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Disabilities, Poverty and Inequalities

Volume 606: debated on Wednesday 24 February 2016

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered disabilities, poverty and inequalities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and an honour to have secured this debate, which is on an issue that is vital to people in all parts of the country. I also thank my colleagues for coming along to consider the association between disabilities and poverty, as well as organisations such as Inclusion Scotland and Disability Rights UK, which have been so kind in assisting me in my preparation for this debate. It is my real hope that this debate will contribute to putting this issue more firmly on the Government’s agenda and that the Minister will commit today to doing more to address it.

Ours is a disabling society. Some are born impaired. Some acquire impairments, some of which are visible and others invisible. All of us at some time will feel the invisible agency of a society that is organised for the convenience of able bodies. It is a society that adds to disabilities. Poverty and inequality affect a hugely diverse range of people in every constituency represented in this Parliament, but those living with disabilities especially and disproportionately face economic hardship, which for too long successive Governments have failed to tackle effectively.

While headline poverty rates suggest that disabled people are around 10% more likely to be in poverty than the population at large, it is generally thought that those figures significantly underestimate the scale of the problem. As is so often the case, the statistics fail to take into account the acutely increased costs and pressures that disabled people can face. Indeed, we know that the link between inequality and disability is reciprocal.

On the one hand, the high costs associated with living with a disability can push disabled people and their families into poverty, as many struggle with the greater costs of care, accommodation and transport. Recent research from the disability charity Scope has shown that disabled people spend an average of £550 per month on disability-related expenses—things such as taxis, increased heating and electricity consumption and the cost of maintaining equipment. As a result, those with disabilities are twice as likely to have unsecured debt totalling over half of their income, and they have on average £108,000 fewer savings and assets than non-disabled people.

On the other hand, the health and social inequalities that are so acutely felt in more deprived areas can contribute to a higher rate of disability in the most disadvantaged communities of the country. We need to recognise that being born into and growing up in poverty can have profound impacts on a child’s health, wellbeing and fitness at birth and in later life.

Statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions demonstrate the extent of the disparities between more and less advantaged communities in the UK. It may be an imperfect measure of the total incidence of disability, but the DWP’s own figures on personal independence payments show that people in more affluent areas are less likely to require disability-related support. In the Prime Minister’s constituency of Witney, 405 people received PIP in October 2015. In Chingford and Woodford Green, represented by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 495 claimants were paid PIP, while 680 constituents of the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People received that support. Take as a contrast my constituency of Glasgow East, where in October 2015 1,806 people received personal independence payments. It is astonishing that my constituents are a staggering four and a half times more likely than the Prime Minister’s to be in receipt of crucial disability-related support.

Too often at my surgeries and around my constituency, I meet people whose experience of poverty has contributed to or exacerbated their disability and whose financial security is threatened every month by disability-related costs. Despite plenty of evidence that this is a deep-rooted structural issue, we have so far failed to assert the sharp focus that is so desperately required to build sustained progress for disabled people and remove the links between disability and poverty. Our collective failure to do so is harming families across the country.

Today in the UK, a third of people in poverty live in a household with at least one disabled person. One in three children in Scotland who live with a disabled adult live in poverty, compared with one in five children living in poverty who do not live with a disabled adult. Disabled people can face increased cost pressures, and families with a disabled member face disproportionately a serious social gradient.

Research for the organisation Parenting across Scotland has found that families living with disability find it even more difficult to make ends meet, with 54% of parents in Scotland with a disability finding it more difficult to pay the bills than a year ago, compared with 29% of non-disabled parents. Some 25% of disabled parents in Scotland report problems getting affordable credit, compared with 8% of non-disabled parents. Meanwhile, 26% of disabled parents were being paid less than the real living wage, compared with 10% of non-disabled parents. It is clear that families living with disability are disproportionately and unacceptably bearing the brunt of the economic inequality that increasingly defines our society.

Wealthy families in Britain are a third less likely to have a disabled child—a statistic that reveals an alarming social gradient, because those families are pushed further into poverty by the pressures of caring for those children. People with disabilities and impairments are some of the poorest and most marginalised in the country. Academics at the University of Warwick’s School of Health and Social Studies published a paper in BMC Pediatrics showing that families bringing up a disabled child are at least £50 a week worse off than those without.

