It is my great pleasure to open this debate. I welcome the disabled people who join us in the public gallery, and I thank the British Sign Language interpreters who are here today.
I will start by noting the first sentence of the motion for debate:
“That the Parliament recognises the valuable contribution that disabled people make to Scottish society.”
We made that statement because people do not always recognise the value of disabled people in our society. I want us to move to a time when such a statement is unnecessary—when it is genuinely recognised across the whole of society that the more than 1 million disabled people in Scotland contribute to our communities and lives, and that they bring talent, energy and ability and add richness to all our lives.
For too many disabled people, their ambitions and dreams and achieving their promise are still denied to them because of the barriers that society has put in the way. Inaccessible communication, low expectations, discrimination and inequality affect the lives and chances of disabled people every single day. Let us be clear: the disabled person or their impairment is not the problem. The issue is the attitude of those of us who are not disabled—our limited expectations of our fellow citizens or our careless ignorance and toleration of the discrimination, abuse and inequality that disabled people face. The barriers that we continue to allow to stand in their way are the problem. Our homes, transport, workplaces, public services and local environments are all too often designed—or operate—in ways that exclude disabled people. Removing those barriers and achieving equality of opportunity is the change that the Government wants for Scotland, and there must be a genuine transformation in our attitude and approach.
“A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People” outlines the following five clear, long-term ambitions: support services that meet disabled people’s needs; decent incomes and fairer working lives; places that are accessible to everyone; protected rights; and active participation. The scale and extent of the change requires concerted action over this parliamentary session and beyond. However, those ambitions are all achievable and we remain as committed to them now as we were when we published that delivery plan in 2016.
We are also committed to the principles that are contained in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, one of which is the right to work. For most of us, having a job defines a large part of who we are. It reinforces our feeling of being part of society, gives us a degree of choice and security, facilitates independent living and affects the quality of our life and the lives of our family members. Disabled people are no different. They rightly want the chance to contribute their talents and skills through meaningful employment. They make a vital contribution to our economy, yet too many of them are deprived of that opportunity.
In our plan, we set out our ambition to reduce the disability employment gap by at least half, which is an ambitious target. In 2016, the employment gap between disabled people and non-disabled people was 37.4 per cent. That makes our target hugely ambitious, and we quickly recognised that meeting it would take time and nothing short of a fundamental shift in how disabled people are regarded in the labour market. Disabled people’s organisations tell us that getting the first opportunity to work is a barrier that can affect disabled people’s future work and life chances.
Some of the changes that we have implemented since 2016 have been about removing those barriers. An increase in the amount of financial support for disabled people who are undertaking apprenticeships has led to a rise in the number of disabled participants, with nearly 3,000 starting a modern apprenticeship in 2017-18. An internship scheme in the public and third sectors that is managed by Inclusion Scotland is now being expanded to the private sector. Last year, I benefited from the internship scheme in my office. Many of those who have taken part have moved into permanent employment and, as a result of the opportunity, realised their personal goals.
Most of the actions that are set out in the 2016 plan on employment have now commenced or been completed. However, after engaging with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations, it became clear that “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People” was not ambitious enough. I was at two events this week—one was with the national involvement network and the other was the kindness conference this morning—when disabled people made that loud and clear.
We must go much further in changing the culture, attitudes and practice with regard to employing disabled people, which is why my colleague Jamie Hepburn, the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills, launched “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Employment Action Plan” last December. The plan, which was developed in partnership with disabled stakeholders and disabled people’s organisations, sets out our initial actions to take us towards meeting the target of reducing the employment gap by half, which we aim to achieve by 2038.
The plan has three key themes that were highlighted by our partners, which are supporting employers, supporting disabled people into work and supporting young people to make successful transitions from school, which can be a key time in their life.
To be successful in implementing the plan, the Scottish Government must lead by example as an employer and a policy maker. In the spring, the Scottish Government will publish a recruitment and retention plan that sets a target for the employment of disabled people in core Scottish Government roles. We will encourage other public sector organisations to take part and follow our example. We will continue to work across Government to ensure that the policies that we develop to support disabled people help, rather than hinder, their ability to enter the meaningful work that they all want so much.
I will talk a wee bit about social security. Disabled people have a human right to social security and they should be supported to access the financial support to which they are entitled. We are building a rights-based system of social security that is founded on the values of dignity, fairness and respect. Social security in Scotland is being co-designed with people who have lived experience of trying to access the current benefits system, which will ensure that it works for and not against disabled people. That is in stark contrast to the United Kingdom Government, whose abolition of the independent living fund and welfare cuts were judged by the UN as
“grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities”.
By early 2021, Social Security Scotland will welcome new claims for the three main forms of disability assistance for children and young people, working-age people and older people, which it will do with dignity, fairness and respect, as enshrined in the social security charter.
From April 2020, any family living in Scotland with a child who is in receipt of the higher-rate component of disability assistance for children and young people will be eligible for winter heating assistance.
In spring 2021, the delivery of additional financial support to carers of more than one disabled child will recognise the particular challenges that impact carers in such circumstances.
I will talk about how the Scottish Government is working to improve the lives of disabled people with learning disabilities. Last week, with my colleague Clare Haughey and representatives of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, I had the joy of launching our exciting refreshed framework on learning disabilities, which is called the keys to life. I am hoping that it will be the keys to success for many.
I know that Jackie Baillie has a commitment to this issue, but in my experience at the national involvement network the other day and at the framework launch last week, people with learning disabilities were keen to see the keys to life framework working and wanted to tell us how they saw it working. We will continue to make sure that it works, and I am sure that Jackie Baillie will continuously be on my tail to make sure that that happens.
At that event and at previous engagements, I met individuals with learning disabilities who told me that they want and need better lives. They were in no doubt about that. The framework represents a journey that involves people with learning disabilities, alongside many organisations, at every step in the work that we need to do.
The framework takes a whole-life approach, involving both adults and children, and it covers a much wider area than just health and social care. That was a real issue that many people talked to me about at the national involvement network the other day. It reflects our priorities on education, further education, employment, housing and transport. In addition, the framework strongly recognises the role of relationships, including sexual relationships, the rights of girls and women over their reproductive health and the need to protect people against gender-based violence. Individuals with learning disabilities, particularly girls and women, are subject to many assumptions about their ability to have and sustain relationships and sexual relationships, their reproductive rights and their capacity to become parents. That is simply a right. The framework is an exciting opportunity for us to collaborate and work together to make real change happen for people with learning disabilities, who asked us for that.
We are also looking at how we can work more closely on accessible places. I am sure that my colleague Kevin Stewart will be delighted to know that we have now had 906 responses to the changing places consultation, which is wonderful. We want places to be accessible for everyone. The Scottish Government is committed to continuing the provision of changing places toilets—I see my friend and colleague Mary Fee nodding her head vigorously, and I know that her commitment to that is the same as mine. We are currently consulting on the proposal to require changing places toilets to be included in new larger building works through the building standards system. Changing places toilets enable those with complex care needs and their families to get out and about. Quite simply, they can be life changing for many families. The consultation does not close until 13 May, so there is still loads of time to encourage more people to take part. Let us see whether we can get the number of responses to break through the 1,000 barrier.
I was delighted recently to be able to support PAMIS—a charity that raises awareness of the needs of those with complex care needs and enables them and their families to get out and about. We do not often get the chance to announce money, so it was great to announce funding of £45,000 to design and purchase the equipment for a second mobile changing places toilet. That will enable more individuals and families to get out and experience what Scotland has to offer.
Housing has been described as the cornerstone of independent living. Living in the right home with the right support can be the key to enabling people to live life independently at home. “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People” includes a commitment to ensure that each local authority sets a realistic target in its local housing strategy for the delivery of wheelchair-accessible housing across all tenures and reports annually on progress. That was reaffirmed in the programme for government, and we will shortly issue guidance to local authorities requiring them to have all-tenure wheelchair housing targets in place this year.
We have also started work on our approach to housing supply beyond 2021, with many contributions from our partners on that. Given the long lead-in times for housing delivery—we cannot just build houses tomorrow—we are engaging with our partners to plan together how our homes and communities can meet the needs of our changing communities by 2040, with options and choices to get there as quickly as we can.
Our shared goal is nothing less than for all disabled people to have choice, control, dignity and the freedom to live the life that they choose with the support that they need to do so. The reason is simple: equal rights for disabled people are about human rights. None of us can enjoy our human rights when even one of us does not. We are not standing still on that commitment, as members have heard. We will keep working with disabled people and their representative organisations and we will continue to listen to the views of the UN as we undertake work in response to what we hear. We have high ambitions for the changes that we want to see, and disabled people have the right to no less.
That the Parliament recognises the valuable contribution that disabled people make to Scottish society; believes that progress has been made to realise equality for disabled people, but acknowledges that inequality persists and must continue to be challenged by all in society; agrees that transformational change is needed in order for disabled people to realise their full potential and agrees that this can only be achieved by working with disabled people’s organisations; reiterates its support for the co-production approach and actions set out in
A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Our Delivery Plan to 2021
; notes that, since the plan was launched, progress has been made toward the goal of at least halving the disability employment gap, with further actions set out in the publication of
A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Employment Action Plan
, and recognises the Scottish Government’s commitment to implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities so that disabled people in Scotland can exercise all of their human rights.
I thank the minister and the Government for bringing this timely and important debate to the chamber this afternoon.
It is fair to say that we have seen significant improvements in the law to protect the rights of disabled people. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Equality Act 2010 and the United Kingdom Disability Discrimination Act 1995 have helped to protect the rights of disabled people. At face value, we appear to have travelled far, but my conversations with disabled people and disability organisations suggest that we are a long way from achieving equality. A report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission described disabled people in Scotland as being “left behind” and facing significant inequalities, including low attainment rates and higher unemployment.
The Scottish Conservatives have supported the Scottish Government’s delivery plan for disabled people from its launch and we agree with the Scottish Government’s stated ambitions for it. Like the Scottish Government, we want support services that promote independent living, meet needs and enable life choices, opportunities and participation.
Sarah Newton, the UK Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work, resigned two weeks ago and has not been replaced. It emerged yesterday that Theresa May is going to wait until after the Brexit impasse—whenever that may be—before appointing a successor. Given that we all agree about the issues that Jeremy Balfour describes, should he not put pressure on the UK Government to move faster than that?
