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Disabled People: Support

Volume 605: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the changes to funding of support for disabled people.

I thank you, Mr Crausby, for chairing this important debate, and I thank everyone for attending. I also thank all the organisations—especially the Disability Benefits Consortium—that have briefed MPs on today’s debate. [Interruption.] I also thank whoever is phoning.

The debate is important. The disadvantage experienced by disabled people is well evidenced. They are twice as likely as other people to live in poverty. The percentage of working-age disabled people in employment has dropped in recent years. Even in work, disabled people are worse off than non-disabled people. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, disabled men in work face an 11% pay gap, while disabled women face a 22% pay gap.

Disabled people also experience higher routine costs of living. The Scope-facilitated Extra Costs Commission, which began its work in 2014, has set out in detail the hundreds of pounds that many disabled people spend every week as a direct result of living with certain health conditions and impairments. Sadly, Government policies—particularly since 2010—have made things far worse for disabled people and caused them greater difficulty.

As to my personal background on this issue, my mum has schizophrenia, and that contributed to my work choices —I worked for the Disability Rights Commission, the National Centre for Independent Living and Disability Alliance UK among others. The issue is also very relevant to my constituency, because we have a higher incidence of certain mental health conditions, and about 12,500 disabled people—about one in nine of my constituents —live in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, according to the Library. The issue should, however, matter to everyone, because we should facilitate a society in which anyone can contribute, to the maximum of their potential. Sadly, however, that possibility is being undermined.

The debate’s timing is useful. Tomorrow is the last day of the Government’s consultation on the future of personal independence payments. Fears about disabled people losing work as a direct result of the introduction of personal independence payments are beginning to be realised. Over the weekend, the Daily Mirror covered the case of Denise Haddon which is yet another example of a disabled person who uses a Motability vehicle for work, but who could see that vehicle withdrawn, with them being forced out of work as a direct result of Government policy.

Today, colleagues in the House of Lords—certainly, Labour colleagues—will also be pushing amendments on the work-related activity group cuts in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which will affect half a million disabled people. This afternoon, we will have an Opposition day debate on supported housing, in which we will call for an exemption for such housing from housing benefit cuts. This debate is therefore very timely.

The Government have their priorities wrong. They keep coming back to disabled people and undermining support, rather than focusing on areas where there is more potential. Just this week, for example, we saw the Google fiasco, which demonstrates yet again that we are not all in this together and that there is a significant imbalance in whom the Government choose to squeeze more out of.

What is worse, the Government suggest that their measures are about supporting disabled people into work or about providing more support to those who need it most. If they believe that any group of disabled people has definitely benefited more as a direct result of any policy since 2010, I would welcome the Minister providing evidence to back that up.

On work, 53% of working-age disabled people were in work in 2010, but the figure is now under 50%. The Library has pointed out that, of the 320,000 disabled people on employment and support allowance referred to the Work programme since 2011, only 16% got a job. Although 43% of those on Work Choice—a more specialised programme—could be supported into work, which is of benefit, the Government have announced that the two schemes will be merged in 2017. It would be useful to have a stronger indication from the Minister whether we will see a levelling up or a levelling down of the support provided to disabled people. Will we see a return to more specialised, localised support, with smaller suppliers who are better able to provide the dedicated support that many disabled people need? We saw good schemes under things such as the future jobs fund and the working neighbourhoods fund, which were more localised and specialised, but which were unable to compete following the changes introduced in 2010.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that the issue is sometimes ensuring that training makes the right skills available for disabled people? Many disabled people want to get into work, but they are prevented from doing so by the inability to access the very skills they need to get into the workplace.

I completely agree that that training needs to be there. It would be useful to hear from the Minister how whatever new programme is put in place in 2017 will make training and dedicated, specialised support available.

Another thing we have seen is that the number of disability employment advisers, who have specialist knowledge, has dropped by 20% since 2010. There is now less than one adviser per 600 disabled people who are meant to be supported, so we are heading in the wrong direction.

People have been in touch with me about the Access to Work programme. For anyone who is unfamiliar with it, it is a specialised programme that helps disabled people to retain or attain work. The Department for Work and Pensions used to accept—it seems to shy away from accepting this know—that, for every pound spent on Access to Work, about £1.48 was returned through things such as national insurance contributions and income tax. However, fewer disabled people are now supported under Access to Work than in 2009-10—the figure has dropped from just over 37,000 to 36,700. That needs addressing, and it would be welcome if the Minister told us whether there will be more targeted support under Access to Work to increase those numbers.

In 2014, the Government said they were expanding Access to Work to include work placements acquired by the individual disabled person. I have asked questions about that and received no information to show whether the Government are actually delivering on that. In 2011, the Government said that they accepted all the recommendations of the Sayce review, including those on Access to Work. Perhaps we could have an update on how they are taking forward the review’s retention and promotion aspects. In the 2015 spending review, the Government announced that Access to Work funding would support 25,000 additional disabled people by providing IT help, but we have no information on what that means or how it will be rolled out in practice. It would be useful to hear more about that significant target.

The Down’s Syndrome Association has been in touch and has provided briefing for the debate to highlight its WorkFit programme. The association says the programme has supported 75 individuals with Down’s syndrome into work, but that only three have met the stringent eligibility criteria for Access to Work. The association feels that that needs to change, and it is keen to hear from the Minister whether the Government will take forward its recommendations.

I want to raise the issue of assessments and accessible information. I have a constituent called Norma who lives in Walworth. Her daughter, who is about 50, has learning disabilities and a visual impairment, and she is deaf. The DWP has been contacting Norma to press for her daughter to be assessed, and Norma feels that her daughter is being told she should be working, even though she cannot leave her home without support. Norma feels she is under considerable pressure. I will write to the Minister about this specific example after the debate, and I will encourage him to explain why Norma and her daughter feel they are under such pressure from the DWP.

Disabled people have also been in touch with significant concerns about universal credit. Some projections suggest that universal credit will be about 1,000 years in delivery, so perhaps some of the fears are unnecessary, as we will not be here. However, it appears that the Government have scrapped the limited capability for work element before any disabled person has been able to access it, which will leave 116,000 working disabled people £40 a week worse off. Once again, the idea that the Government want to support people into work is undermined by their policies. Citizens Advice has also highlighted in a report that in-work single disabled people will be worse off because of the scrapping of the severe disability premium, which will leave almost 250,000 disabled people worse off by between £28 and £58 a week. The Children’s Society has pointed out that, under universal credit, 100,000 disabled children could also lose £28 a week. I ask the Minister what message that sends to those disabled people.

Employment and support allowance is also a significant concern for many of my constituents, 5,630 of whom receive it. The Government recently announced that a cut of £1.4 billion will affect disabled people in the work-related activity group; that is £30 a week for half a million disabled people. DWP statistics show who those people are. They include a quarter of a million people with learning disabilities, autism or significant mental health problems. Again, I ask the Minister why those specific people were chosen for that measure. What are the Government seeking to achieve by targeting such a disadvantaged and vulnerable group?

