I beg to move,
That this House
notes the comments of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Reform, Lord Freud, on
believes that these comments have further undermined trust among disabled people in this Government’s policies, a trust which had already been damaged by delays in assessments for a personal independence payment, problems with work capability assessments, and the poor performance of policies aimed at helping disabled people into work;
further notes that the conduct of Lord Freud had already damaged that trust through his oversight of the housing benefit social sector size criteria which has had a particularly severe impact on disabled people, many of whom have nowhere else to move to and need extra room for medical equipment or carers;
and therefore concludes that this House has no confidence in the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Reform;
and calls on the Prime Minister to dismiss him.
I offer the apologies of my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves who is unable to be in the Chamber today.
This afternoon, the eyes of millions of disabled people, their families, friends and carers are on this House. They include people such as Ciara, who has a learning disability. I had the pleasure of meeting her in Parliament a few weeks ago. She works full time for Mencap. When she heard of the noble Lord Freud’s remarks about disabled people, she said:
“People with a disability are often made to feel like second class citizens and face many barriers when trying to receive the same rights as everyone else, especially in employment. Having a politician place further barriers to us being included is incredibly upsetting and frankly quite frightening.”
Not yet. No, I will not.
“I hope politicians realise that people with a disability should be encouraged to become active citizens, and not to be discriminated against for their disability, and I want to call for a full explanation of how these comments are deemed acceptable in this day and age.”
I hope that this debate will give Ciara some answers.
There are 116,000 more disabled people in work now than there were a year ago. Is it not time that the Labour party stopped using the disabled to smear its opponents, and supported this Government’s and Lord Freud’s efforts to get people mainstream jobs, rather than leave them stuck in joblessness or Potemkin factories?
I am astounded by that intervention immediately after I had quoted the concerns of a disabled woman.
For many months under this Government, disabled people have endured hardship, hostility and fear. They have lived with the consequences of Ministers’ decisions, which are causing them and their families real pain. As things have got worse, they have lost all faith that Ministers understand their lives. They do not believe that the Government are on their side. They have become anxious and despairing, desperate and insecure.
The remarks of the noble Lord Freud last month that disabled people were not worth the minimum wage sparked an outpouring of anger and outrage. That has prompted this debate today, for those remarks go to the heart of the collapse in trust in this Government among disabled people, not just because they might be thought a plausible statement of Government policy or of what the Government really think deep down—that is what a Freudian slip is, after all—but because disabled people already know from the effect that the Government’s policies are having on their lives that they are not valued by this Government.
Will my hon. Friend use this debate to try to flush out details not just about Freud, but about other aspects of disability, such as the disabled students allowance? Can we find out whether the Government have taken away that allowance or partially put it back? They should have been proud of the fact that every disabled student in this country had the ability to go to higher education, but that has been wiped away.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. This afternoon, we in this House have a chance to send exactly such messages on behalf of disabled people, as well as to send messages to them. I hope that the whole House will embrace this opportunity to state that we value them as equal citizens, believe we should treat them with respect, recognise the worth and potential of every person, and will not tolerate an attack on their dignity or their rights.
Of course it is right that the benefits bill for disabled people has risen under this Government, but it remains Ministers’ ambition to cut that spend. The former Minister with responsibility for disabled people, Mike Penning, told me in a written answer on
Does my hon. Friend agree that what is so shocking about Lord Freud’s comments is the simple lack of common humanity and decency in them, which reflects the Government’s attitude to disabled people as a whole? When I have asked questions about work capability assessments or Atos cancelling appointments, the Government simply do not know: they do not choose to find out such information because they do not actually care about it.
That is absolutely right. As I will show later, on several occasions when I have asked Ministers for information about what is happening, the answer has either been that they do not know or that they do not record the information at all.
I have known the hon. Lady for a long time, and I am concerned by a charge she is making. Will she explain to the House why, if this matter of the clumsy and offensive words for which Lord Freud has apologised were of concern to the Labour party to the extent it says, Labour waited weeks after it had the recording to bring it forward at Prime Minister’s questions? Surely if Labour Members were so concerned about this—instead of the faux concern they are now showing—they would have raised it immediately and demanded an apology and an explanation. Why did they not do so immediately rather than wait for weeks?
We were so taken aback and stunned by these remarks, and we considered them so offensive and serious, that we considered it right to bring them before the Prime Minister in the highest forum in this land, this Chamber, in the very first Prime Minister’s Question Time that we had the opportunity to do so.
I want to go back to the question about increased spending. It is unacceptable to boast of increased spending when that is due to inefficiency and the failure to deliver. In 2010, the Office for Budget Responsibility expected spending on incapacity benefit to fall. That projection has now been changed to an increase of £3 billion, which, put against the sort of savings being made on disabled people through the bedroom tax, is absolutely outrageous. Surely nobody can boast about spending more if it is down to their own inefficiency.
My hon. Friend is right.
As we start the debate this afternoon, let me say that we can send a message of dignity and respect to disabled people in two ways. We can do so by voting for the motion to make it clear that anyone who makes comments that suggest discriminating against disabled people or that demean them should not be in government, least of all in a role in which they make decisions day in, day out that affect disabled people’s lives. We can also show our feelings by the way in which we conduct this debate. The real reason this debate matters so much is that it is an opportunity for us to show disabled people that we understand the reason why Lord Freud’s remarks caused such anger and pain and that we understand what is happening in their lives. Lord Freud’s comments have touched a chord because disabled people are already suffering so much from the policies for which he and his ministerial colleagues are responsible.
I think that the hon. Lady is struggling to make her case. Will she explain why, in 2003, the Labour party had a policy to get rid of the minimum wage for people who had mental health problems?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to condemn unreservedly the reprehensible comments that were made by Lord Freud at the Conservative party conference, but should we not also condemn his actions? It must never be forgotten that Lord Freud is the chief champion of the bedroom tax, which has condemned two thirds of disabled people to live in poverty.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this debate is about the Minister’s bedroom tax, which disproportionately affects disabled people and their families, with two thirds of those who are hit being disabled people, their families and their carers. It is about the chaos of the personal independence payment, which is leaving thousands of people without essential support. It is about Ministers’ handling of the work capability assessment and the abject failure of their policies to support many disabled people into work, and it is about the collapse in social care and the services that support people to live the lives that they want. My hon. Friend is right that what this afternoon’s debate is truly about is putting the policies that Lord Freud and his colleagues have been pursuing under the microscope, and understanding what has gone wrong.
In this place I have campaigned on mental health with people from all parts of the Chamber, including some fabulous people from the Opposition. The one thing that I have learned is that people make mistakes. Sometimes people get it wrong, like Lord Freud did, but they apologise and are allowed to move on. Please will the hon. Lady find some compassion for people who make mistakes and apologise? He is not a bad man.
I have known Lord Freud for a number of years and I agree that, personally, he is courteous and caring. However, his remark touched a deep nerve for disabled people and we have to understand why. It is because it came in the context of the Government’s policies and the effects that disabled people are experiencing.
Lord Freud is an intelligent and articulate individual. He knew what he was saying and he meant what he was saying. Does my hon. Friend agree that Ministers, of whatever political persuasion, who make such offensive remarks about disabled people should be kicked out of office immediately, never to return?
I do think that it is difficult for someone who expresses such views to remain in government and in that role.
Let us examine the policy record of the Government. Let us start with the bedroom tax—Lord Freud’s brainchild. Everyone knows that it is a disaster for disabled people. Many disabled people have lived in their homes for years. They have invested in adaptations, as have their families and local councils. Some people need an extra room for equipment or so that an overnight carer can stay. Some people have a condition that means that they cannot share a room with their partner. Many people are settled in their community, with care and concerned family and neighbours close to hand so that they can call for help when they need it. Now they are being forced to move, to cut back on other expenditure to pay the rent or to go into debt.
We all know of cases in our constituencies, such as that of a disabled grandfather, Paul Rutherford, who cares for his severely disabled grandchild, Warren. Extra space is needed in the family home to cope with all of Warren’s equipment. Paul has to rely on discretionary housing payment to pay the rent. Why should he have to go through the anxiety and indignity of pleading for the support that he and his family need? Have we lost all compassion? Have we lost all sense of people’s dignity?
Not only is the bedroom tax exceptionally cruel; it is failing to meet its objectives. Only about 7% of those who have been hit by the tax have been able to move to a smaller home. It is not saving the money that the Government said it would, either. Is it not time that Ministers admitted that this Freud tax is not working and got rid of it, as Labour has pledged to do?
Having served with the hon. Lady on the Work and Pensions Committee, I applaud her commitment to these issues. She made an important point about the tone in which this debate must happen. Does she agree that what matters most is what all of us are doing as individuals and as part of the Government or the Opposition to support people with disabilities to get back into work? In that context, Gloucestershire county council is one of the best rated authorities in the country. Through its Forwards programme, it is working closely with the Government on a Disability Confident event that I am hosting on
Of course, I welcome any initiatives such as those that the hon. Gentleman describes. I am looking forward to hosting a Disability Confident event shortly with my hon. Friend Mike Kane in our local authority. However, I think that we need to look a little more broadly than just at what we all do as individuals. It is the collective responsibility of Ministers and the collective policies of the Government that are under examination this afternoon.
When the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Reform questions whether disabled people are worth a full wage, does he forget that under his Government, hundreds of thousands of disabled people are right now sitting in queues, waiting to be assessed for the financial support that they should be receiving from the Government? More than 300,000 people are awaiting an assessment for personal independence payment, which is the Government’s replacement for disability living allowance.
Can Members imagine what it must be like to become disabled as a result of a catastrophic event such as a stroke or a terrible accident; to have to spend a fortune on adapting your home, on transport to get to appointments, on new equipment and on adjusting to your new life; to have to give up work and to have less money coming in; for your partner to have to give up work as well to care for you; and then for your PIP award, which should be helping with the additional costs associated with your impairment, to become stuck in an enormous backlog?
No, I will make some progress.
We heard again this morning in Westminster Hall that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Mr Harper, is determined to bring down the waiting times for PIP assessments to 16 weeks. That is welcome, but he should acknowledge that it is a less ambitious timetable than the 12 weeks from application to decision that the Government initially suggested in the PIP toolkit. Meanwhile, disabled people are left high and dry for months. I have constituents who have waited almost a year for an assessment. My constituent, Mr W, has even received compensation for the delay that he has experienced. I was shocked when I asked the Minister how much compensation payments had cost the taxpayer. In a written answer on
Most pertinently, when the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Reform says that the way to get more disabled people into employment is to cut their pay, I point to the failure of a raft of Government policies. The work capability assessment, which was introduced by Labour in a staged manner, was then pushed through by this Government in a botched rush. There is now a backlog: 600,000 cases are awaiting a first assessment. Reassessments have been put on ice altogether. People are waiting for weeks, in some cases with no money at all coming in, for mandatory reconsideration. There is a terrible record of poor-quality decision making and a huge number of cases have been appealed successfully. Just last week, The Independent reported that thousands of people with degenerative conditions are being put in the work-related activity group and denied the support element of employment and support allowance. Can Members imagine the anxiety that that must cause, not to mention the waste of resources?
At the same time, the number of people being put into the support group overall is rising rapidly. Far from getting people into work, more people are being cast aside by the coalition Government. People are being abandoned, exactly as happened under Mrs Thatcher, when incapacity benefit was used as a means of massaging down the unemployment figures. Of course disabled people who are not able to work must get the support to which they are entitled, but many disabled people could work and would love to work, and they are being truly failed by the Government.
Mr Stuart highlighted the number of people who have moved into work, but he should also acknowledge that the gap between the employment rates of working-age disabled and non-disabled adults remains at a stubborn 30%.
No, I will not at the moment, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, because I want to finish my point.
For a while under Labour that gap was closing, but now progress has stalled. The Work programme—the Government’s flagship programme for getting people into work—is totally failing disabled people, getting only around one in 20 into sustained employment. It is worse than if there were no programme at all.
One year after the last factory closed, 50% of Remploy workers are still without work. The number of people on the Access to Work programme, which helps with adaptations in the workplace to enable disabled people to work, has fallen by 1,800 since 2009-10, and more and more people are reporting difficulty in accessing it. Although last year the DWP claimed that it was expanding Access to Work to cover internships and placements, and that that would benefit hundreds of disabled people, on
This is a difficult area in which to get policy right, and criticisms can be made of this Government and indeed the previous Government. What is the point of personalising this issue when Lord Freud was wrestling with exactly the issue the hon. Lady has just identified? How do we get the disabled into work, and how do we support them? If, because of their severe disability their commercial value is not right, how do we supplement that? That is what Lord Freud meant and I think the hon. Lady knows that. Perhaps she will put that on the record.
I will put on the record that it was not anybody making those remarks but the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Reform. He is responsible for making decisions that affect millions of disabled people’s lives, and they took deep offence and were hurt by what they heard him say. Those remarks exemplify Government policies that are failing the objective that the hon. Gentleman describes. That is why we think it important to connect Lord Freud’s remarks with wider Government policy.
I will make some progress as I know that many other colleagues want to join the debate.
It seems that the Government are happy to accept a waste of potential, and the additional cost of leaving disabled people on benefits year after year is resulting in them spending £8 billion more than Ministers planned. I think we are all agreed: if we—including Lord Freud—want more disabled people in work, as Labour does, there are plenty of policy areas to consider and policies that could be improved before we start to talk of cutting pay.
We have already come forward with our ideas: to refocus the work capability assessment on its original purpose of helping to identify the package of support that a disabled person who could work would need in order to do so; to introduce penalties for wrong or poor-quality assessments by work capability providers; and to ask disabled people to be part of a process of reviewing and improving the WCA, as they have direct experience of it. We know that the Work programme is not working for disabled people. We have said we will replace it with a specialist programme of locally contracted support that will mean that local providers, who have best knowledge of local opportunities, services and other providers, will be able to design holistic support for disabled people, to enable them to prepare for work. Perhaps Ministers will heed our practical suggestions, and most importantly, perhaps they will heed our promise that under a Labour Government the tone of the debate will be different.
We should all be ashamed that disability hate crime continues to increase, and that disabled people report experiencing a stream of negativity and hostility towards them. Research by Scope last year, one year after this country proudly hosted the 2012 Paralympic games and celebrated our medal winners, found that 81% of disabled people said that attitudes towards them had not improved in the previous 12 months, with 22% saying that things had got worse. Some 84% of those who said that that had happened thought that media coverage of benefit claims and the welfare system had a negative effect on public attitudes.
I am deeply ashamed that disabled people feel hounded and bullied in our country, and I am angry that DWP Ministers, if not actually using hostile and negative language towards disabled people, are certainly not doing anything to halt it. Indeed, the DWP is promoting it. In one egregious example recently, the DWP press office retweeted a derogatory story about disabled people on benefits that had appeared in the national media. Last month’s remarks by Lord Freud have done yet more damage.
