I beg to move,
That this House has considered UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
I am pleased to say that the broadcast of this debate is also available in British Sign Language, which is a first. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate, and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for their support as co-sponsors of it.
The UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities falls on 3 December, during Disability History Month. I use the term “disabled people” as opposed to “persons with disabilities” because I am a firm advocate of the social model of disability; it is the disabling barriers in society that limit opportunities and prevent full and equal participation.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. The public sector equality duty requires public authorities to consider the impact of their policies on people with protected characteristics, such as disabilities, at the policy development stage. Does she share the concern that this could be used merely as a box-ticking exercise and that Ministers should look at ways of making these considerations more naturally ingrained in processes?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. These exercises should never be seen as just ticking a box; they should have meaningful value.
The day is an opportunity to celebrate the advancements and achievements of disabled people. For example, the purple pound shows the contributions we make to our society. For decades, there have been many moments of celebration for many of the achievements we have made. In just the last year, we saw Rose Ayling-Ellis winning “Strictly” and the annual “Disability Power 100” list featuring many people across different sectors. Just yesterday, we had the first disabled person to join the European Space Agency’s astronaut program.
The day also presents an opportunity to highlight the many barriers that still exist in society and to redouble our efforts to protect and promote the human and civil rights of disabled people. It was the last Labour Government who signed up to the UN convention that aims to eliminate discrimination, to enable disabled people to live independently and to protect against all forms of violence, abuse and exploitation. Sadly, 13 years later, the convention is yet to be fully incorporated into UK law.
Some 669 people contributed to this debate by sharing their experiences, which demonstrates just how important it is. I thank each and every one of them, and acknowledge their moving, thoughtful and detailed contributions, which have helped me to prepare for today. It is important to recognise that for many respondents, 60% of whom are disabled, completing a survey like this may have taken a lot of time and effort, not to mention emotional energy. I also thank deaf and disabled people across the country, people such as Ellen Clifford, as well as the Disabled People’s Organisations forum and charities including Disability Rights UK, Scope and the Royal National Institute of Blind People, along with the many others who have provided invaluable input.
There are 14 million disabled people in the UK and a further 6 million carers. They are represented by Members across the House. An accessible, inclusive and equitable society is what we all are striving for. However, discrimination, social barriers and Government policies have significantly limited disabled people’s ability to participate fully and independently. I will briefly outline just some of those areas.
To begin with, we have the disability employment gap, which has remained stubbornly around the 30% mark for more than a decade. TUC research also shows that the disability pay gap is over 70% and gender exacerbates it. It is clear that societal barriers preventing many from accessing good-quality work still exist. We all agree that everyone deserves to live in safe, decent, warm and affordable housing, yet only 9% of housing stock is accessible and disabled people are significantly more likely to live in unsafe accommodation. That is why I have been calling on the Government to implement the recommendation from the Grenfell inquiry that would mandate landlords to prepare personal emergency evacuation plans, or PEEPs, for disabled people living in high-rise blocks.
Too often, disabled people continue to face barriers when travelling, whether because of floating bus stops, cuts to bus services, inaccessible rail stations or the closure of many ticket offices. Those barriers continue to hamper the ability of disabled people to travel independently.
The pandemic shone a light on the stark health inequalities and barriers. Nearly 60% of covid deaths were of disabled people or those with a long-term health condition. There was also the horrific blanket application of “do not attempt resuscitation” notices during the early part of the pandemic. In last week’s autumn statement, the Government decided to shelve their social care reforms and delay the introduction of the social care cap. A third of working-age disabled people rely on that social care cap, and many of them are in social care charge debt.
Disabled people have been disproportionately affected by Government cuts, and there is mounting evidence that real-terms reductions in health and social care spending since 2010 may have led to thousands of excess deaths among disabled people. The Disability Benefits Consortium found that disabled people were more adversely affected by cuts to social security as a result of the conditionality regime. There is also the unfit-for-purpose assessment framework. The Government spent over £120 million fighting personal independence payment and employment and support allowance appeals between 2017 and 2019, but 70% of PIP and 57% of ESA tribunals resulted in successful outcomes, which demonstrates that there is something wrong with the framework and with decision making.
Just recently, the Information Commissioner ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions unlawfully breached the Freedom of Information Act by preventing the release of internal process review reports into the deaths of at least 20 social security benefit claimants. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will shed light on when the Government will publish the report. It is clear that the Government do not want to publish it, as it shows the negative impact that some of their policies have had on people claiming social security. We all must remember the premise of social security: it is there as a safety net, to support those in need. Four million disabled people are living in poverty, and the current economic emergency will only worsen these inequalities, as some face extra costs of around £600 a month.
Many Members know of my experience and that, before coming to this place, I worked in the disability rights movement. I can safely say that the last 12 to 13 years of the hostile environment and cuts have resulted in an assault on disabled people’s civil and human rights, which has had a devastating impact. This is evidenced by the UK becoming the first nation state to face an investigation under the convention for its violations of disabled people’s human rights. The Government’s national disability strategy published last year was also ruled unlawful. Many of us did not believe that it was credible in the first place. This speaks to the wider issue that the Government must take heed of the mantra, “Nothing about us without us” and commit to co-producing and co-creating policies with deaf and disabled people.
I hope that the Minister will address some of the points I have raised but also some of the following points. First, why have the Government not committed to full incorporation of the convention? It has been 13 years. Hate crime against disabled people rose by 43% in the year ending March 2022, so why do the Government refuse to follow the Law Commission’s recommendation and Labour’s policy to make sure that disability is classed as an aggravated offence, which would ensure that everybody is treated equally under the law? If they are serious about getting people into work, why will they not commit to mandatory disability pay gap reporting, as the Labour party has?
The Access to Work scheme has the potential to be one of the best forms of employment support. I have been a recipient of it in the past, as have many others, but I believe it could be enhanced by removing the support cap and creating a more streamlined process that also includes portable passports. Will the Government commit to doing that?
I turn to the Disability Confident scheme—or, as I sometimes choose to call it, the “not so confident” scheme. We need to have confidence in this scheme. Currently, it does not make it mandatory for anyone found to be a Disability Confident employer to actually employ any disabled people. Will the Government commit to introducing independent evaluation, monitoring and quality controls, so that the scheme can be given the credibility it needs for people to want to be part of it?
In this economic crisis, with inflation at a 40-year high, the additional £150 disability cost of living payment announced in the statement last week is clearly not enough. We need to understand what additional targeted support will be available to people. With winter fast approaching, when will these cost of living payments actually be made? Will the Government consider reversing the eligibility criteria for the warm home discount scheme, which saw over 300,000 disabled people moved out of the scheme as they no longer qualify?
I want to end by remembering two former colleagues and friends who passed away recently. The first is the fearless Seán McGovern, who was a staunch disability rights campaigner and a strong trade union champion for disabled people’s rights. He was a mentor to me, and it was him who encouraged me to put myself forward for public office. But for his continued encouragement and support, I might not have been here today. I also pay tribute to the late Roger Lewis, who passed away just this week from bowel cancer. He was a strong supporter, and he changed and touched the lives of so many disabled people, so many deaf people, and so many blind and partially-sighted people. He was totally blind, but that never stopped him being a champion and an advocate for the rights of disabled people. Our movement is poorer without them.