An example given to me by Parkinson’s UK shows something of the challenge that disabled people have in accepting that the Government agenda is genuine. In a written answer to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) on Monday, the Minister for Employment revealed that since 2008, when ESA was introduced, 200 people with Parkinson’s in the work-related activity group were assessed and given a medical prognosis by the DWP that they would not be able to return to work for at least two years, or longer. The Department is telling people whom it has assessed as unable to work for two years that they will be receiving £1,500 less per year to get them back into work within that period. I hope that the Minister will comment on that. I hope, too, that he will answer the suggestion raised elsewhere that there will be no change for those already in the work-related activity group. Does that include those whose circumstances change, and those who undergo repeat assessments?

The change to ESA follows previous changes, including the time limiting of some support, which has left 280,000 disabled people with no out-of-work benefit. Some have very low incomes, and it is most unfortunate that the Government have managed to pick that group for an increase in poverty. I would welcome a comment from the Minister about that.

I want briefly to cover sanctions. In its briefing, the Child Poverty Action Group highlighted the fact that some sanctions mean that 100% of a person’s financial support goes. Those sanctions can last up to three years, under the increasingly automated system introduced by the previous Government. [Interruption.] I am glad that some Members find that funny. I find that very strange. Would the hon. Gentleman like to intervene?

The hon. Gentleman is welcome. Perhaps I will enjoy his contribution as much as he appears to be enjoying mine.

The concern that I have about sanctions is the growing number of disabled people who experience them; 70,000 sanctions have been imposed on ESA claimants between December 2012 and June 2015 alone. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions highlighted the fact that safeguards may not always work effectively. My question for the Minister is: if he believes the system is adequate, how has he responded to the Committee’s recommendations, and when will the Department publish its own findings of a review of sanctions? Furthermore, as sanctions and benefit changes are specifically mentioned in some people’s suicide notes, how does the Department support Jobcentre Plus staff and other agencies in handling suicidal claimants and those who raise the matter of suicide in meetings with Government officials?

Disability living allowance and personal independence payments are a growing concern for many disabled people. In Bermondsey and Old Southwark, 3,600 working-age disabled people will be affected by the abolition of DLA and hundreds more children will be affected as they reach the age of 16. The DWP has revealed that 607,000 disabled people will lose help with the abolition of DLA. That struck me as quite odd, given that a former Minister for Disabled People accused charities of scaremongering, such as when the Disability Action Alliance suggested that half a million disabled people would be affected. Now that the Government have revealed that the figure will be 607,000, perhaps Ministers should apologise to the charities they accused. Instead, the Government attacks charities’ ability to challenge the Government agenda, which is most unfortunate.

The Disability Benefits Consortium, among others, recommended that there should be better trials of the new assessment process. The DWP chose to ignore that advice; then the National Audit Office reported that the early operational performance of PIP was poor, and the Public Accounts Committee suggested that early delivery was

“nothing short of a fiasco”.

What assessment is the Minister making and what monitoring is the Department undertaking of those changes and how they are affecting disabled people’s ability to work, in the context of the stories about Denise Haddon and others? What is the impact of the changes on NHS demand, for example? It would also be useful to have an update on the backlog of PIP assessments. Citizens Advice reported in August that PIP has now overtaken ESA as the most complained-about benefit system.

I want briefly to focus on the bedroom tax. The DWP acknowledges that two out of three people affected by the bedroom tax are disabled people. That is 440,000 disabled people. Assuming that average amount is £14 per week since the introduction of the bedroom tax, by the time it reaches its third birthday at the end of April, it will amount to a disability tax of almost £1 billion. Disabled people are also affected by issues such as the freezing of benefit of uprating. Even for those on ESA, the value of the uprating for the vast majority of their benefits is lower than the rises in their energy bills or transport costs, for example.

On housing, I have been contacted by John, who is pleased about this debate and the one this afternoon. He says that he lives in supported housing, which he relies on to live independently. He says that he has

“lived securely, independently and safely in a social housing wheelchair designated flat provided by Habinteg for 27 years and this is now potentially under threat.”

Many of his neighbours have considerably greater needs and are equally threatened. He finds the threat alone destabilising, let alone what could happen if the changes go through as the Government intend. He believes that the Government’s plans will stem the supply of wheelchair-accessible housing, particularly as there is already a shortfall in the availability of genuinely accessible housing. Has the Minister undertaken any impact assessment of how that specific change will affect the supply of accessible housing over time, given that we have an ageing population and growing demand for wheelchair-accessible homes?

On social care, a recent report from the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Age UK suggested that more than 12,000 blind and partially sighted people over 65 lost access to social care between 2009 and 2013. That is more than a third of those who were previously getting support. The role of the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People should not just be to act as an apologist for the DWP. It should be cross-Government. I am intrigued to know what monitoring the Minister is undertaking with colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government, or the Department of Health, about where those disabled people go next if they lose social care. For example, is there a rise in demand for NHS services? Reductions in support for disabled people inevitably mean an increase in the demand for informal carers, who, without adequate support, can go on to experience health conditions and impairments of their own. There has been a rise in the number of children providing support for disabled parents and grandparents, which is a risk to their own long-term prospects if they do not receive sufficient support.

The independent living fund is being abolished. Its 18,000 users are very nervous about what happens next. It would be useful to have an indication from the Minister about how the people who lose it will be monitored, to see where they go next, given that the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services estimates that social care has lost £3.5 billion in funding since 2010. Many councils are losing about 28% of their budget but are spending about a third of their entire budget on social care. Councils cannot pick up the loss; they cannot step in and fill that gap.

I am sure that the Minister will want to mention the better care fund. My understanding of that fund is that it will only support new services, so those losing independent living fund support may not qualify for help. Scope, Mencap, Leonard Cheshire Disability and the National Autistic Society have estimated that one in six care users have fallen out of the system since 2008, and a further 36,000 working-age disabled people could lose access under the latest cuts as a result of the autumn statement. Will the Minister comment on what that loss could mean for other Government services?

Not only have social security and social care services been undermined by changes since 2010, but changes to a whole range of services used and needed by disabled people have had a negative impact. For example, there are 3,000 fewer nurses and hundreds fewer doctors in mental healthcare than in 2010. In my borough, we have therefore seen a rise in crisis treatment—that is, a rise in the number of people with mental health problems arriving at A&E, rather than having the right support further upstream.

In education, we have seen changes to the disabled students’ allowance. Randstad provided a briefing for this debate in which it highlights its concerns about both the changes to DSA and the regulatory change to how provision is administered. It quotes its survey of disabled students, which found that almost 28% of disabled students would not have attended university if DSA had not been available. Another third said they were unsure whether they would have attended university. The survey also found that more than three quarters of disabled students said that attending university as a disabled student was more expensive, with 42% saying they were more likely to drop out as a result of losing DSA. Furthermore, 87% of students said they were concerned that not completing their studies would impact on their future employment prospects. Will the Minister try to demonstrate that the Government are taking a long-term approach and looking at what DSA changes might mean in lowering income for disabled people and lowering tax contributions to the Government in the longer term?

Even on legal aid, the Government have acknowledged that changes to funding have the potential to discriminate against disabled people unduly. That is borne out in the case summaries since the changes. In 2011-12, there were 7,676 disability discrimination-related cases. That has fallen to 3,106 cases—less than half—in the last year stats were available. That collapse is not due to discrimination ending, though it would be useful if that were so. The Government’s concern should be that, without disabled people receiving the right support, the Government will not meet their commendable target to cut the employment gap for disabled people.

