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UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Volume 629: debated on Thursday 12 October 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Stephenson.)

I wish to start by reading out a quote from journalist Frances Ryan:

“When the ‘most vulnerable citizens’ line is used by well-meaning voices, there’s a secret second sentence that’s rarely uttered: disabled people, truth be told, do not need to be vulnerable. Contrary to the myth sold by years of austerity, to be afraid, desperate or isolated is not a normal state of affairs for people with disabilities. Vulnerability comes when politicians choose to pull the support disabled people need in order to live dignified, fulfilling, independent lives—knowing full well the misery it will cause.”

The clarity of her writing is matched by the clarity of her thought.

We have failed people who have disabilities. Our attitude seems to be that disabled people only need to get up, and be washed, dressed and fed, and then nothing else matters—nothing about quality of life, social interaction, cultural activities or anything else that makes us human; just the basics of survival. Even there we are failing them. Leonard Cheshire last year produced research showing that half the disabled adults in the UK who need social care are living without any help at all, which is leaving them isolated, trapped at home, and unable to be part of society. That is our fault.

I will avoid reciting a list of cases of utter desperation involving people who come to my surgery on a regular basis, and I am sure every Member here can reel off, with little effort, a dozen cases that illustrate the damage to individuals caused by the Government’s policies, how austerity has stripped away dignity, and how an uncaring lead from Whitehall has left uncaring followers in its wake. I have no doubt—

In a moment.

I have no doubt that the Minister could add to the lament were she so minded. This river of human misery should shame the Government and every legislator who stands in this Chamber, but it does not. Instead, the atmosphere of persecution creates fear and distrust, leaving people isolated and alone, which is a form of psychological damage that may be even more cruel than the physical damage.

This week, we noted World Mental Health Day. One of the biggest contributors to stress and mental ill health is poverty and the desperation brought about by the changes my hon. Friend is describing.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is another thing about which we have heard just too much in our surgeries in recent years. Unfortunately, there is no sign of it ending. Two of the three disability premiums that were included under employment and support allowance are missing from universal credit, so severely disabled people could lose £78.35 per week—around £340 a month—from their income. Research carried out by the citizens advice bureau in East Lothian showed that disabled recipients of universal credit will lose up to a fifth of their income.

Against that background, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reported in August on the progress that the UK has made towards fulfilling its obligations under the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. It is fair to say that the committee was not complimentary to the UK Government. It praised the Scottish Government and gave some praise to the Welsh Government, but it did not feel able to say much in favour of the UK Government’s efforts. I really hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that there will be better news in future reports.

The United Nations report criticised the austerity fetish, condemned the cuts to funding offered to people with disabilities for independent living and called on the Government to backtrack. The tally of the committee’s recommendations for the UK exceeded 80 and covered a huge range of areas in which we have simply failed people with disabilities, in which Parliament has not protected them and in which the Government have assaulted them. It is, as the chairperson of the UN committee said, a human catastrophe. The Government have totally neglected people with disabilities.

At the end of last year, the same UN committee said that UK Government policies and cuts amounted to systematic violations of the rights of people with disabilities. The Government’s response appears to have rested on saying that the committee misunderstood and that they were improving and building on the support available to disabled people. I hope that the Minister will offer us a little more than that today.

The Government have not acted on the previous report from the committee, so I hope we get some commitment to action on the most recent one. I am not asking for an answer to every point in the committee’s report—I am sure that a team of civil servants is already working on that and that responses will come in due course—but I would like an indication of whether the Minister and the Department intend to press ahead with addressing the concerns raised by the UN.

The UK is going backwards in respect of far too many critical rights for people with disabilities. The concluding observations in the committee’s report contained probably the highest number of recommendations from the committee for any state so far. I appreciate that it is a bit difficult to turn a Government around to point in a different direction, especially when so many senior members of that Government seem to have other things on their minds, but will the Minister give a commitment that she will at least work towards addressing all the committee’s recommendations? I hope that she will be able to give such a commitment and that she will apply some honest endeavour to get her colleagues in government to pay some attention to the issues. Will she give us that commitment that she will seek to address each and every one of the recommendations?