Angela Maher, a brave mother battling angina with two disabled sons in my constituency, fell prey to a whispering campaign—“Why is she getting a car on benefits?” It culminated in her severely disabled son having stones thrown at him when he was in his wheelchair. She came to see me the day after the Chancellor’s speech on shirkers and strivers. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely shameful that the disabled should ever in those circumstances be branded as “shirkers”? It is a disgrace that we have a tone that has led to hate crime on the rise once again in 21st-century Britain.
None of us can feel proud when we hear that story. Hon. Members do not have to take my word for the concerns of disabled people. Michaela, a member of Trailblazers, Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s network of young disabled campaigners, says of Lord Freud’s remarks:
“I’ve worked since I was 17 to improve, enhance and find full inclusion for those of us living life with disabilities. I’ve worked with a range of charities as a volunteer, pushing for better policies for a range of services, tried to give my voice to the cause and I can honestly say that I do feel more included in society today than ever before…What happened yesterday”— she means the day Lord Freud’s remarks became public—
“has damaged our position. Lord Freud has enforced the idea that we are less productive, less valuable and by definition less human than the rest of society.”
That is how disabled people feel, and Ministers know how damaging Lord Freud’s remarks have been.
“you’re right those words will haunt him. I cannot justify those words, they were wrong.”
I know Lord Freud has apologised, but the damage has been done—done in deed and in word by the Minister and his Government. Disabled people deserve a clear signal that we know the offence and hurt that Lord Freud’s remarks have caused. This afternoon we can send them a clear message that we will not tolerate such language, and that we value and respect them as equal members of our society. This afternoon, we can vote for the motion before the House, and I ask hon. Members to do so.
I am very disappointed in the tone of Kate Green. This is a cynical debate, and I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State put his finger on the issue because if the hon. Lady meant what she said about the remarks of my noble Friend Lord Freud, she should have exposed them when she first knew about them. The fact is that the Opposition, right up to and including the Leader of the Opposition, used those remarks as a cynical device to detract attention from the excellent performance of the economy and the 2 million jobs that were created—news that was announced on
Not until I have at least made some opening remarks.
The Leader of the Opposition did not want the House to focus on the fact that employment is at record levels or that there has been the largest annual fall in unemployment on record. He did not want the House to focus on the fact that the claimant count had fallen below 1 million or that there had been the largest annual fall on record of youth unemployment. He did not want the House to focus on the fact that long-term unemployment was down, and that there are 400,000 fewer workless households since 2010. That is what this was about—a cynical piece of politics, and the hon. Lady had no answer to the charge of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. [Interruption.] She did not, and that will have been exposed to all those watching this debate.
Let me focus on the motion before the House—[Interruption.] We have reduced the deficit by a third since the election. The hon. Gentleman does not want us to focus on the record of job creation among businesses in our country, so let us get back to the motion.
Let me make one point, and I will give way to my hon. Friend.
The motion contains not a single positive idea about improving the lives of disabled people. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned some ideas in her speech, but she has not troubled the House with any of them in the motion, which is an attack, pure and simple, on my noble Friend. In a moment, I will set out exactly why that charge is not warranted in any way whatever.
Our noble Friend Lord Freud used clumsy and offensive language and rightly apologised for it. Does the Minister agree that for the shadow Minister deliberately to misinterpret and mislead the House as to Lord Freud’s comments for blatantly partisan advantage and to castigate Government Members who care as much about disabled people as Opposition Members shows the very worst of the House? Kate Green made a disgraceful speech.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. The Conservative party has a proud record. When my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons held the office that I hold today, he took through the House the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the first Act of its kind. That is a record of which our party can be proud and we do not need to take any lessons from the Labour party. Frankly, the words of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston were offensive. I will deal with the points in the motion, with my noble Friend and with the positive policy proposals and record of the Government, and then I will invite the House to reject the motion.
The hon. Lady’s words would be a little more credible if there was some evidence that she believed them. Let me set out for Opposition Members, in particular for those who were not in the previous Parliament, some of the history of my noble Friend’s record on welfare reform.
I will set out some of the history before I take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
It is worth remembering that Lord Freud was hired was by John Hutton, now Lord Hutton, the Labour Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in late 2006 to write a report on radical welfare reform. At that point, Labour thought Lord Freud was an excellent person to involve in the welfare reform agenda. He delivered that reform in March 2007. Mr Hain then became Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—there was not a lot of appetite for welfare reform under him—followed by James Purnell, who was appointed in January 2008. On the second day of his term of office, he appointed Lord Freud to implement the proposals in his report. In the Command Paper, “No one written off: reforming welfare to reward responsibility”, the then Secretary of State, James Purnell, set out the proposals of the Labour Government and made it clear that they were
“inspired by the reforms proposed by David Freud in his report on the welfare state.”
The Command Paper made it clear—boasted, in fact—that the Labour Government would implement all of Lord Freud’s reforms and even boasted that they would take the reforms further.
That is the man whom the Labour party is castigating. Labour brought him into Government to work with them on welfare reform. Stephen Timms is chuntering from a sedentary position. It is worth the House remembering that he was appointed Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform in January 2008. Between then and October 2008 he served with Lord Freud implementing welfare reform under the Labour party. The right hon. Gentleman knows Lord Freud and that although Lord Freud expressed himself clumsily—he did so, and apologised—the characterisation of those words is simply inaccurate. The Labour party should be ashamed of itself.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but I fear that he has answered my question before I ask it. It is the same Lord Freud that the Labour party took into the heart of Government. Before his appointment Lord Freud had said that he understood nothing about welfare, so will the Minister explain why the noble Lord played such an important role in implementing and coming up with welfare policy for both the previous Labour Government and the current Conservative Government?
I will set out some of the things that Lord Freud has done in government, but let me finish on the record of the Labour party, which is worth listening to. Some Labour Members may have to do some rapid rewriting of their speeches.
James Purnell, when Secretary of State, appointed Lord Freud to work on his proposals. Lord Freud served with the Labour party until January 2009. He then concluded that there was no appetite for radical welfare reform under Mr Brown. Lord Freud then joined the Conservative party and our Front-Bench team, of which I was a member at the time, to develop our proposals for welfare reform. James Purnell of course had similar thoughts about the appetite of the Labour party for welfare reform and he resigned from the Government five months later. He called on the Labour party to dump its leader, and thankfully for us the public did so a year later.
Lord Freud joined us, I have worked closely with him and he is passionate about getting disabled people into work. I know that the travesty of his character that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston set out is unfair and unwarranted.
I acknowledge all that the Minister says about Lord Freud’s personal motives, but as a Minister the language that he uses is important. It exemplified what disabled people feel, experience and live in their daily lives. Does the Minister not accept that that is why the remarks of Lord Freud, not as an adviser but as a Minister who takes decisions about disabled people’s lives, have caused so much hurt and offence?
The hon. Lady knows that Lord Freud’s mistake was to accept the premise of the question. The man who asked the question is the father of a disabled daughter. He was concerned about her ability in the past to get work. It was an honest question asked in an honest way. Lord Freud himself accepts that he expressed himself clumsily and that he had offended people. He apologised for that when the remarks were drawn to his attention. Any reasonable person would accept his apology.
I am not an expert in the field, but it has been drawn to my attention that Lord Freud was not the first person to make such remarks, however poorly expressed. The Guardian, back in February 2000, called for an “urgent revision” of the rules on the minimum wage to enable what The Guardian called “low output” disabled workers to be exempt from minimum wage legislation. At the time, Mencap stated that while it otherwise supported the minimum wage, an exemption should be allowed, because:
“Most people with a learning disability want to work”.
That was not some terrible statement, but an attempt to get people who cannot be as productive as a fully able person into work where otherwise no job would be offered to them. Cannot hon. Members see that?
My hon. Friend makes a sensible point. That was indeed the policy of Mencap at the time. It has stated that the policy has now changed, but it was Mencap policy at the time. I therefore think that some of the outrage being expressed is not genuine.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned “Question Time” on which the Secretary of State for Health made some comments. It is worth repeating other comments made on that programme, not by members of the panel but by members of the audience. The Labour MP, Ms Eagle, raised the issue on that programme and I think it is fair to say that she did not get an entirely positive response from the studio audience. One audience member said:
“I think Angela Eagle is being extremely disingenuous. I think we all knew what he meant, even though he said it clumsily.”
Another person told her:
“What you are doing is hypocritical point scoring and it’s disgusting.”
A final comment, from another young woman, was:
“I just wanted to see whether you”— the hon. Member for Wallasey—
“would use this as a political football and you have done—thanks Angela.”
The Minister makes a confused argument. He accepts that Lord Freud has apologised for his comments, but defends them none the less. Surely the problem is the message sent to disabled people such as my constituents who came to see me. They have the most difficult life, and find that, under this Government—they say, “Under this Government,”—they receive abuse walking down the street because of their disability and because one of them receives benefits. The Government should take the stigmatisation of disabled people in this society seriously but they are adding to it.
I am not defending Lord Freud’s words. I am saying that it is not a reasonable conclusion to pretend that his comments reflect someone who is not fit to be a Minister of the Crown. I think Opposition Members do not really believe that. The motion is a cynical attempt to divert attention from some of the Government’s economic successes.
Let me set out the details of some of the proposals on which my noble Friend has been working. The House will see that he has improved lives not just for disabled people, but for other disadvantaged people in our country, not just in what he has said, but in what he has done.
That is what Lord Freud did. Many people in the press and broadcast coverage acknowledged that he expressed himself in an unhelpful way, but that he raised a real issue. We need to do more to tackle it. My hon. Friend has a fair reading of the situation.
I will make a bit more progress because other hon. Members wish to speak.
On Lord Freud’s focus in office, he has been working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and is one of the driving forces behind the introduction of universal credit. That reform will be important in our welfare system for many years. Most of the gains from universal credit will go to those in the bottom 40% of the income distribution. It means that we will be able to look people in the eye and tell them that work will always pay, and that more work will pay for them. It also increases spending on disabled households and enables disabled people to earn nearly £8,000 a year without affecting their universal credit entitlement.
Opposition Members know that Lord Freud has been at the heart of the Government’s work on understanding how we can provide better employment support to people with mental health problems. Working closely with the Minister with responsibility for care and support, my right hon. Friend Norman Lamb, he has pioneered the introduction of pilots to test the best ways to support people with mild and moderate mental health problems into work.
In 2012, Lord Freud drove and penned the foreword to “Untapped Talent”, a guide to employing people with autism produced jointly by the Department for Work and Pensions and the National Autistic Society. Lord Freud said:
“We need to be clear to employers that making business environments more ‘autism friendly’ is not about meeting corporate social responsibility objectives, but about tapping into and seeking out the most talented individuals for a role…People with autism can have exceptional talents and by making some straightforward adjustments can prove to be a tremendous asset to business. We need to do more to make use of those talents.”
That sets out his view about disabled people clearly. Any fair and reasonable person would conclude that my noble Friend wants more disabled people in work and has dedicated his time in the Government to ensuring that that can be so.
My hon. Friend is doing a tremendous job staying calm in responding to the scandalous opening speech by Kate Green. Compounding the cynicism, she tried to make out that discrimination against disabled people is a function of this Government. Is he aware of the 2007 Leonard Cheshire Disability review, which found that 89% of disabled people at that time felt discriminated against in Britain? Conservatives did not try to pin that on the Labour party. For Labour Members to pin that discrimination on us is below them.
My hon. Friend is right. I see in the Chamber a Member who served as a Minister for disabled people. She will know that, when I shadowed her, my approach was always to work in a consensual and bipartisan manner so that we could do the best for disabled people. I am disappointed that Labour has not reciprocated.
Let me make a little more progress. I am conscious of time and that others wish to speak.
On the other points in the motion, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston spoke of the personal independence payment. I have been frank with the House, both at the Dispatch Box and in evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee—the Chair of the Committee is in the Chamber—that there are delays and that they are unacceptable. It has been my top priority since being appointed on
Is the Minister aware of a case that I referred to the Secretary of State, in which it took a year to deal with an application for PIP? Three days later, my constituent died. His sister said: “Is this the way to treat a person who has worked all his life, paid his taxes and national insurance, and when he needed help, it was not there?” I wrote to the Secretary of State, who has accepted that such delays were unacceptable, but that illustrates what has happened to so many people, not just my late constituent.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I said in my opening remarks, and I have said it several times in the House and when giving evidence to the Select Committee, that those delays are unacceptable. That is why I am working tirelessly to ensure we drive them down. Officials in my Department are on the case of the assessment providers on a daily basis. We have people embedded with those providers. I look at the matter continuously to ensure that we drive down those delays further.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the delays are unacceptable, which is why we are doing something about them. We have more than doubled the number of assessments since the start of the year to more than 35,000 in June and July. There have been further improvements since and we are driving down the backlog. Both assessment providers have increased the number of health care professionals and the number of assessment centres has increased. We have improved guidance and extended opening hours, and our decision makers in DWP have improved their productivity threefold. Importantly, we have fast-tracked claims for people who are terminally ill.
We have heard such assurances for the best part of the past year. Fast-tracking terminal illnesses was promised months ago. Surely the problem is with the policy. At the outset, many people said that it was not necessary to throw the whole thing up in the air and start again, and that the system had not been well thought through. When the Select Committee asked the Minister’s predecessor but two how it would be possible to process so many assessments and reassessments in the time scale given, we were told that there would be no problem, and there has clearly been a major problem. The Government cannot easily sort out the problem, so will the Minister consider whether some of the policy drivers are the wrong ones?
I have accepted openly that there is a problem with delays in the system, but the hon. Lady will know that the independent review is under way. We have appointed Paul Gray, who has taken evidence and is in the process of compiling his report, which he will give to the Secretary of State in the coming weeks. The report will be published for hon. Members and the Select Committee to review. That is the right way to proceed.
I am going to make progress. Otherwise, nobody else will be able to speak and it would be very boring if everyone was listening to me all afternoon.
Let me mention the employment and support allowance and the work capability assessment. I was criticised by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston for the work capability assessment. The Government inherited the contract with Atos, which, I should remind hon. Members, was appointed by Labour. It was not a great piece of procurement. We inherited a backlog when we came into office. We have made considerable improvements to the process. Hon. Members will know that Atos is exiting the contract early, having paid a financial settlement to the taxpayer. I will announce the results of the process to appoint a new provider in due course.
