Skip to main content

Disability Action Plan

Volume 835: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2024


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 5 February.

“Today, and in British Sign Language for those watching on Parliament Live, I am delighted to deliver on the Government’s commitment to transform the everyday lives of disabled people across the country for the better. We as a Government are working to make this country the most accessible place in the world for disabled people to live, work and thrive, and today I am proud to announce another important milestone: the publication of the disability action plan, which will actively make a difference to disabled people’s daily lives.

In December 2022 my predecessor, my honourable friend the Member for Corby, Tom Pursglove, announced the intention to develop a new disability action plan to set out the practical, immediate actions that Ministers across government will take to improve disabled people’s daily lives. Following that, my department and the Disability Unit did a huge amount of work, and I thank everyone involved. Since coming into the role I have spent time listening, engaging and continuing to ensure that the voices of disabled people are properly heard, as that is an important priority for the Government. That is why in July 2023 we consulted on the draft disability action plan, setting out a range of proposals where we felt we could take immediate action or lay the foundations for longer-term change. We rightly wanted to give everyone, and most importantly disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and other key charities and stakeholders, the chance to have their say on the draft plan.

The consultation ran for 12 weeks and I am immensely grateful to every single person who took the time to respond. In the consultation we set out 12 areas for action. Each area proposed how the Disability Unit, together with my department, other government departments and partners, would take action to drive improvements in those areas. Since the consultation closed in October, we have been carefully working through more than 1,300 responses, which pleasingly showed broad support for almost all our proposals. We have used these responses, along with feedback from a series of events and discussions during the consultation period, to finalise the proposals, adding a number of new measures to respond specifically to these consultation findings. An independent analysis of the consultation findings will be published on GOV.UK today alongside the final plan when I conclude my Statement.

The disability action plan we are publishing today sets out 32 practical actions, which I will lead across government to take forward over the next 12 months with disabled people, disabled people’s organisations, other government departments and public service providers to improve the everyday lives of disabled people. These actions sit across 14 different areas, aiming to: better support disabled people who want to be elected to public office; include disabled people’s needs more effectively in emergency and resilience planning; include disabled people’s needs in climate-related policies; improve information and outcomes for families in which someone is or becomes disabled; make playgrounds more accessible for everybody; help our businesses of all sizes and sectors to understand the needs of, and deliver improvements for, disabled people; explore if the UK could host the Special Olympics world summer games in 2031; improve support for people who have guide or assistance dogs; help the Government to measure how effective their policies and services are for disabled people; research issues facing disabled people in the future so the that Government can be more proactive in addressing them; make government publications and communications more accessible; improve understanding of the cost of living for disabled people; promote better understanding across government of the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities; and monitor and report progress of the disability action plan. I can confirm that we will provide Parliament with updates on our progress in delivering against these actions in the plan in both six and 12 months’ time.

The disability action plan will be taken forward in parallel with the national disability strategy. Published in 2021, this wider strategy sets out the long-term vision to transform disabled people’s lives for the better. A Written Ministerial Statement to Parliament on 18 September 2023 provided an update on progress on those commitments. Taken together, the disability action plan and the national disability strategy demonstrate this Government’s clear focus on improving disabled people’s daily lives in the here and now, and in the years to come.

As well as the disability action plan and the national disability strategy, the Government are already delivering significant work in areas that disabled people have told us are a priority, including reforms to employment and welfare through Transforming Support, the health and disability White Paper, and the back to work plan, and improving health and social care through the People at the Heart of Care White Paper. Further ongoing work by departments includes cost of living support through Help for Households, as well as the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan.

Today’s new disability action plan is another vital pillar in improving disabled people’s everyday lives. Working with disabled people and their representative organisations, and with my colleagues across government in my roles as lead for the disability unit and chair of the cross-government ministerial disability champions, we will take immediate action now and in the coming months to achieve real, tangible improvements for disabled people, to help to deliver on their needs and to change disabled people’s daily lives for the better.

I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I thank the Government for advance sight of the Statement, which came out yesterday. This is the latest in a series of moves on the part of the Government designed to improve the position of disabled people and to tackle societal barriers. I am sorry to say that I think disabled people would be the first to say that the track record so far does not inspire confidence.

First, there was the National Disability Strategy, which was announced in the 2019 Queen’s Speech but did not appear until 28 July 2021. It was then held up in a lengthy court case brought by disabled people who disputed the legality of the consultation process. Then came the health and disability White Paper, which set out plans to reform employment support and disability benefits. The centrepiece of that was the proposal to scrap the work capability assessment, but that has left many disabled people concerned that the benefits system will rely solely on the flawed PIP assessment process.