As we go forward to mark the UN international day of disabled people, let us also remember the amazing achievements that so many of us continue to make, while also recognising the many challenges and barriers that we must overcome to create the fully inclusive, accessible and equitable society of which we all strive to be a part.
I welcome the initiative that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) has taken in applying for and obtaining this debate. I want to pick up on a number of important points that she made in her excellent speech, but I will begin by commenting on the problem that the Government have over engagement with disabled people.
We know that poverty is particularly focused among families living with disability. That is very clear in the work of the Social Metrics Commission, chaired by the noble Baroness Stroud, who was the special adviser to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) when he was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, so this is not a partisan point at all. Poverty is focused among those families, so it is not surprising that disabled people, from time to time, have cause to criticise the benefits system.
In the last few years, the Department for Work and Pensions has tended to respond to that by pulling up the drawbridge and refusing to talk properly to people, which led to the fiasco of the disability strategy to which my hon. Friend referred. It was launched with some fanfare in July last year but declared unlawful in January this year because of the failure to consult disabled people. As far as I know, it is still languishing—stuck and going nowhere—as a consequence.
The Social Security Advisory Committee is appointed by the Government and made up of experts, not politicians. It is chaired by Stephen Brien, who was one of the original architects, with the Centre for Social Justice, of universal credit. The committee produced a useful paper in December 2020 called, “How DWP involves disabled people when developing or evaluating programmes that affect them”—a slightly long-winded title, but it is clear what it is about. It says:
“DWP officials themselves acknowledge that the Department is not trusted by many disabled people and by some of the organisations who are led by, or work with, disabled people. Our own research confirmed this. Some of the individuals we spoke to did not believe that the Department engaged with disabled people’s organisations or sought views from individual disabled people. There was also a widespread belief that DWP would not represent accurately disabled people’s views when they did seek them.”
The committee therefore recommended that:
“DWP should develop a clear protocol for engagement…It should cover both national and local engagement”.
That is a clear, straightforward, constructive and helpful suggestion to try to overcome that serious problem, but the Department’s response was simply to reject the recommendation.
The committee also recommended that the Department should routinely report on its engagement with disabled people, but the Department rejected that as well. It said:
“We believe that our existing reporting provides sufficient information on our engagement with disabled people and stake- holders.”
I must say, however, that that is not the view of disabled people, as a Conservative Member of the House of Lords, Lord Shinkwin, told the Work and Pensions Committee that
“the DWP is handling its engagement with disabled people badly”
and, he said, with “palpable disrespect”. We now know that it is not the view of the courts either, hence the fiasco over the disability strategy.
The Department commissioned a report from a respected external agency to investigate disabled people’s experiences of the benefits system. It talked to a large number of disabled people in carrying out that research. When asking if they would take part in the study, it told each of them that the results would be published. When Ministers saw the report, however, they decided not to publish it, which is a clear breach of the cross-Government protocol on social research that requires such documents to be published. The Select Committee used its powers to obtain a copy of the report from its authors and published it, so that it reached the public domain.
It is true, of course, that being open about criticisms and difficulties exposes Ministers to awkward questions, but refusing open discussion and trying to keep things secret or keep a lid on them does far more damage than letting such debates take place in the open. I warmly welcome the new Minister and his colleagues in the ministerial team to their posts and I hope that they will take the opportunity to have a fresh look at how they deal with, talk to and engage with disabled people and their organisations. The practice of the team led by the previous Secretary of State was unnecessarily disastrous—there was no need to try to hide all those things. It would have been far less damaging to be open and to, yes, sometimes have a robust exchange. To try to keep it all hidden was very damaging and counterproductive.
As a first step, we have been told by the Department that it will not publish the number of work capability assessments that it carries out each month—I have no idea why; it is absolutely basic and fundamental data. I suppose the reason is that, if people know how many are being carried out, they can ask awkward questions about what is going on. That is another example of that damaging and counterproductive attempt to bury what is really happening.
I am sorry that I came late to the debate; I was delayed in traffic after another meeting. I remind my right hon. Friend that some of the concerns expressed by disabled organisations over the years commenced largely around the WCAs. I remember that he, I and several other hon. Members simply asked the DWP whether it was monitoring, for example, the consequences and impact of WCAs on certain vulnerable people and the suicides that were taking place. It denied us that knowledge at the time, so it is understandable that a number of disability organisations are sceptical about its role.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct that this has quite a long history, but my sense is that it has got considerably worse in the last few years and the Department has stopped publishing things that obviously should be published and answering perfectly reasonable questions. As a result, it has badly damaged its reputation with disabled people. I hope that the new ministerial team will want to rebuild those links and rebuild trust.
My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea made some important points about the disability employment gap, which has increased in the last two quarters. Many disabled people would like to work but cannot. The pandemic has had a damaging impact, because since then, there has been a steep rise in the number of people who are out of work on health grounds. We urgently need to be able to support disabled people who would like to work into jobs, because that is one of the key ways to tackle the current labour shortage. We can take advantage of that big opportunity.
In July last year, the Select Committee published its report on the disability employment gap. Shortly before the 2015 general election, David Cameron announced a target to halve the disability employment gap, but the target was scrapped shortly after that general election. We want it reinstated. Our report called for a radical overhaul of employment support for disabled people. The big national Work and Health programme is helpful but it is not working for many people. The truth is that, as we can all recognise, smaller specialist providers are often best placed to deliver the help that is needed. People have to be on the ground locally to know who can do the best job; that kind of support cannot be commissioned from Whitehall.
We proposed that funding for this employment support should be devolved. Where the capacity exists, we want groups of local authorities, probably based on the new NHS integrated care system boundaries, to be responsible for commissioning and delivering employment support for disabled people. The Department should allocate funding, monitor performance and publish detailed comparative performance data, but it should not deliver the support, which should be closely integrated with the local health service, colleges and voluntary sector groups. In its response to our report, the Department did not reject that idea, but it has not moved in that direction at all since; I hope that it will.
My hon. Friend was right about Access to Work, which is vital to overcoming work-related obstacles resulting from disability. It is a lifeline for many, but it is not well enough known. Many employers do not know about it and it is dogged, as she said, by a bureaucratic and extraordinarily cumbersome application process that puts people off and leaves many in limbo. Once they have applied, they sometimes have to wait for quite a long time to find out what support they will receive. If somebody benefits from Access to Work in one job and then changes job, they have to go back to square one. There should be a passporting arrangement, as my hon. Friend argued. If they apply for a new job at the moment, their potential new employer cannot be certain what, if any, help Access to Work will provide.
The Minister’s predecessor told the Select Committee about a planned “digital transformation” for Access to Work, which I hope will address those obvious failings, and I hope the Department will involve disabled people themselves in the redesign of the Access to Work programme. I would be particularly grateful if the Minister, in winding up, could give us an update on the progress of that initiative.
The right hon. Member is making some powerful points. Does he agree that, where there is a cap on individual benefits through the Access to Work scheme, that stops some people getting everything they deserve, while money for that purpose is left lying in other pools?
The hon. Lady is right and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea made that point as well. I think that is unhelpful and should be removed.
We also called in our report for larger employers to be required to publish the proportion of their employees who are disabled, and my hon. Friend referred, rightly, to disability pay gap reporting. Like her, the Select Committee thinks it is high time for a rigorous evaluation of the well-intentioned Disability Confident scheme.
