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Disabled People (Developing Countries)

Volume 584: debated on Tuesday 22 July 2014

It is a pleasure to be here on this warm day and to see the Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), in his place. I congratulate him enormously on his elevation to Minister of State in the Department for International Development, which is well deserved and comes on the back of many years’ work in the sector in Rwanda and beyond.

I thank Mr Speaker for allowing time for the debate. As chair of the all-party group on Africa and as an ex-member of the Select Committee on International Development, I have followed the issues that I will raise carefully. I also did so while working in developing countries across Africa during a business career outside the House. In all countries, the prevalence and awareness of disabilities is growing. As a result of an ageing population and a number of other factors, people with disabilities now make up 15% of the global population, or more than 1 billion people around the world. Of those 1 billion people, 80% live in developing countries, and at least 785 million are of working age.

Across the world, people with disabilities are statistically more likely to be unemployed, more likely to be illiterate, less likely to have access to a formal education and less likely to have access to the support networks that even people in the developing world currently enjoy. They are further isolated by discrimination, ignorance and prejudice. Disability is only one driver among many of social and economic exclusion. When disability combines with other factors—gender, ethnicity, caste, age, geography and location—it makes individuals more disadvantaged in society. People with disabilities are more likely to be excluded from the benefits that society has to offer if they hold a combination of those attributes.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. On the question of exclusion, does he agree that a particular priority should be to ensure that children with disabilities have access to education? If children are excluded from education at an early stage of their life, they are even more likely to suffer some of the challenges and exclusion that disabled people suffer later in life.

Although we have made much progress on the millennium development goals, my understanding is that people with disabilities make up approximately a third of those who are still uneducated. In the post-2015 model that is the successor to the millennium development goals, it is essential that we pick up on those issues. I will touch on that later in my speech, but I agree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman.

Disabled women and girls, in particular, lack support. They face great difficulty accessing education, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and training and employment compared with non-disabled females and even disabled men in a similar environment. According to the UN, a survey conducted in Orissa, India, in 2004 found that virtually all women and girls with disabilities were beaten at home. I could not believe that fact when I read it; it is quite unbelievable. The survey found that 25% of women with intellectual disabilities had been raped and 6% of women with disabilities had been forcibly sterilised. Those are horrific statistics. The National Council of Disabled Women in Bangladesh, which helps to promote the rights and dignity of women with disabilities, has noted that the isolation and stigma faced by such women can lead to violence in the home and discrimination in the workplace, but that violence and discrimination often go unreported and criminals escape punishment.

We are debating an important issue, and it is a good opportunity to come to the Chamber and present the case. In 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted the international convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. Under that convention, countries should ensure that people with disabilities are granted equal rights and freedom from discrimination. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that eight years after that convention was adopted, some countries have yet to implement it, so the very things that he describes are happening and most countries are ignoring them?

Terrible things are happening, and they are happening on our collective watch. I urge the Minister, on his many visits to places where the Department for International Development is spending significant amounts of money, to try to leverage that influence and ensure that countries abide by the relevant UN conventions. I urge him to encourage people to move in the right direction, while allowing them sometimes to move at a different pace. Not everyone can move as fast as we can, but there is a lot more to be done—

It needs to be done faster, and greater leadership would be fantastic, as the hon. Gentleman has said.

Closer to home, in my constituency, I recently attended a school assembly where the children spoke incredibly eloquently about the “Send all my friends to school” campaign. They informed me that 60 million children around the world are not in education, 19 million of whom have a disability. Investing in those people is absolutely essential.

Secondary 1 pupils from Kincorth academy have sent me drawings as part of “Send all my friends to school”—I think every second one is in a wheelchair—which I have now displayed in my office. Campaigns about sending friends to school, which have been run for a number of years, have really engaged young people and made them realise the importance of education not only for people abroad, but for them, because the campaigns force them to realise how important it is for them to go to school.

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. I was sent similar cut-outs, and I took some to Downing street when I visited the Prime Minister about another issue. Although the children at the school I visited in my constituency were eloquent and understood some of the problems, when I talked about living on a dollar a day, the lack of electricity and the lack of opportunity to go to school, one of the children piped up and asked, “But how do they charge their iPods?” The message gets through, but we have to keep repeating it. Campaigns such as “Send all my friends to school” are instrumental in raising awareness of what is happening in developing countries and in emphasising the value of education, whether in Cork, Southend or anywhere around the United Kingdom.