Now, we have the Disability Action Plan. There are some positives in the plan. It attempts to address some of the well-known barriers disabled people continue to face, through measures such as tackling guide dog refusals, raising the profile of assistive technology and increasing support for disabled people to take part in politics. However, it is impossible to ignore the very large hole at the centre of the action plan: there is little or nothing to address the top concern facing many disabled people at the moment—the cost of living crisis.

The Government know this is an issue, because paragraph 5.12 of the plan starts by saying:

“Another theme which ran through responses to the consultation was the long-term impact of the rising cost of living on disabled people, with respondents calling for greater support for disabled people. Research has shown that disabled people are significantly affected by rising costs”.

When the Government went out to consultation, the preliminary response of the RNIB was to say that

“it’s disappointing there’s no mention of any support measures to address the rising cost of living”.

It is still an issue today. Energy bills are still high, making life very expensive if people rely on specialist medical equipment, or need to heat their home more than the average household. As Scope has calculated, on average, disabled households face extra costs of £975 per month to have the same standard of living as non-disabled households.

If the Government want to know how things are for disabled people at the moment, they need look only as far as the document Below Average Resources, published on 18 January. This was the very interesting update on the work the DWP is doing to look at developing a new poverty measure, named “below average resources”, or BAR. It compares the impact of measuring resources versus measuring income. It told us something quite interesting along the way about the position of disabled people. It says that in the financial year ending 2022,

“30% of individuals in families with a disabled person were in low resources, compared to 27% in low income. Of individuals in families without a disabled person 17% were in low resources in FYE 2022 compared to 19% in low income”.

That is quite a big gap by anybody’s measure.

However, the only commitment on this matter I could find in the action plan was action 30, which says that the disability unit

“will continue to engage across Government to highlight concerns related to disabled people and the cost of living, sharing insights from the Disability Action Plan consultation findings, stakeholder engagement and our broader disabled people’s experience panels”.

Does the Minister think that is enough on the single biggest issue facing so many disabled people right now?

There is also nothing in the plan on another challenge which is actually caused by the Government itself—the fact that our current social security system puts disabled people through multiple upsetting and dehumanising assessments. Too often, they are denied their legal entitlements unless they have the strength and support to go through the appeals process.

Let us look at the figures. Claimants who are turned down for PIP are not allowed to appeal until they have first been through the mandatory reconsideration of their claim by DWP officials, which, as of last October, was taking an average of 36 days. Last year, only 11% of claimants were successful. They are forced to go through this extra gateway and only 11% get through it. Only then can they go to a tribunal. But if they go to a tribunal, nearly 80% are awarded their enhancement. At this point, normally the Minister will say, “Ah, yes, but it is all new information”. In fact, in 2023, 55% of cases that had their decision overturned after a tribunal hearing listed

“Reached a different conclusion on substantially the same facts”

as the summary reason for the change in decision. Why is there nothing in the action plan about ensuring that DWP gets more decisions right first time?

Without addressing the fundamental problems, the actions today risk feeling like tinkering around the edges. Despite all the consultation, there is not enough action to deal with the major challenges faced by disabled people today. I think the Minister probably knows this, because the action plan says, at paragraph 4.2, that:

“Many respondents criticised the short-term focus of the plan, highlighting the need for longer term action”.

Does the Minister think the Government responded sufficiently to that critique? I look forward to his reply.

My Lords, I declare an interest as vice-president of the Local Government Association. In that capacity, I am currently chairing the LGA disability forum for council officers and for members.

I am grateful to follow on from the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, partly because she summarises the issues about benefits so well. It also means that I do not have to say them again, because I completely agree with her concerns and her questions.

I am going to pick three or four things from the areas for action that give me real cause for concern that this new plan does not recognise the mess that the Government have got themselves into in the past. I want to start with the support for disabled people who want to be elected to public office. It says on page 15 of the Disability Action Plan that the coalition Government

“provided some financial support in the past, such as the Access to Elected Office Fund, which ran between 2012 and 2015”.

I wonder why it stopped in 2015. Who cancelled it? It was created by my noble friend Lady Featherstone when she was a Minister in the other place. It was cut the moment that we left government. The onus was put on political parties to provide it. That may be fine if you are the Conservative Party with millions and millions of pounds, but small parties do not have the capacity to fund the sort of things that are needed, such as BSL interpreters for a candidate. As far as I am aware, there has never been either a Member of Parliament or a Peer who uses BSL as their first language. That is because the barrier to get them into Parliament is too high for them to bear on their own. Action 2 in the Disability Action Plan states that the

“DU will develop and publish new guidance by summer”,

but until then the current arrangement will continue—so great words, but no change really.