First, I put on record my appreciation for the good work that Sarah Newton did across the UK. In my meetings with her, she really understood what the disabled community wanted and pushed a very positive agenda. I agree with the member that we need a minister to be appointed as soon as possible. I am sure that we all want that to happen at the earliest possible moment.
Disabled people want decent incomes and fairer working lives. One disabled lady said to me a few weeks ago:
“I just want a normal job, not a job that was created because I am a disabled person.”
That is key because, historically, we have sometimes created jobs for disabled people and allowed only disabled people to apply for them. However, that misses the point. Disabled people want to be in the mainstream of universities, colleges and daily life. We fully support accessible workplaces, homes and transport, and we want society to do everything that it can to ensure that people with disabilities have full and active participation in all aspects of public life, free from stigma and discrimination.
I gently suggest to the Scottish Government that drafting a plan is the easy bit; the challenge is ensuring that it is deliverable. At the heart of the delivery plan is the ambition that support services should be designed and delivered to enable all disabled people to have control and to live the life they choose. Self-directed support is at the core of that ambition; it allows people, and their carers and families, to make informed choices on what that support looks like and how it is delivered. That said, at the SDS conference that was held in Stirling a couple of weeks ago, service users outlined issues around SDS payments and management. One service user described the process of working with his local authority to receive SDS as “tortuous”. Another spoke of
“a good policy but poorly implemented at a local level”.
Some felt that their social work department was not listening, while many felt that there was a lack of awareness and understanding of the policy.
If the Scottish National Party Government is genuine when it refers to real lived experience being the best guide for developing policy, an urgent review of the agreement between the Scottish Government and local authorities is required. Many disabled people’s organisations are giving increased priority to employment issues. Disabled people, like most of us, see the importance of work. As the minister has pointed out, one in five working-age people in Scotland have a disability and they can contribute a wealth of talent, experience and views to the workforce, helping companies to grow and strengthening Scotland’s economic performance.
However, there are still many barriers. As we have heard—again from the minister—the employment gap stands at 35 per cent. Over the past couple of years, I have met many business communities and found overwhelming support for the recruitment of disabled people. Employers see an opportunity to increase the pool of high-calibre candidates in their business. They recognise that reflecting the diversity of their customers in their workforce can help them to maintain a long-term proposal that people will buy more readily.
Again, I welcome the launch of the Scottish Government’s employment action plan and the input of disabled people and disability organisations into the development of the plan. Members will be aware that the UK Government has also been looking into this area and, in 2017, published “Improving lives: the future of work, health and disability”. I genuinely hope that Scottish Government ministers will have discussions with the UK Government on the potential for co-operation. As the Scottish Government’s action plan acknowledges, the ambitions that we have need the public, private and third sectors to work together with communities and with disabled people and organisations that represent them. It will be key to achieving those objectives.
I was pleased to learn that the Scottish Parliament is now a disability confident leader; disability confident is a scheme that is run by the UK Government to help businesses to think differently about disability and improve how they attract, recruit and retain disabled workers. By changing behaviours and cultures in their businesses, they can help to change attitudes across society.
Disabled people’s organisations believe that better support needs to be provided both for disabled people who are looking for employment and for employers who are seeking to recruit disabled people. My discussions with businesses back up that view. The split in employment legislation between Westminster and the Scottish Government creates complexity. Employers refer to a crowded landscape, where they receive conflicting advice when they are looking for guidance. There is wide support for a pragmatic, one-stop portal, where employees and employers can find advice on disability employment. Again, I genuinely encourage ministers both north and south of the border to explore that idea further. I hope that ideology will not get in the way of good practice.
Disabled people must not be treated less favourably than other citizens. We must build a fair and inclusive society in which everyone has equal opportunities to thrive and succeed. To achieve that, we must put the rights of disabled people at the heart of our society. I urge the Scottish Government to continue to use its influence to work in partnership to reduce stigma and increase opportunity.
I thank the people in the public gallery for attending the debate; I hope that they find it helpful, and I apologise to the signers if I have spoken for too long.
I move amendment S5M-16593.1, to insert after “Employment Action Plan”:
“; further notes that the UK Government’s Disability Confident scheme encourages employers to recruit more disabled people; believes that the Scottish and UK governments should work together to develop a one-stop-shop portal, bringing together all of the key support offers into one cohesive package to ensure joined-up services and a clearer picture for disabled people and employers”.
I thank the Presiding Officer and the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body for again making the Parliament an exemplar in the provision of access to people who are deaf and use British Sign Language.
Today’s debate is a useful reminder that more needs to be done to support Scotland’s disabled people to live their lives to the fullest, unrestricted by Governments, employers, businesses and society. One in five people in Scotland live with a disability, which means that more than a million people are often left to the whims and attitudes of everyone else. Although the experience will not be universal, many will either be patronised or suffer ignorance about the barriers that they might face. They are likely to experience discrimination and—worse still—they can face abuse because of their disability.
A person is not less able or unable to do something because of their medical condition, nor are they less of a human being because of it. Instead, it is society that determines that a person who has a particular condition is unable to live their life in the same way as a person without that condition. Society stigmatises the person with that long-term condition; employers put barriers in the way of their dream job; and Governments design policies for and not with disabled people, which means that often their voices go unheard and their needs are unmet, and they can be left in poverty.
We will support the Government’s motion today, but I ask ministers to respond directly to the criticism from the Scottish independent living coalition that the delivery plan does not fully reflect disabled people’s lived experience or priorities for action and that it lacks ambition and
“in many ways ... is simply a round-up of pre-existing activities”.
Today’s debate comes two weeks after disabled access day, and this year’s access survey found that some of our ancient castles can be more accessible than the local pub.
As we point out in our amendment, people with a disability are twice as likely to report severe loneliness as the general population.
The consequence of disabled people being excluded from the local pub or community venue or a particular activity is that they are prevented from living their fullest lives, because such exclusion can be isolating, can hinder participation and will have a wider impact on their health.
Just a few weeks ago, we debated social isolation and loneliness, which we heard severely affects disabled households. Financial, emotional and practical pressures, alongside stigma and the lack of suitable services, prevent families from being integrated, while low incomes can sometimes restrict their freedom to get out.
When I saw the title for today’s debate—before I read the motion—I expected it to be about the Government’s consultation on disability assistance in Scotland. Statistics updated today confirm that a household with a disabled person would be twice as likely to be in poverty if it were not for their disability benefits. Although personal independence payments, disability living allowance and attendance allowance are not income replacement benefits, they are benefits that are being devolved to this Parliament. The consultation, which was published three weeks ago, set out how the Government intends to support 550,000 disabled people in Scotland with £2.4 billion of assistance every year. Such support helps with extra costs and keeps some disabled people above the poverty line. It would be good to hear from either the cabinet secretary or the minister in the closing speech whether the Government plans to bring a wider debate to the chamber after the Easter recess to inform the consultation and to raise awareness, which the cabinet secretary referred to in her opening speech.
I thank Mark Griffin for the opportunity to respond, because I will not close the debate. I believe that I will discuss the consultation with the Social Security Committee, of which Mark Griffin is a member. I reinforce the invitation that I made to all political parties to meet me to discuss their views on wave 2. I do not think that I have had a reply from the Labour Party yet, but I am more than happy to meet Labour members. I have met members of other parties and will do so again next week.
I am happy to meet the cabinet secretary to discuss the wave 2 benefits; I am glad to have received that invitation.
In the debate on social isolation, I asked the minister to raise with the cabinet secretary the issue of extending mobility payments for older disabled people. That is backed by a variety of third sector groups, including Marie Curie, Citizens Advice Scotland and Inclusion Scotland, because it would help older people get out of their homes and live their fullest life. Such a measure was backed overwhelmingly when people were asked about it in the consultation on social security in 2016. Far gone are the days when older people, whether disabled or not, wanted to retire and be stuck at home; they want to get out, and the social security system should support them to do so.
I am doubtful that the new Scottish legislation that creates a benefit that discriminates on the basis of age would be permissible under the fairer Scotland duty, or that it complies with the non-discrimination principles in the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. I ask the Government to reflect on that. If we are truly building a social security system that is based on dignity and respect, I hope that we can reassure disabled people that the system will help them get out into their communities to participate for the sake of their health, regardless of their age.
We will support the Conservative amendment, but I say gently that cross-Government work will happen only if there is a team of ministers in place to carry it out. I urge the Conservative Government to rethink its decision not to appoint a minister for disabilities until the Brexit crisis is over.
I move amendment S5M-16593.3, to insert after “disabled people’s organisations”:
“; notes that people with physical health problems, long-term conditions or a disability are twice as likely to report severe loneliness than the general population; agrees that this can only be reduced with adequate funding for good social security support, education strategies, employment opportunities and more accessible public spaces and housing”.
I, too, welcome this debate on progressing towards a fairer Scotland for disabled people, and I thank all the organisations that provided briefings. We say that traditionally, as a matter of routine, but the briefings that we have received for the debate, including from the Scottish independent living coalition, CAS, People First Scotland, Enable and Royal Blind, have been extremely helpful.
As members have said, the key to the debate is in the title, “Progressing Towards a Fairer Scotland for Disabled People”. Progress has been made in Scotland’s social security system and in recent changes to public attitudes to hidden disabilities in particular, but too many barriers, both financial and social, persist.
As we know, disabled people are more likely to live in poverty and face higher living costs of, on average, around £630 a month. Today’s figures on disability poverty are deeply concerning. Between 2015 and 2018, the poverty rate after housing costs for people in families with a disabled person was 24 per cent—that is around 440,000 people—compared with 17 per cent for people in a family without a disabled person, and it was up 3 per cent from the lowest recorded figure in 2009.
Benefits such as the disability living allowance were meant to meet those higher costs, but the transition from DLA to personal independence payments has been disastrous for many disabled people. Fifty-six per cent of new claims are being turned down and 28 per cent of reassessment claims are also refused, and those figures do not take into account the thousands of Scots who are awarded PIP at a much lower rate. The refused reassessments alone cost disabled Scots around £56 million a year. To be clear, the money is for disabled people to live and experience a quality of life that everyone else takes for granted. In cutting that support, the UK Government is attacking the rights of disabled Scots to live in dignity.
I welcome the minister’s commitment to work with people with disabilities and their representative organisations to build a clear consensus around how disability assistance should be assessed, how it should work and how we can all take forward that vision—with the increased funding that will no doubt be required.
