I remind Members that there have been some changes to the normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones with the cleaning materials provided before they use them, and they should respect the one-way system around the room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe. Members can speak only if they are on the call lists; this applies even if debates are undersubscribed. Members cannot join a debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for the winding ups. Members in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move to the horseshoe when seats become available. I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that Members stay for the next two speeches once they have spoken; this is to help manage attendance in the room. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech, but they should be aware that doing so may prevent Members in seats in the Public Gallery from moving to seats on the horseshoe.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered a disability inclusive covid-19 response.
It is an absolute honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank the many Members who have been in touch with me all week and have dedicated their time today to speak in the debate. I declare my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, and I thank the organisations that have been in touch and that have supported people with disabilities across the United Kingdom during the pandemic. They include Disability Rights UK, Inclusion Scotland, Sense, Scope, Mencap, Leonard Cheshire, Care England, Age UK and Disability at Work, just to name a few.
Some 14 million people live with a disability in the United Kingdom. Although people with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the country, they have reported feeling largely forgotten in this time of crisis. In many ways, they have been the invisible victims of the coronavirus pandemic across the UK. Tragically, people with disabilities have accounted for six out of 10 deaths involving covid-19.
It is clear that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities, and the all-party parliamentary group for disability therefore sent an open letter to the Prime Minister in April of this year. It has since been signed by more than 100 MPs and peers of different parties. It called for five things. First, it called for Government guidance and restrictions to be communicated in a way that is accessible to people with disabilities. Secondly, it called for social distancing measures to be mindful of people with disabilities who need exemptions. Thirdly, it called on the Government to provide clear guidance on the implications of changes to the Care Act 2014 under the covid-19 legislation. Fourthly, it asked the Government to meet the needs of disabled people in the allocation of additional funding, training and personal protective equipment provision throughout the pandemic. Fifthly, it requested that the Government place people with disabilities at the very heart of their economic recovery plan.
It is very difficult to overestimate the disruptive impact that the covid-19 restrictions, which were implemented with little or no notice, have had on the lives of many people with disabilities. The restrictions have fundamentally affected not just whether people can go out socially with friends but whether the care services that many rely on day in, day out, are available to them. Some 75% of unpaid carers have reported receiving no information about support and care being reduced prior to that happening.
I am sure hon. Members would agree that it is of grave importance to ensure that Government guidance, communications and changes regarding the restrictions that we face are accessible for those with disabilities. All televised Government press conferences should, therefore, be interpreted live via British Sign Language and should have televised subtitles as standard. All Government communications about new guidance and policies must be created in accessible formats.
More and more, we rely on mobile devices, although I am quite technologically challenged in many ways. These devices, which we rely on so heavily, should now incorporate disability functionality and accessibility into their design. These issues must be researched and taken forward quickly.
This pandemic, as we know, is not going away. Communications must be improved at all levels of government, including local government. Will the Minister build an inclusive approach to communications and involve people with disabilities in the communications strategy?
Regarding restrictions, a survey conducted in April by the Office for National Statistics found that nearly nine out of 10 disabled adults expressed concern about the effect of the pandemic on their lives and their levels of isolation. Many have found it difficult to build confidence to go out, particularly after shielding for so many months. Some 42% of disabled people have reported feeling lonely or isolated due to the pandemic, and 41% of those interviewed by Scope believe that life will become worse for them over the long term.
Sense’s “Forgotten Families” campaign has demonstrated that the health and wellbeing of disabled adults and their family members has been adversely affected by this pandemic. It is vital that people have confidence to go back out into the community within safe restrictions given by Government.
Individuals with health conditions and disabilities are often exempt from wearing face masks. However, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I have received numerous reports from people with disabilities across the UK who tell me that they have been verbally abused or harassed in the community because they were not wearing a face mask. They have since lost all confidence to go out. Will the Minister support a public awareness campaign about these exemptions and standardise techniques, such as the accessibility of lanyards for people with disabilities or those who may be exempt in a wider group, so that they can go outside with confidence in a safe way, and never again feel the need to justify and explain themselves or deal with harassment?
It would be remiss of me not to highlight the significant consequences of the Coronavirus Act 2020 on the health and care provisions afforded to people with disabilities over the past six months. One service user from Inclusion Scotland described their situation:
“I have gone from 20 hours of care… to ZERO. I am now bedbound completely because of this.”
“I am so lonely and feel so depressed. I feel suicidal.”
Research by Leonard Cheshire shows that 55% of disabled people in receipt of social care have experienced changes to their care packages since April and 18% reported difficulties in even accessing food. Action is, therefore, desperately needed to support disabled people and their families to recover from the impact of lockdown. Testing will be fundamental to that, in terms of management in non-community settings; perhaps designating one person per resident as a special visitor in care home accommodation would increase vital contact with family. I would be obliged if the Minister could look at that issue.
The Government must commit to switching off the Care Act easements as soon as it is safely possible and provide reassurance that the high bar set in these easements will not become the new normal in terms of social care for those with disabilities across the UK.
To conclude, I would like to highlight the importance of an inclusive economic recovery plan in education, employment, business and beyond. This is an immense opportunity in many ways for disability inclusion in employment practices across the UK, and to develop strategies to help disabled people start their own businesses and become entrepreneurs.
However, I must begin with a word of caution. Analysis by Disability at Work shows that, historically, disabled people have been disproportionately impacted by economic downturns, in terms of new employment and redundancy. It is therefore vital that inclusion is a core element in the build back better plans that the Government are developing. However, I was incredibly disappointed that the Government’s plan for jobs, which was published recently, mentioned disability only once. I am sure the Minister will highlight that to his Cabinet colleagues to ensure that disability is a priority and retains the status that it should have.
The all-party parliamentary group for disability made several recommendations about employment and preventing people with disabilities from losing their jobs and livelihoods as a result of the long-term consequences of this pandemic. We are asking the Government to monitor and regularly publish data on disability prevalence. Beyond that, we have long recommended that they take steps towards introducing mandatory reporting of employers’ performance on disability inclusion in the workplace. We believe it is vital to make kickstart available to disabled candidates by guaranteeing funding for reasonable adjustments through the Access to Work scheme, but that must be done in a timely manner. We must better promote and fund Access to Work so that it can widen the support that it gives, as it has helped many people into work and to remain in work as disabilities arise.
We believe that there must be a review of the impact and promotion of home working, which might offer flexibility for people with disabilities and help them into employment. The Government should consider introducing a new support scheme or extending furlough for those who are at high risk due to health issues and are unable to return to work safely when furlough comes to an end.
We believe that it is absolutely vital that we change the narrative on entrepreneurship. People with disabilities are pigeonholed unfairly into single issues by the Department for Work and Pensions. There should be a great harnessing of potential, skills and ability. We support self-employment and entrepreneurship among disabled people. I recommend that hon. Members join the new all-party parliamentary group for inclusive entrepreneurship, which has been set up to maximise those ends.