I suspect that the Minister will mention in his contribution the £50 billion a year spent on disabled people. The Resolution Foundation estimates that disabled people have lost more than £28 billion in support under a range of funding changes since 2010. If the Minister were to use that figure, he would therefore acknowledge that the Government have cut resources by about one third. That is not a record I would trumpet. It would be welcome if that figure were broken down into the different pots of support it covers. My concern is that it includes social care funding, without taking into account the charges that many disabled people pay to use social services, so it is not representative.

I want to conclude with a reference to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities inquiry into the rights of people with disabilities in the UK, which should report next year. Investigations by the committee are confidential, and the process, extent and scope of the inquiry are unknown, but it is widely believed that it will consider policies introduced by the coalition Government since 2010 in relation to welfare and social security benefits and, in particular, their compatibility with articles 19 and 28 of the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which cover their rights to live independently and to enjoy an adequate standard of living.

The UK is the first country in the world to be investigated by the UN in relation to that convention. We have moved from being at the forefront of disability rights, respect and inclusion globally to being the first state in the world under investigation for rolling back disabled people’s rights and undermining their equal citizenship. I simply end by asking the Minister this: can he genuinely be proud of that position for the UK?

I intend to call the three Front-Bench Members starting at 10.30 am. If they could give Mr Coyle an opportunity to sum up briefly at the end, I would appreciate it. I do not intend to impose a time limit, but if Members could self-regulate, that would be best.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on his wide-ranging speech and obvious knowledge of the issues concerned.

I have learned in my time in the House that it is often best not to attack an individual Member before they have stood up to speak, just in case that Member might actually intend to be helpful to the cause. At least the hon. Gentleman has saved me that dilemma, in a sense. I learned another lesson today, which is never to have stray thoughts during any parliamentary debate. I was not expecting to be here today—I was due to have a meeting at 10 o’clock, which got cancelled. I had an ironic thought about why it had been cancelled and the chance that I happened to be here, but if the hon. Gentleman in any way took offence at me making an audible noise, I apologise.

Since the hon. Gentleman thought I was referring to sanctions, let us talk about that for a few minutes. Sanctions are a particular concern in my constituency. I was fortunate to serve with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, where we looked into sanctions. Indeed, I tabled amendments to our Committee’s report that went beyond anything even the shadow Minister felt able to table.

The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned suicide notes citing sanctions. I remain a firm supporter of the idea that where there is any question of the benefits system playing a role in any untoward event, there should be a body—similar in scope to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, perhaps—that looks at the individual’s entire journey, from the first day they engaged with any Government Department to the end of their life, to establish what went wrong and where. Often, the fact that people experience a sanction is the end of a process of being poorly served by the benefits system, not the start of a process. I was pleased to see that mentioned in the final report.

I also gently make the point to the hon. Gentleman that much of what the Government brought forward in response to our Committee’s report far exceeded my reasonable expectation. I am sure it did not satisfy the shadow Minister, because she and I rarely agreed in our time on that Committee, but it went beyond what I reasonably expected the Government to deliver, so I welcome that.

The other interesting lesson I have drawn today, in addition to how I should keep a straight face during debates, is what happens when I walk past an annunciator. Walking past an annunciator yesterday, I saw that the short title of today’s debate was, “Support for disabled people,” and I thought, “Gosh! That’s very wide, isn’t it? That could almost cover anything at all.” I see today, however, that the title is actually, “Changes to funding of support for disabled people.”

An interesting observation we can make here is that support can never just be financial. One frustration I have found in my six years in this place is that when we discuss disability, we often start from a financial perspective. Most of the critique is about the amount of money going left, right and centre. I do not dispute for a moment that without a stable financial base of support for disabled people and a well run benefits system giving support to those who need it most, anything else is simply window-dressing. We always need to look at the wider picture of disability: support needs to be about more than just the amount of money we happen to give someone in some way. The Minister’s role has to be far more than administering our benefits system. Indeed, the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark pointed out that the Minister’s role has to be cross-governmental; it cannot just be located within DWP.

The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the Government’s welcome commitment to halve the disability employment gap. I said in this place just over a week ago that the Conservative party was the only party to make that commitment. We get a lot of credit from the various component parts of the Disability Benefits Consortium for making that commitment. They want to see it evidenced in policy, and I accept that entirely. I know how hard the Minister is working on the Disability Confident campaign, which may be nebulous in its concept and hard to measure but is fundamental to changing the nature of the debate. Once again, it is about not only the amount of money that the state gives but the amount of money that individuals themselves can obtain through employment, and the benefits that will flow from that.

We need to take other aspects of funding of support for disabled people into account as well. Given the hon. Gentleman’s professional background before he came into the House, I am sure that he is aware of Scope’s Extra Costs Commission, which reported just before the last election. The commission looked at the issue of the “purple pound”, as we like to call it now, and why we often talk about the poverty premium as a disability premium, too. It is a cost that people face.

Although disability living allowance and the personal independence payment are there to cover extra costs faced by disabled people, very often they cannot cover all of them. Scope rightly tried to look at how we can not only increase PIP, but decrease the extra costs. Why is it so hard for charities to perform collective energy price switching on behalf of many of their members and supporters? Why has there never been a Competition and Markets Authority investigation into why aids and appliances seem to have over-inflated prices, compared with the cost of producing them? The commission produced a thick, voluminous report, full of very challenging ideas, many of which can be taken hold of not only by Government but by the market. The hon. Gentleman talked about the Minister having a more wide-ranging role, and that is the sort of thing I envisage.

The hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to the current controversy over employment and support allowance and the work-related activity group, and I do not disagree that it is a difficult area for Government. His speech was a bit of a Christmas tree of briefings from all the different charities within the DBC, many of which I have met too. They seem to have great unanimity on what the Government are doing wrong, but when it comes to solutions and what we should do instead, I have found great differences in what they are suggesting. Each charity seems to have its own answer about what should be done, even though their analysis appears to have a degree of commonality.

I certainly see a specific problem in my constituency. People may not pass or get the result that they want from their work capability assessment. They may then not accept the judgment and might even reject participation in the ongoing process, but what they do not feel able to do is transition on to jobseeker’s allowance, whereby they might get different, more appropriate levels of help that might get them back into work. They get stuck in a no man’s land, because of the financial jeopardy of losing money as they transition on to jobseeker’s allowance. I accept that removing that financial gap is not the answer for every single person, but it is an honest attempt, in my view, to solve what I see as a real problem in my constituency.

In the longer term, however, I urge the Government to look at ESA as a whole. To me, it is now one of the last in the suite of disability benefits that was conceived when we saw disability mainly as a physical manifestation. Nowadays, we know about the interaction between mental health and physical health, and I think that benefits now—particularly PIP—are doing much more to look at how mental health comes into the picture.

I think that ESA needs more than just tinkering with; it needs substantial reform, because two people with an identical degenerative condition might be at the same stage in their prognosis but might be responding to that undoubtedly terrible news in very different ways. One might have a positive get-up-and-go approach and the other might be totally bowled over by it and unable to cope. Both responses are perfectly legitimate, but they have a major impact on how that person engages in the workplace. The benefit system has to be able to accommodate both those outcomes, without judging them in any way, shape or form. At the moment, I am not convinced that ESA is able to do that. That is why I would argue for a much more fundamental reform. As with other reviews of both WCA and PIP tests, for which we have the annual review, I feel that all we are seeing is more and more people being placed in the support group, almost as a default doctrine. I do not think that would fulfil the Government’s policy objective in the medium term.