The hon. Lady will also know that there have been four independent reviews—Dr Paul Litchfield is undertaking a fifth—and we have implemented more than 75 recommendations. We have made the assessment less mechanistic, with better interactions between the Department and claimants. We have also improved communications and carried out an evidence-based review of the descriptors, which looked at the current assessment criteria along with alternative assessment criteria from disability charities. The findings indicate that, overall, the WCA provides a valid assessment relative to experts’ opinions about people’s fitness for work.
We have also built on previous changes to how claimants with cancer are assessed to ensure that patients awaiting, undergoing or recovering from cancer treatment are placed in the support group. We have also retained a strong focus on how mental health is assessed, including, for example, through the introduction of mental function champions. We have introduced mandatory reconsideration. The number of people waiting for an assessment has fallen by more than 20% in the last six months, and I want it to continue to fall.
Can the Minister explain why seven out of 10 people with progressive conditions such as multiple sclerosis or cystic fibrosis are being assessed two or three times? Does he think their conditions will change?
The hon. Lady will know that the WCA and the personal independence payment are not based on diagnoses of conditions; they are about the impact on somebody’s life. It is also—[Interruption.] Perhaps Members will listen to the reply. It is also worth making sure that people are getting the appropriate help. When someone is assessed the first time, it might be that they are found able to work. If their condition deteriorates and has a larger impact on their life, it is important for us to ensure that they get the help they need for that level of condition, so I think it is perfectly appropriate to reassess people at intervals of up to three years.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned the spare room subsidy, which this House has debated at great length. The basic issue is one of fairness and treating people in social housing the same as those in private rented accommodation. That was the position that applied under the whole of the last Government, and I am still waiting to hear how Labour plan to fund the reversal of that policy. It is also worth noting that the example she gave, if I heard her correctly, was of somebody who had received support from discretionary housing payments, which are exactly designed for people who need that extra support. I could not quite see what her criticism was.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to answer that point. The issue about discretionary housing payments, as I know from my own disabled constituents, is the stress and uncertainty of receiving short-term award after short-term award and having to apply, then reapply and reapply. I frequently have to intervene with the local authority to ask it to make longer awards. Would it not be fairer, simpler and less costly for those claimants, as well as giving them much greater peace of mind, simply to make an award that recognised their housing needs?
In preparation for the private Member’s Bill debate, I read through the guidance we give to local authorities on discretionary housing payments, which is clear that it is perfectly open to local authorities to make a long-term award where someone has a long-term condition. That was one reason why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out the amount of discretionary housing payments not just for the current year, but for the year ahead, saying that local authorities could make those awards with the confidence that the money would be available.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments about discretionary housing payments, because I have had precisely that problem with one constituent who has a long-term condition. He was given an award, which the local Labour-controlled borough council keeps on coming back to him to reaffirm, even though it is within its power to give him a long-standing award. However, it does not do so purely for political reasons.
I have listened to what my hon. Friend has said. The guidance is quite clear that if authorities think it appropriate, they are able to make a long-term award. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set out that the funding is available, not just this year but next year, so that they can have the financial confidence to do so. I leave it to others to make a judgment about why authorities might be doing what my hon. Friend says.
Despite the fact that Labour’s motion, in the name of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, contains not a single positive point about how we could improve the lives of disabled people, let me set out some positive suggestions, which Members can think about as they reject the motion before us. In 2012-13, this Government spent nearly £50 billion on disability benefits and services. Overall spending on benefits will be higher in every year through to 2017-18 than in the 2009-10 financial year, so we are absolutely committed to providing the proper support to disabled people. However, we also want disabled people, where they can, to move into work, to stay in work and to progress in the labour market.
Of course, the value of work is not just financial, which is one of the points to come out in the debate provoked by my noble Friend’s remarks. One of my hon. Friends pointed out earlier that disability employment had increased by 116,000 in the last year alone, which is very welcome, but there is more to do. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned the disability employment gap. It is worth saying that the percentage of disabled people in employment in Britain is about the EU average. Our gap is higher, but of course that reflects our better performance at getting people into work overall. The gap has remained stable during the recession, but it is still too high. We want to narrow the gap through the range of programmes we have to support disabled people into work.
Let me say a little about some of those programmes, which include Access to Work. Members of the Work and Pensions Committee will know that on Wednesday I am giving evidence about Access to Work, not only on some of the areas where there have been administrative issues, which we are fixing, but on some of the changes that I hope we can make in the months to come. We said in 2012 that we would invest a further £15 million in the scheme, which we have. In 2013-14, more than 35,000 people were helped by Access to Work, which was 5,000 more than in the year before. It is a valuable scheme; I want to try to make it less bureaucratic and more successful.
The Work programme, which has already been mentioned, is designed to help people at risk of becoming long-term unemployed. Of course, employment and support allowance claimants are required only to prepare for work, rather than having any more conditionality, but providers have developed innovative approaches to support those with significant barriers to work, and one in 10 of the more recent ESA new claimants has had at least three months of work in the first year of the programme. Work Choice supports disabled people with more severe disabilities, with support tailored to individual needs. In 2013-14, more than 20,000 people started on Work Choice, with more than half achieving a sustainable job outcome.
Let me say a little more about mental health conditions and the conditions people have that prove a barrier to getting into work. I do not pretend that we have by any means solved the problems for those with physical health conditions—there is more to do—but the biggest gap is for those with mental health conditions, just under half of whom are in work. The figure for those with learning disabilities is around a quarter, while for those with some other hidden impairments, such as autism, it is only 15%.
This Government are doing a great deal on improving the performance on mental health. I have set out some of the things that my noble Friend Lord Freud has brought forward, but we have also made significant announcements about our mental health policies. The Deputy Prime Minister has set out a number of changes, which will come into force from next April, on the national health service’s performance on making talking therapies available more quickly. He has also set out the pilots that will be run to improve waiting time standards. This Government are stepping up the action we are taking on mental health that will enable people with mental health conditions to get into work.
Finally, on our employment programmes, I want to mention the Disability Confident campaign, which, as Members will know, the Prime Minister launched last year. It is about giving employers the confidence to employ disabled people. My hon. Friend Richard Graham, who is no longer in his place, referred to the event he is holding on
In conclusion, this debate is cynically motivated. It is not about what Lord Freud said. The Labour party knows that he is a man who cares passionately about getting disabled people into work. Stephen Timms, who was Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform in the last Government, worked with him and knows that to be the case. He inspired—in the words of the then Secretary of State—their welfare reforms. Everyone has seen through this debate, which is about trying to draw attention away from the success of our long-term economic plan and the creation of 2 million jobs. I have set out some of the Government’s positive policies to ensure that disabled people can live independent lives and that as many as possible of them can stay in or move into work. I am proud of our record.
I draw a different conclusion from that of the Labour party about these events and how Members have conducted themselves. Labour’s handling of this issue and its lack of a credible economic policy prove that it is not fit to govern this country. I urge the House to concur in that view by rejecting this cynical motion.
Order. A great many hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, as a consequence of which, I have had to impose a six-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. However, we are about to hear a maiden speech, so the House will understand why I have decided that the limit should apply after the first two speeches from the Back Benches.
I start by paying tribute to my predecessor, Jim Dobbin, whose sad death brought about the recent by-election in my Heywood and Middleton constituency. Jim was a much loved and respected Member of Parliament. He was held in high regard by his constituents and, I would hope, by every Member in this House. It is significant to this debate that Jim’s very last vote in Parliament was a vote against the bedroom tax.
Jim and I had a career in common; we both worked as health care scientists in the NHS prior to being elected to Parliament. We both plied our trade at the Royal Oldham hospital, which provides health care to my constituents. Many of my NHS colleagues have fond memories of Jim. Indeed, the laboratory that, until recent events, provided me with gainful employment, bears a distinctive foundation stone, dated
I wish also to pay tribute to the previous MP for this seat, which was created following boundary changes in 1983. I am talking about Jim Callaghan, not the Labour Prime Minister from 1976 to 1979, but his namesake, fondly known as “Gentleman Jim”, who is still resident in Middleton.
My constituency of Heywood and Middleton comprises those two former mill towns, along with the large village of Norden, the former mill town of Castleton and the more affluent Bamford. The constituency is one of those that make up the metropolitan borough of Rochdale. The M62 motorway separates the constituency, with Middleton to the south sitting along the Rochdale canal. Middleton has given us an eclectic bunch of artists: comedian Steve Coogan grew up there, and indie band, the Chameleons all came from Middleton.
A lesser known fact about Middleton is that the local newspaper, the Middleton Guardian, gave the shadow Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham his first job as a journalist—a fact he recalled with great pride when he recently visited the excellent Peterloo medical centre in the constituency. The medical centre is so named in tribute to another of Middleton’s famous sons, Samuel Bamford, the radical social reformer who led the Middleton contingent to the ill-fated Peterloo massacre.
Middleton is also home to the John Willie Lees brewery, a traditional family firm that has been established for 186 years and provides employment to over 1,000 people, plus an excellent apprenticeship scheme, which offers real jobs at the end of it. John Willie Lees also has a family connection for me, as my mother ran two Lees pubs in the ’80s and I spent many weekends and evenings on what many would see as the wrong side of the bar, serving pints and hopefully good cheer in equal measure. In those days it was all electric pumps, and I am glad to see that John Willie Lees has now returned to hand-pumped beer. It even still makes mild, a traditional Northern brew that I thought had all but died out, but now seems to be enjoying something of a resurgence. I believe that it might be available here in the south now, and could even be considered to be ever so slightly fashionable.
Heywood sits in the centre of the constituency on the River Roch. It used to have cotton as well as mines, although now it has neither. Amongst its famous daughters are the singer Lisa Stansfield and Julie Goodyear, also known as Bet Lynch from “Coronation Street”. Heywood is home, too, to the Queen’s park, which, in 2010 was voted the nation’s favourite green space, bringing immense pride to the people of Heywood. The park was presented by Queen Victoria in 1879 and still features some fine original structures such as the magnificent Victoria fountain.
The park was revitalised using funds awarded by the council and by the Heritage Lottery Fund; over £l million was spent on its restoration. In 2007, it was given green flag status and an excellence award from the national Civic Trust. Lovingly cared for by the friends of Queen’s park, it provides an excellent recreational and community facility.
Returning to the subject of this debate, Heywood and Middleton is the home of “Middleton, Heywood and Rochdale against the Cuts”, an active and vocal campaigning group, which highlights and speaks out against austerity measures that affect the most vulnerable in our communities. Certainly during the campaign period prior to the by-election, I encountered many disabled residents who struggled with the bedroom tax. I welcome this debate, which provides an opportunity to discuss the adverse effects of some of the Government’s policies.
I was particularly concerned by the plight of one disabled gentleman I met who was deemed to be in possession of a spare room. In this room, he kept equipment to enable him to manage his condition. Additionally, the room provided a place for his wife to sleep in on the frequent occasions when he had disturbed nights. Under the so-called “spare room subsidy” he was paying £14 a week for this room, which the family could ill afford. Sadly, he is not the only one of my constituents affected; unfortunately, he is one of many. Although I was not here to vote on the bedroom tax, I look forward to voting on the Affordable Homes Bill when it comes before Parliament.
I am informed that a maiden speech should not be too political—I may well have picked the wrong debate to make my speech—so I will wind up here and thank Members for their polite attention and you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to make my contribution.
We are extremely grateful to the hon. Lady. We enjoyed her speech, and we will now hear from Sir George Young.
I begin by warmly congratulating Liz McInnes on her maiden speech. We all welcome her first contribution to debates in this Chamber. She spoke with warmth about Jim Dobbin, whom we remember with affection, and she obviously knew him well. She took us on a guided tour of her constituency. She spoke with confidence, humour and insight, and she clearly has a contribution to make, specifically on health matters. I would have visited her constituency during the by-election, but I was otherwise detained in Clacton. We look forward to hearing many future contributions from the hon. Lady.
I believe that this motion is opportunistic and misguided. I do not think that it furthers the interests of those with a disability or the organisations that care for them. The reaction of the audience at “Question Time” the week before last showed a distaste for the political opportunism that we have seen this afternoon. I am genuinely surprised that the Opposition did not learn the lesson from that reaction before they chose the subject of this debate and launched their highly personalised attack on a man who, as we have just heard, has done so much to advance the cause of those who have a disability. If I were charitable, I would say on listening to the mover of the motion, that I do not believe her heart was in it.
I do not doubt for one moment what the hon. Gentleman has just said, but I have not received one e-mail, one letter or one comment from one of my constituents about those remarks.
Of course there are times when there are policy disagreements on how best to enfranchise those with disabilities, be they physical or learning disabilities, and of course we should always be careful about the language that we use—as the former Prime Minister discovered when he referred to someone as a bigot. However, during the 40 years I have been in the House, I have been struck by the degree of consensus on how best to proceed with policy on disability, and I honestly do not believe that the exchange at the party conference justified the outbreak of partisanship that we have witnessed this afternoon.
Let me pick out two pieces of legislation relating to disabled people. The ground-breaking Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 started as a Private Member’s Bill, promoted by Alf Morris, and reached the statute book with Conservative support just before the 1970 election. Later in the 1970s, one of the first Bills whose Committee stages I attended introduced a non-contributory invalidity pension, which was the first of a new generation of benefits that replaced earnings for those unable to work.The other piece of legislation, which was mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, is the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which introduced a new right to non-discrimination in employment and which had all-party support. By and large, the House has made progress, driving forward the agenda, when we have been able to reach a consensus.
“There is no difference of opinion in the House about the ends that we seek: the integration of disabled people, their independence and their participation in a range of activities, including employment, the securing of proper housing, recreation and sport. Above all, we want them to have control over their own lives.”—[Hansard, 31 January 1992; Vol. 202, c. 1251.]
I think that that is as valid today as it was then.
The thrust of policy under all parties has been to remove the obstacles that prevent someone with a disability from enjoying the same quality of life as someone without that disability. That has involved Government action, including action by my party.
I strongly support what my right hon. Friend is saying, and the tenor of it. As one who was involved in lobbying for the Disability Discrimination Act outside the House all those years ago, may I ask whether he agrees that a key part of disability empowerment is the Government’s Access to Work scheme? I should add, to be fair, that it was introduced by the then Government. It is very important for every penny that can possibly be invested in access to work to be invested, because it is a route that enables many people with disabilities to be helped into work.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and in a moment I shall say a little about how more disabled people can be helped into work.
Over the past 40 years, there has been Government intervention to achieve the objectives that I have identified. We have the mobility allowance, which can sometimes be converted into the Motability scheme, and we have the disabled facilities grant. Both parties have used building regulations to make public buildings, in particular, more accessible to people with disabilities.