Will the Minister also give us a commitment that she will include deaf and disabled people’s organisations in the work to address the recommendations—and I mean fully, not just a quick consultation and then carrying on regardless? Will she have the DDPOs in the room, as part of the process and a fully functioning part of her efforts, as recommended by paragraph 53 of the report?

My hon. Friend is right to mention deaf people’s experience of disability living allowance and personal independence payments. Action on Hearing Loss has a base in my constituency. When it set up a welfare rights service for deaf people, it found that many were getting absolutely no support whatsoever. They could not access the online service or the phone service, so they got nothing.

My hon. Friend makes an important and rather sad point.

I understand that the definition of DDPO is one where the management committee or board has at least 75% of representation from deaf and disabled people; where at least 50% of its paid staff team are deaf and disabled people, with representation at all levels of the organisation; and where it provides services for, or works on behalf of, deaf and disabled people. Disability charities are not necessarily DPPOs and DPPOs are not necessarily all geared up to work easily with the Government, but will the Minister give a commitment to reach out to them and invite them to the table? That is, after all, one of the recommendations.

I am sure that it has not escaped Whitehall’s notice that there is a recommendation in the report that organisations representing persons with disabilities should be adequately funded. Perhaps that could be addressed early to ensure that the DPPOs can adequately resource their involvement in the Government’s planning.

I do not intend to cover every recommendation—there simply is not the time today—but it might be worth looking at paragraph 25, which indicates that the Government should improve accessibility standards. I remind the Minister that this is Guide Dogs Week and ask whether she might take into account the needs of guide dog users who would like pavement parking to be banned and audio announcements on buses so that they can know where they are. They would also like disability equality training to be provided to public transport providers, including taxi drivers and minicab drivers, along the lines of the training being introduced by the Scottish Government. Will any of that be possible?

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. At the moment, she is emphasising the importance of accessibility rights. Is she aware that the former Paralympian, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, has said that leaving the European Union will prevent British people with disabilities benefiting from upcoming EU legislation on accessibility? Does she agree that we need to be conscious of the fact that EU law has often filled in the gaps in disability protections in the United Kingdom?

My hon. and learned Friend makes an excellent point. That is certainly an issue of great concern to a large number of organisations that work on behalf of disabled people.

The UN committee also recommends putting in place a proper employment programme for people with disabilities to create decent work opportunities on equal pay scales. Will the Minister tell us that that will happen and assure us that the Government do not intend to change the minimum wage legislation in a way that will disadvantage people with disabilities? Will she clarify the Government’s position on maintaining the same minimum wage for people with disabilities as for other people? I wish there was time to go through all the recommendations, to address each and every one of the points, and to get to the bottom of each of the issues raised in the report. I feel, however, that there may be more benefit in allowing the Minister plenty of time to respond to the points that are being raised, and we can revisit the issues at a later date.

May I make a few final points to which I hope that the Minister will respond? These few are, I think, the most important of all and I would be grateful if the Minister gave them special attention. Paragraph 59 of the report calls for the Personal Independence Payment (Amendment) Regulations 2017 to be repealed. Will she commit the Government to that?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. I know that she is an assiduous constituency MP. Like me, has she found that a number of her constituents who had a lifetime award for disability living allowance, but are now transitioned to PIP, have been, following an assessment, suddenly found fit for work?

As I said at the beginning of my speech, these situations are all too common to us all as constituency MPs. I hope that the Minister is listening closely to some of these examples and that she will take action.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her full and extensive contribution. Does she agree that the UN report gave hope to many disabled people who felt that they were not being listened to and that, by not coming to the House to give a full statement, the Government have lost an opportunity to show that they are listening to the needs of disabled people?