I realise that we are trying to keep speeches brief, so I will try to do so. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Access to Work. We are always right to keep pressing the Government about how they are spending Access to Work money, which is a really important pot of money. The fact that there is no cap on it means that I would always argue for more ways to spend it, and he identified a few. I am very keen to see apprenticeships and pre-work situations being brought into the programme’s remit. Many people find, for example, that when they leave university they cannot access the help they need to demonstrate that they can do a job, so that they can get credibility with an employer and get the job offer. Bringing that process to a pre-appointment stage might give employers slightly more confidence that the person they want to employ can be employed and supported in the job. I continue to urge that we do far more to use Access to Work to keep people in work. I know that the Minister is doing more on that issue, but I think more could still be done.

The hon. Gentleman talked about IT. In my understanding, that relates mainly to some of the more mental health-focused interventions that Access to Work is now involved in. There has been, if I recall correctly, a 200% increase in the number of people benefiting from mental health interventions. Given the current levels of demand, I suspect that that needs to be 2,000%, but it is a good start none the less.

Finally, when it comes to financial support for disabled people—if we take that as the title of the debate—there is always room for continuous improvement in the delivery of benefits. I cannot think of a single suite of benefits that the Work and Pensions Committee could look at and not find recommendations on how it could be improved. I live in a constituency that is perhaps a bit similar to the hon. Gentleman’s, with a very high level of transience in the population. Many people do not have addresses that are stable from month to month. The methods of communication are often not suited to those highly vulnerable people, who are often facing addiction challenges of one sort of another. There are always ways of improving how we deliver the benefits necessary to support the most vulnerable, so the Minister’s role will always be about continuous improvement, but it cannot just be about managing a benefit system, because financial support has to come in numerous ways. Part of that financial support is considering what else the Government can do to lower the extra costs across the community—it is not just about how we give people more money to meet those extra costs. Both are important, and we need to give more attention to how we meet some of the extra costs through non-benefit means as well.

My speech was not short enough, but it was an attempt at being short, Mr Crausby.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you as our Chair, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing this important debate and on the excellent way in which he opened it.

I want to touch on the impact that the Government’s policies and proposals are having and are likely to have not only on disabled people, but on their family carers. The toxic combination of cuts to local authority budgets and changes to support are having a significant negative impact on disabled people and on their carers. My hon. Friend gave an excellent analysis of many of those impacts.

Social care is widely seen to be in crisis. The most recent survey by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services reported that 400,000 fewer people are receiving social care services than in 2009-10. Of those who are still supported, a significant number are now getting less care. Most directors expect that still fewer people will get access to services over the next two years.

There have been five years of funding reductions, totalling £4.6 billion and representing nearly one third of real-terms net budgets for local authorities. This year, adult social care budgets will reduce by a further half a billion pounds in cash terms. Taking the growth in numbers of older and disabled people into account, an additional £1.1 billion would be needed to provide just the same level of service as last year. Before the Minister tells us that the Government are putting £3.5 billion back into social care in future years, I should tell him that I see the Government’s funding plans for social care as risky, uncertain and late.

Proposed increases to the better care fund are risky, because they are so back-loaded. They do not reach £1.5 billion until 2019, but as I said, demand is growing each year before then and we have already lost £4.6 billion. Funding from the social care precept is uncertain; it can only raise £1.6 billion by 2019-20 if every single council decides to raise council tax by the maximum possible, and they may not do so. However, adult social care is in crisis now and there have been significant cuts since 2010. Local authorities are not helped by Government funding that is too little and that comes too late.

Two months ago, the High Court ruled that the benefit cap unfairly discriminates against disabled people and their carers. I am glad that the Government are finally conforming to the Court’s ruling and exempting full-time carers from the benefit cap. However, other changes to social security are still in the pipeline and are causing serious concern for carers. The Government have announced consultation on the possible devolution of attendance allowance to local authorities in England and Wales. I know that Carers UK is deeply concerned about that announcement.

Attendance allowance is an important source of financial support for older people with care needs. It is a gateway benefit entitling the carer to claim carer’s allowance. Currently 295,000 people receive carer’s allowance or other financial support because they are caring for somebody who is receiving attendance allowance. There are deep concerns that the Government’s proposals will mean further delays and variations in people receiving these essential benefits. Local authorities, such as mine, Salford City Council, are still under severe financial pressure due to budget cuts. Salford has had to cut its budget for adult social care by £15 million since 2010.

Without ring-fencing, it is feared that the funding for attendance allowance will be absorbed into local authority social care budgets and then start to be subject to ongoing cuts. It is unclear whether local authorities will be allowed to change the eligibility criteria and level of payment for attendance allowance. If they are given that flexibility, it could lead to eligible carers losing the right to receive their carer’s allowance.

I am sure we all accept that carers provide the bulk of the social care in this country and save the state billions of pounds. If carers are unable to claim carer’s allowance they may be unable to continue caring and be forced back to work, putting pressure on local NHS and care services. Will the Minister say what steps are planned to ensure that the availability of attendance allowance and the eligibility criteria for it will be protected from local variations? It would be helpful if he told us whether he has assessed how many carers would lose access to carer’s allowance as a result of the proposed changes to personal independence payment eligibility. I will come to that.

The proposals to alter the aids and appliances eligibility criteria for PIP may also mean that fewer disabled people will receive the support they need. Currently, 35% of people who are ill or disabled qualify for PIP solely through the aids and appliances descriptors. As PIP is also a gateway benefit for carer’s allowance, any move to restrict PIP eligibility will have a significant impact for carers. I understand that the evidence base for the proposed reforms to PIP is based on an analysis of only 105 claimants when over 611,000 people are claiming PIP. That seems to be an absurd evidence base. The PIP assessment cannot encompass the complexity and fluctuating nature of many health conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

The Government’s rushed consultation on the changes will close on 29 January. Disability and carer’s charities have said that all five of the Government’s proposed changes would restrict access to PIP and therefore carer’s allowance. Cutting PIP further is likely to put disabled people and their carers at risk. There are currently more than 7 million carers in the UK and hundreds of thousands of them may be hit by the Government’s proposed changes to support for disabled people. In a submission to the Government, Carers Trust has said:

“Failing to support carers means failing to protect and secure the longevity of our health and social care system.”

Continued underfunding of social care will undermine plans for the NHS and the integration of health and social care. The key point is that it will also damage the health of carers, many of whom—Carers UK reports—are already reaching breaking point.

It is a pleasure to participate in this debate, Mr Crausby. It was also a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) setting out clearly what many of us feel about the system that, with great respect, fails the people who need it most. That is what I feel and, in fairness, I believe that it is what everyone in the House feels.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of charities and I will not give a roll-call of them, but they have also contacted me. More than 30, including Mencap, Macmillan Cancer Support, Parkinson’s UK, RNIB, the MS Society UK and Mind, have written to the Minister outlining their deep concerns at the cuts in support for disabled people. This is not the first time we have discussed this matter in Westminster Hall. A debate not long ago was initiated by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard).

