HC Deb 13 April 2000 vol 348 cc103-42WH

[Relevant documents: Ninth report from the Education and Employment Committee Session 1998–99 HC 111 and Second Special Report (Government Reply) Session 1999–2000 HC 214.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Allen.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

I am absolutely delighted to speak in the debate. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), was my co-Chairman on the Education and Employment Committee when it decided to embark on the report. Little did we think that she would be replying to the debate on it.

I thank the Committee's staff, in particular its three advisers, Marilyn Howard, Nigel Meager and Jenny Morris, for their excellent work. We set ourselves the enormous and ambitious objective of exploring the barriers that disabled people face in entering education, employment and training. Our deliberations took a long time because the report seemed to grow as we warmed to our theme. It was a steep learning curve. We quickly realised that a complex tissue of issues had to be sorted out if we were to make useful recommendations. I also thank the Government for their constructive response. The Committee is proud of the report, which makes 59 constructive recommendations. We have been in the business of pushing the Government in the direction in which they wanted to travel.

I have a personal reason for regarding the report's theme as important. As a schoolboy in the 1950s, I thought that full employment was a great leap forward to a more civilised society. That was understandable. I came from the north-east. My father had been unemployed for seven years in the 1930s. Virtually every family in our region had been scarred by the experience of unemployment, which removes people's dignity, their ability to look after their family and their self-respect. It often leads to deep depression and, not infrequently, suicide. I decided that full employment was a proper objective for a Labour Government and, like many other people, was utterly dismayed when we returned to the days of mass unemployment. I remember Norman St. John Stevas, who is now in another place, saying that mass unemployment is a moral and social evil. That remains my view.

I am surprised, but delighted, that we are standing on the threshold of achieving fuller, if not full, employment within a decade. If the Government continue to run the economy along the present lines, if the world economy continues as at present and if the revolution in technology bears down on inflation as it does now—I realise that there are a lot of ifs—it will be possible to run the economy with a rate of unemployment far lower than it has been during the past 20 years. That is important for disabled people, because 1 million or more sick and disabled people want to work. If we are ever to approach full employment, the Government must be ambitious.

My hon. Friend the Minister will know that the Employment Institute audit estimates that we are about 10 percentage points below a decent definition of full employment, and that 2 million, 3 million or even 4 million people who want to work do not have jobs. I would not want a low definition to be accepted, but I believe that full employability is a non-starter. It may be a necessary condition, but it is not what I would call full employment. I applaud the active labour market policies followed by my right hon. and hon. Friends—they are the best that I have seen in 30 years of politics—and many of their job generation policies are good, but both policies must work together.

I contend that about 3 million jobs must be created if we are to get back into work all those people who want jobs. That is important for the 1 million or so disabled people. It is important also for the north-east, because many males in their 50s who lost their jobs in shipbuilding, rail engineering, mining and the iron and steel works have not worked since. A great deal of hidden unemployment exists in the north-east, which is why its gross domestic product per head is so low compared with that in many other regions. As a result, although the employment rate is 79 per cent. in the south-east, in the north-east it is only 69 per cent.

It is important to appreciate such concepts. With unemployment at a 20-year low, and with 1 million vacancies—according to the Government's reckoning, multiplying the vacancies registered with the Employment Service by three—and with 1.1 million-plus people on the claimant count record, certain quarters may be tempted to bring those figures together. They may say that, if we have 1 million vacancies and just over 1 million people on the claimant count, we must therefore have full employment. They would then say that the only thing that remains to be done is for the unemployed people to fill the vacancies that the Government have created. That is far too simplistic a way of approaching the problem; it is simplistic almost to the point of being misleading.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

I do not wish to dissent from the right hon. Gentleman's line of argument, but does he agree that, as the labour market tightens, with particular reference to regions other than the north-east, it is even more important to ensure that those disabled people who want to work are able to do so, not only to satisfy their own aspirations but to relieve the overall pressure on the economy?

Mr. Foster

That is exactly the point that I had hoped to make later. Indeed, there is an anomaly, or an irony, in our approach to the matter. In one sense, the Government would be better employed trying to bring back into an overheated labour market all the single parents, disabled people and those aged over 55, because that would bear down on inflation in the areas that are overheating, which would relieve pressure on areas such as mine, which are suffering from the one-club economic policy. I do not want to tell the Government to forget disabled people, single parents and other disadvantaged groups elsewhere—far from it—but there is great economic gain to be had by drawing back into the labour market many disabled people and single parents in parts of the country that are overheating.

The issue is important, not only because it bears strongly on the Government's ability to achieve the objective of full employment but because it is central to any reform of the welfare state. In Beveridge's day, the welfare state was designed on the assumption that there would be full employment. That was a courageous assumption in 1944, but it proved to be true for the next 30 years. The welfare state that Beveridge hoped to achieve could not have been paid for if there had been mass unemployment. If we are to achieve any worthwhile reform of the welfare state, getting people off benefit and into work is essential. If we do not do that, we will not be able to pay for the services that we aim to provide for disabled and poor people, wherever they may be.

The report is central to the Government's strategy for achieving full employment, reforming the welfare state and achieving a just society. We cannot have such a society unless most people in it share in our increasing prosperity. Disabled people deserve to share much more in the increasing wealth of the nation. That is necessary for an economically efficient community and a more just society.

Paragraph 12 of the report brings into sharp relief the problem that the Government and the Select Committee have tried to investigate. It states:

  • —Only half of disabled people of working age are economically active, compared with 85%of non-disabled people;
  • —those disabled people who are economically active are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, and more likely to be long-term unemployed;
  • —the employment rate of disabled people is little over half that of non-disabled people;
  • —over a million economically inactive disabled people would like to work; and
  • —disabled people are much less likely to have educational qualifications than non-disabled people and, as a result, when in work are more likely to be employed in low-skilled occupations.
Those employed in low-skilled occupations are, to use a more graphic term, locked in the low-pay sector of the economy. They are likely to be moving in and out of work, and taking a job will often not be worth their while because of fear and uncertainty about whether they will lose it and whether their benefits will be restored.

If that is the problem, what barriers stop disabled people entering work and education? There is clearly discrimination among employers, although it is often unintentional. Very often, employers have not had to think the problem through. Paragraph 15 of the report states: It is clear that discrimination on the part of employers contributes to the disadvantage experienced by disabled people in the labour market. One of the key measures of success proposed in the Welfare Reform Green Paper was a reduction in discrimination against disabled people. We believe that there is still a long way to go before this target is met, particularly in the field of employment.

Paragraph 22 concerns the recommendations for the Employment Service, which has been undergoing a culture change. I am highly encouraged by developments. The service used to be the policeman of a harsh benefits regime and has become a sharing caring organisation trying to encourage people into work, education and training. That is wholly welcome. The Committee believes that the service could do much more to work with employers who do not usually take on disabled people. We recommend that it improves its marketing among such employers.

If we are to get employers to take on more disabled people, it will be the business case that will persuade them. Employers are not charities and they will not throw crumbs to disabled people to salve the conscience of the managing director. They are there to make profits and to serve their customers. There is a strong business case for employing disabled people. In paragraph 23, the Committee set out the evidence from the Employers Forum on Disability, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation and the Confederation of British Industry.

We were delighted to hear from employers that, compared with many able-bodied people, disabled people were more productive and reliable, that their time keeping was better and that their absenteeism was lower. Their productivity is high because they are so delighted to be given the opportunity to work that they throw themselves 100 per cent. into ensuring that they are successful and that they retain the job.

We want employers and the Government to put to the fore the business case for employing disabled people. That is what will ultimately be effective. We must change the culture and that will happen through businesses talking to other businesses. That is especially true in the small and medium-sized enterprise sector, which could be excused for being worried about taking on disabled people.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was an important step forward; the Disability Rights Commission, which we welcome completely, will give teeth to the Act. We would like the employers' threshold to be reduced progressively to two from the present level of 15. That aim might not get the assent of the whole House. The recommendation was made strongly by many employers and the Employers Forum on Disability.

There are difficulties and we are not suggesting that the Government should be bureaucratic and harsh on the matter. We want the threshold reduced because it cannot be justified in principle. The Government want to go in that direction, but many small employers are overwhelmed by much of the legislation coming forward. They do not have human resources directors to read all the legislation and to sort out and implement the codes of conduct sensitively. We want to be understanding of the small business sector, but we urge the Government not to be too understanding. We must make progress and the best way forward is to take the small business community with us. I hope that the spirit, at least, of the recommendation, if not the objective, will receive Tory support.

I do not want to speak too much about educational aspects, because I know that colleagues will want to do so in detail. I shall touch on one—the physical barriers to access to, in particular, further education. I expected that to be dealt with by now, but we received much evidence that there is still a long way to go. We recommend at paragraph 77 that the Government ensure that sufficient funds are available for those institutions of further and higher education that need to do so to improve physical access to their premises by 2004. I hope that the Government will take that on board and try to encourage progress.

A useful recommendation, which the Government seem, from their response, to have either ignored or misunderstood, appears in paragraph 80. We recommend that the Government consider establishing regional resource centres to co-ordinate the provision of scarce or expensive equipment for disabled students. I do not think that the Government really understood that. It would be fairly easy to achieve. Perhaps the colleges of further education and the institutes of higher education could do it themselves, with a bit of encouragement from Government. Those scarce resources could be far more efficiently used if they were available on a regional basis.

In almost every investigation that the Committee has carried out, we have found that transport is a problem. That applies to the new deal for single parents, the new deals for the 18 to 24, over 24 or over 55 age groups, and the new deal for disabled people—it even applies to just getting people into jobs. Either there is little public transport or it is in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is surprising that, while jobs have migrated from city centres to the suburbs or other cities, the transport authorities have not kept pace with the location of jobs. Perhaps that is because they assume that everyone has a car in which to go to work. That is by no means true. If we are to improve mobility for the whole spectrum of unemployed people, we must urgently consider public transport.

I know that the Government are beginning to deal with the problem that I have described, but I am not convinced that the amount given to transport in the Budget will achieve what is necessary to support our objective of full employment. Those transport changes are essential for most people, but particularly for disabled people, to enable them to travel to take up opportunities, and to afford to do so.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The Government should be encouraged to go beyond the idea of a discount card and to consider perhaps the idea of a taxi card, as taxis can be used by people with a range of disabilities. The Government have not focused on such matters quite as Parliament would want.

Mr. Foster

I could not agree more. We mentioned that issue in the report, if I remember correctly. Unfortunately, I must skip over much in the report. I should like to discuss access to work and the need for greater publicity about that.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

As my right hon. Friend is skipping over that point, perhaps I may make one observation. Clearly, looking at the table on page 7, the most vulnerable people are those who suffer from mental illness. From my experience—I am sure that it is also the experience of other Members of Parliament—I know that people who suffer from mental illness find it difficult to get back into employment. I wonder whether a case can be made for properly funding intermediary organisations that work in that area. All the bodies in Stroud with which I work are for ever looking for funding, yet the people with whom they work genuinely need a long-term strategy to help them get back into work. I wonder whether that point could be taken up in some way.