The second action is another that has been raised in your Lordships’ House on a number of occasions: disabled people’s needs in emergency and resilience planning. About a year ago, when we were concerned about energy prices and the shortage of energy as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I asked a Minister in the then BEIS to look at how we could ensure that significant power outages did not hurt the people who relied entirely on emergency support when the power went out for more than an hour or two once their own batteries had gone down. People such as our own colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, would be one of those affected.

The plan says:

“Government departments already consider disabled people’s needs in emergency and resilience planning, in line with the Public Sector Equality Duty”.

On 16 January, however, the Department for Health and Social Care—which, somehow, in the game of “Don’t sit down last,” ended up taking on responsibility from BEIS for the negotiations with the energy companies on what to do in power outages—wrote to John Pring of Disability News Service saying:

“We have concluded that, due to the specificity of individual needs and circumstances, individuals and their care teams are best placed to develop plans for how they can prepare for and respond to loss of power to their home”.

That is not government departments working together; it is worse than that. A year on, there is now no way that any disabled person who relies on power can go to anybody in government to say, “My energy company is not helping me”. My baby granddaughter, who was on a ventilator for the first three years of her life, had one such power outage in her area. Had she not been in a carrycot and been able to be brought out of the outage—which adults cannot do—she would have hit very serious problems, so, for me, this is a very personal matter.

The plan says that the Government were learning from previous events such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the Grenfell Tower fire. I remind the House that we still do not have PEEPs post-Grenfell fire, which is a very serious issue if you are in a wheelchair and are trying to get down even five flights of stairs—let me put it more bluntly: even one flight of stairs. I am afraid that the actions on that are unworkable.

The section on families in which someone is disabled says the right words, but this Government have consistently starved local government of funding for children’s services, including for education, health and care plans. As a result, schools and the local authorities have zero money to be able to provide, which is why many children are not able to access the help that they are entitled to under the law.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, mentioned issues relating to assistance dogs. Dr Amy Kavanagh, who is a blind activist, said today on social media:

“We don’t need to define assistance dogs. The law does this already. I would welcome an ADA ‘legal questions you can ask’ model. Is the dog supporting a disability?”—

what on earth does that mean? She continues:

“What tasks does the dog perform?”

Frankly, once somebody has an assistance dog, it should not be necessary for a taxi driver to say, “What task does your dog perform?” That is the point at which there is a problem, and the answer is very simple: it is illegal to stop it. Yes, the Government are right: we need to make sure that more businesses know what they are doing.

Katie Pennick, from Transport for All, said that there is:

“Nothing on transport, nothing on housing, nothing on social care, nothing on PIP, nothing on hate crime, nothing on urban planning, nothing on healthcare, nothing nothing nothing…”

Rachel Charlton-Dailey said that, this week:

“Many disabled people are once again missing out on the gov cost of living payment … those on personal independence payment (PIP) or its predecessor disability living allowance (DLA) have received … £300, while those on benefits such as universal credit, child tax credits and employment support allowance will have got £900”.

That is discrimination against disabled people who, as we have heard, have much higher energy costs.

I will not repeat the data mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, but I want to mention one final thing about the two Bills that are cited in the plan: the British Sign Language Act 2022 and the Down Syndrome Act 2022. When the Down Syndrome Act went through your Lordships’ House, we were promised that other genetic conditions would be looked at. Nobody understood why just one condition got the support. Nothing to date has happened. Worse than that, no funding has been allocated whatever, even under the terms of the Down Syndrome Act. It feels like everything else that I covered so far: warm words but no actual benefits to disabled people.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock and Lady Brinton, for responding to the Disability Action Plan. I appreciate that the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, said that there were some positives in it, but I acknowledge that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is not in that position. I hope that in answering all, or nearly all, of the questions that they have raised, I can change her mind, but I am not sure that I will be able to.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, spoke about our track record. I want to give her a very brief potted history of what has happened here and where we have got to. I hope that will help to provide some perspective for the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. As the noble Baronesses will know, the Government published a draft plan for consultation over the summer so that disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and other interested parties had the opportunity to have their say. The consultation was open for 12 weeks and we received more than 1,300 written responses. In addition to that, we held a series of 25 events during the consultation period, with more than 130 attendees, including experts from a range of sectors. Jumping forward, on 5 February 2024, the Government published the Disability Action Plan.