Disabled people continue to earn less than non-disabled people, which compounds the problems. With regard to working hours, disabled women are much more likely than disabled men to work part time, and they are more likely to be in underemployment and to be in low-paid jobs. Thirty-five per cent of disabled women are paid below the national living wage, compared with 25 per cent of non-disabled men and 29 per cent of non-disabled women.
Despite the urgent need for action, the target that is set out in the delivery plan of achieving the ambition to close—or only to halve—the employment gap by 2038 is progress that is far too slow for far too many people.
I readily concede that, for individuals, we cannot possibly move fast enough on the issue. In the lifetime of any person on the planet, 20 years is a long time. Does the member accept that, at the current rate of progress, the most optimistic estimates see a period of 200 years being required to at least halve the disability employment gap? We are proposing to move in one tenth of that time. Surely the member will accept that that is a fairly ambitious thing to do.
Two hundred years is out of the picture and an ambition of one tenth of that is, on one reading, good. I take the minister’s point: it is going to be difficult but, as he rightly points out, for anyone who experiences a disability, progress is too slow.
The number of disabled people who are on public boards has decreased in recent years and there are, of course, very few politicians with a disability. To achieve greater equality, that needs to be addressed by all political parties in the Parliament and in councils across the land.
The minister mentioned appropriate housing, and inappropriate housing is, of course, a barrier to allowing people the independence that they deserve. That needs to be tackled by ensuring, to begin with, that all new social housing is fully accessible. We scrutinised the issue in the Local Government and Communities Committee as part of our budget scrutiny, and it was raised and highlighted by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission more recently. Such measures do not benefit only disabled people; they benefit our ageing population more generally, many of whom will experience and be the victims of mobility problems in particular. In that context, I welcome the amendment from Mark Griffin and the Labour Party, and I have been encouraged by the growing appreciation of the role of co-housing and other more appropriate housing options.
However, the issues that disabled people face in their day-to-day lives stretch far beyond their homes and their workplaces. Many of the organisations that sent briefings noted that practical support in the everyday lives of people with disabilities is either lacking or not ideal, citing issues with accessible justice, parenting support and social care that supports independent living.
Although we recognise that some progress has been made and we welcome the Government’s commitment on the topic, we know that there is still more to do. Far too many people face real constraints and unacceptable barriers in their daily lives, work and play, compared with those of us who take so much for granted. The delivery plan and the employment action plan begin to address some of those issues, but—as with so much more—we need more inclusive decision making and faster progress.
I thank the Government for making time for today’s debate and I thank the minister for the tone that she set at the top of the debate. The motion commands the support of the Liberal Democrats—as it should command the support of every party in the Parliament. We have to strip the party politics out of the issue because we have all been collectively failing in the shared endeavour to improve the lives of people with disabilities. We have made progress, but there is still a lot more to do.
The reality is that there has always been a disconnect between the good will found in the words spoken in the Parliament—and in councils around the country—and the lived experiences of people with disabilities in Scotland.
In 2009, I worked as a policy officer and I had to digest all 32 single outcome agreements—the local authorities’ road maps for delivering on the national outcomes framework. One metropolitan authority said that it would endeavour to get 200 young people with a disability into employment by the end of that year. Reporting on that effort 12 months later, it noted that it had succeeded in getting only 11 such people into work—that is the extent of the gulf between rhetoric and reality.
There are many reasons for that gap. We have heard a lot about the fact that the built environment can still be inaccessible, particularly in our older cities, such as Edinburgh, where there are inaccessible toilets in accessible buildings. There is also the absence of a falls strategy, which is an issue that I have mentioned in Parliament before. All of that compounds the loneliness and isolation that people feel when their social universe is decreased by the physical realities of the spaces that they simply cannot occupy.
It is fair to say that underrepresentation of people with disabilities in our society is rife. Only 7 per cent of people with any kind of learning difficulty will be in any kind of employment. There is a massive gulf between MSPs and the society that we seek to serve. We do not reflect the rich panoply of mixed abilities in our society. Similarly, public boards fail to reflect that mix. The Scottish Parliament moved mountains with its Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Act 2018. That was great, but there is still a job of work to be done to see people with disabilities and other equalities groups more effectively represented on the public boards that we appoint.
The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities said:
“In Scotland, disabled people continued to be omitted from the key policy areas concerning them, and a range of policies, while positive in intent, were not adequately supported to deliver disabled people’s rights in practice.”
That is not an assault on our Government; it is an assault on us all. It is a challenge that we should all heed. In part, it is due to the fact that since the first days of organised social policy, Governments have had a slightly paternalistic approach to disability legislation and policy. That comes from a well-meaning place, but we got it wrong: we were trying to overly protect people, rather than to empower them and, because they have no place at the table, their voice has been missing from the debate. That is a charge that can be laid at the feet of all the Administrations that have served in the Scottish Government.
Being heard matters—I would have said a lot about that if my amendment had been selected today. The reality of public policy in some areas still denies both self-determination and agency. To make one’s own decisions and to be heard in one’s own voice has to be part of the fabric of our human rights approach to public policy. However, we are getting that right.
The general comment on article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reinforces the assumption that all people with disabilities have full legal capacity and that the perceived or actual deficit in mental capacity should not be used as a justification for denying or restricting legal capacity. That is really important. One of the things that the committee points to—and I raised the issue with the Minister for Mental Health following the announcement of the review of the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003—is the fact that we are still overusing curators when those who sit in judgment on mental health tribunals do not believe that it is possible to get the views of the person who is the subject of the tribunal. We are also overmedicating in psychiatric wards to the point of incapacity, meaning that people cannot use their own voice to be heard, and we still have an insufficient use of independent advocacy.
Again, I do not ascribe party-political blame on the issue; it is a reality, and we have an imperative as a chamber to work together to solve the problem. The review of the 2003 act and the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000 is an opportunity for us to work together to answer the challenges that the UN has laid down for us.
Last week, I held a great reception, which some members were at, for an organisation in Edinburgh called get2gether. Get2gether is about adult self-determination. It is about recognising and busting myths. Adults with disabilities are adults—with disabilities. They have the same interests, desires and needs as other adults. Get2gether seeks to provide for that, whether that is by scotching myths about sexuality among people with learning difficulties or adults with other kinds of disability or by recognising that adults with disabilities want the independence to stay out late, come home drunk or find their own way home drunk. It fosters an environment that supports the kind of social interaction in relation to which many people in political circles have often written off disabled people.
I was very proud to host the reception. Get2gether taught me some things and dispelled some myths and preconceptions that I had held. It showed me what an important ignition self-determination can be in transforming lives—perhaps vulnerable lives and lives that have faced challenges—by giving them that spark of determination and self-sufficiency. We must do more to support it and organisations like it.
We must give people in this country with disabilities a seat at our table, or they will have every right to continue to rage at us from the street.
We come to the open debate and speeches of six minutes. We have a few minutes in hand for interventions. If a member intervenes, their request-to-speak button will go off, so they must remember to press it again.
I am pleased to speak in the debate because it means so much to me. Disability is part of my life. I feel a fraud in saying that, because, as members know, it is my wife Stacey who has the disability. Until we were married, access to buildings and services for those living with disability—let alone access to employment—was not my number 1 priority, as it is not for many people in Scotland.
However, given how Stacey’s disability has progressed over the years of our marriage, due to multiple sclerosis, all of that has become a major priority for me.
In the Scottish Parliament, we do not have an elected member who is disabled. My sister was part of the Government-supported campaign—[
I want to give the member the opportunity to recognise, first, that Mr Balfour is present and, secondly, that many people have disabilities that might not be visible. There may well be others in the chamber who have disabilities. Finally, Mr Adam should not feel a fraud. He is living with disability, and it is important that we all talk about it. I welcome his comments.
I was speaking as the chief whip for the Scottish Government and about the SNP group, in particular. I was looking at the people I work with on a day-to-day basis.
My sister Jennifer was part of the Scottish Government-sponsored campaign to get more elected members with disabilities in local councils. Jennifer had a stroke when she was 25 that left her with a disability. We need to make sure that all parties—mine especially—work to be representative of all the people of Scotland.
I have often asked why someone with a disability should not get the support they need to access work, in particular. It is important that we push the boundaries. I will tell members a personal story regarding that—and Stacey will probably kill me for it when I leave the chamber. I had been an MSP for two years. My working practices were that I would leave first thing in the morning and come home at 10.30 at night. Stacey would want to talk, but I had to get ready to head back to Edinburgh in seven or eight hours, to get involved in work again. I suggested—in a discussion that became a rammy—that, as we met in politics, she should be involved with me in the Parliament. She has now been working for me for seven years.
Seven years later, Stacey is still here and she now runs my parliamentary office. She keeps me in check when I am in Parliament and ensures that I am organised and get to where I need to be at the right time. Although Stacey is an important part of team Paisley, I need to accept that, due to her worsening condition, she is not physically able to be here every day. People with MS can have issues with fatigue, so I need to understand that there will be days when Stacey needs to work from home.
The private sector, in particular, needs to provide flexibility for people who have disabilities. Luckily, the Parliament is a good environment for someone with a disability to work in. Stacey loves working here. I am not sure whether that attitude has anything to do with working with me, but we are still married and, seven years later, we are still working together.
The Scottish Government’s on-going work on the issue is particularly helpful. “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Employment Action Plan” sets out the Government’s commitment to disabled people in Scotland and recognises the valuable contribution that people with disabilities make to Scottish society and to Scotland as a whole. For me, the matter goes further than that: without the love and support of Stacey, I probably would not be here—God only knows where I would be without her. That support includes her work in the Parliament, such as going about her business with a smile and ensuring that I am able to deliver for the people of Paisley. However, Stacey is a volunteer, and she keeps telling me that she is an unpaid volunteer—that is an argument for another day.
The Scottish Government’s goal is that every one of the 1 million disabled people in Scotland will have the control, dignity and freedom to live the life that they choose, and that they will receive the support that they need to do so. Disabled people make up 20 per cent of our population.
I will provide some examples of how difficult it is in the workplace for those who are living with MS. The Westminster all-party parliamentary group for multiple sclerosis produced a report titled “Employment that works: Supporting people with MS in the workplace”, which states:
“(30%) of respondents who are currently in work said they had experienced MS-related stigma or discrimination by colleagues or managers over the past five years.”
The all-party group also said that the on-going symptoms that those with MS have, particularly fatigue, limit the range of hours that they can work and the jobs that they can do. That is why our office needs to be so flexible with Stacey, who is a volunteer and sometimes needs to work from home. We now have the technology to enable her to do that, and we need to ensure that businesses catch up with us and become aware of the pool of talent that could be part of their team.