Mr. Foster

That is a very interesting suggestion from my hon. Friend, which the Minister will have heard and, no doubt, will respond to.

Two thirds of disabled people of working age become disabled at work. It is all too easy for employers to find a quick excuse to get rid of them and we should pay great attention to considering how we can encourage people who suddenly become ill to continue in employment, because that is to everyone's benefit.

Some of the proposals that have been made for reforming the welfare state are controversial, but the sound of music coming from the Government really worried many disabled people who thought that there was a possibility that they would lose benefits. The fact that so much unnecessary worry was caused was no help to the Government. They may say that that unnecessary worry was caused by their opponents or by over-vociferous disability groups, but I believe that that genuine concern worked against the Government's objective, for which they should bear some responsibility—if I can say that as kindly as possible to my hon. Friend the Minister. We had evidence that disabled people felt threatened and undermined by the reform of the welfare benefits system. The benefit integrity project continued for a while, which we understand, but several people lost benefits under this Government, which did not help to encourage and support the positive moves that were made.

I hope that we have moved beyond that now. Certainly, when my hon. Friend the Minister and her colleagues from the Department of Social Security appeared before the Committee, no language of compulsion or intimidation was used. We probed the issues carefully, but could not fault the attitudes of Ministers and officials. I shall not explore why there was different mood music at one time, but I compliment the Ministers because they understand the problem and are dealing with it very sensitively. The fear of losing benefits is one of the great barriers to work for disabled people, especially if they receive substantial benefits for carers or personal assistants. We must applaud people who, in such difficult circumstances, decide that they want to work. We cannot encourage people enough, and it cannot be the Government's intention that such people should then fall into a personal assistance or other benefit trap.

I end on this note. I hope that, with the proposal to merge the Employment Service with the Benefits Agency, with a personal adviser at the centre of the new system, we will develop a learning organisation that can inform proper and sensitive reform of the welfare state. Policy advisers sitting in their ivory towers, whether they are academics or not, cannot foresee the law of unintended consequences. Almost invariably the Government's good intentions for benefits turn out to be harsh or cruel to one group of people. This learning organisation, which will be called ONE, may or may not produce savings, but it will certainly enable us, in the most sensitive way possible, to get more people off benefit and into work, which is what disabled people and the Government want.

3 pm

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate and the opportunity that we have had in this Parliament to debate Select Committee reports on Thursday afternoons. It has been an excellent initiative.

I listened with great care and interest to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), with his 30 years'experience, and I noted that the Minister was closely involved in the report. That will no doubt make it easier for her to answer the questions that are put to her this afternoon, because Ministers are not always noted for fully answering questions.

I hope to give the Chamber some insights into the situation in my constituency and to relate my remarks to the problems faced by disabled people, as set out by the right hon. Gentleman and outlined in paragraph 12 of this excellent report. The case must be set against a background of neglect by the Government, who promised so much.

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood)

Is the hon. Gentleman being serious?

Mr. Tredinnick

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to intervene and I have given way, but he has not heard what I want to say. I was about to say that, in many respects, disabled people have had a raw deal under Labour, because under the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999 the Government means-tested incapacity benefit—

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

Did disabled people have a raw deal under the previous Government?

Mr. Tredinnick

I am not saying that the previous Government got everything right, but this Government have got quite a lot wrong. On 26 March 1998, the then Minister for Welfare Reform, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), said: Our commitment to the vulnerable is not negotiable.—[Official Report, 26 March 1998; Vol. 309, c. 686.] Thanks to new Labour, and notwithstanding that commitment, income from occupational and personal pensions will now be taken into account in assessments for invalidity benefit. Once again, those who have attempted to save for their retirement, some of whom are disabled, will be penalised. In May last year, on Report and Third Reading of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, 67 Government Members rebelled on this issue. I wonder whether any of the rebels are here this afternoon. It is interesting that the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) was a rebel. A further 38 Government Members abstained.

The Government have also had the embarrassment of seeing 12 charities, including Scope, RADAR, the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the Disability Alliance and the Carers National Association, resign from their Disability Benefits Consortium as a result of their changes to incapacity benefit. The hon. Members for Kingswood and for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) intervened in my speech as though there was nothing wrong with the Government's policy. If the Government have got the policy right, why have so many disillusioned organisations resigned? Surely that is telling evidence that the Government have not got the policy right. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady would do well to pay attention to these pressing issues, which present difficulties for those with disabilities. As Ian Bruce, a representative of the RNIB, said: There comes a point when if your involvement is being interpreted as support for something you do not support, and on top of that you are having no impact, then there is only one thing to do— resign, which is what the RNIB did.

We must also remember that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was a Conservative measure, and is the rock on which current reform is based. [Interruption.] This is not a laughing matter—we should bear in mind the fact that it was a Conservative measure that replaced earlier legislation which proved unsatisfactory.

The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland has set the scene this afternoon, and I shall refer to some of the difficulties experienced by disabled people in my constituency. A constituent to whom I shall refer as Mr. Jones was involved in a terrible car accident in April 1997. I shall detail the chronology of subsequent events because they illustrate the problems that the Government and disabled people face as they address these issues. After the accident, Mr. Jones was paralysed. His home had to be adapted accordingly, and he spent two years organising matters. However, because of poor assessment, bathroom adaptations that were provided through a grant proved totally unsuitable for his needs, and failed to provide independence. In the light of the remarks of the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland about employment, I should point out that Mr. Jones's difficulty in adapting his home prevented an early return to employment. In his case, suitable adaptations probably would not have been made—further adaptations are about to be made—had it not been for the intervention of authorities such as the county borough council and, perhaps, me.

Mr. Jones faced the further difficulty—the Minister should note this—of getting a lift installed in his house. It took 10 months, during which time he had to sleep downstairs, use a commode and strip-wash rather than shower. Why could not the paperwork for the adaptations have been started during the six months that Mr. Jones spent in hospital, so that the go-ahead for a grant could be given as soon as he was discharged? Mr. Jones's wife was consulted two weeks before he was discharged, and it took from October 1997 to June 1998 for the grant to be approved. This is a very real problem. Disabled people are not told how to apply for such grants. The issue is addressed in the report, and the Minister should take note of it.

The use of wheelchairs appears to present a major difficulty, and that issue has affected Mr. Jones. He uses the same wheelchair—a roller wheelchair—with which he was issued by the hospital. Roller wheelchairs are heavy, uncomfortable and difficult to manoeuvre. He has been on the Leicestershire wheelchair service voucher scheme waiting list for two years, and has yet to be told when he can expect delivery of a lightweight manual chair. He was not told about the voucher scheme, which enables people to order wheelchairs suitable for their size and needs, but heard about it from a representative who was selling wheelchairs.

As far as Mr. Jones'employment prospects were concerned, despite being hampered by the failure to make adaptations to his home, he was offered a part-time job by his former employer. This morning, he said to me—or rather to my assistant; I was not able to speak to him directly—that the risk of losing his benefit entitlement for several weeks was too great, and that another disincentive was that the income from part-time employment often has a punitive effect on benefits and help. He saw that as the key issue, and said, in answer to the questions that I posed indirectly, that it would be a great help to the disabled if they were able to take work on trial for three or six months before they were prevented from getting back to their previous level of benefit.

The Minister may say that that is totally impractical, but—as hon. Members will know—many people come to us and say that it is the fear of losing benefits that prevents them from going back to work. Even if they have to leave work due to disability, they are automatically assumed to be capable of work and automatically lose entitlement to incapacity benefit. If they get an opportunity to have a go at employment, they have everything to lose if it does not work out. I agree that it would be helpful to have a regional officer to advise on disability issues. There should at least be an officer at county level—that would be welcome in Leicestershire—or even borough level.

Another issue that requires careful consideration is the giving out of incorrect information. For example, in respect of recreation facilities, public parks have been identified as being friendly for wheelchairs, when they are not. An easy way of making life more palatable for disabled people would be to provide better information services. I see the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland nodding; I am grateful for his support. Mr. Jones, my constituent, said that he receives a monthly magazine from the Spinal Injuries Association, but receives no other information or communication from any other organisation or agency. He did not know of the Department of Health publication "A practical guide for disabled people: where to find information, services and equipment", which was published last July, or of the Department for Education and Employment leaflet promoting disabled people's rights. No useful disability information was automatically sent to him as a result of being a claimant, and he therefore did not know about the wheelchair voucher scheme.

A mailing list of disabled people should be maintained, so that they automatically receive information. The Minister may say, "Why didn't he find out about it?" The answer is that he underwent a severe accident, and the people around him did not know where to look. Providing information would be an easy goal for the Government. They should carefully consider how to get accurate and timely information to those who need help.

The Audit Commission report, "Fully Equipped", reflects some of the recommendations in the Committee's report and the Government's response. I was therefore surprised and disappointed to hear on the "Today" programme that a woman who had suffered four amputations had been unable to use national health service artificial limbs because they were so uncomfortable. She had to go elsewhere, and fortunately received financial help through private sources. Her comment that she just wanted to get back to university demonstrated her positive outlook on life, and it is regrettable that she did not get any help.

That is a high-profile case, and when I discussed matters in detail with organisations responsible for helping the disabled in my constituency, I was told of the desperate need for a better limb and limb fitting service. A man in my constituency with whom I have worked closely, who does not have the use of his legs, told me that the NHS provides a grim selection of crutches. An allowance of £250 is made for manual wheelchairs, powered wheelchairs and scooters. A basic, cheap manual wheelchair costs £250, but powered models can cost more than £2,000. Scooters can cost from £2,500. He told me that adults often have to rely on charity for the provision of these items, although it is easier for children to get them.

Artificial limbs, prosthetics and orthotics—the science and practice of fitting surgical appliances to weak joints—is a weak area that the Government must address. I understand that one of the arguments in relation to artificial limbs is that we need experts to fit them, but I am reliably informed by medical students in my constituency that making prostheses is not complex. The Minister may want to consider whether a cartel is operating to restrict the provision of equipment.

In my constituency, there are organisations that have helped disabled people a great deal. The Council for Voluntary Services in Hinckley has done much. It tells me that it has long waiting lists for aids and equipment in the home, and that if one wants items quickly one must be prepared to push. The sick and disabled are in a bad position to do that. It has asked me to argue the case for more information and more communication. It also drew attention to the fact that the voluntary sector infrastructure is now dependent on short-term funding from the National Lottery Charities Board, and that local authority funding at county level does not increase with demand. There is a dire shortage of money for projects, and that is getting worse.