A poll by Populus on behalf of charities found that 71% of people think cuts to welfare will make the UK a worse place for disabled people to live. How will the Government address that? The Minister is always gracious in his responses and I know he will provide some answers and information. Just 6% of people thought the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would make the UK a better place for disabled people. In other words, 94% did not think that. Whatever people say about statistics, that cannot be ignored—94% of people are not satisfied or convinced.

We all know there needs to be an effort to make public finances sounder and that we must be careful with the budget for which the House, particularly the Government, is responsible. All Departments are being made to tighten their belts, but it is clear that public opinion sees these latest reforms as an attack on some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I judge society by its attitude to those who are less well off. My duty in the House is to help vulnerable people to manage better and that is also the Government’s responsibility.

Despite great services, such as the Access to Work programme, the proportion of people with a learning disability in paid employment has remained stubbornly low and, according to Mencap, which represents people with learning difficulties, seems immune to economic factors. That is worrying for us all. Indeed, the proportion of learning-disabled people known to social services in paid employment fell from 7% in 2012-13 to 6.8% in 2013-14, so there has been a fall. Perhaps the Minister will give us some idea of how the Government will respond to that and how they will directly address the issue.

The majority of people with a learning disability can and want to work, so let us encourage them and give them the opportunity. The figures are stark when the national employment rate of 76% is compared with an overall disability employment rate of just below 50%. In the Conservative party’s manifesto, the Government pledged to halve the disability employment gap. I am sure the Minister will say how the Government are trying to meet that manifesto commitment. Welcome moves have been made to realise that commitment, but the facts show that more needs to be done and more action needs to be taken.

In Northern Ireland, we have a scheme to help to reduce the disability employment gap. In addition to the Access to Work programme, Workable (NI) is delivered by a range of providers contracted by the Department for Employment and Learning. The matter is devolved. These organisations have extensive experience of meeting the vocational needs of people with disabilities. Using them is a great way of advancing social enterprise and supporting the sector. Sometimes, it is necessary to innovate, to be different and to think outside the box. The Minister is aware of our scheme and what we do, so I respectfully ask whether the Government are considering it for the mainland. If they are, it would be good news. Perhaps the Government will look at how the devolved Administrations are working to assist disabled people into work and at the solutions to the long-term problem that can be shared across the United Kingdom’s institutions of government.

On the face of it, these changes look completely contradictory to the Government’s manifesto promise and are seen not as a genuine attempt to put more disabled people who can work into work, but as an ideologically driven policy. The Minister will give us statistics, which I am keen to hear, but the cuts are at risk of doing the exact opposite of what they are designed to do. Disabled people already find it much harder to get and keep jobs and to access employment compared with non-disabled people. Their chances will be even less if they are unable to pay telephone or broadband bills, or afford smart clothes and transport to interviews or the jobcentre. Those are all necessities for job searching and they will be even harder to afford when the cuts have been made. When someone goes for an interview, presentation is so important. Employers know that, as do MPs who see people who come to us for jobs.

Some £640 million will be saved by 2020-21, but should we really be targeting vulnerable groups to make savings in public finances? It is already hard enough for ESA recipients to survive on £5,300 a year. Expecting new claimants to be more likely to find work on £3,800 is, with respect, nonsensical. In addition to these cuts, Department for Work and Pensions data show that between 2011 and 2015 the number of jobcentres employing a full-time advisor to help disabled people fell by over 60% from 226 to just 90, with reductions in every recorded year.The reduction in jobcentre disability advisers is surely contradictory to the Government’s commitment to reduce the disability employment gap. The effects of those cuts to services need to be closely monitored to ensure that they are not having an adverse effect on the efforts to reduce disability unemployment.

I will conclude, Mr Crausby, because I am conscious of what you said about keeping contributions to seven minutes. The Government need to look again at the proposals and ask whether this is really the right approach to getting more disabled people back into work, especially when such a plethora of stakeholders are making it clear that the proposals will have the opposite effect to what is intended. That is the opinion of those who are at the coalface and know what is happening; they have concerns. We want the number of disabled people in work to increase, but cutting ESA will only make it harder for disabled people who can work, to find work; and ultimately all the savings will be hindered by the increased payment of benefits when disabled people who want to work simply cannot afford to go on the job hunt itself.

It is a great honour to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing the debate. I agree with the sentiment that he expressed in his excellent speech with regard to the UN investigation and I agree with my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party, who, at Prime Minister’s questions on 21 October last year, said that it was very sad that the UK was being investigated by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, judging by the speeches this morning and from disabled people’s accounts of their experiences, it is little surprise that we are in this state.

I am pleased to say that I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group for muscular dystrophy. I would like to highlight how the Government’s reforms have affected people who suffer from muscular dystrophy and other muscle-wasting conditions. It is worth bearing in mind that such conditions are serious and progressive; they range from mild to severe disability and even result in premature death. Nationally, more than 70,000 people are affected. That is one in every 1,000 people in our constituencies.

The charity Muscular Dystrophy UK, which works with and for people with muscle-wasting conditions, has called for the Government to abolish the spare room subsidy, which we all know as the bedroom tax, because of its devastating impact on those who are struggling financially while facing the challenges of living with a long-term disability. For many people in that situation, extra space is essential for vital home adaptations and to store equipment, but only those who have been designated as needing 24-hour care and assistance from an overnight carer from outside the family are exempt. That means that many disabled people, who fall outside the exemption, are forced to pay the bedroom tax even though they need the extra bedroom to store essential equipment because of their condition. For many, finding that extra payment from a limited budget is a cause of great stress in their already challenging existence.

A number of those living with muscle-wasting conditions rely on Motability vehicles so that they can live independently and have a quality of life beyond the confines of their home. However, the Government’s decision to replace the DLA’s 50-metre rule with a 20-metre rule under PIP means that those who do not meet the criteria will not access the enhanced mobility rate and could lose their mobility schemes. Although Motability has devised a scheme offering a lump sum to people who joined prior to PIP being rolled out, it is offering only three “free” weeks to accommodate the mandatory reconsideration and appeal. That means that people will have only a seven-week period to resolve the issue if they feel that they have been inappropriately reassessed, but the reality is that in most cases that will take a lot longer. I ask the Minister what steps the Government will take to support those people whose appeal takes longer than the allocated seven weeks.

Muscular Dystrophy UK has been given many examples showing an alarming lack of knowledge among those carrying out assessments for PIP. For example, one woman, who has a long-term and progressive neuromuscular condition, was told that she might “get better”. Sadly, the organisation has found numerous examples showing that people are being treated with a lack of dignity and respect.

The organisation has also found that there are issues with the provision of employment and support allowance. Those have already been outlined by hon. Members. There seems to be a significant lack of understanding of the nature of neuromuscular conditions when cases involve a refusal to award ESA due to the misconception that with physiotherapy and/or other treatments, the condition can improve; it simply cannot.

Most worrying to Muscular Dystrophy UK is the cut of £30 a week for new claimants in the ESA work-related activity group, as it takes away the support that people with progressive and disabling muscle-wasting conditions need in order to look for and secure work.

