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Assistive Technology Sector

Volume 589: debated on Tuesday 2 December 2014

We celebrate the UN international day for disabled people tomorrow and we will consider what help and support the Government should be offering small and medium-sized manufacturing enterprises, such as those in the assistive technology sector, in tomorrow’s autumn statement, so it is fitting that we should have a debate on the role of assistive technology and its empowering effects on disabled people in our society.

The UK is the world leader in the assistive technology sector, comprising 1,000 businesses and other enterprises, providing approximately 1,500 products to students with disabilities, helping to employ nearly 10,000 people in education and other connected sectors, and exporting technology across the world. A recent study by the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, in partnership with BT and Scope, found that digital technology has the potential to change radically the lives of disabled people, but that they are a fifth less likely to be online than their peers. Scope’s partnership with BT provides disabled people with new opportunities to stay in touch with friends and family and help ease that digital exclusion, which can affect disabled people’s life chances and their state of well-being. That is done not only with new devices, but by adapting existing devices through, for example, developing new apps or open source software or hardware to cater for individual needs.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward this important subject for debate this week. Given the beneficial effect he has highlighted of assistive technology, both for individuals and for our economy, does he agree that it is regrettable that the Government appear to be downgrading their interest in the subject, with their decision no longer to fund the Foundation for Assistive Technology to produce its independent report?

Very much so—I am sure my hon. Friend will make an outstanding Minister for disabled people in a few months, and I look forward to working with her and championing the interests of disabled people. I think—I will develop this later—that what has happened reflects an attitude towards the needs of disabled people which sadly followed on from those terrible remarks by Lord Freud.

What we need from Government is policy that encourages the development of assistive technology, not discourages it. However, the sector feels neglected under this Government, with weaknesses in procurement practices in the NHS, responsibility divided between five different Ministers in three different Departments, and legislation affecting the industry being driven by a fourth Department.

In this debate, we should also thank Guide Dogs for the work that it does in promoting audio-visual final destination and next-stop announcement technology on buses. Many Members have had representations from constituents looking for that form of assistive technology to be installed on all new buses across the UK to boost accessibility, which would remove a barrier that many sight-impaired people experience when seeking to take up work.

Online services such as shopping or banking are vital for disabled people, but lack of accessibility remains a key issue. Most sites comply with accessibility standards, but the Scope study found that some disabled people still struggle to use those services, as codes and standards on websites do not meet accessibility needs. Scope has recommended measuring online services by how responsive they are, focusing on the person not the system, through, for example, examining how long it takes a disabled person to complete tasks online compared with non-disabled users of the same site. If it takes longer for a disabled person to use the service, the service provider must do more to make the site equally accessible. That is where assistive technology can really help.

One of the first Bills I voted on after being elected to this House was the one that became the Equality Act 2010, which creates duties on the Government and those providing services to the disabled, or hearing or sight-impaired people, or people with individual needs in learning, including the obligation to make reasonable adjustments to workplaces, places of study or elsewhere, to allow for the widest possible inclusion of people of talent in our universities, colleges and workplaces.

I experienced first hand, as a university lecturer in Glasgow and London for a decade, how essential the support provided by assistive technology to students’ learning experience is. It is a necessity, not a luxury. Many universities have improved greatly the resources available to students with particular learning needs, but it is wrong for the Government to shift the burden more and more on to universities, as the regulations before Parliament on disabled students’ allowances run the risk of doing. Government should work with universities to ensure that more students from backgrounds where there are special learning needs can prosper in higher education, not wash their hands of responsibilities to promote and deliver inclusive education under the Equality Act and article 24 of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Although the regulations on disabled students’ allowances would apply only to students and universities in England, they would have effects on UK-wide supply chains for companies involved in assistive technology manufacturing and development. That is something that, as a member of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, I am extremely concerned about. All Members of this House should be concerned in this week of all weeks about additional costs for disabled people that could cause additional hardship for a section of the community which already feels that more acutely than many other people.

To be fair, the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities—I thought perhaps he was going to reply to this debate—responded to a strong, evidence-based argument earlier this year, when he decided to postpone the changes to disabled students’ allowances until 2016. He knows that the National Union of Students provided strong evidence showing that half of disabled students get their assistive technology through funding they receive through DSA, compared with only 8% of non-disabled students relying on allowances.

I hope that the Minister for Skills and Equalities will respond in a similar way to the representations that have been made on the regulations before Parliament. Regulation 10 of the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2014 changed the law to provide that DSA is only available in respect of expenditure on a computer minus a contribution by the student of £200. With 78% of disabled students surveyed by the NUS reporting owning a laptop, rather than an iPad, desktop computer or a MacBook Pro, it is effectively a tax of £200 per student on laptops payable next September for new students who qualify for DSA.

Many students are working long hours as well as studying at university, because for them, every penny counts. A look at any price comparison website will reveal that many popular brands of laptop computers are available for less than £200, but would not now qualify for DSA grants under those regulations, placing the obligation either directly on students themselves or on strained university budgets under this Government. Either universities will have to make the financial commitment themselves in pursuance of their duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act, or affected students will face the additional costs for equipment that is vital for them to be able to study properly.

It is grossly unfair that the Government have proven to be so out of touch in drawing up the new rules and bringing in a £200 laptop tax, even though the average expenditure per student has fallen over the past eight years. I urge them to take the opportunity presented by this debate to reflect again, or the Government who were the authors of the pasty tax and the granny tax will have a further problem with their legacy by inflicting an unfair £200 laptop tax on thousands of students with disabilities or acute learning needs who are beginning their courses next September.