People with disabilities have a huge amount to contribute to society and benefit us all. A little support can go a long way in helping them to integrate in society and play a role.

The hon. Gentleman has been gracious in giving way, and I congratulate him on an excellent debate. I am reminded of a visit that I paid to Angola, where I saw many people who had suffered as a result of landmines and who had got together as an advocacy group. Does he agree that advocacy in the situations he describes is extremely important?

I could not agree more. Without advocacy, parts of the community have no voice at all. Anything that we can do to help give them a voice through advocacy sets people on the road of explaining what their problems are, accessing support, moving forward and being a part of society. The Special Olympics, which are for people who have intellectual rather than physical disabilities, fall squarely into that category. The term “intellectual disabilities” is used to distinguish those disabilities from mild learning difficulties such as dyslexia, and it refers to what we in the UK might call severe learning difficulties of an intellectual rather than a physical nature. Worldwide, 200 million adults and children have been identified as having intellectual disabilities, but research has shown that in at least three quarters of cases, intervention and assistance can make a transformational difference. That is not to say that we should leave behind the other quarter, but such investment is well leveraged and will transform people’s lives.

The Special Olympics is one of the world’s largest sporting organisations for children and adults. It provides year-round training and competitions for more than 4.2 million athletes in 170 countries. But the Special Olympics are about much more than just sport. They are about education, early intervention training, health screening, making communities more inclusive and bringing people with intellectual disabilities into the mainstream of the community. They are about identifying and being proud of individuals, rather than the cases I have heard of people being pushed to the back of the village and, in more extreme cases, chained to the tree as a way of monitoring them and keeping them subdued.

The international community is beginning to recognise that we cannot tackle poverty without addressing the issue of people with disabilities. The Select Committee on International Development recently published an incredibly good report, “Disability and Development”, which touched on all these issues. There is a huge opportunity for the UK to work on inclusion issues, on which we have been so good, in places around the world where we offer support. DFID already supports a diverse range of projects designed to benefit disabled people and disability rights programmes through supporting broader civil society organisations. I understand that in 2012-13, DFID spent just shy of £200 million on programmes designed to benefit disabled people. I welcome that, and I think that Members in all parts of the House would welcome that as a baseline from which to move up. I also welcome the pledge that all new DFID-funded school constructions will be accessible to disabled children, and I welcome the renewed support for the Disability Rights Fund, which helps small disabled people’s organisations in developing countries, and to which Ministers recently committed £2 million.

I welcome a number of new commitments that the Government spelled out in their response to the “Disability and Development” report, including one to publish a disability framework by November 2014—I think I know the Minister’s summer reading, at least in part. That framework will set out a

“clear commitment, approach and actions to strengthening disability in…policy, programmes and international work.”

DFID has set out commitments to scaling up inclusive programmes, to funding new research and to reviewing internal processes through the multilateral and bilateral aid reviews. Such commitments are extremely important.

Going forward, there are key questions about how DFID’s disability framework will be implemented. It is important that it addresses both the infrastructure required for disabled people to participate fully in society and the social barriers that they face, including stigma and underlying discrimination. It is essential that sufficient resources are ascribed to implementing the disability framework so that it enables the stated objectives to be achieved.

We must support the Government to develop their disability framework over the coming months and, crucially, to implement it over the coming years. The millennium development goals, to which I referred earlier and which were established in 2000, have fundamentally shaped international development over the past 14 years. The goals can be credited for the focus that they have brought to international development issues and for their contribution to the progress made over the years. Remarkable gains have been made on a number of different issues, but we are now looking at how to replace the millennium development goals. Unfortunately, they did not give enough prominence to disability issues. Before the UN meeting later this year, we have a window of opportunity to lobby the Government and for them to lobby other parliamentarians and representatives.

The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the right hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), has recognised that too few people with disabilities currently benefit from international aid, and has described the future poverty goals as

“a once-in-a-generation chance to finally put disability on the agenda.”

I could not agree more; this year, there really is an opportunity to get something set in stone. That opportunity is not going to come around again for another decade.

