Disabled People: Covid-19

Women and Equalities – in the House of Commons on 23rd September 2020.

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Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

What assessment she has made of the effect on disabled people of the covid-19 outbreak.

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The Government are committed to supporting disabled people affected by the covid-19 outbreak. We continue to monitor the impact of covid-19 on disabled people using existing and new data sources.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

Between March and July, disabled people, including people with a health condition or impairment, accounted for almost 60% of all covid deaths, yet a survey of disabled people in Greater Manchester revealed that eight out of 10 were not included in the official Government shielded group, in spite of 57% having significant support needs. With the second wave upon us, what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that all clinically vulnerable people are shielded and properly supported?

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

That is a really important point. Through my work as the Minister for Disabled People and in conjunction with the Disability Unit, for which I am responsible, where stakeholders identify challenges around support for those who were shielding, we raise that with the relevant Minister. Obviously, shielding has come to an end, and that is kept under review. We must ensure that people feel safe, particularly those who are seeking to work. We expect employers to act in accordance with the Equality Act 2010. Working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Health and Safety Executive and ACAS, we are publishing helpful guidance to ensure that there is sufficient support for those who are coming out of shielding and returning to normality.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

The charity SignHealth has been working to provide British Sign Language translation for covid sufferers in health settings free of charge since the pandemic began. It has submitted a grant application to the Department of Health and Social Care, but so far that has not been awarded. Will my hon. Friend use his best endeavours with colleagues at that Department to get this apparent blockage shifted? As we seek to avoid a second wave of the virus, we also have to ensure that deaf people who are reliant on BSL as their main form of communication are not disadvantaged in their access to information.

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I know that, through my right hon. Friend’s work as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, there is no stronger advocate for accessible communications. Stakeholders rightly raise this issue time and again, and through the Disability Unit, we have reminded all Departments of the importance of it. It sounds to me like SignHealth has provided a wonderful service. I know that the DHSC values good services, and I will encourage the relevant Minister to look at this personally and respond as quickly as possible.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

Before I ask my question, I would like to pay tribute to the many people out there with disabilities who have been helping others during the pandemic. It is important to keep saying that having a disability does not stop someone contributing. However, for many people, their disability prevents them from having a job, and they are dependent on social security payments. Sometimes they have to jump through hoops to prove that they are disabled enough to “deserve” those payments. Face-to-face work capability assessments are on hold right now, understandably, but the wait is causing untold stress, so will the Minister represent the needs of those people to the Work and Pensions Secretary and join me in calling for paper-based assessments to be made available to everyone?

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

That is a really good question. First, the hon. Lady is absolutely right about people wanting to contribute. If we ask any disabled person, they want to have the same opportunities that anyone else would take for granted. Rightly, we had to suspend face-to-face assessments. We have used paper-based reviews where possible, and we are bringing telephone assessments into the WCA in the same way that we have done with personal independence payments, which is warmly welcomed by stakeholders. In the long term, as part of the Green Paper in the coming months, we will be exploring better ways to reform the assessment and increase the likelihood of being able to do paper-based reviews wherever possible, predominantly where we are able to get better-quality medical evidence.