asked Her Majesty’s Government what steps they propose to take to support the training of disabled people on computers in their own homes.
The noble Viscount said: My Lords, tonight I am introducing a short debate that has had some delay before reaching your Lordships’ House. I have no quarrel with that; the Government have difficulty in getting time for their business. We have been moved a couple of times, but we have today a small group of speakers and I thank everyone who has come to talk about computers and the disabled. Some noble Lords who had intended to come cannot, for various reasons, but we have gathered some others along the way.
One of the last letters of support I had was from Lady Darcy de Knayth who, unhappily, died just over a week ago. She was one of the outstanding personalities in your Lordships’ House and one of its outstanding speakers on disabled matters. She was much respected in this House and outside it, and we shall sorely miss her.
In my quite long career in this House I have never spoken on disabled matters. A number of Peers have asked me in the Corridors what brings me to the subject. The reason is that I happened to meet an old friend whom I had not seen for some time, who told me that in the intervening period since our previous meeting he had formed a charity called U Can Do IT. Peers who are speaking in the debate today may well have received a brief from that charity. It is one of a very few charities that devote themselves to the training of disabled people on computers in their own homes. I emphasise that it is in their own homes, because that is the point we are hoping to bring home tonight. We want to know if the Government have any fresh thinking in this area, where there is a great need for it. That is what has persuaded me to speak today.
The excellent briefing sent out by U Can Do IT covers the problem in three paragraphs. It states the reasons why it was formed in order to remedy what it sees as a great lack of understanding by successive Governments of the value of computers to the disabled. I agree, and I hope there will be agreement in the House today. One gets the feeling, perhaps not in this House but certainly in one’s social life, that people are a bit dismissive about the importance of computers. Some people take the attitude of how wonderful it is to have so much information and entertainment given to them, while others take a rather dinosaur-like approach and say, “The world is changing and this can be nothing but bad news for us”. However, for the disabled at home who find it difficult to travel, let alone find work, the computer is a lifeline. What amazes me is that of the money the Government spend on the cause of the disabled—which, surprisingly, I understand amounts to about £40 billion a year, taken in all—not one penny has been devoted to computers and the training of the disabled.
Of course the disabled can have access to computers; the Government have done a great deal to make computers available in libraries and other such places where people can go, and people can receive e-mails at call centres and so on. But more often than not it is mobility that makes it difficult for disabled people to benefit from the arrangements that have been made for them. This is a matter not only of their self-interest but of the state’s. Although the number of disabled people seems to be in doubt, there are certainly many who are perfectly able to contribute to society, to work, to pay tax and to be part of the general life of the nation. They are prevented from doing so—what a waste—because what makes it possible for them to do that is the computer. But in order to get them to use computers there has to be a decision to make training available at home.
That is the reason I have brought this debate to the House today. U Can Do IT tells us that it costs about £1,200 to train a disabled person to be competent to use a computer for their important everyday needs, such as getting in touch with their doctors and their national health centres, paying their bills and so on, but it goes much wider than that; it releases the disabled from the kind of estrangement from both their families and society that their condition brings them to, which creates a great deal of loneliness and probably depression among disabled people. All kinds of factors come together.
I would like the Minister to acknowledge that the current position is eminently wasteful. The voluntary sector alone cannot improve it. I do not know how people are trained by U Can Do IT or any other charities, but they raise money, as charities do, and train as many as are able. If it is going cost £1,200 to train a disabled person, they are not going to make an enormous impact on the problem. The Government have to come in.
It is cheering to see in the briefing that U Can Do IT put out that there is movement in government circles. There are two initiatives, one of them interesting and the other not so interesting. The first brings together the funding bodies, if I may call them such, or departments of state which provide support for disabled people—that is, the health and education departments, and the Department for Work and Pensions—in an initiative called “progress through partnership”, which is an excellent idea. One is always a little cynical about such developments because one knows how difficult it is to achieve between departments of state the immediate response that one requires, but it is an interesting idea.
There is also a policy which aims to bring equality to disabled people by 2025. That does not impress me too much, because we know that the short-termism in the country makes it unlikely that much will happen for disabled people. We need action now.