Many hon. Members wish to speak, so I will finish in a moment. I have not been able to touch on education or many of the other areas affected, but I hope other hon. Members will be able to lend their voices to those issues. I agree with the World Health Organisation director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said that those with disabilities
“must not be left behind”
in the covid-19 response. We must ensure that that is undertaken domestically and internationally. I understand that the Minister will not be able to respond on behalf of all his Cabinet colleagues, but I want to reiterate that UK aid should be supporting people with disabilities internationally. We must have a leadership role in the aim of leaving no one behind and meeting the sustainable development goals. We must show true leadership in the UK and beyond.
I am asking the Minister to cover a wide base, and I realise that he will have to speak to his colleagues in order to do that. I thank everyone who has come to the debate, which has wide, cross-party support. I look forward to hearing people’s thoughts, ideas and recommendations. I hope we can have a consensual debate that highlights the great support that people from across parties and across the United Kingdom have for people with disabilities. It is important that we prioritise and support their needs.
I thank the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for calling this debate on such an important topic.
I want to highlight some of the issues that constituents or local charities have directly contacted me about; I will shamelessly go through them all. However, this debate is really about the wider issue of disability inclusivity and I will ask the Minister to consider a disability awareness charter, whereby we can encourage businesses and local communities to think about the disabled—particularly the visually impaired, the hearing impaired and those with more complex disabilities—in relation to practical things such as shopping and other everyday activities during covid-19.
There is a local charity in Beaconsfield called Blind Ambition, which works with the visually impaired. It is excellent and one of the things that it has highlighted during covid-19 was the difficulty that the visually impaired have at their local supermarket. When someone who is visually impaired goes to a supermarket, they may need to touch items and feel their way around, which was difficult during covid. Oftentimes they bring a buddy with them, but during the total lockdown they were not allowed to bring a companion, the store was not able to give them one and they were unable to get a delivery, so they felt very cut off and isolated. They could not even receive an explanation as to why they could not bring a buddy with them.
In places where there are more restrictive measures in place for covid-19, I ask that we consider encouraging supermarkets to allow a visually impaired person to bring a companion or a volunteer with them, to help them—in a covid-secure way—around the supermarket. That is just so that they have dignity and quality of life, and are not afraid, thinking, “How will I get my daily food delivery?” There is a shortage of supermarket slots for delivery online; there is that challenge for them, as well.
The visually impaired also had challenges around NHS appointments, so it would be very helpful if the NHS could consider how it can help visually impaired people when they come to a hospital or a GP’s surgery. The same restriction applies; they are not allowed to bring a companion. However, they feel very insecure about going through the hospital or even the waiting room, and I have had visually impaired people asking me, “What should I do?” and “What should I wear?”, and feeling very frightened, to the point that they did not want to go to their GP or hospital for any reason, because they were just so afraid. Having that information at the NHS and public health level for the visually impaired would be incredibly helpful.
The same applies for face masks and those who are hearing impaired, because if someone reads lips and they can no longer see what someone is saying, it is very difficult. If they are standing there waiting, say at the bus stop, and someone says, “You are too close”, or is shouting something at them, because of the face mask they cannot actually see what that person is saying. We have had reports of hearing-impaired people being abused, kicked and spat on, because they could not hear and they could not see that someone was speaking to them.
I have a few of the transparent face masks, so that the lips can be seen, but having that level of awareness of other people and trying to help them to carry on in normal society is important. I do not think there is anything that the Minister or anyone can do; it is about having an awareness of other people and how covid is affecting them.
My last point is on community or day centres, which are a lifeline to people who might have an adult living with them who has complex disabilities or severe autism. The day centre is a lifeline for that family. Sometimes, the disabled person may be in the day centre for eight hours a day, or it may just be an hour, but it is perhaps the only time, depending on the level of complex disability, that the care-giver or the parent has to take a shower or indeed do anything. What happened during lockdown was that these carers were given 24/7 care of their loved one, who was usually very disabled. They could cope with that on a normal basis, but they had their support completely removed; carers could not find anyone to speak to for support. This does not just come from speaking to people in my constituency. It was national, across the board. I have an incredible day centre in my constituency, Burnham Opportunities Centre, and they were coming in, helping and volunteering for as long as they possibly could, but as the severity of the lockdown continued, they also had to close. I have heard from family after family that if they had a child, or an adult, with complex disabilities living with them, they could not cope by the end, and then returning to work was more than they could handle. Some of them had to quit their employment because they simply could not handle the stress and ongoing responsibility of full-time care.
I know I have gone over my time, but thank you, Mr Rosindell, and I appreciate this consideration of these wider issues. I hope that we will consider a disability awareness charter.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on her speech. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), who made some fantastic points that I absolutely support.
In the four or so minutes that I have, I would like to make the following brief points. First, covid is a disease of poverty: people with existing health conditions or disabilities are particularly at risk of contracting the virus and, unfortunately, suffering its worst effects. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that between March and July, disabled people accounted for three-fifths of covid deaths in England and Wales, and the ONS has said that this is probably an underestimate. There were more than 27,500 coronavirus-related deaths of disabled people, compared with 18,800 deaths of non-disabled people. Disabled women are nearly 11 times more likely to die than non-disabled women; for men, the figure is about six and a half times.
Why is that happening? As I have just said, covid is a disease of poverty, and we know that disabled people are more likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people. Last year’s very good Disability Benefits Consortium report showed that on average, disabled people have lost £1,200 every year over the past decade, compared with £300 for a non-disabled person. That figure significantly increases when there is more than one disabled person in a household, and of course we must not forget the extra costs that disabled people face as a result of their disability, which are about £538 extra a month. Overall, £36 billion will have been taken out of social security support for working-age people by 2022.
On top of that, I am afraid that the shielding system the Government set up was completely useless. The Greater Manchester Disabled People’s Panel did a large-scale survey that it published in July, which revealed that one in five people had been included in the Government’s shielding list. The 80% who were excluded did not get any of the support that was available to officially shielded people. Given that the majority of disabled people were not shielded, one would think that the Government would recognise that fact, and that additional financial support would be provided through social security—not at all. Poor disabled people were faced with the additional dilemma of having extra costs on top of their extra costs. They had to get food somehow: did they go into debt? Did they get food delivery schemes that they had to pay for, or did they risk their health and go to the shops?
As the Select Committee on Work and Pensions heard during our coronavirus inquiry in April, and as we were already anecdotally aware of people saying, disabled people in work were more likely to be made redundant than non-disabled people. Citizens Advice then showed in its survey that more than a third of disabled people were likely to be made redundant, compared with 17% of the working-age population as a whole. Access to Work is meant to enable disabled people to stay in work, so I ask the Minister this: of the 4.1 million disabled people able to work, how many more disabled people have been able to avail themselves of the support over and above the 43,400 who have done so since the covid pandemic?