For our current inquiry, we conducted a survey of personal independence payment and employment and support allowance claimants. My hon. Friend referred to the experiences of some of those applicants. We are going to publish our report from that inquiry soon, but it was striking how many respondents to that survey said the assessments had damaged their mental health. In describing the assessments, many respondents said that they were humiliating, undignified or even, in some cases, traumatic. There is a serious PIP application backlog at the moment.
My right hon. Friend is making an interesting point about the negative and long-lasting impact that the assessment frameworks for employment and support allowance and PIP are having. Does he agree that now is the time to overhaul those assessment frameworks to something that is co-created with disabled people, is less intrusive and focuses on providing the essential support and extra costs of living support that are needed?
I agree. There is a big job to be done, and involving disabled people in doing it would be an important part of the solution.
There is also an industrial injuries disablement benefit backlog at the moment. It remains the case, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, that when people appeal against an adverse PIP decision, the great majority win their appeal, which shows pretty clearly that there is something going badly wrong.
The Department did introduce some welcome, imaginative flexibility in assessments during the pandemic. I pay tribute to those who came up with some new ways of doing things—telephone and video assessments—when obviously the old ways could not be applied during the pandemic, and who took advantage of those long term. It is important to maintain flexibility. For some people, being able to be assessed at home over the telephone or via a video link avoids enormous distress and is a real boon, but for others it is important to be able to talk about their impairment face to face and they are happy to travel to an assessment centre to do so. I do not think there is a single solution here, but I think the flexibility that has been introduced of late will be valuable.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission is in negotiation with the Department on a section 23 agreement over the protection of vulnerable claimants, arising from grave concern, which we have heard about already, about claimants who have been badly treated by the Department too often having lost their benefits or being sanctioned when the issue was, for example, a known and serious mental health problem. Too many benefit claimants, as we have been reminded, have taken their lives in these circumstances. So I welcome the initiative that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has taken, and very much hope that the section 23 agreement will be concluded and published soon.
The new ministerial team has the chance to establish a new, much more positive relationship with disabled people, based on openness in place of defensiveness. In welcoming the new Minister to his post, I urge him to take that opportunity.
Can I first say a big thank you to the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for setting the scene so very well? I was very pleased to go to the Backbench Business Committee with her and others to request this debate because it is an important debate. I feel particularly strongly about it. I am happy to be in the Chamber today to seek support along the lines that the hon. Lady and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) referred to, because it is important to debate this issue.
In her introduction, the hon. Lady referred to Roger Lewis and said that he was the encouragement for her to be here. I would just say honestly to her and everyone here that that is a man who has blessed us with her presence. We are very pleased that he was able to encourage her, and that we as a result have the benefit of the powers she clearly has.
I am a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on eye health and visual impairment, which is for eyesight and eye care. The hon. Lady leads it, and she leads it well. Yesterday, she was not able to be there and asked me to substitute. I said to all those around that she could do it much better than me and I would never be able to chair the meetings as well as her and, yesterday, I think everyone recognised that.
The hon. Lady is most kind, and I hope that was the case.
I am pleased to be here to speak. I am also a vice-chair—in this place, I chair many APPGs and I am vice-chair of numerous others—of the APPG on disability. So it is always great to be here to promote the rights and wellbeing of those with disabilities and their contribution to all aspects of our society—educationally, socially, culturally and politically. As my party’s health spokesperson, I will always stand up for those with disabilities, because I want to see a society—I think the Minister would want to see such a society as well; I think we all do in this House, to be fair—that recognises achievement and ability, and does not look down upon somebody who just happens to have a disability, which I find disappointing for some of the people we meet in life, and we do meet them regularly.
It is always good to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), in her place—I know she is a lady of great experience and capability, so we look forward to her contribution—and also the spokesperson for the Scots nats party, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who is always here whenever we have such debates. I welcome the Minister to his place and I look forward to the answers that we seek today. I think that these are open door requests—I really believe that—and that it is hard to say no to the requests that we are making on behalf of those who are disabled, so we look forward to the Minister’s contribution.
The latest estimates from the family resources survey indicate that 14.6 million people in the UK had a disability in the 2020-21 financial year. That represents some 22% of the total population, and one in five—one in five —of the population in Northern Ireland. So it is important to remember the range of disabilities and impairments that people suffer with. Some are not visible—for instance, autism or bipolar disorder. I am not smarter than anybody else, but I understand these things because of my direct contact with my constituents. A large proportion of constituents come to see us about disability issues. Some are not noticeable—for instance, fibromyalgia. We cannot see that in the hands when constituents come in and present themselves, but they can tell us about it and about just how bad that is for many of them. It features in almost every one of the applications for personal independence payments that I do in my office. Again, I am not an expert—far from it—but I do understand. Regardless of that, we have continued to ask for respect for how someone’s disability impacts their daily life. I want disabled people to be recognised for their ability and achievement, not for their disability.
One of my staff members deals specifically with benefit queries in my office, whether that be disability living allowance, children’s DLA, PIP, income support or ESA—the most prominent forms of benefit claimed. We never truly know how different disabilities can affect one’s mobility and getting around. My staff member does that five days a week and does nothing else but benefits. That gives an idea of the magnitude of the issue. As a physically active Member of Parliament, I fill in the application forms as well. That gives us an understanding of the benefit and how to deal with it. It gives me an understanding of how life at present is so different.
The RNIB, which the hon. Member for Battersea referred to, is important. It has referred to the energy price and food price increases. While we who are able-bodied in this Chamber are able to budget and cut the cloth accordingly, many people who are disabled do not have that ability. I will ask this later again, but what can be done to help people who have disabilities in particular when it comes to dealing with those things?
The hon. Lady and the right hon. Member for East Ham referred to tribunal success. In our office, we have a 75% to 80% success rate in the benefit tribunals that we do on all those different benefits. I say this gently, because I understand that people make decisions based on what they have on paper in front of them: sometimes, when you have a face-to-face with a person at a tribunal, you can see things differently. Sometimes the tribunal sees things differently and it also provides a chance to bring forward the medical evidential base to back up the case. Perhaps these things could be done in the process as we go forward. None the less, it is a pleasure to represent people on the things that they need us to do.
On 24 September, the Minister for Communities in Northern Ireland announced that work would begin on a new social inclusion strategy, including a disability strategy that aims to promote positive attitudes towards disabled people and ensure their inclusion in society. I welcome that. It is good to do that. We should be focused on how we can do it better and that we see not the disability but the person and their potential to achieve and do well. That is what I want and what I hope to see. At the end of the day—I say this with respect—those people are human beings, just like everyone else.
The RNIB has been in contact with my office—it has also been in contact with the hon. Member for Battersea and others in the Chamber—and made it clear that the cost of living crisis is becoming increasingly difficult for people with disabilities. It said that more than two thirds of people with disabilities said that their financial situation had gotten worse, and more than a third often go without essentials, such as food and heating, and struggle to make ends meet. I hope the Minister will be able to answer this question: what can we do to assist people with disabilities when it comes to the energy crisis, food price increases and everything in life that seems to be getting more and more expensive? That is a big ask of the Minister.
The hon. Gentleman, as well as the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), mentioned the RNIB and people with a disability with sight. A real concern that many constituents have raised with me is the confidence of some taxi drivers in turning away passengers with guide dogs. Of course, that is illegal, but they struggle to see the consequences of that as it continues to happen. Does he agree that Governments across the UK should be tackling that together and stopping it?
