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Independent Living: Disabled People

Volume 615: debated on Thursday 13 October 2016

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

I decided to call this debate because I wanted to highlight the cost of living people for disabled people. The truth is that disabled people should be able to learn, work and live independently without facing a financial penalty. Unfortunately, however, that is not the case. Whether because of a huge digital divide, or a wheelchair charge in taxis, or unaffordable social care, disabled people face a financial penalty in almost every aspect of their lives.

When we consider the ability to live independently in 21st-century Britain, we often think of factors such as growth, prices, wages and, of course, short-term shocks to the economy. But as we try to ensure that the taxpayers of this country can afford to get by and we put financial costs at the heart of policy making, we often overlook the fact that disabled people face a financial penalty that none of us have to face if we are able bodied. We do not think about the difficulties that disabled people face in order to live independently and the extra costs they face from time to time. Approaches to the root causes of these extra costs have been fragmented, and imbalances in the market mean that the costs of things disabled people have to buy, such as assistive technology, remain higher than they need to be.

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

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

Owing to the lack of time in the debate, I will focus mainly on the causes of the extra costs rather than the well-trodden path of existing support payments, although I acknowledge from the outset that the battle to manage the extra costs is made all the more difficult by the fact that state support is increasingly difficult to obtain.

As most people will be aware, the Government are currently undertaking a second review into personal independence payments. They must continue to protect PIP from any form of taxation or means-testing so that disabled people have adequate support to help meet extra costs. The PIP assessment cannot be said to reflect the extra costs that disabled people face, and the sector is clear that the Government must redesign the PIP assessment so that it more accurately captures the level of disabled people’s extra costs. However, it seems to me—I am sure many Members would agree—to be a grave injustice that disabled people face disproportionate costs to live a life of dignity and independence.

I am of the firm belief that a society is judged by how it protects the most vulnerable and the most needy. If we as a society allow those costs to mount, we are abandoning our principles, because we will be failing to protect the most vulnerable. In my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, there are around 12,000 disabled people of working age. According to February 2016 Department for Work and Pensions figures, the number of my constituents in receipt of employment and support allowance, personal independence payments and incapacity benefits stands at nearly 6,000. The number of people awarded PIP in London stands at just over 80,000.

My personal experience of supporting a disabled parent and the number of disabled people who live in my constituency is why I have brought the debate to the House. Some of the disabled people in my constituency live in the top 4% of income-deprived wards in the country. The extra pressures they are under are clear—they have been underlined heavily by the Extra Costs Commission in an independent report undertaken by Scope. I put my thanks to Scope on the record it has helped a lot with this debate. Scope has found that the average additional expense to a disabled person living in Britain is £550 per month, which means that disabled people are spending £6,500 per year to live a life in which they can independently eat, independently travel and independently function as part of a community. The consequences of that are profound.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, severely disabled people who relied on the independent living fund to function—to eat independently, take part in society and so on—face additional problems, because the funding for the ILF has not been replaced? My constituent Mary Ellen Archer is an active member of the community but needs help for many hours every day so that she can eat when she wants, and get up and go out and about when she wants. By withdrawing ring-fenced funding from local authorities, the Government are making life almost impossible for people such as her to live a normal life.

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. Like her constituent Mary, others want to live independently and not be humiliated in their everyday living, and it is being made more difficult for them. The other point I should add in respect of my hon. Friend’s point is that people who are severely disabled are at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to receiving payments.

The consequences are profound. Disabled people are twice as likely to have unsecured debt totalling more than half of their household income. Disabled people are three times more likely to use payday loans. Disabled people have, on average, £100,000 less in savings and assets than non-disabled people. In London, where my constituency and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) is based, 51% of disabled people have a household income of less than £10,000 compared to 19% of non-disabled Londoners. Worst of all, disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty. That statistic should shame us all.

The ghastly £6,500 tax on living has been itemised by the Extra Costs Commission, with a clear set of recommendations on how to reduce it. It identified transport, energy, clothing, bedding, specialised disability equipment and insurance as areas where the impact of additional costs are most starkly felt. However, one year on since its publication, there has been only a piecemeal response from the Government. That is disappointing.

One area in which the Government could take great strides to support independent living, is through improving digital accessibility. Some 25% of disabled adults have never used the internet, compared to 6% of non-disabled adults, highlighting a considerable digital divide. Some disabled people face instances where websites are not accessible and others may not have the necessary skills to use the internet. For example, in London, Transport for London statistics reveal that only 46% of disabled people use the TfL website compared with 81% of non-disabled people.

A significant challenge in reducing extra costs is to unlock the potential of disabled people as a collective of consumers. Equal access to the internet for disabled people will empower them, and it will increase access to the job market and learning opportunities. The rewards for business will be great, with an estimated £420 million a week currently being lost through the failure to meet the needs of disabled people. Ultimately, however, it will enable disabled people to participate in an increasingly digital society and digital age.