A family bringing up a child with a disability will face 18% higher costs in their family budget. That is because, for example, a disabled baby needs more nappies. A family’s ability to work and find affordable childcare is a real burden. Households with disabled children will depend more on social security benefits and face the additional financial costs associated with caring for a disabled child. Fuel costs for specially adapted cars are often higher than average, and the fact that those with the most severe disabilities have to attend hospitals and clinics weekly or even daily for therapies and treatments can have an enormous impact on family budgets.

Extra energy costs are also incurred because homes often have to be kept warmer in order to protect people with disabilities from colds and bugs, to which they are especially vulnerable. Disabled children living in poverty are often housebound due to the nature of their condition, and for those with the most severe disabilities, a warm home can truly mean the difference between life and death.

If we are ever to break the poverty-disability link, we need a long-term plan to tackle deprivation, lift communities out of poverty and ensure a decent standard of living for every single person in our country. While the UK Government’s policies are sadly taking us in the wrong direction in that respect, I know there are Members on all sides of the House who agree we need to do more to ensure a better quality of life for disabled people across the UK.

Of course, this issue affects a great many people not only in this country but in every corner of the world, and there is an important international dimension to the debate. Globally, one in seven people have a disability, and 80% of disabled people around the world live in poverty. In the developing world, we see the same reciprocal relationship between poverty and disability, only with even more striking effects. In a great many countries, people living in poverty simply do not have adequate access to the healthcare, clean water and sanitation that we in the UK take for granted. As a result, they are even more vulnerable to malnutrition and disease. They are also more likely to live and work in dangerous or disaster-prone areas, all of which means that poor people in the developing world are more likely to acquire an impairment that leads to disability.

Disabled people in the developing world, as is the case here, can also too often find themselves excluded from healthcare, education, employment and opportunities to participate in their communities, meaning that those living with disabilities often constitute the poorest people in the poorest countries on earth. The Government’s international development agenda has recognised the specific need to assist disabled people, but non-governmental organisations and charities, such as CBM UK, are telling us that more needs to be done by the Department for International Development.

Thank you, Sir Roger, for chairing this debate. Does the hon. Lady agree that, in the light of the sustainable development goals, which are accepted and have been adopted by 170 nations in the world—Britain is a signatory—the Minister should agree to provide support to those families and particularly disabled people so that they can have a better standard of living?

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for succinctly making that point, and I completely agree with him.

As we know, people with disabilities are most at risk in conflict situations, meaning that our diplomatic and humanitarian response is vital in supporting disabled people. One in five refugees in Jordan and Lebanon is affected by physical, sensory or intellectual impairment—a chilling illustration of the cost of the warfare raging in Syria today.

Internationally, the UK must champion diplomatic solutions that will help to end conflict, alleviate poverty and support disabled people in some of the most desperate places on earth. At the world humanitarian summit in May in Istanbul, DFID’s representatives must highlight the importance of the inclusion of disabled people as a core element of an effective humanitarian response.

However, there is so much more to do here in the UK to break the poverty-disability link as well, and although the lives of disabled people in conflict zones and the developing world can only be transformed through international co-operation on development and humanitarian assistance, here in the UK, we in this place have the primary responsibility to improve the lives of people living with disabilities. As a starting point at least, we need to make sure that people and families living with disability have the financial support that they need to get by without the fear of a life lived in poverty. We have a serious responsibility to invest more in a system of social protection that meets disabled people’s needs and tackles the pernicious inequalities that they face.

Of course, that is not in keeping with the current direction of political travel in this place. It is hard to escape the fact that the UK Government’s austerity agenda is immeasurably harming the finances of disabled people in the UK, pushing many more into poverty and making difficult lives even harder. The introduction of universal credit is hitting families with disability particularly hard, as those previously claiming the middle or higher rate of the care component of disability living allowance will no longer receive the severe disability premium.

In Scotland, 80% of households hit by the bedroom tax include at least one disabled person. Changes to incapacity benefit have cost householders on average £3,480 a year and changes to disability living allowance have cost people £3,000 a year. In England, according to estimates from the Centre for Welfare Reform, cuts to welfare, social care and other services mean that disabled people are facing an average cumulative cut of £4,600 a year.

It is simply not acceptable that disabled people are being treated as fair game for the Government’s austerity agenda and yet, further cuts to the employment and support allowance work-related activity group went through Parliament yesterday. That will further disincentivise work for people with disabilities and push thousands more people with long-term illnesses and disabilities into financial hardship.