Let me now deal with the specifics. I shall try to adhere to the six-minute time limit, although it does not apply to me. We all want disabled people to have the sense of fulfilment, independence and comradeship that goes with having a job. My noble Friend Lord Freud was asking a genuine question, namely “How can we intervene in the market to enable everyone to work if some people work at a slower rate than others or need more supervision?” It was a genuine question, and we have not heard an answer to it from the Opposition today.
The debate then moved on to the minimum wage, in respect of which there are a number of exemptions, including one for company directors. During the meeting that took place at the conference, one delegate said that he had got round the minimum wage provision for his daughter by making her a company director, but that is a rather protracted and complex solution, which not everyone can adopt. What my noble Friend was trying to do was establish whether there were other solutions that would enable the same objective to be reached.
There is no dispute about the direction of social policy on those with disabilities, and I am not aware that the Opposition plan to repeal the measures that we have had to introduce in order to contain public expenditure. The speed with which we move in the direction in which we all want to move depends on getting the economy right. As with the national health service, so with support for disability: we need a strong economy if we are to take the agenda forward. No one has a greater interest in the success of the Government’s economic policy than those with a disability.
I think that the motion should be withdrawn, but if it is not withdrawn, it should be defeated, because it is an unwarranted personal attack. No alternative approach to disability has been advocated, and it risks breaking a bipartisan approach to disability that has served those with a disability well for the last 40 years.
I shall take this opportunity to give three examples from my constituency of brave women who are directly affected by the Government’s changes and welfare reforms, and also to identify the things that I think we need to do if we are to take a bipartisan and House-wide view of the issue of getting people with disabilities back to work. First, we need to provide access to basic facilities in public buildings, especially jobcentres. Secondly, we need flexibility, because that is what enables us to get disabled people back to work, and we need to make those people less risk-averse. Thirdly, we need to understand the law of unintended consequences. That applies particularly to regional differences relating to the bedroom tax.
My first example involves Becky Weston, who has cerebral palsy. She also has a hole in her bladder, and she needs access to a toilet. She was invited to visit Mitcham jobcentre for a benefits review. She phoned the jobcentre to explain that when she arrived there, having taken the bus, she would need to get to the toilet. When she arrived, she was angry, upset and distressed:
she needed the toilet. Many of us will know that feeling. She asked to use the toilet, and she was refused. She was asked, “Are you threatening me that you will pee on the floor if I do not let you use the toilet?” Of course, that is exactly what happened.
I do not tell this story to embarrass anyone—myself, other Members, or the people at Mitcham jobcentre who do a hard job in difficult circumstances—but how do we expect people with disabilities to turn up a jobcentre where they cannot use a toilet? We would not allow that of an employer, so why do we allow it in our own services? Becky was greatly distressed that she was allowed to go home on the bus in such a condition. Even a modicum of compassion was not exercised in that instance. I suggest that Ministers consider what facilities are available if we want people to turn up at our jobcentres.
Let me now deal with the issue of flexibility. People who are disabled and on benefits often become risk-averse, but once they are on benefits and in the system, they can keep going. Life is not easy, but to risk losing benefits threatens huge distress. Only last night, Merton Centre for Independent Living gave me the example of a woman who had arrived at the centre with mental health problems and physical disabilities. She was in the employment and support allowance support group. She had been an art teacher in better days, and she wanted to volunteer: she wanted to give something back to the community. She felt that if she could manage that, perhaps she could then get into work. The centre’s staff helped her, gratefully and thankfully. They realised that she had no computer skills, and was unlikely ever to get a job without them in this day and age, so they sent her on a course.
When the woman phoned the jobcentre, she was immediately taken off ESA, and told that she was doing voluntary work without permission. Her benefit has been suspended, and she will have to appeal. Her housing benefit has been stopped, so her rent arrears have increased. She has now decided that she will never try to help herself again, because by doing so she has only brought distress and misery on herself.
The final case that I shall cite involves unintended consequences. I have known Jeanette Townley for more than 30 years. She is an extraordinary woman, whom most female Members would love to have as their friend. She has two sons. The first was in the Army, and the second, Philip, has Down’s syndrome. She has cared for him brilliantly. As happens in many cases, when she had a disabled son, her marriage broke down. She moved into a three-bedroom house on St Helier avenue over 22 years ago. Her eldest son has now left and joined the Army. She is in a two-bedroom house with her son Philip, who is 29 years of age. She receives carers allowance and maintenance from her ex-husband, and this is topped up with income support. Her income is £106 a week. Philip gets DLA middle rate care and ESA. Their household has to contribute £72 a month to keep and stay in their house—not that they have any alternative, because, as every London Member knows, there are no two-bedroom homes to be had, as that is the number of bedrooms that is most in demand.
Jeanette would move. She does not want to move because she has great neighbours who care for Philip if she is not there; she has a brilliant GP who knows how to handle Philip; and, God help us, when Philip is in distress the movement of the traffic up and down the main road she lives on gives him comfort. However, she would move to save that £72 per month.
How can it be right that we undermine Jeanette in her caring role, a bright clever woman who would have had a better life and more opportunities if she did not have Philip as her son? She does not wish him not to be her son. She spends every day caring for him. Do we want to undermine the limited financial means of such women? I do not believe anybody in this House wants that, and we need to do something about it.
Whenever I deal with disability issues, I always feel I have to make a particular effort to look beyond the label of a person’s disability, so as to see the person for who they are and not just their condition. In many ways, it is the same when I am sitting in this Chamber: I have to look to see the people for who they really are, and not judge them by their partisan labels. It is a challenge in politics to realise that we are actually all here because we want to make this country a better place. We may disagree about how to go about that, but we all share that common idea. It is why we enter public life. It is why we welcome a new Member today, Liz McInnes, whose maiden speech was excellent. As I try to do that, however, I occasionally feel personally let down. I have thrown away my speech because I want to explain why I feel so personally let down by the shadow Minister, Kate Green, and her comments on disability hate crime in particular.
After I was elected to this House, early on in my constituency surgeries I had a number of very upsetting cases of disability hate crime. It is clearly a very big issue across the country as a whole. Nationally, there have been some very tragic cases. There has clearly been significant under-reporting of disability hate crime over a decade or more under Governments of all persuasions. I quickly realised that we needed to create spaces in which people felt able to report disability hate crime, because I wanted more people to have the confidence to report it. When I see the number of reported disability hate crimes going up, I take no satisfaction in that—certainly not—but I see that we are creating an arena in which people feel confident to talk about it, and I find it deeply personally upsetting when that is used as a stick to beat the Government with, because I have done so much work to try to create that space where people can have that confidence.
That is why this whole debate is so frustrating to me. I have not heard the answer to the question the father of the young lady with the learning difficulty was asking Lord Freud. I do not know what the Labour party’s answer is. I wish we could all leave this Chamber and go to the Upper Waiting Hall, where we all might learn something from the display by United Response. Many disabled people have sent postcards expressing what they aspire to and what they want to be able to do in this country, because it is their country, too.
This is not a matter of our somehow deciding whether disabled people are able to work or not. If they want to work, we as a nation should be enabling them to do so.
How we best achieve that is a deeply complex public policy issue. I do not believe they should be paid less than the minimum wage. My own personal preference is the model operated in Denmark, which uses a series of wage incentives to top up what employers are willing to pay, but that is just one of a whole host of options. The tragedy of the attitude that the shadow Minister has shown today in the Chamber is that she has sought to close down that public policy debate—she has sought to close down that consensus.
As we heard from my right hon. Friend Sir George Young, all the great advances in the interests of disabled people have come about when there has been consensus in this Chamber—when the parties have worked together to advance the interests of the most vulnerable in our community. It is entirely right that if people want to work we should be willing to make that happen, because where there is poverty of expectation—and that is what I almost sense from the Opposition Benches—that automatically translates into poverty of opportunity.
All of us have a responsibility for what we say. I am glad that Lord Freud has made it clear that his comments were not appropriate, but the key thing to remember is the goal we have. Only 10% of people with a learning disability are in employment. That is far, far too low. I would rather we spent a few hours in this Chamber discussing how we might increases that, and I am happy to give the Labour party ideas for its manifesto since it seems to need them so much.
We only need look at, for example, some of the ideas that Scope has been coming up with. It is great to get people into work, but we have to enable them to stay in work. I am sure that, like me, Opposition Members have had people coming to their surgeries saying that they are in work, that they are struggling to stay in work and that they need some more flexible form of what is now being called adjustment leave. I think that would be an excellent step forward because it would give individuals greater flexibility in coping with their fluctuating conditions—they may have a good day or a bad day, and they may be working in an environment where that does not always work out quite so well with the employer. Adjustment leave is one idea to address that.
The Labour party continually campaigns about living standards. Well, here is a great idea for it: look at the costs of equipment for the disabled—look at the Office of Fair Trading reports on the cost of powered wheelchairs and the fact that even a set of cutlery for a young man with cerebral palsy can cost £31. There is so much more we could be talking about in this Chamber on a consensual basis to make lives better for disabled people, and what a tragedy—what a waste—that we are going back to politics again today.
Let me make clear how many disabled people across the whole of the United Kingdom are feeling just now: they are feeling beleaguered; they are feeling that they are being asked to pay for the mistakes of the bankers and bear the brunt of the austerity measures. Regardless of whether Members on the Government Benches believe that themselves, they must understand that many disabled people are feeling that. They feel that a lot of the Government’s welfare reforms are less about reform and more about saving money, and because of that particular atmosphere many of them are feeling that somehow everything that is being done with regard to welfare reform is landing on their doorstep. I therefore make the plea I have made umpteen times before: because we do not know the full impact these reforms have had on disabled people, will the Government carry out a cumulative impact assessment?
We have asked for that time and again. It would at least begin to quantify for individual families the money they are losing as a result of these reforms. At the moment, there is mention of them losing £2 here or £8 there or that they are experiencing a few extra difficulties in accessing funds or support. Unless we actually look at how each of these changes is impacting on each individual family, we are never truly going to understand why they feel the way they do and the consequences of that.
It is not just the changes to the obvious benefits that affect disabled people. There are changes to benefits that are aimed particularly at them: the changes from incapacity benefit to ESA, and the move from DLA to personal independence payments and Access to Work, which the Minister mentioned. As he said, he will be appearing in front of my Committee tomorrow morning. Those benefits are obviously targeted at disabled people, but there are others, including jobseeker’s allowance, that are aimed at those who have gone through the work capability assessment and been found fit for work even though they have major health problems. Those people find themselves on jobseeker’s allowance. There is also housing benefit, and we have all heard about the bedroom tax. All these arrangements disproportionately affect disabled people. In jobcentres, there are not enough disability employment advisers. My Select Committee found out that there was one for every 600 claimants, but I understand that the figure is nearer to 900. The Work programme is not delivering as it should for disabled people.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Sir George Young mentioned one of my predecessors, Alf Morris, who introduced the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. That Act was described as the Magna Carta of legislation for disabled people. It was the first piece of legislation in any nation anywhere in the world to recognise the rights of disabled people. We on this side of the Chamber are angry because we feel that that disability agenda is being set back by this Government’s policies. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is what is happening?
I do, and that is certainly how many disabled people feel. One of Alf Morris’s great achievements was the Motability scheme. He used to joke that the only organisation that had more vehicles than that scheme was the Chinese red army. I benefited from having a Motability car when I was a student—I was among the first to get one—so I understand from a personal point of view how important those changes were and how long and hard the fight has been to persuade the people that disabled people deserve opportunities, support and help.
One of the main ways in which disabled people are helped into work is through the Work Choice programme. It is the only specialist disability employment programme in existence, and it sits outside the Work programme. One would expect the people on the Work Choice programme to be in receipt of disability benefits, but that is not necessarily the case. I have visited the two Work Choice providers in Aberdeen, and almost all the people there are on jobseeker’s allowance. Yes, they have disabilities or ill health problems, but they are not the most severely disabled people. That is one of the problems: the very programme that was meant to help those with the most profound disabilities is helping those who are less disabled—albeit successfully; the Minister quoted the results.
The opportunities for supported employment or sheltered employment, both of which Government Members have put forward as answers to the problem, have decreased. We have not yet seen the redeployment of the Remploy money into helping people into supported or sheltered employment. The crux of this debate is the fact that there is still a need for such support to allow those with the most profound disabilities to get into work.
Another big problem, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend Kate Green, relates to people with progressive illnesses being stuck in the work-related activity group. My Select Committee looked into the workings of the employment and support allowance and the work capability assessment, and we found that the work-related activity group had become the default destination for everyone, and that the system was therefore not working as efficiently as it should. People who are neither too ill nor too well, who are disabled but not too disabled, or who are on a trajectory towards either getting better or getting worse will not qualify for jobseeker’s allowance at one end of the spectrum or for the ESA support group at the other. Those people will end up in the work-related activity group. That includes people with progressive illnesses, who face conditionality and even sanctioning. That illustrates an element of the design of the ESA that is fundamentally wrong.
The crux of the matter is that the Government have tried to implement too much welfare reform too quickly. They have forgotten the lesson that these matters are incredibly complicated. There are always unintended consequences, and it always takes far longer than anyone anticipates to implement the changes. That is why disabled people are feeling so aggrieved: they feel that no one is listening.
There are times when we debate issues in this House with maturity and sensitivity, and I am pleased that, since Kate Green sat down, that has been the case today. No one could fail to have been moved by the examples given by Siobhain McDonagh, or by the speech from my hon. Friend Paul Maynard, who is no longer
in his place. The reality is that, if we want to make a difference, to fix the ills of our society and to make Britain the best it can be, we need to show more maturity in debating these issues.
Unemployment for people with disabilities exceeds 50%. Among those with severe learning disabilities, the figure is more than 90%. Many of those people want to work, and I would expect every Member to want to see those unemployment rates fall. When we tackle youth unemployment through apprenticeships, we concede that it is legitimate for employers to pay less than the minimum wage and for the Government to give support to employers, so why can we not consider doing that for people with disabilities? We owe it to them to think constructively about what more we can do to give employers a greater incentive to give people with disabilities a chance. The truth is that the minimum wage acts as a barrier to employment when an employer judges that the amount they have to pay exceeds the value being added by the employee. It is surely self-evident that we should try to identify what we can do to eliminate that barrier. I am not talking about people being worth less; I am talking about making practical interventions to fix a problem.
The fact is that we, as politicians, need to deal with the world as it is, not how we would like it to be. If we want to achieve the outcomes that we have been talking about today, we need to reflect the real world. We need to work with employers to see what more we can do to encourage them to be more ready to employ those with disabilities. Simply to sit on the sidelines and whip up hysteria about the minimum wage will quite simply fail those people. What is needed is a mature debate about what more we can do in this space.