As often, whether it be in the House or in Westminster Hall, the hon. Lady gives us a salient reminder of the issue. Back home, even though it is illegal, as she said, it is still happening in certain parts. I do not understand the logic of it, because those guide dogs are among the best I have seen. Many years ago, the RNIB took me to Hollywood in Northern Ireland, gave me a guide dog and let me walk through the high street with a mask on. I could not see a thing; it was pure darkness. That was one of my better experiences in coming to understand how it is for some. I must say that I did not know the guide dog and it did not know me, but it stuck to my knee and negotiated the whole way down the high street. It is a busy high street with obstructions —people have coffee tables out—and we came to footpaths where I did not know what was going on, but the dog did. That is a fond memory, if I can say that, which has helped me to understand better what it means to be blind and the importance of that understanding.
I feel strongly about encouraging disabled people into education and employment. The most recent labour force survey showed that some 38.9% of people with a disability in Northern Ireland were employed in 2020, compared with 78.4% of people who were not disabled. Wow—that is a big factor to address. We need to squeeze the gap in opportunities for those with a disability and able to work to allow them to stand alongside those who are not disabled.
The hon. Member for Battersea referred to accommodation, which is another issue that regularly comes up in my office. Many times, we have people come in who are on benefits and have mobility issues. They might be in an upstairs flat or a house with stairs, which was okay when they were not disabled, but, as life has progressed, they have become disabled and that property is no longer suitable for them. That is a regular issue, as is people finding themselves in wheelchairs and needing a disabled facilities grant for their home, which in many cases may involve extensive changes to doorways, a ramp to the front of the house and perhaps one to the rear, and a walk-in shower and a bathroom all at a level. Perhaps we need to look at those things as well.
The rate of those with disabilities in employment has incrementally increased, which is a great sign that there is more public encouragement and awareness that people who are disabled are just as capable of doing jobs. Will the Minister outline what steps will be taken to encourage employers to employ those who are disabled? My requests will always be made in a constructive fashion—I mean that—because I look for the answers and the solutions. I know that that is what he wants as well. Many of the disabled people I meet have incredible intelligence and ability. I confess that I am no good at IT, but some of the people I meet are absolutely first-class; nay, with their IT skills they could do a job as well as others or a lot better. What can we do to increase their employment in a way that makes life better for them?
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the disability pay gap. Both previous speakers referred to it. It seems that, for those who are disabled—I say this gently—their time in employment is worth less than anyone else’s. It should not be, so what are we doing to address that? Employers sometimes need to understand that they should look not at the person but at their ability and power to achieve. In 2020, the disability employment gap in Northern Ireland was 42.2 percentage points, compared with 27.9 percentage points in the rest of the UK. That is not the Minister’s direct responsibility, but has he had any opportunity for discussions with his equivalent Minister in Northern Ireland? I know that he will do that. It is always good to share stories and experiences, because sometimes we can learn from things—I always do—and our Ministers can learn from where they have fallen short while things here are better. How can we share those experiences to make things better?
In addition, some disabilities are not recognised as such in the benefit system. For example, endometriosis and asthma have only recently been recognised as disabilities in PIP assessments despite being long or lifetime conditions that disable somebody from everyday tasks. We often have those issues.
There must be a proper consensus in the Department on what a disability is.
Myalgic encephalomyelitis and multiple sclerosis were first brought to my attention many years ago. In those days, doctors often did not quite understand what ME or MS were. I could see clearly from the person and the medical evidence from a consultant that there was a disability, but unfortunately—it is not a criticism; it is about how we move on and learn things—GPs sometimes did not have that understanding. Today, however, MS and ME, whose symptoms include incredible fatigue and pain, are recognised as disabilities.
Not every person who has a disability can work, but at the same time they are not always entitled to benefits. I believe the best way to encourage disabled people into work is to take away stigma, as many disabled people are forced to challenge stereotypes and prejudice when they are looking for work. In the autumn statement, I genuinely welcomed, because it is a positive step, the help for those on benefits trying to get back into work. Many people want to work, and they should be encouraged and helped along that pathway, as long as they are able and can do it, so that was one of the good things that came out of the autumn statement.
Disability inclusion is an essential condition to upholding human rights, sustainable development, and peace and security. People with disabilities are no different from us—I have said it before and I will say it again—and the United Nations disability inclusion strategy, which is part of this debate, provides the foundation for sustainable and transformative progress on disability inclusion through all pillars of the work of the United Nations. We all must work on disability inclusion within our own constituencies, in Strangford and across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in employment, education and society to promote the inclusion of all, and equality and fairness in our modern society. Would it not be wonderful—I always seek wonderful things, and it is not wrong to do so—if disabled people across society could have that as a key part of their employment, education, housing, health and benefits? That is the purpose of today’s debate.
I commend the hon. Member for Battersea and the right hon. Member for East Ham for their contributions. I look forward to others’ contributions, especially the Minister’s. We have set you a long list of asks, Minister. We look forward to the answers.
As ever, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and I truly want to congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) on securing this important debate. I listened with great interest to the contribution from the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms)—I was going to say West Ham, because I am thinking about football the moment. I hope he will forgive me.
The hon. Member for Strangford says I am always appearing in these debates. That is because I am the SNP spokesperson on disabilities, but since I took on that role I have really learned and learned to understand how important it is that we debate these subjects, so even if I cease to be the spokesperson I will still be here, because what we do with regard to people with disabilities, and talking about them, is really important.
It is a privilege to mark the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which falls on 3 December, to promote the rights, dignity and wellbeing of people with disabilities across the globe. Disabled people are key members of society and they make a huge positive impact on the world we live in. That huge impact is embodied by the inspiring story of the former British Paralympian John McFall, who this week became the first disabled astronaut. Isn’t that amazing? I also note that it is Disability History Month, and there are a number of wonderful events taking place across Parliament. I will be speaking in one directly after this debate today, organised by ParliAble. I encourage my fellow parliamentarians to attend some of the events. The people here probably will, but I am sending the message further—furth of the Chamber, as we would say in Scotland—as we celebrate the history of those with disabilities.
In my role as spokesperson, I regularly meet disabled people and disability organisations and would like to pay tribute to those with disabilities and their carers who regularly offer inspiration to me personally. In line with the UN’s commitment to “leave no one behind” as part of its 2030 agenda for sustainable development, the UN has outlined that in moments of crisis it is vulnerable people, such as those with disabilities, who are most often left behind and excluded.
About 1 billion people in the world live with a disability, with 80% of them living in developing countries. There are higher levels of disability among women, the poor and the elderly. The significant cut to the UK Government aid budget has left a £4.6 billion black hole in the budget compared to 2019, resulting in a significant reduction in the number and size of programmes targeted at disabled people. Many disabled people in developing countries will be impacted. For example, in Rwanda 150,000 girls and 50,000 boys, including 8,000 adolescents with disabilities, are no longer able to take part in an education and life skills programme.
The covid-19 pandemic, as we have heard, deepened already pre-existing inequalities in society, and the latest rise in inflation has disproportionately hurt the most vulnerable. That feeling of being left behind is something I have heard from many of the organisations I have met recently, as many disabled people feel left behind by the current Government in response to the ongoing cost of living crisis. The Government’s inadequately targeted measures have done very little to address the concerns of disabled people and their families, who have much higher energy needs. Simply putting on another jumper or taking measures to limit the use of gas and electricity are not feasible possibilities for those living with disabilities. Staying warm is essential for many disabled people, and many risk worsening their condition if they cut corners by not putting the heating on. Likewise, many disabled people cannot cut corners with electricity as they need to charge or power essential life-saving equipment such as ventilators and wheelchairs.