There are signs that the Government are beginning to take an interest, and not before time. Disabled people will benefit from even a movement to meet the charities half way. If it were possible for the Government to produce half or even a quarter of the funding required to train each person at home, it would help. It would also give the soft benefits which are so important to people who live lonely lives, with difficulty in contacting the world as we know it around them and who do not get from computers the enjoyment, knowledge and entertainment which we all take for granted. I feel sure that tonight’s speakers, all of whom I thank for being here, would agree that this is a great gap in our service to the community which needs to be remedied quickly. I hope that the Minister can give us some good news on that front.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, on securing this debate and commiserate with him that so few noble Lords have seen fit to take part in it. We know that small is beautiful. Perhaps very small is very beautiful, but I am sure that there are limits to how far that principle can be pushed.
Some noble Lords might have read the book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which has just been made into a quite exceptional film. It is written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who had a massive stroke and could move only his left eyelid as a result. He wrote the whole book just by blinking his left eyelid when any letter of the alphabet was pointed out to him. It is a quite extraordinary and moving book, which has its quite earthy sections as well. Bauby died about two days after finishing that book. As someone who has long been interested in disability and what it means, it seems to me that there are some signal lessons there for those who would ponder disability, even in the quite restricted focus in which this debate is set.
There is a positive side to all disability. Jean-Dominique Bauby’s example shows that there is no disability so severe that with determination and application of the human will cannot be turned to some kind of productive outcome. The book is a quite remarkable example of that. The title means that his mind is the butterfly in the casket, in which he is unable to move—but the butterfly is free and so the author is able to produce something which, without that awful event happening to him, he probably would never have produced.
Secondly, there is a continuum between those whom we label disabled and those whom we label able-bodied or normal. This is very important for disability policy. Of course, in many cases we have to treat disabled people—and they have to understand themselves, as they do—as an excluded category. To be able-bodied means not to be in a particular state but to have a capacity, which merges along a continuum even with someone who is as extraordinarily disabled as Jean-Dominique Bauby was.
Thirdly, and crucially for this debate, what examples show about those who have managed extraordinary achievements while suffering the most extreme disabilities is that resources matter. For those who have managed to make a triumph of their lives when subject to extraordinary disabilities, such as Christopher Reeve or Stephen Hawking—and there is a programme about Stephen Hawking on the television in about 40 minutes’ time, which we shall probably miss due to the lateness of the debate—it takes resources to turn a form of exclusion into something quite different. The fact that that is the case is shown in the statistic that less than 50 per cent of people with a recognised disability in the UK are in work, which compares with nearly 75 per cent of the “able-bodied” workforce.
The noble Viscount mentioned the figure that U Can Do IT circulated to us, which shows that the Government are doing an enormous amount for disabled people. I checked on the website, www.direct.gov.uk, where there is an excellent section aimed at disabled people and outlining all the programmes available to them. They do not of course cover completely housebound people—and I shall come on to that because it is the subject of the debate—but they do add up to an extraordinary determination from the Government to help disabled people, especially in using information technology to get them back into work. Some of the programmes mentioned include residential training for disabled adults, with a view to helping the long-term unemployed; legislation to ensure that disabled employees have equal access to accompany training programmes; disabled students’ allowances and funding for specialised equipment to make using computers easier—for example, for blind or visually impaired people; online centres, which are accessible from home, to help to develop further IT skills; and, most recently, the new deal for disabled people, in which each individual gets to work with a job broker.
As U Can Do IT and other voluntary groups and NGOs point out, however, government policy does not seem to extend directly into the home. I have three comments and three questions that I would ask the Minister to respond to. As organisations such as Disability Alliance and U Can Do IT point out, in the home IT training seems to be left mainly to such organisations or charities as U Can Do IT, which said in the circular that it sent to us that it did not have that much money to do all the things that it needed to do. It made some interesting points—for example, that many disabled people can get hold of computers; it is not really a problem for them to do that, but the problem is to find training to be able to use them. It also made the point that disabled people are hard to reach. That is, it is not easy to find out where the people are who need access to such training and they are not always able themselves to make their needs known, for whatever reason. My first question for the Minister is: are any resources being put into tracing people who might profit from in-home training, and how systematic is the deployment of such resources?
Secondly, when we talk of IT training in the home we also need to think about the children. Many disabled children are able to get to school, but some are not. Even those who are able to get to school would profit from an IT-literate household. All the studies that we have of children show that those with a good learning environment have a much higher average attainment in reading scores and other skills than those with a poor environment. That implies that we should pay some attention to IT training in households in which disabled children live, not just for the child herself or himself, but for the parents within that household who can thereby help the child make the best use of information technology. Have the Government done any work on the family environment in which IT use is carried out and its turning towards educational opportunities?