What can we do about it? We need to have a supportive shielding system that identifies vulnerable people not via an algorithm but at a local level, with disabled people’s organisations. They have been completely excluded from any decisions made about what is going to affect them. It is not good enough. That needs to be done for all tiers of the new system. Personally, I believe we should be going for a national circuit-breaker. I am a former public health consultant and we know that, because of seeding, local lockdowns will not work.
Access to Work must be extended to ensure that disabled people can work from home wherever possible, or furloughed on 100% pay. The Government must monitor any unlawful discrimination of disabled people in the workplace through the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and must take enforcement action where that is happening. The Government must transfer resources to local authorities not just in terms of the national Test and Trace programme, but also to ensure that adequate support is made available to protect and support disabled people. We are at war with this virus, and the Treasury need to recognise that and invest and support our people appropriately, including disabled people.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship Mr Rosindell, and also to be able to take part in this debate called by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Lisa Cameron).
The impact of coronavirus on disabled people has been profound. It is absolutely right that we should be drawing attention to that at this time. The scale of the issue is concerning: disabled people have accounted for 59% of deaths due to coronavirus between March and July. It is an enormous issue. Another issue is the hidden deaths that have occurred as a result of people not being able to access the healthcare they need, and the way that that has particularly impacted people with learning disabilities. The deaths of people detained in hospitals subject to the Mental Health Act 1983 in the community have doubled from the number of deaths in the same period last year. It is a concern, and we are right to be debating it.
There is also the impact on people who care for disabled people. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), during lockdown I was speaking to my constituents in that position, who were caring for somebody without the support that they may otherwise have. We need to look at the whole family when we consider the issue as we move forward. The Government’s response has been entirely as it should be: an extra £9 billion of welfare support has been put in place. Specifically within the area of disability, spending this year has increased from £19 billion to £20 billion. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place, and we could not have a better Minister looking at these issues with the sort of credentials that he has for action in the area.
I would like to talk about three issues. The first is easements, the second is communication relating to disability, and the third is employment. The easements are causing all of us concern. The emergency Coronavirus Act 2020 allowed the suspension of some of the duties that local authorities have within the Care Act 2014. Many organisations are now calling for a rethink on that, including Liberty and Disability Rights UK. The easements are there for a reason: to make sure that local authorities can operate in a really difficult situation. Where easements are operated, local authorities may not be complying with what disabled people need within their community. There has been no correlation between the number of covid-19 positive cases and the decision to operate easements in local authority areas. I would appreciate the Government giving us an update on that and on their plans with regards to guidance on the use of easements in the future.
The second issue is communication. A number of hon. Members in the Chamber today will, I think, hope that as we move forward, accessible communication will become fully embedded into every single bit of Government communication. I remember sitting in the Minister’s place, and it is difficult to get easy-read versions and British sign language versions when trying to bring out policy recommendations. It takes time and I understand that. We must still challenge ourselves to communicate with everybody when we are communicating with the British public, not just with those who do not have a disability. I challenge the Minister to think of new and better ways to ensure that a lack of information for disabled people is a thing of the past.
Finally, on employment, we know that many thousands of disabled people in this country want to be in employment but are not. The Minister has done an enormous amount to make sure there is support in place to ensure that as many disabled people as possible are able to get into employment, though Access to Work, the Work and Health programme and intensive personalised employment support programmes. We need to redouble those efforts and challenge Access to Work, to make sure adaptive technology is available to disabled people who may now be having to work from home for the first time.
The national strategy for disabled people is a crucial part of supporting people with disabilities in our country and I applaud the work of the Government on that. Can the Minister provide an update on the work that he is doing to make sure that the strategy delivers for every single disabled person in the country, across all Government activity?
I had not expected to be called to speak so early in the debate, but I appreciate your doing so, Mr Rosindell. I thank the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for setting the scene. She and I work together on many disability issues in the House, and it is always a pleasure to support her whenever she speaks in a debate. She speaks straight from her heart; we know it is a good heart, Mr Rosindell.
The pandemic has been hard on every person in the nation, but none more so than those in the disabled sector. I want to speak quickly about some of them. The Royal National Institute of Blind People has told me that 250 people begin to lose their sight every day in the United Kingdom. A lot of people find it difficult to socially distance or to see direction arrows on the ground. Would they be able to negotiate their way into this room? They would have no idea how to do that without an assistant to help them. I have heard about many people being yelled at for not keeping social distance. They were not recognised as disabled—maybe they were not wearing the black glasses or did not have the stick—but they are partially disabled from the point of view of their sight.
The RNIB has made various suggestions, of which I hope the Minister has been made aware and that he can work on them. The suggestions do not mean breaking social distance rules, but being kind and compassionate, and taking time to speak to someone who looks as if they might be struggling to navigate through the shops. People have difficulty because they are disabled, not because there is anything else wrong with them.
Cotters is a shop in Newtownards that sells a range of groceries, cleaning products, hardware and other valuable daily essentials. That is not a plug for them, by the way, although I will send the staff a copy of Hansard afterwards and let them know that they were mentioned in Westminster Hall. The staff noticed that many of their elderly customers were struggling to understand them through their masks. The muffled voices of the staff could not be heard and the customers could not understand what they were saying. Out of their own pockets, the staff ordered masks that have plastic across the mouth to make it easier for those who cannot hear to see.
It took a few months to get that measure in place, but we are all adapting to new regulations and systems put in place because of coronavirus. Local councils could help to direct people in relation to those issues, but it would be more effective if measures relating to those who have hearing difficulties that need to be addressed came from this place.
Northern Ireland has introduced a circuit breaker, but the rules are not easy for many to understand. Elderly people ring or make a journey to my office to try to understand how they can do things. Do you know why, Mr Rosindell? Because most people want to do it right. They want to know what to do. By and large, most people—probably 98%—will do exactly what they are asked to do. We should try to help them. People want to get a lift to church. A lady who had a heart operation and has not been allowed to drive needs to get to church, because that is probably her only contact with other people. That lady needs somewhere to contact so she can sort that out.
There is an 84-year old lady who drives her 86-year old brother’s dinner round to him every night. She asked if she was allowed to stay to tidy his kitchen, as she could not do that during the last lockdown. I am not being disrespectful, and neither is she, but by the end of that period, the kitchen was a mess. The cleaning up she had to do on her brother’s behalf was horrendous—those are her words. Can she care for her brother?
I must ask the Minister for a dedicated phoneline for people to get informal help. Can there be a dedicated line for people to ask a question and get some direction and guidance on what they can do? That would be a great helper.
The vulnerable people who hear “circuit breaker” fear that, for them, it will be a life breaker because of the impact the regulations would have on their heads. We must have more information for our disabled and vulnerable and step it up on their behalf. For guidance to be issued a week before might be fine for you and me in this place, Mr Rosindell, but it is not okay for someone to feel for a month like they cannot see or speak to another living person or for someone not to be able to care for those who depend on them. That is happening to people in my area and yours. We must address it quickly.
