Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970: 40th Anniversary — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:51 pm on 17th June 2010.

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Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 4:51 pm, 17th June 2010

My Lords, I spoke in the debate 10 years ago to celebrate this Act which allowed me to go through the state school system as a dyslexic person. I do not know how many other noble Lords in this Chamber have been directly touched in that way-I suspect that that is the case for many of those who have spoken, if not all. This Act changed the world and it is clear, from listening to those noble Lords who were there at the time, that it scared the living daylights out of everyone who was having their world changed.

Any veteran of these debates, when looking at the issue-I have a little more than two decades-worth-would say, "Wait a minute; we had to discuss that again and again". As noble Lords have said, people do not like having their lives changed. They say, "We don't have to do that; it is awfully difficult; oh, you mean there is a reasonableness test; we have better lawyers than you". I am afraid that such sentiments run through all the debates on this legislation. People in both Houses of Parliament take on these issues, listen to those outside, often have personal experience, enact legislation and then what we are doing is whittled back by those outside who do not want to change. All parties and none have been on both sides of that process. It is a matter of how much better we have become at blocking it off. It is like an ebb and flow. We have gone a long way, but there are always little defeats and there is slowness in implementation.

People usually panic. They say that everything will be terribly expensive. They say: "We can't do anything; the world will change". I remember a discussion about wheelchair access within schools. It was said: "How on earth could we possibly have a lift that brings a wheelchair from one floor of a school to another? It would be used only three times a day and not at all in some weeks". Then you say: "If you buy one that cannot move heavy piles of books and avoid back strain, you really are very dumb". You carry on in that vein and keep going. You approach the fact that people panic and do not want to change.

Another example is the attitude of organisations. The education issue is the first in which I became involved and is regularly raised. People say: "You mean that our class may have to stop or start five minutes early to get somebody who can't move very fast into the classroom?". So no one is allowed to get sick in your classroom, use a loo or occasionally turn up late. They are not supposed to but they do, so you adapt and carry on. I think that this type of thing underpins most of this debate. There is always that fear of the unknown and an unwillingness to change.

The noble Lord, Lord Corbett, described the Trojan horse incident using a wheelchair, getting people to react after a lot of necessary legislation had been introduced. It just goes to show how dumb people are. We have to ask what would happen if the person who wanted to buy the suit went to the shop to buy it. The person in the shop might say, "What do you mean?", to which the answer would be, "They are going to spend money in your shop. They're going to give you profits". The person in the shop would reply, "I hadn't thought of that", and would then try to get the idea into his head.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds put his finger on many of the driving forces in relation to children, including the fact that a child from a middle-class background does much better out of the system than anyone else. After he had finished his speech, I said in an aside to the right reverend Prelate that I thought the best combination was a lawyer and a journalist. People really do not like tangling with those two, and education systems, shops and local authorities have now learnt to back off.

I turn to the bailiwick of the noble Lord, Lord Freud. The real test lies with people whose backgrounds mean that they do not have that degree of access to the media or legal process at their fingertips. This is nothing new and there is a great deal of consensus about it, but it can lead to those nasty arguments that often break out within parties-we all agree on what should happen but we disagree slightly on how it should come about. It is one of those arguments where there is very little room for manoeuvre, so we tend to go for the eyes and throat.

We also know that huge costs are involved in not dealing with situations at an early stage. My own unlooked-for area of specialisation is dyslexia. We know that there are a lot of dyslexics in prison, but why is that? The answer is that if you fail in the education system and cannot fill in forms to get jobs or money outside, then crime is an option. If you do not come from a middle-class background, you do not have the necessary push or support.

We also know-indeed, today we are agreeing quite a lot with the Bishops' Benches-that mental health problems tend to occur in the groups that do not have support. As the right reverend Prelate pointed out-and there is no point in denying it- certain people in these groups are more liable to have problems. The fact is that if you have something to be depressed about, you can become depressed more easily. If the education or benefits systems do not pick up the costs of helping these people, then the problems, which can be short term, will often multiply. This issue also relates to aspects of the health service and Prison Service.

With the current Government, there is one bright spot in this process, and it goes back to an initial part of the legislation. I refer to assessments in education. This does not relate directly to the Minister's department but I think that the idea of departmentalising the whole issue is nonsense. As with many problems in politics, you must look across departments. If all children are assessed to find out whether they have special educational needs, I think that autism and dyslexia will probably come top of the poll, but early identification of other needs will not hurt. Furthermore, even if it is obvious that children have a problem, the fact that it is recorded in the system will help. Can we ensure that this attitude towards carrying out skilled assessments is carried on throughout the whole system? Steps have been taken and, although matters may be better than they were before, they are not good enough yet. I do not directly criticise the Government's intention, but this will probably not be finished in the lifetime of anyone listening today.

We must carry on. We must ensure that we have a greater understanding of people who have missed an initial opportunity for educational support. Showing an adult who has failed or who has not received support how they can survive would be a realistic step. People can succeed. Intelligent people who are active, lucky and have the right parents and an inspirational teacher can succeed. Ultimately, we will have overcome this problem when someone who is not exceptional or does not have the right parents or a bit of luck by birth or by circumstances succeeds. Although we seem to be closer than we were 40 years ago, we still have a long way to go.