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Disabled People

Volume 727: debated on Thursday 5 May 2011


Moved by

To call attention to the impact of government policies on disabled people; and to move for papers.

My Lords, I begin by saying how sorry I am that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, will be answering the debate. I say that not because I am sorry to see the noble Lord, but because the noble Lord, Lord Freud, cannot be here as planned because he has been involved in a motoring accident and has had to be taken to hospital. However, I am happy to say that he is all right and, I believe, will soon be back with us. I am sure that I speak for everybody when I say that we send him our very best wishes for a speedy return to the House.

I thank all noble Lords who have put their names down to speak. I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords when I say that I am particularly looking forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Fellowes of West Stafford. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, very much wanted to be here, but he has asked me to say how sorry he is that he cannot be present owing to a long-standing commitment elsewhere. It is indeed an irony that, in the 40th anniversary year of the coming into force of his historic Act, we should be discussing the possible rolling back of so many of the gains for disabled people that it set in train.

It is a cliché that the civilisation of a society is measured by the way it treats its most vulnerable members. That is a test that the Government certainly acknowledge, as they have made many statements to the effect that they intend to introduce their austerity measures in such a way as to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected. However, there is a real risk that the Government are failing their own test, for next Wednesday we will see the largest ever lobby of Parliament by disabled people—more than 10,000 of them, angry at the prospect that, far from being protected, they are being hardest hit of all by the Government’s measures. They are angry and fearful. There is a sense that Ministers are not listening, so I hope that they will see today’s debate as a welcome opportunity to improve the dialogue.

The coalition’s programme for government states that the Government will ensure that,

“fairness is at the heart”

of decision-making so that,

“those most in need are protected”.

Let us look at the baseline from which such a pledge should be judged. In fact, the link between disability and poverty through lower incomes and higher costs is well established. On almost any indicator of poverty or disadvantage, disabled people are significantly overrepresented, with research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the New Policy Institute finding that disabled people are around twice as likely to live in relative poverty as non-disabled people. Disabled people are also more likely to rely on state benefits as a significant source of their income and face extra costs directly related to their impairment, such as increased fuel bills, medical costs or a contribution to the cost of their social care. Official poverty figures do not take account of these additional costs. However, if they were factored in, they would suggest that well over half of disabled people in the United Kingdom live below the poverty line.

The impression is often given that the welfare budget is out of control as a result of unfounded claims of sickness and disability, but in reality the greater part of the growth in the welfare bill seen in the past 10 years has been on pensions as a result of demographic factors, families with children and low-income workers. Sir Bert Massie, former chair of the Disability Rights Commission, has also referred to the rhetoric around welfare, which paints disabled people as welfare cheats. In fact, most of the stories in the press about disabled scroungers are not about disabled people at all but are about non-disabled people pretending to be disabled.

The Government’s flagship policy for addressing the poverty of disabled people is their programme to get disabled people off welfare and into work. This aspiration, in particular the simplification of welfare through the universal credit, is welcome. As always, however, the devil is in the detail. The Welfare Reform Bill currently makes no provision within the universal credit for the enhanced disability premium or severe disability premium, worth £13.65 and £53.65 a week respectively for a single person. Without these premiums thousands of disabled people with the greatest needs will be left without the support they need to meet the extra costs of disability. Nor do we know whether the system of disregards will replicate the disability element of working tax credit or enable couples who both have an impairment to retain its equivalent to which they have each been entitled individually up to now. Can the Minister assure us that the move to universal credit will not have these untoward and no doubt unintended but certainly self-defeating consequences? However, the development of the universal credit is going in broadly the right direction. The same cannot be said of the Government’s other measures designed to support their welfare to work agenda.

I say at the outset that the agenda remains correct. Disabled people want to work and do not want to be written off on welfare. We had a debate in the RNIB—here I declare my interest both as a vice-president and a disabled person—about whether we wanted to hang on to incapacity benefit and we came down firmly against sending a signal that blind people were not able to work. However, we said that conditionality applied as much to government as to disabled people. If disabled people were to be expected to undertake work-related activity to get them close to the labour market and ideally into work, they should be entitled to expect that there will be a job at the end of the road and that the Government will be held to account for providing the necessary support while they got there and for removing the barriers to the employment of disabled people.

The Government have a massive programme to reassess more than 1.5 million people on incapacity benefit by 2013 to see whether they qualify for employment and support allowance. However, the assessment process is deeply flawed. Forty per cent of appeals are successful, and there is widespread dissatisfaction with Atos Healthcare, the company carrying out the assessments. There are also serious concerns with the way that the process is being handled. The descriptors in the work capability assessment have been repeatedly revised over recent years so as to raise the bar for claimants. Further changes are now being rushed through before Professor Harrington has concluded the all-important second stage of his review, against the advice of the Social Security Advisory Committee. In particular, the committee felt that the work capability assessment measured theoretical work capability and took insufficient account of the realities of the work environment and the labour market, which has not enabled significant numbers to move into employment, even in relatively favourable pre-recession conditions. Some 92 per cent of employers say that they would find it difficult or impossible to employ someone who is blind or partially sighted, for instance. Now we learn that increasing numbers of disabled people are experiencing rigorous reassessments of their access-to-work support packages, which is hardly going to ameliorate the situation.

The vast majority of incapacity benefit claimants have been on benefit for at least five years, which puts them a very long way indeed from the labour market. Yet, following the changes to the work capability assessment, the Government estimate that around a quarter of these claimants will fail to qualify for ESA, which will mean that they have to make a claim for jobseeker’s allowance or some other benefit or lose their benefit altogether. Can the Minister say what support will be available for disabled people who fail the work capability assessment but nevertheless face significant barriers in finding work?

Even if you qualify for ESA—employment and support allowance—you may be no better off, because anyone receiving contributory ESA from next April who is in the work-related activity group will have payment of their benefit means tested after 12 months. This change is to be made retrospective. People will still be able to apply for income-related ESA after their contributory ESA ends, but if their partner is earning as little as £150 or working 24 hours or more a week, they will no longer be eligible for ESA. These are particularly savage policies going far beyond anything contemplated in the Thatcher era. They will cause great hardship and have a devastating effect on the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people. It is estimated that by 2015-16, 700,000 people will be affected by limiting contributory ESA to one year: 203,000 will lose on average £11 a week; 217,000 will lose £22 a week; and 280,000, a good 40 per cent, will lose as much as £89 a week. To people forced to live on benefit, these figures are mind-boggling.

Disabled people see this as a betrayal of the citizen by the state. People have paid in through tax and national insurance contributions in the belief that if they became sick or disabled the benefits system would support them as they came to terms with their impairment, retrained and moved towards work again. The Minister may say that disabled people with a partner in work or with savings of more than £16,000 have other means of support and should use them, as people on contributory JSA have to after only six months. However, this totally fails to appreciate the difference between someone who is work-ready on JSA and a disabled person who may need some years of support to enter work. Most important of all, there simply are not the jobs to enable someone on ESA to get a job within 12 months. The number of long-term unemployed far outstrips the number of job vacancies. DWP figures show that only 13 per cent of people on the Pathways to Work programme in 2008-09 returned to work within one year. How is one to account for this, other than in terms of coalition heartlessness—picking on disabled people, to cut the deficit, by returning us to the hard-faced days of the means test? That is certainly how it is seen by those marching next Wednesday and engaging the week after in a week of action against Atos Healthcare.

I prefer to think of it differently. I know the Minister; he is not a hard man. I believe that he genuinely wants to reform a welfare system that has kept disabled people in a state of dependency and out of work for too long, by making it pay to be in work. However, Ministers have become mesmerised by this rhetoric to the point where they fail to see the consequences of the policies they are pursuing. Making work pay is not the same as seeing to it that it does not pay to be out of work. Using the threat of loss of benefit in an attempt to force people who are not work-ready to work, or for whom there is no work, is plain sadistic.

The Government should freeze their plans to migrate more than a million and a half incapacity benefit claimants on to ESA from April this year until they can implement the recommendations of the Harrington review, and they should reconsider their approach to contributory ESA. At the very least, I ask the Minister to undertake—as the noble Lord, Lord Freud, did recently with respect to the changes to housing benefit—to carry out a review of what happens to people who are found to be fit for work and therefore unable to claim ESA.

I have concentrated on welfare to work because it is the Government’s flagship policy and represents their strategic approach to dealing with the poverty of disabled people. However, there is more—much, much more—that I can only touch on, and I leave it to others to say more on those points if they wish to.

Expenditure on disability living allowance, which helps people with the extra costs that disability brings, is to be cut by a fifth. The Government have said that they will review the withdrawal of the mobility component from state-funded claimants living in residential care, which was planned to take effect in 2012 and has caused particular anger. However, Clause 83 of the Welfare Reform Bill still denies entitlement to personal independence payment for anyone living in a care home, and the impact assessment suggests that 78,000 disabled people will still lose out. Closure of the Independent Living Fund will hit some of the most severely disabled.

Most astonishingly of all, the Government have recently included the entire Equality Act that we passed in this House just last year within their red tape challenge, which invites members of the public to comment on regulations with a view to their being simplified or scrapped. Not surprisingly, this has caused huge concern among disabled people; if carried through, it would sweep away at a stroke all the provisions that flow from the Disability Discrimination Act, which has been such a potent vehicle for protecting and advancing the interests of disabled people. I invite the Minister to disavow any such intention on the part of the Government.

As support from central government is withdrawn, so it is from local government. This represents a double whammy. Eighty per cent of councils in England expect by the end of this financial year to help only disabled people whose needs are assessed as being critical, substantial or—in the case of Birmingham City Council—super-critical. “Critical” effectively means life-threatening. How is one to account for this except in terms of crude cost-cutting? Time-limiting contributory ESA will save £2 billion, and DLA a further £2.17 billion. The disability contribution, as we might call it, to reducing the deficit is therefore larger than that sought from the banks through the banking levy, which is to be only £2.5 billion. This therefore represents a clear choice on the part of the Government to go for welfare rather than the parts of the economy that caused the problem in the first place. It is a clear choice, but is it fair and is it necessary?

When we were in a much worse position at the end of the Second World War, we were able to found the National Health Service and introduce a Disabled Persons (Employment) Act. We have to ask, have our Government got their priorities right?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, for initiating this debate. I want to make a brief contribution. Unlike most of today’s speakers, many of whom have a distinguished record in this field, I am afraid that I have no special knowledge or personal experience of disability. As a trade union leader, however, I had responsibility over many years for representing members with disabilities, and I have always taken a serious interest in these issues—in particular, in the employment prospects of those with disabilities.