A number of charities have suggested that the Equality and Human Rights Commission should review the impact of the Equality Act 2010 in improving web accessibility. I hope the Minister will consider the request carefully. It has also requested that the Government ensure that a proportion of existing and future funding for training in digital skills is targeted at disabled people who never or very rarely use the internet. Expanding digital access could be vital for reducing the disability employment gap, which is a critical factor in independent living. I will not cover this in detail today due to lack of time, but I simply note for the record that in London about 48% of all disabled residents in London are employed compared with 74% of non-disabled London residents. That needs serious attention. I know that right hon. and hon. Members across the House are focusing on this issue. I am sure the Minister will embrace the opportunities in her new brief and see this issue as a path to improving lives for disabled people.

Transport is a common and hugely restrictive area of extra cost for disabled people. They are much more regular users of taxis and buses. Section 165 of Labour’s Equality Act 2010 states that taxis and private hire vehicles are required to carry wheelchair users and that they must not charge extra for doing so. This, however, is flouted on a regular basis. Two thirds of wheelchair users report being overcharged when using taxis or private hire cars because of their wheelchair. That practice is unforgiveable and must not be allowed to continue. I therefore join Leonard Cheshire, Scope and others in welcoming the decision by the Government to bring Section 165 of the Equality Act into force.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and putting the issue firmly on the agenda in the House. On her points about accessibility to taxis and private hire vehicles, does she agree that that is because of some of the problems that people with disabilities can experience with public transport? My constituents have told me that that can sometimes include difficulties getting on buses, which mean they can be left in the cold and rain, waiting in the hope of getting on the next bus.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I have seen real-life instances of what she describes in my constituency. I agree that we need to do more to ensure that Transport for London makes both buses and tube stations more accessible. Indeed, only 4% of the tube stations in London have full wheelchair access. I am proud to say that our station here in Westminster has full wheelchair access, but there needs to be a focus on that all across London.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for raising this important issue. I hope we can shortly achieve a breakthrough in the long-running campaign for step-free access at Newbury Park station. As chair of the all-party group on taxis, may I say to her that the wheelchair accessibility of London’s black taxis is something in which drivers take immense pride? I share her concern that people should not be charging for wheelchair access, because the behaviour of the small number of taxi drivers who are engaged in that practice damages the otherwise excellent reputation of London’s iconic black taxi trade.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I absolutely agree with him and recognise all the hard work he has done to secure the voices of black cab drivers in his area. Not long ago I was in a black cab with him and the driver instantly recognised him because of all the hard work he has been doing—he did not recognise me at all. My hon. Friend has been championing the voices of black cab drivers and he is absolutely right. Every time I am in a black cab, the driver is very supportive of me with my pram or my disabled father. It is a small number of people who are making it uncomfortable for disabled people to live and travel independently.

As the Minister will know, drivers have an obligation to comply with the Equality Act 2010. The problem is that compliance is not an explicit condition of licence. Making compliance an explicit condition of the licence would underline its importance and enable disabled people to live independent lives, get to work, visit friends, attend hospital appointments and do everything that we take for granted. Such changes would be crucial, especially in London, where 62% of all disabled residents define themselves as mobility impaired. Although 45% of disabled Londoners own a pass that gives them reduced fares or free travel, 26% of disabled people said in a recent survey that transport costs remained a barrier to use. The wheelchair charge in taxis will not be helping their situation at all. I therefore urge the Minister to support the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and oversee real progress in this crucial area.

I wish briefly to cover housing. Research shows that inaccessible housing can contribute to extra costs, as there is a strong correlation between suitability of housing and disability-related spending. Leonard Cheshire Disability has revealed that almost two thirds of councils broke the law at least once by failing to fund agreed property adaptations within the one-year legal deadline. As a result, almost 2,500 disabled people waited over a year to get the vital funds to make their homes accessible to use. As Leonard Cheshire went on to highlight, the impact of this issue, along with social care, can vary from the worrying to the unforgivable.

For some, delays to housing adaptations may result in disabled people spending far too much time at home, feeling isolated, and using their income to make adaptations themselves, again with knock-on effects for their long-term finances. Others will incur preventable injuries, illnesses or other health problems due to inaccessible homes. In 2014, that led to nearly 180,000 hours of GP time being taken up, with a cost to the NHS and care services of up to £450 million.

I wish to give the Minister as big an opportunity as possible to cover all the areas I have raised, so I will close with these few comments. Disabled people deserve the same life opportunities as able-bodied people. They deserve to reap the same benefits from the legislation as able-bodied people. They deserve to shop in a market that treats them with the same dignity as able-bodied people. And they deserve homes that afford them the same dignity and independence as anyone else.