I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government wants to work with employers, because we need to establish best practice for disabled people, including those with MS, so that they can access the workplace. We need to ensure not just physical access, but access to the top positions, as disabled people are more than capable of holding them. There needs to be a change in attitude among employers and in the workplace. People need to see through the disability. The MS Society’s “My MS, My Needs” survey found that 39 per cent of those with MS were not working or were looking for work. Of those with MS in the workplace, 69 per cent have relapsing remitting MS. It is easier for those with relapsing remitting MS in the workplace but, for those with secondary progressive MS, such as Stacey, there are difficulties.
I welcome the debate. To make the strategy work, we need to encourage employers to see through the disability and accept the abilities of individuals. Far too many people with MS, in particular, are not getting the opportunities to be all that they can be. If I could say one thing to employers, it would be this: the issue might appear difficult, but it is our job and their job to create the space and support for disabled people in Scotland.
I am pleased to speak in this important debate. We have already heard very interesting speeches from across the chamber, and different issues have been raised.
It is not just those with disabilities who lose out as a result of discrimination; it is all of us. When people with disabilities are not able to play their full part in society, society is weaker. That is especially true for us, in Scotland. In what is a relatively small country, we simply cannot afford to miss out on the skills, talents and creativity of disabled people.
That is very evident in my constituency, as we often struggle to retain people of working age in the area. We must make sure that those who are there and who want to play a full part in society have the chance to do so. I was particularly interested in what the minister had to say about getting a first job and what barriers disabled people face in that regard.
That takes me on to education, which is where many of the problems that we face with employment and further down the line in our society start. It is laudable and important that we talk about having services that promote the human dignity of disabled people, but we must be honest enough to admit that that standard is frequently unmet at the early years stage and in primary school, secondary school and further and higher education. Across Scotland, there are many young people with additional support needs who are not getting the support that they deserve. I continually hear from concerned parents in my constituency who see their child’s potential ebbing away as systems move too slowly and there is a failure to provide support. As the Parliament takes on more power over social security, it is vital that we focus on early intervention and redouble our efforts in that area, so that people get support at the earliest possible stage.
In my time on the Education and Skills Committee, time and again I have heard testimony that young people and their families are unaware of their rights. We have heard about cases in which young people are being forced to fail in mainstream schools and are not getting the support that they need for what can be very complex needs.
Did Mr Mundell find some of the conclusions of “Not included, not engaged, not involved: A report on the experiences of autistic children missing school” shocking, as I did? Does he agree that the exclusion from school that many young people experience is illegal?
I would probably go further than saying that I found those conclusions shocking; the situation that the report describes is a downright disgrace.
Daniel Johnson is absolutely right to doggedly raise the issue, because no member can be satisfied that we are doing our duty when young people are being denied their basic right to education by being unlawfully excluded from school. I am pleased that there are early signs that the Government is working with the organisations that produced that report. However, time is of the essence. It is easy to say that we are on a journey, that we are making progress and that we have targets, but we must remember that individual young people do not have the time to wait. Every day that we delay or spend discussing our ambitions for the future is an opportunity missed for them.
The Government needs to put education right at the heart of its goals and plans if it wants to get anywhere near meeting its target. Frankly, the gap in employment rates between people who are disabled and those who are not shames our society, and it should shame us all. The fact that that gap is not closing more quickly, despite all the policy ambitions and statements, points to the problem that I am highlighting.
I stress to ministers that there is a postcode lottery. Although there is good practice in some areas, the practice in other areas is not so good. Up to a point, it is fine to say that it is for local authorities to deliver education and to decide how much support disabled young people in their area need, but none of us can believe that it is possible for the proportion of pupils with additional support needs to be as low as 16 per cent in some parts of the country while it can be as high as 40 per cent in others.
Something is going wrong, and, at a national level, we have a duty to do something about the situation. If we want a fairer Scotland for disabled people, that support has to start from day 1, to make sure that people fulfil their aspirations.
The Scottish Government, the Parliament and society must recognise the rich and valuable contribution that disabled people make to all aspects of public and private life. We also know that much work is still to be done in challenging inequality, to ensure that disabled people have full access to the social, civic and economic life of Scotland’s communities.
As we stand at the midway point of our delivery plan for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by 2021, it is only right to discuss progress thus far and what is still to be achieved. I thank Inclusion Scotland and others for their excellent briefings ahead of today’s debate, which highlight areas where we need to move forward. For example, disabled people are still more likely to live in poverty than a non-disabled person. Indeed, a disabled person in Scotland faces, on average, additional costs related to their impairment or condition of £632 a month. Sadly, there is also a real disability pay gap.
Those facts underline how important it is to reaffirm our commitment to delivering transformational change for disabled people. The delivery plan “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People” could not be more distinct from the UK Tory Government’s approach, which was to abolish the independent living fund and cut employability programmes and welfare such that the United Nations declared there to be evidence of “grave or systematic violations” of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That was all in the name of austerity.
Indeed, the Prime Minister was this week accused of making disabled people her bottom priority after failing to replace the Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work, Sarah Newton MP, who quit on 13 March. Meanwhile, official figures reveal that 70 per cent of disabled people facing the possibility of losing their entitlement to social security benefits who proceeded to a hearing had that decision subsequently overturned. It is simply unconscionable that so many people in need are being failed, and the situation raises questions about the number who may have been successful but who choose not to proceed to a hearing because of the process involved.
The UK Government’s punitive approach is demonstrative of its often callous attitude towards disabled and vulnerable people. Many people who are born with disabilities so severe that they are unable to work are still being subjected to repeated employment and support allowance work capability assessments over many years, despite the fact that their condition is permanent. It is deeply stressful and pointless for one of my older constituents to be summoned for interview in Ayr, which is 22 miles from the southernmost part of my constituency. It is a costly box-ticking exercise. In contrast, the SNP Government believes that every disabled person in Scotland has the right to choice, control, dignity and freedom to live their life with the support that they need.
As Mr Gibson will be aware, from last week’s debate, disabled people have to renew their concessionary bus pass every three years. The constituent that he mentioned, who has a lifelong disability, will have to go again and again to get their pass renewed. Does he recognise that, if such a process is demeaning with regard to work capability assessments, the same is true of renewing a concessionary bus pass? Will he put pressure on the Government to change its policy?
I refer Mr Balfour to the very detailed response that Michael Matheson, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, gave him a week ago today on that very question, which he will certainly recall.
Since 2013, the SNP Government has spent more than £100 million a year protecting people from the worst aspects of Tory welfare cuts. That includes fully protecting households that are impacted by the bedroom tax, 80 per cent of which have a disabled adult, and setting up our own independent living fund to ensure that disabled people are not disadvantaged by Westminster cuts—going even further by opening the fund to new applicants.
Of course, ensuring that disabled people have an income on which they can live is just one aspect of realising the human rights of Scotland’s disabled people. The delivery plan sets out 93 actions that are to be progressed by 2021 in order to realise our long-term ambitions, which include halving the employment gap for disabled people. The employment rate among disabled people is currently 42.8 per cent, compared to 80.2 per cent among non-disabled people. The gap is comparable to that in the UK as a whole, which, as Jamie Hepburn pointed out, will take 200 years to close if it continues along its current track.
Fortunately, we are taking a proactive approach in Scotland, including the award of £50.5 million to colleges to develop and deliver access and inclusion strategies; creating fair start Scotland last April, which provides support for disabled people to find work; and many more actions that are outlined in “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Employment Action Plan”, which was published in December.
As employers, we MSPs can act, too. Last month, I addressed an excellent workshop in Saltcoats about the disability confident employer scheme and how we can better assist people with health issues to return to work after illness. From small steps such as ensuring that our constituency offices are fully accessible by installing a disabled toilet and access ramp—as I did when I first rented my office in Dalry, 12 years ago—to offering an interview to any disabled person who meets the minimum job criteria, we can lead by example and become certified disability confident employers. As well as bringing individual advantages for the employed disabled person, utilising the talent that they bring to our workforce and thereby halving the employment gap could boost Scotland’s gross domestic product by 3.5 per cent a year.
Looking beyond employment, I was incredibly impressed by a recent Scottish boccia training camp that I attended in Largs courtesy of Scottish Disability Sport. Some 350 para-athletes in 27 groups and teams across Scotland actively participate in boccia, and it is now our fastest growing para-sport. I am delighted that the Inverclyde national sports centre in Largs has, thanks to this Government and its partners, facilities and accommodation that are specially designed for para-athletes and that can accommodate such training camps. It is just one example of how incorporating accessibility into the design of our public spaces and buildings can benefit disabled people and all of us.
Inclusion Scotland and other disabled persons organisations are calling for more input from disabled people in the design, delivery and evaluation of policies that affect them, in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which states that parties should actively “consult ... and ... involve” disabled people and their representative organisations. That begins with fundamentals such as supplying documents in easy-to-read formats and ensuring that meetings are inclusive and accessible. I trust that the Scottish Government will take heed of those calls and that disabled people and the organisations representing them will be at the heart of the plan’s delivery and evaluation.
It is from the lived experience of disabled people that we must draw effective solutions to the problems and barriers that they face. Indeed, that is central to achieving the aims of the delivery plan and tackling inequality. I am confident that we will realise our ambitions for disabled people in Scotland and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential.
That is clearly bad timing on my part, Presiding Officer, but I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. Judging from the briefings that we received prior to this afternoon’s debate, I think that disabled people are disappointed with the Scottish Government’s lack of progress. I, too, want to acknowledge the work of Inclusion Scotland, Enable Scotland, People First Scotland, the Scottish independent living coalition and many others besides, and I welcome Jim Elder-Woodward to the public gallery this afternoon.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to a fairer Scotland for disabled people, but it is fair to say, now that we are halfway through delivery of the plan, that progress has been too slow. My genuine concern is that the Government consistently overpromises and then underdelivers.
I want to spend most of my time talking about learning disability, and I will start by reminding members of the two learning disability strategies that successive Governments brought forward. The first, “The same as you? A review of services for people with learning disabilities”, was widely regarded as a seminal document that truly changed the experience of people with learning disabilities in Scotland. Gone were the long-stay institutions such as Lennox Castle; gone was the lack of dignity and respect afforded to people with learning disabilities; and care and support were to be provided at home or as near to home as possible and close to family and friends. Lives were truly transformed.