Recently, at a Muscular Dystrophy UK drop-in event in Parliament, I was shown a stark graphic that reinforced that point. A mother of a child with muscular dystrophy showed a picture of the six plugs needed to charge her child’s life-saving equipment at any given time. For disabled people and their families, the choices between charging, heating and eating are impossible. The position this Government are putting the parents of disabled children in is totally unacceptable and devoid of empathy. Those parents are certainly not reaping the rewards of the so-called compassionate conservatism we hear so much about in the Chamber. One example is the recent case of Carolynne and Freya Hunter, which demonstrates the inadequacy of the Government’s targeted support. Carolynne, the mother of Freya, was facing an energy bill of £17,000 to keep Freya’s life-saving equipment running. Fortunately, the actress Kate Winslet most kindly stepped in to cover their bills, but it is unacceptable that society’s most vulnerable in the United Kingdom have to rely on philanthropy and the charitable nature of others to live with dignity.
The UK’s reliance on charity, rather than Government policy, to ensure vulnerable people can survive this current crisis is also demonstrated by the increased use of food banks.The Trussell Trust has released research showing that disabled people are hugely over-represented in food poverty demographics, with 60% of food bank users having a disability. Poverty and disability are often mutually reinforcing and almost half of all disabled people are planning not to turn their heating on, despite the reasons I have given for doing so.
The hon. Lady mentioned an aspect of this. If a family includes a person with a disability, that is a key factor in ensuring that the whole family lives in poverty. I chair a group of unpaid carers and the key issue is the lack of support for unpaid carers and the low level of carer support allowance for them.
I totally agree and thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am hugely impressed and inspired by unpaid carers, many of whom save this country an absolute fortune and get no thanks for their work. I take this opportunity, on behalf of everyone here, to thank them for what they do.
According to Scope, millions of disabled people will be cold, hungry and at risk. Disabled people are “at the sharp end” of this cost of living crisis, and Government support has so far simply not been enough. A one-off cost of living payment to disabled people is an inadequate form of support.
However, disabled people being left behind by this Conservative Government is not a new phenomenon. The Government’s national disability strategy last year left behind the views of those with disabilities. It was found to be unlawful, as has been said, and those with lived experience of disabilities were not talked to adequately. We do that in Scotland. I have talked in this Chamber and in Westminster Hall about what Scotland does. Will the Minister please look at what Scotland does, because it is worth looking at. Disabled people here in Parliament have come to me and said, “I wish I lived in Scotland; you do it so much better.” We are a small nation. Parts of the social security system are devolved, and with that devolution we are doing everything we possibly can to help disabled people and to treat them with fairness, dignity and respect. As the right hon. Member for East Ham said, we do not do that here. People are made to jump through hoops unnecessarily. Please look at what we are doing and learn lessons.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I have spoken to many people who were employed by the DWP in Scotland. They are able to compare and contrast the two regimes and they are so pleased to be working for Social Security Scotland.
Those with disabilities are fearful of being left behind once again, with the return to the parliamentary agenda of the British Bill of Rights Bill and the corresponding abolition of the Human Rights Act, if that goes ahead. Its worrying re-emergence rekindles the fears of many disability organisations regarding the removal of statutory protections for those with disabilities. At a time when we should be strengthening the protections in place for those with disabilities to ensure that they can live with as few barriers as possible, the Government risk regressing the regulatory regime for disability rights. The Human Rights Act offers a critically important mechanism for recourse for those with disabilities; abolishing it would weaken avenues for those with disabilities to enforce their rights. I would welcome the Minister telling me that I am wrong and that that will not happen, as I think we all would.
The British Institute of Human Rights has drawn my attention to a story highlighting the necessity of challenging inequality for disabled people using human rights legislation. Bryn was 60 years old and lived in supported living. He had learning disabilities, epilepsy, was non-communicative and blind. Staff at the home became concerned that Bryn had a heart condition and called a doctor from the local NHS surgery, who came to visit. Bryn had an independent mental capacity advocate who was supporting him. The advocate attended a multidisciplinary meeting to represent Bryn. At the meeting, the GP stated that he would not be arranging a heart scan for Bryn as
“he has a learning disability and no quality of life”.
Bryn’s advocate challenged that by raising Bryn’s right to life, under article 2 of the Human Rights Act, and his right to be free from discrimination, under article 14. The advocate asked the doctor whether he would arrange a heart scan if anyone else in the room was in that situation. The GP said yes and then agreed to the scan. The Human Rights Act gave the advocate the legal grounds to challenge the discrimination and take steps to protect Bryn’s life. Sadly, Bryn passed away because of his heart condition before any treatment could take place. I would like us all to reflect on that. I thank the British Institute of Human Rights for bringing that to my attention.
Clause 5 of the rights removal Bill destroys positive obligations, which is the positive duty on public officials to protect people from harm. The new Bill allows public bodies to refuse to act to safeguard people like Bryn, and to raise financial resources or operational priorities as the reasoning behind not taking action. Disability rights groups across the UK are gravely concerned that public officials will not take proactive steps to protect disabled people from harm, due to discriminatory attitudes or the resources required to protect that person, and that the rights removal Bill removes accountability for that. That is very dangerous and increases the likelihood of more awful stories like Bryn’s occurring—[Interruption.] I want to complete these points, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I beg your indulgence—[Interruption.] You are shaking your head.
I will be very brief.
In Scotland, we try to do things differently to foster a more inclusive society for all, based on fairness, dignity and respect—please heed those words. Although we are constrained by the limits of the current constitutional arrangement and budget, the Scottish Government continue to put measures in place to remove barriers facing those with disabilities. We want everyone to reach their full potential.
The Scottish Government have committed to introducing an overarching Scottish diversity and inclusion strategy covering Scotland’s public sector, educational institutions, justice system, transport and workplaces. The strategy will focus on the removal of institutional, cultural and financial barriers that lead to inequalities in relation to many protected characteristics, including disability.
Thank you for your forbearance, Mr Deputy Speaker. We need to look at what Scotland is doing. I hope that the Minister will agree to a meeting with me on this issue—it is a bit cheeky for me to ask at this point, but I used to have regular meetings with the disabilities Minister. I have given examples of cases, as have other Members. We need to sort this out. The Government need to respect the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. We need to make life better for them, because there is a huge pool of people out there who want to work and who want to be able to live a decent life and contribute more to society. We need to, we must and we should give them that opportunity.
I welcome the new Minister to his place and thank my wonderful hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for securing this debate and for her tireless campaigning on these issues both in this House and, for many years, in civil society. She made a typically powerful and well-evidenced speech, as did all the other contributors from whom we have heard. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) for all his work with the Work and Pensions Committee, based on his extensive knowledge in this area, and to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as always, for his characteristically thoughtful, detailed and humble remarks.
I also take this opportunity to thank the many organisations, charities and activists campaigning to improve the lives of disabled people. Next Saturday we will be marking the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which, like my right hon. and hon. Friends, I will henceforth refer to as the International Day of Disabled People because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea said, we subscribe to the social model of disability not the medical model.