It is no secret that the coronavirus pandemic has been extremely difficult for the people of this country. While everyone has an equal chance of catching the virus, there is no doubt that the effects of the pandemic have not been felt equally across our society. The disadvantaged, the elderly, people from ethnic minorities and people with disabilities have all been disproportionately affected by covid-19. It is the latter group whose struggle has been tragically under-reported. I therefore thank the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing the debate so that the House has the opportunity to discuss this issue.
Lockdown and the subsequent changes to our behaviour have had an extremely negative effect on people with disabilities. Social distancing, for example, is difficult for people who are blind, and people who are deaf or hard of hearing have difficulty reading lips when everyone is wearing masks. What may seem like a small inconvenience for the able bodied becomes an enormous challenge for people with disabilities.
One of the most tragic aspects of the pandemic has been its effect on those with learning disabilities, particularly those in social care and education. A recent survey by Mencap reports that seven in 10 people with learning disabilities have experienced a reduction in social care during lockdown while seeing their needs nearly double. It was deeply concerning this week to listen to some of the brave panel members on the all-party parliamentary group for special educational needs and disabilities describing their difficulties in accessing learning and getting the right support.
While the Government have published extensive guide- lines on visits to care homes, there is little guidance about visits to people in supported living arrangements. That has a devastating effect on many people with learning disabilities, who often find themselves completely cut off from their traditional support networks. The loneliness that many feel is heartbreaking—and that coupled with depression leads to serious health issues.
Only one word can describe the situation, and that is “crisis”. While news reports stoke fears of further restrictions, the simple fact is that, for some, the original restrictions never ended. People with disabilities have suffered isolation, loneliness and the loss of their independence. Emergency measures used to preserve resources for local authorities have led to de facto cuts to social care. We must set this right. Our responsibility to all our constituents and our simple human decency demand that we do so.
There must be an understanding that covid is a long-term problem and a long-term plan must be put in place to safeguard the most vulnerable in our communities. We must increase funding to education and social care schemes to ensure that people with learning and physical disabilities are not left behind. If we do not increase funding, that will have a knock-on effect on the rest of society as families are forced to stop working to care for their disabled family member. That can put serious strains on families, many of whom are not equipped or trained to provide the long-term care that a complex learning or physical disability case requires.
We must ensure that visiting guidelines are clarified, so people can meet with friends and family safely. We must do our best to ensure that the precautions designed to keep us safe do not come at the cost of people’s independence or their ability to communicate.
The pandemic has changed everything. What it should not change, however, is our collective commitment to safeguard the most vulnerable in our community. People with disabilities, both physical and learning, deserve better, and this House should commit to ensuring that. The coronavirus has left disabled people feeling abandoned, ignored and devalued. We must put that right.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing this important debate.
Data released by the Office for National Statistics in September shows that disabled people accounted for 59% of covid-related deaths in England and Wales between March and July when the pandemic was at its height. The disproportionality is staggering. In these circumstances, it is vital that our response to the pandemic ensures that people with disabilities continue to receive the services and support they need and that their rights are respected and enacted. Sadly, that has not been the case.
My constituent has severe cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair user. He occasionally needs help from his colleagues in the office for minor tasks, such as passing folders and opening doors. Until recently, he had been volunteering for a large national charity, working three to four days a week, on shifts, in a job that he loves and that he has been doing for the last four years. In August, he contacted me to say he was told by his manager not to return to work because he would put his colleagues at risk, because of the 2-metre social distancing rule. He said:
“I’m really upset… before February I did a shift every 72 hours with no problem and I have been banned ever since. My boss is holding on to this 2-metre rule for dear life and I really think she has misinterpreted the guidance. Her latest email suggests that the office could be made to shut down if the Government found out that my colleagues were passing me a folder… even though I have made suggestions as to how we can mitigate any risks, my boss says that I cannot 100% guarantee that I will not need close contact help”.
As hon. Members will know, under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove disadvantages faced by disabled employees. The question of what is reasonable will always need to be assessed on an individual basis. In this case, help to maintain social distancing and to protect the health and safety of the workplace are relevant considerations. Will the Government provide greater clarity on how disabled workers can be protected from employers who, shamefully, are using the pandemic as a reason not to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace?
Covid-19 has pressed the reset button on so many of the things that we are doing, and on so many commonly-held assumptions and established ways of doing things. When so many practices are being challenged, it is time to implement a recovery plan that consults and proactively empowers disabled people, for the benefit of all of us.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing the debate on this very important issue. I know she has worked tirelessly on the issue for many years, since she was elected to the House, both as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability and through the all-party parliamentary group on learning disability.
I declare an interest as my wife works providing support and tutoring to a child with special educational needs in Birmingham, who receives support through the welfare system.
The covid pandemic has had a severe impact on many children around the country—on their education, their development and their welfare—but it has had a particular effect on many children with speech, language and learning disabilities. Understandably, some of the legal obligations on local authorities and on the national health service were eased earlier in the year with respect to the availability of staff during the heavier stages of lockdown. That was a necessary step, but it must not be a signal that necessary and vital support, particularly for children and young people with disabilities, is in some way discretionary. It is pleasing that no local authorities at all are currently using the easement provisions, which must be triggered only where absolutely necessary. Even then, all public authorities and agencies must ensure that appropriate and suitable provision can be made with the available staff.
Many local authority and national health service workers did heroic work throughout the first wave of the pandemic, particularly in the period between late March, when lockdown started and schools closed, and the end of the summer term in July. It was a time when an awful lot was expected of relatively few people, who did amazingly well, but far too many children received no specialist support during that time. It is almost worse that they did not even receive any explanation from the various agencies involved about why support was being withdrawn and when it might return.
Although it is clearly right for the Government to be doing everything possible to keep schools open and to be taking the measures available to ensure that children can continue going to school, we need to recognise that many children, particularly those with the most severe and complex special educational needs, have not been able to return to school. Many are still being educated at home, so it is important that a disability-inclusive covid response must involve thinking about how agencies can evolve to support SEND children who are stuck at home, and considering the parents and families of those children.
I see that my four minutes are up, so I will draw my remarks to a close. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, and I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow on securing the debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing this debate, on a topic that she knows is close to my heart.
Without doubt, the pandemic’s impact on the disabled has been absolutely catastrophic. During the lockdown period, almost seven in 10 people with a learning difficulty have had their care packages reduced or cut completely, which the Disability Law Service says is illegal. We all need to hear assurances from the Government that the easements will be repealed and never repeated.
Children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities have also been spectacularly disadvantaged by the pandemic. In a Westminster Hall debate in January, a number of Members of different parties voiced concerns about how SEND children and their families were struggling to get their education, health and care plans. The challenges of home schooling have been well documented. It has had a huge effect on SEND children and their families. Organisations such as Scope and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are doing incredible work in producing online resources for parents, but we still need more. Parents and families are still telling me that they are struggling to get the laptops and specialist equipment that they need. When will the Government get that much- needed kit to every single child, so that they have a fighting chance to learn during covid? With reports that almost one in five SEND children have been out of school since lockdown, will the Government produce a dedicated plan to help SEND children and their families to get the education that they deserve and to which they are entitled?