One of my constituents who experiences disability is unable to read some of the information that is required to make her personal independence payment application and, as a result, relies on the citizens advice bureau to support her. Does the Minister accept that some people require additional support to make their applications, and acknowledge that, rather than penalising people such as my constituent, they need assistance to live independently and make their way in the world?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that hugely important point. In my constituency, I have also seen the lack of access to readable documents and support, particularly for people with mental health issues as well as literacy issues, and that has caused them adverse harm.

Employment and support allowance was envisaged as a way of supporting people with limited capacity for work as a result of sickness and disability. It sought to recognise the barriers that disabled people face in seeking work—the disabling attitudes, the disabling environments and the additional costs that disabled people bear, day to day, just leading their lives. ESA extended a small measure of recognition for the inequality that our society generates, and now even that small gesture is to be torn away.

Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind, is reported as saying:

“People being supported by ESA receive a higher rate than those on JSA because they face additional barriers as a result of their illness or disability, and typically take longer to move into work. Almost 60 per cent of people on JSA move off the benefit within 6 months, while almost 60 per cent of people in the WRAG need this support for at least two years.”

What assessment have the Government made of the impact of this measure on disabled people?

According to a survey conducted by the Disability Benefits Consortium, almost a third of people on ESA who were surveyed said that they cannot afford to eat on the levels of ESA that they receive now. Inclusion Scotland has said that the proposals are

“a direct attack on the living standards of disabled people, their families, carers and children and will result in hundreds of thousands more being plunged into poverty and destitution”.

I hope that today the Minister can justify the Government’s approach to supporting disabled people and explain how cuts to social protection funding will take disabled people out of poverty. Unfortunately, I fear that the newest cuts will continue to do what this Government’s austerity project has already done and cause additional financial difficulties for people living with disabilities.

Poverty and disability should not have to be so closely intertwined, and with a concerted effort to reform our social security system and ensure that disabled people have an adequate income and decent, appropriate employment opportunities, we can address the severe inequalities that disabled people experience.

We know that poverty and disability can be mutually reinforcing and that disabled people have too often been let down by decisions made in this place, which in recent years has tended to make their situation worse. However, this Government’s record has too often been to deny or explain away the statistics when confronted with them, and to deny the impact that their policies are having on real people in real communities across the UK. I somewhat suspect—though I hope not—that that will continue today. I very much hope that the Minister takes this opportunity to prove me wrong.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Roger. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) and congratulating her not only on securing this debate, but on her incredibly thoughtful and instructive contribution. She highlighted a number of issues, and I think it is probably fair to say that we completely agree on 95% of those, such as her assessment of the barriers that people with disabilities face; the recognition that their circumstances are difficult, and therefore that we have, quite rightly, social security protections in place for them; and that there is always more that we can do. There was also her reflection on past Governments’ approaches and the failures of systems to provide the right kind of support—adequate support—for people who have been stuck in poverty and have faced barriers and inequalities. The real difficulties, hardships and challenges associated with disabilities were also absolutely recognised by her, and I pay tribute to her on that basis.

I also want to comment on the hon. Lady’s reflection on disability, inequality and poverty at an international level. She was right in this debate to highlight the significance of the challenges that communities and individuals face around the world. For many millions of people internationally—we should put this in some kind of context—particularly in the underdeveloped world and in developing economies and countries, the barriers that they face are enormous for a wide range of reasons. It is not just about access to healthcare or support; it is the fact that the development of their economies and their societies is taking a very different trajectory from ours and they do not have the type of provisions we have in place for people who are experiencing poverty, disabilities or barriers.

If I may speak in the UK context and bring this back to home, the Department for Work and Pensions and the present Government have consistently focused—as, to be fair, did the previous Government—on the fact that when it comes to tackling poverty and inequality, the aim of our welfare reforms has been to secure employment opportunities, putting into practice the principle that work is the best route out of poverty. Evidence shows that nearly three quarters of workless families who have found full employment have escaped poverty.

Specifically—I will come to some of the points that the hon. Member for Glasgow East raised—we are very much focused, in the policy changes that we our making, on helping people with health conditions and disabilities to overcome some of the clear and stark barriers that they have faced in obtaining employment, so that they can rightly benefit from having access to employment opportunities and being in work. At the same time, we are also focused on protecting people through social security. For those who are vulnerable in society, particularly disabled people—it is worth highlighting that spending on the main disability benefits went up by over £2 billion in real terms over the course of the previous Parliament—it is right that we have the right kind of financial protection in place.