I absolutely agree. That was why I decided to apply for this debate. The report is very important and all its recommendations demand an answer from the Minister. Our time today is limited, but I hope that there will be an opportunity for more of the recommendations to be addressed.

Paragraph 59 of the report also calls for a cumulative impact assessment of all the changes to support for people with disabilities. That is very important, so will the Minister commit to doing that? The same paragraph calls for a review of the conditionality and sanction regimes and for the Government to tackle the negative consequences of those regimes. Will she commit to doing that? It also calls for a support framework that recognises the many additional costs that come with disabilities. Will she commit to putting that in place?

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Stephenson.)

I appreciate that the Minister is a member of a Government for which austerity has become a fixation, elevated to some high regard approaching a theology. Some of her ministerial colleagues have, at times, shown what can only be described as a callous disregard for the welfare of people with disabilities, but I am prepared to accept that she stands at the Dispatch Box in good faith. Will she undertake to Members of Parliament and, more importantly, to our constituents to seek a fair deal for people with disabilities—a deal that recognises the additional costs and strains on life that come with those disabilities? Can I tell constituents who have asked about this matter that the Minister with responsibility for their welfare is seeking to fulfil the obligations laid on her by the convention, and can I tell them that she wants them to be part of the process? What commitments will she give today?

I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for securing the debate and colleagues who have contributed. She raised a number of points, largely on the domestic agenda, which I will go through in detail. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has also raised a number of issues in the wake of the report. All the issues raised by the commission and the hon. Lady are important and legitimate, and I will take them each in turn. I also want separately to address the UN process and why its credibility is so important, particularly to me personally, as the hon. Lady placed great weight on that and on me in her speech.

We are committed to the convention and to the progressive realisation of the rights for disabled people that it sets out. The UK supported the development of the convention and was one of the first countries to sign it and ratify it. We are one of the few nations that has also ratified the convention’s optional protocol, which allows individual complaints to be raised and permits the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to investigate alleged violations of the convention. For this reason, it would be quite wrong to conclude that time spent in scrutiny of a particular nation is an indication of its standing in the world on these matters. The fact is that we allow the UN to do this.

We enable our nation’s record to be examined and the full participation in that by civil society. That is a credit to the UK and an example that I hope other nations will follow. It is also a sign of our commitment to this agenda. To pretend otherwise undermines the UN’s processes and core aims, particularly those of promoting social progress and human rights. Globally, disabled people have often been the last to have those aims focused on them. They are the most discriminated against and face the greatest obstacles to reaching their full potential.

The Minister and I have previously discussed a case where a gentleman in my constituency with complex post-traumatic stress disorder was treated really quite poorly. One of the areas where people are really suffering is under PIP, and it is simply by design. Will she commit to looking at that? We talk about parity of esteem, but it does not exist in PIP.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and perhaps I can just digress to answer it. From memory, in the case that she raised on the Floor of the House, she alleged some unacceptable behaviour by one of our call assistants. In any case that any hon. Member raises with me, I will investigate fully. I obtained a transcript of the conversation, and it was absolutely not the case that what was alleged to have occurred did. I do not in any way criticise the hon. Lady, because she had this third hand, and she was quite right to raise the concerns that she did. However, where hon. Members raise issues with me as the Minister or with any of the Department for Work and Pensions team, we will investigate them fully, and any unacceptable behaviour will be dealt with.

Does the Minister not recognise that, with the obsession with mobility, PIP does not recognise mental ill health? It gives far too much weight to those with a physical disability. Therefore, there simply is not parity of esteem.

I will happily come to the mental health issue later, but, as hon. Members will be aware, PIP is a better benefit by quite a dramatic degree for those who have a mental health condition, when we look at the number of those with a mental health condition who are on the highest rates of the daily living and mobility components of PIP and compare that with DLA. Let me make some progress, but I will come back to mental health.

