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Disabled People

Volume 455: debated on Monday 8 January 2007

I am pleased to advise my hon. Friend that the disability equality duty, which took effect on 4 December, will mean significant improvements to services for disabled people. My Department’s first disability equality schemes were published on 1 December, and they set out actions that we intend to take over the next three years to improve services for our disabled customers.

I welcome the answer given by my hon. Friend. I am sure that those of us who have a passionate interest in equality will welcome the huge progress made in this area over the past 10 years. Will she describe what impact she expects the new disability equality duty to have on services provided by local authorities, as many disabled people across the country receive such services?

It is crucial to highlight, as my hon. Friend has done, the importance for disabled people of local authority services across a range of activities. Most local authority people would accept that services were often geared to the provider and not to the individual. I hope that the new disability equality schemes, some 44,000 of which have been published, will allow local authorities, and public authorities in general, to review how they provide services, as they are legally obliged to do, and how they involve disabled people in the development of those services—they should not be involved only at the end of the process.

My hon. Friend will be aware that many disabled people are either denied or obstructed from using services simply because able-bodied people park their cars in restricted disabled bays. Given that local authorities and the police are somewhat limited in what they can do to stop this bad practice, will she offer any encouragement to disabled drivers who suffer the frustration of it?

I do not know what my hon. Friend is asking me to encourage disabled people to do. In a recent case, somebody let down the tyres on the car of someone who had parked in a disabled parking bay, but I would not recommend such action. However, he raises an important issue: if we accept as individuals that disabled people have the right to access services through the provision of specialist parking places, it is incumbent on all of us to recognise that such a service is provided specifically for disabled people, and that non-disabled people should not nip in and out of disabled parking spaces to suit their convenience. People should allow the serious mobility issues that the blue-badge scheme and similar schemes are meant to address to be dealt with.

The Minister referred to the responsibility of local government in reply to an earlier supplementary. She was right to do so, but if local government is to meet its obligations under legislation passed by this place, is it not essential that it should receive adequate resources to enable it to do so? Even if it wishes to raise money through the council tax, it is limited by capping, so it is in grave difficulty in dealing with these important groups of people.

First, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and most others in the House would accept that this Government have invested in public services provided by local government. May I say to him that on the disability equality duty and the disability equality schemes, there is not necessarily an issue of finance? There is an issue of culture and process, and this is about getting public servants—be they in local authorities, the police service or the health service—to recognise that they need to involve disabled people at the beginning of their policy planning and not at the end.

We are trying to shift the balance away from provider-led services, which say to disabled people, “You will take what you can get and be thankful for it,” to a process that involves disabled people from the beginning. That is what the disability equality duty is intended to do. It is not a matter of money.

Could we not improve services for disabled people by working even more closely with specialist voluntary sector organisations such as DIAL UK, which runs disability information and advice lines? Should we not require each local authority to employ a designated access or disabilities officer, especially given their new responsibilities? Many local authorities do not employ someone with that specific responsibility. Will the Minister discuss the matter with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government?

In fairness, many public authorities have started to consider how to put in place people with a special and specific responsibility for disability equality. To echo what I said to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), the issue is not just about giving responsibility to one person within a public authority; it is about a change of culture, and embedding disability equality within public authorities. That is what the disability equality duty is about, and that is why the disability equality duty was agreed to overwhelmingly as part of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.