The Disability Action Plan complements the long-term vision set out in the cross-government national disability strategy. They will be taken forward in parallel, sharing the Government’s commitment to improving the daily lives of disabled people in the here and now and in the years to come. It is the short term and the long term. Significant work is already being taken forward by individual government departments in areas that disabled people have told us are a priority. This includes reforms to employment and welfare via DWP’s Transforming Support: The Health and Disability White Paper and strategies to address health and social care via DHSC’s People at the Heart of Care White Paper.

These long-term reform efforts are already under way, so I make the point that there is some good work under way; it is not just that we have been waiting for those consultations. I will also say that this Government are aware that there are many suggested areas where people highlighted that the consultation was not within the scope of the action plan, and therefore that they had not been included in it. That does not mean that work has not been happening in these areas. It is important to remember that the action plan is only one pillar among many pillars of work being taken forward by this Government to improve the daily lives of disabled people. The plan also sits alongside the national disability strategy and other long-term work across government supporting disabled people, including support with the cost of living, which I will come to in a moment, through Help for Households, as well as the SEND and alternative provision improvement plans.

That takes me neatly on to the cost of living, which was raised with some passion by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. We have committed to continue working across government to highlight disabled people’s concerns, experiences and insights on this topic. That includes sharing findings from this consultation and from disabled people’s experience panels. This work is in addition to broader work across government to support the people most significantly impacted by the rising cost of living.

Both noble Baronesses will know about the statistics, but they are worth repeating. In doing so, I for one understand that there are severe hardships around; I will not cover over those. Taken together, support for households to help with the high costs of living is worth £104 billion over 2022-23 to 2024-25. Over 8 million UK households on eligible means-tested benefits will receive up to three additional cost of living payments, totalling up to £900. The noble Baronesses will know that, from yesterday, the final payment will be paid at £299. I do not think that it is worth rehearsing now all the other aspects, because the noble Baronesses will be well aware of them. But perhaps it will be helpful for me to say that we really are aware of the pressures, particularly for disabled groups.

I will address the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, on the work capability assessment reforms. We are committed to ensuring that our welfare system encourages and supports people into work, while providing a vital safety net for those who need it most. As she will know, from 2025 we will reform the work capability assessment to reflect new flexibilities in the labour market and greater employment opportunities for disabled people and people with health conditions, while maintaining protections for those with the most significant health conditions. Our expanded employment and health offer will provide integrated and tailored support for disabled people to support them and help move claimants closer to work.

I will go a little further: the work capability assessment reforms are not about sanctioning people or forcing them into work where it is not appropriate. I reassure both noble Baronesses that we will continue to protect those with the most severe conditions, while ensuring that those who can work are supported in doing so. In the future, removing the WCA will reduce the number of assessments that people need to take to access benefits, give people the confidence to try work and—this is a very important point—enable us to provide more personalised support so they will meet a real human being.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked about PIP and whether there was a place for vulnerable PIP claimants. The answer is yes. We have some extremely vulnerable customers, which is why we provide additional support during the claims process, if required. This support can include help with filling in the form or questionnaire, and additional protections for failing to return the questionnaire or for failing to attend an assessment. Before attending a face-to-face, telephone or video consultation, claimants are given the opportunity to alert their assessment provider to any additional requirements they may have, and the providers will meet any such reasonable requests. Again, it is important to get the message across that, for the most vulnerable, we really are there to hold their hand and make sure that the process is made easier for them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, raised an interesting point about the areas we are focusing on to encourage more disabled people to stand for election. We do think this is incredibly important—as are the points that she raised. The new fund will be launched in 2025, following the design and development work informed by and through engagement with disabled people. This will ensure a long-term solution that meets users’ needs, learning lessons from previous elected office funds.

The noble Baroness made a point about timing. She will know—and said, I think—that, in the meantime, the disability unit will develop and publish new guidance by summer 2024. Yes, those are words, but there are also actions. I am making the point that this needs to be done over the long term. It is very important that political parties and elected public bodies can best support disabled candidates, drawing lessons from the Local Government Association’s work and other sources. That will help to improve support in the short term, while we establish—I make this emphasis again—a new long-term approach.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about addressing the question of public health and emergency planning information—which is another important point. The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work will lead a discussion with the ministerial disability champions on the importance of accessible communications, with a particular focus on improving accessible communications and information regarding resilience and emergencies. That is just one action among a series of actions being taken to improve the accessibility of government communications.

I have just a few more points to make, including on families, which was a subject raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. Yes, families are important. The disability unit will explore and develop a new accessible online information hub for families with disabled members. That work complements work led by the DfE to roll out family hubs. The DU will work with partners to develop new products addressing specific issues experienced by families with disabled members. I cannot quite recall the noble Baroness’s precise question, but I reassure her that this is important; it is a key area. She may want more action, so I will read Hansard and write to her if there is more that we can say on that.

Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, raised a point about assistance dogs. Our focus is on all assistance dogs, but we are seeking to build on the excellent work of Guide Dogs UK. I attended a reception it led the other day. Its “Open Doors” campaign seeks the fullest possible access to public places for people with guide dogs. Progress on educating the business sector on the law and the negative impact that access refusals can have on people’s confidence and ability to live an independent life will have a positive impact on all assistance dog users.

My Lords, the Disability Action Plan deserves a slightly warmer welcome than it has received so far. The 32 actions will make a difference in the daily lives of disabled people, but we have further progress to make.

I will pick up on two points, one of which was touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. The summary of the consultation findings at page 18 says:

“The need for more disability inclusion in local and national planning was another strong theme”.

I do not know whether my noble friend was in his place yesterday when there was an exchange about the building regulations and the proposed improved accessibility for new homes. Everybody welcomed the decision to move to the new standards, but there was some difficulty in finding a date when they would be introduced. Can my noble friend liaise with his colleagues in DLUHC and use his influence to ensure that the remaining consultations that still need to take place can be done very quickly so that we can have a start date for these new accessible homes?

The second point relates to parents with a child who has a learning difficulty. I welcome the recent announcements extending free childcare, which will be rolled out first in April, then in September and again next year. There is some anecdotal evidence that parents with a child who has a learning disability are finding it difficult to find a place in a nursery or other daycare facility for their child. I know that there is some assistance available if the child gets DLA. There may be other forms of assistance to day nurseries in other circumstances, but they sound a bit bureaucratic. Can my noble friend liaise with colleagues in the DfE to make sure that children under five with a learning disability get the support they need? They need that support every bit as much as, if not more than, children without a learning disability.

I thank my noble friend for not one but two questions. Perhaps I can answer the first one by saying, as I think my noble friend said, that the Government have set out their intention to mandate higher accessibility standards for all new homes by raising the minimum standard in building regulations in England. I am not sure that I can help with the date, but I will certainly take that back to my colleagues in DLUHC. We will consult further on the technical changes needed to mandate the higher M4(2) accessibility standard, on changes to statutory guidance and on our approach to how exceptions will apply. Making the M4(2) the new default standard will require additional features, including a living area at entrance level, step-free access to all entrance-level rooms and facilities, and wider doorways and corridors, as well as clear access routes to windows. I hope that helps my noble friend.

He asked about day nurseries and support for disabled children under five. I happened to hear the Secretary of State for Education say that she was confident about the demand for nurseries being in a better place. I had better write to my noble friend about this specific issue. I hope I can provide similar reassurances.

My Lords, I welcome the repeat of the Statement and the launch of the Disability Action Plan. One of the action areas that particularly struck me was about making playgrounds more accessible for everybody. That is an extremely important issue that a number of my colleagues in local councils in Northern Ireland have very successfully made a priority. I very much welcome its inclusion here; I commend the plan on that.

The Minister referred to other areas of work that disabled people have told us are priorities. These include employment and welfare reforms. As the Minister will know, the newly reformed Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have responsibility for welfare, although we follow the principle of parity across the board in social security and so forth, for the obvious reason that to depart from what happens in the rest of the UK would cost an enormous amount of money to the block grant. While this is devolved in Northern Ireland, in effect we have to follow the same rules. Can the Minister assure me that, when proposals and their impacts are considered, there will be the closest possible consultation and work with the relevant departments in Northern Ireland and with the people who will be affected?

Absolutely. I start by saying how pleased I am that the Northern Ireland Assembly is up and running. I was a Government Whip for the Northern Ireland Office, so I am very aware of many of the issues.

On the second point, as the noble Lord said, the remit of the Disability Action Plan is very much within the competence of the UK Government. However, we have engaged officials in all the devolved Administrations. I am pleased to say that we will work together with our counterparts where appropriate to our mutual benefit. One example is the foresight research that we will undertake, on which the devolved Administrations have expressed interest in working with us. I am sure the noble Lord will know that we have had and continue to have more than cordial relations with senior officials in Northern Ireland in order to maintain the necessary stability during the past two years.

On the noble Lord’s first point, about playgrounds, I am very pleased that he applauds this approach. I reiterate what we are planning to do. The disability unit will create an online hub of information for local authorities on creating accessible playgrounds and will explore the most effective way of creating guidance on how to develop more inclusive and accessible playgrounds. This is on the back of stakeholders having highlighted a lack of funding for local authorities, which is often a big issue. Obviously, we are exploring this with families with disabled members and with service providers to see how we will take it forward.

House adjourned at 8.24 pm.