The total effect of the cuts will seriously affect the ability of disabled people to live independently and play a part in society. Moreover, the cuts will lead to more pressure on health and social care budgets as those with complex needs deteriorate more rapidly without the correct support. The concerns raised by Muscular Dystrophy UK are based on the real experiences of people with neuromuscular conditions, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark will not mind if I take this opportunity to ask the Minister whether he will meet some of those people and Muscular Dystrophy UK to discuss their concerns in person and in more detail.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on bringing the debate to the House. As he said, it is timely not only because of the debate in the House of Lords later today, but because of yesterday’s developments regarding carer’s allowance. Indeed, as we have been sitting here in the debate this morning, the Court of Appeal has ruled that the bedroom tax is discriminatory. These things all stack up. They show that the Government’s approach to support, including financial support, for disabled people is completely wrong.

I had not heard the news that the hon. Lady has just announced, and I am delighted to hear it. I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to exempt carers from the bedroom tax, but Government Members shamefully spoke against it.

I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. She has a very strong track record of standing up for carers.

Disabled people and those with long-term health problems have faced huge upheaval and uncertainty during the past few years as the austerity measures have kicked in. For many, the changes to social security have already left them significantly worse off and living in precarious and reduced circumstances.

A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to meet some of the disabled people who came to Parliament as part of the lobby organised by the Disability Benefits Consortium. I pay tribute to it and the other organisations that brief us on the real experiences of disabled people. We need to listen to them, because their experience should inform policy far more than it does at the moment.

As I mentioned, we are having this debate on the day when the Lords will vote on aspects of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. There has been speculation that the Government may well face another defeat, on the cuts to employment and support allowance that were mentioned earlier. I moved amendments to the Bill on Report, which I am pleased to say were supported by Opposition parties, that would have removed those changes. They are deeply regressive and punitive on people whose disabilities are so severe that even under the very flawed work capability assessment, they have been found unfit for work.

I would be among the first to acknowledge the shortcomings of the work-related activity group classification. It has not been helpful or effective for anyone, and I echo the wider point made by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) about the ESA process. However, the key point in our debate today is that people placed in the WRAG are people who are not currently fit for work. There is a wealth of evidence that piling financial or moral pressure on people when they are recovering from illness or living with long-term health conditions does not motivate them to get better any faster; it actually makes them more ill. Living in poverty while too unwell to work simply compounds the challenges that sick and disabled people already face and slows their recovery.

We get to the heart of the matter when we look back at the original announcement. Last summer, during his Budget statement, the Chancellor said that ESA was supposed to end what he termed

“some of the perverse incentives in the old incapacity benefit, but instead it has introduced new ones.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 333.]

Quite seriously, that is what he said. He seems to think that ESA creates incentives for people to be disabled or sick. It is the Chancellor’s thinking that is perverse, because there is absolutely no incentive for any person to live with the limitations, the pain, the social insecurity and the material disadvantage of disability. If the Chancellor thinks that £102 a week of ESA creates an incentive, he must be wired to the moon.

Research published by the Disability Benefits Consortium for an earlier stage of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill showed that 70% of the disabled people surveyed by the consortium believed that further cuts to ESA would cause their health to suffer. Other hon. Members have alluded to that. The word “further” is most telling, because we need to understand the context of the cut in the work-related activity component. As others have said, it comes on the back of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which allowed for the transition from disability living allowance to personal independence payment, cutting the budget for support for disabled people by £1.5 billion a year and significantly raising the bar on who can receive support.

Let us not forget that the bedroom tax was also a direct assault on the incomes of disabled people. Even when the legislation was going through Parliament, the DWP’s impact assessment showed that two thirds of the households that would be affected were home to someone with a disability. In Scotland the impact was magnified, and eight of 10 households affected were home to a disabled person. I am glad that the courts have ruled that the policy is discriminatory, as has been said all along and as hon. Members stated repeatedly in the House at the time. When we talk about the latest cuts, we must remember that the people who are being sanctioned are disproportionately affected by disability. We really should not need courts to determine those things when we have the evidence before our eyes.

We must take cognisance of the fact that the new measures come at a time when disabled people are already struggling on reduced incomes—and they are really struggling. The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) laid out in some detail just some of the practical ways in which that manifests itself. The Disability Benefits Consortium research revealed that 57% of respondents had found that the amount of ESA that they currently received did not cover the extra costs of living with disability, and, as a consequence, many experienced difficulties in paying for essentials like food, extra heating and the extra transport costs that they may incur.

I want to touch briefly on the parliamentary review, “Halving The Gap?” led by Lord Low, Baroness Meacher and Baroness Grey-Thompson, which makes valuable recommendations. The report notes that some 500,000 people with physical or learning disabilities, mental health problems or autism are currently assessed as being unfit for work. I want to emphasise that that is the reality. People in the work-related activity group have been assessed as not fit for work, even under the stringent criteria of the work capability assessment, and slashing their incomes by £30 a week is only punitive. It cannot make them better more quickly. It will not incentivise them back to work. It will only make them poorer. For some, it will damage their health. The Government say that they want to halve the disability employment gap, but the policy is still without substance. We are still waiting for a strategy, and I hope that the Minister will bring forward more substantial proposals.

The barriers that disabled people face in accessing and sustaining employment are real, so concrete support through the social security system is vital. Often, it is financial support that people need. The difficulty is the Government’s track record; they have had to be dragged through legal processes to force them to make changes. Last time we debated the matter, I raised the High Court ruling that the DWP had unlawfully discriminated against disabled people on the issue of carers and the benefit cap, as the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) mentioned. Yesterday’s Government U-turn was not announced in a parliamentary statement; it was sneaked out on Twitter. That is an interesting way to do things.

It is sad that it has taken a legal challenge for the Tories to accept the damage that their obsession with austerity, and their willingness to put disabled people on the frontline of austerity cuts, is inflicting on disabled people. Disabled people should not have to fight through the courts for recognition of their rights, and we should not need a High Court judge or a Court of Appeal judge to determine that the benefit cap and the bedroom tax discriminate against those people. I am glad that the Government have been forced into retreat on the matter, but I hope that they will now take far more seriously the disproportionate impact that their cuts are having on disabled people, who are already disadvantaged.

The inquiry by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a real indictment of the Government’s approach to supporting disabled people. I reiterate the point that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark made in opening the debate: the UK is the first country to be investigated by the UN in relation to the convention. The Prime Minister has tried to dismiss the investigation by saying that

“when you look at these investigations you find that they are not necessarily all they are originally cracked up to be.”—[Official Report, 21 October 2015; Vol. 950, c. 600.]

It is completely and utterly shameful for the UK Government not to take the matter more seriously. The UK is being investigated on the world stage for

“grave and systematic violations of the Convention”,

and the Government need to learn some humility.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised some devolved matters from a Northern Ireland perspective. In Scotland, we have made serious efforts to distance ourselves from the UK Government’s shameless and regressive approach. We have tried to insulate the most disadvantaged people from the worst aspects of austerity cuts by establishing the welfare fund and the Scottish independent living fund, and by mitigating the bedroom tax in full. No one is complacent about the impact that income cuts and sanctions are having on sick and disabled people, however, and there is a lot more that we all need to do.

The UK Government, first and foremost, need to start listening to disabled people and taking their views on board. They seem to want to bulldoze through cuts to ESA. I strongly urge them to learn from the High Court judgment, the Court of Appeal judgment and the UN, and to think again.