Lord Freud is an honourable man who has done more to support people with disabilities than many of the members of rent-a-mob who have leapt on his words with synthetic anger. His only offence was one of sloppy language. Who in this House is always completely accurate in their use of language? Who in this House has never made a mistake? The way in which Labour Members have inflamed this row has shown them at their holier-than-thou worst. They like to pretend that my party is the “nasty party”. Well, I will tell them what is nasty. It is distorting the comments of a decent honourable man and using people with disabilities as a political football with which to beat the Government. Shame on them!
If there is a good thing to come out of this unhappy episode, it is that the public saw it for what it was: a shameless piece of political opportunism. We wonder why people are turning away from politics. This is a perfect example of why they are doing so. Politics should be about ideas and principles. Politicians should be about leadership, not about simply being weathervanes. Today’s politicians are too scared of saying anything that might be construed as politically incorrect, or of saying anything that could be taken out of context to write a headline. The result is that politics is becoming bland, managerial and utterly uninspiring. It is failing to deliver.
This is a perfect example of an issue that we should be debating in a more grown-up manner. If we do not talk about the world as it is in a mature way, there are others who will fill the gap. The fact is that the quiet majority of people out there are very reasonable. They are not stupid—far from it. Any politician who takes them for fools will pay the price. The public have judged that Lord Freud was well-intentioned. Labour Members can use their friends in the metropolitan media and the charities to try to score a political advantage, but they will be the ones who suffer next year at the ballot box.
Success in politics is not measured by how much of a hoo-hah we can generate on Twitter. It is measured by delivering on our policy objectives. Our objective is to give those with disabilities the opportunity to work if they want to, and no amount of political haranguing by the party opposite will stop us on this side of the House focusing on the real challenge. If Labour Members have not got anything constructive to say about this issue, frankly they should shut up.
I am delighted to be called, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am not going to shut up. Jackie Doyle-Price and I serve on the Public Accounts Committee, so she knows that neither of us are prone to shutting up when the issues are important.
I agree with Sir George Young, who has just left, that a bipartisan approach has been the best way to move the agenda forward for disabled people. We have to be careful, however, not to rewrite history. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was actually a hard-fought campaign. My right hon. Friend Mr Clarke was one of the champions of that debate. I give credit, as I have on more than one occasion, to the Leader of the House, who, in the teeth of opposition from the Conservative party and with the support of the then Prime Minister, John Major, helped to manage this House to a position where it accepted the claims and the campaigns of disabled people, including the campaign conducted by my right hon. Friend. So we should not rewrite history, but there has previously been a bipartisan approach.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Mr Harper, was part of that when he was my shadow and accepted the basic tenets of the 2005 report published by the Prime Minister’s strategy unit on improving the lives of disabled people. That report challenged us all to examine how we accepted our responsibilities to break down the barriers preventing disabled people from fulfilling their potential in education and employment, and to encourage them to make an active contribution to their local community. Work was the cornerstone of that new agenda. But a statement of a right to work does not in itself deliver the right to work, and we need to be clear that the right to work for disabled people has been further undermined by the failure of this Government’s employment programmes to deliver the necessary support for disabled people. They can brush it off, but the Work programme is seen by many disabled people as inflexible, baffling and little more than going through the motions.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her kind remarks. Is she aware that only a few weeks ago
Citizens Advice Scotland published a compelling document detailing case study after case study on the issues she is raising? Does she agree that that is important to this debate?
Let me hark back to the comments made by the hon. Member for Thurrock and say that it is not some weird conspiracy of charities, Labour politicians and disabled people that is creating the environment where people are suffering because of the ways in which the Government have carried forward their employment programme.
I congratulate our two Labour Front Benchers today, my hon. Friend Kate Green and my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms, because they have recently put on the record how the Labour party would devolve responsibility for some of the support for disabled people, taking a new approach and ensuring that it is more locally based within the employment market. We need to ensure that the new approach of our party is not top-down; if we do not involve disabled people in the planning and development of programmes that have an impact on their lives, we will have lost our way. I am sure that we will take forward that particular model of involvement of disabled people.
The Minister made great play of the talk about cynicism. May I say that disabled people have for the past four years been the subject of the most cynical campaign in modern social political history? They have been subject to a campaign that vilified them from the beginning. It started with a premise that disability benefits were the subject of widespread fraud and that, by definition, disabled people were cheating the system. It progressed by plucking an arbitrary figure—some 600,000—out of the air and saying those people would lose their benefits. It ended with a mess, where disabled people no longer know what benefits they will get, how long it will take to get a decision and whether they can apply in the first place. The Minister is a nice person but it takes some brass neck to come to this House, acknowledge there is a problem, forget that the Government created the backlog and then try to take the credit for reducing the very backlog that their policies have made happen. I hope that he will reflect on what he said.
Let me deal briefly with Lord Freud’s comments, because they show just how much we have lost in the past four years. The fact that the Government’s Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Reform thought that some disabled people could work for £2 an hour was not just a “mis-speak” but was more attributable to a mindset. No amount of apology from the noble Lord could disguise the fact that not only did he “mis-speak”, but his comments challenged a vision that disabled people thought they had agreed with us: that they can work where possible and they should be treated equally in that regard. If we start to finesse the payment for work, where will this stop? A minimum wage is a minimum wage is a minimum wage; the Government cannot start to segment it.
I felt desperately sad when I read Lord Freud’s comments. I want to say to him that rights cannot be traded. They are not given but are intrinsic to us all as members of a democratic society. Lord Freud showed by his crass “mis-speaking” that he has failed to understand that, and, as such, he should have had the integrity to resign. As he failed to do that, the Prime Minister definitely should dismiss him.
Order. It will be obvious to the House that a large number of Members wish to speak and limited time is available. Therefore, after the next speaker, I will have to reduce the time limit for Back-Bench speeches to five minutes.
I have worked closely with Lord Freud, particularly on the jam jar bank accounts that will probably have to be introduced because of universal credit and the fact that some people are less adequate than others at coping with money, bills and so on. He has such an insightful mind and his only focus is on finding ways to assist people who do not have all their faculties to cope as best they can in society. It is the most disgraceful situation when a gentleman such as that is traduced and he cannot speak for himself because the Opposition have brought this debate to this Chamber and not the other place. I find that astonishing and cheap. The Opposition should look themselves in the mirror—
The difficulty we all have is this is a garbled piece of tape; we are listening to an answer to a question from a father who was asking Lord Freud whether he would allow something to happen for his child. That is where this synthetic anger and the appalling political football that this has turned into—
The tape is very difficult to hear. The father who asked the question has clarified the situation. Lord Freud felt that he needed to apologise, and people should accept that apology. He was answering a question from the father who was asking for that to happen. Which bit of that do the Opposition not get?
What I would really like is for us to see more than 10% of severely disabled people getting into work. This matter goes back to the work that we as MPs do in our constituencies. I am talking about the help that we give to those who come to our constituency surgeries—help with volunteering and help with references. The people I have seen over the past few years have gone on and secured really good jobs. Fitting people into the right position is so difficult. The truth is that people have bad days, and that is tough for the employer. The employer may be involved in the white heat of technology, and Gladys cannot turn up because she is having a bad day. We have to find suitable positions, because employers want disabled people to be fully functioning parts of society. They want to provide really good jobs and to help people. I see all sorts of jobs available, and have made many friends over the past four years—as MPs we collect friends in this Chamber and outside in the constituency. We now have 400 extra people working in jobcentres specifically helping disabled people to get into work. That is the sort of positive stuff we should be talking about.
The aim of all of us has been totally clouded by this ludicrous debate today. We should be going back to the days when we had a bipartisan arrangement and when what we all wanted was for everybody to get on, to get a proper job and to feel that they were contributing to society. I can see plenty of people in this Chamber hanging their heads in shame. It is absolutely amazing. I really hope that the cameras are picking that up —[Interruption.] No, I will certainly not name them.
This has been a poor debate, and we have not seen the Chamber at its best. It has been a wasted opportunity for the Opposition. It would have been so much better if they had come to this debate with real ideas, so that they could work with us. I heard just one idea from Kate Green. That is just not good enough. The Opposition have played the wrong ball. The public and the audience in “Question Time” had it right: playing the man and not the ball is not a good idea.
The House will know that, for many years, I have been involved in disability activities. I have worked with Members from both sides of the House—John Hammond, Nick Scott, Jack Ashley, Alf Morris and Sir John Major. As my right hon. Friend Mrs McGuire said, I shadowed the present Leader of the House when the 1995 Act was going through the House. There was, at that time, a genuine spirit of consensus from which we are now departing.
I have listened with great respect to the speeches of Government Members, including that of Heather Wheeler, and I have to say that the issue is much, much deeper than simply a conflict between two political parties. I do not want to spend too much time on Lord Freud, except to say that given what he said, I do not believe that Clement Attlee or Harold Macmillan would have kept him in government for more than 10 minutes. The issues here are profound. They include a perception of this House, which is reflected in the support for the main political parties in every part of the United Kingdom, and in the understanding of people with disabilities and disabled organisations of the change we mean to deliver at a time of enormous poverty.
State, Department for Work and Pensions, Mr Harper was able to be there—I came across two articles, which helped me to make my point. This issue is at the core of people’s perception of this Parliament. In the
Armando Iannucci wrote an article entitled, “Why politicians of all parties are kicking the poor.” Its sub-heading said:
“Demonising genuine welfare claimants as skivers and benefit cheats is simply creating a more divided society.”
Some people might think that that is over the top, but there was also an article on the same subject in The Guardian this morning. It asked this question: why, in addressing poverty, were we hounding a woman because she did not turn up for a disability examination and she stole from a food bank? She was faced with all the abuse that a court could provide.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Poverty is high on the agenda when we face our constituents day in, day out. My constituent Matt Hopkins has faced real hardship. He applied for his PIP assessment in June 2013—he approached Paul Goggins, my predecessor, about the matter—and he did not receive a payment until June 2014.
I accept my hon. Friend’s serious point.
In this morning’s debate on whether we really understand the hardship that is being inflicted on people with disabilities and on whether it was the right way for a Minister to express his views, I gave some examples of what was happening in my constituency. I also repeated the views of Citizens Advice Scotland. Let me give a couple of examples of the points that I made. I mentioned that four out of five advisers at Citizens Advice Scotland said that the delays are causing worsening health and, in nine out of 10 cases, additional stress and anxiety, not to mention the financial strain that people live under while their claims are assessed.
I also gave figures from my constituency. Over a long period, applications for what is now PIP, formerly disability living allowance, have been lying for months and months without being dealt with. Citizens Advice seems powerless in this situation. I gave examples of case after case of real hardship. The people whom I represent and the people with disabilities are looking to this Parliament, and what is our response? The Minister of State, for whom I have great respect, helped me make my case when he sought to persuade the House by saying that Lord Freud had also advised Lord Hutton. But that is the point—a huge number of people simply do not trust this establishment. A huge number of people are experiencing poverty, and a huge number of people with disabilities are seeing themselves as victims, not as recipients of the compassion that this House should provide. People are waiting for many, many months for money that they desperately need and for other passported benefits. They are worried, as am I. I do not think that Lord Freud was the best person to speak for this House or for this Parliament at such a dangerous time.
I, too, would like to pay tribute to the new Member, Liz McInnes, for a really interesting speech, and a charming and moving description of her constituency. I congratulate her on her success in what I know was a hard-fought campaign. She is one of a number of Members who have come here recently, and will no doubt come here in the next few months, after fighting in by-elections that might prefigure the next election and the difficulties that all hon. Members have with populist politicians who wish to paint this place and many of those who work here as people who do not listen, do not care and are interested only in themselves. I am very glad that she managed to make her case to her electorate, and that they, by a margin narrower than I imagine she would have wished, accepted her argument that, irrespective of the history of the Labour party or of the current travails of its leadership, she was best able to represent the community that she clearly cares very much about.
That goes to the nub of the motion—the word “trust”, on the fourth line, which is what the Opposition are trying to get at. What frustrates me about this debate is that it really is a debate of two parts.
I will leave the opening speech for a moment, because we have heard a number of significant contributions from Members who have far more experience than I have of the difficulties facing people with disability, as well as from Members who have experienced the difficulties of reform of the benefit system, under the previous and current Governments, in which I also have experience, as do others who will no doubt speak in the next few minutes. No one could not be affected by the significant speeches of Mrs McGuire, or of my hon. Friend Paul Maynard, who is one of the finest speakers in the House. I am also happy once again to follow a man I admire enormously, Mr Clarke, who makes powerful points. Something rather like a centrifugal force has imposed itself, because all those Members have returned to the core issue of disability and left aside the motion on the Order Paper. That is because most people in the House really do care passionately about why they are here.
There was a very good speech given at the beginning of the summer, at the Royal Institute of British Architects, which included the following opening statements:
“Our biggest obstacle…is cynicism. The belief that nobody can make a difference. That all politics is the same. Voters believe we value posturing more than principle. Good photos or soundbites more than a decent policy. Image more than ideas. And it is no surprise that people think that. Because so often the terms of trade of politics—the way it is discussed and rated—has become about the manufactured, the polished, the presentational. Politics is played out as showbiz, a game, who is up and who is down. Rather than the best chance a lot of people have to change their lives. And things are judged far more on style than substance. But this political culture, this photo-op politics, denies people a debate about the things that really matter. And that does deep harm to our country. It leaves politics a game that fewer and fewer people are watching, or believing. People’s sense of the artificiality, the triviality, the superficiality of politics is more highly tuned than ever. And the more it seems this is what matters to us, the more the public are put off. Unless we stand up now and say that we want to offer people something different, more and more will simply turn away.”
We have a choice in this debate, and that is why I am sad, because I really respect the shadow Minister. We have been in Public Bill Committees together, and I too sensed that her heart was not in it. We have a choice to debate issues sensibly and seriously and not to take the easy political route. We have had a great debate in parts today, but it was nothing to do with what is in the motion. I respectfully suggest that the Opposition withdraw the motion rather than put it to a vote.
I listened with care and some sympathy to Ben Gummer. I remind him of the Quaker saying that he or she who would do good must begin with minute particulars. That is why today I want to touch on some of those particulars, which are not minute at all for my constituents in Blackpool South, which has a larger than average number of people with disabilities, often people who do not have family or close friends in the area. That is why two years ago when we were having all sorts of difficulties with Atos and the work capability assessment, I initiated an Adjournment debate when I pointed out some of the real issues with Motability, the revolving door of appeals, and the inability of Atos to deal with work capability assessment. Sadly, some of those issues are still relevant today. Even though Atos has been removed from the work capability assessment, it has not yet been replaced, and in the north-west it remains in charge of the personal independence payment process. On top of all the problems that we have heard today, my area has a particular problem because people cannot even get to an assessment centre nearby.