I wish I could say that we are all here purely to celebrate the International Day of Disabled People. There is certainly a huge amount to celebrate, and many Members have rightly referred to the truly inspiring case of John McFall and this week’s wonderful news about him potentially becoming the first disabled astronaut. There are so many others we could mention, not least on the “Disability Power 100” list, which my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea mentioned. The fifth of Britain’s population who have a disability are obviously achieving incredible things.
I associate myself with the gratitude that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea expressed for the lives of Seán McGovern and Roger Lewis. Seán was a Unite member and trade unionist, and I thank both of them for all they achieved. I express our sympathies to their family and friends on their loss.
There is clearly no lack of ambition among disabled people but, sadly, they are far too often blocked from realising those ambitions, and therefore we must not shy away from the challenges they face, which have become increasingly intense over recent years. Even before the pandemic, public service and social security cuts since 2010 fell disproportionately on the shoulders of disabled people.
Since then, disturbingly, disabled people made up three in five of those who died from covid-19 in England during the first wave of the pandemic. Successive failures in social care and social security have left disabled people more vulnerable to the health and economic consequences of the virus. As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea rightly said, so many challenges for disabled people are connected to those areas and others. She mentioned the challenges around transport and the lack of social care reform, which disabled people have been promised so many times. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) also talked about the impact of cuts to international aid on disabled people internationally.
One area that all speakers rightly mentioned is disabled people’s participation in the labour market. I am concerned by the recent figures showing that in 2021 the proportion of disabled people either unemployed or economically inactive rose from 45.9% to 47.7%. Four million disabled people are now locked out of work, and the disability employment gap has recently grown—marginally, but it is growing—from 28.1% to 28.8%. That is unacceptable. We need to see much more action to support disabled people into work and in work.
Of course, we also need to see much more action on the cost of living crisis, which is impacting disabled people’s livelihoods. Their ability to eat decently, to heat their homes, to work and even just to access basic medication and equipment is often in peril. The charity Scope estimates that the additional cost of being disabled amounts, on average, to around £600 a month, and those calculations were undertaken before the intensified price rises for goods and services in recent weeks.
All of this has real-life consequences for disabled people. Last month, the Office for National Statistics found that over half of disabled adults—55%—report finding it difficult to afford their energy bills. As the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw rightly said, not being able to power the equipment they need can have a direct impact on people’s health. That compares with a lower proportion of non-disabled people, 40%, who are finding it difficult to afford their bills. Over a third of disabled people—36%—find it difficult to afford their rent or mortgage payments, compared with 27% of non-disabled people.
The response to all this has been to publish the extremely delayed national strategy for disabled people. As others have said, the strategy was ruled unlawful by the High Court because disabled people were not consulted on what they need. The strategy was about disabled people, without disabled people. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham rightly made clear, such engagement is important not only in showing respect to disabled people, rather than the palpable disrespect that the Government were found to have shown, but in ensuring that policies for disabled people will actually work and be effective.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), the shadow Minister for Disabled People, for all the work she has done to make sure disabled people’s voices are heard. I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw concerning the Government’s approach to the Human Rights Act, which looks set to remove some of the levers for disabled people.
Another topic mentioned in this debate is the incidence of hate crime directed towards disabled people. We are still waiting for a new hate crime strategy, despite disability-related hate crime increasing more than sevenfold in recent years. What is the Minister doing to replace the national disability strategy and properly consult disabled people? How will he close the employment and wage gaps for disabled people? Will he commit to tackling hate crime perpetrated against disabled people? And what is he doing to shield disabled people from the economic crisis that is worse in our country than in many comparable countries, partly because of decisions made by successive recent Governments?
We need a different approach. The last Labour Government did more to advance equality than any other Government, and the next Labour Government will build on that track record. We will work with disabled people, in a spirit of dignity and respect, to develop the right policies for and with disabled people. That includes, for example, introducing flexible working by default. We will move ahead speedily with disability pay gap reporting in the first 100 days of a new Labour Government.
We need to do that because this year’s disability pay gap shows that disabled workers earn £2.05 less per hour than non-disabled workers. Disability pay gap reporting will shine a light on this inequity and encourage employers to act to rectify it. We will level the playing field for disabled people, to ensure that the horrendous hate crimes against them are treated as the aggravated offences they are.
It is also critical that we consider the situation for different groups of disabled people. Last Sunday was Equal Pay Day, when women essentially stopped earning for the year, compared with men, as a result of the gender pay gap. As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea said, gender exacerbates the disability pay gap. The pay gap for disabled women is disturbingly high, with the latest statistics suggesting it stands at a whopping 22.1%. Their Equal Pay Day was way back on 12 October, which is when they stopped earning relative to all men. Nobody should face unfair and unequal pay at work, but this shows how disabled people are even more disadvantaged. I associate myself with the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham. Transparency, both in the workplace and from Government, is surely the very least that disabled people should expect.
Tomorrow is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls, marking the start of 16 days of activism against such violence. Disabled people experience domestic abuse at double the rate of non-disabled people. During their lifetime, one in two disabled women in the UK experiences domestic violence, compared with one in four women overall. Disabled women also experience higher rates of economic abuse and of having treatment or equipment withheld.
In the month of Equal Pay Day, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls and the International Day of Disabled People, what will the Minister do to end violence against women, girls and disabled women, and to close the pay gaps that affect them? Will the Government treat disabled people with dignity and respect? Will they fulfil their promises on flexible working to make it easier for disabled people to get to work? And will they finally bring forward a strategy for disabled people that actually consults and involves them? I look forward to his response.
I am pleased to join colleagues in speaking in this debate to celebrate the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities. I pay tribute to and thank the Members who secured this debate, particularly the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), who opened the debate eloquently; the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who highlighted eloquently and superbly the enormous contribution made by disabled people across our society in many forms; and, of course, the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms). I believe I have had cause to vote for him previously to become Chairman and I reflect upon the fact that I may well come to regret that vote; he is an assiduous Chairman and I look forward to engaging constructively with him and colleagues in the work the Select Committee does in scrutinising our work as Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions.
We have heard a number of moving and inspiring contributions reflecting the diversity of disabled people’s lived experience. That is noteworthy, as we talk today about John McFall and his remarkable achievement. I know all of us across this House want to commend him for that and send him our very best wishes—it is hugely exciting.
The theme for this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities is: “Transformative solutions for inclusive development: the role of innovation in fuelling an accessible and equitable world”. It is a timely and important theme, and we aim to step up our efforts to build back better and fairer, for a society that is inclusive and accessible to all. I am going to talk about our global leadership on disability inclusion and give some examples of the work we are doing domestically on this year’s theme.
I welcome the Minister to his place. Although I am grateful that the Government supported private Members’ Bills in the last Session, such as the British Sign Language Bill and the Down Syndrome Bill, which gained Royal Assent, may I ask the Minister to look at providing some priority time within the Government’s legislative programme, rather than relying on private Members’ Bills, because measures such as those are so important for people with disabilities?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point, which will speak somewhat to the points I will go on to make later. I hope they will give her some confidence on this.