Thirdly, for IT training for disabled people within the home, it is not enough just to concentrate on the issues raised by U Can Do IT and other charities. We must focus on business and IT software companies as well. An interesting report from the United Nations showed that 97 per cent of websites did not provide minimum standards of accessibility for certain categories of disabled people—the visually impaired, for example. Not many websites provide text that allows for visually impaired people to read tables, pictures and other kinds of text. That systematically inhibits the use of website material to which “normal” people have ready access. Have the Government developed any policies to encourage IT software companies to make their materials more available to categories of disabled people who at the moment cannot use them?
My Lords, this debate is tailor-made for me to speak in, so I warmly congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, on having secured it. I certainly agree with him that the importance of the subject is not properly indicated by the number of people who have signed up to speak in the debate. Let us hope with the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, that it is not only a case of small is beautiful—or even very small is very beautiful—but of quality rather than quantity. I say that the debate is tailor-made for me because I speak from personal experience of the vital part that technology plays today in the lives of blind and partially sighted people. Straightaway, I declare an interest as chairman of the Royal National Institute of Blind People.
Technology is having a fundamental impact on the lives of all of us—the way we work, shop, obtain information and even make and communicate with friends is being transformed. However, that is of particular importance to disabled people, for whom it is not just a different way of doing things, but the means to escape from the social and economic exclusion that many of us have traditionally faced. Blind and partially sighted people make use of computers and the internet with the help of assistive technology. Screen readers tell you what is on the screen by means of synthesised speech and screen magnifiers enlarge what is on the screen for a partially sighted person. Those of us who read Braille can use electronic Braille displays attached to our computers, or even portable computers with the same facility. Indeed, I regularly demonstrate this in this Chamber for all to see. I am not doing so tonight because I prepared my notes in Braille, which I prefer to do if I can get them ready in time because it enables me to speak more fluently. However, the notes were prepared with the aid of information technology.
Thus a blind person no longer needs help to go round the supermarket; they can do it online with the help of assistive technology. Likewise, they can read the newspaper online. Social networking websites such as Facebook provide an opportunity to make new friends without the difficulty of finding the way to new places or spotting likely looking people on the other side of the room, and friends communicate by e-mail rather than relying on others to read print letters they cannot read for themselves.
For a blind or partially sighted person to benefit from all this, they need their own computer and specialist software and they need to know how to make it all work together. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, was absolutely right to say that it is not enough to have the computer—people need training. Indeed, a blind or partially sighted person needs not just the computer and the training but the specialist software as well. This does not come cheaply. For example, JAWS, the market leading screen reader, costs around £800 and training how to use it all can cost more than the equipment itself.
Nowhere has technology the potential to open doors more than in the world of work, where computers are central to the way most businesses now operate. If you are lucky enough to have a job, the Government provide valuable help through the Access to Work scheme. This buys most of the specialist equipment you need and some training in how to use it, and the disabled students’ allowance provides similar help in education. But for those not in education or employment—sadly, the great majority because most people lose their sight late in life and those who do not find it very difficult to get work—things are very different. The need is just as great. Finding vital information or doing business online is more and more part of the very fabric of life. Think of your tax return. But unless you have the money to buy the specialist software and equipment you need—and many disabled people, being on benefit, do not—you will not be able to take advantage of the opportunities technology offers and will be even more excluded than before. It will be back to the supermarket aisle and begging help from shop assistants or friends, back to waiting for someone to come round and read the post, and back to out-of-date extracts from newspapers read on to tape by volunteers rather than today’s paper online.
In the sight-loss field, RNIB, Action for Blind People and other charities provide some support but, as your Lordships will readily understand, charitable resources are stretched very thinly and we can assist only a small number of people. Many people turn to their local further education college to learn key skills, but provision of courses for people with sight problems is extremely patchy. I was encouraged, as I think we all were, to hear from the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, of the splendid work being carried out by U Can Do IT. However, ultimately we need a more comprehensive solution. The Government hope to get people off incapacity benefit and into work and achieve their aim of equal participation for disabled people by 2025. I repose a little more confidence in that initiative than the noble Viscount. I do not think that the Government intend to wait until 2025 and then make a start on it. I think this is meant to be a process of gradual evolution. If the Government are to achieve these things, we must provide people with the financial help to obtain the IT support that they need to make the most of the opportunities that the internet provides.
