Covid-19: Effect on People with Learning Disabilities

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:48 pm on 15th December 2020.

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Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow 4:48 pm, 15th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Christian Matheson on securing this important debate. I want to start by extending my gratitude to all those working with people with disabilities, particularly in the education system and wider social care system, during these incredibly difficult times.

We know from our family members about the challenges that children are facing with their learning. Of course, those challenges are even greater for children with special educational needs and disabilities. Like colleagues, I have seen that in my constituency. The transition from face-to-face learning during the first lockdown to using technology has presented some challenges, particularly for young people who have learning disabilities. Of course, adults who need social care and support face huge challenges, as we have already seen. Along with other agencies, local authorities have been on the frontline in trying to protect them, but they have been doing so in the context of a decade of austerity.

In my borough, we have seen a £200 million funding reduction over a decade. That kind of austerity in public service provision does not come without consequences: it has a knock-on effect. When we faced the pandemic, we saw local services that were on the edge in any case having to support those who really need support. The reality is that we have seen the virus have a bigger impact on those who are particularly vulnerable. As we have already heard, this group faces huge vulnerabilities.

According to Government figures released in October, almost a fifth of pupils with special educational needs are currently absent from school. To compound that, only 6.5% of parents of children with SEND said that their online home learning platforms were accessible, according to the National Education Union. The evidence is clear that the education system is not able to cope effectively in responding to the needs of young people with disabilities. It is well documented in recent reports on differential impacts that there is a higher prevalence of deaths among black and Asian minority ethnic groups. Also, according to Public Health England, people with learning disabilities were up to six times more likely to die from covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic. That is shocking, and it requires action by the Government to make sure that we learn the lessons, just as we need to learn the lessons on the differential impact in terms of death rates among black and Asian minority ethnic groups. Of course, it is important to understand these intersectional issues and the interactions relating to those in minority groups who also have a disability.

We face more restrictions in the coming weeks in London and the south-east and are now in tier 3, so when the Minister responds, will she explain what actions the Government are taking to protect this vulnerable group—particularly those with disabilities—to ensure they are getting the support they need? Since 2010 we have seen reductions, as I said, in local government funding and, despite the Government’s commitment to give the resources that local authorities need, the reality during the pandemic is that the extra burden and costs of covid in boroughs such as mine have not been fully met. That is having a knock-on effect on services, including services to those who need adult social care and young people with disabilities in need of additional support.

As for schools, a number have already said to me that the additional cost of making sure they are covid-secure has been between £50,000 and £100,000, depending on the school and its population size. It is important that the Department of Health and Social Care works closely with education to make sure that the institutions on the frontline protecting those who are vulnerable and those with learning disabilities get the support they need, and take action to prevent further loss of life.

On the funding shortfall, my local authority still has a £30 million shortage just because of the cost of covid. When the Minister responds, will she update us on what she is doing with other Departments to make sure that local authorities and other providers, including frontline care providers and education providers, are getting the support they need, particularly during the coming months, until we get a proper implementation plan for the vaccine, especially for the most vulnerable, as are many in that group?

I want to highlight some of the challenges facing my constituency. Some 60% of children live in poverty, and unfortunately we have one of the highest rates of children with autism in the country, not to mention severe overcrowding. That is why my constituency faced the fourth highest age-standardised death rate in the country, despite having a relatively young population.

These systemic challenges and the plight of those with disabilities mean that the situation is serious, which is why it is really important that the Government look carefully at the evidence and data, and respond with resources and support based on need, rather than other considerations. That is how we will be able to protect the vulnerable in our communities. My plea to the Minister is to provide the support that local authorities and other providers urgently need. If she can, I will be grateful if she can update us on what steps her Department in particular is taking to address the differential death rates for those with learning disabilities, as the Public Health England report highlights.