Having spoken with so many disabled constituents across my area about these costs, I am clear that the huge number of causes of these restrictive extra costs demands a cross-departmental approach from the Government in finding solutions. For too long, disabled people have had to rely on piecemeal, fragmented progress, and I sincerely hope that the Minister’s comments today will provide a strong framework in which disabled people can expect serious progress to be made over the course of this Parliament. As I mentioned earlier, I judge society by the way in which we look after the most vulnerable and the most needy. If we cannot look after disabled people, we are failing in our duty as members of society and as parliamentarians.

I am delighted to respond to the debate. This is my first Adjournment debate in my new ministerial role, and I am now in my 13th week. One opportunity a new Minister has in getting acquainted with their new Department is to ask dumb questions. Many of the dumb questions I have asked over the last few weeks are very pertinent to the debate: “How did you arrive at that particular figure?”; “What exactly is this money for?”; “Who is actually responsible for ensuring that this is paid?”; and “How do we know this is value for money for the disabled person?”

If we consider the history of our welfare system and the other layers of support administered by local government and civil society, we see that the picture is incredibly complex and muddy. I therefore thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and others who have contributed to the debate, because it affords me the opportunity not only to address some of the issues she raised, but hopefully to further the cause of simplicity, transparency and, critically, accessibility.

I very much welcome the work Scope has done. Historically, Governments have had little detail about what disabled people have had to, and are choosing to, spend their money on. Scope has yet formally to launch its latest report—I do not want to steal too much of its thunder—but has done a valuable service in identifying certain key areas where costs for disabled people are considerably higher. This is not just clothing, transport and equipment, but, as the hon. Lady mentioned, energy and insurance, too.

Other organisations have helped on this agenda—Age UK, to mention only one, which is understandable when so many older people are also disabled. It has clearly established that the older people are, the higher their cost of living—an argument I have often deployed in defending the triple lock and pensioner benefits.

Part of the challenge of capturing these costs is that, apart from certain common trends, extra costs are so personal to the individual. Governments have therefore hypothecated for these additional costs for daily living or mobility. Increasingly and importantly, as we have seen with the Care Act 2014 and the personal independence payment, we leave the individual with a choice on how to spend that money. The spending power that a person has—that empowerment—is the best safeguard against poor-quality services and poor-quality provision. A disabled person will always be better than any five star-rated local authority in spending that money.

The other motivation for PIP was to ensure that we were directing money to those in the greatest need and with the most significant ongoing costs. Designed to cover those extra costs, PIP also improved on the disability living allowance by, critically, recognising mental health conditions, learning disabilities and sensory impairments, as well as physical disabilities. There are now more than 220,000 people receiving over £7,250 a year to help with these additional costs.

Under DLA, only 15% received the highest level of support, while it is 24% under PIP. Under DLA, only 22% of those living with a mental health condition received the enhanced daily living component, while under PIP the figure is 66%. The number of people on the Motability scheme has gone up since PIP was introduced, but we are keen further to improve its working. We have a programme of continuous improvement and evaluation by expert external bodies and stakeholders, including the Disability Charities Consortium. I am pleased that Paul Gray will lead a second review following his extremely helpful report, on which we have acted.

The forthcoming Green Paper affords us a further opportunity to look at those processes holistically, and to look at the person’s whole journey, whatever his or her personal destination might be. We have already made public the intention to stop retests for employment and support allowance when it makes no sense, and we hope that we can do more to reduce the bureaucracy and the burden on the individual. We must seize the opportunity presented by the Green Paper, and I urge every Member with an interest to engage in that consultation.

We also need more clarity about the vast array of support that is out there to ensure that the reach of our programmes and schemes matches the need. It is no good having an Access to Work scheme, a disabled facilities grant or 15 hours’ free childcare if people do not know about it and are not taking it up. However, as the hon. Lady said, we also have a duty to ensure that disabled people have every opportunity to secure best value for money.

Members have spent much time on the Floor of the House discussing energy costs, and I am confident that both Scope and the Government will continue to focus on them. Insurance markets can also afford more opportunities. There are certain practices that do, I think, require more Government action. The hon. Lady mentioned transport, and I agree that the scandal of charging disabled people higher fares is grossly exploitative. As one who has long campaigned on the quality of rail franchise agreements and the comfort, facilities and experience of the travelling public, I can tell the hon. Lady that she is preaching to the choir when she highlights the different treatment that disabled people experience on public transport.

I could give many other examples. However, I want to make it clear that this is not just about disabled people being short-changed—charged more and getting less for their money—but about businesses that are missing opportunities. The combined spending power of disabled people is immense. Some of the Department’s analysts have been working on the subject, and I can tell the House that we have vastly underestimated the spending power of that group. We will make the findings public shortly. Businesses, however, seem content to miss out on a huge customer base. Stores and products are inaccessible, irrelevant, or not even worth considering owing to the lack of accessible toilets. For some, spending a penny—in every sense—can be extremely difficult.

