My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, for leading this important debate and all noble Lords who have made valuable contributions today. I consider it a great honour to have the responsibility of closing for the Government among such knowledgeable, committed and powerful champions of disability equality. I very much welcome the opportunity that this debate provides to discuss the new Government's approach to equality for disabled people. I also pay tribute, as so many others have done today, to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, and to his remarkable determination in bringing his Act-the Alf Morris Act-into being. We have been privileged today to hear a moving, first-hand account of his battle with complacent authority. His unceasing efforts, and the efforts of those who worked with him, brought into being the first legislation, not just in the UK but across the whole world, to recognise the rights of disabled people.
As other noble Lords have highlighted, we have made significant progress since the Act was introduced 40 years ago. We now have a strong disability rights framework, which was most recently extended by the Equality Act 2010 and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This Government are committed to using the UN convention as a driver to achieve equality for disabled people. We are looking at how we can best implement the Equality Act 2010 and we will be making announcements about its implementation in due course.
The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act was also a catalyst to making Parliament more accessible and resulted in many changes, including, as the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, told us, the invention of the mobile Bench, which is so welcome today. There is still more to do before Parliament is truly representative of the disabled population, which is why this Government have committed to introducing extra support for disabled people who want to become MPs, councillors or elected officials.
Since the Act was introduced, we have moved on from a time when disabled people were essentially invisible to society and were hidden or forgotten. We have moved through a long period when disabled people, although finally visible, were treated as objects of pity or charity. Today, the disability equality agenda is part of mainstream discussions and receives the recognition that it deserves. It is an agenda on which, no matter of what political persuasion, we are all determined to make progress.
Despite disabled people's voices now being recognised and heard, disabled people still remain, in many ways, the objects of society's benefaction rather than the subjects of their own lives. There are still many disabled people whose day-to-day lives are not within their control. Disabled people remain categorised by labels-even the term "disabled" to me separates them out from the rest of society-rather than being recognised as individuals who deserve the same opportunities as anyone else to succeed.
While preparing for this debate, I was thinking about how, ultimately, we are all seeking happiness or quality of life, a fulfilment that many philosophers argue comes from the ability to contribute, to be fully appreciated for those contributions and to be of value. According to this thinking, not only is society missing out on the value that disabled people can contribute, but we are denying disabled people the fundamental right to lead fulfilled lives. We are denying the right to seek the attributes that lead to happiness and self-worth-attributes such as social interaction, employment, pleasure, income, democratic freedom and meaning, to name a few. For me, the challenge is how we can empower disabled people to make that complete transformation from object to subject and how we can support disabled people to be completely in control of their own lives so that they have the opportunity to be fully involved in a society that recognises them as individuals rather than people defined by disability.
The Independent Living Movement is important here in terms of,
"disabled people having the same choice, control and freedom as any other citizen-at home, at work, and as members of the community".
Those principles-designed by disabled people themselves-are fully signed up to by this Government. I must pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, who have done so much to champion independent living for disabled people.
Building on independent living, the right to control, introduced through the Welfare Reform Act 2009, will provide disabled people with greater choice and control over their own lives. It will empower them to make informed decisions about how they want to receive the support to which they are entitled. We will be testing the right through trailblazers, which will commence later this year.
A key factor in people having independence is having the chance of employment. The importance of work extends far beyond the financial benefits that it can bring. As my forebear, Sigmund Freud, said:
"No other technique for the conduct of life attaches the individual so firmly to reality as laying emphasis on work; for his work at least gives him a secure place in a portion of reality, in the human community".
Some noble Lords will recall that he practised what he preached and wrote some of his most powerful work while in the 17-year grip of the cancer that killed him.
We know that work is generally good for people's well-being, as investigated by Waddell and Burton in their 2006 report Is Work Good For Your Health and Well-Being?. Conversely, long-term worklessness can have negative health effects, particularly for people's mental health. This is true for disabled people, people with health conditions and people in the wider population. We recognise, however, that not enough people are experiencing the benefits of work. Sickness absence remains high, with around 170 million working days lost to illness in 2008. Over 600,000 people flowed on to incapacity benefits last year. While less than half of all working-age disabled people are in work, almost 40 per cent of disabled people who are not in work would like to be.
Right now, we have a welfare state that divides our society into neat segmentswhere the poorest are left to live a life of helplessness, undermining their self-confidence and breeding social exclusion that splinters families and communities. That is why we are starting a radical programme of welfare reform. We will reassess all current claimants of incapacity benefit on their readiness to work. We will also introduce the work programme by summer 2011, which will offer a single integrated package of support, providing personalised help for everyone who finds themselves out of work, regardless of the benefit they claim.
The support offered through the work programme will be based on individual need rather than on the benefits claimed and will radically simplify the complex array of existing employment programmes. It will be designed to meet the needs of a wide range of customer groups, including disabled people, helping to ensure that those with the greatest barriers to work do not get left behind. I hope it will mean that those who have been left behind, referred to by my noble friend Lord Addington, will get a real second chance through this programme.