The UK is home to a world-leading disability creative arts sector. Many of its members fall into a similar category to ExcludedUK, with freelancers having received absolutely no Government support at all. Without help, these disabled creatives could completely disappear from our screens, theatres and comedy circuits. They could become invisible in our public realm and debate. Will the Minister therefore heed calls from the UK Disability Arts Alliance and commit specific resources to those who are clinically vulnerable and at risk of becoming invisible in creative content?
There is, as we have heard from other Members today, a risk to jobs. As we head into a recession with the prospect of job losses it is vital that those disabled people who are in jobs can be kept in them, because it is so much harder for disabled people and all those with protected characteristics to get into the workplace in the first instance. Will the Government look at urgently amending section 159 of the Equality Act 2010 to empower, but not require, all employers to look at retaining workers with disabilities or other protected characteristics during the redundancy process?
Other hon. Members have mentioned the need for an awareness-raising campaign for disabled and other people who are exempt from face covering. On 15 July I asked the Government whether they would run such a campaign, and on 18 August I received a rather peculiar answer about dentistry and personal protective equipment. I have chased it up and have not had a proper response yet, so I would be grateful if the Minister would look into it.
Finally, the House must lead by example. I urge every Member to petition the Government to re-establish the access to elected office fund. There is a shocking lack of disabled voices in the House of Commons, and I say that as an MP with a hidden disability. The entry cost for many disabled MPs is far too high and we need a proper fund to be established so that candidates of all political persuasions have the opportunity to stand and to represent their communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing this important debate. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), who spoke with such power about the hidden disabilities that so many of us face.
I quite often hear it said that covid-19 does not discriminate. It is a social virus that affects everyone. That is certainly true, but the risk of hospitalisation, ventilation and, sadly, death is much higher in someone who suffers from an underlying health condition or disability. I am afraid that the virus does discriminate in a cruel, unpleasant way. That is highlighted by stark covid mortality data from Warrington Hospital: 70% of those who died were male, 80% were over the age of 70, and 90% had underlying health conditions or a disability. There is a mass of evidence that covid-19 has a disproportionate impact on the lives of disabled people in the UK. It affects the quality of their lives dramatically. In a recent Office for National Statistics study, 55% reported an impact on their mental wellbeing as a result of isolation due to the requirement to shield. As we look across what I fear will be a challenging six months to come, and further to the recovery from the pandemic, it is essential not to leave behind anyone who is disabled.
I pay tribute to the work undertaken by my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department in recent weeks to break down the many social and structural barriers that have existed in the workplace, education and wider society. However, coronavirus has revealed that many disabled people are at a precipice, and at risk of experiencing severe effects on their financial security, their health, and their wellbeing, into the long term. I know that the Minister agrees with me about anyone with a disability being able to expect the same access to financial security and career satisfaction as those with none. It would be helpful if he could set out steps, in the Chancellor’s plan for jobs, to support disabled people and say how they can expect to find and retain high-quality jobs.
I want to pay particular tribute to Warrington Disability Partnership and its fantastic chief executive, Dave Thompson, with whom I had the pleasure of spending some time in the summer recess to talk about the work that the partnership has been doing through the pandemic. WDP is an internationally acclaimed charity. All through lockdown it was active, supporting anyone who needed practical assistance, and being a friend at the end of a phone for people to chat with, as support for those who were shielding. Next year it celebrates its 30th anniversary of delivering mobility and independent living services to people in my Warrington South constituency.
Disability Awareness Day is an annual highlight in my constituency. It is a fun community event held at Walton Hall. The event attracts around 200 exhibitors from across the UK’s disability sector. Remarkably, it now attracts 24,000 visitors each year and is acknowledged to be the world’s largest voluntary-led disability event. It is a bright highlight in my local constituency and has taken disability to the majority of people in Warrington.
Due to covid-19, this year’s event could not be held live outdoors, as originally planned. It would have taken place in July, but, as I have come to expect in Warrington, the organisers have innovated. Knowing about the need for information and advice, as so many Members have talked about, they have taken the entire event online into a virtual setting, to take place on Sunday 25 October. There are 200 exhibition stands online. They are already booked, and it is the talk of the mobility and independent living equipment sector.
I know the Minister is aware of the work of WPD, and I would be delighted if he would join me in wishing the event the success it deserves. When he is able to visit, I hope he can come to Warrington to meet the wonderful team at the partnership, to see how it has developed such a successful organisation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing this important and timely debate.
Covid-19 has changed the way in which people work. ONS data on coronavirus and homeworking in the UK reveals that 46% of people in employment did some homeworking in April, and 86% of them did so because of the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout the pandemic we have seen workplaces close and moves towards remote working for some. However, the tools can be inaccessible for many people with hearing loss and deafness. For example, the 2019 Action on Hearing Loss report, “Working for Change”, which sought to understand the workplace experiences of people with hearing loss and deafness, revealed that 75% of respondents found it difficult to take part in video or teleconference meetings.
In those workplaces that have been able to remain open, we have rightly seen the imposition of social distancing and other safety measures, such as opaque face coverings to protect employees. However, those measures can alienate people with hearing loss and deafness from both their work and their colleagues. It is therefore crucial that employers are encouraged and supported to offer new reasonable adjustments to address the barriers, including for healthcare professionals. That is particularly pertinent when considering how different disabilities and health conditions will, no doubt, be affected in different ways. Many charity organisations are putting together advice and support to show how that can be done in workplaces, but it needs to be collated in one accessible point and to be endorsed and promoted by the Government. I support the calls by many disability charities for a disability information hub for employers, and ask the Minister to commit to that.
The 2017 Action on Hearing Loss “Working for Change” report showed gaps in employers’ knowledge of disability and that their confidence in hiring and supporting disabled people has been a long-term problem, existing well before covid-19. Even though the Government’s “Health is everyone’s business” consultation closed more than a year ago, they have still not responded or made any progress in improving employer information. The Minister might suggest that the delay has been caused by covid-19—which is the Government’s response when asked why the report on special educational needs and disabilities provision has been much delayed—but covid-19 makes the provision of disability-specific information even more important. At a time when employers need access to support and guidance on how to make new adjustments for disabled people, I ask the Minister to tell us when the Government will publish their consultation response. More generally, will he confirm that the Government intend to keep their target of helping an additional 1 million disabled people into work by 2027?
We should also be mindful of the mental health of people with hearing impairment during the pandemic. The latest ONS data from July 2020 showed that 64% of people with hearing impairment reported feeling lonely always, often, some of the time or occasionally, compared with just 44% of non-disabled people.