It was followed a decade later by “The keys to life: Improving quality of life for people with learning disabilities”. Like “The same as you?”, it is a good strategy, but where it disappoints is that it is largely undelivered. There are lots of promises of action that have not been fulfilled. As the minister has said, a new delivery framework has just been launched, but there is little time left, and the majority of the strategy’s recommendations will simply not be achieved.
One recommendation common to both strategies was the creation of a network of local area co-ordinators. At its best, it was a partnership between individuals, their families and service providers. Instead of people having to deal with a maze of services, they had the local area co-ordinator. They were the glue; they were on your side, and they helped you navigate a way through. Such was their value that they grew in number from five to 80 posts spread across two thirds of local authority areas.
Unfortunately, funding cuts have meant that many of the roles no longer exist or are delivered on a part-time basis. “The keys to life” spoke at length about the importance of their role and promised a review to report by April 2014, but the review never happened. It is another example of overpromising but underdelivering. Whether they are supporting independent living to enable choices, opportunities and participation or ensuring that public services deliver a better experience for users with dignity and respect at their core, the posts contribute directly to the “Fairer Scotland Action Plan”, but their worth is simply not appreciated.
The Government can have the most brilliant strategies and plans, but if they are left gathering dust on a shelf in St Andrew’s house, they have little impact on the experience of people with disabilities, so we must renew our focus on implementation.
The recent “Coming Home” report by Dr MacDonald is a welcome but concerning piece of work. It established that 700 people with learning disabilities were being cared for away from home, in the majority of cases against their wishes. If we are to deliver a fairer Scotland for disabled people, implementing the “Coming Home” report recommendations must be a priority.
Of course, we should not think about disabled people just in terms of their care. As for us all, it is also about where they live and their ability to work, to be financially stable and to have strong social networks—in short, to live a full life. Often, that is based on individual circumstances and local decisions, but central Government has an overarching role and should be at the forefront of leading change. “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People” adopts the social model of disability. As the minister rightly said, this recognises that it is society that disables people and we should act to remove those barriers. However, there is a long, long way to go.
The Scottish Government has left disability benefits—surprisingly, in my view—in the hands of the Tories until at least 2024, handing back control to the UK Government so that we are unable to make changes that I think people are crying out for.
There is a housing crisis for disabled people and the number of ASN teachers is being slashed. As council budgets are stretched to breaking point, self-directed support becomes much more elusive. The cuts and increased social care charges faced by many people with disabilities are truly worrying, because we are turning the clock back.
While I am talking about local government, I will mention the living wage for overnight care. If we want a sustainable social care infrastructure that provides good-quality care and enables self-directed support, we need to value and reward the workforce. I welcome the Government’s fair work agenda. I welcome the strong view from the health secretary that all local authorities—not just a few—should provide the living wage for all commissioned services, not just for daytime hours but for overnight working as well. However, not every local authority has signed up to do that, despite receiving resources from the Scottish Government to do so. That is simply not good enough. The Scottish Government must ensure that the situation changes now.
With that, as with the overall “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People” plan, I say to the minister, “Don’t just tell me what is important to you.” Although warm words are nice, they do not change people’s lives. Real action, backed by resources, can be transformational. I commend that approach to the minister.
Like George Adam, I am a member whose life is affected substantially by disability, albeit not my own, as I am a parent of a disabled child.
In that respect, many of the families and individuals I come into regular contact with also have their lives touched by disability, so I will reflect on some of the issues that they have highlighted as well as some that have been highlighted by the organisations that have contacted members in advance of the debate.
I want to talk about accessibility because it is a term that applies very broadly to the debate around disability. We have to start right back at the beginning, with diagnosis. The accessibility and availability of diagnosis for many in our society are still not where they need to be in terms of the length of time people often have to wait and in terms of how there is often a division in relation to people’s ability to access diagnosis.
As members will know, I have regularly spoken about autism in this Parliament. It remains the case that adults who seek an autism diagnosis are far too often excluded from receiving one and are forced to go private in order to obtain one rather than being able to achieve a diagnosis through the national health service. That situation is changing in Grampian and NHS Grampian is now talking about introducing an adult autism diagnostic pathway, which is welcome, albeit long overdue. However, it remains the case that many individuals whose autism is at the higher-functioning end, who might therefore be less likely to present in childhood and adolescence, find themselves excluded from achieving a diagnosis and accessing the support that they require.
Accessibility relates to support. Often, diagnosis can be empowering, because it gives someone the opportunity to understand their place and how their condition affects them, but it can also be incredibly isolating, as has been highlighted in the speech and the amendment from Mark Griffin. If people do not have ready access or signposting to the support that is available out there, they go out into the world alone with their diagnosis and they are unsure of how to navigate the system that is in front of them.
Accessibility applies to transitions between the stages of an individual’s life as they move through the services that are provided—whether that be from children’s services to adult services or from adult services to older people’s services. For many individuals, transitions are abrupt and like a cliff edge; many also fall into the gap between services. More flexibility needs to apply when people move through services, particularly when individuals have developed social circles that would be broken by a move to adult or older people’s services, which could result in a retreat into loneliness.
We need to think about life chances. In its “Is Scotland Fairer?” progress report, the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that, although the
“proportion of university ... undergraduate entrants who reported they were disabled increased ... Disabled students were less likely than non-disabled students to successfully complete their qualification”.
The Child Poverty Action Group has highlighted that part of the problem is that disabled students face significant difficulties in claiming universal credit, because the system is exceptionally complicated. That often results in students dropping out of courses. I hope that ministers have seen that information and are alive to the concerns.
We need to talk about accessibility in its widest sense. We often talk about making buildings and opportunities more physically accessible but, as a parent of an autistic child, I suggest that we must also think about sensory accessibility, which relates to lighting, ambient noise and equipment in venues.
It is clear that the member has read the rest of my speech, which is good, because I have not. I agree entirely with his point, which I will come back to.
My experience is that my son cannot use a communal public toilet, because the noise of a hand dryer sends him into a sensory meltdown. When we take him out, we must use disabled toilets. That often leads to questioning looks, because my son is able bodied, and the perception remains that disabled toilets are exclusively for the use of wheelchair users. With that in mind, and because Iain Gray is not in the chamber, I commend the work of his constituent Grace Warnock, who has campaigned to ensure that people have a greater understanding of the wider range of individuals who require to use disabled toilets.
What Daniel Johnson said was correct. Making adaptations to accommodate a wider cohort of individuals does not exclude the rest of us in society but, if we continue to operate more narrowly, we will always exclude some individuals from opportunities that the rest of us take for granted.
The same point applies to changing places toilets. I have vehemently supported the campaign for them since 2011, when I shadowed a carer—Stephanie Chalmers—in the north-east and saw the difficulties that she faced in planning days out for her and her son Connor.
It is fair to say that a range of positive work is being done across organisations in the north-east and beyond but, as Daniel Johnson highlighted, it too often remains the case that we expect disabled people to adapt themselves to society’s norms, when we should focus on adapting society’s norms to include disabled people. I hope that we will continue to work together in that spirit to make progress.
The debate—as we now know, because there have been a lot of good contributions to it—provides an opportunity to examine the progress that has been made in ensuring that disabled people are afforded the same freedom, choice and dignity as others have the right to expect in Scotland.
The delivery plan “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People” has rightly brought matters of equality and human rights to the forefront of politics on many occasions. Today, two years after the publication of that plan, we are discussing how fair a place Scotland is for disabled people to live in. The plan outlines five key ambitions and details 93 action points. The five ambitions are: support services that promote independent living, choice and opportunity; decent income and fairer working lives; accessible housing and transport; protected rights; and active participation in public life. Those ambitions, along with the action points, are to be delivered in this parliamentary session and thereafter. However, we all hope to see as much as possible being delivered in this parliamentary session.
The trajectory that the plan establishes is highly important. Underlying its objectives is what I believe to be one of our key responsibilities as public servants. That responsibility, and prerogative, is to promote greater freedom, fairness and equity where we have the ability to do so. That is particularly true, and even more important, when it concerns promoting change for people who face disadvantage.
Disabled people have experiences of social barriers that vary according to their individual circumstances and locality. However, it is true that the social model of most societies often exacerbates the barriers that are faced by disabled people, which hinders full realisation of freedom, fairness and equity. It is therefore our duty to understand what the barriers are and to do what we can—now and in the future—to address them.
The specific barriers that face disabled people in Scotland include negative attitudes and lack of awareness; inaccessible buildings, transport and communication; poverty arising from cuts to benefits, social care charges, extra costs for and discrimination by employers; services that do not empower their users; and lack of information and power to make disabled people’s voices heard. We Step Together is a learning disability charity that is based in my constituency. It cites isolation, bullying and harassment as issues that are faced by disabled people, and has actively combated them over the charity’s 22 years of service.
The barriers that stop disabled people from living with freedom, fairness and equity are not inevitable—a point that disability charities emphasise. Since the publication of the Scottish Government's “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People” delivery plan, a number of steps have been taken to address the barriers. It is significant that those steps include a large emphasis on ensuring that disabled people are listened to and are able to contribute to the changes that are being made.
Accordingly, the Scottish Government has funded the creation of the people-led policy panel. The panel is run by Inclusion Scotland and is made up of 50 disabled people who all have different experiences of what it is to be a disabled person in Scotland. The panel has open dialogue with the Scottish Government and provides feedback on policy proposals. The Glasgow Disability Alliance is also working to ensure that disabled people are able to engage in the participatory budget processes of local authorities.
Those are but two of the many steps that have been taken to instigate the movement that is needed for Scotland to become a place where disabled people have full freedom, choice, dignity and control.
On disability rights, I am interested particularly in what living with full freedom, choice, dignity and control looks like when it comes to a person's ability to be connected to their community. That interest comes from having seen the good work that has been done in my Glasgow Anniesland constituency over the years through collaboration by many charities and community groups. For example, We Step Together—which I mentioned—works to connect people who have learning disabilities with charities including DRC Generations, where young people work with We Step Together’s members. It also works with the Yoker Resource Centre to build connections between those people and the wider community.
Social isolation and loneliness have been mentioned. They are experienced by disabled people across Scotland and must be effectively combated. A sense of community can make people more connected and, often, happier. The report “A Connected Scotland: our strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger social connections” highlights how transport—to give just one example—can be used to make it easier for disabled people to build connections in their communities.