Even more extraordinary is the Government’s position in the explanatory memorandum to the regulations, confirmed in parliamentary written answers to me by the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, that the laptop tax would have no impact on business, charities or the voluntary sector. The views expressed to me by the assistive technology sector—by individual companies and by the British Assistive Technology Association—have been somewhat different from the complacent attitude shown by the Minister. It is striking that the Minister believes that the imposition of this new laptop tax would have no impact on the ability of students with disabilities or particular learning needs to attend university. That is not the view strongly expressed by the National Union of Students. There has been no answer from the Government about how the laptop tax would be paid or collected. It is the case that 83% of students purchase their laptop through their DSA payments and 98% of students told the NUS that that was the source of their funding for acquiring supportive software.

We have no details about what support the Government will provide to universities in cases in which a student faces particular financial hardship. We have no clarity on what will happen in the case of postgraduate students who would be eligible for DSA but no other financial support. We have no information about the Government’s plans for bulk purchasing, which they have previously floated as a solution to the problem that they have now got themselves into.

The Prime Minister once said that we should judge a Government by how they treat the most vulnerable. Disabled students have all the talent in the world and contribute billions of pounds in tax revenues to the economy when they graduate. They deserve a Government who are on their side, not acting against their interests with a £200 laptop tax being sneaked through the House without a substantive vote.

Assistive technology companies are one of our new economic success stories in manufacturing, contributing £55 million a year in tax revenues to the Exchequer. The 21 small businesses directly involved, some of which have been scathing about the lack of proper Government consultation and engagement on the proposal, and the wider supply chains that they support deserve better from Government than this. I urge the Minister to use the opportunity presented by the debate this week to reflect on what is right for disabled students and our universities, to support our small and medium-sized manufacturers in an important industrial sector and to scrap the laptop tax before it causes further financial hardship to thousands of disabled people across the country.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Howarth.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) on securing this debate on a subject about which he is clearly very passionate. He is of course right to say that it is the responsibility of a fellow Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who unfortunately had another commitment today, which is why I am responding to the debate. It is fortuitous, therefore, that I have two advantages in coming to a subject on which I am otherwise not an expert. First, my Parliamentary Private Secretary is my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who has a great and equal passion for support for disabled people to make the most of their abilities and to be offered as many equal opportunities as it is technologically feasible to offer them in their lives. Secondly, by a bizarre coincidence—I was not even aware that I would be responding to the debate until quite recently—I spent yesterday evening, after returning home from voting in the House, filling out a disabled students’ allowance application form for someone in my family who has acute dyslexia and dyspraxia and scotopic sensitivity. I did not even know what that was until he told me, but it means that he is in a position to apply for some support with his studies. Therefore, although I am not an expert, I am entirely sympathetic to the cause raised by the hon. Gentleman and advocated passionately and consistently by my hon. Friend.

I entirely accept that this country is lucky in the range of businesses, charities and social enterprises that are active in trying to help disabled people to maximise their potential and gain access to all the opportunities on offer in education and employment. We are lucky in the range of innovation that is taking place—much of it is driven by this country—in improving technologies, inventing entirely new technologies and, as the hon. Gentleman said, creating adaptations to existing technologies that make them more accessible to people.

The hon. Gentleman’s core point, of course, is a direct attack on a proposal that the Government have brought forward on the disabled students’ allowance. He makes his argument with great passion, but as Members of his party and, even more, Front-Bench Members of his party ever do, he entirely fails to address the fundamental issue: the budget deficit, which remains very high and was the largest ever seen in peacetime in a western country, and the level of expenditure on the disabled students’ allowance in the years since this Government came to office. An increase did not take place only under the profligate chancellorship and premiership of the soon-to-be former right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). A growth in expenditure has taken place under this coalition Government, who are pledged to try to bring the budget deficit down. To be clear, expenditure went up from £87.8 million in 2009-10 to £125 million in 2011-12. That is not the record of a penny-pinching or parsimonious Administration who are seeking to deny support to disabled people, or to withdraw access to technologies that would assist them. That is the record of a Government who are doing everything in their power to support vulnerable people but who nevertheless need to find economies.

I am afraid that I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman had his go and I am now responding to his very full speech.

This is the challenge we face: how do we continue to support disabled people in gaining access to education, employment and all the other opportunities of society while nevertheless ensuring that expenditure does not continue to increase by so great an amount? Disabled students’ allowance expenditure has increased by more than 30% in the space of less than three years and that is simply not sustainable.

Fortunately there have been further reforms—also opposed by the Opposition—to the state of university finance. Those reforms have dramatically improved the financial position of every university in the country by giving them access to higher tuition fees, funded by a system of heavily subsidised student loans. Universities are now in a dramatically different position from the one they were in when we came into government in 2010, so to expect them to make a contribution out of their broader, much improved resources to support disabled students is entirely reasonable.

Universities are benefiting from the tuition fees paid by those students; they are direct beneficiaries of the funding provided by those students; so to expect universities to play some part in discharging the responsibility to those students—not the whole part, because the Government will continue to play an important role and the disabled students’ allowance will continue to provide a great deal of the necessary support—by means of a further contribution is entirely reasonable.

The hon. Gentleman would have much more chance of making a persuasive case if he had an alternative plan for how to stop the growth in a budget that has increased by 30% in less than three years. If he came forward with such a plan, or indeed if any Labour Front-Bench Member on any area of government activity came forward with any plan to save any pound of public expenditure—we have not heard such plans from him, or from the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) in her area of activity, or from any Opposition Front Bencher—it might well be possible to look again at the Government’s proposals. However, until we hear such a plan, it is incumbent on him to explain why it is unreasonable for us to expect universities to make a greater contribution to the support for disabled people that we all passionately believe in.

Sitting suspended.