Our citizens advice bureau wrote to me last year about a matter that I have raised with Ministers and on the Floor of the House and with all sorts of people. We only have a medical assessment centre for PIP medicals in Preston, which is some way from the centre of Blackpool, not near public transport and certainly off the beaten track. It is fraught with issues such as costing residents more money to get there, longer journeys with people not familiar with where they are going and probably needing a taxi, and so on. When I asked why clients were expected to travel that distance, the reply from the PIP implementation team directed me to the Atos website, which stated that DWP guidance permits a client to travel 90 minutes one way for work or a job interview. Indeed it does, but that totally misses the salient point that these are people with illnesses, disability and stress.
I have spent some time trying to winkle out of Atos and the Minister and his officials where we are up to in the process. I had a meeting with them at our party conference and I was then told by the Atos manager that they were working on it and would have an assessment centre by mid-2015. When I asked whether he had been from Blackpool to the Preston centre, he said he had, and when I asked how, he said, “By car.” That really sums it up. On
The best way of looking at these issues is to look at what comes to us from our caseworkers. In particular, I pay tribute to my caseworker, Gillian Tomlinson, who works tirelessly in this area. I want to quote a couple of examples. She talks about Mrs B, who contacted us in June 2014, who receives the highest rate care and mobility and is practically housebound. She applied for employment and support allowance in January and Atos told her that a home visit would not be authorised. Finally she has been placed in the ESA support group. Mrs W contacted us in extreme distress. She failed a work capability assessment and ESA stopped immediately. She is a vulnerable lady who found the whole process difficult to understand.
My caseworker says: “The whole mandatory reconsideration process continues to be concerning, in as much as ESA benefits are stopped immediately after a claimant is advised that they are fit for work. It seems to me that the whole process is now being made so complex that the Government are hoping that people will not go through it and will accept the decision made.” That is indeed the case. The excellent Alan Reid, who manages my Disability First centre, says: “To us people come desperate and, in some cases, suicidal.” That remains the case. That is why Lord Freud’s comments were so damaging and so difficult for disabled people to accept.
May I add my congratulations to those already offered to Liz McInnes on a fine maiden speech? I was a great admirer of her predecessor, who was a wonderful man and an ornament to the House of Commons. He was, among other things, a papal knight. I am delighted that the hon. Lady is following in his footsteps with her excellent speech.
I want to move on from excellent speeches and things that made politics look as though they are for good and honourable people to the less pleasant subject of political opportunism. Political opportunism, of course, is something that plagues the political world and which we all have to deal with. Some people are very good at it. Alex Salmond comes to mind as an expert in that art. Some people might say that Nigel Farage is good at political opportunism, although others might think that he is more inspired than that. I am afraid, however, that Kate Green is not good at political opportunism; she is far too serious-minded and able a figure to lower herself to such depths.
It is interesting that the Labour party’s heart is not really in political opportunism. I notice that the shadow Secretary of State is not here. No doubt that is for very good reasons, but very good reasons for detaining senior political figures sometimes align to a remarkable degree with the disagreeability of the subject they have to discuss. I recall that a former Prime Minister, John Major, was detained by a serious toothache at a crucial point when the leadership of the Conservative party was at stake.
This motion is an example of political opportunism, and we have known that from the first. How did the subject come into the public domain? Was it done in an upright and what we might call manly way? No, not a bit of it. Somebody was sent undercover to the Tory party conference. Some socialist, no doubt wearing a dirty mackintosh, crept in to hear the noble Lord Freud make a few comments at the party conference. Was that the upright fashion we expect even from the Labour party, or was it actually a rather underhand approach to political debate?
What was then done with the tape recording, this gold dust of political embarrassment? Was it brought forth and released to the newspapers? No. As the hon. Lady said, it was kept to the most important part of the parliamentary week. Parliament was in recess, so we had to wait for the revelation to come forth. One wonders why Prime Minister’s questions was suddenly in the eyes of the Leader of the Opposition. He must be a glutton for punishment if that was his view, for surely most Leaders of the Opposition think that other occasions are more enjoyable, for example when it is they, rather than the Prime Minister, who have the final word. The recording was held back as an example of pure political opportunism, to be used at a point when it could inconvenience the Prime Minister the most.
Even our great Prime Minister cannot know everything that is said by every junior Minister at every meeting at a party conference. His mind may be full of many things, but even his mind, great as it is, cannot hold that many things all at once. Inevitably, the Minister came under a bit of flack, and he apologised. I do not know the noble Lord Freud—I have been in the same room as him, but I have never met him—but the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston said that he is courteous and compassionate. So we have a courteous and compassionate man who is contributing to the development and discussion of public policy, and in so doing he said some words that he should not have said.
How is public policy to be developed if every time somebody says something that is a little bit interesting or beyond the consensus, their name is hauled before this Chamber and their resignation demanded? Are we to allow no development of public policy? Are we always to have witless comments being made in a politically correct way that allows nobody to consider what is in the real interests of people who are sometimes the most deprived in society? Are we to do nothing to help them improve their condition or enable the state to assist them in getting out of the levels of deprivation they are in? Are we to be so fearful, so frightened and so terrified of people sent around to spy on public meetings that we never develop policy at all? If that is what the socialists want, they are wrong.
It is always a pleasure to follow Jacob Rees-Mogg. The other week, when the House debated the minimum wage, considerable reference was made to the comments of Lord Freud that are under scrutiny today. I alluded to those comments in passing and called them disgraceful, and I stand by that today. However, in holding Government Ministers to account for their statements, it is important not to lose sight of the underlying issues: the disadvantages that disabled people face in the labour market; the disproportionate numbers of disabled people experiencing economic hardship; and the diminishing support for disabled people as a direct and indirect consequence of Government policy.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the minimum wage is not a living wage. If someone is working full time on the minimum wage, the chances are that they are already receiving additional benefits to bring their standard of living up to an acceptable minimum, especially if they are living in private rented accommodation or have dependants. The minimum wage really is a minimum wage—the clue is in the name—so any suggestion that working adults should be paid any less than that is, in my view, simply unacceptable. It defeats the purpose of a minimum floor for wages if that floor can be undercut for disabled employees.
I wonder whether there is a tacit acknowledgement in the Minister’s comments that the Government are failing those who struggle to secure even low-paid work in a competitive market economy. We know how tough the labour market is in some parts of the country, even for people with fairly good skills and qualifications. I have said before in the House that we need to acknowledge more openly the barriers and challenges that some disabled people face in accessing the labour market. Unlike the Minister, however, that leads me to conclude not that those people should be paid some minimum wages for their time and labour, but that we need to be much more realistic about the kind of support some individuals need to secure and sustain employment and, above all, that we need to stop stigmatising those whose health and disabilities make it hard for them to access the labour market and hold down a job.
Almost half of disabled people of working age are in employment. Disabled people are, however, more likely to be in low-paid work and to report unfair treatment in the workplace than non-disabled people. There is no doubt that many disabled people are overcoming huge hurdles on a daily basis, perhaps because they are grappling with chronic pain, mobility problems and a range of invisible barriers that take a lot more out of them than they take out of able-bodied people. However, there are many more who, in spite of their efforts, cannot get a job or whose fluctuating health condition makes it harder for them to stay in work. Today the See Me campaign has launched a programme in Scotland called “People Like You” to tackle mental health stigma and discrimination in the workplace, so our debate today is timely. Raising awareness with employers and work forces is very important, but the Government also need to ensure that disabled people’s rights are protected in the workplace and that those who cannot work get the support they need.
The enormous changes to the benefits system over the past few years have impacted directly on disabled people and those with long-term health conditions. I will not dwell on the work capability assessment or the Work programme, but I will say something about personal independence payments. People in my constituency have been waiting for more than nine months for a PIP assessment, which has caused serious stress and financial hardship, but it has also put pressure on the NHS, the local authority and those people’s families.
The links between poverty and disability in our society have not been mentioned today as much as I had expected. It is important to remember that one in three disabled working-age adults, and 40% of disabled children, live in low-income households. In other words, disabled people are twice as likely to live on low incomes than those without a disability. I fear that the changes in the benefits system will only exacerbate those problems.
Before I finish my remarks, I want to talk about the bedroom tax. It is one of those policies that was not aimed at disabled people, yet even the Government’s own impact assessment found that two thirds of the households affected were home to someone with a disability, and in Scotland that figure was 80%. I do not know why the Government did not just go back to the drawing board. Instead, we heard all this rhetoric about spare bedrooms, when the reality is that the people who had the least choice about where they live were being picked on in hugely disproportionate numbers.
What has been really pernicious in the debate about benefit changes over the past few years is the way in which claimants have been stigmatised and berated. The sense that anyone who is on benefits for a long time is a malingerer, a scrounger or even a benefits cheat has become deeply ingrained in the public discourse, and not nearly enough has been done here to counter that.
That brings me back to the motion, which calls for the removal of a Minister. I do not take that lightly because—let us face it—lots of people make offensive comments all the time. However, far more important than the fact that the Under-Secretary has lost the confidence of this House is the fact that he has lost the confidence of the disabled people affected by a wide range of Government policies. Those are the people on whom we need to focus.
I very much wanted to take part in this debate so I greatly appreciate being called to speak given that I must apologise to the House for not having been here for all the opening speeches. I was at a meeting with the Home Secretary that could not be changed. First, I add my congratulations to the newly elected Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) on her very good maiden speech. I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend Ben Gummer about the importance of her victory, which virtually the whole House will celebrate.
I am surprised that the Opposition are continuing their witch hunt against Lord Freud. I did not agree with the form of words that he used, for which he has apologised. I would have thought that after the drubbing the shadow Leader of the House, Ms Eagle, received on “Question Time”, they might have learnt their lesson about the pursuit of this individual for some remarks that he made in answer to a question by a family member of someone who was affected by this distressing issue without rephrasing their words. I think that is about the sum of it. I have spoken to him about this. He in no way marks down the worth of people with disabilities that have nothing to do with the economic value that they might add to an enterprise in the workplace.
We have to face the fact that while many people desperately want to work—to find an occupation where they can be of some value and make a contribution—there is sometimes an issue about whether their value can be recognised economically, and that might call for more
Government intervention. The Opposition have not addressed that. My hon. Friend Paul Maynard put this very well, and he reminded the House that only 10% of people with learning disabilities are in work. We should all be ashamed of that and seek an answer to it rather than conducting a witch hunt against a man who is giving his time, without any remuneration at all, to try to help people with disabilities.
The Opposition have a track record in this area. For 10 years, before 2008 or thereabouts, almost 1 million people with disabilities were more or less parked on various incapacity benefits—out of sight, out of mind, with no review.
I want to put the record straight. People were parked on incapacity benefit going right back to the 1980s, and in the early 2000s the Labour Government began to explore policies that ultimately led to the employment and support allowance and work capability assessment, which were endorsed by both parties. It is not right to say that Labour policies parked people there only over the past 10 years.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, which was slightly premature, because I was going to carry on to give the Opposition some credit for what they belatedly started to do in government —with, I must tell the House, the help of Lord Freud, which is an irony not lost on me.
We must not forget some of the things that the previous Government did. They appointed Atos. They left this Government with the legacy of a fairly draconian system that made no allowances for people with mental health issues who took part in work capability assessments in the early days. Some of those people had fluctuating conditions that meant that if they went for their assessment on a bad day, they might get somewhere, but if it happened to be a good day, they would not. No account was taken of that. This Government brought in Professor Harrington, who conducted a number of reviews that have humanised the system considerably. Now we are looking to find a new provider that will take the place of the Atos, which, as I have said, we inherited from the previous Government.
The previous Government did try to start getting people with disabilities into work, but they needed to will the means as well as the ends. It was not enough just to go round closing day centres and pushing people into the community. Their mantra was that everybody had to be in work before they could set about tackling discrimination, tackling the fact that a lot of businesses were ignorant about how to employ people with disabilities, and trying to change public attitudes. As a result of this Government’s more painstaking approach, some of those issues have been tackled at source, working with industry and employers. The number of disabled people in employment is up by 116,000 this year. Over 35,000 people with disabilities have been helped by the Access to Work scheme. I accept what was said earlier about the possibility that not everybody on the Work Choice programme is a proper candidate for it, but that is down to implementation, which all Governments wrestle with. The majority of the 27,000 people who have been helped have been eligible.
The companies that have been brought on board by the Government’s Disability Confident campaign have made a real difference. I pay tribute to Sainsbury’s and Waitrose in my constituency. Nationally, Sainsbury’s has employed 2,000 people with disabilities through its You Can initiative. I pay tribute to the Government for changing the whole ethos—seeing what people with disabilities can do. It really is a credit to the Secretary of State and his team that they have improved those people’s chances of finding work. The results are there for all to see.
I am very grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate, because I have to apologise to my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms and to the Minister for Employment for the fact that, because of a long-standing engagement, I will not be here for the closing speeches. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Liz McInnes on her maiden speech, which I was so pleased to be in the Chamber to hear.
I thank East Lothian council’s welfare rights team for their support. I also thank the two citizens advice bureaux in my constituency, in Haddington and Musselburgh, which always wait until the last minute before they finally come to me to pick up the pieces from the mess that this Government have made of welfare reform.
We have heard calls for maturity in this debate, but I am afraid that I get a little emotional talking about this issue having had a Thursday and a Friday like I did in my constituency, when several people came to see me about their ability to access work. I saw Allison and Graeme, deaf constituents who were possibly not going to be able to continue in their employment because of what this Government are doing with the interpreters they need to be able to access work. I saw a woman who had been on ESA for a year who, having made an application to go into the support group, has now had a letter saying that her ESA is going to stop next month. She does not know what she is going to live on. I saw a woman who had had a heart attack, who was turned down for a PIP, and now has to go back to work full-time long before her doctor feels that she should be doing so.
I have written to the Minister about the case of Mr and Mrs O’Connor, and we have finally had a response. I do not know if that is because I intervened. I never like to think that my intervention gets someone more than the treatment they are entitled to, but Mr and Mrs O’Connor really deserve help. Mr O’Connor has T-cell lymphoma cancer. He has had his spleen removed. He has diabetes, neuropathy in his hands and his feet, kidney problems, heart failure, and severe back pain that requires pain relief injections. He needs help with all his self-care, and his mobility is extremely limited because he uses two walking crutches and a wheelchair when outside. He applied for a PIP in February this year. I would like the Minister to explain—I promise I will check the transcript of the debate—why people are not getting acknowledgements when they lodge a claim for a PIP, because they are then left wondering whether the claim is being looked at.
Indeed, in Mr O’Connor’s case, despite the PIP2 form having been sent in March, it was not until this month—October—that Atos called to say it had looked at the paperwork. When I wrote to the Minister’s predecessor in February, I was told that the Department was on a learning curve, but it must be going around in circles because the situation has not changed since then. These are people whose lives are already incredibly difficult, but this Government are pushing them to the point where their lives are unbearable. That is simply not good enough.