The declaration from the 2006 Riga ministerial conference on ICT for an inclusive society drew attention to the deficit in ICT use among excluded groups in Europe. For example, only 10 per cent of people over 65 use the internet, as against 68 per cent of those aged 16 to 24. In line with the Riga declaration, the Government need to address that deficit, prioritising the elderly and disabled, as part of their e-inclusion strategy. We need a government scheme similar to Access to Work to support disabled people at home, no less than those in work or education, in accessing the information society.
I am not in favour of a general restructuring of disability benefits, but the disability living allowance could contain a communication component as well as a mobility component and a care component. Or a scheme along the lines of the Motability scheme could be introduced to enable people to commute their DLA to purchase IT equipment. We must strongly encourage and do more to encourage further education colleges and learning centres to better provide for people with sight problems, for whom information and communication technology is so important as a gateway to information, learning and employment.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for bringing the subject forward, and I thank those noble Lords who have spoken. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, always makes a good thrust into the general philosophy of things. Even if I wanted to, I would not dare contradict the noble Lord, Lord Low, on this one, because he knows what is going on.
The computing revolution is potentially of great benefit to many people who have been excluded from traditional ways of interacting with society, such as those with visual impairment. I do not know how many times I have been involved in debates on visual impairment when the difficulty of travel for those who have sight problems has come up. They are probably the top group who have difficulty in accessing travel and other activities. It is difficult for them if something is based on a screen that you must look at. Unless you embrace the ongoing technology, that group is potentially excluded.
The noble Lord, Lord Low, got there before me when he pointed out that there have been many technological changes that mean that there is no need for this group or any other group to be excluded for very much longer. Technologically, the answers are available to us; that is text-to-speech and speech-to-text technology, which are now very well developed. As a dyslexic, I have a dictation device on my computer, which is now about two years old. It is probably functioning reasonably well, but the British Dyslexia Association more or less said, “What on earth are you doing with that steam-driven technology? It is two years old; we have stuff that works much better”. It is moving on. You can get text-to-speech technology, as the noble Lord, Lord Low, said, and it is now becoming more online. There is scanning technology and direct access is available. It might be expensive now, but one thing that we know about technology is that it will probably get a lot cheaper pretty quickly. The technological solutions to the problems around us are probably out there and, if they are not, many will come online with increasing rapidity. So we have a situation here but what do we need to do? We need to train people how to use the technology.
A number of heavy brochures arrive on one’s desk in Parliament, and I have here a large green one entitled, Training for Trainers: A Guide for ICT Trainers Working with Sight Impaired Students. It arrived on my desk before the debate was tabled and I am very glad that it was not one of the ones that I immediately recycled. When thumbing through it, I discovered that it goes through the problems that a trainer has when dealing with a person with sight problems. It goes through a series of points that are very familiar to me in this field. It says that first you should ask the person you are dealing with about their communication strategy and that you should try to interact with them and change the way you proceed in the classroom. It mentions a series of other things which will mean that for you that person and his or her learning patterns will be different. They will have trouble accessing what you are doing. Therefore, in an ordinary classroom in which visual aids are used—for example, a blackboard—reference to a training manual will be required.
The RNIB, Action for Blind People, Employment Opportunities and various other charities have helped to write this publication, and they all say that if you have these problems and if you are someone with an established learning pattern, you can do something with it. Where do you obtain this established learning pattern? You get it either by trial and error or through some form of organised intervention. I suggest that we have been talking about individual tuition to ensure that people can access the technology and thus access what is required, so that the Government’s investment, publications and so on are not wasted. People should try to interact. If they go into people’s homes, those people will be more relaxed and comfortable and will feel under less pressure and able to work at their own pace, which is a very good way forward. A few hours’ individual tuition can help to establish what can and cannot be done.
Another good question that the guide asks is: what do people want from the training? They probably want a basic command of what is out there and what they should exclude. I suggest that if anyone in Parliament uses all the gadgets on their computer, they cannot have much of a social life. There is a great deal of technology out there but there is only so much that we need or can use at any one time. However, a little initial investment and support will help people to access what is there.
As my noble friend said, one small charity cannot do all the work but it shows a model for the way forward which will be able to help certain people at certain times. I am afraid it is always the case that those who are lucky, those who work hard and those who know the system will access charities, and the same is true of most government schemes. It is always said that if you want to be successful, choose your parents well—a lawyer and a campaigning journalist are supposed to be the ideal combination—because then you will gain access to what is out there.
How are the Government going to tackle these individual training patterns to allow people to access the good work that the Government are doing? Do they have any new initiatives or new approaches that will help us to guide people through? Unless they do, much of what they have done and much of the good work that goes on in colleges will miss a large part of the population. We are told that parents will probably be helped by their children. When are we going to get sufficient support so that people are not so isolated? An older person, for example, may have a great deal more difficulty learning Braille than a younger person due to a slower capacity to learn. That is just the way it goes. Can the Government show us where they are taking action that allows people to tap into the resource of the new technology?
Effectively, this debate is simply calling for the Government to take note and show how they are doing their best to help people to find out what is out there and what answers are already in the field. I should have thought that that was not too much to ask of the Government, although I realise that it is a difficult and ongoing situation. However, if they can show us where they are embracing this technology, I am sure that many of the charitable organisations will do their best to ensure that everyone else finds out about it.
My Lords, like the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, I start my comments by saying that we all miss the wise words of the late Lady Darcy de Knayth. I am sure she would have contributed a lot to this debate from her oft stated view that disability is not an illness, although it can be caused by one. There is, as we know, a very wide spread of disability, both physical and mental, and, as has been pointed out, with 2.7 million people claiming incapacity benefit—it is soon to be called employment support allowance and the Minister will be able to tell me exactly when it will come in—it is right that we should consider how we can help them to help themselves. That is why this debate is so important.
Our guiding principle should be that, wherever possible, disabled people can participate in every aspect of life, and make their contribution to society. Inclusivity should be our watchword. Excellent though the charities Computers for the Disabled and U Can Do IT with its training for the blind, deaf and physically handicapped, are, the provision of either hardware or education in how to use it attacks only the causes of the problem, not the problem itself.
So, what is that problem? We know two things. The first is that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. The second is that many of them say that they want to work, and the Government have a long-term objective to reduce the number on incapacity benefits by 1 million by 2025, as the noble Lord, Lord Low, reminded us. It seems that that means tackling newly disabled people, not those on the current benefits.
One way in which we can achieve both aims—the relief of poverty and an increase in employment among disabled people—is through the use of computers. For all of us, whether able-bodied or not, the computer is a tool that has become all but essential. Through it, the user has access to an enormous amount of knowledge and the ability to communicate, so it opens the door to independence and social inclusion, including the possibility of playing partnership games, exchanging news and views on Facebook or whatever. That all those can be done at one’s own speed and time is often important for people with disabilities.
As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, reminded us, your Lordships have spent quite a lot of time recently addressing the distinct difficulties faced by people with mental illness, which was a theme running through our debates on the Welfare Reform Bill last year. Many such illnesses have an erratic effect so that a sufferer does not know in advance when that effect will prevent them doing anything constructive, whether in the world of work, or even in everyday living, such as cooking food or dusting shelves.
ME—myalgic encephalitis—is a case in point, where the sufferer has good days and bad days, so full-time employment is not suitable. It would be a particularly understanding employer who could tolerate not knowing when their employee was going to turn up. Severe cases of ME are often accompanied by anthropophobia or social phobia. In both cases working from home on a part-time basis could well be suitable and might even have a curative effect. With a computer you could find more than 7,200 part-time jobs, including 459 in the IT and internet sector, working from home, as I discovered with my admittedly limited computer skills on Thursday last when I was researching this debate.
All this fits neatly into the former Prime Minister's Strategy Unit report Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People. In it, the Government set out an ambitious vision. By 2025 in Britain, it said,
“disabled people should have full opportunities and choices to improve their quality of life and be respected and included as equal members of society”.
This is to be done by practical measures, identified as: independent living; support for families of young disabled children; transition into adulthood and support; and incentives for getting and staying in employment.
I was told on the grapevine that the Government had been conducting research into independent living and that a report was fairly imminent. Little did I realise just how imminent. By chance—or was it design, in response to the noble Viscount?—it was published just this morning. Although that report is not the main theme of this speech, it is item 4 of the Strategy Unit's report on,
“support and incentives for getting and staying in employment”,
which fits in neatly with what I have been saying.
However, the Government really must practise what they preach. What steps are HMG taking to support the training of disabled people so that they can obtain the full benefits of assistive technology both in and out of work? I know that local government spends a bit in this area, but the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, prompts me to ask what happens to computers that the Government—or, indeed, Parliament—no longer require due to our own need for constant improvements and upgrading? Would they not be suitable for the charity Computers for the Disabled?
There is always a temptation in this Chamber to speak from a middle-class standpoint. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, did not fall into this trap. There are, of course, many disabled people who simply cannot afford a computer for themselves. They need help. The charities, as the noble Lord pointed out, cannot do it all. The Government must step in.
As well as the basic hardware, there are, as the noble Lord, Lord Low, said, several quite simple add-ons that would make computers easier to use. The noble Lord was of course speaking from his own particular standpoint. I recognise that magnification or white-on-black software, Braille stickers on keyboards, larger-than-standard or on-screen keyboards for those with dexterity problems and joysticks or tracker balls all have their place in the scheme of things and exist now. It is simply a question of getting hold of them and learning how to use them.
I am sure that the Minister will refer in her reply to this morning’s report into independent living. I have not had time to read more than the executive summary as yet, but I am somewhat under-impressed. Much of it could have been extracted from the Second Reading speeches on the recent Bills of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, on the subject. However, I note that Her Majesty’s Government intend to increase the disabled facilities grant. The trouble with that is that it tends to be for “things”, not education. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to tell us that there is some thought being given to extending it into the education field. If some of that extra money finds its way into computer training for disabled people in their own homes, this debate will have served a useful purpose.
I also hope that the noble Baroness will feed this evening’s Hansard into the independent living strategy consultation because, in part at least, it responds to consultation question number 2, which is that the unit would welcome views on current arrangements for promoting the involvement of disabled people and their organisations and the contribution these arrangements may make to the monitoring of the independent living strategy. As we have heard from around the House, there is precious little on training disabled people in the use of computers, so we await with interest the noble Baroness’s response to the undoubted need of disabled people highlighted by the debate of the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland.
My Lords, I start by joining the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, by saying how sadly I miss Lady Darcy de Knayth in our discussions tonight. She was a wonderful Member of your Lordships’ House, and I am very sorry that we have lost her. I also join the noble Lord, Lord Low, who sometimes feels like my noble friend, in stressing that tonight’s debate has been about quality, not necessarily quantity, although noble Lords have come in and listened to the debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, suggested, I shall take tonight’s Hansard and circulate it to all those involved in the consultation regarding the independent living review.
In responding to this short debate I wish to re-emphasise this Government’s absolute commitment to promoting equality of opportunity. We recognise how vital it is that disabled people play a full and active part in society. I particularly welcome the opportunity the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, has presented to us to highlight the importance of computer training for disabled people in their own home, and I hope I will be able to set out the steps that we have taken to provide such training and what our programmes will deliver going forward. The Government have a strong record of commitment and delivery in services and for improvising opportunities for disabled people, but we are not complacent about how much more there is to do.
However, I should like to put on record a few things. For example, in the past three years we have signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and we expect to ratify it by the end of this year. That is a major commitment that covers every aspect of our work. Another example is that we have created the new Equality and Human Rights Commission, which provides a stronger legal framework and supports the rights of disabled people within a united equalities framework. We launched the report Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People, which has already been referred to. It details all government departments’ actions and today it was reinforced by the publication of the independent living strategy. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, referred to it. I am sorry he felt disappointed by it, and I hope that in time he will come round. That strategy for disabled people sets out the intention—this is an extremely important point—that every locality will have a single community-based system of support for disabled people. I do not wish to be complacent about the enormity of the task, but that strategy brings together the work of government departments to focus on a community-based system of support for disabled people.
My noble friend Lord Giddens highlighted the fact that there is a significant gap between the numbers of able-bodied and disabled people in employment. I recognise that is an important challenge for us. However, we have focused on the needs of disabled people through welfare reform so that the gap in the employment rates of disabled people and non-disabled people has been reduced from 35 per cent in 1998 to 26 per cent in 2007, although there is much more to do. We have also increased the disabled students allowance in higher education for non-medical helpers and postgraduates by 60 per cent and enabled students to cover their care needs while studying.
However, the Government are not complacent. Our work is underpinned by legislation. I would particularly cite the duties placed on public bodies through the Disability Discrimination Act, which requires institutions such as schools, colleges and universities to ensure that they provide learning in accessible ways and anticipate the needs of disabled students. Central to the continued progress we must make, we have established strong consultation forums with stakeholders, the third sector and disabled people through bodies such as the Learning Disabilities Task Force, to ensure that we are informed by the voices and influence of disabled people, and we are constantly challenged on how to go forward, not least by your Lordships’ House.
My department has recently launched World Class Skills, the skills strategy, which responds to the enormous challenges set out in the Leitch review of skills. We must be absolutely clear that we need to involve disabled people much more in the workplace and in the skills strategy if we are to come anywhere close to achieving the challenging targets that Leitch set for us. We intend to invest £1.5 billion per year in the skills agenda. It is vital that we make significant progress in supporting the most vulnerable groups and that disabled people are part of achieving the Leitch agenda.
The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, asked for fresh thinking in this area. One of the most important areas of fresh thinking to which I should like to draw attention is that we are piloting Skills Accounts, which will give the individual the opportunity to acquire the training needed either to enter work or to stay in work and progress. Training disabled people in their homes in computer use and other forms of e-learning will be one element in a whole series of approaches that place the individual at the centre, giving them control to say what they need to take advantage of employment and education. That is fresh thinking from the Government
Collaborative working is vital, as my noble friend Lord Giddens and others pointed out. Last year, we launched a far-reaching cross-government strategy for learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities called Progression through Partnership, which emphasised that it was essential for government departments and their delivery partners to work together to break down the barriers facing disabled people.
For school-age learners, the Department for Children, Schools and Families is responsible for the Home Access programme. This seeks to provide home access to the internet for all learners regardless of their circumstances, about which my noble friend was concerned. For adults, there is the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency with its UK Online centres, which promote the use of computers. There are about 6,000 of those centres around the country. One in 10 users of the UK Online centres is disabled and those centres are now using a new tool called MyGuide, which has been rated very highly by disabled people.
The debate has raised awareness of the activities of organisations in the third sector and their success is well worth commending. My department has been impressed by the work of u can Do IT. Recently, officials in the department met representatives of the charity and we are discussing how we can work together in future. It is always a shame when charities produce great briefings but do not send them to the Government as well. Then we could see in bold terms what they are trying to say.
We have also been impressed by other organisations, such as Digital Unite and AbilityNet. Providing access to IT at home and individual support, has introduced many thousands of people, especially older people, to computers and the internet. Between them, those organisations show how successful training disabled people in their own homes can be.
The Government understand the importance of computers to disabled people. In future, we will drive forward that agenda by using the conclusions of the Home Access Task Force report to evaluate ways to deliver training on computers to disabled students of school age, explore ways in which we can extend the positive experiences of programmes run through UK Online centres and the third sector, and by finding ways to build in-home training into individual packages for disabled people through Job Centre Plus reforms and the development of personalisation and individualisation in all departments. Following the review of the Disability Employment Services, we hope to maximise the impact of programmes such as the DWP’s Access to Work and my department’s skills accounts through greater co-operation between government departments and delivery partners. The concern of the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, can be picked up there. There really is an opportunity to look at the gap between the employment services and the need to help people become closer to them. I hope that we can discuss this concept a little more.
I am afraid that rather a lot of detailed questions were asked. My noble friend Lord Giddens asked whether there were plans for IT training for young people. There are indeed. There are plans through the home access programme, to which I already referred. He also asked whether the Government have any plans to engage with IT companies. He makes a very important point. I hope that I can look into that a little more and get back to him, as I do not have an adequate answer for him tonight.
Resources for training in the home are available through UK Online, which is piloting tutor support in the home—the Dewsbury digital village is an example—which could be very helpful indeed. We also plan to include IT training in the development of skills accounts. I think noble Lords will be very interested to see how that unfolds.
I was asked about awareness and whether we are systematically targeting people with disabilities to ensure that they know about the services on offer. This brings me right back to the independent living strategy, which has an awareness campaign aimed at practitioners in social services, the NHS and elsewhere and at disabled people themselves to ensure that health, social care and other services are delivered in ways that enable disabled people to have choice and control over how their needs are met. That surely must include the need for support for IT equipment in the home where people are housebound.
I am afraid that I am running very short of time and have many points to which to respond. I will have to respond in writing to noble Lords but I close by reiterating that we are absolutely committed to achieving equality by 2025. I absolutely recognise the role of IT and that support for disabled people in the home to learn about IT and accessing it is essential. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for securing the debate and noble Lords for taking part.