We need to change that. We need to help businesses and other organisations to understand what they must do, and, with us, really understand what the unmet need is and what the game-changing investments will be, in equipment, in technology, and—as the hon. Lady rightly pointed out—in connectivity. How can we drive down the costs, achieve faster take-up, and ensure that Government-funded services provide real value for money for a disabled person? Tackling the costs of living and the digital agenda to which the hon. Lady referred, and improving the targeting and reach of our welfare and support services, is only one half of the equation. If we want everyone in our society to enjoy a good quality of life, financial resilience and wellbeing, we must not only continue to improve welfare, tackle the extra costs and champion the disabled consumer; we must increase incomes as well.

Giving more people the opportunities that come with a pay packet and a career is part of that. The disability employment gap is a scandal. It is a scandal that disabled people have not had the opportunities that others enjoy, it is a scandal that businesses and other organisations have been missing out on huge talent and insight in the workforce, and it is a scandal that the costs of unemployment—people not having the chance to have meaningful activity in their lives and all the health benefits that we know come with it—have been piled on to our public services. We have been tackling the problem in a number of ways, and I thank all Members who have helped the Department by, for instance, running Disability Confident events, but we need to do more.

The Green Paper—the first of its kind, truly joint with health—will move the debate to where it needs to be, and create the momentum it requires. The paper should also consider the resilience and opportunities of carers, and the need to ensure that they can nurture their own ambitions and dreams as well as their loved ones. That includes being economically active, either now or in the future, if that is their wish.

As well as ensuring that opportunities are open to disabled people seeking work, if we are to make more than a dent in the disability employment gap we must also create more jobs, including jobs that offer the activities and flexibilities that disabled people want and need. There is much good work in this space, but it is often down to considerable luck that such ventures are created, with the right people from education, the local enterprise partnership, the council and social enterprise being in the right place at the right time. We must make such ventures more mainstream, more frequent and more the norm.

The number of people with a learning disability who benefit from such opportunities is considerable, and we must grip this issue in order to afford them the income and experiences that they are currently being denied. Such activity forms part of every think-tank-produced checklist for a good life I have ever seen, together with a warm secure home, financial resilience, opportunities and choice, connectivity, the ability to travel and a social life. These are all things that enable a person to reach their full potential, and we must ensure that people do that, or our nation never will.

The Minister waxes lyrical about the importance of disabled people being able to participate in society—to work and to socialise if they want to—but does she not recognise the fact that the withdrawal of funds to key services and the withdrawal of benefits make that aspiration virtually impossible?

I would take issue with what the hon. Lady says about this Government’s record. I have mentioned some statistics on PIP, and I could mention others relating to how we are using the increasing welfare bill better and in a more targeted way. I do agree, however, that we need to join these things up much better.

I welcome the tone taken by hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn in an article that she wrote for her local paper, in which she called for more cross-party working on these issues. Politics can often be divisive, and these issues are too important not to make common good, and common cause. Welfare reform is often lengthy, but certainty and stability are desirable. Such is the scale of the challenges that we need everyone to work towards the change we need in business, services and products, in the public sector and in our communities. We need to link the national to the local. We need closer working across all sectors, and we need the opportunities that the third sector brings to be understood and capitalised on by commissioners. We need all parts of the public sector to work better together, and utilising the data that we all have will be a game changer for delivery. We need to extend our reach to those patient groups and peer support forums that we do not currently work with. We need to build consensus, common good and common cause across all sectors.

In the hon. Lady’s constituency, local government consultations are taking place right now that will impact on the people we have been discussing today. It is no good even the most perfect policy being formed in Whitehall if it cannot be delivered on the ground. It is no good having a wonderfully evaluated Work programme if the person who could benefit from it does not know about it, or if the type of benefit they are on precludes them from benefiting from it. It is no good a person getting into work, or getting a college place, if their bus pass does not work before the hour they need to start. It is no good a person having a back-to-work plan if they cannot access the healthcare intervention they need to be sufficiently pain-free to hold down a job.

If we are to continue to improve welfare delivery, to close the disability employment gap, to build resilience and choice, to open businesses’ eyes to the possibilities, to enforce the Equality Act 2010 and to continue job creation with everyone in mind, we need a cultural change towards disability. It needs to be part of the mainstream, because it is the mainstream. It needs to be at the heart of every consideration and every plan.

The new role that I occupy, the fact we are in the youth of this Parliament—although it might not feel like it at times—the raised awareness of these issues, the new opportunities technology brings and the Green Paper will all present an opportunity to achieve those aims. Colleagues must maximise these opportunities, along with their councillors, their local Jobcentre Plus team, their healthcare professionals, businesses and the third sector organisations in their patch. We need hon. Members’ help, and I hope that they will give it.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.