Simple changes such as the automatic ban on pavement parking and the continuation of free bus travel for disabled people are examples of effective and simple steps that can straight away change a disabled person’s opportunity to connect with their friends and neighbours.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that all people have
“inherent dignity and worth and ... equal and inalienable rights ... as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
As policy creators, we have the ability to take that forward for disabled people in Scotland. Let us reaffirm today our commitment to doing just that.
I should perhaps declare an interest in that I am, technically, disabled. However, in the context of the chamber, I am quite able to participate in the debate. My point is that physical disabilities can often be mitigated through technology and supportive care from others. Given the right circumstances, we can mitigate shortcomings and develop abilities that cast disadvantage into insignificance. Professor Stephen Hawking is a classic example of someone achieving much despite having a devastating condition.
A lot of good work is going on amid some real challenges. We have problems in respect of making sure that disabled people can get into work. The employment rate among disabled people is 45.4 per cent, which is significantly behind that among non-disabled people.
There are challenges in housing as well. Nearly half of adults in social rented housing report having a disability, and there was a housing waiting list of more than 100,000 disabled people in 2018, compared with 61,000 three years ago. That worrying trend needs to be addressed immediately.
However, it is only fair to discuss the good work to which I referred earlier. The UK and Scottish Governments both run back-to-work schemes for disabled people, participation rates for which are 75 per cent and 55 per cent, respectively. The UK Government has raised the workplace disability support grant to almost £60,000, which is a great step for getting disabled people into the workforce. In addition, the Scottish Government’s “Fairer Scotland Action Plan” is comprehensive in its aims, but it is important that progress against it is monitored. Also, as many members do, I take part in the UK Government’s disability confident employer scheme, to which about 11,000 businesses have signed up. I hope that that number continues to grow in the future.
Extra consideration should be given to the fact that disabilities are not always physical; they can be mental. In such cases, the sufferer might not understand their situation, and might not be able to innovate to circumvent or mitigate daily problems. Not least, they might have less understanding of the effect that their disability has on others.
When we see that the employment rate for people with learning disabilities is currently a mere 7 per cent, it is clear that such situations can present different challenges. I am thinking of, for example, people who are on the severe end of the autism spectrum, which is devastating for not only the individual but their parents, siblings and families, who do their best as carers. Caring for such individuals is hugely complex, and it appears that our health services are currently limited in their ability to take a holistic view of the needs of autistic patients and their supportive parents and families.
One of my constituents is an example of that. Jaxon will be 10 years old in two weeks. He is severely autistic, has severe learning difficulties and is non-verbal. He is becoming a strapping and powerful lad and is, due to the frustrations that he faces, sometimes quite aggressive and violent. He cannot be left alone for any time, because of the potential danger to himself and, perhaps, others. Jaxon requires a safety bed to keep him secure at night. The bed is apparently not available for people who have behavioural issues, which leaves the entire family at risk during the night.
With his growing size and frustration, Jaxon’s school is struggling to cope, and speech therapists are not making much progress. All the attention that is being focused on Jaxon also has a knock-on effect on his siblings.
His mother says:
“I am trying to do my best for my son to ensure that he has a good, happy and safe life, but I continue to have to chase around to speak to people in departments that don’t seem to be able to help me or point me in the right direction for help for Jaxon. In fact, I have to fight for everything for my son. Where is the diversity and inclusiveness for Jaxon?”
Families such as Jaxon’s should not have to go through such trauma: we should be able to organise our services to respond effectively. With the right support, families can cope with such disadvantages. I am sure that each department means well and operates correctly within its brief, but such families deserve better than to be passed from pillar to post and around departments to little or no effect. The frustrations of that add to the huge stresses that such families already experience. I ask the minister to review how services for young people with such learning difficulties are co-ordinated because, for many, current provision is not working. I would welcome a commitment on that from the minister, when he sums up.
We welcome the opportunities to strengthen the rights of disabled people in our country, and this afternoon’s debate shows the commitment that exists across Parliament. I hope that, as we look to the challenges that are ahead of us, we will all commit to working together to ensure that, in Scotland, people with disabilities enjoy exactly the same opportunities as those without.
It is a privilege to speak in this afternoon’s debate on the “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People” delivery plan.
At lunch time, I bumped into a group from the Glasgow Disability Alliance, who were taking part in a parliamentary tour with members of the connecting Milton group. They had enjoyed First Minister’s question time earlier—at least, when I met them, they told me that they had enjoyed it; I hope that that was true. The meeting was fortuitous, in that MSPs received several high-quality and deeply helpful briefings ahead of this afternoon’s debate and, after our meeting, I went back and reread the briefing from the Glasgow Disability Alliance and found it both powerful and compelling.
For those who do not know about it, Glasgow Disability Alliance is the largest grass-roots, disabled people-led organisation in Europe, with over 4,500 members across greater Glasgow. Through accessible programmes of learning, capacity building, peer support and participation, it brings together disabled people and those with long-term conditions to build their confidence and connections and support them to make their contributions—to have their voices heard, tackle barriers and work with others towards equality.
It also has a track record. Glasgow Disability Alliance members helped to shape and launch the delivery plan and have contributed to implementation through input to the employability strategy, social security development, including the charter and the experience panels, and other work. I will not go on with the list because of time constraints, but the crucial point is that, at a local level, the GDA continues to drive partnership work to progress disabled people’s rights and improve outcomes in Glasgow. It sees the delivery plan as a framework document, but it also wants to drive local change and local action; it wants to see that delivered and not just to have a framework for delivery.
The GDA has a key ask: a requirement to establish regional delivery plans in each local authority area, co-produced with disabled people. I think that that is a reasonable ask. It also gives some good examples of co-production and partnership work. Glasgow City Council and the GDA are working in partnership on the “Rights Now!” welfare rights project to help to mitigate the impacts of universal credit on disabled people in Glasgow—that is something that is happening now—and there is local work to reduce the disability employment gap and boost “employerability”. The GDA also mentions opportunities around the 2018 European championships, as well as hate crime partnerships in local areas, facilitated by community safety. The alliance is not just talking about action for those who live with disabilities; it is delivering it.
The GDA is right to ask how local progress will be captured in the national plan, how it will be shared, how we will drive and champion it and how we will monitor the extent to which it happens across all local authority areas. Regional and local monitoring and, potentially, targets could be powerful tools, so there are some reasonable requests there.
There are positives. Many members have mentioned the negative figure in relation to the employment gap: the employment rate for disabled people is half of that for non-disabled people. However, there is a hugely ambitious plan to halve that gap and to improve the employment rate for disabled people. People will say that those are warm words, but there have been concrete actions, some of which we have heard about this afternoon.
I should mention fair start Scotland, which is a new employment support service, with dignity and respect at its core, which helps people living in Scotland to find work. Crucially, participation in fair start Scotland is voluntary, which means that people can choose to take part without fear of it affecting their existing benefits. Fair start Scotland is funded by the Scottish Government, with Scottish ministers committing an additional £20 million in each year of Parliament, over and above UK Government funding, with £96 million in total having been committed. That is concrete action.
I could have talked about the concrete action of the keys to life framework, self-directed support and the independent living fund but, due to time constraints, I will not.
If I did not mention the different approach that the Scottish Government, with the new social security powers, is taking in relation to replacements for PIP and DLA, my constituents would say, “Why didn’t you raise your voice to talk about the good things that are happening and to condemn the things that are unacceptable about the current system?” My constituents would also not forgive me if I did not say that Remploy used to be in my constituency—shame on the UK Government for closing that amazing, inspirational, supported workplace.
I want to say something positive about the UK Government, and it relates to Sarah Newton, the former Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work, whose resignation is a sad loss. I also have in my constituency Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft Industries, which works closely with City Building. The unions came to me very worried that the end of protected places funding would put RSBI in huge financial difficulty, which might put 107 visually impaired workers under threat of losing their jobs. RSBI is vitally important to my constituency, but we worked closely with Sarah Newton and, in partnership with the Scottish Government and as a result of work that we did locally, she secured a two-year extension to the scheme. Sarah Newton said:
“We’re committed to ensuring that disabled people have the necessary support to thrive in the workplace and Protected Places plays a big part in helping thousands to reach their full potential.”
Right now, though, we do not have a UK disability minister. I hope that the Scottish Government will consider ensuring that when we eventually get a new minister, the reassurances that Sarah Newton was able to give to my constituents endure.
It has been a pleasure to speak in the debate.
I want to use my time today to talk about the lived experience of families who live with disabilities. I begin with a fact: the average public toilet floor has, on average, 77,000 germs and viruses. I ask everyone in the chamber whether they would be content to lie on that public toilet floor, because, sadly, that is the only option available to many disabled children and adults when they leave their home.
According to the brand Firefly, which is a disabled equipment manufacturer, 86 per cent of parent carers have stated that they have had to leave a venue because of inadequate accessible toilet facilities for their loved ones.
The traditionally known disabled toilet is suitable only for those who are able to transfer themselves from their wheelchair to the toilet and back, or for those who can transfer with minimal assistance. Disabled children and adults with continence issues who require vital support from carers need more space.
Research commissioned by Mencap for the Scottish Government indicates that there are in the region of 20,000 people in Scotland who would directly benefit from the use of a changing places toilet. Fully accessible toilets, commonly known as changing places toilets, provide more space for a carer, a wheelchair, a changing bench and a hoist. Lifting a disabled child or adult compromises the health and safety of the disabled person and their carer. A hoist can safely transfer the person on to the changing bench or toilet. To date, in Scotland, there are 190 changing places toilets. For any member who is not aware, there is a changing places toilet located in the garden lobby of the Parliament. However, members might be surprised to realise that, on Scotland’s road network, there are only two changing places toilets.
Unfortunately, the law is confusing. The Equality Act 2010 states that, while it is not compulsory for businesses to install a changing places toilet, they do have
“a duty to make reasonable adjustments” to ensure that those with disabilities can access toilets. However, the definition of what is “reasonable” has been left up to campaigners. Organisations such as PAMIS have worked with my colleague Jeremy Balfour to try to make changes to the regulations through the Planning (Scotland) Bill.
As Christina McKelvie said in her opening speech, the Scottish Government is currently consulting on the provision of changing places toilets; to date, there have been more than 900 responses. The consultation closes on 13 May and I encourage everyone to respond to it.
Campaigners are aware that not every business can provide such facilities, but it is not unreasonable to ask larger businesses and larger public buildings to provide fully accessible toilets—
I acknowledge the work that Mary Fee has done so far. Does she acknowledge that changing places toilets also bring an economic benefit to businesses? Families can stay longer at a place, they can spend more money and they are more likely to go there if that facility is there.