With your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to set out briefly why this agenda and particularly the international agenda are so important to me. Twenty-six years ago, I worked in the hospitals and orphanages of post-revolutionary Romania, in what could only be described as medieval conditions. Most of the children in my care were disabled and all were neglected, to the point that some 14-year-olds were still being bottle-fed, half had HIV, and many had been deliberately infected and had had medicine withheld to hasten their end. Some 50% were babies with a 12% chance of making it to adulthood.

Two things stuck out for me from that experience. First, in that socialist republic, villagers who lived only a few hundred metres from those children had no caring thoughts towards them and could not understand why aid workers had come to assist them. Secondly, with the exception of the occasional visit from a healthcare professional from one of the Scandinavian nations, all the aid workers were British.

Today, I am part of a Government who, in their international aid efforts, have prioritised the 15% of the world’s population living with a disability. This agenda is the most under-prioritised and under-resourced in development. We want to establish the UK as a global leader in this field and to build on our experience and projects in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Nepal, Burma, the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, and elsewhere in the world.

In 2014, the Department for International Development published the disability framework, with the objective of ensuring that people with disabilities are systematically included in, and benefit from, international development and humanitarian assistance. The following year, the framework was revised to include an enhanced focus on economic empowerment; jobs and livelihoods; tackling stigma and discrimination; and expanding the work on mental health. In addition, DFID is setting out to be a global authority on disability data. The UK can also boast of being the home of the Global Disability Innovation Hub. The inquiries that come to me from my opposite numbers around the world are not about how to stage the Paralympics, but about how to set up welfare systems and improve accessibility, employment and representation.

As I turn to the domestic agenda, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith focused on, I want to emphasise that I am keen to promote what we are doing because it is a catalyst for change elsewhere in the world. We have shown what can be done to facilitate disabled access, both physical and service-based, and how that can be achieved in co-operation with business and the third sector. Our work promotes change elsewhere in the world, which is why we would like the UN to recognise what we have been doing.

We have already responded to many concerns raised by the UN committee that oversees the convention through our published written response and during a face-to-face dialogue with the committee, and that is the standard reporting process for all conventions. We were active in promoting the review process with civil society, and we were extremely pleased to note how engaged they were with this process. I will set out our long-term reporting plans shortly.

The immediate next step will be a response to correct some of the factual inaccuracies in the UN report. In line with the convention, disability is mainstreamed. Every Department is responsible for considering disability in the development and implementation of its policies. That responsibility is made clear through the legislative duties placed on all public bodies by the public sector equality duty in the Equality Act 2010 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. As a general principle, we do not incorporate international treaties into domestic law. However, the UK Equality Act 2010 enshrines the right of people in Great Britain with any of nine protected characteristics to live free from discrimination, harassment or victimisation, and have equal opportunities in domestic law.

The UK has a long-standing tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically and of fulfilling our international obligations. The decision to leave the European Union does not change that: in fact, it affords us the opportunity to enhance that agenda. It is perhaps more important to focus on how the Equality Act and other legislation, such as the Care Act 2014, are enforced. Hon. Members will know that that has been a focus for the Office for Disability Issues under my tenure.

I turn to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith and by the EHRC, including the claim that some of the Equality Act provisions applicable to Great Britain are not in force. We take note of the concerns about those provisions and we regularly review the scope for introducing further provision, including the duty to make reasonable adjustments to common parts of rented properties, as the Minister for Equalities promised the Lords Equality Act 2010 and Disability Committee we would. We are looking at the implementation of the requirement for political parties to publish diversity data. We will report back to Parliament in due course on all those issues.

The EHRC also raised the issue of Northern Ireland currently providing weaker protection than other areas in the UK. The Northern Ireland Executive’s draft programme for Government 2016-21 includes a proposal to amend the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to increase statutory protection for disabled people, and that remains subject to review and approval by future Ministers and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I hope that that will be progressed.