The Prime Minister’s appointment as co-chair of the UN high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda was most welcome. He has shown great leadership over the broader golden thread, within which I would certainly include disability issues.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that we have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to get this right. I see that the Minister is listening carefully in one of his first debates in his new job. Hopefully he will realise the importance of raising the issue of disability and mainstreaming it to ensure that disability is taken into account in everything that DFID does.

I totally agree. I know that the Minister has already been involved in these issues in Rwanda, but I echo the hon. Lady’s call: he should continue his work in the coming years and use this window of opportunity as Minister of State during the period in which the vision for 2030 is set. That seems an unfeasibly long time away, but we are going to be fixing our goals, and it is essential that disability is at the heart of the report.

The UK is a member of the UN’s open working group, which is going to finalise some of the goals. There have been encouraging signs that the document will reflect the needs of disabled people. In particular, proposed goal 10, which is to reduce inequality between and within countries, is relevant to disabled people. Proposed goal 17, which focuses on the means of implementation and the global partnership for sustainable development, includes the need for disaggregated data by disability. Those are big words, but, basically, if we do not know how many people are disabled within the overall data set, we cannot monitor, country by country, progress on aid inputs and outputs.

Like others around the world, the UK Government are currently preparing for the intergovernmental negotiations in January 2015. There are a number of opportunities to support the needs of people with disabilities, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments on the UK’s approach to engaging people with disabilities in the ways that have been mentioned, as part of the post-2015 framework. All the issues must be incorporated into a broader framework across the full range of policy areas, including health, education and employment, to name a few. To ensure that that becomes a reality, it is important that the goals that make up the post-2015 framework clearly reflect all those needs. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on whether the UK will be championing explicit references to disabled people across the range of goals in the framework.

I am conscious that time is getting on, so I want to start to come to a conclusion. To monitor progress, we need a data revolution. We need the data coming out of developing countries so that we can benchmark the number of people with disabilities and monitor progress. Within those data, disaggregated by disability, we would need to see a number of things. First, we would need to see that the data would lead to a more informed policy-making process, allowing policy makers to see which areas it was necessary to target. Secondly, the data would need to enable initiatives supporting disabled people to be monitored. Thirdly, the data would need to provide civil society with the ability to hold Governments to account, locally and internationally, on those goals. I would welcome the Government’s comments on the steps they propose to support the development of those disaggregated data and on how they will be used.

Although the data are necessary to enable civil society to scrutinise decision making, it is also important that civil society can access and make use of those data. In particular, people with disabilities must be involved in the decision-making process. As a trustee of SHIELDS—Supporting, Helping, Informing Everyone with Learning Disabilities in Southend—I have seen the value of those with a whole range of disabilities. This is not a top-down process; those with disabilities should be included in looking at the data set and prioritising. Can the Minister elaborate on how the Government are working to ensure that people with disabilities have a voice at the table?

The links between disability and poverty are strong, meaning that it is not possible to overcome extreme poverty without dealing with these important issues. People with disabilities have a huge contribution to make to the development of their societies. Our fantastic 2012 Paralympic games and the remarkable performances from Team GB athletes started to help to change attitudes, showing Britain and the world that people with disabilities can achieve amazing things when the opportunity is available. If we are to improve the lives of those with disabilities in developing countries, they need our support. We have a window of opportunity.

I sought this debate to secure the opportunity for colleagues to lobby the Government and to make it clear that all eyes are on them. They must secure the necessary changes, seize the opportunity and make life better all around the world for those with disabilities and those born today with disabilities, so that their future and their place in society will be brighter and better. That will build a much stronger society for us all; one of which we can be proud.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) on his success in securing this debate and on the passion and commitment that he has shown in the speech he has just delivered. I also pay tribute to his record of championing this issue over a long period. In his opening remarks, he set out the number of years he served on the International Development Committee, and he has continued to campaign and draw attention to this issue. He has done us a service, and I owe him my thanks for having selected for this debate a topic so central to the priorities of the Department to which I have just been appointed.

My hon. Friend is right about the opportunity to which he drew attention; that opportunity was also referred to by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), who chairs the Work and Pensions Committee. This is a period of opportunity and I feel deeply privileged to have been appointed to the Department at this particular time, when such an opportunity presents itself.