The Government must do more to ensure that people who are deaf or have hearing loss have access to both healthcare and timely covid-19 public health information. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care highlighted in a speech to the Royal College of Physicians on 30 July that all health consultations should be remote unless there is a “compelling” reason otherwise. However, people who are deaf or have hearing loss rely heavily on visual cues for effective communication. The accessible information standard requires health and social care providers to identify, record and meet the specific communication needs. Can the Minister clarify whether face-to-face appointments will be maintained where that is the individual’s preference? Clarity is desperately needed on that. I am over my time, so will finish there.
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) has done the House a great service by allowing us to debate these issues concerning disabled people, but I am very worried about our general approach to the coronavirus pandemic, because we have a Chancellor of the Exchequer who has become a cash dispenser; he is entirely demand-led. If we continue with this approach, the economy will crash, and then how will we help all these disabled people about whom we are so desperately concerned?
Last Friday, I was delighted to see the inspirational Music Man Project, which I have mentioned in the House on a number of occasions. That project is for people with learning difficulties and, through the power of music, their lives have been transformed. As many hon. Members will know, they have performed at the London Palladium. They performed last year at the Royal Albert Hall. And they were going to Broadway, but unfortunately, because of the coronavirus pandemic, that has been delayed a little. I thank the Leigh Salvation Army for giving that organisation the opportunity to perform. It has been absolutely wonderful, and I know, from talking to the families of the people with learning difficulties, that it has transformed their lives.
Access Anyone is a wonderful local company in my constituency that specialises in supplying transport for adults and children with disabilities; it allows them to go to school. It is looking for better Government guidance on the way in which such companies can safely provide transport to those who are disabled or have special educational needs.
In Southend West, we have a number of wonderful special schools. I was contacted by Julie Archer, headteacher of Estuary High School, who had difficulty in getting covid tests for her residential students. I have also been contacted by Louise Robinson, headteacher of Kingsdown School, who has serious issues with the social distancing guidelines announced on 28 August. She is very worried about how they are being interpreted.
In Southend, there are 1,135 people registered as blind and partially sighted and an estimated 6,500 people living with sight loss. Their difficulties have been raised with me on many occasions by a lady called Jill Allen-King, who is a staunch fighter on their behalf. They are very concerned about the new measures to protect the public and enforce social distancing and the increased use of pavement tables outside restaurants, which mean that blind people are finding it more and more difficult to navigate independently. I was horrified to read that two thirds of blind and partially sighted people had told the Royal National Institute of Blind People that they felt less independent during the lockdown. Much more needs to be done to promote the RNIB’s “Please give me space” logo.
Blind and partially sighted people often struggle with the use of smartphones and computers. The Government’s track and trace scheme relies almost entirely on the use of smartphones, particularly with the new app. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister what provision is being made by the Government to ensure that blind and partially sighted people are not put in greater danger or at greater risk.
The increased wearing of face masks is causing difficulties for those with hearing loss, which has been mentioned already, who rely on communication through facial expressions and lip reading. My local YMCA, led by the wonderful Syrie Cox, launched the Find Your Voice initiative, which was a competition to design a face mask. A child called Lily was the winner. She created a mask with a clear window in it so that people who are deaf can lip-read through the mask.
A number of constituents have expressed to me their concerns that some disabled people are being refused services because they are not wearing a face covering, despite being exempt. Although many charities and organisations, such as Mencap, have produced their own exemption cards, more clarity is needed.
In addition, I hope that people suffering from endometriosis whose operations have been delayed are not overlooked.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for securing this important debate and for her excellent speech. She has saved me time by covering many of the points I would have made.
I will focus on people with hidden disabilities who are unable to wear masks. I was contacted earlier this year by a young woman called Georgina Fallows, who is a rape survivor and is unable to wear a mask because it triggers her post-traumatic stress disorder. She has experienced a number of incidents: one on a visit to a hair salon—she had booked the appointment in advance, but was challenged quite aggressively by a customer, who accused her of killing her dad because she was not wearing a mask—and another in a local supermarket. That has led to Georgina not wanting to go out for fear of being challenged and facing other such attacks.
Georgina is just one example of a person who has a hidden disability and is unable to wear a mask. She waived her right to anonymity about her rape attack so that she could champion this cause, because it is very close to her heart. She wants people to be aware that she is unable to wear a mask, and she does not want to feel awkward about that. Since Georgina got in touch with me, I have met a number of charities that have told me about the need for greater awareness of people with hidden disabilities. The charities that I spoke to include Mencap, the National Autistic Society, Sense, Asthma UK, the British Lung Foundation, Mind, Disability Rights UK and Inclusion London. I appreciate that the Government have set out a number of exemptions for wearing facemasks, but unfortunately many members of the public are not aware of them. The Government need a clear, high-profile public campaign.
To help to identify people who cannot wear a facemask, an organisation called Hidden Disabilities produces a lanyard that has a sunflower around the outside, and a badge similar in size to a parliamentary pass, that people can wear. I have spoken to some of the Minister’s colleagues about that, and I am sure he will be very positive about it in his response. We desperately need quick action, because we are approaching a situation in which people will have more restrictions placed upon them, so anybody who is not seen to be complying with the rules faces more of a challenge.
I will not repeat what other colleagues have said, but clearly social distancing is an issue for people with sight loss, and we must ensure that that is taken into consideration when looking at licences for street furniture, outdoor seating and that sort of thing. Communication is also very important; Sense and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) raised that issue. We need British Sign Language as a standard and subtitled videos, and all Government comms and guidance must be accessible. A point was made about the easements, and I am sure the Minister will take that on board. We do not want the provision of care packages to people with disabilities to be restricted.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing this important debate about an issue that affects all our constituencies. Lots of people will be watching this debate online with interest, so I hope they feel that we have done the issue justice and see the strength of feeling. This is as full as this Chamber can be in these challenging times, which shows how much Members from across the House care about it.
The hon. Lady made particularly important points about accessibility and the Care Act easements, and other hon. Members also covered those issues. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) talked about retail, which you and I are passionate about, Mr McCabe. She talked about the experience of people with disabilities in accessing retail, and I will talk about that shortly. The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) made very important remarks about how this pandemic has not been felt equally. We have to be mindful of that when we design our approaches.
The hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) made particularly poignant comments about Care Act easements. We all had that in mind when we passed the Coronavirus Act 2020. We were all concerned about it, so if local government uses those easements sparingly, or indeed not at all, we will be pleased. We will all be keeping a keen eye on the situation, because we are all keen to drop that provision at the first moment we can.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who as a former Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee has a strong track record in this area, made excellent points about accessible communications, I hope the Minister will take some time to reflect on those points and perhaps give us some good news. The hon. Gentleman from England’s next fine city, Southend, the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), raised an issue that I am very passionate about: endometriosis. I recently tabled a number of written questions on that topic, and I have to say that I did not get particularly persuasive answers back, so I hope he and other colleagues will help me with that. I knew he would mention the Music Man Project. I did not know they had not been able to get to Broadway, but I am sure that in time they will get there, and the hon. Gentleman might go with them to show them around.