I agree that installing changing places toilets, particularly in cinemas, shopping centres and theme parks, would encourage families to come out and would be beneficial to the businesses.
Campaigner Lorna Fillingham states:
“Inclusion means much more than building ramps. If we’re going to have an inclusive society, at least build toilets that everyone can use.”
We must also consider the fact that disabled children become disabled adults. Fiona is carer to her brother Ewan and they live in the Highlands. Fiona told me:
“Ewan is a 34-year-old man with profound and multiple learning difficulties, who, like most people his age, enjoys living life to the full. Together, we participate in lots of different activities, both within our local community and further afield. Ewan is unable to use a standard accessible toilet, so, over the years, in order for him to be able to do the things that he enjoys, we have had to develop all kinds of ways of trying to meet his personal care needs”—
I absolutely welcome the pamiloo.
As my campaigner said, sometimes, they have no choice but to abandon what they are doing and drive home, which, when they live in the Highlands, can be difficult and is not dignified. It is difficult for them to put into words the massive difference that a changing places toilet would make to their lives.
It is important for all the family to be able to join in living life to the full. Not being able to participate in society due to lack of facilities has a severe impact on the mental health of the disabled person, the carer and their family.
I will leave members with a few quotes from Laura Rutherford, who is mum to seven-year-old Brody, from Falkirk:
“No-one chooses to have a disability; it can happen to any one of us at any time of our lives”,
“Is it unreasonable to ask for all of our citizens to feel included? Is it unreasonable to ask that all our citizens be treated with dignity?”,
“Is it reasonable that we even have to debate this in 2019?”
I am delighted to take part in the debate on progressing towards a fairer Scotland for disabled people.
There is no doubt that disabled people contribute to our communities and our society. We have heard today some passionate speeches from members about how disabilities have affected people in their constituencies, their families and lifestyles.
We have come some way, but there is further for us to go. Government, employers and communities must all play their part to ensure that people with a disability are supported.
Prior to becoming an MSP, I spent nearly two decades working for and with individuals with learning disabilities and difficulties. During that time, it was a real revelation to me to see the constant struggles that many had to endure in their everyday lives. Indeed, as a result of my previous involvement and experience I was given the opportunity to open the making where we live better conference in 2017, which was organised by my former council, Perth and Kinross Council. I was able to recall my experiences and knowledge of private landlords, local authorities and employers in many parts of Scotland that are not fully aware and are not supporting individuals with disabilities enough.
As my colleague Jeremy Balfour indicated, this is a vital debate. We have gone some way with fair work, but people just want a normal job, not a job that has been created for them. They want to be mainstream; they want accessible workplaces, homes and other environments. They want a chance to deliver and a chance to be part of all that.
Jackie Baillie, who is not in the chamber at present, talked about giving people chances to unlock their potential. Mary Fee made a passionate speech about the difficulties that individuals face using toilet facilities. Those are basic, normal things and we should support individuals through all that. It is vital that we acknowledge that all that these individuals want to do is lead independent and normal lives. We must ensure that we are supporting individuals in all aspects of life.
I pay tribute to the many independent groups and charities in my region of Mid Scotland and Fife—and across Scotland—that are doing outstanding work to ensure that individuals are getting support and opportunities to unlock their potential.
We have received lots of reports from organisations in the past few days. Enable Scotland said:
“A fairer society begins with fairness and equality in schools where every pupil is supported to achieve and thrive in a truly inclusive environment.”
That is fundamental, but we learned that only 7 per cent of people with a learning disability are in paid employment. That has to change. A vital building block of a fair society is the provision of excellent and high-quality, self-determined social care support.
Enable Scotland also talks about what it sees as an achievable social care infrastructure that supports people with disabilities to live the life they choose. That depends on the recruitment, training and retention of staff to support them.
There are opportunities for flexible working to ensure that career opportunities are there. The Scottish Government has talked about its fair work agenda. Yes, we must have a fair work agenda, but it must support individuals with difficulties and disabilities.
The Scottish Conservatives very much support increased diversity and fairness in the workplace. I agree that barriers need to be taken down so that people can live in adapted homes.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which came in under the Conservative Government, went some way, with the requirement for reasonable adjustments, to ensure that employers were providing opportunities.
We are now halfway through the five-year action plan that was launched in 2016. When we started that, the disability employment rate was at 42 per cent, which meant that 58 per cent of those individuals did not have the opportunity to work.
A report from November 2018 found that working women still experienced a gender pay gap and harassment. Disabled individuals found themselves with poorer opportunities to get a job. The report states:
“Disabled people were less likely ... to have attended an education course or received job-related training.”
It is vital that we tackle that.
Disabled people are still less likely to be employed and more likely to be unemployed. Women are still more likely than men to be employed in part-time work. That is all still going on.
We need to look at education, employment and training, as disabled young people are twice as likely as non-disabled young people to not be in education, employment or training. Once again, that is something that we cannot continue to see.
The November 2018 report says:
“Many disabled people lived in homes that did not meet their requirements to live independently.”
When many disabled people get to their home, it has not been adapted for them; the adaption has to happen after.
It has been a pleasure to take part in the debate. We want to see that people are given the chance to show what they can do—it is not about what they cannot do.
Under six minutes; that is five minutes.
I welcome the opportunity to debate progressing towards a fairer Scotland for disabled people. For me, the subject touches on the most crucial aspect of the debate on our country and its future. What type of Scotland do we wish to shape and mould? What type of Scotland do I want my grandchildren to grow up in? The answer to those questions is clear. I want a Scotland where everyone has equal rights. Then, and only then, will we have shaped a fairer Scotland.
I am proud to represent a party that recognises absolutely the truly valuable contribution that people with disabilities make to Scottish society and Scotland as a whole. It is important to note this fact and declare it loudly: more than one million disabled people contribute to Scotland’s communities and add talent, diversity and richness to our society, each and every day.
Our shared goal is for every one of the million disabled people in Scotland to have choice, control, dignity and freedom to live the life that they choose, with the support that they need to do so. That forms just a part of the Scottish Government’s wider efforts to create a stronger economy, by focusing strongly on tackling inequality and creating the environment for growth to thrive.
Of course, with disabled people making up 20 per cent of our population, it is crucial that we take steps to address the negative attitudes that are still so prevalent, and which directly contribute to the inequality that is faced by disabled people. Those negative attitudes belong firmly in history.
Time and again, the contribution that I see made to our communities by people with disabilities is immense and incredibly valuable. I pay tribute to local work that I am aware of in that respect. NL Industries is a supported business that was established by North Lanarkshire Council. The definition of a supported business is a factory or business where 50 per cent of the employees are disabled persons who, by reason of the nature or severity of their disability, face challenging barriers to taking up work in the open labour market.
NLI provides a wide range of products and services across the marketplace, with customers consisting of both public and private sector organisations. The supported employment service assists people with learning disabilities, mental health issues and acquired brain injury to gain employment, and it offers practical support to the employee and employer. That is just one of the many practical examples of the important contribution that is being made by those with disabilities to employment in Scotland.
Those practical examples are set against the policy backdrop of the Scottish Government’s disability action plan, with its commitment to the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The action plan covers the period 2016 to 2021 and aims to make equality of opportunity, access to services and independent living a reality for all disabled people in Scotland.
The delivery plan is based on the social model of disability. Unlike the medical model, in which an individual is understood to be disabled due to their impairment, the social model views disability as the relationship between the individual and society. The delivery plan recognises that the human rights of disabled people must underpin all our activity across the whole range of policies and legislation.
Importantly, the plan has been shaped by the experiences of disabled people and the insights of disabled people’s organisations. That is crucial to achieving our ambition that consultation and engagement and the development of policy puts those with disabilities at its core. That engagement is so important as effective solutions to the problems and barriers faced by disabled people must be drawn from those with lived experience.
I am proud of the record of the SNP Government. Whilst reflecting on the positive work of government, it must be said that it is a tale of two Governments. The UK Government’s welfare cuts are having a serious impact, while the Scottish Government has already taken action to respond to harmful UK Government policies. I could go on and on, but I do not have time.
Against that backdrop we see the creation of Scotland’s first social security system, which has been established as a distinct system with dignity, fairness and respect at its heart. Those actions, our delivery plan and the plethora of work being done by the SNP Government are paving the way towards a fairer Scotland. I welcome that.
Those members are missing out on a treat, Presiding Officer.
At the beginning of his speech, George Adam said that he felt something of a fraud discussing living with disability, because the disability was that of his wife. That relates to a point that I want to reflect on, which is that we must all embrace disability. We may have disabilities that we do not feel we have earned the right to describe as disabilities, or the disabilities may be those of family members, but it is important that we have the courage to talk about them.
If there is a fundamental thing that we can agree across the chamber it is that we need to have greater acceptance in discussing disability, so that we can look at the issues and resolve them. That has been my experience. As I have discussed in Parliament before, I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I was reticent about describing that as a disability until about nine months ago, when Jeremy Balfour approached me in the garden lobby and asked me whether I had notified Parliament of my ADHD as a disability. I said that I was not sure whether I could or should and whether it was justified. Jeremy told me that I absolutely had to, because unless people stand up, acknowledge their disabilities and talk openly about them, we cannot make progress. Similarly, I had a more recent conversation with Pam Duncan-Glancy, who told me just to own it.
We have to create understanding and the only way in which we can do that is if people stand up and talk about their experience of disability, whether it is their own or that of people around them. That is particularly true for invisible disabilities—I am thinking in particular of people with neurodevelopmental disorders, mental health conditions and learning disabilities. People sometimes feel that they have not earned those disabilities because they are not obvious or visible. However, they are still disabilities.
The litmus test for me was, if someone with one of those conditions approached me and asked whether they had a disability and whether they had rights under the disability at work legislation, I would say, “Absolutely you do, and you must fight for those rights.” That was the point.
It often starts in the workplace. For people with invisible disabilities, there is often an anxiety about disclosure—whether they should disclose and how that might be received. Mary Fee touched on the issue of reasonable adjustments, albeit in a different context. “Reasonable adjustment” is an opaque term that is often left undefined. It gets treated as a black box and we need to break that down.