The Minister spoke about the extra money going into the Access to Work programme. There has been a pause because the Department did not understand the impact the situation would have on deaf people who need interpreters. I hope the Minister will update the House on how that work is going.
There has been praise for the new assessment system, but one thing we did better than this Government was to make awards for life. The father of two daughters who have cerebellar ataxia and whose conditions are never going to improve—his family live with that loss and that pain every day—has to fill out a form every two years repeating everything his daughters cannot and never will be able to do. How does the Minister think that that improves the quality of his life or that of his daughters? I would like an answer to that question.
I know that some Conservative Members thought it was political opportunism to refer to Lord Freud’s remarks, but the position that we all claim to hold—namely, that every life is of equal worth and value—underpins what the minimum wage was about. As the mother of a daughter with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, the thing I found so offensive about Lord Freud’s remarks was his use of the word “worth.”
I have compassion. Perhaps I will make some dreadful mistakes during my time in this House, but I pledge that if I ever do anything on that scale I will have the humility and self-awareness to resign.
I pay tribute to Fiona O’Donnell for speaking so passionately on behalf of her constituents. What annoys me is that some Labour Members—not the hon. Lady; I am absolutely certain of that—feel that they are the only ones who feel compassion or concern and that Conservative Members could not possibly be concerned about their constituents. The Minister made a measured opening speech, in which he pointed out that it is what is not being discussed in this debate that is so telling.
Kate Green raised many excellent points that could have been discussed at length, but no—the whole debate had to be focused on Lord Freud’s comments and a call for his scalp. My hon. Friend Paul Maynard spoke passionately —he ditched his speech—and said that this House is so much better when we focus on what we can do, what we can bring to this House and what we can achieve together with a consensual approach.
This whole debate is focused on some ill-judged remarks by a man who has apologised and who has a track record of working with parties on both sides of the
House to improve the lives of the disabled. I think that Labour Members who care as passionately as the hon. Member for East Lothian does will realise that this has been a grossly missed opportunity. Mr Clarke said that he did not want to talk about Lord Freud. I agree with him, but the whole debate is about Lord Freud when it should be about how we ensure that we get more people with disabilities into work.
Many Members on both sides of the House support charities, and I am proud to say that I am a patron for Mind in St Albans. I was pleased to present the first “way to work” campaign commemorative statuette, which encourages employers to take a flexible and thoughtful approach to working with people with mental disabilities and mental illness. I found it slightly depressing, however, that not many employers in my constituency took up that opportunity. The scheme ran for only one year, which is why I am pleased to renew my efforts to work with Mind. We need to find a way to get more people back into work.
My constituent John supports the Conservative party—that is, when he is not leaving us and voting for UKIP, Labour or another party. He takes a keen interest in politics and has spoken to me on numerous occasions. Sadly, when he was three—44 years ago—he had an accident in which he nearly drowned. It has left John having to deal with profound challenges in his life, but he wants to get into work. That is what this House should be addressing today: how can we improve the lives of people like John who are in the 10% and are finding it difficult? He does not want charity, but he does want the opportunity to engage in society and to have all the benefits that come with work—on top of the monetary ones—and the dignity it brings.
As I have said, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys spoke passionately and suggested a way forward to try to help people like John who have to deal with significant challenges to integrate in the work force, which is where they want to be. Let us not pretend, however, that this is an easy subject and that brickbats can be thrown at the nasty party and people who supposedly do not care. People do care. I think we actually all want the same result—the discussion is about how we get there—but to have a whole debate on the ill-judged remarks of someone who has apologised profoundly for them is a wasted opportunity.
I look forward to hearing the summing-up speeches of the two Front Benchers. Lots of issues have been raised, and I am not saying that there are no problems. My postbag is like any other; I am sure we all know of difficulties with the Access to Work programme and some of the systems that have been put in place. Yes, we can blame the previous lot for leaving us with the legacy of Atos, and yes, we know it is not perfect while we are trying to deal with it, but let us be realistic: people who are having trouble accessing work as a result of disability and mental illness deserve better from this House than we have heard today. This motion does this House a disservice, because all it does is call for the scalp of somebody who has apologised for his remarks and whose life history shows that he has actually tried to work for the betterment of those people who have difficulties accessing work as a result of disability.
Order. A great many people still wish to speak, so I will have to reduce the time limit to four minutes.
I rise to speak in this debate because I feel very strongly that every disabled individual, no matter what their disability, deserves to have the utmost respect and to be valued for their skills. We should be doing all we can to break down the very real barriers that prevent disabled people from taking a full part both in the workplace and in social activities.
Before I turn to the concerns of disabled people in my constituency about the effect of Government policies on them, I want to pay tribute to the Llanelli Disabled Access Group. Sadly, it has had to wind up its activities this month, but over the past few years it has done a really good job advising people on how to adapt both public and private buildings, inspecting those buildings and giving out awards for good practice. The group’s work has been excellent and it will be sorely missed.
I will briefly mention PIP assessments, which I am extremely worried about. I have several constituency cases of great concern, because people are in real financial difficulties. One constituent applied for PIP in September 2013 and had the medical assessment in December, but did not finally receive the benefit until September this year. Another applied in July 2013, but had not even had the medical assessment by June 2014. People are therefore having to wait a whole year. After having been to an assessment, they are very often told to go for another one. They ask whether they should go to it and are told that they should not, because they have already been to one, but they then get a letter saying that their benefit has been cut off anyway. These sorts of things must really be put right. I hope that the Minister with responsibility for disabled people will make a real effort to get such things right for these people.
Does my hon. Friend agree with constituents of mine who have asked me to convey that the repeated changes are hitting disabled people in multiple ways—the year-long wait for a PIP decision, or being hit by the bedroom tax—and really terrifying them? Does she agree that we should never underestimate the real fear they experience during a year of waiting for such support?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. There are certainly some very real concerns, and I know that many of my constituents are very worried about what will happen during the transition from DLA to PIP. We obviously very much hope that the Government will sort these things out long before our constituents are put through the process.
I want to express very real concerns about people with degenerative conditions being put in the work-related activity group. It is terrible to have a degenerative condition—it is horrible to have a sort of life sentence—but it is worse to be constantly called in. The Minister says that that is to see whether they need extra help, but they may already receive the highest level of support, so that is rather difficult to believe. They should be exempted from repeated assessments.
I want to refer to the Welsh Affairs Committee’s report in which we detailed several concerns about the Work programme in Wales. It has a very poor rate of success in Wales, with only one in 20 people in the disabled category being found a position. That success rate of 5% is disgraceful. It does not compare favourably with the rate of 7% in Britain as a whole, and it certainly does not compare favourably with that for able-bodied people. Oxfam Cymru described some appalling practices:
“People who were seen as furthest away from the labour market were de-prioritised and only got any support at all after having very strong local advocacy.”
“Work providers…need to improve their employer engagement effort. They need to increase the supply of jobs that are available to people who have been out of work for some time.”
The Work and Pensions Committee called for a national action plan, before the end of 2013, to engage employers in the Work programme. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made in getting better engagement from employers, and give us categorical assurances that no such approaches to employers involve employing anybody on less than the minimum wage? We are so concerned about the comments of the Minister for Welfare Reform because we feel that they may betray a hidden Government agenda. That is why we need such assurances.
As my right hon. Friend Mrs McGuire explained so well, there has been a concerted attack on disabled people, and talk of swingeing cuts to the incomes of those who are already among the poorest in society but who are portrayed as scroungers. Sadly, there has been a rise in the number of incidents of hate crime. There is a real responsibility on everybody in government to do their utmost to combat negative images and ensure that we give disabled people the respect they deserve. We should do all we can to enable them to fulfil their potential, whether in the workplace or in other spheres of their lives.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Liz McInnes on her passionate maiden speech. She gave us a tour of her constituency, which will encourage us to revisit it. She spoke with great knowledge and sincerity about the problems of the bedroom tax for her constituents. Those problems are shared by constituents in my area and right across the UK, and it is exactly for those reasons that the policy should be repealed.
Government Members have suggested that my hon. Friend Kate Green somehow did not have her heart in the debate, but I cannot think of anyone who has more heart for tackling inequality and poverty. She has a tremendous track record on that, and she made several very important points. Sadly, whether or not the noble Lord’s remarks were meant to cause offence, the reality is that they have caused both offence and hurt.
In the short time that I have, I shall concentrate on three issues that disabled people in my constituency have come to me about. The first is a lack of understanding of long-term conditions. I have dealt with people with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s, people who have children on the extreme end of the autistic spectrum and, recently, somebody with a very rare condition, all of whom have been called to repeated assessments or have been asked to travel in circumstances that make it very difficult for them. That shows a lack of understanding of their conditions.
People have come to speak to me about the lack of help and support to get into work. They tell me that there is simply no expertise. It is not possible to get quick access to people who understand their conditions and provide the tailored, personalised support that they need to get back into work. There are severe limitations to the Work programme.
Perhaps the most critical point that I want to raise in the minute or so that I have left is about the personal independence payment. A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter from a constituent:
“After injuring my back due to an accident at work in August 2012, I have become almost house bound. I have had one operation and now after another MRI scan I am awaiting further surgery. I am in pain all the time and on many different medications including morphine… I barely go out unless my partner is here and able to drive me”.
He wanted to give me that brief description of what his life is like so that I, as a politician, could understand his point of view.
My constituent told me that he made a claim for PIP in January by telephone. By May or June, when he had not heard anything back, he telephoned again. As other hon. Members have said, it would help if people received an acknowledgement that their case was being dealt with and a time scale that was reasonable. When he called, he was told, to his horror, that they could not find his application and that he would have to do another one. Since then, he has received a letter from Atos saying that it was dealing with his case, but that it could take 12 to 16 weeks. He called again and was told that it could take six months.
My constituent ended with the plea:
“I am a very genuine case”.
He should not have to say to me that he is a genuine case; everyone should be treated as a genuine case. It is simply not good enough that people are not being dealt with quicker and are not getting the support that they need, financial or otherwise.
The Government’s onslaught of welfare reforms is so punitive and regressive that it is taking us back to the Victorian era. People who are disabled or who have long-term illnesses are being hit particularly hard. Any one of us could fall ill, become disabled or fall on hard times. We have a welfare system so that people have a safety net, but I am afraid that it is failing.
The main point that I want to make in the short time that I have is about social security sanctions. The Government’s sanctions regime was introduced at the end of 2012. More than 4.5 million people on jobseeker’s allowance had been sanctioned by March this year.
More than 2 million of those people had a sanction where payments were stopped for at least four weeks. Last year, the number of people with disabilities or long-term conditions on employment and support allowance who were sanctioned increased by 250%.
David Clapson, a former soldier who had diabetes, was sanctioned and his money was stopped. When his electricity was cut off, he could not keep his insulin cold and so could not use it. Unfortunately, he died. I pay tribute to his sister, Gill Thompson, for all that she has done to raise awareness of what happened to David. Sadly, his is not the only case.
More than 200,000 people signed a petition calling for an independent inquiry into sanctions. Last week, after the Government refused to hold an independent inquiry into the sanctions scandal, the Work and Pensions Committee agreed to hold an inquiry into it. We will examine the appropriateness of sanctions and their efficacy and effects. We will also consider how they are used for people who are on ESA and the alternatives to financial sanctions.
There is anecdotal evidence that it has been Government policy to have targets for sanctions. The initial findings of a research group at Oxford university show that, of the 2 million-plus people on JSA who were sanctioned, one in four left JSA and more than half of those did so for reasons other than employment. That blows out of the water the Government’s claims that their welfare reforms are getting people back to work.
In the limited time available, I also want to refer to the personal independence payment that has affected many of my constituents. One has waited 10 months for his assessment and been passed from pillar to post, with mixed-up assessment dates and the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. We have heard of an assessment backlog affecting 300,000 people. I hope that the Minister will be able to give a fuller response than he gave to the Work and Pensions Committee when explaining why advisers were made redundant when there was an escalation and backlog of cases, because, quite frankly, that was inadequate.
I, too, have several constituents who have expressed to me their anger at the statement by Lord Freud. They wanted me to raise those concerns in Parliament, so I am glad to have the opportunity to associate myself with the motion today. As time is limited, however, I will not dwell on those comments, but concentrate instead on the delays to assessments and to decisions on applications for the personal independence payment.
Members on both sides of the House will know that PIP affects many of our constituents. Countrywide the numbers are immense and underline that yet another welfare reform policy from this Government is being introduced in a botched and chaotic manner. According to Government figures, 329,000 disabled people are currently stuck in a backlog to see whether they qualify for PIP. A recent powerful report from Citizens Advice Scotland, “Voices from the frontline” highlighted the personal impact on so many people of delays in PIP assessment decisions. It estimated that claimants typically wait at least six months for the assessment. A Macmillan Cancer Support report last June came to the same finding—cancer patients are waiting at least six months—and many Members will have examples from their constituencies of much longer delays. I have had cases of people who applied for PIP in July or September 2013. More than a year later they are still waiting for a decision.
We must ask why there are such delays on PIP assessments and applications. One strong argument is that there are not enough assessment centres. That is important for people who live a long way from a centre—obviously, the more centres there are, the easier it will be for people to get to them. There are also indications that the number of people having face-to-face assessments is higher than the Government originally estimated and that claimants’ interviews are taking longer. That may be a good thing, but those factors will presumably impact on the demand for assessments and the delays that result from that. The introduction of PIP was called a “fiasco” by the Public Accounts Committee. The accumulating evidence of what is happening is all the more shocking because it is so similar to what occurred with employment and support allowance and work capability assessments—the same company, Atos, was involved there.
In the time available I want to highlight a different aspect of this issue. For many people, delays to PIP, ESA and other benefits will not only affect their income but have consequences for their health because of the stress involved in the delay and the associated impact on them and their families. Some people will face difficulties as a result of a delay. For others, the assessment will come too late as they will no longer be alive.
Let me take this opportunity briefly to raise one issue from the campaign by Gordon Aikman, who is well known in Scotland, to improve the care and support of people with motor neurone disease. Half of those diagnosed with MND die within 14 months. Claims from people with a terminal illness who are not expected to live more than six months can be fast-tracked, but where does that leave people living with a rapidly progressing condition such as MND who may be expected to live longer—although perhaps not much longer—but who could still have to wait at least six months for their PIP claim to be assessed? I call on the Government to introduce measures to fast-track PIP applications for people with MND or other rapidly progressing conditions, so that at least a decision can be made and they can get the benefits to which they are entitled.