Turning to the contributions from the Opposition side of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) talked about the disproportionality of deaths from covid. The statistic that 60% of deaths are among people living with disabilities is a sobering one, and something that we have to be exceptionally mindful of. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a lovely point when he talked about this issue coming from the heart: that has very much been the theme of the debate. We all come here in good faith; that does not mean we do not profoundly disagree about some things, and we might have assertive conversations about them, but we are coming from the heart.
I will share some reflections later on the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) made about work, but that is a particularly important issue. As the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) was speaking, I was thinking about my concern about the SEND educational attainment gap in my community and across the country. I fear that current conditions will only make that more challenging.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) highlighted some of the pitfalls of home working and the need to help employers. I was romanced by the idea of an employers’ hub, because I believe that the vast majority of employers want to do the right thing, but we might need to help them do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) shared the powerful story of his constituent Georgina. It was very difficult to hear, but it was important that it was heard, because those are the sorts of stories that exist up and down this country, and we have to do something about them.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), who at this moment, I would rather was in my chair than me. She has been an outstanding champion for people with disabilities throughout this outbreak, fighting their corner in every single way, and the fact that the lifelong condition she is living with has prevented her from taking part today tells its own story. I do not think it reflects well on us that we have the technology to be much more inclusive, but choose not to use it, so I will pay tribute to her in my traditional way: stealing her ideas and passing them off as my own. [Laughter.] This one’s for you, Vicky.
I will discuss Scope’s disability report to add a little context, because it painted a striking, worrying picture. A quarter of respondents said they felt forgotten or ignored by the Government; half said they have had issues getting essential items; a third were extremely concerned about their mental health and wellbeing if they were required to self-isolate for more than three months; two thirds were concerned that they will not get the treatment they need if they contract the virus; and nine out of 10 reported themselves to be very worried or somewhat worried about the effect that the pandemic is having on their lives. That is the reality for people living with disabilities during coronavirus: whether it is the fact that supermarket deliveries that are hard to come by—that is now starting to happen again—social distancing, which other Members have raised, or benefits, there are lots of concerns. Many of these challenges are presented to us by the pandemic, but that is not a reason to ignore them; it is a reason for us to do our utmost to mitigate them as best we can.
As we go into the second wave, if that is how we choose to characterise it, we have to understand that we have seen some of these problems before. It behoves us to meet these challenges better on the second occasion, and we ought to be able to demonstrate clearly that we will do so. There might be some latitude when it comes to making mistakes the first time; there will be no latitude if we do the same thing again, so let us have clear support for people with disabilities, and let us have clear guidance around shielding. People have often asked me where shielding fits into the three-tier system—perhaps the Minister will cover that in his response.
I know we have collectively fired a lot of questions at the Minister, so I will give him the maximum available time to answer them all as fully as possible, but in the time remaining, I will make some constructive suggestions for him to consider, starting with the welfare system. We have called throughout the pandemic for a range of social security measures that would provide immediate support for disabled people. They include converting universal credit advances into grants rather than loans, ending the five-week wait entirely, suspending the benefit cap, and abolishing the two-child limit in universal credit. The uplift to universal credit is very welcome—we recognise that—and we have called for that to be extended to legacy benefits.
I hope the Minister will reflect on those measures and commit to a few of them since he is here. I hope he will also commit to the imminent publication of the Government’s national strategy for disabled people and the Green Paper on health and disability benefits and support. The response to the call for evidence on violence and abuse against shopworkers got blocked in the coronavirus communications, because there was a sense that there was no opportunity to communicate on anything else. Actually, we knew it was more necessary, because of the conditions for retail workers in the pandemic. The principle is the same here. The sooner we can see those things, the better our response and our support will be for those living with disabilities.
Moving on to the world of work, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam made a point about face-to-face assessments for in-work or not-in-work welfare benefits. Obviously, those were suspended in March. I think every MP has constituents who have had really horrible experiences at those assessments and talked about how that made them feel. I certainly felt a bit of relief that they were suspended. How have the Government used the time before they are resumed, or the system gets back on to a more normal footing, to come up with a more dignified, more humane and a fairer assessment process that does not cause such physical or mental harm to those who have to go through it? [Interruption.] The Minister speaks from a sedentary position; I am sure he will go on in even greater detail in just a couple of minutes.
On employment issues, there is guidance on covid-secure workplaces and the vast majority of employers are doing the right things. I would be interested in learning how the shoe drops for those who are not, particularly for those who are living with disabilities at work. We have heard stories from many colleagues that this is a particularly stressful situation, and we know that it is translating into rates of employment for those with and without disabilities and creating even greater disparities. In my three years as adult services lead in Nottingham, one of my greatest frustrations was our failure to make better progress on rates of employment for those living with disabilities. This will only make that more challenging.
The recent report from Citizens Advice has worried all of us. It found that 27% of disabled people face redundancy, rising to 37% of those whose disability has a substantial impact on their activities and nearly half of those who are extremely clinically vulnerable to coronavirus. None of us wants that to be the case and none of us thinks that it should be the case, so I would be interested to know the Minister’s views on why that is happening and what he intends to do about it. Otherwise, it will just be another disproportionality that those living with disabilities suffer from.
I have covered as much ground as I could in the time available and I want to leave the Minister plenty of time. In many senses, the Government are getting a second bite of the cherry. If they reflect on the experiences in the first wave, if they talk and engage those with disabilities as experts to co-design the services that they use and need, they can do much better this time. I hope to hear that commitment from the Minister today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again in Westminster Hall, Mr McCabe. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), who has a long-standing reputation as a proactive, constructive chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability. I have had the pleasure of attending many meetings, including one this week virtually, as we embrace new technology. She is held in high regard across Government and that was reflected in the nature of this debate. It has been good-natured, conducted with good spirit, and has highlighted the important concerns that we collectively have to address as we navigate the unprecedented challenges of covid.
I also pay tribute to the former Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) pan-disability, have benefited hugely from.
I will try to respond to as many points as I can, in particular where MPs have raised specific points, but first, a sense check: I am the Minister for Disabled People, but the Department for Education leads on special educational needs, for example, and the Department of Health and Social Care leads on care easements. However, I have attended a Women and Equalities Committee hearing that covered those things, so I have a reasonable understanding of them. As the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, I have two primary roles. I am responsible for all things related to disability in the Department for Work and Pensions—predominantly the provision of disability benefits—but I am also responsible for our Disability Unit, which was launched last year and which is based in the Cabinet Office.
The unit is the eyes and ears of disability issues across Government, making sure that disability issues are embedded in policy development. It is personally supported by the Prime Minister, which makes my job much, much easier. Disability issues are brought up at Cabinet and in interministerial groups, where I get to instruct other Ministers about their importance. We are an asset across Government, because we spend—I in particular spend—a huge amount of time on stakeholder engagement. In the past seven days, just as part of my ongoing work, I have met representatives of all the national charities that have been mentioned in the speeches today. I enjoy talking to people with real lived experience, and we then flag up that experience with the relevant Department if it is not DWP, and it makes a tangible difference.[Official Report, 17 November 2020, Vol. 684, c. 4MC.]