It is lovely to see you in the Chair again, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing the debate and making an excellent, comprehensive and thorough speech. I will recap some of the points that he made.

Since 2010, 13 policy measures in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 have reduced financial support for 3.7 million people to the tune of £23.8 billion. I will not go through the list, but it is extensive, and it is there for people to read at their leisure. On top of that, as has been said, the closure of the independent living fund and the transfer of responsibility to local authorities have caused immense distress to many families of people with the most extreme disabilities. Because not all local authorities have chosen to ring-fence that funding, those people have experienced a cut of £1.2 billion.

Does the hon. Lady agree that we are not just talking about dealing with stress? The cuts are also likely to exacerbate any mental health difficulties that disabled people may have, leading them to feel hopeless and depressed, and, in some cases, leading to self-harm and suicidality.

The hon. Lady makes a good point. One of the woeful things about the measures has been the Government’s lack of assessment of their impact on poverty, on disability and on any other health conditions that disabled people experience. That is a real indictment of the Government.

I return to the cuts to social care. We know from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services that £3.6 billion has been cut from social care, and that figure is likely to increase to £4.3 billion by 2020. That has led to a reduction in the amount of state-funded support for older and disabled people. In 2014, 500,000 fewer people were able to access social care support, and 12% fewer older and disabled people were able to get essential home adaptations through the disabled facilities grant.

Mencap has identified a whole range of issues with health services provisions for people with learning disabilities. Only 49% of trusts have a full-time learning-disabled nurse. In addition to the cuts to social security and to health and social care, there have been cuts to access to justice, 42% cuts to the access to transport funding that enables people with mobility issues to get out and about, and cuts—described as a “ticking time bomb”—to funding for training teachers who provide mental health support to school pupils. It goes on and on. My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned the cuts in the disabled students allowances. That is a looming threat.

Hon. Members have mentioned other cuts that are on the horizon, particularly as a result of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which is currently in the Lords. The cuts to the ESA WRAG were mentioned. In effect, there will be cuts of £30 a week for people in that group—people who have been found not fit for work, including 5,000 people with progressive conditions such as Parkinson’s and MS, and people with cancer. A survey conducted by the charity Macmillan Cancer Support found that one in 10 cancer patients would struggle to pay their rent or mortgage if ESA were cut. The woeful impact assessment has not assessed the impact of poverty on disabled people and the effects on their health conditions, but we know that half a million people will be affected by the cuts of £640 million in addition to the £23.8 billion I mentioned previously. Of 11 million disabled people, more than 5 million live in poverty. The cuts will exacerbate their plight, as 80% of people who live in poverty do so as a direct result of their disability.

The ESA WRAG cut is just one of the cuts facing disabled people. There is also the freeze in social security support over the next four years. My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned the cut to universal credit, which will affect disabled people. Liverpool Economics estimates that it will cause an average loss of £2,000 a year to each disabled person.

Friday’s closure of the consultation on PIP has been mentioned. A result of that consultation will definitely be another cut, based on a review of 105 of the 611,121 current PIP claimants. That is all in the context of a Tory manifesto that included a pledge not to cut disability benefits. I can only assume that the consultation is the result of the Government getting a little bit anxious that more people will qualify for PIP, because the 105 claimants included in the review were all awarded the daily living component as they would benefit from aids and appliances. I am reminded of a statement made by the Institute for Fiscal Studies just after the spending review:

“The OBR has significantly reduced its forecast of savings from disability benefit reforms—in particular the move from disability living allowance to personal independence payment. This is familiar. Year after year expected savings from this reform go down. In fact this change in forecast would have ensured that the welfare cap in 2020-21 would have been breached.”

That is on top of everything else.

A UN committee has been investigating the UK for breaches of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, to which we are a signatory. That is an indictment of our record. The Government’s mantra for disabled people of working age is that work holds the key, but we have heard about the lack of support that has been provided with the Work programme, Access to Work and Disability Confident.

My final remark is that my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark is absolutely right: this is down to Government choices. The Government have tried—and I say tried—to regenerate the economy on the back of the poor and disabled. Instead of denigrating social security, we should value it. Like our NHS, the social security system is based on the principles of inclusion, support and security for all, ensuring all of us dignity in the basics of life should any one of us become ill or disabled, or fall on hard times. The Government need to remember that that is the case and stop their attacks on disabled people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for calling the debate. He is a formidable campaigner with a wealth of experience having been the head of policy at the National Centre for Independent Living, the director of policy at the Disability Alliance and the director of policy and campaigns at Disability Rights UK. His speech demonstrated a genuine and wide-ranging knowledge. I am grateful for the huge range of issues that have been raised. I will do my very best, in a limited time, to cover as many of them as possible and I will keep going until I run out of time. I pay tribute to all the other speakers who contributed to what was mostly a proactive and constructive debate in which genuine concerns were raised and suggestions made about how we can continue to make improvements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) once again demonstrated his huge wealth of experience, setting out practical solutions, particularly regarding apprenticeships. His point was timely as I am due to meet the relevant Minister from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to discuss that issue. I hope that my hon. Friend will be kind enough to join me in that meeting as I would like to push the subject.

The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) asked whether PIP recognises fluctuating health conditions. I feel that it does better than the DLA. The trained assessors are better at picking up on those conditions compared with the former DLA assessment. The main thrust of her speech concentrated on social care and attendance allowance. I understand that as I spent 10 years as an elected borough councillor, but I support the principle of localising the decisions. As a country, we have agreed that we will continue to devolve more responsibilities, particularly to Scotland, but I trust our English authorities to have the same responsibilities and opportunities. We have introduced the better care fund, the social care precept and the Health and Social Care (Safety and Quality) Act 2015.

There is a fear about variations and carers losing their eligibility because some councils are so cash-strapped. The difference is very unfair. Even the social care precept will be different, as authorities can raise different amounts. It is an unfair and varied field now.

I understand, and we introduced the Health and Social Care (Safety and Quality) Act to set those standards. To be fair, this issue could be a debate in itself and I am conscious that there were so many other points that I need to come to. I am happy to discuss the matter further.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was right to highlight the fact that more needs to be done. He is a vociferous speaker; I have never taken part in a debate in which he has not contributed. He is right to challenge and is always proactive in making suggestions, particularly regarding learning disabilities. The proportion of people with learning disabilities in paid employment is typically 6% to 8% regardless of whether the economy is on the up or the down. It is the one stubborn area with which Government after Government have struggled and wrestled to try to make genuine progress. I am interested to hear more about the scheme in Northern Ireland that the hon. Gentleman talked about, and I would be keen to meet him to discuss that further.

I have had a good meeting with the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) previously. I would be happy to meet with the group she described to discuss those issues further. We are taking action on the time it takes for appeals to be considered. First, the mandatory reconsideration process comes in before the independent appeal and picks up the majority of those cases in which new information has come forward and a mistake has been made. We continue to work on how we can access better information because, more often than not, decisions are changed when new information comes to light. To get that earlier would be beneficial for all. On the point about accessible housing, the discretionary housing payment funds will be increased over this Parliament by £800 million. I think everyone would welcome that.