Hinckley Shopmobility initiative, which provides chair-bound people with the opportunity to go out shopping, depends on private sponsorship. Despite having two manual chairs, three powered chairs and two scooters, it is inundated with requests and cannot meet the demand. Its manager told me: It has to be remembered that many of the severely disabled really cannot work. However, employers still view those disabled people who are seeking employment as a complication.

That brings me to employment. The issue of discrimination in the workplace is a difficult one. However, having been around some of the smaller companies in my constituency, I must caution that it may not be feasible to make companies employing three, four or five people comply fully with disability legislation. That could lead to disabled people having to struggle in totally unsuitable buildings.

The primary care group in Hinckley has confirmed that there is a problem of under-recognition of disabled people. This morning, I was told by a county councillor, Roger Miller, that in Hinckley and Bosworth 190 people have learning disabilities—that figure is taken from the university of Leicester register—two thirds of whom have severe or moderate psychiatric problems. That is clear evidence that the issue of psychiatric care should be carefully addressed by the Government. The primary care group does not have the resources to extend its care provision in that direction; that is an issue of underfunding. The lack of respite for carers is another problem, not least because many carers in the community are elderly people, who get more exhausted than younger people. The Minister should consider whether anything can be done to ease the difficulties experienced by carers.

I welcome the fact that the first seminar of the Employers Forum on Disability to be held in Leicestershire is taking place today at Leicester City football club. That national body advises employers on all aspects of the employment of disabled people and draws to their attention a pool of people keen to find work. Leicestershire constabulary is a member, as is Leicestershire county council, which runs a supported employment scheme for the disabled. I wish them success with their initiatives to offer opportunities to the disabled. I hope that what I have said will assist the Government in responding to the debate.

3.19 pm
Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood)

I welcome the report. I was excited to read the report when it was first published, and am equally excited today to consider its recommendations further. I would say the same about the Government's response, with one or two small caveats, one of which I will come to in a moment.

The Committee's far-reaching report, covering a range of complex issues relating to employment and education opportunities for disabled people, was published last November. The following month, we received the report of the disability rights task force. My texts, in respect of current disability issues and problems and how we might address them, are the Committee's report, the report of the disability rights task force and the Government's responses to both documents. It has been observed that my hon. Friend the Minister's name is on two documents. She was a member of the Committee when it started its very long deliberations and she chaired the disability rights task force. She deserves our warmest congratulations and thanks for her work.

I am impressed by what the Government have done in the short time since the general election. I did not intend to look backwards—it would be a waste of time, and planning for the future is more exciting—but I shall explain briefly why I asked the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) whether he was serious. I know of no disability organisation that has any doubt about the difference between policy now and policy before the general election. Of course, all Governments make mistakes. Of course, there are one or two things that the current Government have done that I have not been happy about. However, since the election, there has been a sea change in public policy towards disabled people. To fail to recognise that is to fail to recognise the glaring reality. Just six years ago, the then Government said, "You cannot legislate to ensure equal rights for disabled people." They did nothing. The Disability Discrimination Bill was introduced not because that Government supported civil rights, but because the public outcry when they blocked civil rights was so great that they were forced to draft the Bill on the hoof. We know that it was drafted on the hoof because, when it came back from the House of Lords, there were more pages of amendments than there were pages in the original Bill.

After we had the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, we were told, "You can't have a commission to enforce it." By the time of the election, therefore, we had the DDA, but no commission. Just a few short days from today, the Disability Rights Commission will open its doors, marking a significant step forward with regard to the rights of disabled people. I have often said that we do not appreciate how important that commission could be—it will be path-breaking. The commission and other measures, such as the new deal for disabled people and the consultation document on special educational needs and disability rights in education, have been taken only because of the outcome of the general election. I warmly welcome the measures that the Government are taking.

I will now say something that may be slightly less popular—not too unpopular, I hope—with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster). I was delighted that the Committee went to Bristol. I say that as a proud resident of the city: part of my constituency is in Bristol. I know the organisations referred to in the report—the West of England centre for integrated living and the West of England coalition of disabled people. I have great respect and admiration for the work of those organisations, not least for the personal reason that they have taught me a great deal about disability issues. Over the years that I have been involved in political activity in the city of Bristol, those two organisations have opened my eyes to a range of disability issues of which I had not been aware. More important, they are not only run but staffed by disabled people. Indeed, the West of England centre for integrated living was one of the first 10 organisations to run a new deal for disabled people pilot project and was the only one that was run and staffed entirely by disabled people. It is an excellent organisation.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland made a point in his perceptive opening comments that comes out clearly in the report. We need to be aware of the magnitude of the task that faces us. Only 50 per cent. of disabled people of working age are economically active, but for non-disabled people the percentage is 85 per cent. That is a vast difference. Disabled people who are economically active and are in work or seeking work are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people. That is significant. Disabled people, for obvious reasons, are often less well qualified and more likely to be in low-paid jobs, so they are more likely to be on very low incomes. The report makes it clear that tackling those problems requires further effort to enforce comprehensive legislation against discrimination and improve employment opportunities, and further effort in relation to the benefit system.

Discussion of the benefit system occupies several pages in the report. I was delighted to see that and, in particular, how the system addresses the basic question of how to deal with the extra cost of disability. People with impairment often face extra costs by virtue of having that impairment, which may include the cost of getting out of bed in the morning, of staying alive during the night, of going to work and of travelling for family and personal reasons. How should society deal with those extra costs of disability?

I shall start with the independent living funds, the purpose of which is to enable severely disabled people to live independently by assisting them with the cost of personal and domiciliary care to help them to get up in the morning, to go to work and to live like other human beings. However, as the report states, grants from the independent living funds are means-tested. Paragraph 173 states: Independent living fund payments to enable people to pay for their own assistance are reduced once people begin to earn over the amount of earnings disregard (£30 per week), so personal assistance users earning £20,000 per annum can find their income reduced to Income Support level— that is, the income support level plus £30 disregard.

That was the position under the old rules and for every pound above the income support level plus £30, ILF payments were reduced pound for pound. The Government introduced new rules on 27 January. They could have been changed earlier, but were not. Under the rule change, disabled people can keep the £30 disregard above income support level. They can have 45 per cent. of earnings between £30 and £200 above the income support level. The ILF is then lost pound for pound.

There is no doubt that the Government's announcement makes the means test slightly less harsh. However, I find it difficult to understand the way in which society could honestly believe that severely disabled people in work and receiving an ILF grant, and who face costs in staying alive and in getting to work and back home, should pay half or three quarters of their income to cover their care costs. Means testing combined with taxation means that, for some, the rate of taxation that they pay is, in effect, between 60 per cent. and, at the top level, 100 per cent.

The situation is manifestly unfair—I do not know anyone who thinks that it is anything other than unfair. Not only is it unfair, but it is a means test with perverse incentives in relation to work. The West of England centre for independent living, the extremely laudable organisation to which I referred earlier, is recorded in the Committee's report as saying in relation to the top two barriers to employment for disabled people: The charging policies of social services departments and the Independent Living Fund mean that the earnings of disabled people using personal assistants and working are deducted down to Income Support levels, plus a £30 disregard. There is indeed now a £30 disregard and then the 65 per cent. rate and the 100 per cent. tax rate. The situation is better than it was, but it is still unfair and, more important for present purposes, still a disincentive to work.

I therefore warmly welcome the Committee's recommendation that the Government should establish a cross-departmental working party, to include external organisations and experts. It would examine a range of options within the tax and benefit system that might ease the personal assistance trap, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland referred.

I am sorry that the Government's response to the recommendation has been disappointing. I will not take up time by reading it—it does not address the issue and does not even mention the ILF. In passing, I will say that the all-party disablement group has met Ministers from the Department of Social Security. We have expressed our strong support for the report's recommendation and hope that the Department will respond.

I hope that the Government, in responding, will bear in mind the recommendation from the royal commission on long-term care. Interestingly, the Government asked the commission to consider not only long-term care for older people but the situation for younger disabled people of working age who struggle to get to work and find that they must pay for a substantial part of their personal care. Paragraph 9.15 of the commission report says: We have also received evidence that means tested charges for personal care are one factor in providing disincentives to work or seeking better paid work. This point is also made in research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. I concur with that point. The report continues: Effectively these charges add to the financial burden of disabled people when they enter work or receive a wage increase. We all look forward to the Government's response to the royal commission. I look forward in particular to what they say on that matter. We all know that means tests create difficulties and provide disincentives to work, save and be honest.

The Committee's report does not deal directly with fairness; it addresses disincentives to work. I entirely endorse what it says. We must address the basic issue of why disabled people should have to meet the substantial costs arising from their impairment. Why is personal care means-tested when we would not dream of means-testing health care or education?

The royal commission said: If the need for long-term care is a random event for older people, it is an even more random event for younger people given the lower incidence of disability in younger age groups and the arguments for collectively organised protection are as strong if not stronger. I might not choose to use the phrase "collectively organised protection", although it is quite good. Why should we not apply similar principles to long-term care for younger people as we apply to long-term care for older people?

Finally, the royal commission commented on the cost of ending means testing in relation to the independent living fund. It said: We note that the ILF takes account of an applicant's means in determining its contribution to the costs of the care package which may include an element towards the costs of personal care. If it were no longer to have regard to an applicant's means for this element of its care packages, the Fund would require an additional £9 million this year to meet demands on it. The source of the estimate that it would cost only £9 million to get rid of the wretched means test is, I see from the footnote, the ILF. Given that the ILF has not taken into account the obvious fact that those who work have higher incomes and pay more tax than they would if they did not work, the sum is truly trivial. There is no economic argument for means-testing ILF recipients. The economic case to scrap the means test is overwhelming.

I urge the Government to reconsider charging disabled people for the costs of their impairment. Disabled people have the threefold problem of impairment, the discrimination that arises from impairment and the costs of impairment. It cannot be right that they should have to pay those costs.

I accept that the Government are doing an enormous amount to address the issues, but some need to be satisfactorily resolved. Means-testing by the ILF and charges for local authority services for disabled people need to be dealt with quickly. If we are to move from exclusion to inclusion, remove discrimination and have meaningful equal opportunities, we need to address the problems.

3.38 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

I am grateful for the chance to listen to the contributions. I hope that the debate will encourage many organisations, their staff and the individuals on whose behalf they work. I pay tribute to the public servants in Government and Government agencies who have helped Ministers and Parliament over the decades to realise how to create a better approach towards a state of well-being. I define the purposes of politics as the reduction of avoidable disadvantage, distress and handicap, and an improvement of well-being, which is a mixture of wealth and welfare.

I first got involved in this subject in 1985 when I was responsible for equal opportunities at the Department of Employment. I admired much of what had been done, but it was clear that more needed to be done. An advantage of having employment and education together in the Department for Education and Employment is that it is possible to see a continuity of people's lives. That was desired before, but it is more likely now. I do not argue that employment and education should stay together for ever, but one advantage is that, as a person approaches an employable age and ability, the existence of one transport system for education and one for employment begins to appear rather artificial. Perhaps we should begin to see the matter from the point of view of the individual and those around him, including family, friends and carers, either unpaid or with statutory responsibility. Continuity matters.