We are working towards equality on the global stage, through both the example we set here in the UK and our international co-operation. The UK has long provided global leadership on disability inclusion. The UK Government ratified the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities and its optional protocol in 2009. We remain fully committed to implementing this convention, through strong legislation, and programmes and policies that tackle the barriers faced by disabled people, in order to realise their full participation and inclusion in society. Along with Kenya, we started the Global Disability Summit movement in 2018 and we have continued to support it, providing funding to the secretariat and advising the Governments of Norway and Ghana ahead of the second summit, which took place in February this year.
Most recently, the former Minister of State with responsibility for disabled people, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), attended the 15th session of the conference of states parties to the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities in June 2022. She participated in bilateral meetings and wider debates, and met global counterparts with the aim of strengthening the international political commitment for the rights of disabled people. I would like to place on record my thanks to her for all her work, particularly in this week when she has announced that she will not be standing for re-election to this House. She has been a trailblazer for disabled people, leading that work in government. I am proud of the huge contribution she has made, which provides strong foundations upon which I, along with the Secretary of State, will be building.
The UK continues to support disabled people living in lower and middle-income countries through our flagship disability-inclusive programmes. We are also providing support to disabled people in Ukraine.
The Minister says that his Government support disabled people and want to ensure that they continue doing so, but it has been 13 years since the last Labour Government signed up to the convention, yet successive Governments, including the current one, have not committed to fully incorporating it. He says that the Government are committed to it, but why are they not seeking to incorporate it? For example, when will the Government commit to incorporating article 19 of the convention, on independent living for disabled people, into UK law?
To directly address the hon. Lady’s point, we are fully committed to the convention, but as a general principle the UK Government do not incorporate international treaties into our domestic law. However, the rights of disabled people under this convention are largely reflected in existing domestic policies and legislation, including the Equality Act 2010, in England, Scotland and Wales, and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, in Northern Ireland. As I have said in the context of other debates in previous ministerial roles, it is for this House and this Parliament to interpret our international obligations and to reflect those in our domestic body of legislation in a way that this House, and Parliament more generally, sees fit.
Let me get back to the wider points. The UK continues to support disabled people living in lower and middle-income countries through our flagship disability-inclusive programmes. We are also providing support to disabled people in Ukraine. We are providing global leadership, but we are clear that more needs to be done. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office published an ambitious disability inclusion and rights strategy to embed disability inclusion across FCDO’s diplomacy, policy and programming work at the Global Disability Summit in February 2022. The strategy reaffirms the UK’s commitment to act as a global leader on disability inclusion, setting out our approach through to 2030.
The FCDO also announced 18 public commitments in February to make its international development work more disability inclusive. The commitments include increasing meaningful participation with disabled people, and specific work on tackling violence against women and girls and on sexual and reproductive health and rights. The FCDO’s disability inclusive development programme is a six-year, £30 million programme designed to test “what works” for disabled people. By the end of March, the FCDO had provided more than 375 disabled children with a quality education, almost 6,000 disabled people with improved access to healthcare and more than 6,400 people with disabilities with training and skills development to improve their income, and encouraged more than 16.5 million people to change their attitudes and behaviours towards disabled people to tackle stigma and discrimination.
The UK also supports the growth of the global disability movement by providing capacity-building grants to disabled people’s organisations around the world. The FCDO funded the training of more than 1,200 disability activists last year to help them advocate for disabled people’s human rights and hold Governments to account for progress on disability rights. A new allocation of £15 million in funding will help local responders in Ukraine and Poland support up to 200,000 of the most vulnerable impacted by Russia’s invasion, including older people and those with disabilities. That will fund grassroots civil society groups to provide food assistance, water and sanitation, psychological support and childcare services, alongside other emergency assistance.
I would like to take a moment to bring attention to some of the progress made by this Government that has positively impacted the lives of disabled people. Our Social Security (Special Rules for End of Life) Bill received Royal Assent on 25 October 2022 and will enable people who are thought to be in the final year of their life to get fast-tracked access to disability living allowance, personal independence payment and attendance allowance.
This is the Minister’s first outing, so it is not the time to rough him up on anything. However, the background to this, for those of us who participated in it, is the UN report, which demonstrated that as a result of austerity there have been systemic gross violations of human rights of disabled people in this country. One point that has been made by Labour Members is the importance of the Government engaging with disability organisations. May I suggest that one of those should be the preventable harm project, run by Mo Stewart, who might be able to take the Minister through some of the issues, particularly those associated with the work capability assessment, that developed the problems we have with regard to the violation of human rights of disabled people in this country?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I would be happy to meet him to discuss those issues further. I am determined that Ministers will have constructive working relationships with colleagues across Parliament, and with third sector organisations and international organisations pertinent to this work, to ensure that we deliver the best outcomes possible. I would be happy to have a conversation with him about the particular point that he has raised.
We also made similar changes to universal credit and employment and support allowance in April this year.
One particular Bill reflects positively on the cross-party constructive work that has gone on. The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) brought the British Sign Language Bill to Parliament and worked constructively with Ministers to deliver it, including with my right hon. Friends the Members for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) and for Norwich North. The Bill passed into law earlier this year and will recognise BSL as a language of England, Wales and Scotland in its own right. It is also supported by a duty on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to regularly report on what each relevant Government Department has done to promote or facilitate the use of British Sign Language in its communications with the public.
We laid regulations in the summer to allow more health- care professionals to certify fit notes in addition to doctors. Nurses, occupational therapists, pharmacists and physiotherapists can all legally certify fit notes, reducing the pressure on NHS doctors, particularly GPs. This followed legislative changes in the spring, which removed the need for fit notes to be signed in ink.
On World Mental Health Day in October, we announced the expansion of a joint programme by DWP, DHSC and NHS England—with expenditure of £122 million—to expand the provision of employment advisers in improving access to psychological therapy services across England.
As the Minister is running through the things that the Government are doing, can he clarify what their intentions are on the national disability strategy? That was stuck in the courts in January. Do the Government intend to move that forward and, if so, when?
I will get to that very point. It is one that I want to reflect on briefly in my remarks. I will get there and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will welcome what I have to say.
This voluntary service will recruit an additional 700 employment advisers to support people with common mental health conditions to improve their mental health, while also helping them to stay in or find work.
A key priority for this Government is increasing disability employment and reducing the disability employment gap. We have heard strong representations for that important objective across the House this afternoon. The Government have a range of programmes and initiatives that are supporting disabled people and those with health conditions to start, stay and succeed in work. This includes disability employment advisers providing specialist expertise and upskilling work coaches in our Jobcentres. The schemes include Access to Work and Disability Confident; and employment programmes such as local supported employment, where we are working in partnership with local authorities to support adults with autism and learning disabilities.
As a Government, we are committed to supporting all people with a disability to lead fulfilled, independent lives. That is a mission that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Secretary of State and I are determined to deliver on. We are delivering a wide range of actions that will positively impact the everyday lives of disabled people—from education to transport, from housing to leisure. We are also committed to challenging unhelpful perceptions of disabled people—all changes that can make a big difference and all changes that feed into enabling disabled people to thrive.
The latest disability employment figures show an increase of 240,000 on the year and an overall increase of 2 million in work since the same quarter in 2013. Our improving lives strategy set out the Government’s goal to see 1 million more disabled people in work between 2017 and 2027, in line with the 2017 manifesto commitment. The figures released for quarter 1 2022 showed that, between quarter 1 2017 and quarter 1 2022, the number of disabled people in employment increased by 1.3 million, meaning that the goal was met after only five years. Our goal to reduce the disability employment gap remains. We will continue to galvanise action across Government and outside Government to ensure that we are ambitious about the employment of disabled people and people with health conditions. It was to that end that, last week, I went to the Jobcentre in Stratford to learn more about the initiative that we are rolling out across the country to deliver additional work coach time. That is designed specifically to help support people into work, where possible, meeting those individual needs and widening the access and availability of work coach support, which is very welcome.