In the process of some work I was doing recently as a member of the scrutiny panel of the Sayce review of the employment of people with disabilities, I was reminded of the contribution made to the working lives of the disabled by an organisation that we all recognise by the name of Remploy. As noble Lords will know, it is a provider of specialist employment services focused on people with disabilities and health conditions who are furthest from the job market. Most of us will probably relate to Remploy through knowledge of its 54 factories, which I will briefly mention later, but may be less aware of the first-class employment service provided by Remploy, which helps those with disabilities to find work. It has an excellent record and had an outstanding year in 2010. The Remploy employment service was successful in finding more than 10,000 jobs in mainstream employment for disabled people and those experiencing complex barriers to work. That represents an increase of almost 40 per cent on the previous year. I hope that the Minister will join me in congratulating Remploy on that achievement.

There have also been considerable achievements in Remploy’s enterprise businesses. As well as providing employment for 2,800 disabled people in 54 factories, its business also supported an additional 600 people with barriers to employment with training programmes in its factories to prepare them for the world of work. The frontline Remploy business in 2010 secured and delivered an important £15 million contract from the Home Office to supply more than 20,000 specialist protection suits to 53 police forces in England, Wales and Scotland. That is just the sort of work that Remploy workers need to enjoy the satisfaction and dignity of contributing to our economic well-being.

Unfortunately, however, the recession and the government policy of cutting back public expenditure have had serious effects on Remploy’s order books in 2011, resulting in a lack of activity in the factories, with some having few or no new orders. I know that the previous Government and their Ministers supported the business and fully recognised its difficulties in times of recession. I should very much like to hear that Ministers in the present Government share that view, that there is no change in that position and that everything will be done to help the Remploy factories to be successful.

I know that there is a modernisation plan which covers the first two years of the spending review, which I understand will not be impacted. I believe that the Government have given that commitment, and I am very pleased about that. However, we need a way forward which secures job opportunities and meaningful work for people with disabilities, not just in the Remploy situation but across the whole of the economy. Again, I should like to know that the Minister shares that view and that his Government are committed to that aim.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Low, for introducing the debate and look forward to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Fellowes, who is two down the list from me.

This debate has taken on a tone to which all those on the government Benches must listen carefully. People are very worried at the moment. Probably the most inept thing we have heard is that the Equality Act is regarded as red tape. I do not know whether I would support it if I were told that it was red tape. Let us put it this way, I would have to be convinced that it was either that or killing the firstborn. A good few of my colleagues would be with me on that one. The Government must explain that more clearly. Most of what has been done all around this House for a long time has been working towards one solid body of law which allows us to defend the rights of minorities. I do not know who described it as red tape, but whoever it is should be made to come to explain to us why. It will lead to fear. Fear does not lead to rational debate.

The continuity of approach should be recognised. The previous Government worked hard to try to get the disabled into work. They tried initiatives; they pumped money in; but they had limited success. The implementation of that policy proved to be difficult. The interface between those we were trying to help and the government machine proved extremely difficult to manage. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, who is not taking part in this debate, demonstrated a continuity of approach at Question Time today on the matter of pensions. In this area there is a degree of continuity of thought. The previous Government said that they would train people to do undertake the interviews: the one-stop shop. That was a good idea. They said that people would get hours and hours more help. I said, “Will you train them sufficiently to know when they should back down and bring in an expert?”. “We’ll get more training”, they said. Unless we get people sufficiently trained, with authority to bring in the expert, when they are dealing with people with very individual, complicated needs, there will be mistakes. The real problem is making mistakes and missing the target. Unless we can address that in more depth, we will continue to make mistakes. Giving people unnecessary problems leads to costs further down the line. That is a well-known fact. If we do not pick it up here, we pick it up in the health service.

With that in mind, I turn to something which I can thank Ministers for addressing. Let us say that it was a Treasury Bench cock-up, which started under the previous Government, reached a peak under this Government and has been dealt with by them. The National Apprenticeship Service was convinced that dyslexics should not be able to take apprenticeships because they could not pass part of the communication test, which was a written test. Both current government parties raised that in opposition and got what we thought were assurances. I then discovered, through casework which I occasionally found myself doing, that people were being denied, which was in direct contradiction of the Equality Act and the Disability Discrimination Act before it. Somebody thought, perhaps, “We’re business. We’re different. We’re applying for business services”, and so the Act did not apply to them.

Dyslexics are allowed to take degrees, by the way. I must declare an interest here. I am chairman of a company that provides computer software and support to allow people to use voice-to-text and text-to-voice technology. That is fairly old technology, but it is improving. It is being polished. We have been doing that for years. They can do that, but people who work practically with their hands outside, where literacy problems should be less of a burden, were being excluded. The noble Lord, Lord Low, led the charge, not particularly on the part of dyslexics but on that of others in the field. He got there in front of me. I am getting used to the view of the back of the noble Lord’s head as he charges into these fields. We intervened. John Hayes, who is a Minister in a different department from the one that the noble Lord usually deals with, said to me in a meeting on Tuesday, “This is ridiculous. Let’s sort it out”. I cleared with him that I could say that today.

This matter cuts across all departments and we must get into it as a government-wide project. Unless we do, we will make problems worse. We must make sure we target access across government. We must make sure that Parliament is vigilant and that the legislation we pass is implemented. There is enough legislation now. After years of trying, we have done enough. We have to get into the system and say, “You are not an exception. The defence of reasonableness does not mean that you can say it is inconvenient for you to implement the legislation. You have to do it as a duty”.

Any change leads to fear. The Government have a duty to make sure that people have a degree of confidence that overall the change will be for the better. If we do not do that, no matter what we do, we will fail to achieve at the right level. That has probably been true for a long time for all government initiatives. We have to be prepared to explain what effort, time and indeed even money, even in these circumstances, are being expended to get the best out of these changes. If we do not do that, we will end up with more ridiculous situations like the one that I have just described, where people are worried about going through processes because they are unable to get from them the necessary rewards, and we will end up going nowhere.

All of us in this House and in another place have a duty to honour the undertakings that we have made. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to assure me that the red tape idea will not filter down and affect the basic laws that we have passed to protect the disabled.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Low, for securing this debate. As always, his timing is impeccable. Today, I shall confine my remarks to independent living. I was thinking, “Goodness, I’ve got to declare my interests”, but, to be honest, as my entire contribution reflects both a professional and personal interest, I should like all noble Lords to take it as read that I have a big declared interest in this area.

Over the past 40 years, successive government policies have liberated disabled people by increasing the choice and control that we have over our lives. We call this independent living. It is not simply about being helped to get up, to go to bed and to get out of the front door; it is about getting the support needed to access all life’s opportunities, such as work, leisure and family life—in fact, all the things that non-disabled people take for granted.

All Governments have stated their desire to maximise disabled people’s choice and control, and they have clearly recognised that by introducing policies and legislation to realise that goal. The Community Care (Direct Payments) Act, the Independent Living Fund and the Government’s strategy, Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People, are but a few notable achievements. Most importantly, Governments have provided the money necessary to put them into practice, and that, as we have seen over the past decade, has generated cost savings.

Disabled people are now visible. We witness them working, raising families, supporting others through volunteering, and even securing debates and speaking in this Chamber. Alas, this progress is possibly now at risk. When this coalition Government came to power, they rightly needed to spend wisely and to cut wherever possible, but their treatment so far of essential independent living support for disabled people has become alarmingly unwise and potentially even dangerous. I can point to three policies that are having a cumulative effect of putting independent living at risk and of turning back the clock on this Government’s past brilliant reforms regarding independent living.

The first is the refusal to ring-fence any of the additional £2 billion of social care money made available to local authorities directly to support independent living for disabled people. The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services estimates that local authorities have cut £1 billion from the social care budget before we even begin. A quarter of these cuts are going to be to front-line services for older and disabled people. The second is the decision to close the Independent Living Fund without local authorities being in a position to replace it, as was the position before. The fund is already closed to new applicants, denying disabled people entering adulthood the same opportunities that their older peers enjoy. Thirdly, the Government say that they intend to reduce the disability living allowance budget by 20 per cent, representing a cut of £2.17 billion for working-age adults.

These policy decisions do not just turn back the clock on independent living; I think that they could take us back to the 1970s or even the 1960s, when basic needs, such as living safely in one’s home, eating and drinking, and using the toilet when you needed to, let alone when you wanted to, were not properly met. I should like to give noble Lords one very clear example.

At this point, Baroness Wilkins continued the speech for Baroness Campbell of Surbiton.

Elaine McDonald is a retired prima ballerina who became severely disabled. She received night-time assistance with visiting the toilet. However, her local council says that it can no longer afford to provide this assistance and says that she must now sleep on incontinence pads. She unsuccessfully appealed the decision and is taking her case to the Supreme Court. Why must she be forced to go through all this? Would any of your Lordships consider it reasonable to be required to lie in their own urine and faeces? The Human Rights Act includes the right not to be subjected to degrading treatment. Slopping out in our prisons was outlawed as a result. Does Elaine McDonald have fewer rights because she is a disabled woman?

That example is not unique. Government policies mean that this country is failing in its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 19 of that convention recognises the equal right of all disabled people to,

“live in the community, with choices equal to others”.

It requires that states take “effective and appropriate measures” to ensure that disabled people fully access the right to,

“full inclusion and participation in the community”.

Social care services make human rights possible. Cutting services means that a person with a communication impairment may be denied freedom of expression because they are refused the equipment and assistance that they need to communicate. Someone with a mobility impairment may be denied the equipment and assistance needed to leave the house. Elaine McDonald will be denied basic human dignity and be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment.

Independent living, which is what Article 19 is about, is what makes us human. It is about our rights to autonomy, to self-determination and to make the most basic, as well as the most important, choices about our lives. All political parties recognise the importance of that and supported the five-year independent living strategy. This committed the Government to taking action to ensure that,

“All disabled people will have the same choice, control and freedom as every other citizen”.

At this point, Baroness Campbell of Surbiton resumed.

Can the Minister please explain how current government policies are compatible with that aim?

Of course, these government policies do not only harm disabled people; they also damage carers, 80 per cent of whom are women who are left to pick up the pieces. Denying support to disabled people equally means denying support to carers, as well as denying them their independence.

To help us to understand the thinking behind the Government’s strategy for independent living for disabled people, we need to know what independent living impact assessments were conducted before the policy decisions were taken to close the Independent Living Fund and to cut 20 per cent from the DLA budget. Will the Minister please make these available to us in the Library? He will undoubtedly tell us that making personalised independent living support a reality has been adequately funded and that it is up to local authorities to spend wisely. That will not do. It suits the Government and local authorities to blame each other and disabled people are left in the middle. Who do we believe? Disabled people are caught up in this ping-pong match and have no avenue other than to go to court to challenge decisions. We know that that is an impossible route for 99 per cent of disabled people.