I congratulate Liz McInnes on her maiden speech. Her predecessor, Jim Dobbin, was a good friend of all of us in the House and was deeply appreciated and loved by many. We look forward to her valuable contributions.
Democratic Unionist party Members and other Members from Northern Ireland opposed the welfare reforms. The necessary changes had to be made in this House, but Sinn Fein obstructed the process in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Those who are disabled, those who are on benefits, those who are on jobseeker’s allowance and those who are taxpayers are under the cosh of Sinn
Fein’s objections to the process in Northern Ireland. The changes could have been made here, but the measures were absent from this Chamber.
I employ eight staff, one of whom does nothing but deal with benefits, and the task has increased greatly. I and charities such as Disability Rights UK and Disability Action are particularly concerned about the work capability assessment for ESA. Those with acute physical and emotional pressures and disabilities and those who need therapeutic work because of anxiety and depression are under severe pressure, which concerns me greatly. Thirty-seven per cent. of work capability assessment decisions were appealed, and an astonishing 23% were overturned in favour of the appellant. There are clearly problems with the system and it is not working correctly.
Many Members have said that all Members are concerned about the welfare changes, but let us be clear: the changes are being made not by Members on the Opposition Benches but by those on the Government Benches, so let us put the blame where it lies.
Citizens Advice offered advice in September 2013 to 72,000 disabled people with debt problems. It found that rent arrears had continued to rise and that one third of landlords’ clients advised on eviction or repossession were disabled or had long-term health conditions. Some 12% of disabled people used food banks in 2013.
Members have commented on housing benefit and discretionary payments. Come the new year the discretionary housing benefit budget in my constituency will be running out and those who need it will be under pressure. We are all aware of what that means.
I have great concern about the bedroom tax or the spare room subsidy, depending on one’s definition. We hoped that changes would be made in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but unfortunately they have been held up. The time scale for the change from disability living allowance to the personal independence payment is completely unsatisfactory.
The independent living fund has been removed and the role of devolved government and local authorities has changed. Local charities have expressed concern and I hope that the Government will change their position on the ILF.
I support the motion.
May I say what a terrific speech we heard from my hon. Friend Liz McInnes? It presaged the contribution she will make in the House.
Of course Lord Freud’s statement was a disgrace, but I am more worried about what he is doing than about what he is saying. I opposed his appointment under the previous Government, and I did so under this one. The appointment of a venture capitalist to advise on welfare benefits is bizarre.
“Wounded war heroes are to keep their disability benefits for life after the PM stepped in to halt a bid to cut them. Worried veterans—including soldiers who lost limbs in battle—had been facing humiliating re-tests that could have seen them stripped of crucial cash. But David Cameron has now slapped down the MoD bureaucrats and ruled that anyone left disabled by military service must be exempt from benefit cuts.”
In the article, the Prime Minister was quoted as saying:
“I made a promise to our forces that they will get special treatment, and I intend to stick to it.”
The Royal British Legion was quoted:
“We applaud the Prime Minister and” the Work and Pensions Secretary
“for standing up for our wounded heroes.”
“the Cabinet has just agreed that War Pensioners can retain access to DLA as an acknowledgment of their service to the nation”.
At the Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister stood up and, in a warm speech, congratulated our veterans from various wars since the second world war. The problem was that, at the very same time, 80,000 veterans received a letter warning them that their access to DLA was about to be withdrawn, completely contrary to the statement made in July 2012 at Camp Bastion.
The defence personnel secretariat was in utter confusion. Its briefing said that disabled war pensioners would have access to the more generous constant care allowance, which is a supplement added to the basic pension. That was misleading and completely incorrect. It disregarded the fact that war pensioners need to demonstrate an 80% disability to access the constant care allowance. The recipients of the new armed forces compensation scheme need to demonstrate a 50% permanent disability.
There are 166,000 disabled war pensioners. Half of them—80,000—are beyond the age of 70 and will therefore retain access to disability living allowance, but the remainder will have to go through the same process as everyone else, despite the promises and assurances given by the Prime Minister and reinforced by the Secretary of State. As has been pointed out time and again by Opposition Members, that means they will endure six to 12-month waits for the assessment on PIP, the non-delivery of benefits and the cutting of benefits. Is that what the Prime Minister wanted when he congratulated disabled war veterans and honoured them for the sacrifices they have made in the interests of this country and to defend this country’s interests? I do not think it was. Either, like Lord Freud, the Prime Minister misspoke, or—others have accused him of this—this is a betrayal, which would be unacceptable.
We have had a wide-ranging debate with thoughtful contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House about how best to support disabled people. Lord Freud’s words touched a nerve with disabled people around the country because of their experience in the past few years. They felt that, in those words, there was an explanation of what has happened, such as the bedroom tax and the delays with PIP assessments, which we have heard a lot about in the debate.
In an excellent speech opening the debate, my hon. Friend Kate Green pointed out that half of former Remploy employees are still out of work. A constituent came to see me yesterday morning. He has cerebral palsy. He worked for 25 years at the local Remploy factory, which closed in 2012. He came to see me before the closure because he was worried that he would end up on the scrapheap. Today, he believes that that is exactly where he is. Promises were made about support, but he has had one trial for a call centre job in the two years since the factory closed down, and it came to nothing. The promises that were made have simply not been kept and help has not materialised, and disabled people have been let down.
Earlier this afternoon, I met representatives from the residential training colleges for disabled people and those furthest from the workplace. Between them—there are nine of them—they get hundreds of people into work every year. They have a contract until next August. They have no idea what happens beyond that. They told me that the Minister has repeatedly refused to meet them despite their requests. Once again, disabled people are being left in limbo.
The hon. Gentleman raised a sad individual case and drew a general conclusion. Does he accept that since 2010 166,000 more disabled people are in work than when we took office?
As the Minister was right to acknowledge, the employment rate penalty for disabled people is not going down. It was going down in the past; it is no longer going down. Part of the reason for that is what has happened with the Work programme. In respect of people out of work on health grounds—people on employment and support allowance—the invitation to tender for the Work programme said that if there was no programme at all, 15% of them would be expected to get job outcomes within two years. Actual performance, with the Work programme in place, has been worse than half of that—an extraordinary failure rate of 93%.
The Minister told us earlier that the Work programme is now doing a bit better and that one in 10 people are getting some help. That still means that 90% are not being helped—an extraordinary failure. [Interruption.] What the Secretary of State is chuntering from the Front Bench is wrong. All the current funding for the Work programme comes from job outcome payments. According to a recent written answer, the Work programme paid out in total £332 million in job outcome payments between June 2011 and March 2014. Only £19 million of that was payments in respect of ESA claimants. Very little has been spent on helping disabled people back to work, so it is not surprising that so few have been helped.
I join other speakers in the debate in congratulating my hon. Friend Liz McInnes on her excellent maiden speech. I echo her tribute to her predecessor, Jim Dobbin. I did a little canvassing during her election campaign and spoke to one man who said he would vote for her. He has since written to me to tell me that after that he met my hon. Friend and was delighted that he had made the right decision by voting for her. It was quite a long letter, which I have passed on to her. I know that she will have a very successful tenure as the local Member.
The situation does not need to be as it is at present. The plan that we have set out shows how we can do much better for disabled people than we have been doing. We agree with the independent taskforce on poverty and disability chaired by Sir Bert Massie, and with the think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, that we need to take people on ESA, other than those with the very shortest diagnoses, out of the Work programme and set up a new programme for them. We understand why Ministers wanted everybody in the same programme; it clearly has not worked. The Minister cannot pretend that the Work programme has been anything other than a failure for disabled people. We need a different approach. That is the clear lesson from Australia about the advantages of separate disability employment services. The new programme would move away from the outcome-based funding which has clearly not worked.
We also need a much more localised approach. Partly because of those huge regional contracts in the Work programme, it has squeezed out the good local voluntary sector expertise that can do so much to help. We want instead a programme contracted at the city region/local enterprise partnership level, and we want provision to reflect the local labour market. We want local authorities, colleges, employers and, critically, the health service to be around the table. Such integration can be achieved at a city region level. It cannot be achieved, as the Government have shown, from Whitehall.
The Working Well project in Manchester is a good example. It is for people claiming ESA who, after two years on the Work programme, do not have a job—of course, that is the great majority of people on ESA who start on the Work programme. It has been commissioned by the Greater Manchester combined local authorities. The project board is chaired by one of the chief executives and includes Jobcentre Plus, NHS England, the local drug and alcohol team, mental health trusts, colleges and adult education services. Protocols have been drawn up setting up how participants in that programme will be served with health and housing interventions. The funding model is different, with some up-front payments, not just job outcome payments. The contract requires that every client must be seen at least once per fortnight. We need those minimum standards. We have heard a lot from those participating in the Work programme, some of whom have received just an occasional phone call from their provider. We need the NHS to be part of the programme as well. That is the way forward to do a much better job.
We cannot afford to continue wasting the potential of so many disabled people—to continue to tell disabled people by our actions that they are not “worth” it, as the Minister did so shockingly with his words. We need to value disabled people—to enable them to make a contribution, as so many could and, as we have heard in this debate, wish to. The employment gap between disabled people and others is no longer falling. We need to change policies to start bringing it down again. That is worth doing. We need to learn lessons from all the other OECD countries that have a higher employment rate than we do among disabled people. It needs a change of approach; it needs Ministers who respect disabled people; and I am afraid it also needs a change of Government.
I want first to congratulate Liz McInnes on her maiden speech. It was delivered with humour, confidence and skill. I look forward to her future contributions in the House. I would also like to pay tribute to her predecessor, Jim Dobbin, a Member of the House who was much respected and well liked in all parts of the House. He will be sorely missed.
Returning to today’s motion and debate, there is one point on which there is consensus and on which we all agree, which is that the words used by my noble Friend Lord Freud were wrong. And do you know what? He came forward immediately and said the same thing: he agreed. He apologised without reservation for his words and then went on to explain fully how he listened to the pleas of a father of a disabled child saying what he would do, who had used his same words. For clarity, nothing that my noble Friend said on that occasion was Government policy—not now and not in the future. National minimum wage entitlement applies to workers whether they are disabled or non-disabled. That is the Government’s policy.
Let me confirm that this Government’s overarching ambition is to enable disabled people to fulfil their potential and fulfil their ambitions. The UK has a proud history of furthering the rights of disabled people. I am pleased to say that even in these very tough economic times, this Government have continued that progress and continued to maintain this country as a world leader in the support it gives to disabled people, spending £60 billion a year on benefits and support for those who face the greatest barriers to enable them to participate fully in society. We spend nearly double the OECD average, a fifth more than the European average, double what America spends and six times what Japan spends. In every year up to 2017-18, we will be spending more on disability benefits than in 2009-10.
Let me explain what has happened over the last few years. No one would know this from listening to today’s debate, but there are now nearly 3 million disabled people in work, which is up 116,000 this year. Access to Work is helping more people—5,000 more than in 2011-12. An extra £15 million has been put into that programme. Attainment levels for pupils with special educational needs have increased since 2010-11 at both GCSE and A-level. The number of disabled students gaining their first degree has increased from nearly 32,000 to nearly 40,000 now. We have also reduced the proportion of disabled people in relative income poverty. These are the things that are happening. Social participation has increased. Sports participation has increased. Those are the facts that we need to set out.
We have heard various Members of the House deliver some powerful speeches today. Let me turn first to my hon. Friend Paul Maynard, who said, “I want to look past labels; I want to make the world a better place. Isn’t that why most of us came into this House?” I believe that is true. He talked about the work he has done on disability hate crime. When I was the Minister for disabled people, I visited the work he was doing providing safe places for people to come forward and explain what was happening to them. He has played a key and crucial part in the journey towards people feeling able to come forward and talk about the issue.
Many Members asked why we, in the epicentre of democracy and the home of free speech, should not be able to talk about the matters that really concern the public. Should we not be able to tackle them head-on, without shying away from some of the difficult issues? Was that not what Lord Freud was trying to do? My hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price said that most clearly, as did my hon. Friends the Members for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) and for Ipswich (Ben Gummer).
I want to move on to something that I hoped today’s debate would touch on, but it did not. I am going to read out what a mum, Candice Baxter from Grimsby, said. It would have been better if more time had been devoted today to listening to what some people who heard Lord Freud’s words had to say about them. She said:
“My daughter’s ambition is to get a job in an office. She has Down’s syndrome. She thinks that, if she works hard, someone, somewhere will give her a job. At £6.50 an hour, it’s never going to happen.”
Maybe at something else, it could. She continued:
“The minimum wage protects from unscrupulous employers. But for my child, it is a barrier to meaningful employment. Indeed, because of the minimum wage, she is destined for a life of short-lived, voluntary non-jobs”.
This is the mother of a disabled child, and she wanted this issue debated here today, but we never debated it. What we did was just talk about what Lord Freud said. This demonstrates what parents of disabled people wanted the debate to be about. Kate Green, who should have talked about that, did not do so.
I will not give way. I have listened to points raised for several hours, and many of them were wrong, particularly those about the Work programme and how we are helping disabled people through it. Over 60,000 people have got a job from the Work programme, which is now on track to deliver a 17% higher performance than Pathways to Work. That means it is supporting an additional 7,000 people back into work. Furthermore, the Work programme is helping more people than any previous employment programme did, which I think needs to be put on the record.
When we talked about Remploy and the staff who used to work there, a couple of points made by Stephen Timms were wrong. In fact, 80% of former employees have now found jobs or are receiving specialist tailored employment and support to help them find one. These are the sort of things we are doing to help disabled people, as well as helping an extra 116,000 people into work in the last year.
When we talk about positive initiatives moving forward, I was delighted to be part of the Government who introduced Disability Confident, which was about moving forward and working with employers. How do we best engage with employers? It is about having a conversation with and listening to them, but it is equally for them to understand—this is where we started the conversation with employers—that the disability pound is worth £80 billion a year. It makes sense for employers to get involved with the disability movement and employ more disabled people. When they looked at the issue in a logical way and thought about who were the people shopping in their stores and listening to the things they were saying, they realised that they should get on board with Disability Confident. I am pleased to say that
1,100 companies are involved. That conversation has partly led to 116,000 more disabled people getting into work this year.
As for media coverage, we all agree that it is totally wrong to stereotype people or depict them in a negative way. That is why I was pleased to arrange a round table and to secure a motion for moving forward with some of the main players in the media to make sure that they employed more disabled people—not just in front of screen, but behind screen. They are now creating the programmes and the words said and moving forward so that everybody is portrayed in the best possible light.
We have to reject the motion, because it is absolutely wrong, although many Government Members suggested that it would be best for us not to vote on it, and for the Opposition to remove it. We have every confidence in Lord Freud, who has done so much—working for both this Government and the Labour Government—to advance the status and the job outcomes of disabled people.