I pay tribute to the Select Committee on Education and Employment and to the Government's response, which I regard as an interim one. The Committee has attempted to obtain a moving picture, while, in responding, the Government need to take a still photograph; but we know that, if they were to respond after a year or two, more would have become possible.

I pay tribute also to constituents. Just outside my constituency is Angmering school, which provides admirable integrated education. The difficulty in making a contribution in a debate such as this is that the spectrum of conditions with which people must deal is so wide that, although generalisations are of no use, non-generalised comments are not relevant to all.

I have been very impressed by the mobility unit—previously officially called the immobility unit, but the present name is better—which tries to make transport available to people, whether as general or individual provision. It has made dramatic progress. Even so, I am aware that in some towns where there is a trend, to which I alluded in my intervention on the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), towards making taxis—not all minicabs—accessible, some people oppose it on the ground of greater expense. They do not see it as democratically available transport, in that most people would be able to book or hail the same machine, as has been achieved in London. This year is the first in which every taxi in London has been accessible to people in wheelchairs. That took a long time, but was worth while, not just for mobility but for access to education and work.

Fifteen years ago when I was at the Department of Employment, specialist services existed. Many employers, including a fair number in the public sector, were willing to provide useful and valuable employment to people for whom some initial investment was needed. One cannot expect otherwise if someone has a condition—I prefer the term "condition" to "handicap"—which makes it difficult to share in life's ordinary activities. Investing in success is always better than paying for inabilities or for what many would regard as failure.

I hope that figures will be published regularly, showing the proportion of people with various conditions who are in employment or education. However, I fear that we do not always search behind the figures. A table in the Select Committee report shows that between 27 and 67 per cent. of people with various conditions are unable to participate. For mental illness the figure is 17 per cent. Yet we are supposed to believe that mental illness makes up only 8 per cent. of what one might call disabling conditions. I do not believe that. I think that the figures for many people with mental illnesses are concealed behind other figures. Until people can speak as openly about a mental condition as they can about a physical one, those figures will continue to be hidden and we shall be unable to organise activities that will be more successful for those people.

My final point in what I hope is a brief contribution is that we need to allow people what many of us have enjoyed—a confidence in being able to attempt something, do it reasonably and improve. Most important is continuity of hope. A woman called Mia Kellmer Pringle was talking to me about young people. She told me to worry not about those who fail but about those who have never experienced success. That applies in the present context. In saying that, I pay tribute to the Committee, the Government and their advisers for what they have done so far.

3.44 pm
Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

I am pleased to take part in this debate and I was honoured to be a member of the Select Committee. As a Bristol member, I want to pay tribute to the West of England centre for integrated living. Perhaps unusually, I should like in that context to draw hon. Members'attention to the report's annexe, which gives far more detail than I have time to cover about the visit made to Bristol by members of the Select Committee. The visit gave us the opportunity to meet inspirational people within WECIL. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) has paid tribute to them, and I am sure that they would pay similar tribute to him for the manner in which he has campaigned in Bristol and in the House for the rights of people with disabilities. I am pleased to participate in a debate to which my hon. Friend has contributed with far more experience and detail than I have at my fingertips.

I congratulate the Government on an action that was taken only at the end of last month. In his Budget speech, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced the extension of the new deal for people with disabilities. The extension is based largely on the pilot schemes, including one in Bristol that we saw at the same time as our visit to WECIL. I should like to draw together two aspects of that visit that relate to the new deal and to the pilot work done in Bristol.

WECIL operated the positive action partnership scheme, or PAPS. I should emphasise that all the people involved had a disability. There was no one in the organisation or the support mechanism who did not have one. In supporting the new deal, the organisation makes a statement about PAPS: The Scheme is designed to help employers overcome the barriers which stop many disabled people securing good quality employment and which prevent them benefiting from the skills and qualifications which disabled people have to offer. It is significant that that statement is the first part of WECIL's description of PAPS. It means, in other words, that disabled people want to ensure that their worth is recognised and that the barriers that discourage employers from employing them are overcome. Who better than WECIL to offer that advice and to ensure that people with disabilities can not only gain employment but retain it? I only wish that the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) could have been with us to experience the positive way forward that we have learned to expect from WECIL.

The director of WECIL goes on to state: PAPS offers support for both parties during the first twelve months of employment and provides training and consultancy for employers. This is the crucial phrase: The aim is to help disabled people pursue careers.

The scheme is not just about getting people jobs or getting them back into employment. It is about ensuring that people with a disability can pursue a career and about providing support for them during their first 12 months. We have heard about the benefits problems facing disabled people who are uncertain about whether they will be back in employment in the first one or two months and about whether they might have to drop out accordingly. WECIL is helping people in the new deal scheme in Bristol throughout the first 12 months of their employment. My hon. Friend the Minister may correct me, but I understand that, since the report was published, the Government have lengthened the time for which benefit is available to people with a disability, to ensure that they have the confidence to take the first step into a job. While support is being given by people with a disability to help other disabled people to retain their jobs, their prospects become increasingly—dare I say it—rosy and positive.

On the same day that we visited WECIL, we saw the Government's new deal-sponsored pilot. Again, we met advisers who were new to the job and on a steep learning curve. They were not disabled and were appreciative, as we all are when we become involved in this area, of being humbled and learning that there is so much more to life than being an able-bodied person doing an ordinary job. Those advisers, some of whom came from working in the benefits system, said that they realised, for the first time, the inflexibility of the benefits scheme. We said to those people who had worked in the benefits system but were now advising disabled people on the new deal, "Please go back to the Department of Social Security and use your experience so that we can move forward, not only with the new deal but at the Department of Social Security." My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood explained some of those problems and quoted facts and figures. It is still not fair that progress is not being made. I am delighted to see what the Government are doing with the new deal and its extension. I am also delighted that we were able to learn from the situation in Bristol, and I commend the individuals in those organisations who have taught me and my hon. Friend a great deal.

Paragraphs 81 and 82 of the report deal with British sign language and the recommendations from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. Recently, my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) introduced an Adjournment debate on British sign language and the importance of it being further acknowledged by the Government as a language. The report recommended that more help should be given for that. BSL is the first language of an estimated 50,000 people, 35,000 of whom are of working age, yet there are only 115 registered qualified sign language interpreters. We challenged the Government to see what could be done to increase the number of interpreters and communication support workers. I was somewhat disappointed with the response, which said: We are in discussion with the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People and the Further Education Funding Council to discuss how best to increase the number of qualified interpreters and communicators.

Mr. Boswell

I very much endorse the hon. Lady's point. Does she share my concern about the fact that, when I recently asked the Government about that matter, they did not seem to know how many people were training for recognised qualifications? It is obviously essential that we should have some idea so that we are able to decide whether the activity needs to be expanded.

Valerie Davey

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I am sure that that information is now available as a result of his question. My experience is that people need interpreters to enable them to go for job interviews, and they need them quickly. It is no good to respond to an employer by saying, "I cannot come for an interview on that day. You will have to wait until an interpreter is available." That is inadequate. We must have more BSL interpreters to support people in getting back into work.

I want to mention one other aspect of the subject while I have the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister, who I know has a great interest in this matter—its relevance to education. Just outside the boundaries of my constituency is the Elmfield school for the deaf, which makes remarkably good provision for children at primary school level. At secondary school level, however, there is still uncertainty about the best way to educate bright youngsters, who need access to the full curriculum. Their integration into mainstream schooling with signers is one possibility, but if British sign language is registered as a language, there is a potential need for a school in which it is the main means of communication.

I do not want to end on that rather negative note. I welcome this far-reaching report; it makes important recommendations to which the Government have responded positively. I trust that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of those two factors.

3.55 pm
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

This has been a very positive debate. The Select Committee is to be congratulated on the excellence of its research and its genuinely innovative and imaginative recommendations. The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) set out a clear, forward-looking path, and I hope that we can proceed along it.

One of the fundamental principles that we should remember—I slightly misquote the famous American document—is that all of us are created equal. That does not mean that we are all identical, but that we are created with equal rights, equal opportunities, an equal entitlement to respect and an equal entitlement to the chance to make positive contributions to life, family and community.

In that spirit, I repeat what I said last year during our debates on the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999. I congratulate the Government on that legislation. Whatever turns out to be the historical verdict on this Administration—I suspect that we may differ on that—the Act will undoubtedly be recognised as having made a genuinely positive contribution to the history of these islands. I agree with the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) that it is easy to underestimate the likely impact of the commission. It will not be simply a talking shop; it will be a dynamic force that is likely to make a positive contribution to the lives of millions of people.

I strongly endorse what the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said about the report of the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation. He said that we should persuade employers of the need to break down the employment barriers for people with disabilities, and that they should recognise that a strong business and economic case can be made for doing so. Sensible employers and productive, forward-looking companies should recognise that they will have a future in the 21st century only if they harness every talent within their work forces—and within the pool from which they will select their future work forces. The country, too, must recognise that we shall succeed only if all those who live within our shores and boundaries feel that they can make positive contributions to the economy and to the community.

In that spirit, I welcome what the hon. Member for Kingswood said about the operation of the means test. I do not wish to repeat what he said, but I reinforce his comments about the fact that the Government should offset the economic and cost factors of means tests deterring people from working, whether full or part-time, against the revenue implications for the Government coffers. The Government should also recognise that we shall be a much healthier and more prosperous society if those barriers are removed. Some of the barriers against the employment of people with disabilities may be difficult to overcome; I shall deal with them later. However, barriers created by artificial rules, many of which were put in place years ago and interpreted by historical accident, can have a particularly damaging effect on people's chances of working. Those rules should be swept aside. I welcome what the Select Committee said about that.

The Minister may be relieved to hear that I might eventually differ with the Select Committee report, but I wanted to start in a positive manner. I also welcome the Government's response to the Select Committee's wish to extend the application of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to education. Putting obstacles or exemptions in the way of young people who want to go to school or further education college cannot be justified. The Government will have my support if they legislate this year, as their response says that they will, to remove those barriers. That would be positive and widely welcomed.

We need to be clear about training. The Select Committee made a recommendation that the Government, perhaps inadvertently, did not tackle. Paragraph 61 of the report recommends that serious consideration should be given to putting a person with direct personal experience of disabilities on the national Learning and Skills Council. The Government's response did not dismiss that, but neither did it address it directly.

I would be among the first to say that the national Learning and Skills Council needs to have a strong pro-business, pro-economy focus. It cannot represent different sectors of our economy and society. Equally, however, the report gives some striking statistics. Some 18 per cent. of people of working age are disabled and there is a huge difference between the unemployment levels for disabled and non-disabled people. Given those facts, the Government should make a great effort to find someone with a business background who has direct personal experience of disabilities. A person with a disability who has experience of running a business would be an ideal recruit to the Learning and Skills Council.