Our support should be ring-fenced, not left to localism to get it right. These are our human rights. Will the Minister give his personal commitment to ring-fence money for independent living support at a local level? I know that this Government’s policy of localism is often seen to be at odds with ring-fencing but disabled people’s human rights depend on it. Otherwise, more of us will be forced into residential care against our will, or be found alone gasping for a drink or to go to the toilet. The UK Government will be ignoring their responsibilities under the Human Rights Act and Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Minister will be aware that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am privileged to be a member, is now conducting an inquiry into the implementation of the right to independent living for disabled people. His response in this debate will help inform that inquiry and I look forward to hearing it.

My Lords, I have stood before many different audiences in my life, but few as impressive or as daunting as your Lordships. Indeed, I am every day made more aware of the wealth of knowledge and experience by which I am surrounded on every side, making me both humble to have been included in your Lordships’ company and amazed by the support that I have received since my arrival.

I must first thank my sponsors, my noble friends, Lord Northbrook and Lord Marland, my patient mentor, my noble friend Lady Seccombe, and my Whip, my noble friend Lady Rawlings, both of whom have taken so much time and care to lead me through the steps of the dance. Of course, like all of us, I am indebted to the staff who are an outstanding example in their dedication to their tasks. I must especially remember Mrs Banks, who made it her business to ensure that my introduction ran smoothly. It will always remain one of the great days of my life.

Like many Members of your Lordships’ House, I have come to you by a circuitous route, although I was, I suspect, originally destined for a less bumpy and varied journey than the one I have travelled. My upbringing was a traditional one, largely dictated by my dear father who was as straight as a ruled line and who expected, after Ampleforth and Cambridge, that I would seek my goals in the predictable arenas of diplomacy or the City. Instead, for reasons now lost to me, I opted for the hurly burly of show business, passing through drama school and the now extinct system of repertory theatre before coming to London in a comedy, “A Touch of Spring”—a chance that I was given because I was the only actor they could find who was stupid enough to fall down a staircase eight times a week.

However, my arrival in the industry was not well timed. This was the early 1970s, a period of intense political activity, and both my perceived circumstance and my unfashionable allegiance to the Tories rendered me quite wrong for the prevailing zeitgeist. Before very long, I had been told I need not even try to audition for the RSC; I was deselected from a television show, in which I had been cast, because the star would not work with a Conservative; and when I was requested by the director of a restoration revival at the National Theatre, the casting director told me herself this would not happen because my sort of actor was, “better off on the other side of the river”—in other words, in the less intellectually challenging West End. There is a kind of hopelessness when faced with this sort of thing which I would like to think none of your Lordships has encountered, but I know full well that many of you have. It is distressing because it is invariably denied and consequently almost impossible to fight.

Eventually, despairing of my chances here, in the 1980s I left for Los Angeles. Since my intention was to become a film star, I cannot pretend the move was a succès fou, my highest point being the day when I came second to replace the dwarf on “Fantasy Island”, but it was a useful adventure all the same and I came home reinvigorated to find that both the mood in the business and I, myself, had changed. I married and had in fact achieved a respectable acting career and had begun to write when Robert Altman approached me to work on a version of the country house murder mystery. This was in every sense my lucky break, and I was fortunate in being old enough, at 50, to recognise it. When “Gosford Park” was released, I won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, an experience I can heartily recommend, and it led to many opportunities for which I am most grateful.

However, my early years in the business have never left me. This is not a complaint. Indeed, I am sure that the bursting of my bubble of self-confidence was a powerful spur. Like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, I had to run twice as fast to stay in the same place, and it served me well. Nevertheless, I have experienced the strangeness of being disliked not for who but for what I am. It is strange, as too many of you will recognise, to be dismissed—or even just assessed—by people who do not take the trouble to know you at all. It has left me with a lasting distaste for generalisations when it comes to people. I do not just mean racist views or religious intolerance, but any opinion about a nationality or an age group, a class, or the members of a club or political party. Even in the pseudo-tribute of praising this group for its rhythm, or that one for its handling of money, there is a patronising distance, a we-they attitude that is never helpful.

Possibly no group suffers more from a sometimes benevolent but still ignorant tendency to lump them all together than disabled people. Disablement, whether severe or, as in the case of the majority, something that with proper understanding and training is perfectly compatible with a full and fulfilled life, is no guide whatever to the personality or potential of the sufferer.

I should here declare an interest. For some years, one of my hats has been as chairman of the RNIB Talking Books appeal, a cause that embraces both my enthusiasm for literacy in all its forms, as well as for the empowerment of the disabled—in this case the blind. The organisation is pleasingly non-political—or cross-political. I succeeded the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, and we both consecutively served under the benign chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Low, who has initiated this discussion, today. Above all, I am an admirer of the RNIB’s conviction that blind people should strive for autonomy. In our recording studios in Camden Town, several of the technicians are themselves blind—a living demonstration that disability need not be an embargo to an interesting career, requiring specialist knowledge and highly developed skills.

Surely this must be the guiding principle of any government support for the disabled: a permanent and funded emphasis on helping them take their place in the workforce and in the world. For this reason, and in the mildest possible maiden speech sort of way—and while I am fully aware of the need for cuts at a time when our debts have spiralled not just beyond control but almost beyond comprehension—I would yet argue, like the noble Lord, Lord Low, that, in the coming changes, the employment and support allowance in particular should be as strongly defended as is compatible with the coalition's plans.

There is a suggestion that one year's assistance to find work is to be considered enough, the period to include the 13 weeks required by the initial assessment. However, there is such a thing as a false economy and, as my late mother used to say, “sometimes it's cheaper to pay”. Just as with health spending on blind people, there is no question that money spent on sight loss, where many conditions are now curable, will always cost the country less than supporting the sufferer who could have been cured and is not. Similarly, I remind the powers that if there could be some leeway in the area of training, the resulting gainful employment of disabled candidates would save the state a fortune.

My years at the RNIB and working with other charities, not least Changing Faces, an organisation that deals with shockingly severe facial disfigurement, have convinced me that the core philosophy when dealing with all forms of disablement must be inclusion. These are the days of the big society, and that must mean concentrating on the common ground that binds us all. Above all, it means talking to disabled people in the first person, and not about them in the third.

We hear a lot on the subject of human rights, and I know that I must avoid contention, but I am confident that there is one human right at least that we would all of us, on every side, defend. That is the right to dream. Disabled people must be allowed their dreams of how they would spend their lives, as well as a reasonable chance to achieve them. If their ambitions are unlikely, so what? So were mine, and they all came to pass. However, the dreams of most of our disabled community are not unlikely; they are quite realistic, if they can only persuade our society to treat them as fully paid-up members of it.

My Lords, I am delighted to welcome and congratulate a fellow trade unionist in your Lordships' House. The noble Lord, Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, and I, are both members of Equity. As far as I know, he is the fifth thespian to enter your Lordships' House as a life Peer. The first, of course, was Laurence Olivier. The second was Bernard Miles. I came in 19 years ago with my trousers firmly belted and braced, and Dickie Attenborough followed a year later. I am sure that all of us in your Lordships’ House would like to send our best wishes to the noble Lord, Lord Attenborough, who alas is still suffering from his severe accident a few years ago. Now we welcome the fifth member of the acting profession, Julian Fellowes.

There the similarity between us ceases. The noble Lord, Lord Fellowes, is still an actor, although he is now best known for his writing. I gave up acting 34 years ago but he forges ahead, particularly as a writer of successful screenplays. “Gosford Park” was his first huge success. More recently, I am sure that all of us have enjoyed “Downton Abbey” and look forward to seeing its sequel in the not too distant future. Judging by his excellent maiden speech, the noble Lord promises to be as great an asset to your Lordships' House as he is to the world of theatre, television and film. We all welcome him and look forward to his further contributions.

I congratulate also my noble friend Lord Low on securing this timely debate. I begin by declaring a personal interest as president of Mencap and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Learning Disability, along with the right honourable Tom Clarke. It is through forums such as these that I have heard first-hand accounts of the impact that certain government policies might have on disabled people.

To put this issue in context, I will refer to the coalition Government's promise in the coalition agreement document that they will ensure that “fairness” is at the heart of their decisions,

“so that all those most in need are protected".

Additionally, in June of last year, the Government stated their commitment to create fairness in society, and dignity and respect for disabled people. These pledges are very welcome and it is imperative that this continues to be the Government's prime consideration when pursuing their policies. This is particularly poignant in light of the current climate of cuts, efficiency gains and the drive to find savings. While I appreciate the current financial pressures that the coalition Government are under, there can be no excuse for allowing disabled people to suffer as a result.

Only a few weeks ago, Birmingham City Council lost a court case in the wake of its attempt to change its eligibility criteria so that any needs that were not “critical” would no longer be paid for. Further, even before the local government settlement late last year, 74 per cent of local authorities only provided care for those with “critical” or “substantial” needs. This is a worrying trend that compromises the social care provision for people whose support needs can least afford to be compromised. Effective social care can make a huge difference to the quality of someone's life and, crucially, this support often allows disabled people to access other services such as education, health and transport. To reduce this support would be to undermine the positive impact on the lives of disabled people and is certainly not a reflection of the Government's pledge to ensure fairness, dignity and respect for this group.

I fully support the announcement in the CSR that an additional £2 billion will be allocated for social care over the next four years, and see this as evidence that the coalition Government are aware, to some extent at least, of the importance of social care. Nevertheless, the policies of devolution as part of the localism agenda carry significant risks that local authorities will look to cut corners. I have already mentioned the issue of reduced eligibility criteria, but there are also significant concerns around the de-ring-fencing of social care funding. When these are coupled with reductions in allocations to local authorities, there is the distinct danger that disabled people will be negatively affected. Additionally, while I welcome the concept of personalised care and support, I caution that disabled people are at risk of being denied the necessary choice and control if an adequate number of good-quality local services is not provided, and if local authorities view personalisation as a means to save money. This must be addressed, and I urge the Government not to shirk their responsibility in this regard.

As the topic for debate is so broad, I will also cover a few other policies in forthcoming Bills that are particularly relevant to disabled people. The first of these are contained in the Welfare Reform Bill, which is currently in Committee in the Commons and which, I anticipate, will be thoroughly considered when it reaches us in the Lords. First, to offer credit where credit is due, I do not see that the principle of simplifying the benefits system and reducing bureaucracy can be too strongly opposed. This should help disabled people, particularly those with a learning disability, to understand the benefits process better, and should reduce the burden of filling in numerous forms.

However, as the Minister will be aware, I have voiced considerable concerns about other policies in the Bill. The measure to remove the mobility component of DLA for people in residential care, for example, is something that particularly troubles me. I welcome the deferment of this until 2013, but I am suspicious of the measures to replace it that may be in the forthcoming PIP, as recommended by the internal review now taking place. I am far from satisfied that this internal review is wide-reaching enough or takes into account the expertise of disability organisations and people with a disability who stand to be affected. I urge the Minister to ensure that disabled people, including those with a learning disability, are meaningfully included in the review. Can he assure me that this will happen?

Another issue that concerns me in the Welfare Reform Bill relates to the work capacity assessment. There are growing reservations over the accuracy of the assessment pilots in properly taking account of the needs of ESA applicants and their actual ability to work. Our main concern was, and still is, the merging of the three descriptors—memory and concentration, execution of tasks, and initiating and completing personal action—into one: initiating and completing personal action. This measure fails to account for certain elements of capability, such as the time taken to complete a task, which could have significant implications for people with a learning disability who, by definition, take longer to process information. It could result in disabled people being found fit for work as a result of the inadequacies in the assessment. Coupled with the additional barriers that disabled people face to find work, it becomes evident that they stand to be significantly disadvantaged by this policy. If the Government intend to push through these newly merged descriptors, which do not take into account certain hidden needs, what guarantees can be given that disabled people will receive the appropriate support to tackle these extra barriers, such as deep-rooted employer prejudice and discrimination?

I also wish to refer to the Health and Social Care Bill. I have no interest in engaging in all-out criticism of its overall principles but several areas require greater consideration in relation to their impact on disabled people. It is a case of scrutinising the policies which are not included more than those which are. Unbelievably, for a 367-page-long document, there are only three mentions of disability and very little mention of the need to tackle existing health inequalities or discrimination for all groups, not just for those who are easiest to reach.

With all the points that I have raised, I refer back to the coalition Government's commitment to ensure that “fairness” is at the heart of their decisions,

“so that all those most in need are protected”.

I urge the Government to be true to this pledge and I trust that the Minister can offer me assurances that this principle will guide policies which relate to all disadvantaged and disabled people.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Rix who has, for many years, been such an inspiration to us all in the field of disability. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Fellowes of West Stafford on such a memorable maiden speech. Congratulations are due, too, to the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, who has brought this important debate to your Lordships’ House today. I begin by declaring my interests: I am the named carer for an autistic adult who is in receipt of state disability benefits, a vice-president of the National Autistic Society and patron of Research Autism. I hope that your Lordships will indulge me if I confine my remarks to that group of people who would come within the autistic spectrum, people with learning disabilities and those with chronic long-term mental health problems, because I believe there is such an overlap affecting all three of those groupings.

In his opening remarks to the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Low, used the word fearful—a word which other Members of your Lordships’ House have picked up. It is not just people with disabilities who are fearful at present. I hope that your Lordships will not mind if my opening remarks are extremely personal, not just to me but to many other people, as I am sure that many of your Lordships will recognise what I am about to say. I am a parent and I, too, am fearful. If you have a child who is born with a lifelong disability, you know that that child—however long its lifespan and whatever difficulties it will encounter—was not only born with that disability but will die with it. You also know that while you are on this earth, you have the opportunity to try not only to allow that child to fulfil its own potential but to do what you can as a parent to make provision for what will happen to that child when you are no longer around to support it.

It is perhaps in the whole context of things when, as parents, we concern ourselves with all our children’s education, particularly with disabled children's ability to take on what are euphemistically now called life skills, which are so important—perhaps more than we realise at the time—that your waking thought almost every day is: “Have I done enough and what will happen?”. My concern about the Government's reforms, many of which I support, is that, with the grouping which I have mentioned in mind, the reform of DLA is, for example, to reduce by 20 per cent over the next three years the amount of money spent. The focus will be on those most in need, which sounds quite laudable when you listen to it. “For those most in need” sounds a fair way to spend resources which we know are restricted but for the autistic community, for the learning- disabled community and for those with ongoing mental health problems—some have two or three of those conditions—there is a real fear.

I pick up on the excellent speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, about independent living. It is probably only in the last 20-plus years that we have really taken on and embraced the opportunity for people with a range of disabilities to be included in society and to exercise their right—and it is their right—for independent living. That will vary from disability to disability and from individual to individual but I know that however severe that disability, each step of the way is hard fought for and won. It is not something which is handed out; very often, people end up having to go to court to exercise their right to get the sort of support they need to sustain independent living.

It is a long process. For many in that group it takes years to bring about, step by step, an ability to look after themselves and to make sure that their personal care can be coped with, that they eat properly and have the right nutrition, and that they maximise their own desire to take part—often in work but more particularly in social activities, too. For example, part of that package of care which is paid for by the state could well be for somebody to be a friend to that person two or three times a week in a befriending package, since they cannot access or make friends as the rest of us would because of the nature of their disability. I cannot emphasise how important what might seem very small, individual parts of a care package are to making the quality of life worth living and to enabling that person to live independently and to take their part in society, as the rest of us do without really thinking about it.

However, when I look at what the Government intend to do, I am concerned that those who have achieved independent living, which has taken many years to construct, will find that because they are no longer regarded as the most in need, those valuable building blocks that have been put in place over many years to allow them to achieve that level of independence will no longer be regarded as important enough to be supported. I say to my noble friend with all due respect, but with absolute certainty, that if what has taken years to put together is removed, it will fall apart in a matter of months. With many disabilities, it is not the case that once you have solved a problem, you have solved it for the rest of that person’s life. It is a bit like a mosaic. This is not a broad-brush painting where you can identify the picture. It is a mosaic made up of many small pieces, all of which are interdependent and important in their own right, but when you have achieved the mosaic, it is a picture that has allowed somebody to take their place in society and fulfil their potential and those important dreams that we heard about just now.

This is not special pleading or the bleeding hearts brigade, but the words of a mother who for 40 years has been on that journey with a child. I am, of course, not the only one. I know that there are thousands of mums like me up and down the country who say to my noble friend in all sincerity: realise where we have come from in the past 20 years and where we are now. The reason why there are so many more payments for DLA and other disability benefits is because 20 years ago people would have been in institutions or, more often than not in the case of people with learning disabilities or autistic spectrum disorders, would be sitting at home, unoccupied, living out an existence with well meaning but very worried elderly parents. The crisis would come only when something happened to those parents, and then the state would know the full cost and consequences of dealing with disabled people in crisis. The cost of dealing with people in crisis is always far more. In fact, it is off the Richter scale compared with the minuscule cost of the basic building blocks that will allow so many disabled people to continue to live independently. I say to my noble friend: do not take those blocks away. It would set this country back years and cause mayhem and disadvantage to the most vulnerable people.

My Lords, first, I wish the noble Lord, Lord Freud, a speedy recovery and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, on his excellent maiden speech. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, on her excellent speech.

This debate could not be more timely as a prelude to the mass lobby and march on Parliament next week. Under the banner “The Hardest Hit”, disabled people from all over the country will be ensuring that their MPs and the Government take note of the dire impact that the Government's policies are having on their lives, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Low, on securing this debate.

The Government might not have intended disabled people to be the ones who suffer most under their policies, but that is certainly their effect. The fact is that cuts in welfare benefits are falling unfairly and disproportionately on disabled people, leading to an increase in poverty levels among disabled people and their families. The think tank Demos's report Destination Unknown calculated that the impact of the emergency Budget last June alone will mean that over the lifetime of this Parliament disabled people and their families will lose a total of about £9 billion in much needed income.

Over the past year, we have seen such drastic reductions in people's income increasingly justified by unwarranted stereotypes being applied to those in receipt of disability benefits, particularly to those who have been receiving incapacity benefit and the disability living allowance. The Government have promoted a myth that the increase in the number of people claiming incapacity benefit over the past 10 to 15 years is a result of people with trivial health conditions exaggerating either how ill they are or the impact on their ability to work. In fact, the Government's own statistics in the 2011 report Trends in the Employment of Disabled People in Britain show that most of the growth of limiting long-standing illness has been among people at the more severe end of the spectrum.

In spite of this, the Government, and the media, tend to present two images when discussing the reform of incapacity benefit. The first is the deserving disabled person, the healthy blind person or wheelchair user who wants a job and who the Government want to support into employment. The other is the welfare dependant, the press's scrounger, who exaggerates their impairment or illness and who needs a tough regime of conditions to get them back to work.

What is missing from these two images is a third group, which research tells us in fact makes up the largest group of those on incapacity benefit. Many of these people had been in employment for years, paying their taxes and national insurance contributions, until they developed a chronic condition that means that now they find it extremely difficult to fulfil what an employer expects from the average worker. An example is people incapacitated by chronic pain. More than one in 10 of the population lives with chronic pain, and almost two in every five will lose their job as a result. This portrayal is pernicious, and its effect, as Tom Kenny, my local welfare rights officer, has found, is that people are apologetic and loath to claim the support that they need and are entitled to, lest they be seen as scroungers.

However, it is becoming clear that there are further reasons why we are seeing so many disabled people losing their benefits. As the Guardian revealed on 2 April, under the growing pressure to cut the welfare budget, some Jobcentre Plus advisers are working to targets on the number of people they refer for sanctions each week, meaning that clients can lose their benefits for up to six months. The latest DWP figures available show that from January to October 2010 the number of claimants with registered disabilities who lost their benefits more than doubled to almost 20,000.

The Minister might dismiss that as a mere press story, but let me set out what is happening in my local area with disabled people's claims for employment and support allowance. The disability organisation's welfare rights officer, Tom Kenny, is overwhelmed by clients being found fit for work who are obviously incapable of working. Without exception, all have been treated disrespectfully by the Atos doctors and nurses. Every case that he has taken to tribunal has been overturned on appeal. His experience of the poor quality of medical examinations by the DWP-appointed Atos staff is shared by numerous other advice workers, but when Atos fails clients, the independent decision-makers at the DWP are supposed to make an independent judgment of the assessment. In the past, that would have happened, but what Tom has found most striking is that obviously erroneous negative Atos decisions are now not being overturned; they are just being rubber-stamped. In doing this, the decision-makers are acting illegally and, of course, appeals are increasing.

There has been a fivefold increase in the number of IB and ESA appeals being processed by the Tribunals Service over the past two years. This has come about even though there were no really major changes to the regulations. It is unlikely that the increase in appeals is due to increasing incompetence in Atos and the DWP. It is much more likely that the staff are working to an agenda dictated by government targets to reduce the number of people on incapacity benefit and ESA. With the new, tougher WCA regulations that came into force last month, we can expect appeals to rocket.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has said that people who are genuinely sick have nothing to fear from the new system of assessment. The evidence points to the contrary. During the WCA’s pilot phase, Citizens Advice estimated that 40 per cent of appeals found in the individual's favour and, most importantly, that where the CAB assisted on the appeal, the success rate was 70 per cent. As I have shown from my local area, there are similar success rates where the individual is assisted by a welfare rights adviser, yet these voluntary organisations are increasingly having their funding cut. This makes it less likely that people who have been cheated by an ineffective and unfair system out of a benefit they should qualify for will receive proper redress for such an injustice.

However, the Government have another card up their sleeve. Not only are disabled people finding it much harder to claim the benefits to which they are entitled; there will also be far less help available to challenge negative decisions. The Government’s proposals for the reform of legal aid in England and Wales include cutting all legal help and representation for welfare benefit matters. It means that there will be no legal advice on appeals to tribunal for awards of DLA, attendance allowance, incapacity benefit, income support, housing benefit, social fund payments and others. The argument set out to support this cut is that the importance of financial entitlement is “relatively low” and that the issues are not complex. Tell that to someone who is struggling to cope with MS and has lost their job. Is the importance of their financial entitlement relatively low?

In its report on the Government’s planned cuts to legal aid, published on 30 March, the cross-party Justice Select Committee said that disabled people could be hit “disproportionately” hard. It goes on to say that it is,

“concerned that the ability of the most vulnerable people to present their cases will be weakened because they will not have had help and advice in preparing them”.

So much for the Government’s commitment to protect the most vulnerable in society.

The Government could ensure that the assessments are carried out fairly in the first place by people who are competent to understand the reality of a person’s disabling conditions. Is the Minister willing to take up that challenge? The results of a survey conducted by the Disability Benefits Consortium with the support of the Multiple Sclerosis Society in October last year demonstrate just how necessary this is. The survey found that, of 208 people with multiple sclerosis who had gone through the work capacity assessment, 60 per cent said that the person who carried out the assessment did not understand their impairment; 70 per cent said that the assessment did not take account of how their symptoms were affected by repeated activity such as fatigue or increased pain; and 65 per cent felt that the assessment made their health worse because of stress and anxiety. As one person said:

“The assessment was stressful and made me feel like a fraud. I began to doubt my sanity—I have been told basically that nothing is wrong with me and that I'm fit to work. Am I imagining the pain, the fatigue, the lack of balance and my jerky hands? NONE of this was included in the ESA written report even though I told the assessor about it. Neither were my MRI scans taken into consideration; nor my GP’s reports. The whole assessment process is bizarre. I feel like Alice falling through the rabbit hole”.

The frustration of a debate such this is that there are so many more areas to cover and so much more that needs to be said. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, would convey this message to the noble Lord, Lord Freud: will he take up the challenge that was put to him at the end of the recent debate on the new WCA regulations on 16 March when he expressed surprise at the disability organisations’ horror at his plans? He was challenged to mend his department’s communication with the disability community—and to do so personally and not leave it to his senior officials. To help that process, I invite him to visit my local disability organisation, Hammersmith and Fulham Action on Disability—HAFAD. He will not have to travel far. There he can learn at first hand the effects of his policies on the lives of disabled people. I hope that he will accept.

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Low, for the opportunity to raise a couple of specific matters. One is very familiar to old DWP hands in this Chamber who have heard me raise it many times before: namely, the problems posed by the service user involvement of disabled people in receipt of benefits. The other matter is completely different and arises from the new descriptors of the work capability assessment, which were the subject of a debate a few weeks ago and to which the noble Lord, Lord Rix, referred.

I shall begin with this last issue. One of the matters that struck me when we debated the recent changes to the WCA was that manual wheelchair users may no longer automatically be entitled to ESA—presumably neither the employment and work-related activity side of ESA nor the support side. This change was made, I suppose, on the grounds of equality, as it was felt that if manual wheelchair users had no other particular health problems they should be treated as fit for work because they had adapted to their disability. On the face of it, that looks fair enough because we are told that the ethos of the work capability assessment is to identify claimants on the basis of their functional capability rather than their condition. We know that the WCA looks at only a person's fitness for work; it does not take into account the jobs market or, more controversially, whether a person is likely to find a job in the real world. This came out strongly in the Social Security Advisory Committee’s report.

It might be argued that most workplaces nowadays are fully adapted for wheelchair users, but that is very far from the case. Many workplaces are up steps with no alternative access and many do not have facilities such as disabled lavatories. It is true that most public buildings have adaptations nowadays, but we are talking about workplaces of every shape and size all over the country. With the emphasis now on the shedding of jobs in the public sector and the hoped-for growth of jobs in the private sector, is it really fair to put manual wheelchair users on a par with those with no mobility problems when there are not going to be so many public sector jobs? They are likely to find it many times harder to get a job than their able-bodied counterparts—and I have not mentioned the problem of discrimination at all.

The most worrying thing is that, by being entitled only to JSA rather than ESA, they will lose almost £30 a week. I know that there might be cases in which access to work will help, but this admirable scheme cannot change the access into a building, widen doorways or put in disabled loos. I have not mentioned transport, which must loom large in whether someone in a manual wheelchair can get to suitable employment. It may be said that DLA is designed to help, but it is not taken into account by the work capability assessment. If it is taken into account, so should the availability of accessible and suitable jobs. Of course those in manual wheelchairs wish to be treated as ordinary working people, but when the dice are loaded so heavily against them in a practical way, is this fair?

Before my noble friend quotes from the equality impact assessment in the relevant statutory instrument, I shall do so myself. In theory, it gives me some comfort, but I fear that I am very sceptical. It says:

“For those who have a more limited availability for work and scope to find and carry out certain types of work they can restrict their work search activity and availability for work provided those restrictions are reasonable given their condition. This is agreed between the customer and personal adviser”.

There is a sentence about the disability employment adviser later. Will Jobcentre Plus staff really have enough time to devote to those who have such practical barriers to the relatively few jobs open to them, and will they be subject to the tough sanctions regime? I should have thought that they needed the kind of help to get a job that they would receive under the ESA regime, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments.

I now turn to the second and quite separate issue of service user involvement, specifically the unresolved problem of those disabled people on benefits who help with NHS, public health and social care research. They are asked to take part in clinical trials and other health and social care research studies, not just as subjects but as active partners in the research process. Disabled people are asked to help improve the way in which research is prioritised, commissioned, undertaken, communicated and used.

The specific unresolved problem that I would dearly love to nail is that the reimbursement of out of pocket expenses, and sometimes a small fee for these people, is still taken off their benefits. Two years ago, legislation was introduced in this House by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, which to great rejoicing removed two significant barriers to involvement by allowing these expenses to be disregarded when benefit entitlement calculations were made. However, this change was relevant only to those whose involvement was in the field of health and social care services and not research. In other words, this new and welcome change in the legislation applied only where the involvement was required by law. The benefit changes apply to involvement with local authorities, landlord authorities, NHS trusts and health boards. They do not apply to involvement with the work of the National Institute for Health Research.

Are we talking about relatively few people who are being caught by this distinction? No, we are talking about thousands of people, as a glance at the website of the institute will show. Research is going on into every organ in the human body and into every condition. Not everyone involved in this kind of research will be on benefits, but many will be. The institute recommends as good practice the involvement of service users and carers in research, but it is not required by law, so the benefit changes do not apply to public involvement in research.

When universal credit is introduced under the Welfare Reform Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, I understand that the regulations introduced two years ago will be incorporated into UC regulations, but the changes to benefit rules on the earnings disregard will not resolve the benefit barriers to involvement in NHS research. This is because any reimbursed expenses, plus possibly a small fee and the cost of a personal assistant or a replacement carer, will be totalled and the whole amount treated as earnings and taken off benefits. Where the total amount that is treated as earnings is in excess of the earnings disregard set for UC, which will usually be in the region of £40 a week or less, the excess will lead to a 65 per cent taper of UC for every £1 over.

Then we have the outrageous matter of notional earnings, which means that if a person declines to take a small fee because they do not want to upset their benefit arrangements, they will be treated as though they had taken the fee, so they are most likely to be out of pocket as a result of helping with NHS research and are not likely to repeat the experience. I myself have helped with people taking the MRCP exam, so I know what it is like. I was not on benefits, but if I had been I would have been out of pocket. I hope the Minister will agree that this is an anomaly that we really must resolve as soon as possible. The new Bill gives us the perfect opportunity to do so.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Low, for initiating this debate and begin by declaring my interests. I am interim chair of the English Federation of Disability Sport, a board member of UK Athletics and the London Marathon, and work in a number of areas with LOCOG. In this debate I want to look at sport for disabled people, and to say that I have had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues in a positive way with a number of Ministers in the other place. It is a wide and complex issue, and the landscape of disability sport has many layers.

The Sport England Active People survey shows an interesting picture of where currently we are. Up to 90 per cent of disabled people do not regularly take part in any kind of sport whatever. While the survey could be considered to be a blunt tool because this is a constantly evolving landscape, it shows that the number of disabled people participating is not increasing perhaps as much as it should and there is a need for further detailed research to get the interventions right and make it cost-effective. Only 16 per cent of disabled people belong to sports clubs compared with 26 per cent of non-disabled people.

The decision of the coalition Government to review school sport funding was absolutely right, but we need to understand the impact on disabled people because they are in a unique situation. In terms of school sports partnerships in previous funding cycles, special schools have had a two day a week school sports co-ordinator. I would like to ask the Minister whether, under the current proposals, special schools will receive one day a week funding, or is there an opportunity to review this? Also, will it mean a switch to focus on primary schools at the expense of what we deliver in secondary schools?

There are many agencies and people involved in delivering sport to disabled people, but what impact assessment work has been carried out to ensure that we do not lose the knowledge and experience from the network in an environment where we know already that it is really hard to engage with disabled people? If we look to mainstream schools, we need much more information on what physical activity disabled children actually access? PE is a compulsory part of the curriculum, but it is not taken into account in any statement of special educational need and often has a low priority. Sending children to the library is just not good enough. Disabled people should have the right to experience sport and physical activity in exactly the same way as non-disabled people. For all the good and the bad and the horror that might mean to some disabled children, we need to make sure that they leave school as fit and healthy as possible so that they are able to contribute back.

This is not about identifying athletes for a talent pathway or future elite success, but it should be noted that while many Olympic medallists come from the independent education sector, many Paralympians do not, and the decisions we take now could have a potential effect on 2016 and 2020.

On the announcements about the new school Olympics, I look forward very much to the reports on the pilots that are taking place in nine geographical areas, and I am delighted that there is a commitment to a disability element in all the documentation. But I urge the Minister to look closely at what sports are included and who they target. The definition of someone who is eligible to compete at the Paralympics is narrow—just a tiny percentage of the disabled population compared with those who can compete in wider disability sport. But if the aim of the school Olympics is to position young non-disabled people on a pathway to the Olympics, it should be the same for young disabled children—and Paralympic sports should be on the programme, not made-up inclusive sports that tick a box.

Inclusion can mean so many different things. It is sometimes better carried out if you take a young wheelchair user out of school to play in a wheelchair basketball club rather than, as I have seen, letting them sit on the sidelines of a football field and throw a corner in wherever they happen to be sitting or, heaven forbid, dump the stopwatch on them because that is what we assume they can do. It would be a real shame if the schools competition became a model where sports are included because they are the easiest ones to fill. I heard it said by a teacher at a recent development day that, “We brought them because they are the easiest ones to get on the bus”.

There are many positive schemes in sport across many different departments. We have Places People Play, which is about improving sports facilities. Sport England has an £8 million lottery pot to help fund grassroots development. The Department of Health is investing £6.4 million over two years in Change4Life, which is all about encouraging sports clubs in secondary schools. The Department for Education is investing £65 million over two years in secondary schools to release PE teachers in order to help to train primary school teachers. The reality is that teachers receive barely any training at all on working with disabled children, but that could so easily be changed, which links back to my earlier statement about what we are doing in special schools. Whether it be through direct sports funding or in other departments, we need to ensure that all this joins up to form a continuity of provision and, more important, that disabled people are genuinely included.

Sport and physical activity can play an important part in helping to fulfil many government policies, whether it be getting people into employment, reducing knife crime or cutting teenage pregnancies—there are plenty of statistics that I will not list here. But in a real sense the impact of government policy changes has meant that charities such as Mencap are much more likely to be involved in providing sport for disabled people. Mencap has had to cut its sports department, which means that until the hole has been plugged, English athletes with a learning disability will struggle to get classified. That could prevent them taking part in sport and seriously disadvantage them against athletes from other home countries and the rest of the world.

I will bring my remarks back to elite sport because in 449 days the Paralympic Games will begin. Our bid was based on winning the two sets of Games and we made a number of promises. But we should not forget that the Paralympic Games were founded because of the exclusion of disabled people from mainstream sport. In a major move forward for a host country, in April 2011 the Office for Disability Issues released a report entitled, London 2012: A Legacy for Disabled People. The main thrust is that the Games should help to transform the way disabled people interact with society, support opportunities to participate in sport, and promote community engagement. There is also a strong desire to change attitudes, promote economic inclusion and change media coverage. Those are important and vital things.

The 2010 British Social Attitudes survey showed that 79 per cent of people felt that there was some level of prejudice towards disabled people. LOCOG is doing some fantastic work in recruiting disabled staff through its scheme “access now” which is encouraging disabled people to volunteer. No other organising committee has ever done this work. Where will disabled people go afterwards? If it is to be a stepping stone, there needs to be something to go on to afterwards. If the attitude towards young disabled people is still poor and 2012 provides a catalyst for their wanting to be involved in sport, coaching or volunteering, are we equipped to deal with it? Future government policy must take this into account. What happens when the flames go out in 2012?

The Government have stated that they want the British Paralympic Association to issue press guidance aligned to the social model of disability. If this could be extended beyond government departments to all funded agencies and to national governing bodies of sport that would be incredible—as would it be if every Minister and Peer were able to think about the difference between the Olympics and Paralympics and include those two words together. That would do much to raise the profile of disabled people in sport.

As for the media, we need to move well away from sticking Olympians in a wheelchair to play basketball—usually they are not even basketball players in the first place—to show the world that disability sport is serious. Yes, it is serious—we do not need to resort to gimmickry to make that happen.

With an increased move to mainstream, which is part of the solution, are the Government able to ensure that the voice of disabled people is not lost? Who could possibly imagine a women’s sport and fitness foundation being run solely by men? Disabled people need to have a voice in the provision of disability sport and we need to ensure that major players are empowering disabled people into governance, coaching, consultation and social modelling. If we want to make a positive impact we must track how many disabled people are employed by national governing bodies of sport; how many disabled people sit on sports boards; how many coaches and volunteers. I know the answer—it is not many.

At a time when we are planning the hosting of the Paralympics, we have a great opportunity to engage disabled people. We are the envy of the world in terms of provision for the tiny minority, the elite few—those athletes who will be competing in 2012—but we could and should be in a position to enable disabled people to have a real equality of opportunity in sport. We can start that by beginning at the grass roots.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fellowes, on his maiden speech. I have been an admirer of the noble Lord for many years, both as a writer and an actor. At the moment I know him better as Lord Killwillie in “Monarch of the Glen” but I look forward to getting to know him as the noble Lord, Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, who, if his maiden speech is anything to go by, is most comfortable with direct and plain speaking. That is most welcome.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Low, on securing this debate at a time when the Welfare Reform Bill is at the Committee stage in the other place and the Government are embarking on major changes to the benefits system which will affect disabled people. The Government have previously stated that their aim is to ensure that disabled people are supported to lead full and independent lives, yet some of the proposed changes threaten to undermine this aim by making disabled people worse off and so less able to lead the lives they have the right to expect.

There is merit in some of the proposals put forward by the Government, including the universal credit. However, the good which these policies do will be dwarfed, I fear, by the harm which will be done to disabled people if the Government are not persuaded to change some of their other plans. The decision to cut the funds available for the personal independence payments, the extension to the qualifying period for personal independence payments, the time-limiting of employment service support and the changes to housing benefit will all hit disabled people and make them worse off.

I know and admire the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—he is a man of principle and high ideals which underpin his commitment to welfare reform—but some of these policies bear all the hallmarks of the Chancellor and his determination to cut public spending further and faster than is perhaps necessary. The disabled are being asked to bear an especially heavy burden in order to allow the Chancellor to meet his economic targets. That is not fair, just or right in a civilised society.

I shall concentrate the remainder of my remarks on the impact that the changes will have on people with autism, although my comments could apply generally across the board to a range of disabilities. In past debates, I and others in the House have pointed out that the National Autistic Society says that people with autism already routinely struggle to access the services they need and that, consequently, the outcomes for them are poor. Its research indicates that over 60 per cent of adults with autism rely on their families for financial support, 40 per cent live with their parents and 63 per cent report that they do not have enough support to meet their needs. As a result of this lack of support, one-third of adults with autism have developed serious mental health problems and only 15 per cent are in full-time employment.

I share the National Autistic Society’s concerns about the Government’s plans to replace disability living allowance with personal independence payments while, at the same time, making £2.17 billion of cuts in expenditure by 2015-16. This will adversely impact on adults with autism, who are already struggling to get the help that they need. Disability living allowance is a key benefit for people with autism to help them meet the additional costs that arise from their disability. If its replacement with personal independence payments marks a fall in spending, it seems inevitable that some of these people will be left without the support that they desperately need.

The Disability Benefits Consortium recently published the report, Benefiting disabled people?, which looks at disabled people’s experience of the benefits system and is based on the findings of two large surveys. When asked about DLA, fewer than 10 per cent of the respondents said that DLA covered all their disability-related costs, and 22 per cent said that they never received enough DLA to meet their health impairment-related costs. Given that disability living allowance is already inadequate to meet the needs of disabled people, reducing it further risks pushing an even higher number of disabled people into poverty.

The National Autistic Society is particularly concerned about decisions to focus support on “those with greatest needs” and the implications that that will have for people with moderate needs, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Browning. Many with moderate needs currently receive the lower rate DLA care component and might therefore lose their support. If people with moderate needs lose their support, their health, independence and quality of life will deteriorate. It will leave them in need of greater support than before and place heavier burdens on the benefits system, the National Health Service and social services. Coming at a time when councils across the country are raising their eligibility criteria for social care and excluding many people with moderate needs, some people may find both their social care package and support from DLA withdrawn. The loss of this award could have tremendously detrimental outcomes for both the individual and society as a whole.

Together with the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, I had the privilege of working with the National Audit Office for a number of years when we both served on the Public Accounts Committee in the other place. The National Audit Office does a first-class job for the taxpayer and in its report in 2009 it demonstrated that huge savings could be made in the medium-long term by ensuring that the needs of adults with autism were met. The report focused on adults with Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism, whose needs are often less obvious. The NAO found that identifying these individuals and supporting them could save more than £67 million a year depending on how many people were identified. The type of support that would help ensure that these savings are made would be low-level support such as travel training, outreach and social skills training. It is unlikely that people with autism would be able to access social care budgets for such help because of the eligibility criteria. The National Autistic Society knows that some people with autism are already using their DLA to fund this type of support, therefore potentially saving the taxpayer significant amounts of money.

I conclude by asking the Minister several key questions. First, what studies have the Government made of the cost in the medium and long term of people with autism losing their DLA/PIP entitlement if it leads, first, to an increased demand for mental health services; secondly, an increase in demand for primary care services; and, thirdly, a loss of employment. Secondly, how will the Government ensure that adults with autism—some of whom are the most vulnerable in society—will be able to access the personal independence payments? Thirdly, what support will be put in place for people with autism who lose eligibility to DLA/PIP, particularly considering the challenges that adults with autism face when trying to access social care services?

I appreciate that the Minister is standing in for his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Freud—who we wish a speedy return to good health and to the House—and that he may wish to go away and reflect on the questions that I have put. Perhaps he would write to me later if he is not able to answer at this stage.

The Government say that they want to support disabled people to leave full and independent lives. I am sure that we all support that. However, if they are serious about this aim, they should think again about some of their policies, which risk plunging disabled people deep into debt and undermining their ability to live their lives to the fullest, something the rest of us simply take for granted.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Low on winning the ballot for this debate, which has shown how wide and varied are the needs of disabled people. Having had a spinal injury resulting in being paralysed from the chest down, I can assure your Lordships that people who are disabled will always face plenty of challenges and extra expenses. We have a Prime Minister who has experienced severe disability at first hand. I applaud him for the loving care that he and his wife gave their disabled child but some disabled people are not so lucky as to have such support. Many families break up under the strain and we must not forget the cruel treatment that Mrs Pilkington and her disabled daughter had to suffer at the hands of bullies, which ended in her suicide. We live in a complicated society and people with genuine disabilities need protecting.

I declare an interest as president of the Spinal Injuries Association, which has made a robust response to the recent government consultation on proposals to reform the disability living allowance, which will become the personal independent payment. The SIA is concerned by the introduction of a six-month qualifying period for PIPs. This will mean that newly disabled people, those most in need of support, are left without the appropriate funding to meet their needs.

The NHS reforms and the enormous upheaval might give an opportunity to look at some of the needs of disabled people when they have to be admitted to hospital. Many disabled people have to be admitted to general hospitals as there are not enough beds in special units such as spinal units. The patients then face the lack of vital equipment such as monkey poles, turning beds and pressure mattresses to prevent pressure sores, help with paralysed bowels, enough pillows and incontinence products—to mention just a few of the many needs. They also need staff who know what they are doing. Disability should be part of a nurse’s training.

I am a past president of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy and know personally the benefits of physiotherapy for disabled people. Physiotherapists are one of the health professions who have a critical role in improving people’s physical capabilities, whether that is in getting someone back to work or school, or just to improve their quality of life. At the moment, physiotherapists are worried about the loss of specialist clinical posts in the NHS, the widespread freezing of physiotherapy vacancies and the rationing of treatment sessions that they can now provide due to the efficiency savings required of the NHS. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy says that this is an increasing problem and is concerned about the impact on people with disabilities. The right health and social care can greatly improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s, for example. This includes access to a specialist, multidisciplinary team of Parkinson’s special nurses, specialist physiotherapists and speech and language therapists—as recommended in the NICE guidelines on Parkinson’s—and appropriate social care, including support for carers.

The wheelchair service needs a complete overhaul. It is totally inadequate. Who will be responsible for this? I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, mentioned that.

With the reforms to the NHS, the Government have suggested that GP practice boundaries should be removed. Could this be a threat to continuity of care? I am a keen supporter of the saying, “No decision about me without me”. Disabled people who are vulnerable and less mobile need both helpful GPs who are interested in their special needs, medication and ongoing care, and the support of expert specialists. Some disabilities are extremely complicated. If patients find that their GP is not helpful, then they are better moving to another practice. This can be very difficult in some rural areas, especially for disabled people. The consortia should be made up of different health professionals who understand the different needs of complicated patients and patient representation. The responsibility for wide-ranging disability needs experts. GPs are generalists and need to work together in union for the good of patients. There should always be good communication between specialists, GPs and patients.

Patient safety should be the priority at all times, not just financial interests, and there should always be a good standard of care. Disabled patients can be the most at risk. Many patients with long-term conditions often need to get their specialist treatment a long way from home, as the specialist units are few and far between. These can be life-savers but disabled people need to keep in touch with their homes. Could the cost of telephoning from hospital be brought down? It is very expensive.

While there is a pause in the NHS reforms, I hope satisfactory solutions will be found in the best interests of patients. There are always the worried well but now, with so many changes suggested, there are genuinely worried disabled patients who find the cost of disability and cutbacks extremely draining on their systems. We have heard little about how Health Watch will work and if it will be able to support patients when they have a genuine complaint. When disabled people have problems, these can involve legal matters and knowledge of the law is necessary. Disability covers so many different aspects of life.

I am a member of the Patients Association, which has a helpline. The most common complaints relate to accessing healthcare. People feel that hospital transport services are often inadequate and blue-badge holders often find provision of disabled spaces is low and taken up by non-badge holders. Within hospitals, the most common cause of complaint is the lack of help for disabled people going to the lavatory. I can bear this out. When I was visiting Peterborough hospital on an occasion when my husband was admitted as an emergency, a man implored my helper to take him to the lavatory. He could only hop on one leg. Another man asked if she would give him a shave. This was in the afternoon. To my amazement, there were two care assistants chatting at the nurses’ station. Perhaps that is why we hear about nurses who are too posh to wash. Also there is the unwillingness of nurses to feed patients who are too disabled to feed themselves; the food is left at the bedside, untouched. That is another common complaint.

Patients often complain that medical professionals treat them differently because they are disabled. It is time that compassion was put back into nursing. Up and down the country one hears cries of “Bring back the matron”—not just the so-called modern matrons, who do not seem to have made a difference, but people who will take full responsibility for nursing care and nurses. Helping disabled people takes extra time and time can cost money, but surely there is more to life than just economics.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Low, for initiating this debate and for his powerful introduction. Like others, I join in sending best wishes to the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for stepping into the breach. Many congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, for an interesting and powerful maiden speech. I was intrigued by the juxtaposition in the speakers list of our two thespians. I wondered if this heralded an era of theatrical co-operation and whether we might see “Downton Abbey” farces as part of our Christmas viewing this year. But I shall wait and see.

As a number of noble Lords have said, it is timely that we have this debate, because the Welfare Reform Bill will be with us before many months and, as my noble friend Lady Wilkins said, because of the rally organised for next Wednesday. Just one month ago, the public sector equality duty, in its updated form, came into effect. As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, regrettably this could now be under challenge as red tape.

I express gratitude for the briefing that has been prepared by the Library and the DBC. The former in particular reminded us, as did the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, of the cross-government nature of the challenges that we face covering education, housing, health, benefits, employment, transport, local government and much else—particularly sports, as we heard in a very authoritative way from the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, reminded us that if we do not view these things in a cross-government manner, we can end up with real horror stories—and he gave the example of apprenticeships.

I was delighted to see that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, is carrying on the campaign about service users, and she is right—we did make some progress. I hope that now would be time to bring some successful closure to that.

Perhaps somewhat inevitably, most of our focus this afternoon has been around DWP issues, as are most of my comments. In 2009, the then Labour Government ratified the UN convention on the rights of disabled people, as well as the optional protocol. This year, in 2011, the coalition Government will have to report to the UN on how the convention is being implemented and what progress is being made. They will be publicly held to account domestically and internationally. It will be interesting to see how they justify the claim for fairness to be at the heart of government and how that is working for disabled people. As the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, said, how would they be able to explain the impairment of social care, the cutting of local authority budgets, and the removal of ring-fencing and its impact on independent living?

As we know, much is in the pipeline, and not all of it to our liking. However, I have some plaudits first—there have not been many this afternoon. The Government are to be congratulated on taking forward the right to control trailblazers. The right to control concept, as noble Lords will recall, was developed in partnership with disabled people and is intended to ensure that disabled people have choice and control over the support that they need to go about their daily lives. It is at the heart of independent living. It was developed under the controlling guidance of the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell. It is therefore distressing to hear her assessment that we risk turning the clock back on these issues.

We are also pleased that the Government, after some dithering, decided to proceed with Work Choice. That is welcome.

As for transport policy, we have recently discussed the proposed demise of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee in the context of the Public Bodies Bill—I hesitate to mention that Bill with the Minister on the Front Bench—when we heard from a number of noble Lords about the vital role that this body has played in advising on and promoting accessible transport systems for disabled people. In responding to the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, indicated that the Department for Transport would be issuing a discussion document before the summer to inform its proposals about disability advice and the assertion that transport operators across the sector need to mainstream these matters in their transport planning and delivery. May we please have an update from the Minister? What engagement has taken place with stakeholders?

As my noble friend Lord Touhig and others explained, on benefits we are faced with major changes to income-related benefits with the introduction of the universal credit from 2013, changes to DLA and its eventual replacement with the personal independence payment, changes to housing benefit and the local housing allowance. We welcome the opportunity to simplify the benefit system but, with so much unknown about the detail over so many areas, we can but undertake a journey of inquiry. A cursory glance at Clause 11 of the Welfare Reform Bill, for example, dealing with the potential inclusion of housing costs in the universal credit, indicates that we have to await regulations to learn what is included in housing costs; when somewhere is treated as a person’s home, how the calculation of amounts to be included should be proceed; and what exceptions apply. The Bill will tell us virtually nothing.

There are also many unknowns surrounding proposed changes to DLA and the introduction of the PIP. For a start, there remains a substantial ambiguity about the form and structure of the new assessment. I should stress that we are not wedded to the current arrangement, but the Government’s responses to questions on this have not been consistent. Perhaps the Minister will take the opportunity to produce some clarity.

The June 2010 Budget Statement indicated that savings in excess of £1 billion by 2014-15 would be generated by the introduction of objective medical assessments. In October last year a Minister in the other place stated that there was no intention to introduce a medical assessment for DLA, but reference is now made to a new objective assessment. Will the Minister please clarify matters for us? Given the Government’s draconian approach to date to reducing benefit expenditure, the lack of precision on these matters will cause disabled people to fear the worst.

The Minister has heard the concerns expressed by the Disability Benefits Consortium about benefits which, by focusing support on those with the greatest need, will abandon those with currently moderate needs—the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, also focused on that point—and that the basis of awards will move away from meeting the additional costs of living with a long-term condition or disability. How does he respond to this, along with the charge that extending the qualifying period before claimants can receive personal independence payments will push more disabled people into debt?

The reality is that there are still lots of unanswered questions about DLA reform. So far the Government have been unable to tell us the estimated number of people who will no longer be eligible for benefit following the introduction of the personal independence payment, the number of people affected by shifting the eligibility criteria from three months to six, and what form the new assessment will take.

Confusion reigns also over the mobility component of the disability living allowance. The Prime Minister has said that the Government are not going to remove the mobility component from 80,000 care home residents, but Clause 83 of the Welfare Reform Bill—the noble Lord, Lord Rix, made this point—contains provisions to do just that, and the Budget 2011 book scores the savings from doing so. What exactly is the position?

We had an opportunity to consider changes to the work capability assessment in mid-March when we debated the new regulations. We on these Benches continue to support the approach of helping the disabled people who can to get closer to the labour market, and to do so by focusing on their capability via a range of descriptors to determine an individual’s functional capability. This broad approach, as Professor Harrington’s review concluded, remains valid. Notwithstanding that, as we heard on that occasion and again today, the detailed changes to descriptors provoked a barrage of criticism about their appropriateness and about the process, which involved ATOS. We have heard again today about decision-makers.

There was especial concern raised about the application of the descriptors to individuals with mental health conditions and autism; we heard that from the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, today, and from my noble friend Lord Touhig. The noble Lord, Lord Freud, was kind enough to convene a follow-up meeting, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, might update us on his behalf, if he is able, on what is happening.

Of course, none of this works if there is no work; or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, no accessible work. I was interested to hear about the efforts of my noble friend Lord Sawyer with Remploy, and his concerns about the challenges it now faces.

The Minister will also be aware of concerns raised about support for those who do not qualify for ESA under the migration exercise, who therefore end up on JSA, or possibly no benefit at all, as well as about the numbers affected by the reduction in the time period for contributory ESA—“savage proposals”, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Low.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, referred to Jobcentre Plus working to targets for people to be sanctioned, a very worrying development that was reported in the press. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify that today.

Finally, on the universal credit and what it might mean for disabled people, we do not have time to unravel all of its implications. However, we already know some of the categories of winners and losers. The announcement that payments for children are to be aligned with those for adults is a mixed blessing for families with children with the most severe disabilities. It will represent a slight improvement in their financial position, and the inclusion in this group of children with severe visual impairment is clearly to be welcomed. However, for families with children with other disabilities, the reduction in support will amount to something like £1,300 a year. This is deeply worrying.

Many other issues have been raised in our debate today and in the briefings we have received: issues around couple entitlements, disregards for disability, disability premiums, housing costs and, in particular, linkages to CPI. Our deliberations on the Welfare Reform Bill must be extensive, as well as those on the Localism Bill, which is also due soon.

The process of welfare reform, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, is a particularly worrying time for disabled people. The noble Lord, Lord Low, should be congratulated on making us all vigilant on this occasion.

My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity of participating in this debate, although it has not been by choice. I shall update the House on my noble friend Lord Freud: he is having medical treatment but as a precaution only. He hopes to be back in the House early next week. I know how much he was looking forward to this debate. Indeed, it places the debate at a disadvantage since he is not here to respond. I can promise to take the record away and to go through it with him. It would be helpful to noble Lords if we wrote a comprehensive letter together to all noble Lords who have participated in this debate, because there may be lots of questions which people have mentioned that I have to skate over today—particularly in view of the fact that I do not have quite the amount of time that I had originally hoped for.

I thank all noble Lords for their participation, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Low, for tabling this debate. It has been a special privilege to be here to hear my noble friend Lord Fellowes make his maiden speech in the House, and what a delightful speech it was. He talked powerfully of the imperfections of the way in which people talk about disability. How well he described to the Government the importance of their need to take seriously their responsibility to disabled people. I am sure that we will hear much more from him as an active participator in our debates.

The real impact of government policies on disabled people will be to help all disabled people fulfil their potential and participate fully in society. We have a moral obligation to support those who cannot work, but we also have a moral obligation to support those who can work to find suitable work—just as disabled people who can work have an obligation to look for work. This is a critical issue. There are more than 10 million people in the UK who have a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability, of whom nearly half already work.

There is strong evidence of the significant health, social and financial benefits of work, and of the cost to individuals, society and the economy of long-term inactivity. Put simply, work is good for you. We have moved away from the old idea that disabled people should be protected from work. More and more, we appreciate that taking an active part in the labour market supports good health and well-being. Welfare reform is about doing what is right; it is not about reducing the benefits bill. The combination of fundamental reforms to the benefits system and a new radical approach to “back to work” support for everyone will ensure that everybody gets the right help.

Universal credit will replace the current complex array of benefits. It will be a simpler, fairer system. It will protect the incomes of current claimants so that nobody will be worse off claiming universal credit than they are under the current system. We will focus additional support on the most severely disabled people. Some households could see their incomes rise by as much as £40 per week if they qualify for the support component in universal credit, which we aim to increase from £31.40 to £74.50. Universal credit will provide more generous support for disabled people than for those non-disabled people who have otherwise similar circumstances. The seven disability-related components of the current system will be reduced to two, which will reflect whether a disabled person can reasonably be expected to work or undertake work-related activity.

I note and will take up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, on the earnings disregard for people who are engaged in research. We have a special disregard for disabled households, which enables many people to keep more of their earnings than they currently do under the employment and support allowance. The White Paper proposed a disregard of up to £7,000 per year for disabled households, equivalent to £134 a week. Once a disabled household begins to earn more than £7,000 a year, its benefits would reduce gradually as it earns more. I do not think noble Lords would consider that unreasonable.

Universal credit will encourage people to find work by simplifying the move from benefits to employment. In the mean time, disabled people will receive improved support through employment and support allowance. There are two categories of support. First, there is the key provision for severely disabled people in the support group and for other disabled people in the work-related activity group, who will explore suitable work or training. We propose to introduce a one-year time limit for those in the latter group, who will be claiming the contributory employment and support allowance. ESA was always intended to be a benefit that provides temporary support for those in the work-related activity group, where, with the right support, it is reasonable to expect a return to work. It was never meant to be a benefit for the long term for this group. The time limit of one year strikes the best balance between the need to restrict access to contributory benefits, and allowing for those with longer-term illnesses to adjust to their health condition. This is double the length of time for contributory jobseeker’s allowance.

I know that a lot of noble Lords were concerned about this whole area and the WCA. The noble Lords, Lord McKenzie of Luton and Lord Rix, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, raised it, as did the noble Lord, Lord Low, in his introductory speech. We have accepted Professor Harrington’s review and have appointed him to undertake the second independent review of the WCA. Refinement and improvement of the process are ongoing. I hope I can reassure noble Lords on that point. The work capability assessment generally is a matter of considerable concern to noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, was concerned about the very large number of appeals that were successful. However, overall, 60 per cent of appeals are found in favour of the department. If the department’s decision is not upheld by the appeal tribunal, it does not mean to say that the original decision was incorrect. The tribunal is an independent body and in many cases new evidence is provided at the tribunal hearing that was not available to the original decision-maker, or the tribunal raises the original evidence differently. The Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions are working together as part of a task force with the Tribunals Service, Jobcentre Plus, and the Pension, Disability and Carers Service to increase capacity and reduce demand for an appeals process. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Rix, that we will seek to improve this process. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, that there are no targets to get people off incapacity benefit.

We are also breaking new ground to ensure that good-quality back-to-work support is available. Private and voluntary sector organisations will provide this support through the new Work Programme. The lessons learnt from the Pathways to Work programme have been taken into account in designing the new Work Programme. For people who may need more support to help them back to the workplace, including disabled people, we will reward sustainable employment, placing a much greater emphasis on supporting people to stay in work. Providers will receive higher payments up to £14,000 if they help people who need the most support into long-term jobs. This long-term, serious investment means that providers of back-to-work support can in turn invest in their business and in the people they are there to help. The 18 preferred bidders have indicated that they plan to invest up to £580 million over the lifetime of their contracts. We expect the providers of this back-to-work support to include respected disability charities such as Mencap and Action for Blind People, organisations which really understand the challenges that some may face.

For people facing more significant disability-related barriers to work, the Government have introduced Work Choice. This provides supported employment as well as support into work. Work in this area of specialist support continues. In the summer, Liz Sayce, chief executive of Radar, will produce an independent report looking at specialist support for people with severe disability-related barriers to work. Included in the scope of this report is access to work. We are continuing to look at ways to make the scheme more efficient and effective so that we can support more disabled people in the workplace. Since December, disabled people have been able to complete an online assessment of their eligibility for access to work via Directgov. This means that both disabled jobseekers and prospective employers can have confidence that the necessary assistance will be available to them. We want to make sure that the range of in-work support for disabled people is effective.

Another key form of this support is the disability living allowance, which is payable whether or not disabled people are in work. The current DLA provision needs reform. The benefit is too complex, and eligibility is based on unclear criteria and outdated assumptions about disability—often leading to inconsistent awards. DLA provision is too static. People’s conditions change, medical advances mean that once debilitating conditions may become more manageable, and technological changes mean that once insurmountable tasks become possible.

Disabled people deserve a system that recognises them as individuals and provides support on the basis of individual need, assessed objectively, and with clarity around eligibility criteria. We plan to retain the key elements of DLA as a non-taxable non-means-tested cash benefit that provides a contribution to the extra costs disabled people may face, whether they are in or out of work.

However, our proposal is to replace DLA with a personal independence payment that will provide for a fairer, more objective and transparent assessment of individual need. That will be at the heart of the benefit. It will look past broad categories of impairments and labels, and instead treat people as individuals and look at the specific challenges they face, rather than make vague assumptions. The noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, was very concerned about the target to reduce DLA expenditure by 20 per cent. Reducing DLA expenditure by 20 per cent by 2015-16 simply means bringing working-age expenditure back to 2009-10 levels and making it more sustainable for the future.

Regarding our response to a public consultation on DLA reform, we are working with disabled people and disability organisations as we design the PIP assessment, ensuring that it takes account of the full range of disabilities, including sensory impairments, as well as physical, mental, intellectual and cognitive impairments.

My noble friend Lady Browning and the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, particularly mentioned people suffering from autism and those responsible for their care. The National Autistic Society published a useful report on who benefits, and it raises a number of helpful points, such as a need for a new assessment to reflect the needs of people with autism spectrum disorders. We agree on all this, we are still working on the design of the assessment, and we will continue to work with disabled people and their organisations, including those relating to autism, as we take this work forward. We know how important it is to get this right. That is why we will test the impact of the new assessment criteria rigorously before we finalise the scheme.

I will conclude by referring to the comments of a number of noble Lords on the Equality Act and the implications that there may well be. The noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, mentioned this, as did my noble friend Lord Addington. We are very concerned about the red tape challenge and how it might impact on the Government’s commitment to the Equality Act. The red tape challenge is part of the Government’s commitment to transparency and growth. The Government set up the red tape challenge website to invite the public to take part in a debate on regulation. The website has recently been revised to make clear that the presence on it of a particular regulation or law should not be read as implying any intention on the Government's part to remove that regulation or law from the statute book.

Several noble Lords mentioned the particular restrictions on local government finance and the enormous impact on local government spending and responsibilities. I reassure them that the Government are very mindful of that. The noble Lord, Lord Sawyer, mentioned Remploy. I am very grateful to him for bringing it to our attention. We confirmed in the spending review that the five-year £555 million operational budget is protected and that the status of Remploy remains unchanged at a time when, as the noble Lord will know, many other programmes are under review.

I will conclude my comments because I am running out of time. I hope that I will be forgiven if I have not mentioned everything. As I said, I will go through the record and write to noble Lords.

I finish by reminding the House of the principles underpinning our reforms. Yes, budgets are tight for the moment, but the changes are about more than saving money; they are about changing lives and people's life prospects. It is right that we have been reminded of the Government’s commitment to fairness by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie; we take that commitment seriously. The real impact on government policies on disabled people will be to empower them, to establish the right and opportunity to work, to encourage accessibility and to provide greater choice and control over how public money is spent to deliver independence and ensure that no one is ever written off because of disability.

Motion withdrawn.