Returning to the theme of innovation, assistive technology is key to our ambition for the UK to be the most accessible place to live and work. We are taking vital first steps towards our overall aim to make our country the most accessible place in the world to live and to work with technology. Advances in technology aimed at increasing disabled people’s participation in society can result in trickle-down benefits for wider society. Some advances can be especially beneficial for disabled people, as I heard about at an excellent event that was held in Parliament only last week.
To capitalise on the many advances in technology, we need to translate what is cross-party political enthusiasm and the Government’s overarching policy commitments into well-designed, evidence-based, and funded initiatives. As a first step to achieve that, we are carrying out an ATech needs assessment. That will explore the needs, demands and impacts on the lives of disabled people and help us to better understand the market capacity for procuring and providing ATech.
Also on the theme of innovation, businesses have an important role to play. Important partnerships have been formed with our disability and access ambassadors. These are senior business leaders who use their influential status to push forward improvements to the accessibility and quality of services and facilities for disabled people. New ambassadors were appointed in July 2021 and in January 2022. In total, they cover 19 private sector industries, from advertising to housing. I am committed to working with these ambassadors to shine a light on their sectors to ensure that disabled people have increased opportunities to participate in a modern, inclusive British society. I thank the ambassadors for all the good work that they do.
I now wish to briefly touch on a few of the points raised by my colleagues here, mindful of the wide variety points that have been raised during the debate. On the point about inclusive and cumulative impact assessments of social security policies on disabled people, in line with the public sector equality duty, the Government carefully consider the equality impacts of policies on those shared and protected characteristics. That is in line with both their legal obligations and their strong commitment to fairness.
On the cost of living, we have had many debates about the comprehensive support that is being provided by this Government to help to address the pressing challenges that many families across the country understandably feel at the present time. That help and support should be seen in the round. As I am responsible for overseeing this, I know that the current latest batch of cost of living payments are being made at the present time. That is welcome support and, no doubt, we will have the opportunity to talk more about cost of living support in the debates that we will have in the weeks and months ahead.
On energy, the warm home discount scheme currently provides around 3 million low-income and vulnerable households across Great Britain with a £150 rebate off their winter energy bill. We have extended the scheme to 2025-26, expanded the scheme to support 800,000 more households and reformed the scheme in England and Wales to provide more rebates automatically and better target households that are in fuel poverty.
On the national disability strategy and the court judgment, what I can say at this stage is that the UK Government strongly disagree with the UN inquiry’s findings and we were disappointed with the NDS ruling, which we are appealing. We continue to be fully committed to the convention and will be publishing our response shortly.
On personal independence payment appeals and work capability assessments, since PIP was introduced, we have made 4.5 million decisions, and only 4% of those have been changed after tribunal hearings. For employment and support allowance, there have been 3.3 million completed WCAs on ESA claims between October 2013 and December 2021, 3% have gone to complete an appeal of a fit-for-work decision and 2% have been overturned. But I am not complacent. I am determined that we will do everything we can to ensure that we focus on quality decision making and that decisions are got right first time.
There were also, rightly, comments made about Access to Work, which is a very effective scheme in enabling people to access employment opportunities and to sustain that employment. Access to Work developed the health adjustment passport, which has been rolled out across Jobcentre Plus. To support the transition from education into employment, Access to Work has delivered a passport pilot in universities. Both have received positive feedback and we are keen to go further. That is an area that I am looking closely at. Again, if colleagues have any observations or ideas, I would be keen to hear them so that I can reflect on them as part of my consideration.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) raised the issue of taxi and private hire drivers and disability access, particularly for individuals who are blind. Under the Equality Act 2010, private hire drivers and taxis have a duty to carry guide dogs and assistance dogs at no extra cost to the passenger. On accessible transport more generally, officials will deliver a review of the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000 by the end of 2023, which will ensure that future decisions on accessibility standards are based on an updated understanding of passenger needs.
I also want to touch on hate crime, a subject that came across strongly in a number of the contributions. Speaking as someone who was a former policing Minister and victims Minister, this is an area that I feel very strongly about, as I think we all do. We must come together as one House of Commons and as a society in calling out hate crime wherever we see it, in whatever form it takes. The UK Government have asked the Law Commission to review existing criminal law for harmful communications both online and offline. Following the Law Commission’s final report, the Government are taking forward the recommended harmful communications, false communications and threatening communications offences through the Online Safety Bill.
In my role as the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, I am committed to driving forward the disability agenda across Government, tackling the barriers that disabled people face.
I could speak at some length on that, but I think I will write to the right hon. Gentleman as Chairman of the Committee and provide him with an update on where we are in relation to that particular point. I think that is the best way of addressing that question.
I assure the House that I will continue to work with ministerial colleagues across Government, especially as convener and new chairman of the ministerial disability champions, who were appointed in summer 2020 at the request of the then Prime Minister to help to drive progress across Government to help to improve the lives of disabled people. That commitment remains. The ministerial disability champions meet regularly throughout the year. They act as personal leads within their respective Departments, encouraging joined-up working across Departments and committing to championing disabled people.
I am keen to look at, consider and try to advance particular projects that colleagues and wider society feel would be beneficial in improving things for disabled people. I will also continue to meet with disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and disability charities across the UK, so many of whom are inspirational with the work that they do and in the example that they set.
Ensuring the voices of disabled people are heard is a priority for this Government. We continue to work closely with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations to ensure we hear from the full diversity of the community. Only this week I have met the Disability Charities Consortium, Disability Benefits Consortium and DPO Forum England to discuss issues impacting the lives of disabled people. I hope that that reassures the House about my determination, commitment and willingness to engage thoroughly and extensively. No one person has a monopoly on good ideas about the next steps we should take.
The disability unit runs multiple stakeholder networks to support and supplement Government engagement with disabled people and their organisations. Departments across Government also have their own networks specific to their policy focus. The unit is currently considering how we can strengthen our engagement with the sector even further. We stay cognisant of opportunities to consult and co-create with the sector in designing and delivering impactful policies to improve disabled people’s lives, which is our ultimate aim.
Ahead of this year’s UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I wish to emphasise our ongoing commitment to drive forward inclusion for disabled people at all levels of British society and continue to be global leaders in the disability space. I know that that is a firm commitment that we share across this House.
I congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to what I believe has been an important and particularly timely debate, given the lived experience of so many disabled people, ahead of the UN day on 3 December.
I take the point my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made that this is a new Minister and we have to be constructive, but I must say that I would have really appreciated detailed responses to many of my questions that the Minister did not respond to. I hope he will write to me when he has had an opportunity to review my speech and provide me with some written answers to the questions that he was unable to cover.
None the less, we have celebrated the many achievements of deaf and disabled people and acknowledged the huge challenges and barriers they still face. I again allude to the national disability strategy, because it is in the courts and it has been ruled unlawful. It is really for the Minister to set out what is going to happen now. We are in a cost of living emergency. There are challenges with the social security system, the social care system, transport, education and many other areas, so we need to actually understand what action the Government are going to take now.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities.