is required. While the actions referred to in the report from the Prime Minister's strategy unit are welcome, 20 years is too long to wait to see whether they work. I would like the Minister not to ask me to bring these matters up during business questions, but to say, "Yes, I endorse the idea of having an annual debate to see what progress has been made," rather than leaving it two or three years or until enough pressure has been applied for her to be called to the House. I am sure that she shares those sentiments, although I would like that to be confirmed.
In light of the hon. Gentleman's comments, I take it that he will put pressure on his business managers to use Opposition time for such a debate. The Opposition have days on which they, too, could introduce a debate on disability issues, if they are as crucial to Opposition Members as they appear to have been today.
I am saddened by that comment because, first, Opposition-day debates are for the Opposition to hold the Government to account. The concerns expressed today show that there is a passion for this issue, and we should not have to use an Opposition-day debate to raise it. It should be a regular theme for debate.
Mr. Clarke introduced a private Member's Bill to get the Secretary of State for International Development to come to the House once a year to give account for what his Department does with regard to spending international development money. The right hon. Gentleman has also managed to secure the development target of 0.7 per cent. of gross domestic product.
That will be an annual event—we have all been involved with it—and it is a fantastic move forward to show the accountability of the Government. I would very much like them to endorse that. They should not be forced to do so by the Opposition, but should take the initiative and say, "Yes, we would be delighted to come to the House to debate those issues annually."
I listened with great interest to Mr. Ellwood, who obviously researched his contribution carefully. As someone who also represents a seaside area, I was listening for similarities between our areas. Interestingly, his reference to care homes reflects that as we get older we are more likely to be disabled. Sometimes, it is difficult to disentangle issues of the elderly from those of people with disability, which complicates matters for everybody.
I open my remarks with a degree of trepidation, as the Minister referred at the start of her contribution to the fact that the debate in 2004 centred on civil rights. It is important, however, to start off with a reference to human rights and the universal declaration of human rights, which says:
"All are equal before the law and are entitled . . . to equal protection of the law."
I believe that human rights and civil rights underpin today's debate. All the interesting and well-informed contributions made by Members are based on the point that people with disability should enjoy the same rights that everybody else enjoys. That should be the template against which we measure any initiatives from central Government, local government and community groups.
Before I consider the detail of the strategy unit report, I want to examine some of the definitions of disability. The Disability Rights Commission produces some helpful facts and figures and lists the many disabilities and conditions that people expect to be included by the term "disabled", from visual impairment to arthritis, cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, depression—interestingly—and diabetes. Recently, the case of a man who is so obese that he finds it difficult to get through doorways or get into a bath—and who cannot bathe himself at home and therefore must go into a hospital setting for basic care—was brought to my attention. That illustrates that we must have an open mind about what constitutes disability and consider how it impairs people's everyday lives in relation to the social model.
We have already heard some statistics about the number of disabled people. As I said, disability increases with age, and as the population is ageing, we need to be aware of that. The World Trade Organisation predicts that depression will be the leading cause of disability by 2020, which links to some of the comments made about the welfare to work Green Paper. An increasing number of sick notes have depression or mental health issues on them rather than physical conditions. Only 50 per cent. of disabled people of working age are in employment compared with 81 per cent. of non-disabled people. Like my hon. Friend Miss Begg, I am a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, so I shall not comment on that issue—Members will have to wait for our report, which is to be published shortly. Disabled people are unable to use 70 per cent. of buses and 40 per cent. of the rail network. Almost 50 per cent. of disabled people list transport as their main local concern, and feel that their employment opportunities have been reduced because of poor public transport. Sixty per cent. of disabled people have no car in the household, compared with just 27 per cent. of the general population.
We all have access to a range of statistics highlighting the nature of the problem and the importance, as well as the complexity, of addressing it. However, I do not want to underestimate or gloss over what has already been done I want to refer to some of the extensions of disability rights since 1997, of which I am immensely proud, and pay tribute to the Minister and her colleagues for all their work. Civil rights for disabled people have been strengthened in terms of access to goods and services and also public transport, although there is some way to go in that regard. We have seen the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission and, in October 2004, the extension of employment provisions in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That will protect an additional 600,000 disabled workers from discrimination.
Many people are involved in those developments, and many people have benefited. Most recently, there have been the amendments tabled to the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, requiring public authorities to provide equality of opportunity for disabled people. All that has culminated in the strategy unit report. For a document of its size it is very readable, and it contains some very good recommendations. As other Members have said, it presents an ambitious 20-year vision, but we must start somewhere. We must also set an end date so that we can establish targets and measure successes. Otherwise, we shall have only warm words with no result at the end.
The first key area identified in the strategy is independent living, which is the central issue of our debate. It involves the human rights of people with disabilities, who should be able to make choices. Members on both sides of the House have reiterated that services should meet the needs of individuals rather than individuals fitting themselves into services.
The strategy unit's report, entitled "Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People", deals with that issue. It also states:
"Historically, disabled people have been treated as being dependent and in need of 'care', rather than being recognised as full citizens."
In a recent speech, the chairman of the Disability Rights Commission, Bert Massie, took up the same point. He said
"society still sees its best response to disability as care, welfare and charity—rather than equal rights, opportunities and citizenship.
Our instinct is to protect.
But in 'protecting' people we deny humanity rather than liberating it."
I could not agree more.
In a previous incarnation, when I was chair of Lancashire social services, I saw the best social work in practice when it took risks and extended boundaries instead of cocooning people, but there are questions to be raised about that as well. Liberating people is not just a matter of what is provided by local social services departments, or indeed of what the Government enshrine in law; it is a matter of bringing the whole community and the whole family into the debate.
When I was chair of social services and trying to change things, and more recently over the past nine years as a Member of Parliament, I have discussed with parents the needs of their disabled children. Even when a disabled child is 40 or 50, a parent will often want to protect that child. It is understandable and I do not criticise such parents, but the challenge is to give the disabled person freedom to go out into the world, to explore and to make his or her own decisions. That is not an easy task for anyone. As we change the law here and as local authorities and other providers respond, we must bring people with disabilities and their families with us. We should all be working together, and recognising the basic rights of people with disabilities to make choices, to be given freedoms, and not always to be cocooned.
I am proud to be chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social care here at Westminster. We changed our name this year from the all-party social services panel, but given what has been said about care, perhaps we should think of changing it again—possibly to something incorporating the word "independence". In any event, we should all be working together to improve the life chances of people with disabilities by promoting independence rather than dependence on care.
In enabling independent living, we should focus on four key values: choice, control, freedom and equality. That way, we will improve life chances. I welcome the move to direct payments, which will enable people to make choices, and I am looking forward to the assessments of the individual budget pilots. Bringing together sums of money from various different budget heads will give people with disability more freedom and flexibility in determining their own care packages. They will be able to purchase a package that responds to their individual needs.
I agree very much with what the hon. Lady is saying about the importance of individual budgets. Does she agree that, for those budgets to be truly effective, the full range of services has to be available at a local level, so that the budgets can be used to obtain the services needed? A number of Members have referred today to the inadequacy of services in certain areas; unless they are adequate, the individual budgets cannot be fully effective.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. We need to think outside the box, instead of simply focusing on the services currently provided, and to enable providers to come in with new services and to be responsive to the requests of individuals. In fact, that has already been happening in some parts of the country. For example, Lancashire's vibrant and enthusiastic private sector has responded to changes in legislation and in service provision over the years. There are difficulties, however. Funding often comes from the local authority, so in trying to be innovative, the private sector has to rely on traditional local authority purchasing patterns. However, as individuals start purchasing their own services, there will be opportunities for outside providers to be responsive. I am an optimist—I am looking forward to these changes.
Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend on this point. It is perfectly possible to buy a bath board for £12.99 from Argos, which suggests that many disabled people do not need a bespoke service. Sometimes, only very simple things are needed that can be bought on the open market. Having their own funding stream would enable disabled people to go out and buy such things, thereby giving them the advantage that I already enjoy, as someone in work with a reasonable salary. We need to provide the flexibility to enable those on benefit to have the same level of choice that everyone in this Chamber takes for granted.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; indeed, an increasing number of organisations sell community care products in their catalogues. Giving money to the individual will open up great new possibilities for them. As I said earlier, I am looking forward to the results of the pilots and the subsequent roll-out to other parts of the country.
I come now to three issues: children, learning disabilities and advocacy services. I endorse many of the remarks that colleagues made about the particular needs of children with disability, but we should consider an issue that has not been touched on thus far: the new Childcare Bill. For the first time, the Government have produced a strategic document for child care provision, but it also recognises the very special needs of families with children with disability, and their difficulties in accessing suitable child care.
The Childcare Bill focuses on providing child care to enable parents to go out to work, but in some instances child care is an end in itself for the child—they learn to socialise, for example. If we are to educate the community about the needs of disabled people, we should start with children and ensure that disabled children mix with other children from the very earliest age, and that their parents get used to such contact. I look forward to the Bill providing more child care for disabled children and support for their families.
The question of quality has come up in the debate on the Childcare Bill. We must ensure that the services provided are of the highest possible quality, which means that staff providing child care are trained to the highest level so that they understand the special needs of children with disability.
I also pay tribute to the Government for abolishing the means test for families with a disabled child who apply for the disabled facilities grant. Families have told me that they are thrilled about that, although often they have worked through the old system and are pleased that others will not have to go through what they went through. People have also asked about the cap on capital expenditure and, given that some alterations on houses are major, that needs to be looked at again.
Other problems arise as children grow up. Thankfully, more children who are born with profound disabilities now live longer, but that can cause difficulties in the family home. Altering the house once is not always the end of the matter, as other alterations may need to be made as the young person grows older.
I am sure that the whole debate could be devoted to disabled children, so I shall merely say to my hon. Friend the Minister that more respite care and specialist equipment should be made available, and that parents need to have access to more support and advice. Above all, we should listen to the voice of the child. Usually, that is the most instructive approach: children know what they want, but sometimes their voices are not heard.
I move on now to people with learning disabilities. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking at a conference for learning disabled representatives on the learning disabilities partnership boards. The representatives came from across the whole of Lancashire, and they were very pleased at last to be part of the policy-making process determining the services available for them. However, they told me about some of their concerns, and emphasised that they need support if they are to enhance their life chances.
Too often, the eligibility criteria applied by social services departments are so tight that people with moderate learning disabilities find it very difficult to access services. I spoke to one man at the conference who had moderate learning disabilities. He was a member of the partnership board, but he told me that he could not get the help with transport that would allow him to get to meetings. If we are to involve people with disability in the decision-making process, we must help them and look at whether they are being excluded by the eligibility criteria set by local authorities.
I used to be a county councillor, so I fully understand the pressure on local government budgets. A line has to be drawn somewhere, but people with learning disabilities can sometimes feel disadvantaged and we need to listen to what they have to say.
Another matter to come up at that conference was that, sadly, people too often still see the disability rather than the individual. I am sure that all hon. Members are aware of that, but I was surprised to hear how often it happens across a range of services, including health and education. I am pleased to say that it is less common in social services, as I hope that people with disabilities would be seen as individuals at least by those who work in social care. Educating people to see the individual and not the disability is a major task, especially when it comes to people with learning disabilities.
I was very pleased that the Mental Capacity Act 2005 enshrined in law the fact that we are all able to make decisions, and that it must never be assumed that someone is incapable of doing so. Whether or not a person is capable of making a particular decision must be tested. I meet people with learning disabilities and they are often capable of making a whole series of decisions. There may be a complex financial matter that they cannot deal with, but many people without learning disabilities have difficulties with complex financial matters.
All too often when I visit a home in the community for a group of people with learning disabilities, the care staff—I am sure with the best of intentions—make decisions on their behalf instead of asking them what they think, what the care staff can get for them and what they want out of something. Staff will require a lot of training on the Mental Health Act so that they understand that they can no longer do that. They have to carry out functional tests and respect the decisions of people with learning difficulties.
People fail to listen to those with disabilities, so it is important that there are independent advocacy services to speak on their behalf. I have the grand title of president of the Blackpool advocacy. It is an excellent organisation that provides information, support and representation to enable individuals to access services. Advocates accompany people to meetings and, importantly, explain the procedures and processes to them and what they will find. Sometimes they make sure that there is appropriate access to the meeting. Sadly, it still sometimes happens when people with a disability are invited to a meeting that either they cannot get in or, if they are hearing impaired, there is not a loop system, or, if they are visually impaired, there is not the necessary equipment for them to read documents. An advocacy service can help them throughout all that, ensure that information is presented in the right manner and that the setting takes into account the particular disability of the individual.
Recently, the community learning disability nurse made a presentation to the Blackpool advocacy. She highlighted some of the barriers for people with learning disabilities to access services. They can forget appointments, are often afraid to go to the doctor, dentist or nurse and can have transport problems or communication problems. In those circumstances, sometimes they do not attend the appointments or meetings that they should, or cannot communicate their concerns. In those cases, an advocacy service is essential. Certainly in Blackpool, the advocacy service also provides support to children. Children's advocacy is important for some of the reasons that I outlined earlier. Sometimes the wishes of a disabled child are not the same as those of the parent or those of the professional. Again, it is important that the voice of the child is listened to. An advocacy service can provide support and ensure that that happens.
The Children's Society runs a disability advocacy project in London. It, too, gets positive feedback from the young people who use its services. Of course there are no guarantees of good advocacy services around the country. When I describe to colleagues what happens in Blackpool, they say that that does not happen in their locality. I urge the Minister to consider establishing a national framework for advocacy services. There is a national organisation for advocacy services, but the services have been set up individually around the country, have different funding mechanisms and provide different services.
The Mental Capacity Act 2005 offered an opportunity to promote advocacy services and I argued the case for them during its passage. The Government have acknowledged the need for legislation on advocacy services for people who lack capacity and have no family or friends. I want advocacy services to be provided much more widely, although I welcome the Government's consultation in relation to the Act.
National standards are being considered, under the legislation, to improve the life chances of people with learning disabilities in a broader setting. I urge the Government to put independent advocacy services on a much more secure financial footing, and to give them a statutory base. Sadly, the chief executive of Blackpool Advocacy, like many chief executives of charities, spends most of her time chasing funding instead of delivering vital services.
Direct payments have been implemented. Individual budgets have been developed. The health and social care White Paper has made proposals to improve preventive services. The Equality Bill will set up a new commission and we already have the Human Rights Act 1998, the Mental Capacity Act and the improving life chances strategy. Together, all those measures provide an excellent framework in which to develop and improve services for people with disability, to enhance their future life chances.
The Care Standards Act 2000 has not been mentioned so far. It set a framework for service quality and introduced three important bodies that can help us in our campaign to improve life chances. The Commission for Social Care Inspection not only supervises and inspects services, but produces interesting discussion papers on their improvement. Recently, it issued a document on brokerage schemes, which help people with learning disabilities access individual budgets. The Social Care Institute for Excellence has amassed much excellent information and data about services, about what is available and what should be available, which is useful for Members of Parliament and service users. It provides excellent support for the all-party group on social care. Its research can be used to enhance services and to help people work out what should be provided in their area.
The third organisation is the General Social Care Council. Earlier, I drew attention to the role of social care staff who support people with disability. They are an important group and we should acknowledge the special role of social workers. We are all asking for improvements in the process for assessing children, carers and adults with disability, but the social workers who undertake that vital work need support and recognition of their position. Their job is often difficult; they tread the mine field of the competing—sometimes conflicting—interests of the disabled person, their family, their friends and other people who offer them advice and support.
Many care workers provide care in individuals' homes or residential settings. Sadly, all too often they are not very well paid. People who are trying to recruit high quality care workers are competing with supermarkets, which pay more. There is an issue about raising the profile of the social care work force and making such employment a real choice for individuals. At the end of the day, such people can do so much good in supporting people with disability and providing them with the right level of care.
I began with a quote about human rights and I will finish with another—this time from Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1958, she said:
"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person".
In improving those small places for people with disability we will make a huge improvement to their lives. I am looking forward to that.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in today's debate and am happy to follow my hon. Friend Mrs. Humble. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Miss Begg, who is not in the Chamber at this point. I found her contribution and her first-hand experiences extremely valuable and the debate has been all the better for them.
I want my contribution to be quite brief. The objective of any Government strategy on disabled people must be to focus on improving those people's quality of life and opportunities. We have heard of many achievement of which we can proud, but they must be viewed as a stepping stone towards more challenging, but hopefully more rewarding, reform.
We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Minister and from other Members that, before my time here, the House passed the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999, which gave rise to the commission and its statutory duties to promote equal opportunities and eliminate discrimination in this area. The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 amended and extended the 1995 legislation. In addition, while in government, Labour has introduced the new deal for the disabled, which has resulted in more disabled people being in work than ever before—about 750,000 more than in 1998. Working tax credits for disabled workers have delivered further support to many people once they have returned to work.
The experience, however, is not always good. Difficulties are still evident as some disabled people seek out the necessary support. I would like to take this opportunity to bring to the Minister's attention instances in which people have come to me with first-hand experiences of cases in which wheelchair users and those with sight problems are not benefiting from even good advice, let alone the best advice. That can create additional damage and further isolate and demoralise the people on the receiving end of that poor advice, and it does nothing for us as a society in general.
I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to meet the small group of people who have contacted me about their difficulties so that she can hear for herself, at first hand, where there are still gaps in the system that we can address. In addressing them, we would improve the quality of life of many more people, as well as the economic and social condition of our country. It is only by listening to the people who are affected by disability that we can best deliver the help and support that is required.
The Government are removing a significant number of boundaries. The DWP document, "A new deal for welfare", to which the Minister and other hon. Members referred, sets challenging targets for increasing employment opportunities for disabled and incapacitated people. One of the aims is to reduce the number of employees who leave work because of disability. That is very important, but it is a role that employers must approach responsibly. We have heard some disturbing comments today about the role of and experiences provided by some employers.
Employers must see the value of the person, not the disability—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood. I agree with the Government that employers, local authorities and health professionals and the Government need to come together to deliver the best results, but employers must have a much better understanding of our objectives and expectations and the role that they will play in delivering the objectives, and I say that as someone who has been an employer for 20 years.
The Minister will remember attending a recent meeting with me on the very subject of support for the disabled, and I am sure that she will have been heartened by the general response of most of the people present that night—whether disabled or able-bodied—and the recognition that we have done a lot and that we are planning to do even more. However, in bringing my brief contribution to an end, I urge the Minister and the Department to be aware that we must always keep listening to the experts in the field—the individuals who live with disability every day in life.
It is always a pleasure to follow Gordon Banks. I was in the Chamber when he made his maiden speech, and he has just made a very good short contribution. Certainly, one of the aspects that he brings to the debate is his business experience. I hope that the Minister will meet his delegation and take on board what he said about the role of employers.
We have had a very constructive, wide-ranging and positive debate, and I have always maintained that both parties have a good record on disability and disabled people. The previous Government had an excellent record, as was pointed out by the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Mr. Hunt. The late right hon. Nick Scott was a quite superb Minister for the disabled. Indeed, as my hon. Friend also pointed out, my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague was a very distinguished holder of that office. It is a pity that in the past—not so much today—Ministers and Government Members have been somewhat grudging and patronising in their view of the Conservative party's record on such matters when in government. The time has come to accept that our record in government was good. This Government's record is also good, and I certainly welcome what they have done. I give credit to them for the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, for the welfare reform Green Paper and for the report, "Improving the life chances of disabled people". They have been working hard. They have had a series of very imaginative and hard-working Ministers. Indeed, the current holder of that post is no exception.
There is a very long way to go indeed. When one looks at some of the statistics, one sees that disabled people have a lower employment rate than any group. Only about 50 per cent. of disabled people of working age are employed. Furthermore, disabled people who are working earn 30 per cent. less than non-disabled people. More than 40 per cent. of disabled people are low-skilled. About 25 per cent. of disabled people of working age are over 50. More than 50 per cent. of families with disabled children are in or near child poverty—so there is still a long, long way to go.
My hon. Friend Mr. Ellwood mentioned one of my concerns when he referred to the life chances report. According to the report, the target is that
"By 2025, disabled people in Britain should have full opportunities and choices to improve their quality of life, and will be respected and included as equal members of society."
That is a very long way off, and we must all have the ambition of ensuring that we achieve those goals well within the 19 or 20-year framework that has been laid down. Any Government should have ambitions to achieve those targets before 2025, so we must try to do so.
Her Majesty's Government are right to advance a programme to tackle welfare reform, but that is largely a debate for another day. I applaud the Minister, however, on her comments on the transition to adulthood. I think that she used the words, "cliff edges", to characterise the position of young adults who suddenly find that the support that was in place suddenly disappears: they have nowhere to turn, as there is no provision for them. I am pleased, too, that hon. Members on both sides of the House drew attention to the serious problems faced by parents who have children with learning difficulties. My hon. Friend Mr. Burns has a great deal of experience in this area, and he pointed out that the statementing system for children of school age is onerous, bureaucratic and in dire need of reform. When those children become young adults and take part in training schemes, many of them live at home with their parents, but often things come to a crunch when they reach another cliff edge and they have to move out, perhaps because their parents have to go into a residential home or they pass away. I have dealt with many constituency cases in which young adults with learning difficulties become middle-aged adults with learning difficulties. Often, the support system does not offer them anything once their parents pass away. The Government should look at that problem very carefully, and I hope that the Minister will address it in her winding-up speech.
We heard some good examples of initiatives that are under way in hon. Members' constituencies. I pay tribute to the West Norfolk disability information service in my constituency and its director, Jonathan Toye, who works tirelessly to ensure that disability rights are always at the top of agenda of local authorities and other Norfolk bodies. King's Lynn and West Norfolk borough council and Norfolk county council have an excellent record of doing all that they can to help disabled people and ensuring that their service provision takes into account the rights and interests of disabled people. Both councils have a long and distinguished record of doing their level best and achieving very high standards indeed.
I asked Jonathan Toye to update me on facilities for disabled people in my constituency and the immediate priorities. Overall, the picture is encouraging. Most local businesses have responded to the challenge, and are doing exactly what they should. It is not just a question of helping disabled people and of providing facilities for them but of making the right business decisions. He cited a couple of food outlets in my constituency. Pauline's Pantry is a small sandwich bar in King's Lynn that has recently invested in disabled facilities and has gone from strength to strength. It is very disabled-friendly, and it has been awarded an accolade by the Eastern Daily Press. He cited a larger delicatessen/restaurant called Norbury's, which has recently undertaken a major refurbishment programme and has taken on board the requirements suggested by WNDIS. Both those businesses should be congratulated. I visited one of them recently, and I know that both are going from strength to strength.
Mr. Toye said that there is a slightly larger business in King's Lynn, the Duke's Head hotel, which has not listened entirely to the advice that was put to it. He hopes that some of the larger businesses will take on board exactly what he and his colleagues have said. As I have said, it is good for businesses to be disablement friendly.
Mr. Toye mentioned also the dial-a-stop bus service, which collects people with limited mobility from their homes and is working well. Unfortunately, the space that has been allocated for the service is quite a long way away from the main part of the bus station. Most of the people with limited mobility who come into the centre of King's Lynn want to shop at Sainsbury's. They want to visit the shops and the services in the middle of the town. It would be a great deal easier if they could be set down near to King's Lynn museum, where there is an available stop. Unfortunately, the county council is not being as helpful as it might be. I have written to the council and I hope to have a positive reply.
At the margin, life for disabled people can be made a great deal easier where authorities put a certain amount of imagination and common sense into the equation, think first about disabled people and work out whether taking a small step in the right direction could make a significant difference to people's lives.
I will not speak for much longer because I was not in the Chamber for the entire debate. However, I think that we have had a constructive debate. It has brought into focus several key issues. I hope that the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Mr. Boswell, will touch on other points, such as the role of carers and the problems that many disabled people face not because there are not enough benefits, but because accessing the benefits is extremely complicated. Quite often, disabled people are given different opinions and advice.
Carers, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey said, are saving the Government £57 billion a year. I hope that the Minister will touch on respite care. I hope also that the Minister and the shadow Minister will take up the serious problems that we are all facing in our constituencies because of the added burdens and regulations that are placed on small care homes. It is a sad fact that many of these homes are closing.
The UK has come a long way in its treatment of disabled people. It has come a long way also in how it has opened up many new horizons for disabled people. I hope that we will achieve the aims laid down by the Government long before 2025.
I, too, welcome the debate and the tone of the contributions made to it on both sides of the Chamber. There is a common message coming from this debate, that although we have made progress there is still a great deal more to do.
I thank the Minister for setting the tone of the debate. I thank my hon. Friend Mr. Hunt, who made his first appearance at the Opposition Dispatch Box to make a full speech, for his kind personal remarks about both my hon. Friend Mr. Goodman and myself. If I may say, without any patronising whatever, my hon. Friend has a fantastic grasp of the subject, which he displayed both in principle and in detail.
The House would also expect me to thank—and I do so genuinely—my hon. Friends the Members for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) for the interesting and challenging contributions that they made, sometimes grainy and sometimes not without criticism, but always well meant, well spirited and to the point. I do not exclude Members on other Benches, but if in the interests of time I do not go comprehensively through the list, I think that the House will forgive me. I hope not to be invidious if I single out Mr. Clarke, who is always extremely interesting. We did have a little flurry, but I found myself in agreement with nearly everything that he had to say.
I shall also mention Roger Berry, who has done more about this subject than almost anybody else and made an interesting contribution, including his comment about the role of the voluntary sector and its relationship with the statutory sector, and Miss Begg, who made a remarkably eloquent contribution. What emerged from it, if I may say so, is the one attribute that persons who have disabilities must have—a very strong will, or a pair of elbows to push aside the difficulties. She has the articulacy, the ability and the passion to do that. Sadly, many people lack the resolve, spirit or capacity to argue for themselves, or to access the services that could do so on their behalf.
The debate has been largely constructive. I shall touch briefly on two aspects that might have caused a flurry or a certain difficulty in the exchanges across the Benches, then I shall touch on four general themes and end with a personal comment.
On points of difficulty, we probably ought to move on from history. There will always be a difference of emphasis—it would be slightly unhealthy if there were not—between the parties as to their relative contribution. It was acknowledged by the Minister, who said that she was trying to pay compliments to the Opposition, that a fairly substantial contribution was made by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. However, that was not the first thing to be done by a Conservative Government. Having been a Minister in the Department for Education in 1992–93, I happen to recall, modestly, that we legislated for special educational needs and the new tribunal, for example. The historic record over the years shows that Governments have begun to see needs, have become sensitive to them and eventually have begun to respond to them.
As for the attitudes of people in my party, there may have been some coded messages about individuals. All I would say for myself is that it is almost seven years since I assumed Front-Bench responsibility for my party on disability issues, and three years since I passed that to others. I do not think that in the whole of my time, my attitude to these matters has changed very much. I certainly do not intend it to have done. It may just be—to draw an analogy from the sun now streaming through the windows of the Chamber—that one can see the issues in a clearer and sunnier light than one might have done seven years ago.
On the second possible cause of prickliness, I have allies across the Chamber. From the remarks made by a number of hon. Members, it is clear that the Government and the business managers must not get into the habit of using disability issues as a convenient filler on election days. It would be difficult to send a more eloquent signal of the marginalisation of disability issues. As a final challenge to the Minister, she will have heard the requests for an annual debate, and I would be glad to hear her concede that principle tonight. If she feels unable to do so, all I can do, with allies across the Chamber, is to point out that the all-party disability group will be queuing up in Westminster Hall every year to debate the subject. So we should. Disability issues affect large numbers of our constituents—nationally, perhaps one in five of the adult population, their families and their carers. We should respond generously and appropriately to them.
On the four themes that I promised to deal with, first, I welcome the general shift in the debate towards outcomes of disability policy. That is intended not to sideline or downplay the rights-based approach, but to emphasise that that is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for improving the life chances of disabled people.
I look forward with interest—an interest that I have developed since I first became engaged in these matters, and so in wider equality issues too—to the results of the inquiry that Trevor Phillips is leading in the equalities review. In the end, what our disabled constituents and their families want is, as far as possible, equality of outcome or a greater approximation to equality than we have had hitherto. To those who raise the other equality issues of race and gender, I should say that it has taken a very long time in those strands, too, and we are still not yet there.
I cautiously welcome the Government's tendency to promote the empowerment of disabled people to take their own decisions. It is set out—rather inelegantly, in my judgment—in the terms of reference for the independent living fund review published yesterday, as a
"more person-centred and coherent support for disabled people".
I do not much like the language, but I like the theme. What we must do now is carry out the pilots in good faith and evaluate them carefully, for two reasons. First, any appropriate help that may be required for disabled people to take decisions should ensure that such people function as their own best purchasers. I believe that they can. Secondly—and this amounts to a warning—we must ensure that the whole exercise does not become a cynical one of shuffling between different budgets resources that are inherently inadequate to meet the needs.
Beyond that, I shall mention three specific issues. One was touched on by many hon. Members in the debate, and may be described broadly as access. Part of the issue is a matter of compliance by service providers and owners of premises with their full legal obligations under the whole suite of disability legislation, including that on access to premises. Recent correspondence with one of my constituents suggests that, despite the efforts that the two district councils in my constituency have certainly made, she is profoundly sceptical about what is available. I am wheeling her in to meet the town council so that she can give it the benefit of her advice. I do not believe that there are many public or private sector organisations whose performance in this area is wholly satisfactory.
The new arrangements for the Office for Disability Issues have also been touched on, but the relationship between that organisation and the Disability Rights Commission has not yet been fully explained. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House how she sees those two bodies working together to monitor achievements. One of the difficulties is that the DRC deals with complaints, legislation and legal challenges, while the ODI will be examining outcomes. Their different philosophies may not make it easy for them to work together. As part of the reporting process, we need a proper account—some samples, surveys or mystery shopping—of what is actually happening on the access agenda. I am pleased to see that the Minister is responding positively to that point.
The second part of access is access to work and several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Kingswood, have spoken eloquently about its importance. Part of the problem is about the readiness of employers to meet their own obligations not to discriminate and to make reasonable adjustments. A great deal also hinges on access to work. It is, frankly, a hidden treasure and I fear that that is so because if it were not, it would cost too much on ministerial budgets. That is not a satisfactory or stable outcome. If it is that good, we ought to use it. As Danny Alexander said, it would save money in the end. I shall say more in a few moments about spending to save in a different context.
I also want to mention housing, which I am pleased to say is now taking on greater importance. From the work that I did some years ago on the valuing people initiative, I remember the concern about the sufficiency of accommodation for people with learning disabilities, which a number of hon. Members have touched on. However, the issue goes far wider than that, because it covers adequate housing for people and families with all kinds of disabilities, and I welcome the recent changes in the disabled facilities grant.
In its briefing, the DRC specifically calls for more action to build adaptable and accessible housing by adopting the lifetime homes standards for new housing and using existing housing more efficiently by ensuring the more widespread use of the accessible housing register. It goes on to say that it believes that the code for sustainable housing was a missed opportunity in that respect. Many housing authorities currently judge disability issues to be peripheral to their main duties, but, as the DRC has rightly pointed out, in December local authorities' disability equality duty will kick in, which means that they must handle the issue more positively.
Technology is not a substitute for effective care or services, but it can enhance care or services. It clearly relates to housing, and I was fascinated to visit the demonstration house in Northampton, which is a joint project between the borough and specialists in social services. The house draws on expertise to develop technologies for people with deteriorating mental capacity to enable them to stay in their own homes safely for longer. That technology is also invaluable in the context of work—for example, in helping visually impaired people to operate computers. However, we must accept that it creates a crunch in attitudes, and sometimes results in public authorities having to make particularly difficult decisions. A better piece of equipment means the imposition of an up-front cost; that also applies to analogue and digital hearing aids, and manual and electric wheelchairs. It is likely that the capital costs will be substantial, and public authorities may have to adjust their budgets to spend to save, and to benefit the life chances and employment chances of users.
My deepest area of concern across the whole field has not been touched on today as much as I expected. Public administration in general, and the benefits system in particular, are driven by rules made in the interests of fairness and clarity. That need for precision inevitably conflicts with the practical experience of disability issues, where conditions may be complex and, above all, fluctuate from day to day. At best, even if someone's condition is stable, it may show either an improving or deteriorating trend. It is very difficult, and also rather invidious, to fix a disability in time and for ever.
I am pleased by the emphasis that a number of hon. Members have put on mental health conditions, which account for a striking 40 per cent. of all new incapacity benefit claims. The benefit system is understandably based on yes or no answers to questions such as, "Are you at work?" "Should you be at work?" "Could you be at work?" and "Are you qualified for this benefit or not?" Even if the original decision on, for example, a personal capacity test is correct, it may very soon be obsolete. Moreover, in spite of recent welcome changes in the linking rules and the greater sympathy, which I acknowledge, shown by Ministers to this issue, the fear still remains among disabled people that if they go back to work, if they try work and break down, or even if they find that they cannot work for a full week at a time and need a shorter working time, they will somehow have surrendered their benefit and be left exposed.
I say that particularly in the context of any change in welfare reform and the safeguarding of historic incapacity benefits. If somebody goes back to work, the question will arise as to what happens if they then find that they cannot carry on and run the risk of losing their old benefit or having to re-enter at a lower rate. I do not have a precise prescription in this area. We must simply keep plugging away collectively at making the whole system more flexible—without, of course, devaluing it.
I want to close on a rather more personal note. The broad facts about inequality of outcome for disabled people are pretty well known, certainly to all participants in this debate. They are not contentious, but they are alarming. For young people, the position is particularly depressing, with disabled 16-year-olds twice as likely not to be in education, employment or training as their non-disabled contemporaries. Furthermore, a study carried out in 2002 estimated that a quarter of disabled young people with learning disabilities will have left compulsory education with no transition plan in place. There is already a pre-existing legal obligation to provide transition planning, but that seems not to have been done—certainly in relation to education, but also more widely.
There is always a need to be sober and remember that even if we have legislated in the past, the things that we legislated for may not be happening because of the pressures on local authorities, inadvertence or lack of attention. As we have heard, the position is hardly better for disabled adults, with research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showing that about a third of disabled adults of working age live in income poverty. Incidentally, that is a somewhat higher proportion than 10 years ago.
The issue for us all—the reason why we are here this afternoon when we could be electioneering—is what we are going to do about it. I think that there is a common will that we should do something about it, and that there is for us, and indeed for the country, a fork in the road in terms of attitude. We have the chance to say yes or no in tackling these issues. Some columnists in certain newspapers, most of which we could predict, will say from time to time that we should not take this too far. In fact, they usually have something of merit to say, at least in challenging us before we pick up this agenda too comprehensively or glibly. In my view, if we were to turn away from this and say that it is not worth it, that political correctness has got out of hand, or that the resources are not great enough, we would be letting ourselves and our constituents down.
At the extreme of that attitude, I suspect that quite a number of businesses, particularly but not exclusively small and medium-sized enterprises, and not a few public authorities, would do nothing about this unless and until they were forced to. I happen to know of a recent employment tribunal case—because it involved a constituent of mine—in which the Department for Work and Pensions itself was found to be not compliant, and had to pay compensation to one of its staff. I am not saying that that happens often, but it clearly happened once. It is more likely that public authorities will pay lip service to the new disability equality duty, and then do the least that they can. For example, they will shift budgets to somebody else wherever possible, and take the line of minimal compliance with standards. That, in brief, is what I call the no approach.
I believe that we cannot leave it there. We must be prepared to say yes to disabled people. First, a large part of the population has one disability or another, or a family member or someone for whom they care in that position, or know that they may be in that position in the future. Secondly—and perhaps more positively, given the wonderful concept of reasonable adjustments—disabled people can, are prepared to and want to make a significant economic and wider contribution to society. Finally, there is the moral case. We should be in the business of building a more inclusive and confident society. Nobody should knowingly or wilfully be left out.
I am sure that you would not be surprised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to know that, as a former Whip, I knew that I had moved the motion to adjourn the House at 12.20 pm, a few hours ago.
I was about to thank Mr. Boswell for his thoughtful comments in winding up the debate. I shall deal with the specific issues that he raised shortly but his speech illustrated what I tried to say about the Opposition on various occasions this afternoon. I shall embarrass him, but, led by people such as him, the Opposition has come a long way on disability rights. That is worth stating. Although I scratched at a bit of a sore earlier, the road that the Opposition have travelled must be acknowledged and I wanted to do that.
I thank all hon. Members for their contribution today. I agree with the hon. Member for Daventry that the debate has been thoughtful, with some fantastic contributions, regardless of whether it is the right or wrong day to hold the debate. I thank especially my right hon. Friend Dr. Strang, my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), for Kingswood (Roger Berry), for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), of course, my hon. Friend and neighbour Gordon Banks and last, but not least, my right hon. Friend Mr. Clarke. All those contributions were valuable, together with those from Opposition Members.
I should like to comment on some of the major issues that were raised and, hopefully, answer some of the specific questions. In some instances, although they were related to disability and disabled people, they are matters specifically for other Departments. I shall ensure that ministerial colleagues' attention is drawn to those matters.
I congratulate Mr. Hunt on his first speech from the Dispatch Box. We will give him the card that specifies the difference between incapacity benefit and disability living allowance so that he is well aware of it.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Scope's publication about access to polling stations, which was a very appropriate subject for comment today. He will not be surprised to learn that we have not been able to verify the accuracy of some of Scope's findings. However, we have taken action to improve disabled access to polling stations. Returning officers are now required to display a large version of the ballot paper, for example. Each polling station must also be supplied with a tactile voting device to assist blind and partially sighted electors, so that they can vote without the need for assistance. For some time, blind voters have been able to take a companion into the polling station to assist them with casting their ballot, rather than having to rely on the presiding officer—a stranger—to help them.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about a young woman who was injured in the 7/7 bombings in London. I hope that he will understand that it is inappropriate for me to get involved in individual cases; indeed, I am precluded in law from doing so. However, the subject was also raised by Mr. Ellwood, and I want to place on record that, as of
We are not complacent about this matter, and the young woman whose case the hon. Member for South-West Surrey raised is a reminder that we cannot afford to be. I hope that her case has also highlighted to hon. Members and to the country the sheer tenacity and bravery shown by many people when they become disabled, even in such horrible circumstances as the 7/7 bombings. The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the man from Buckinghamshire with a learning disability. Obviously, I cannot comment on that, because it is an abuse case that is currently being investigated by the police.
The hon. Gentleman raised a number of other points, but I would like to concentrate on the transport issues that he mentioned, in particular aviation. He will be aware that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 does not cover aviation and shipping services, but both industries have voluntary codes of practice on meeting the needs of disabled people. The Department for Transport, in conjunction with the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, is monitoring compliance with the codes, and that work is due to report shortly. Danny Alexander also asked a question about that. We are committed to legislating if the voluntary approach proves ineffective.
Several hon. Members mentioned aviation, and pointed out that it involves an international market. In airports, the ground side is covered by our own disability discrimination legislation, but the code of conduct on planes is effectively part of an international discussion. I think that it was the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and wherever who highlighted that fact that we raised this issue during our EU presidency.
I do not, however, want to lose sight of the changes that have been made in transport. More than 4,000 accessible rail vehicles have already been introduced into service, and 46 per cent. of our buses are now accessible. I know that that might not be an acceptable statistic to Mr. Robathan, but there we have it. That figure is now rising to 80 per cent. in some of our urban areas.
Taxis are also now getting more accessible. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South has left the Chamber, because I remember trying to get into a London taxi with her and other colleagues in 1997. I am not sure whether the Whip, my hon. Friend Mr. Roy, was there, but my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South eventually decided that the best way for us all, including her, to get a taxi was to hide her. That is exactly what we did until the door was opened, and before we could say Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, we were all in the taxi. I hope that the hon. Member for Blaby appreciates that there has been movement.
To come to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, we do need to get a shorter constituency title, although I appreciate that he represents a wonderful part of the country and I do not want to insult it. On the independent living centres, which were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood, the issue of funding was highlighted recently at their own conference in Southampton, which was run in parallel with the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Social Services. They are working on a funding protocol, and the Department of Health is linking closely with those developments.
The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey also raised the issue of the driver refusing to take a disabled passenger. That is unacceptable and there is no excuse for it. I can assure him that the Department for Transport is funding driver awareness videos and the extension of the DDA part III duties will impact on transport in December. That will start to encourage companies to raise awareness.
I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East in relation to a couple of points. First, he said very kind words about my late father, who was much involved with promoting disabled rights when he was chairman of social work in Strathclyde. Specifically, he prompted some support for BlindCraft in the Glasgow area. I am aware of the work that has been done to turn around the BlindCraft factory outlet in Edinburgh, and I know that my right hon. Friend has been very supportive of it.
My right hon. Friend also made the important point that, for some disabled people, sheltered employment might be necessary. We must look at it as part of the overall menu of opportunities for disabled people. I want to tell him a wee bit of personal history. When I was born, a good number of years ago, I was put in a BlindCraft Moses basket, and very good Moses baskets they were. As a matter of fact, that basket was so old it was probably made by Moses. Thirty years ago, I put my own second born into another Moses basket, because that was the tradition in our part of the world.
I come now to the hon. Member for Blaby. What can I say about him? I think that his motivations are honourable and his instincts are probably right, but—how can I put this nicely?—there are still some steps that he has to take along the road to where some of his hon. and right hon. Friends have already parked themselves.
I fear that the hon. Gentleman tried to imply that there is a hierarchy of disability, although I might have misinterpreted him. I think there are some issues that he needs to reflect upon. However, I welcome his remarks on the work that DFID has done in the developing world and I take very seriously his comment that we need action, not just statements, in that respect.
At the risk of breaking up the love fest, might I take the Minister back to the issue of the Routemaster bus? She seems shocked that people might like the Routemaster, but I would like her to tell me what research was done to find out the opinion of the people of London on whether they thought the Routemaster was good. While it was totally unfriendly to wheelchairs, it had a conductor who could help people with other mobility or sight problems on to the bus. Furthermore, it was a great deal safer for cyclists than the bendy bus. I can tell her that it was much more popular with the people.
The hon. Gentleman needs to realise that the Routemaster bus, in spite of its historical significance, was not just inaccessible for wheelchair users; it was not particularly friendly to people with other disabilities, and in many respects was probably unfriendly to most of the population. I know that it is a kind of historical icon for him, but I understand that the Mayor of London has said that it can still do heritage tours. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, when he recovers fully from what he said was his temporary disability, will be able to enjoy the Routemaster bus on tourist routes.
I thank Mr. Burns for his comments on children with dyslexia and dyspraxia, as I am aware of the issues in relation to getting statements for such children. I congratulate him specifically on his comments on mental health and the scaremongering about the development of projects relating to mental health conditions. I have had some experience of that, and I know exactly what he was alluding to. We all need to work together to recognise that having a mental health condition does not make someone a danger to society, a criminal or any less a good neighbour. The most telling fact is that many people in this country think at this point of time that they will never have a mental health condition, but they may develop one. We need to think in those terms. I hope that he will accept that we extended protection under the DDA to people with mental health conditions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South apologised earlier for that fact that she could not be here for the winding-up speeches. She made an eloquent speech, which came from the heart, as it came from her experience. As I have said, I have had experience of trying to get into taxis with her in London, and I know some of the daily difficulties that she had to face, not just here but in other parts of the country. One of the significant changes down here is that there will no longer be parliamentary receptions, certainly for Scottish MPs, that do not have an accessible venue, because the rest of us will not go to any company's or organisation's parliamentary reception to which she cannot get access.That has changed the mood and the attitude of organisations and companies towards disabled people. I was delighted that she mentioned the devolved Administrations, with which we are working closely, as disability rights is a reserved issue and cuts across all parts of the United Kingdom. I also compliment her on mentioning the Scottish Federation of Small Businesses, which does a significant amount of work promoting the disability agenda among its members.
I was going to compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood on being another warrior of the 1995 campaign, but in the new consensual environment that I hope that I have established, perhaps that would be inappropriate. I know that he still wears the campaign medal secretly under his jacket. As always, I recognise his valuable contribution to these debates and his continuous promotion of access to work, which, we all agree, is one of the great success stories of the Government. We have quadrupled the amount of money going into it. Yes, we inherited that programme from the previous Government, but in our opinion it was underfunded. Let me say to hon. Members that we do not hide the access to work programme—we spend a significant amount of money promoting it through local medical practices and our disability employment advisers.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood mentioned disability employment advisers. We are trying to ensure that DEAs have the training that is essential to do the work that we want them to do in supporting disabled people into employment.
My hon. Friend made various other points, one of which related to whether the contracts for voluntary sector organisations in programme delivery should be for one year. I assure him that Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions are awaiting a report on the issue, and acknowledge the importance of some of his comments.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East raised issues relating to care home standards. He gave the impression that it was all about bureaucracy, but I would like to think that it is about improving standards. He also referred to specialist schools. We have never said that parents do not have the right to send their children to such schools—there is an understanding that every disabled child should be offered a place in mainstream education—but it is not a case of either/or. The Department for Education and Skills has been trying to develop joint campuses where children can still be given specialist training if that is what their parents want, while at the same time benefiting from the full educational and social experience of being at school. We should bear in mind that years ago children who were taken away from their local communities were not given the rounded education that many deserved, and some of the social interaction that comes from education was not part of their experience.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood made some telling comments about human rights. I know that she is a doughty fighter when it comes to issues relating to disabled people. I shall be interested to see whether she does encourage her colleagues to change the name of the all-party parliamentary group on social care, but the point that I shall retain from her speech is that we should listen to the voice of the child. I agree that that is very important.
I shall be delighted to meet the group from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire.
I welcomed what was said by Mr. Bellingham, not least his suggestion that we should parade the message that making reasonable adjustments is good for business.
I have left my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill until the end, not because of how I ranked his speech but because I want to pay a special tribute to him. He was a distinguished spokesman on disability rights when we were in opposition. He too is a battle-scarred warrior in the campaign, and I am delighted that as a result of work that he did along with others in the House and outside, we have arrived at a general consensus on disability rights. While there may be subtle differences between us, much of the present political consensus is largely due to people like my right hon. Friend who continued the battle when it was not always easy.
I welcomed my right hon. Friend's comments about the disabled facilities grant and the Employers Forum on Disability. He is right: the best advocates for employers' taking on disabled employees are employers themselves. In my experience many employers have seen the value of stability in their work forces, and have made the necessary adjustments either to retain a member of staff whom they value after that person has developed a disability, or to recruit disabled people. My right hon. Friend has a special interest in people with learning disabilities, and I share that interest with him.
I thank the House for a very worthwhile debate, and leave Members with the words of the chairman of the Disability Rights Commission. When people say to him "I am not disabled", he always responds "Not yet." That is the message that we should all take from today's debate—
It being Six o'clock, the motion for the adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
Adjourned accordingly at Six o'clock.