I would like to commend the National Autistic Society in Scotland, the Scottish Association for Mental Health and the ADHD coalition in Scotland, each of which has produced excellent guides that have set out simple steps that can be taken to help people with autism, mental health conditions and ADHD at work. They are simple things, many of which Mark McDonald highlighted, such as lighting, making things explicit in the workplace rather than just implied and thinking about noise and clutter in the work environment. The point that I was trying to make in my intervention is that those are not just things that help people with neurodevelopmental disorders—that sounds like a good workplace for everyone.
We need dialogue and understanding. Whether people regard themselves as having a disability or not, the ability to talk about the requirements that they have at work and what will enable them to do their best work, is something that everyone needs—that is particularly true for people with disabilities.
I want to comment on some of the issues that have been raised. Speaking as somebody who has the Royal Edinburgh hospital in his constituency, I think that what Alex Cole-Hamilton said about the voice of disabled people and including those who are directly affected in policy making is vital. The lack of such inclusion is a frustration of those with conditions ranging from autism through to profound psychiatric conditions. We must include them, and I hope that the commitments by the Government are acted on.
There are fundamental equality issues, and we need a frankness and an unflinching approach as we talk about them. Andy Wightman was right to highlight the poverty gap that exists in society and the workplace between those who have a disability and those who do not. Many spoke of the invidious and deeply unfair approach of the UK Tory Government, and they are right to do so. We must also look at the decisions and policies closer to home. Recently, one of the special schools in my constituency described to me the anxiety that there will simply not be the support places available to school leavers this year; this is the first time that it has ever had that worry. That is the reality of decisions that have been made in Parliament on the Scottish Government’s budgets and the impact that they have on local government and the ability to provide vital services for people with profound support needs as they become adults.
Both Mark Griffin and Jackie Baillie were right to say that we need more than simply a better approach and the right language. We need genuine ambition and implementation. We need to ask ourselves whether we could do better. Is it right that we are leaving disability benefits with the UK Tory Government until 2024? Is it right that we have so many unfilled posts that were vital to the keys to life strategy? We must do better.
Finally, I want to refer to the vital point about additional support needs in education. The fact that a third of the respondents in the “Not included, not engaged, not involved” report described how they had been informally and therefore illegally excluded is appalling. It starts with education, and those experiences cannot be allowed in modern-day Scotland.
I am pleased to close the debate for the Scottish Conservatives. We will support the motion and all the amendments, because everything contributes to the discussion that we are having. It is clear, from the contributions to the debate, that we are moving—as we need to continue to move—past warm words and driving action that makes a real difference for disabled people. I echo what Daniel Johnson said: we need to own it. All of us can probably identify in ourselves or in people we know and love a disability that affects our, or their, everyday life.
It has been echoed around the chamber today that the opportunity to work is vital for many disabled people, and I welcome the minister’s comment that 3,000 disabled individuals benefited from a modern apprenticeship last year and that access to internships is being expanded. However, a situation in which the disability employment gap stands at 35 per cent is clearly one that we still need to tackle. Jeremy Balfour captured the views of disabled people in the words of one disabled lady:
“I just want a normal job, not a job that was created for me.”
That is where we need to go. We know that many employers are happy to employ disabled people, and we must ensure that the support and help that they can access is allowing that to happen in a way that is meaningful and not tokenistic.
Several members—including Oliver Mundell, Alexander Stewart and Daniel Johnson—mentioned that a fair Scotland for disabled people starts with the right support and education early on. That leads us to the presumption of mainstreaming, which was developed to provide all children with the choice of attending a mainstream school. However, increasingly, young people are struggling to access specialist support and education, which can be vital in helping them to develop the life skills that will allow them to cope and compete in the adult world. It is important that we revisit the presumption of mainstreaming if we are serious about ensuring that disabled people have a level playing field at the start of their working life.
Mark McDonald, Daniel Johnson and Tom Mason spoke about some of the difficulties that autism can cause and the impact of transition. I totally agree that making sensory adjustments to our world, whether in our working environment, in our schools or in our public buildings, is important to everybody and can make a real difference to wellbeing and to the quality of everybody’s lives, not just the lives of those who have recognised disabilities.
Tom Mason described Jaxon’s family’s experiences, which are similar to those of one of my constituents, who has complex disabilities. At 28, he has struggled to get adequate support from the local authority. As a consequence, he has spent years pretty much confined to a single empty room with minimal facilities and has not had a shower or a bath for two years. In this modern age, that is utterly unacceptable. We must provide suitable housing with suitable conditions, particularly for disabled people with complex needs, because the impact on them and their wider families of not having that support is significant. It is not acceptable for us to be in that position.
Bill Kidd highlighted the fantastic work that inclusion panels are doing to help us to understand the needs of disabled people. We should remember that there are lots of people with experience around us, and we need to be listening all the time. I spend a lot of time listening to what my colleague Jeremy Balfour has to say, because we sometimes forget about the little, simple things.
Mary Fee said that, on average, there are 77,000 germs and viruses on a public toilet floor. She told me that yesterday, and the thought sat with me all night. Jokingly, we discussed yesterday whether we should test the parliamentary facilities, and I must admit that I went into the public toilet today and thought, “Ew”. We have good accessible facilities in Parliament and we should be a leader, because, if we are not a leader, what example are we setting? However, the Parliament still has only one changing places toilet.
George Adam highlighted the fact that there is still a lack of disabled people among SNP members, but I am glad to say that disabled people are fairly well represented among Conservative members. Nevertheless, when we hear statistics such as the fact that there are only 190 changing places toilets in Scotland, with only two of them on the road network, we need to ask ourselves whether we are focusing on the important things.
Disabled people in Scotland have been faced with an ever-growing plethora of services, which has made things very confusing. We acknowledge that lots of good things are happening, but our amendment is about the need to bring them together. It needs to be easy for us to monitor what is going on and for disabled people to go online or talk to people and be able to quickly and easily get answers and access to the services that they need. Therefore, I hope that we will get support not just for our amendment but in taking that work forward and making it a reality.
Alex Cole-Hamilton referenced his experiences of the gulf between rhetoric and action, and he echoed the need for us to set politics aside in order to solve some of the problems that people face.
There have been a lot of comments about housing, and I would like us to do better in that area, in particular.
All members referred to the fact that disabled people do not want a paternal Government but want to be empowered to work, play and engage with society on an equal playing field. They want us to remove the barriers, so that they can participate on an equal footing. Disabled people just want to be treated like everyone else.
I thank members for their speeches. There has been a broad sweep of consensus across the issues that we have discussed today. Inevitably, I will not be able to address every issue that has been raised during the debate, but I will touch on a few.
I begin with Jeremy Balfour’s remarks, which allows me to say that we will support the Conservative amendment. He started from the premise that, over a number of years, there have been improvements in the law with respect to the rights of disabled people. That is undeniably the case, but, sadly, improvements in the law have not led to substantial enough improvements in outcomes. That is why we are having the debate.
Jeremy Balfour made another point with which I have sympathy. He talked about the concern that often exists about the creation of jobs for disabled people and said that, instead, we should ensure that people are enabled, through an enabling work environment, to work in any environment. I agree with that perspective, but I put on record the fact that we should continue to support the supported employment model and the many supported businesses that are doing fantastic work across the country. Dick Lyle mentioned a positive local example, and Bob Doris spoke about Royal Blindcraft, which I have had the pleasure of visiting in the past. As a Government, we will always look to work with and back such enterprises.
On the subject of the Royal Blind, it has increasingly found that it is difficult for youngsters to get a place there, because the cost of such referrals is not being supported by local authorities. Will the minister look at that and, with his colleagues, try to make sure that youngsters who need to go there have the ability to do so?
I will look at that, although I do not think that Michelle Ballantyne was referring to Royal Blindcraft, which is a factory in the north of Glasgow and is what I was talking about.
Jeremy Balfour made a clear call—which Michelle Ballantyne reiterated—for us to co-operate with the UK Government and not to let ideology get in the way. When we think that the UK Government is taking the wrong course in relation to its welfare reforms, which have been very damaging and have harmed disabled people in Scotland, we will, of course, make that point, but we will seek to work with the UK Government when it is sensible and necessary to do so, as it is with this agenda. We already work with the UK Government through the fair start Scotland programme. Although that involves our taking a very different approach from the one that was taken in the previous work programmes, we work with the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus on the practical delivery of that programme.
I concur with a point that was made by a number of members: our on-going interaction and co-operation with the UK Government will be much more straightforward when it gets round to appointing a replacement for Sarah Newton. It cannot be acceptable that the people of England do not have a Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work. I agree with what Bob Doris said about Sarah Newton. I found her to be very good to work with; we did not agree on everything, but she was highly effective in her role.
Alex Cole-Hamilton made a number of points about the need to consider the opportunity to better embed autonomy and self-determination for disabled people. I absolutely agree. We should always look to do so. We would happily have agreed to his amendment if it had been accepted for debate. The review of the mental health and adults with incapacity legislation gives us such an opportunity, and it is one that we will take.
In opening the debate for the Labour Party—we will accept the Labour amendment, too—Mark Griffin raised several issues. He mentioned concerns that disabled people’s organisations and disabled people have raised about the action plan. The Scottish Government strongly believes in co-production. As Christina McKelvie laid out, we have—
I thought that you were rather charitable in saying that it was a low buzz, Presiding Officer, but perhaps that is just my perspective.
In relation to my responsibility for employment, I will continue to meet disabled people’s organisations and disabled people. If any organisation wants to meet me, it just needs to let me know.
I turn to the issue of employment. The pervasive nature of the disability employment gap is unacceptable. The point has been made that we have a disability employment gap of 35.8 per cent. That is nothing short of an economic injustice. In 2019, it cannot be acceptable that we have a disability employment gap of that nature. It leads to people not being socially included and to poor economic outcomes for disabled people.
Of course, such a gap is also economically futile. I know from the many employers who speak to me about the skills gaps and vacancies in their workplace that they cannot overlook any segment of the population. Therefore, it is not only a moral imperative but an economic necessity that we take action to at least halve the disability employment gap and seek to go further. We have set ourselves an ambitious and stretching target, as I laid out very clearly to Andy Wightman. I embrace the leadership role that the Scottish Government has in that regard, but we need to take the target forward collectively, as a society. It is achievable; it can be done.
We reaffirm our commitment to disabled people tonight, as Bill Kidd suggested that we do. Our ambition is to build momentum across all economic sectors and to increase the numbers of disabled people who are meaningfully employed in our economy and meaningfully involved in our society. That will enhance disabled people’s equality and their right to live independently. We can realise that ambition only if we collectively commit to delivering it. I know that, this evening, I can rely on Parliament to do that.