My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Corbett on introducing this debate. I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Morris for the very many wonderful achievements he has to his name over his long and distinguished career-of course, it is still not over-not least his achievements concerning the subject of today's debate. It is 40 years since the passing of the first ever legislation for disabled people, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. I join my noble friend Lady Gale in saying that I thought that the manifesto read out by my noble friend Lord Morris when he introduced that Bill is as relevant today as it was then.
For the second time this week, I am substituting for my noble friend Lord McKenzie and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, I intend to address the future. Yet again, I shall be seeking assurances from the Minister that the Government, perhaps in their enthusiasm for downplaying or finding fault with the work of the past 13 years, do not lose sight of the progress which has been made on disability rights, much of which has already been mentioned.
In preparing for this debate, I was sent the link to the transcript of the debate which took place in your Lordships' House 10 years ago, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. That was obviously on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Alf Morris Bill. I commend it to the Minister if he has not already read it. Some noble Lords who spoke then have also spoken today, including the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, the noble Lords, Lord Ashley, Lord Addington and Lord Rix, whose debate it was and, of course, my noble friend Lord Morris.
Sadly, some who spoke then are no longer with us, such as Lady Darcy de Knayth, who was beloved and respected across this House. In that debate she berated the Government-my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath was answering the debate-on the proposed reforms in disability benefits. The Minister might want to take heed of the effectiveness of the disability lobby on that occasion. She also spoke about mobility, which had been the subject of her maiden speech 30 years before when the original Bill was discussed in the House. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, also made her maiden speech in the original debate. It was a debate of enormous significance.
Noble Lords might wish to know that two Earls spoke in that debate, the noble Earl, Lord Snowdon, and Lord Longford. Lord Longford said:
"When I find myself before St Peter in the near future, he may say to me, 'Did you do any good down there?' I shall be able to murmur a little bit about the honours I have received. And he will say, 'I do not want to know about that. I want to know, did you do any good?' I shall be able to say, 'I played a small part in helping to carry the Alf Morris Bill through the House of Lords 30 years ago'. He will probably say, 'OK, you can take a day off purgatory for that'".
I say amen to that. The noble Earl, Lord Snowdon, reminded the House:
"Fifteen years ago I objected in the strongest possible terms to disabled passengers being shoved into the unheated luggage van with no facilities, not even a lavatory".-[Hansard, 19/4/00; cols. 737-40.]
I reflect that we have come a great distance. Many noble Lords have ensured that disabled people get treated with dignity and have facilities where they need them. A great deal of progress has been made in the 10 years since that debate. I know from my recent experience as a Minister in this House taking through the Equality Act and the Personal Care at Home Act what an important voice the disability lobby is in your Lordships' House and what a valuable and influential role noble Lords have played in shaping and improving both those Acts, and many before.
The noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and I shared what I think can be described as a glance when the right reverend Prelate referred to the lack of portability of assessment for the disabled. We got that into the free personal care Bill, but this Government are not enacting it. I urge the Minister to bring forward proposals to this House as soon as possible at least to bring forward that part of that legislation.
It was the Labour Government who legislated to protect people who may be unable to make decisions for themselves under the Mental Capacity Act, which provides safeguards to help people to make decisions about their daily lives and be supported where they need it. It was the Labour Government who gave new rights to disabled people through the Disability Discrimination Act and signed the United Nations convention on the rights of people with disabilities, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Low. It was the Labour Government who made families with disabled children a priority, with a total of £770 million in new funding for local authorities and primary care trusts to support disabled children and their families, as was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Rix. I join him in urging the Government not to cut that important money.
The Access to Work budget has been increased from £15 million in 1994-95 to £69 million in 2008-09 and £81 million in 2009-10. Access to Work is likely to help about 35,000 disabled people to take up and stay in work in 2009-10. Will it be safe?
The Labour Government introduced free nationwide off-peak travel on local buses for the over-60s and eligible disabled people in England. Will that be safe? We established the Equality and Human Rights Commission to act as a strong and independent champion to tackle discrimination and promote equality for all. Labour in government was determined that the UK should always be a world leader in disability rights, and we legislated to provide protection against discrimination at work while offering new support for people to get into work. We will be carrying forward the campaign to strengthen the rights of disabled people to access to services and work and to be supported to make choices about their lives. Where the Government are also doing that, they will have our support.
The independent living strategy was published in 2008, written jointly with many disabled organisations. It is jointly owned by six government departments and details more than 50 government commitments to deliver choice and control for disabled people. Will the Government be taking forward the independent living strategy and, if so, what progress is being made? Is the disability living allowance to be reviewed? It supports people into work. It is paid to people irrespective of whether they are working. Will the Government honour the previous Government's commitment, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Low, to raise the disability living allowance above inflation this year and, from April 2011, to extend the higher rate of the mobility component of DLA to more than 20,000 severely visually impaired people, allowing them greater freedom to get out and about, either socially or to find work?
As I mentioned, the DWP offers a range of specialist disability employment provision designed to help disabled people with high support needs to find and stay in employment. Remploy will have helped about 10,000 disabled people in 2009-10. What will happen to the new specialist disability employment programme for disabled people with the highest support needs, the work choice programme, which was due to start in October 2010, replacing the specialist disability employment programme? Between 1979 and 1997, the number of people on incapacity benefits trebled and people were left without the support to help them ever return to work. The number of working-age people on employment and support allowance and incapacity benefit is now down by 148,000 since its peak in 2003. What does the future hold for the employment and support allowance?
The Labour Government had planned that, by 2015, £370 million would have been spent on the railways for all schemes to improve the accessibility of our railway stations, including £35 million for immediate improvements to the busiest stations. Will the Government continue to deliver this programme?
We strengthened the Disability Discrimination Act in 2005, fulfilling the then Government's commitment to a comprehensive and enforceable set of civil rights for disabled people, and in 2006 we introduced a duty on public authorities to promote equality for disabled people, known as the disability equality duty. We further strengthened disability discrimination legislation through the Equality Act. The noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, is completely correct. These initiatives take disability rights to another level. The Equality Act imposes a new duty on all public organisations to consider the needs of disabled people and actively to seek to promote equality. It will allow public organisations and businesses to take positive action to diversify their teams, including by appointing a disabled candidate where that candidate is equally as qualified as a non-disabled candidate, if the disabled are underrepresented. I hope the Minister will be able to assure the House that the Government will be enacting all the provisions of the Equality Act in the timescale that was intended.
This has been a wonderful debate, and it is an honour to respond on behalf of the Labour Opposition. I can pledge our continuing determination to extend disability rights and our determination to join other noble Lords across the House to ensure that the Government do not lose momentum and do not slip back.