Many people today have talked about the challenges of accessing food during covid. Actually, the Royal National Institute of Blind People was one of the many charities that we were able to link up with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which allowed its representatives to bring their real lived experience to bear, and that sped up the process of improving the situation. The DEFRA Minister was then able to share that exchange as best practice with other Ministers and tell them to look at Disability Unit as a helpful resource, because we can signpost people to experts, who speed up policy development and make sure that it is right first time.
Looking at the broader points that were raised, one was accessible communications, and it is absolutely vital. Again, through interministerial groups and with the support of the Prime Minister, we have been reminding cross-Government Departments and public sector organisations outside Government that they have a duty under the Equality Act to ensure that communications are accessible. Using the RNIB again as an example, it has proactively helped us to look at communications and put them into Easyread and braille. In my own Department, we have launched our deaf-signed YouTube channel, which explains benefits through British Sign Language. There is a lot more best practice that we have to share, but again, through the Disability Unit, we are keeping a very close eye on what the Government and other connected organisations are doing.
I will take some interventions in a bit; let me just clear a few things first.
I also believe that we need to be smarter about how we use our stakeholders in future announcements regarding the difference in guidance on tiers 1, 2 and 3. What we should do is to make sure, as quickly as possible, that we communicate to our extensive network of stakeholders the potential impacts or opportunities as guidance changes, so that they can then share that very quickly with their members. That is because a lot of communication is reliant on people watching the news and following our powerful speeches in Parliament, but sometimes they do not do that, so we need to rely on our network of stakeholders, who have much better reach than our Twitter channels. Both my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington South (Andy Carter) and for Southend West (Sir David Amess) highlighted the trust, expertise and reach of good local organisations. Again, if they are part of sharing the communication, we know that those who are most in need of good communication will be able to get it.
On social distancing and hidden disabilities, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) is absolutely right about the sunflower lanyard. The dilemma for the Government is that technically it is produced by a commercial organisation, because it can sell these lanyards, and Governments do not normally publicly endorse a commercial organisation when it has competitors, because we are not supposed to pick winners; we are supposed to do open exercises. However, my personal view is that these are unprecedented times and that of all the different schemes—there are many very good schemes—that is easily the best known one and I think that we absolutely should get behind it.
Other Ministers who have been in conversation about this issue with the hon. Gentleman have also talked to me, and we are trying to work out the best way to promote this scheme, because it works two ways. One, we absolutely need to make things as easy as possible for people with hidden disabilities, and the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) very eloquently set out the importance of that. However, there are also people we rely on to challenge people who are not abiding by the rules, because they do not like it when they get it wrong and they ask a question of somebody with a hidden disability. We have to get it right for both parties. However, this is an issue that I am really keen to push on, and I think that is the best possible scheme.
I pay tribute to organisations such as Transport for London, which have been brilliant at improving communications, so that the general public are more aware about hidden disabilities. I know that lots of other businesses are looking at that issue and I encourage them to do more. I also welcome the fact that the NHS is trialling 250,000 clear masks. Again, there will be lessons to learn from that.
I turn now to care easements, which have been used by only eight of 151 local authorities and are meant to be a last resort. It is not carte blanche, as they are underpinned by the Human Rights Act, but the broad principle is that if covid causes an organisation to have such a depleted workforce, we do not want a situation where immediate urgent care in somebody’s home is missed for the sake of filling in an annual report. That is an extreme example, but that is the sort of reason why, with great reluctance, we all collectively voted for that. Absolutely, the moment when we do not need those emergency powers, they should go. What stakeholders are asking me—many of the stakeholders actually deliver adult social care, so they are saying it from two angles—is to ensure good transparency so that, when a local authority does that, not only the Care Quality Commission but independent stakeholders can keep an eye on it. That is an example of where something came to us, the Disability Unit took it across Government and, within hours, guidance was pushed through and it was easier to be more transparent. Again, we will keep a close eye on that.
I turn now to my responsibility in the DWP in terms of face-to-face assessments. My shadow, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), kindly said that we should continue to improve them, and rightly so. They were introduced under a Labour Government, and we have done over 100 improvements following five independent reviews. One thing about suspending face-to-face assessments and doing auto-renewals is that what limited capacity we had left was then able to concentrate on new claimants, so new disabled people and people with health conditions could access financial support; those whose conditions had changed and who would be entitled to more money; and, absolutely, those with terminal illness, so we could still process those in four to six days.
We brought forward telephone assessments. We had planned to pilot them over 12 to 18 months; we piloted them over about 12 to 18 minutes in the end. As part of the Green Paper, we will be looking at how well received they were. Anecdotally, the stakeholders like them. They are not perfect, and there is more work to do, but stakeholders want them to stay. Will video assessments help? What more can we do to gather clearer evidence that increases the likelihood of a paper-based review and getting the assessment right first time round? Collectively, the improvements we have been making have delivered an additional £10 billion a year to support people with disabilities or long-term health conditions.
Access to Work is changing, and that is a good thing and an opportunity for the future. It recognises, for the first time, that people do not always have to come into the traditional workplace. We will provide funding for people at home and towards additional travel costs if there are links around covid. We are doing proactive webinars through Disability Confident, and I pay tribute to Microsoft, which has sponsored an additional round of those. Our Disability Confident leaders are sharing best practice through their business networks.
On the broader points about disability employment, all the funding for the Work and Health programmes, intensive personalised employment support, Access to Work and Disability Confident has been protected, and all of the £30 billion Plan for Jobs package is open to disabled people. Access to Work can help if additional assistance is needed. We are working proactively with our jobcentres to promote that.
On the final, broader point about the national strategy and the Green Paper, both are happening. The Green Paper focuses on the DWP around improving access to evidence, assessments, monetary consideration, appeals and employment support. We are actively doing pre-stakeholder engagement before we look to launch the Green Paper towards the end of the year. The national strategy for disabled people, personally supported by the Prime Minister, is cross-Government. Each Department has to set out what its ambitious priorities are to remove barriers and be more inclusive for disabled people. We will put that to disabled people for them to audit, and we will then bring forward conclusions on both of those papers.
We are absolutely determined that there will be an inclusive recovery. Disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and stakeholders will always be at the heart of our policy development. We are proud that we have delivered record disability employment and that we are increasing funding for those most in need in society. Covid has given us unprecedented challenges, but we will not be diminished in our ambition to improve the lives of disabled people.
I thank all hon. Members on both sides of the House who took part in this excellent debate. I thank the Minister and shadow Minister for their heartening responses. We all wish to ensure that disabled people are at the heart of strategy moving forward. For the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), the APPG for disability will be taking forward an inquiry into access to parliamentary offices.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).