Covid-19: Effect on People with Learning Disabilities

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:42 pm on 15th December 2020.

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Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:42 pm, 15th December 2020

Thank you, Ms Ghani. In the time-honoured words, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. From the bottom of my heart, I thank Christian Matheson for bringing forward this debate. I know from my three and a half years’ experience in this place that he treats any subject that he chooses with sincerity and dedication. That is recognised across the House, and we are thankful for that.

I will make the slightly boring point, which many Members have heard me make before, that I represent the most remote and distance-challenged constituency in the UK—or one of the two most remote. Therefore, when it comes to connectivity and empowering people who have learning disabilities, there is a big challenge because we do not have 3G in many places and people just cannot go online. I think I am duty-bound to put that on the record. Hopefully, between the Scottish Government and Her Majesty’s Government in Westminster, we will eventually address the issue. In the meantime, I have that fundamental stumbling block that gets in the way of it all.

It is very easy in one’s family life to think that learning disabilities are for others. People do not think that it is going to come close to home, but in my case it did. My daughter—can you believe this, in this day and age?—went undiagnosed as dyslexic until she went to college. On her first or second day, she came back with that astounding news and said, “They say I’m dyslexic, and I am getting a free laptop.” That empowered her in a way that she had never been at school. She struggled with written answers, getting the letters in the right order and so on. That is not a very severe case, compared with what the hon. Gentleman has been talking about, but it brought it home to me that the idea that technology can tackle this issue is for real.

I give credit where it is due. It would be very churlish of me not to say that I welcomed the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement in the spring that he would be scrapping VAT on electronic publications, which was a seriously good move. With that in place, the challenge remains how we get the electronic publications to work on a Kindle or whatever people use. I will not repeat myself on that, as I think enough has been said for the record.

I move on to a second personal anecdote. I have been within my family bubble during this wretched pandemic and have found myself in situations with relatives young and old—I make no apology for digressing into the issue of older people, because they are connected—who say, “I have my desktop computer,” or iPad, or iPhone, “and it’s been great, but I’ve been sending emails and they’re not going anywhere. I don’t understand.” I have had to say, “I’m afraid they have gone to the outbox.” I have to sit down and say, “This is what you do.” Just a few days ago, someone said, “I have a Zoom meeting with a loved one, but I don’t know how to work Zoom.” I would then sit down and say, “This is how you do Zoom. This is what happens.”

My point is that there are people with learning disabilities in remote parts of my constituency. If they have a connection, that is great, but to start it all off they need the tuition. They need somebody who can come in and say, “This is what is not working for you,” because the collapse in morale when the iPad or whatever does not work is almost counterproductive. It leads to people putting the device on a shelf and saying, “I’m not going to bother with that. I’ll just be lonely and miserable.”

There are two points that I want to make to our friend the Minister. The first is that, in a general sense, it would be good if we were sure that professional carers, either state or private, who go out to help people young or old had an element of IT training, so that as and when a person has been helped to dress, or whatever the need was, the carer can then say, “Ah, you’ve got a problem. Let’s see what I can do for you. This won’t take two minutes.” That would be good.

My second plea is about the provision of services for people with learning disabilities, regardless of whether they live in Strangford, the City of Chester or the highlands of Scotland. We have a great expression in Scotland, which Dr Cameron will know: we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns—we are all John Thompson’s children. It means we are all the same; we are all egalitarian. That is something we hold dear to our hearts in Scotland. We are all Jock Tamson’s bairns, regardless of whether we live north or south of the border, or whether we live in Wales or Northern Ireland.

My plea is for a co-ordinated approach between Her Majesty’s Government and the devolved Administrations to tackling this issue, because learning disability is no respecter of borders. People with learning disabilities have a fundamental human right to a quality of life, which the technology can offer. As the vaccine is rolled out, and as we have discovered what we can do with virtual technology, the challenge for the Government is to ensure that the technology now sticks and remains in place to benefit people with learning disabilities. This debate is about offering such help to the youngest, but we should also extend it to older people—although I am chancing my arm on that one.