Universal credit was mentioned. We have brought in new exemptions for households entitled to carer’s allowance and the UC carer element, as well as for households receiving guardian allowance, which will be brought forward at the end of the year.

This is a much wider debate on how Government policy can help to transform people’s lives by tackling the root causes of poverty, supporting people into work and helping them progress. It is not just about yo-yoing or cycling in and out of the benefits system. I refer specifically to universal credit, which will support people, whatever their circumstances, to put the right frameworks in place to help them into work. At the same time, our focus has been on supporting more disabled people into work. We have made good progress, and 3.2 million disabled people are currently in employment. That is an increase of more than 150,000 over the past year.

My colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People, is focusing on a huge agenda for employment, to halve the employment disability gap and—there was a debate in the House yesterday on our wider welfare reforms—by means of the Disability Confident campaign, to bring together more employers to work with us to create employment opportunities for people with disabilities, to challenge attitudes to disabilities, to help remove potential employment barriers and, importantly, to ensure that people who have barriers and disabilities have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

It is important to highlight that many parliamentary colleagues across all parties are doing a great deal of work in their constituencies to promote and support the concept of Disability Confident and working with employers in their constituencies. I am happy to work with the hon. Lady and her colleagues to look at some practical things we can do, not just in her constituency, but in others throughout Scotland. We are working with employers to do a lot more to bridge the employment disability gap. At the same time, a lot of good work is taking place in our jobcentres to change attitudes and to work with employers and bring more together.

I thank the Minister for the tone of her response so far. I congratulate the Government on their target of halving the disability employment gap, but in the Department for Work and Pensions the number of advisers for disabled people is disproportionately low, which is a real barrier to helping people into work.

The hon. Lady touched on the employment and support allowance, which was also part of the debate in the House yesterday. Some clear reforms are taking place and we are committed to publishing a White Paper in the spring which will focus on how we can provide the right kind of support and not just financial support. We are great believers in practical support. We are making sure that advisers and the right kind of support are in place to help people with barriers and disabilities and to give them the right guidance and the support that they need. At the same time, we are investing a lot more.

In our summer Budget there was provision of at least £115 million for a joint work and health unit to improve the work and health outcomes for people with health conditions and disabilities. The unit has started work. We are also working with disability charities to look at the right way—we will have pilots around the country—to provide practical support and schemes to support people with barriers and health conditions. Mental health is a classic example. The Government are committed to a lot of funding for mental health provision. In particular, we are seeking through this unit to join up the provision and to make sure the signposting and the right sort of provision can take place.

Last week, I met employees at the jobcentre in my local area who spoke extensively about their work to support people back into employment. They raised the point that a large percentage of those who present at the jobcentre suffer from mental ill health. Does the Minister accept that these people require a longer period of support to sustain long-term employment? That may cost the Government more in the long run, but it will benefit their lives.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight that. We know that the challenges and barriers facing people with mental health problems are enormous. One purpose of universal credit is to support them while they try out work and undertake employment that may stretch them in the long run, and support them in work as well. At the same time, we must do more to work with employers. The Government do not have all the answers. Employers and their organisers have great health and occupational health support, and we must look at how we can leverage that to support individuals in employment.

If nothing else, this debate has highlighted that, yes, more needs to be done and we cannot stand still. Through our White Paper and the joint work between DWP and the Department of Health, the Government are looking at how to bring resources together in the right sort of structured way to ensure that we can deliver the services that in the long run can transform lives. These people are furthest away from the labour market. Their lives have been challenging for many reasons and they need the right sort of support to provide them with motivation and encouragement to get out of the cycle of inequality, deprivation, poverty and the combined factors that have stopped them from working in the past.

I am conscious of the time, Sir Roger, so in conclusion I want to emphasise that through the reforms and our current work—a White Paper will be published—the Government are committed to enabling not just disabled people, but those with health conditions and barriers, to fulfil their full potential while protecting the most vulnerable. I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Glasgow East and some of her colleagues when the White Paper is published and hearing their views on how we can do more to support people with these conditions back into work.

Question put and agreed to.