Mr. Boswell

I should like to reinforce my hon. Friend's point. We debated the composition of the Learning and Skills Council in Committee this morning with the Minister's colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks). He was not minded to specify slots on the council for interest groups. Will she pass on my hon. Friend's strong point to her colleague?

Mr. Collins

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am sure that the Minister will take note of it.

There is a possible point of difference between us. I have stressed that we are at one with regard to the objectives and I genuinely congratulate the Government on the progress that they have made, but the Minister will not be surprised to learn that I do not differ from what my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said about some of the benefits policies. The problem—I refer to it cautiously—was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. I am concerned about how we make the small firm sector more accessible to people with disabilities. The right hon. Gentleman phrased his remarks admirably. His approach would command widespread respect in the small business community. He made it clear that small businesses are not run as a charity. We cannot rely on appealing to the conscience of the managing director. It is not enough to say that this is a social matter. For them, as for other businesses, decisions must be based on what makes business sense.

A large number of small businesses do not recognise that there is an overwhelming economic case for them to fish in a large pool. That is disproportionately in the interests of small businesses, which, by definition, have a small number of employees. It is important for them to ensure that every employee is as good as they can get. He or she should bring as many talents, aptitudes, skills and qualifications and as much devotion and dedication to their work as possible. That will often mean that the best person for them to hire is the person with a disability. Small businesses frequently do not recognise that. A lot of work is needed to make them understand that and realise that they are not being asked to undertake an onerous obligation because of political correctness. They are being asked to act in the interests of their future competitiveness. However, one of the characteristics of a Parliament is to recognise that virtues often need to be balanced. Virtue is often not to be found on only one side. If it were, there would be no point in democratic debate. Sensible debates such as this afternoon's recognise that people can reach similar conclusions from different starting points.

I know that the Government put great stress on the need to strengthen the competitiveness of our small business sector. That is where the great bulk of new jobs are being created. The Chancellor has made great efforts in successive Budgets to present himself as deregulating that sector and alleviating its burdens. We need to look to the example of the United States, which has some of the most pioneering disability legislation in the world. It is a very litigious society with a fundamental belief in rights, but it also recognises the distinction between what a small business and a large business can do. Our priority must be to get small businesses to grow into large ones. Microsoft was a very small company 25 years ago. I am sure that we are all familiar with the story of how Apple computers started with two people in a garage. We want that sort of small business growth in this country.

I hope that when the Minister considers the Select Committee recommendations, she will listen to representations from the small business community and consider making progress—and I do not dispute that much of what the Select Committee recommends is progress—slowly, cautiously and, perhaps, incrementally, rather than in a leap that might appear to some as a great step forward, but which, if it undermined the competitiveness of small businesses and, with that, the chance of a larger national cake, could damage the wider interests of the community.

Mr. Berry

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the reason for the small firm exemption in the Americans with Disabilities Act is that previous civil rights legislation on discrimination on grounds of race contained such an exemption? The exemption has nothing to do with disability issues. It is simply part of the tradition of equal rights legislation in the United States. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires only reasonable adjustments. Would not that be as feasible for a small firm as for a large firm?

Mr. Collins

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. However, while his point about the origin of the exemptions to the American legislation is right, it does not apply only to civil rights legislation. Small businesses are exempt from a range of United States employment legislation on minimum wages, industrial relations and other matters. Many economists, academics and business people believe that that is why the United States has the best job creation record of any large industrialised nation and why its small businesses grow so rapidly. That is also why we should be careful.

I do not for a moment believe that any Member of Parliament has any but the best possible motives in arguing for the extension of regulation. There is no secret anti-business agenda. I do not buy that. I accept absolutely the purity of motive of all concerned. I hope that in exchange the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I am not arguing that small businesses either are or should be bad employers. I simply think that we should proceed step by step and cautiously, in ways that do not unnecessarily damage small businesses or frighten away investment in them.

The excellent Select Committee report makes various references to the need for high-quality evaluation and publication of results on the new deal for disabled people. Will the Minister be able to give us new information about the way in which the Government are assessing progress on the issue? Overall, the debate has been productive. I congratulate the Government on the progress made so far. I hope that they recognise that they will have all-party support for further progress and all-party pressure if they do not make it.

4.9 pm

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

Evidence on the disadvantage of disabled people is unambiguous. Disabled people are generally less well qualified than their non-disabled counterparts. That is especially true at the lower end of the education spectrum. The proportion of disabled people of working age with no educational qualifications is twice that of non-disabled people. The clearest indication of the disadvantage of disabled people is the fact that they are so much less likely to be in the labour market as workers or even as job seekers. It is not surprising that the employment rate for disabled people is just 46 per cent., compared with more than 80 per cent. for non-disabled people.

Disabled people do not need charity. As other hon. Members have said, there is a strong business case for employing disabled people. That is spelled out in the report, of which I was proud to have been a part-author. Some employers can be persuaded by social and moral arguments to employ people with disabilities. If we are to break down the barriers to employment that disabled people face, the much more persuasive approach will be to cite business arguments.

First, we often forget that disabled people are important customers for many organisations. If we can help companies to break down the barriers for their disabled customers, many will find that the attitudinal and physical barriers to employment will also be removed.

Secondly, there are clear benefits in having a diverse work force and ensuring that all candidates, irrespective of their disability, are considered for employment. In that way, the best person may be employed. Staff retention rates can benefit from the employment of people with disabilities, who are frequently more loyal to their employers. That can lead to a tremendous saving on staff turnover and advertising. These days, the public perception of an organisation is improved when the public see that a company employs people with disabilities.

It is vital that the Government help business to promote such good practice and to recognise the full benefits of employing disabled people. We have heard already that more than 1 million economically inactive disabled people would like to work, but are excluded from the labour market for a variety of reasons.

For some, therapeutic work could help. However, the current system of therapeutic work can act as a disincentive to disabled people trying out work. A constituent found occasional work as a film extra, despite having a severe back injury. He found that therapeutic, because he enjoyed it and because it gave him self-esteem. However, one day's work a week deprived him of his whole week's benefit. Having a wife and children, he could not sustain that loss. He was denied what could have been a valuable bridge into work.

The Select Committee heard from a personal adviser that a surprising number of applications for therapeutic work were being refused. The Mental Health Foundation told us that the uncertainty and confusion surrounding such work and the interpretation of the therapeutic earnings rules were particular problems. As a result, the Committee recommended that the Government should undertake a survey of requests for therapeutic work to discover what was happening in terms of acceptance and rejection. We have not had a response from the Government on that point. The Minister might take this opportunity to agree to undertake such a survey, unless it would be covered by the evaluation programme of the new deal for disabled people. The Government's approach was not clear from their response.

I highlighted at the outset of my remarks the particular disadvantage of disabled people in obtaining educational qualifications. That is a long-standing problem, although many colleges, including my local further education college in Leek, have a proud record of supporting disabled students. I once presented the certificates at Leek college's annual awards. The presentation is rather a formal affair and all the worthy people from the town are there, but that did not prevent me from receiving lovely big hugs from several students with learning disabilities, who were delighted that they had achieved certificates in vocational skills, life skills and other skills. They were so overwhelmed by what they had achieved that they will be set on the road to even greater things. They were a great example to others who had not overcome the tremendous problems that they had faced in getting to Leek and participating in the course. We have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) about transport difficulties. However, the students to whom I refer had overcome all those things, which did a tremendous amount for their self-esteem and for the reputation of the college.

It is therefore welcome that the disabled student's allowance has recently been doubled. It has also been extended to students, who choose to study part time, which was one of the report's recommendations. Many disabled students decide to take up the option of part-time study because it suits their circumstances. As we choose to widen access to further and higher education, it is vital that we promote the part-time route.

The Government has not recognised the needs of postgraduate students and of people taking on work experience placements. I understand that work placements are increasingly a part of undergraduate study, and I am concerned that disabled students might be disadvantaged. The disabled student's allowance is important, because it covers the additional costs faced by students because of their disabilities. Such costs could be incurred by a need for the attendance of a nonmedical personal helper or for specialist equipment. Both elements are equally relevant to postgraduate students. Even if students had received some of the money as undergraduates, the equipment that they were able to purchase might need upgrading or replacing or their needs might have changed.

It is important to recognise the step forward that has been taken by extending the allowances to part-time students. However, they must be extended further. The number of students in the further education sector almost doubled in the three years following 1995, but many groups among them still suffer disadvantages, including those with significant impairments and mental difficulties, as well as young people with emotional and behavioural difficulties -about whom we talk a lot nowadays -who are still massively under-represented.

In their White Paper, "Learning to Succeed", the Government recognise a range of needs, acknowledging the need to widen access to education and training and the fact that meeting the needs of some groups is more costly than meeting those of others. Clearly, disabled students' needs will be more costly. The White Paper also places a strong emphasis on setting and monitoring standards. The monitoring must not concentrate only on examination results and drop-out rates. It must also take account of how well colleges extend and open up the opportunities for people with learning difficulties and those with disabilities.

I am pleased that the new Learning and Skills Council will have a particular duty to address the needs of learners with disabilities. I hope that we will address some of those issues in Standing Committee. The council will also consult voluntary and specialist organisations, as well as user groups -that is extremely important -on how best to make provision both suitable and available. That could be a real watershed in opening up post-16 education to those who have received a poor deal on education.

4.20 pm
Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) and his Select Committee and welcome the report. The Select Committee tackled the subject comprehensively, sensitively and in a balanced way, and it produced sensible recommendations, which today's debate has shown are widely welcomed. When I arrived in the Room before the debate, there was a consensual all-party huddle going on, and there was some worry that the debate would be too consensual. The hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), who is no longer in his place, shattered that with his opening remarks. Since then we have considered some of the details of the report and, although the debate is still consensual, some significant issues remain to be considered, which the Minister should address. Therefore, I shall do my best to keep my remarks as brief as possible.

All the contributions to the debate have been constructive, especially that of the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), whose knowledge and work is highly respected by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and that of the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley), who is no longer in his place. To be fair, in their three years in office, the Government have taken several significant steps in the right direction, with the introduction of the Disability Rights Commission, the new deal for disabled people pilot schemes and other measures. In contrast, the impact on disability benefits of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999 was less good.

The Government's response to the Select Committee's report was co-operative and, by and large, they accepted the report's findings. We are debating how and when things will happen, rather than why the Government will not accept recommendations. I urge the Select Committee to follow up the report and review progress regularly, not simply to leave it on the shelf to gather dust.

One of the key comments in the report is that employers see, and are occasionally encouraged to see, disabled people as needy and demanding, which are simply wrong. The aim of the report is to remove barriers to work and education —a policy that the Liberal Democrats have supported for some time. In the welfare reform Green Paper, the Government made the reduction of discrimination against disabled people a benchmark of success. The Government has set themselves a standard and should say today precisely what progress has been made towards it and what further action is planned to meet and exceed it. Therefore, the debate is not so much about the principles of the report, which are strongly supported, but about putting them into action.