It is, of course, true, as my hon. Friend said, that the statistics show that one in seven people in the developing world is disabled, but I suspect that the proportion of disabled people among those who are chronically poor is much higher than that. He is also right to draw attention to the fact that, as we all know from our own experience as constituency MPs, where there is the opportunity, the support and the access that they need, disabled people are not only able to maintain themselves but can contribute effectively to the community, just like anyone else. Our objective in policy terms must be to enable disabled people to be contributors to their communities and not burdens on them, and I believe it to be absolutely achievable.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) drew attention to the fact that we have signed up to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities and pointed out that significant progress has not been made in pursuit of the convention’s goals. We ratified the convention in 2008 and are encouraging other countries to do so. At the moment, 153 countries have signed the convention and 71 countries, including the UK—about 46% of those who have signed—have ratified it. However, we have to do better and pursue that agenda more vigorously.

Having said that, I should also say that we are paying considerable sums to support countries in the developing world as part of our pursuit of that agenda. I will give three examples of particularly good practice. In Mozambique, we are funding resource centres to support some 24,000 children with special needs in schools; in Ethiopia, we are supporting the production of materials in Braille, which are used to help some 10,000 children between the ages of five and 18; and in Zimbabwe, we are supporting some 27,000 disabled children through the child protection fund.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East drew attention to the lack of reliable data in this area, and of course that is a significant problem. It is very difficult to assess the needs of disabled people if we do not know how many disabled people there are. I suggest that there is a greater danger: “if we can’t count ’em, they don’t count”, an attitude that we must be very careful about.

It is vital that we should be able to come to a clear analysis of the size of the problem and of the needs of disabled people. Until recently, there was not even an agreed definition of what amounted to disability. That is an issue on which the Department has been driving forward the agenda on; we want to get an agreement on the definition of disability, so that we can get reliable statistics.

It is also important that we concentrate on the prevention of disability. For example, for every female who dies in childbirth, some 20 to 30 females will suffer complications in childbirth that will give rise to disability. Therefore, an important part of the agenda must be to support women in childbirth, and an equally important part must be tackling those preventable diseases that give rise to disability, such as polio and trachoma.

I have no doubt that we need to do more. My hon. Friend was right to say that we must attend to the post-2015 agenda. My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development has been championing the agenda of the disabled during the past 18 months and last year announcements were made with respect to infrastructure in schools, to make access much easier for disabled pupils in the areas where we are providing financial support.

My hon. Friend referred to the International Development Committee’s first report of the last Session, published in June this year. He was right to draw attention to its challenging conclusions, and we agree with virtually all of them. We share the report’s objectives and the most important point is the one he made—namely, that in our response to the report we will publish a framework for disability in November.

My hon. Friend was right to say that the framework must involve the input of disabled groups and other interested parties. Currently the Department works with some 400 disabled groups; it is right that we do so and we should seek to expand our dialogue with disabled groups. As we go forward and develop that framework, which will determine how we work in the future, it is important that we also take into account the opinions and input of hon. Members. I hope that that dialogue will proceed.

The framework will set out our commitment and our approach to policy, and how that policy will actually work on the ground. We will also increase the size of our team who work on disability; we will appoint a disability champion who will be able to give guidance to all our employees; and we will increase the role of disabled groups and disabled people in policy making, to strengthen our response to events—particularly our response to some of the emergencies, such as natural disasters, that arise, so that we take greater cognisance of disabled people in those situations.

The international development community may have been late on to this field, and late in appreciating the size of the problem of disability. I hope that we can ginger that process up. It is very important, as my hon. Friend said, to ensure that the post-2015 development goals address the issue of disability. The Prime Minister, when he chaired the UN high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda, came up with a principle that I thought was exactly on the money, the key message being that we can eradicate poverty in this generation if we “leave no one behind”, which includes leaving no one behind because of their race, gender, geographical location or disability. That is the principle that we must abide by, and that is the commitment that we give.

My hon. Friend asked a number of specific questions. I think that I have addressed the one about how many groups the Department works with. As for the issue of the disaggregation of data and targets for disabled people, the principle I would support is that we have a target for a development project in a nation that we are helping; let us say, for example, that there should be zero poverty by such and such a date. I would not like to see a separate target for disabled people. Within the overall target, I would want to include every gender, every racial minority and every disability. Of course, it is absolutely right that we should be able to disaggregate the total, so that we can identify disabled people and know that none of them are being left behind—that is an important principle—but I would not want to see separate targets being set.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).