To the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), to be fair, external groups, cross-party MPs, Lords, stakeholders and charities do get to influence policies. I spend a lot of my time meeting those groups. Her speech contained a lot of criticism. There are opportunities to make changes. We are reforming ESA through the Work and Health programme and the White Paper. Sometimes, it is good to suggest things that could work, rather than just saying which things are wrong. I reassure her that we do not announce things through Twitter. In the modern world, some people would welcome our doing so, but this week’s announcement about carers and the benefit cap was not made through Twitter. Lord Freud made the announcement in Parliament on Monday during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. I hope that provides some reassurance.

I will address as many of the points that have been made as I can. First, on unemployment, we all welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge that we will halve the disability employment gap. Some 339,000 more people with disabilities have been in work over the past two years, which is a good start, but we still have a long way to go. There is a real-terms funding increase in spending to help people with health conditions and disabilities to return to and remain in work. There is support throughout the system, and we are multi-skilling our coaches to ensure that they are all aware how to support people with disabilities. There will be opportunities to make improvements through the White Paper.

The point about smaller, localised, flexible options is important. I get to make many good visits, and I have seen local solutions meeting market needs to create and train the skills where the jobs are. I made an enjoyable visit before Christmas to Foxes Academy, where I was corrected on my inability to cut carrots—it was the hotel featured on Channel 5. Early this week, I visited Ignition, a local brewery that employs people with learning disabilities, where it is socially acceptable to sample the goods at 11 am.

We have introduced the Fit for Work service particularly to focus on helping people remain in work. It is a lot easier to help people remain than to help them back into work. The current figure for Access to Work is 36,760, with four years of growth. It is a demand-led scheme, but a funding increase for an extra 25,000 places has been confirmed, which is significant. We are actively considering the best ways to do that. We have an open mind, and I welcome any suggestions, but obviously greater promotion is key, particularly to smaller businesses where the scheme would be particularly helpful in removing barriers. Specialist employment support has doubled the job outcomes of residential training colleges, which is good progress.

We constantly evaluate PIP, and we work with external stakeholders, charities and users to look at ways we can continue to improve PIP. The waiting time for assessments has reduced by more than three quarters since June 2014. We are now at five weeks for an assessment, and 11 weeks median end-to-end for the process. It is fair to say that the launch of PIP was not good. The reviews highlighted that, and my predecessors will have spent a lot of time in Westminster Hall and in the other Chamber discussing it, but PIP has been in a settled state for quite some time.

The consultation is just completing, and we will analyse what people have had to say. We were right to do that following the Paul Gray review. He highlighted the issue following court judgments. On an earlier point, rather than waiting for the courts to continue to drag it through, it is right and proper that we have a thorough look at it, but I do not want to pre-empt any consultation. We are continuing to look to improve the PIP process, and I look forward to reading the hon. Lady’s comments, assuming that she has fed into that consultation.

Only 16% of DLA claimants secured the highest rate, and the figure is now 22.5% under PIP. As a specific example of an area of disability where people have benefited from the changes, 22% of those with a mental health condition would get the highest rate of DLA, but now 68% of mental health claimants are on enhanced PIP.

But that is not someone getting more support but someone qualifying for exactly the same support that existed previously under DLA, a system that actually cost less to run.

My point is that only 22% of those with mental health conditions would have qualified, and now the figure is at 68%, so more people with a mental health condition are qualifying for the enhanced rate. That is one example, and there are others.

We are in the process of the full roll-out, taking the 1.7 million DLA claimants over to PIP, but please be assured that that is being done in a controlled, measured and timely manner that learns the lessons of the reviews. We are doing the roll-out in a manner that meets the available capacity so as not to repeat the mistakes of when PIP was first launched. The disabled facilities grant currently funds about 40,000 house adaptations a year, and I am delighted that funding is due to increase by 79% next year from £220 million to £394 million.

A number of Members talked about working across the Government, which is a big part of my role. I meet not only Ministers but Opposition Members and Lords stakeholders. I make lots of visits, which is a part of my role that I very much enjoy. My door is always open, and I have met a number of speakers here today.

Some 16,900 have transferred from the independent living fund, of whom 91% already had some form of their care provided by the local authority. The funding was transferred in full. The protection was underwritten by the Care Act 2014. The Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Treasury are keeping a close eye on that as it progresses. I understand the importance of the issue, on which we have had many debates.

We must not forget that ESA WRAG was not a golden solution; it had been criticised by all parties for a long time. Only 1% of claimants a month were coming off that benefit into work. No Government ever invented could have spun that as anything other than failing the people it was meant to serve. Those already receiving ESA will see no cash loss. Anyone whose capacity to work is limited by severe work-limiting health conditions and disabilities will continue to remain in that support group. Existing claimants who undergo a work capability reassessment after April 2017 and are placed in, or remain in, the WRAG will continue to receive that additional rate.

The Government have invested an extra £1.25 billion in mental health support, and in our area we are doing a series of pilots on group work, telephone support, face to face, online and inside jobcentres to look seriously at how we can do that and scale it across the country to help people as quickly as possible, which is clearly the key. On the disabled students allowance, we recognise that progress has been made since the Equality Acts. Universities, like all public sector bodies, have a duty to comply with the law. We should not be paying for things that they should be doing and are underwritten by law. I have had a number of meetings on that, and I will continue to keep a close eye on it.

Finally, on accessible information, the Royal National Institute of Blind People rightly challenged me because it felt that the Government were inconsistent in how they presented information. It is important that my Department leads on that, as well as pushing the rest of the Government, so I set up a taskforce that includes the RNIB and a number of organisations and people with a wealth of experience who will work through how we communicate our information. I understand that, when people are looking to use services and claim benefits, we need to make their journey as easy and as helpful as possible, and I am delighted that so many organisations are supporting that valuable work.

It is a pleasure to have responded to this helpful debate, which is a credit to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate. The Minister seems to have left most of my questions unanswered, particularly on unemployment—there was just some indication there. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that, although we welcome the commitment to halve the gap, there is a reverse-Ronseal approach coming from the Government. The approach is not doing what it says on the tin. The number of people supported by Access to Work, for example, seems to be heading the wrong way.

On DSA and universities needing to do more, it goes back to the point raised by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) and my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). Look at the court case today: the Government do not do what they are meant to do on impact assessing or following their own Equality Act obligations. That from the Department that is directly responsible for representing disabled people and much of central Government disability policy. The Government are not doing enough, and to try to pass responsibility on to universities when the Government are failing to uphold their own responsibilities is crude.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) for her contribution. I completely share her concern about the Government’s risky, uncertain and late approach, and I thank her for all her work with Carers UK, which is based in my constituency. I consider her an honorary constituent simply because of the amount of time she spends with Carers UK.

The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) mentioned funding, but the Government still do not seem to co-ordinate a longer-term approach to planning. What happens when disabled people lose support and end up making increased demands on the NHS? He made lots of points about the extra costs of disability and then seemed to suggest, in some kind of sick joke, that disabled people in the work-related activity group of ESA should get JSA, which would be a considerable reduction in financial payment, because it might incentivise them into work sooner when we know they have health issues. That is a completely unacceptable approach, and sadly that is what we see time and again from a Government whose priorities are upside down—tax is not collected where it should be, and they keep coming back to disabled people for more.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).