As has been said, employers have insufficient knowledge of the DDA. The question is whether that is best addressed by advertising. Several hon. Members have mentioned information about access to work. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People recently carried out a survey, which found that more than half of the companies (57 per cent.) stated that they were unaware of the Government funding available to support and make adjustments for disabled staff…Of companies with disabled people, nearly half were unaware of Access to Work.

A case study from the south of England highlighted the problems that disabled people suffer because they are not sufficiently supported by legal aid. A person wanting to go on a caravan holiday in a standard-rate caravan was told by the holiday proprietor that he would have to use a luxury caravan that was adapted for the purpose. He kicked up a fuss and the holiday company offered him a discount, but that was not made a general policy, nor did the company say that it was working to provide standard accommodation for disabled people. That person wished to pursue the matter through his solicitor, but found that he was unable to obtain the necessary legal aid.

The key question, which also relates to employment, is about the application of the law. It is an uphill struggle to get cases to court. What plans do the Government have to ensure that the DDA is applied more widely and that disabled people, who are often necessarily in straitened financial circumstances, are assisted in that process?

We heard earlier about children losing the use of equipment available to them at school when they to on to higher education. They have to go through a tortuous process to get replacement equipment. The Audit Commission report "Fully Equipped" identifies a variability of service across the country. I hope that the Minister will have the time to tell us the Government's response to that report.

Several hon. Members have drawn attention to the impact of the means testing of benefits, particularly of the independent living fund. The Select Committee took evidence from Colin Hughes, a BBC producer on a salary of £30,000 a year—a substantial salary in my part of the world. He is in two minds whether to continue working, because benefit has been withdrawn under the independent living fund. I am encouraged by comments from both sides of the Chamber and I look forward to the Minister's response.

Mr. Boswell

Everyone in the Chamber is familiar with that case. Does hon. Gentleman agree that it sends an appalling signal to all disabled people that they can succeed up to a certain point, but that those who want to get to the top of their profession and earn a really heavy salary are treated as if they should pay for all their care needs—with taxation on top? That is wrong.

Mr. George

I am grateful for that intervention. The point is well made. The Colin Hughes case shows that there is no incentive for disabled people to achieve highly paid positions.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

On the basis that Treasury Ministers and officials might read the record of this debate, perhaps it is worth pointing out that if, for example, a person's salary increased from £20,000 to £40,000, they would pay an extra £8,000 in tax. That is a fair contribution, and if taxation is a good way of making the provision, the fact that someone has overcome a condition and is contributing an extra £8,000 ought to be sufficient to satisfy the Treasury.

Mr. George

That point was ably made earlier by the hon. Member for Kingswood. There is clearly strong feeling on both sides of the House about the change. It does not make sense. The cost to the taxpayer would be relatively small, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, and the Government must address the issue. We shall all be interested to hear the Minister's response.

Diana Holland of the Advisory Committee for Disabled People in Employment and Training has said that disabled people feel undermined and threatened by changes in benefit provision. Most pressing of all is the problem that disabled people still do not feel confident enough to try to obtain work, as the hon. Member for Daventry has pointed out, because they feel penalised for doing so. Those points have been ably raised by several hon. Members.

One would expect that people with certain types of disability would not be able to gain employment, especially in cases of progressive illness such as Parkinson's disease and cancer. However, disturbingly, any form of long-term disability appears to be a job handicap. That should not be the case. It is hard enough to cope with the burden of disability. To add to that the stigma of unemployment and the corresponding low income must be very difficult to bear.

The road to economic disadvantage often begins at an early age with educational disadvantage, as has been mentioned. The disabled are twice as likely to have no qualifications, which will reinforce a labour market disadvantage. I am reasonably confident that educational disadvantage can be overcome. The growth of inclusive education, the enhanced specialist status of many special schools, the rapid growth of information and communication technology and a more flexible approach to learning will pay off.

My parliamentary colleagues share the Government's view that social disadvantage must not be allowed to be an excuse for failure, and nor must disability. Before the Government rush to find their often-used targets pen, I must issue a word of caution. Students with disabilities need more than any other students to have individual goals rather than another raft of centrally prescribed targets.

For that reason, the Liberal Democrats have called for the Department for Education and Employment to provide an alternative framework of inspection for special schools, school units and individual children with statements. They are at present judged by the national norms and the conclusion to be drawn from the Ofsted inspections is, therefore, inevitable failure. It is too easy to write off individuals using those criteria, rather than allowing them to demonstrate achievement.

We are also aware that later in this Session the Department for Education and Employment will introduce a special needs and disability Bill, which will bring together existing legislation in a legislative framework for the future. The Bill must pick up some of the recommendations from this report. I should be interested to hear from the Minister which of its recommendations, if any, are likely to find their way into the Bill.

My hon. Friends and I have welcomed the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the setting up of the Disability Rights Commission. Neither will reduce the massive overt and covert discrimination that is sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, expressed by employers, but we must still address these matters.

I have spoken to some employers who are apprehensive about employing a disabled person and regard the additional costs to the business as unhelpful. A number of hon. Members have drawn attention to the strong business case for employing disabled people highlighted in the report.

A case came to me from a local charity that employs a woman as an administrator using the access to work fund. The cost of making adaptations for her disability, which could be corrected by a cataract operation, will be £4,000. The grant that the charity will receive from the access to work fund is £3,000 and the cost of an operation on one eye, if it is done privately, is £2,100. However, she will have to wait for a year or more for the operation. Instead of the access to work fund being used to pay for adaptations, which will simply help her in the workplace and still leave her with a poor quality of life at home, she would benefit from evidence of more joined-up government in the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health. Certainly an early operation would not only ensure that she was an able employee, but would give her a much better quality of life, at no extra cost to the taxpayer.

Sadly, the aspiration that the new Learning and Skills Council will resolve the skills and education gap is a long way from becoming a reality. Little in the Learning and Skills Bill will make a measurable difference. My hon. Friends want the extension of the disabled student's allowance not only to postgraduates, but to further education students. Putting resources in the hands of disabled students or their carers is a positive move.

I have two further points. Travel costs to school, college or work are often a massive barrier to access for disabled people to education, training and work. The Select Committee's recommendation to extend the access to work scheme to include travel costs is an excellent one. There is a strong argument for including them in the disabled student's allowance, but travel costs in rural areas can be substantial and it may be better to establish a separate mechanism to deal with them. It is a pity that that was not included in the Transport Bill.

Finally, we must recognise that a small but significant number of adults with long-term disabilities will never be able to work without considerable assistance and support.

The Select Committee rightly urged a move away from the rigid application of an output-measured system towards new eligibility criteria for access, based on the level of support necessary to carry out a job and on individual needs. For many of us, work is an essential part of life. For people with long-term disabilities, work can be their salvation.

This is an excellent report and the Government have responded to it positively. I hope that its recommendations will be woven into the fabric of new and existing legislation, and that the Committee will follow the report's progress.

4.40 pm
Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster). I enjoyed his opening remarks, and I look forward to the concluding remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister. They were co-Chairs of the Committee on which I served when we initiated an inquiry on the subject, and I am delighted to be able to make a brief contribution to the debate on the report and the Government's response.

My interest lies in employment—I participated in the employment side of the Select Committee—and I want to ensure that the Government's drive for full employment does not cast disabled people aside. Given the Government's emerging labour market policies, that should not happen in theory or in practice. There are programmes that deliberately target the registered unemployed and the economically inactive. In such an approach, employment is central to macroeconomic policy, in marked contrast to the attitude of Administrations of the recent past. Such an approach also benefits the local economy by increasing participation rates, which strengthens local prosperity. As a result, the point at which the labour market tightens and inflationary pressures creep in is put back. That approach to employment benefits individuals by increasing their independence and their personal and family income. It also benefits the country's finances by reducing welfare benefits bills.

For people defined as disabled under the DDA, there is day one access to the new deal programmes, which are the main instrument of labour market support. Evidence gathered by the Select Committee suggests that participation rates for disabled people in the mainstream programmes are pretty good. Paragraph 103 of the report shows that 13 per cent. of participants in the new deal for young people and 19 per cent. in the new deal for adults are disabled. Those are high participation rates and the drop-out rates are lower than for non-disabled new deal clients.

Nevertheless, there remains a nagging doubt. In giving evidence, Scope told the Select Committee that the Government are not tracking the number of disabled people who are unable to gain access to those programmes and to benefit from the service. In other words, as Scope says, the potential demand for new deal programmes among disabled people is unknown. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider surveying the extent of this potential problem.

The new deal for disabled people remains a pilot-based programme, with decisions on national roll-out to be taken—to use that classic civil service phrase—in due course. However, this will not be a straightforward decision for Ministers. In this and every other policy area relating to disability, there is a debate about specialist services versus mainstreaming. That is as true for this issue as for, say, education and housing.

While the new deal for disabled people is still a pilot, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to introduce new pilots that focus on the retention in employment of disabled people, rather than welfare to work programmes that pick disabled people up after they have lost their attachment to the labour market. After all, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland said, two thirds of people of working age who become disabled are in jobs when the disability first occurs.

The raw figures in the report show irresistibly that there is a problem of discrimination for disabled people in employment. Only half of disabled people of working age are economically active, compared to 85 per cent. of those who are not disabled. Disabled people who are economically active are twice as likely to be unemployed as their non-disabled counterparts. The unemployment rate for disabled people is a little over half that of non-disabled people, while 1 million economically inactive disabled people would like to work. The testimony of individuals in successive surveys also makes it clear that discrimination remains a problem for disabled people in the world of work.

While I warmly welcome the Government's decision to extend the DDA to education and training, I would not leap to the same legislative answer for employment. I am content to allow the new Disability Rights Commission to test its mettle on that. Like the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), I believe that it will be a dynamic force such as has never before been available for disabled people.

The Government should do three things. First, they should step up the work that is done with employers. I applaud the direction that the Committee's report gives to the Government in that respect, and the emphasis that it places on the business case for employers considering the employment of disabled people. Secondly, they should step up work with agencies that assist disabled people, and make the link with the needs of employers. Paragraph 19 of the report states that the Employers Forum on Disability noted in evidence: Such organisations tend to emphasise moral and legal obligations to employers and to characterise disabled people as needy, vulnerable and different, rather than as people with valuable talents and skills. If disabled people are to be helped into the kinds of jobs that they can do, the Employment Service and other agencies must sharpen up their understanding of employers and their presentation of the business case to employers. Once disabled people are in jobs, the evidence suggests that employers recognise them as a valued and important part of the work force.