The noble Lord, Lord Rix, who has contributed so much in this area, powerfully pointed out how difficult it is for people with learning difficulties to get a job. We recognise that there are some groups of disabled people, particularly people with learning difficulties, mental health conditions, and autism, who face additional barriers to employment and will need additional support to move into, or return to, work. We are quite clear that everyone who can work should get the support they need to get a job, and we remain committed to tackling the particular disadvantages that those groups face in employment and across other areas of life. I would like to take this opportunity to remind the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds that I was proud to make my maiden speech in this House in support of the Autism Bill. I can assure him that we are committed to addressing the needs of people with autism and their families.
We also recognise that some disabled people will not be able to make the move into employment. If people genuinely cannot work, we will make sure they get the unconditional support they need. As I mentioned earlier, one of the main challenges is changing the way society perceives disability, and that includes tackling the prejudice and ignorance that leads to bullying and harassment. One of the most shocking aspects of today's society is that disabled people are still subject to harassment of the worst kind. All disabled people deserve to be free from bullying, to feel safe in their own communities, and to be able to make their full contribution to society in safety and security. This Government take this issue seriously-which is why we have committed to promoting better recording of hate crimes-in order to work towards eliminating that very destructive barrier to participation in society. The Equality and Human Rights Commission launched an inquiry this week into disability-related harassment, which we welcome and fully support.
One of the concerns expressed by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Corbett and Lord Low, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, was that the financial pressures we currently face will effectively undermine progress in disability equality legislation. I can only emphasise that it is vital that any budget cuts do not disproportionately affect disabled people. We are committed to championing disability equality across government and we have a Minister for Disabled People.
I must admit that as it is early in the Administration my responses to many of the specific questions will be of a similar nature-that we are looking at the issues and will respond as soon as we can. I will give some dates. One of the issues on which noble Lords wanted assurances was the access to work programme. It was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. We are committed to supporting disabled people to enter and remain in employment, and we are currently undertaking a review on how best to do that. We expect to announce further details shortly.
The noble Lords, Lord Corbett and Lord Low, asked whether we will keep the road map to disability equality. We are committed to achieving equality as soon as practically possible. The road map is a useful guide which we will want to use. The noble Baronesses, Lady Campbell and Lady Thornton, and the noble Lord, Lord Low, raised social care. We acknowledge that urgent reform of the social care system is needed. It is one of the biggest challenges facing this Government. That is why we plan an independent commission to consider how to ensure sustainable and responsible funding. That will go ahead.
The noble Lord, Lord Low, asked about the work programme and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about work choice. We are moving ahead on the work programme at great speed, as noble Lords will have seen from the announcement last week. We plan to have that in place in the first half of next year. Clearly, one of the most complex issues in designing that programme is differential payments. I will commit to bringing information on our progress as soon as it is available. We are planning to make an announcement on work choice reasonably soon.
I will effectively ask for a little time on the question from the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, on support for his Bill on independent living for disabled people. An Oral Question is down for that and I shall leave my noble friend Lord Howe to answer that for the Department of Health next week-I have dodged that one. The independent living strategy was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Campbell and Lady Thornton. We are looking at how to bring that forward and we are discussing it with interested parties and across government. That is work in progress.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, asked about our plans regarding carers' allowance. We recognise that 6 million carers play an indispensible role in looking after friends or family members who need support. Clearly, cash benefits play an important part in that, although a minority of carers, around 10 per cent, receive them. We have set out our commitment to simplify the benefits system in order to improve work incentives and to encourage responsibility and fairness. I can assure the noble Baroness that we will carefully consider the needs of carers as we develop our thinking on welfare reform.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, also raised the work capability assessment in the context of Parkinson's. It was developed in close consultation with experts and specialist disability groups. It is kept under review and we are confident that it is working well. We are committed to conducting an independent review of that assessment every year for the first five years and we are currently in the process of commissioning it. We expect the first findings to be reported later this year.
On the concern of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds about the provision in schools for pupils with special educational needs, we are looking forward to the Ofsted review of the issue which is coming forward this summer, and will respond to it then. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, raised the issue of apprenticeships for those with learning disabilities. It is clear that people with learning disabilities should have fairer access to apprenticeships. It is a priority for the National Apprenticeship Service to improve the number of learners from diverse backgrounds taking part, and both categories will be included; that is, those with learning difficulties and learning disabilities.
In closing, I stress that we are committed to equality for disabled people, to empowering them to have the freedom to control and shape their own futures and to live full and fulfilling lives. We recognise that there is still some way to go, and we do not underestimate that, but today's debate has highlighted how far we have come on the journey to disability equality. It has underlined the commitment to a fairer, better Britain with equal opportunities for disabled people so that they can be full and valued members of society.