HC Deb 05 July 2004 vol 423 cc536-7
4. Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)

What progress has been made in enabling disabled people to play a full and active role in society. [181890]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)

Good progress is being made. By the end of this Parliament, the Government will have achieved the biggest improvement in civil rights for disabled people in the history of this country. We established the Disability Rights Commission to act as the official champion of disabled people. From 1 October, we will extend employment rights to 7 million additional jobs, in which 600,000 disabled people already work. The draft Disability Discrimination Bill will further improve the position.

More disabled people are now in work than ever before. In 1998, 43 per cent. of disabled people had a job: in 2003, the figure was 49 per cent.

Vera Baird

Outside the world of work, what impact does my hon. Friend imagine those changes, and the establishment of a commission for equality and human rights, are likely to have on the social lives of people such as my constituent, Jamie Hood, a tetraplegic young man who has had some difficulty in gaining access to a wide enough range of social facilities to suit his young age of 32? From time to time, he has become depressed because of that. I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that it is essential for disabled people to have lives as full as all the rest of us, in every way.

Maria Eagle

I strongly agree with my hon. and learned Friend, who works very hard on this issue, particularly in her new role as chairman of the all-party group on equalities.

I believe that the new commission for equality and human rights will lead the fight to turn rights into a reality for people such as my hon. and learned Friend's constituent. Provisions in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the new Bill will guarantee access to goods and services, so that people such as my hon. and learned Friend's constituent have the chance not just to go to work but to access life in full, which is what we want them to be able to do.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con)

I have several disabled friends, including two former members of the Army who are wheelchair-borne, and I strongly endorse work on behalf of the disabled. Is it not a fact, however, that disability benefits have become a dumping ground for people who would otherwise be unemployed? Does the Minister accept claims by charities such as the Shaw Trust, which does excellent work placing disabled people, that approximately a third of those currently claiming disability benefits could be in the work force if they were given proper encouragement?

Maria Eagle

I believe that many people on incapacity benefit who in the past have been written off and deemed incapable of work can work, with the right support and help. That is why we are developing our pathways to work programme, which will help them in that way. It is also why we can say that 6 per cent. more disabled people are now in work—the greatest number ever. The Conservatives put 1.9 million extra people on to sickness and incapacity benefit; we have created 1.9 million extra jobs, and I think that the hon. Gentleman should welcome that.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab)

One way in which disabled people can get involved in society is by getting involved in voluntary work. A few years ago, Aberdeen Action on Disability was given a lottery grant to encourage voluntary work among disabled people. Will the Government consider piloting a similar arrangement to encourage disabled people to enter the volunteer work force, which might eventually lead them into full-time work?

Maria Eagle

My hon. Friend is right: volunteering can make an important difference to individuals who are trying to become more active in all kinds of ways. The Joint Committee considering the draft Disability Discrimination Bill has made recommendations in that regard, and we will respond to them within the time scale that the Committee has set.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con)

The Minister has now mentioned the draft Disability Discrimination Bill three times, I think. As she will know, disabled people are seriously concerned about its future. Many of them believe that if it is not introduced in the current Session, it will not reach the statute book. The Joint Committee's report, signed by six of the Minister's colleagues, states: We believe that the full Bill should be introduced this Session. Will the Minister guarantee today that it will be?

Maria Eagle

We will respond to the Committee's report within the time scale set by the Committee. We will also ensure that we fulfil our manifesto commitment to see the Bill on to the statute book during the current Parliament. The hon. Gentleman should not make the mistake of assuming that we are like his party, which spent 16 years trying to stop disability civil rights. We will fulfil our commitment, and we will do so during this Parliament.

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