Thirdly, the Government should step up their efforts to improve support provision. I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to the report's access to work recommendations, to which the Government's response has been uncharacteristically weak in comparison with other areas. The Employers Forum on Disability noted cases of unconscionable delays in the supply of aids, which, as they put it, inflates the aggro cost for employers in employing disabled people.

In recent weeks, the Audit Commission has published a powerful report on the supply of equipment to disabled people in the health and social care fields. I urge the Minister to pre-empt any similar report on employment. After all, the Prime Minister and the Government warmly welcomed the report. I look forward to a similar development on the provision of aids in employment for disabled people.

In conclusion, I have been enormously encouraged by the debate. At the middle and end of the 1980s, I worked as a disability rights campaigner for several disability organisations. During that period there was a stark difference between the views of the two main parties on disability, which is in strong contrast to what we have heard this afternoon. Hon. Members from all parties have made supportive comments and offered congratulations for many of the steps that the Government have taken. A consensus has emerged about what has been done and what remains to be done. That consensus and sense of common purpose—it is almost common sense—will considerably benefit disabled people in the future.

4.49 pm
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

I join in congratulating the Select Committee on a most thoughtful and constructive report and the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) on his good introduction to this debate. In parenthesis, perhaps I may say—I do not always have occasion to say it—that the Government's response to the report has been, if not an unqualified success, at least one that showed signs of hope, although there are areas of deficiency in it. Those have been referred to in contributions by hon. Members on all sides of the Chamber in a thoroughly constructive debate. I shall not single out any speeches, as I believe that all hon. Members have had something worth saying, even if I did not agree with every last word. That perhaps reflects, as the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) has just said, a growing consensus across the parties on disability issues, which I do not intend to disturb in my remarks.

The single most striking factor to emerge from the Select Committee report, which provided us with details of something that we may have intuited before, was the much higher unemployment among disabled persons of economically active age, alongside the fact that at least a million of them claimed that they wished to take employment and were barred from doing so. The report tries to match up that imbalance.

I shall pick out various themes from the debate, touching first on small firms. When we discuss regulation or the taking forward of good social welfare policies, particularly when they bear on employment, I am often struck by the fact that we are talking to ourselves, because many small firms will not participate in the discussion. I suspect that they would not do so even if we were to lower the threshold rapidly, and would regard the sudden arrival of an enforcement action as capricious, because they had not registered it. Our most important obligations are to recognise the difficulty of communicating with small firms and to impart to them the highest standards of good practice and role models wherever possible. If this difficulty with small firms is to be addressed, it should be done by encouragement, stimulation and good example long before the arm of regulation can tackle it.

That is in no sense to say that I have any difficulty with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was, of course, introduced by the Conservative Government, and we have signalled our acceptance of the new Disability Rights Commission. As I have said privately to the Minister, but perhaps I should put it on the record, I admire the selection of people for the new commission that she and her colleagues have made. It is a group of big hitters who will do a very good job. They will understand that the commission must establish itself and its credibility to support the interests of disabled people across the sector. Understandably, its main emphasis initially will be on advice, support and encouragement—for example, by action plans wherever possible—but I would not rule out the taking of evidence at an early stage to encourage others if people are cocking a snook at the clear legal rights that are being imparted. However, all the talk of enforcement will be as nothing if there is not a change in attitudes. I think that that is accepted across our discussions on disability.

There are two or three omissions in the report. First there is, surprisingly, no clear reference to the role of unions, given how keen the Government are on partnership. Trade unions and employers would be tailor-made to work together in this area to spread good practice as well as to advocate the rights of individual employee members of unions.

Secondly, we must promote the dissemination of good practice through organisations such as the Employers Forum on Disability and show that it is not unreasonably costly or impossible to achieve.

Thirdly, the Government, through their Departments and agencies, should set a good example. I have interested myself recently in asking about Departments' membership of the Employers Forum on Disability. I found that there is no central direction and that, although quite a few Departments are members, others are not. I have also examined the different handling criteria and performance standards for the working families' tax credit and the disabled persons tax credit. They are widely disparate, as was shown in a written answer to me only yesterday from the Paymaster General, with the implication that something will have to be done about it.

I welcome the extension of disability rights to education. I was an education Minister when the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was introduced five years ago and there were good bureaucratic reasons—there always are—for not going ahead at the time, whatever reservations we may have had. We are going ahead now and, without being recriminatory to any party, the history is what motor car companies like to call a policy of continuous improvement. We are moving forward by continuously making changes for the good.

We look forward to the special needs and disability rights Bill when it is introduced following the consultation document, which has already been published. There may be genuine tension for the Minister. She will need to explore carefully the awkward marriage of rights in the 1995 concept with the professional judgment of special needs, together with the enforcement and redress arrangements. There are also doubts about compliance costs in higher and further education, which was one of the factors that we weighed when we excluded education. I am discouraged by the fact that the Government appear to be somewhat coy about carrying out a compliance cost assessment in higher education on the grounds that it is publicly funded and, therefore, is not an issue. I hope that the Minister will consider that.

The creation of jobs is central to the report. It should always be remembered that many disabled people do an ordinary job with or without assistance and have been able to do so for many years. It should also be noted that physical disabilities may be particularly difficult for people in manual work. Advice is important and support must be supplemented, according to ability, with aids, education and training, which is now a much more continuous process than it was years ago, to fit disabled people for their work activities.

One matter that has been somewhat underplayed in our debate, but to which some contributors have referred, concerns people with degenerative conditions in work—for example, people whose hearing is failing or those who have established physical disabilities such as Parkinson's disease. It is important—it is also a right—that their employers provide reasonable adjustments or offer other suitable work within the firm rather than simply showing them the door.

Nevertheless, we must accept that many employees will have to or will choose to go into supported employment. I am pleased that peace seems to have broken out in the awkward issues concerning Remploy, which has a new and strong chairman, but I am concerned about the supply of places in supported employment A survey commissioned by the Minister's Department suggested that the number of supported employment places that will be required in the next few years may be as high as 180,000. Recent written answers suggest that the rate of creation of such new places is only 1,000 or 2,000 a year. That is totally inadequate.

There is a general welcome in the report for the access to work scheme, which was, to stress the point, introduced by the Conservative Government. It is also understood that there are defects and deficiencies in the scheme, and I hope that the Minister will pick up the points made about the need to address them positively, especially with regard to people who did not apply for 100 per cent. support in the six-week qualifying period.

It is worth remembering that access to work is not a hugely expensive scheme. I acknowledge what the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) has said on that matter. It is not as if a vast quantity of taxpayers' money is being paid out disproportionately to the benefit derived. The average cost is a remarkably reasonable £1,200, and the figures for last year show that 16,000 people were helped for a total cost of £19.5 million. That is not a big sum for such big leverage for the interests of disabled people. It is important that the scheme expands, and there is evidence that it will do so this year.

In addition, the Employment Service helps 88,500 people into employment each year. We should look at figures for retention, both in respect of that scheme and the new deal, to see how many will stay in those jobs. Such programmes offer practical help to people in overcoming their difficulties with transport, perhaps, or physical needs. I agree with the Select Committee that we need to emphasise the promotion of awareness. I hope that the Minister will accept the importance of increasing understanding among employers and employees of the access to work scheme.

There is also the question of equipment and aids. Some hon. Members have mentioned the recent Audit Commission report. Many things that may be beneficial to an individual in terms of quality of life are also important for their ability to carry out their work. The new generation of hearing aids would be an example.

The Select Committee makes the interesting suggestion that there should be some kind of regional resource centre or pool of equipment for education. I suggest a variant of that idea, as I am not sure that the concept need be confined to education. It could also be applied to facilities and equipment that might be made available to promote access to work. However, I do not really want to see a regional pool of equipment—a stockpile of wheelchairs, as it were. A more modern and constructive idea might be an information technology network that would establish where the equipment was and what need there was for it, and make arrangements for sharing it around, perhaps including sharing between employers who could work together. It need not only be equipment; it could also be used to deploy human resources such as interpreters, who could be brought in to help with employment interviews.

Finally, there is the issue of benefits. We all have to start with the simple fact that disabled people have disabilities, some of which are such that people may face a practical bar to work in the commercial sector. That may be because they cannot generate enough value to cover the costs of their employment or for reasons of health and safety. I am anxious that no one should be allowed to use those considerations as excuses. It is entirely contrary to the principles of disability rights legislation that people should use any excuses to deter people from seeking employment. Equally, however, there will be cases for which it is impossible to find a solution. Given that all disabled people, whatever the extent of their disabilities, will have a heightened sensitivity about such matters, it is particularly important that both the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service should be responsive to their needs and, as far as possible, emphasise incentives and avoid using cudgels.

I shall observe with interest the new personal capacity assessment, which contains some positive concepts. It tries to concentrate on what people can do, rather than what they cannot do. That idea has been lifted from the private sector, and puts a positive emphasis on people's abilities. There is also some merit in the concept of the personal adviser, as outlined in the new deal for disabled people. In passing, I should point out to the hon. Member for Wentworth that the Minister confirmed yesterday in a written answer that that provision will roll out nationally in June. We welcome that, although we may have reservations about its cost-effectiveness. We also need reassurance that personal advisers will be suitably equipped to help with particular cases, or will have access to experts. A GP who does not deal with a particular issue may not be able to offer real help.

In respect of benefits, we must above all avoid the perverse effects, to which the hon. Member for Kingswood referred with eloquence and passion, associated with means-testing. He and others mentioned the personal assistance trap, and reference has been made to particular cases of it. An interesting comment was made in the Scope briefing. It states: There is an inherent tension between the Government's aims…of "making work pay", and its more general policy objective of "targeting" resources on those most in need. That tension must be acknowledged. It will not be easy to find a sensitive answer, but one must be found. We must acknowledge that disabled people at all income levels often face higher education and training costs; they certainly face higher costs in terms of getting to work, and in the work environment. In certain cases, they may impose higher costs on employers. Those costs must be recognised, and should not be used to subvert their intention to work.

This entire debate, and the spirit in which people have spoken, is essentially about empowering disabled people to function in a modern economy—to do what they can without being coerced. It is about disabled people developing their careers to the limits of their abilities, with suitable public assistance. If we use examples of good practice and role models where possible, necessary adjustments can be made at a reasonable cost in the private sector and where public money is spent. Those adjustments constitute good value, and will benefit the individuals concerned greatly. The costs of accommodation are marginal, but if we do not take the matter seriously and get all the agencies concerned to work together, it will be a waste for the economy and a sad and unworthy set-back for disabled people, who have so much to offer.

5.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment(Ms Margaret Hodge)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), other members of the Select Committee and their advisers on producing an excellent report that will continue to inform Government policy. I feel like a poacher turned gamekeeper, but the report probably made my job a little easier, because it contained much meat with which I agreed. In the privileged position that I now hold, I can move matters forward for disabled people.