The EHRC also called for a co-ordinated, UK-wide action plan to implement the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which the hon. Lady also mentioned. The Office for Disability Issues is currently reflecting on how we take this work forward, and we are carefully considering our approach, which we will discuss with stakeholders in due course. I can give the hon. Lady assurances that I am keen to use the process that we go through with the UN to help to speed up progress on a range of issues. We will report on that in due course.

The UK has some of the strongest legislation in the world to protect the human rights of disabled people. Current OECD data puts the UK’s public spending on supporting disability above all G7 countries bar one. Disability benefits spending will be higher than in 2010 for every year until 2020 and is currently at a record high.

The hon. Lady raised concerns about PIP and mental health, in particular. We will respond shortly to Paul Gray’s second review of PIP. The House does not have long to wait before we publish that and, as part of that, we undertook to look in particular at mental health, in part because of the issues raised here and in the other place about those regulations. If she will bear with me, she will not have long to wait on that.

The Department has also undertaken work on conditionality and sanctions, initially looking at those with a mental health condition. We will make announcements on that shortly, but I am not able to do so this evening. We have also been recruiting to set up user rep panels for ESA and PIP. I very much agree with what the hon. Lady says about not just occasionally consulting, but embedding the opportunities for disabled people to shape, continually and in real time, improvements that we want to make to the welfare system and other areas, and to inform proactively any future reform that we may wish to undertake.

Last year, we launched “Improving Lives: The Work, Health and Disability Green Paper” and the associated consultation. With more than 6,000 responses, we successfully sparked a national discussion on how better to support people with disabilities and health conditions to get into, stay in and progress through work. We are carefully considering the responses and our next steps for longer-term reform, which we will set out this autumn. Our goal is to get a million more disabled people into work, so that more talent is utilised and more people can reach their full potential.

I can tell the hon. Lady that there are no plans to amend minimum wage legislation. The employment rate for people with learning disabilities is less than 6%. Given the right vocational education and independent living support, that could rise to 86%. That is what we should be concentrating on if we want to assist those people into the workplace. Whether someone has a learning disability or not, if they work a day, they should be paid for a day.

The issues concerning deaf and hearing impaired people have been raised in a couple of interventions. The needs of those people have been a particular focus, especially in the health and work Green Paper. The issue of guide dogs and assistance dogs was raised. As it is Guide Dogs Week, the Office for Disability Issues has led a project working with all assistance dog charities with a view to reducing the waiting time that people may face to get one of those vital dogs and with the aim of agreeing a national standard to enable them to use their resources better.

In our work with the joint Health and Work Unit, we are looking at opportunities to ensure that disabled people’s organisations are at the heart of shaping, evaluating and setting the agenda for the kind of employment support we should be providing. Many of the things that we have been doing chime with what the hon. Lady has on her wish list.

The agenda is much wider than that, however. In February, my Department announced 11 new sector champions, who will help to tackle the issues faced by disabled people as consumers. These champions represent a range of sectors and business areas—from banking to aviation and from sport to retail. They are using their influence to drive improvements in accessibility and the quality of services and facilities within their sector. I pay tribute to them for their outstanding work.

Through initiatives run by the ODI, we are harnessing the power of technology, with new opportunities to enforce the Equality Act better and to improve accessibility. There is much more I could say about the work of the ODI and the Government on tackling hate crime; on building regulations and housing; on the provision of critical facilities, such as changing places and loos, on which we are in discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government; on tackling the extra costs of disability; on changes to education and extending opportunity; and on the additional provisions of the Equality Act that are coming in and which we wish to bring into force.

As we develop our UN reporting process, I hope that further engagement on these issues will be possible with colleagues in this place and the other place. I hope that the UN will recognise not just the progress that the UK has made—and is making—and our ambitions on this agenda, but our humanitarian desire to help other nations to achieve more. I know the difference that the UK makes in many of the DFID-run projects that it has been my privilege to have seen, as it did 26 years earlier in the former eastern bloc. The UN’s support is not a necessary condition for our success, but it would be welcome and helpful.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.