This afternoon's debate has been extremely constructive. It is heartening to see a consensus developing across the Floor on the many difficult and challenging issues that the Government are attempting to tackle. Only the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) cast a slur on the Government during the debate. I regret that, because other Conservative Members recognised that during our three years in government we have achieved a great deal to further civil rights for disabled people and to improve and enhance the quality of their lives. I am proud of that record. Without the support and campaigning efforts of many Labour Members, we would not have got as far as we have.

The Disability Rights Commission will be a strong, independent and powerful voice on behalf of disabled people. I have met members of the commission a couple of times; they are a fantastically good, coherent group. I am delighted that, for the first time, someone with a learning disability is sitting on a Government body, as well as someone with cerebral palsy, both of whom will make solid contributions to the commission's work. To reassure the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George), the commission will have resources to fund action, especially test cases, to further disabled people's rights under existing legislation.

We are implementing part III of the 1995 Act and steaming ahead with the disability rights task force recommendation. I was delighted to hear cross-party support for our proposed legislation on education and discrimination against people in schools, colleges and universities. I look forward to the full support of Conservative Members to ensure that we can place those measures on the statute book as soon as possible.

I shall respond to some of the points raised by hon. Members during the debate. We are taking action to improve access to school buildings, colleges and universities. For example, the access funds have increased by 50 per cent. this year, we have set aside £100 million to improve access to school buildings and action is being taken by the Further Education Funding Council and the Higher Education Funding Council to promote the inclusion of disabled people in their courses and to improve access to the courses in a range of ways. Those are good steps forward.

I agree with hon. Members'comments about the task that we all face in tackling discrimination against disabled people in their daily lives. For many disabled people, things that we take for granted are just not there. We must promote that cultural change throughout our society, whether in the House, among employers or among suppliers of goods and services. We have begun that massive task through a wide range of initiatives, such as the controversial, but effective, "see the person" campaign. I am discussing with the shadow Disability Rights Commission how we can work together to take the campaign for culture change forward.

The Committee's report primarily addressed tackling the barriers to employment. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland, who said that that is about not only introducing a welfare to work strategy, but creating a just society. I warmly endorse the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey). The issues that the Committee addressed go to the heart of what the Government are about. We are trying to create a link between economic prosperity and social inclusion, viewing them as interlinked, rather than competing, objectives. We will build a successful economy only if we include everyone in our society and make the most of the talents of every member of it—in this case, disabled people.

The statistics are stark. Many hon. Members have referred to them, so I shall not waste our time by going through them again. However, I should like to refer to a couple of matters that were not covered. There are 2.6 million disabled people currently locked into dependency on benefit and, as the Committee pointed out in its report, 1 million of them want to work. We also know that 400,000 of them are probably ready to work. The fact that those 400,000 people are not currently in employment is a matter that must be tackled swiftly, because it could make an enormous difference to their lives and to the economy in the way illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth.

We must also note that while we talk about disabled people in the round, the issues that confront them vary according to the nature of their disabilities. Those with a mental illness, to whom the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) referred, are far less likely to be able to access jobs than, for example, those with a hearing impairment. The figures in the report demonstrate that. I have been shocked when people with disabilities, especially those with mental health problems, tell me that they would rather explain the gap in their employment history by saying that they had been in prison than admitting to having had an acute mental illness episode. We need to tackle that kind of fear and discrimination in our welfare to work programme for disabled people.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland mentioned the geographical distribution of figures. There are stark differences. In the north-east, 24 per cent. of the long-term unemployed are disabled people, whereas the national figure is 19 per cent. and the figure for the south-east is 16 per cent. There is a strong correlation between structural unemployment on a geographical basis and the incidence of disability. We must ask why. We have to tackle the underlying economic problems as part of the strategy for ensuring employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

To respond to the hon. Member for Worthing, West, we regularly publish figures on employment for disabled people. The labour force survey data are published quarterly, and they show the rates of employment for each disability. I am sure that he will be able to find that information in the Library.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I shall not ask the Minister to respond to this question now, but it should form part of our discussions. The condition of alcoholism tends not to be defined in these terms, but it is disabling to many people for quite long periods. Perhaps, in time, we should have a separate session on the issue.

Ms Hodge

Yes, I hear that. I want to deal very briefly with the benefits issues, not because they are unimportant, but because I want to cover a great deal in the remaining minutes.

We need to do a lot to ensure that dependency on benefits does not become a trap that denies people the opportunity to work. I am working with my colleagues in the Department of Social Security and the Department of Health on tackling many of those issues. However, I want to place on the record that we have already done quite a lot. We have introduced the linking rule, which takes away much of the fear felt by disabled people that if employment does not work out for them, they will lose their benefit. The 52-week linking rule is important.

The introduction of the disabled persons tax credit and the fast track that will come into force shortly will make work pay for more disabled people. We increased the earnings disregard in the recent Budget. We have raised the level of therapeutic earnings and will do so again in line with the increase in the minimum wage. We have introduced the minimum wage, which is important to disabled people, and other initiatives such as work preparation, the supported employment programme—about which I shall say more later—and the access to work programme.

We are currently reviewing the access to work programme to make it more efficient. We are carrying out a customer survey on it, a focus group is working with us to find mechanisms to improve it and we are reviewing its timings and examining the geographical differences that occur within it. We hope to improve the quality of the programme, but it is nevertheless one of our success stories. Its budget was increased this year by £4.33 million and we shall try to augment that in our bid for this round of the comprehensive spending review. The programme is undoubtedly one of our most successful levers for supporting people into work.

We have also introduced helpful benefit changes, such as the job finder's grant and job match payment. We can never go far enough and quickly enough on all the issues that hon. Members wish us to. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) acknowledged, we have improved matters on the difficult issue of the independent living fund, which is a good move forward. The figures that he gave reflect the number of people who benefit from access to that fund. It is a limited fund, but I have no doubt that we could treble it and probably enable many more people to benefit from it. We must retain some form of means test in a scheme that can pay up to £32,500, which is a great deal of money for a limited fund. We accepted that the old rules were too tight, hence the improvement, but we must keep the scheme under constant review.

My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) raised the issue of postgraduate allowances for disabled students. We hope that the new Learning and Skills Council will address that. I hope that she, too, will acknowledge that we have made progress in ensuring that part-time students can now have access to those benefits.

Mr. Tredinnick


Ms Hodge

I shall keep going, as I have only a little time left.

Mr. Tredinnick

I just want to speak briefly, as the only dissident voice. I hope that the Minister will not forget the problem that was mentioned earlier of the shortage of suitable wheelchairs and other disability equipment in the NHS.

Ms Hodge

I might not have forgotten that point even if the hon. Gentleman had not interrupted me, but I shall try to cover it.

I wanted to talk about support for employers. We face an immense task in working with employers to persuade them of the business case, as many hon. Members have said. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland, my hon. Friends the Members for Staffordshire, Moorlands and for Wentworth and the hon. Members for St. Ives (Mr. George) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) all referred to it. I have often pointed out in various forums that the spending power of disabled people is more than £40 billion. It is nonsense for businesses not to have regard to that.

I want briefly to mention two cases of good practice. B & Q recognised the business case of providing goods for disabled people by producing kitchens that can be customised for disabled people. When it started selling the kitchens in its stores, disabled people began applying to the company for jobs, so there was a double benefit.

Centrica—one of our partners in the new deal pilot—had not employed disabled people before. When I went to see the company in Manchester, I met a profoundly deaf man who had been out of work for five years before joining the pilot scheme. Centrica was surprised that his productivity was double that of anybody else at his work station. Apart from that, I was heartened that the people he was working with had started to learn how to sign, so other barriers were being broken down. Centrica is now routinely employing disabled people in the workplace.

We are doing a great deal. Equality Direct will come on stream in the autumn of 2000; we have our "see the person" campaign; we have the DDA helpline, which takes 500 calls a week and has put out 2 million pieces of paper; we are developing examples of good practice; and we are working to give employers more information about what is happening.

The threshold issue is a difficult one. We now have the power to move by stages towards ensuring that everybody has the right not to be discriminated against, whatever the size of the work force. I accept the argument about small and medium-sized enterprises. We want to move forward with employers consensually. That is why we took the power in the legislation.

I can give my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) good news about British sign language. We have now agreed with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People to help fund the training of 20 extra interpreters over the next three years and we are discussing with the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People how training can best be developed to secure_ a better long-term supply of trained interpreters.

I should tell the hon. Member for Bosworth that this week I opened a new facility for providing wheelchairs in Wigan and Leigh. That is an exemplar of brilliant practice that I hope that we can emulate elsewhere. For the same money that was given to the regional resource, it provides a far better service. Once a person is assessed, a wheelchair is provided virtually on demand, unless it requires special adaptation. Sixty per cent. of wheelchairs are recycled, and far more people are helped. Those are examples that we will take forward.

I can reassure Opposition Members that we are evaluating the new deal for disabled people. A relevant report was published at the end of last year, and another will be published at the end of this year. We will take the new deal forward, and I hope to set out our proposals in June. The new deal will be very exciting. We are considering two methods: roll-out of the pilots, which will provide a national framework, and getting intermediaries to work with us. Having learned from the pilots, we need to improve the employability of disabled people, but we also need to break down employer prejudice. The roll-out of the new deal requires a capacity to broker between the abilities of individual disabled people and the needs of employers.

This is not a new deal in the traditional sense. It will use intermediaries and job brokers, as I describe them, to work in a discrete geographical area, or with a particular disability, to forge links between the employer and the disabled person. As I said, I hope to be able to make an announcement on that in June.

Hon. Members will be delighted to hear that we are also working on retention pilots. We hope to announce progress by the summer, if not earlier, and launch them at the beginning of next year. Every week, 3,000 people move from statutory sick pay to incapacity benefit and only 10 per cent. subsequently return to the labour market. We are working with colleagues in health, social services and social security to deal with those shocking statistics. It is clear that if we can intervene at an early stage to prevent people from moving from statutory sick pay to incapacity benefit, we can keep them in work. I hope to bring forward proposals for innovative pilots that will involve job retention advisers working in GPs'surgeries and hospitals, and in health action zones. We must deal with the insurance industry, which has an interest in mental health issues, to see whether progress can be made.

We are also reviewing the supported employment programme, because we want to support more people. At the moment, only 2 per cent. of those involved in the programme progress to a mainstream job. In today's world, that level of progression is not good enough. We must regard the supported employment resource not as a final answer for disabled people, but as a way for many—although not all—to train, develop and progress to independent or supported employment in a mainstream setting.

We have reached the end of what has been a very good debate. This is third Westminster Hall debate in which I have participated, all of which were conducted under your good chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is heartening to see that so many people have chosen to stay and participate in this debate on a Thursday, when there is only a one-line Whip.

I congratulate the Select Committee on a good, thorough and important piece of work. I shall have regard to it in the work that I do, and I look forward to working with the Select Committee, so that we can put some of those ideas into practice and bring real opportunity to people with disabilities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Five o'clock.

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