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UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Volume 705: debated on Monday 6 December 2021

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

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I am delighted to take this opportunity formally to mark United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities here in the House of Commons. This is an annual day that seeks to promote the rights and wellbeing of persons with disabilities at every level of society, and to raise awareness of their wellbeing in all aspects of political, social, economic and cultural life.

Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the legislation that gave the right to vote in secret, but this is not the reality for many blind and partially sighted people. Does the hon. Lady agree that not only must this right be protected but work must be undertaken to ensure that there are practical options in place at all polling stations across the UK?

I absolutely do agree that those rights should be enshrined and that the democratic process should be open to all.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that if we want people to vote, we want more people with disability in this House? Does she agree that it is a shame that none of the learning from the covid pandemic that might have made working here more flexible for someone with a disability or chronic illness has been kept?

I thank my hon. Friend. That is extremely important and I will move on to speak about many of those issues. We should continually be learning and applying best practice. It is extremely important that measures are taken to improve representation in this House for people with disabilities.

There are 14.1 million people with disabilities in the United Kingdom—one in five people—yet despite making up one of the largest minorities, disability often fails to reach the top of the equality agenda.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this forward; it is something of great interest to us all. Does she agree that watching the Paralympics has reminded us of the superior ability that so many of our disabled people possess and that their contribution to our society should be highlighted and praised not simply on this day but every day?

I totally agree. That is an excellent point well made. The Paralympics has shown people that those with disabilities have absolutely specialist skills and abilities that shine through. My one caveat would be that having spoken to Tanni Grey-Thompson in the House of Lords just the other week, I know that many people with disabilities now feel that one of their only options in life for employment is to become a Paralympian. While we all hope that people can achieve their full potential, not everyone can be a Paralympian, or an Olympian, so we must create other opportunities for employment for people with disabilities so that they have opportunities in everyday life.

Over the past 18 months, in my position as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on disability, I have heard from thousands of people with disabilities who have largely felt invisible and forgotten during the pandemic. I have therefore been determined to elevate the prominence of people with disability across Parliament, having most recently tabled early-day motions 607 and 621 respectively commemorating UK Disability History Month and the International Day of People with Disabilities. I commend all Members of the House to sign these as a mark of recognition that, as has been mentioned, people with disabilities play a vital role in our society at every level.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on this debate and on her stamina in making her speech at this time of night. Is she as concerned as I am that we are reflecting not just on the International Day of People with Disabilities but on getting out of covid? Unfortunately, disabled people were disproportionately affected in terms of covid deaths; they represented six out of 10 covid deaths. One of the themes of this year’s International Day of People with Disabilities is leadership. If we are going to address the inequalities that have driven the disproportionate death toll on disabled people, we will all have a role, within this place and outside, in ensuring that we do not see that in the future.

Absolutely. That was a fantastic intervention and well worth hearing by all, because it is so important that we take lessons from this pandemic and make sure that people with disabilities never again feel invisible, forgotten or that they are at the back of the queue in terms of service delivery. We all have a duty to work collectively to ensure that best practice is put in place across the UK. I take the opportunity today to raise awareness and offer suggestions to Government on what I hope will be at the forefront of their mind as they consider the implementation of the crucial national disability strategy.

First, I highlight the priorities of the all-party parliamentary group in getting people with disabilities equal representation in politics and our political discourse. This year’s theme, as we have heard, is, “Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities towards an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post covid-19 world”. In line with that aim, the all-party parliamentary group has been championing social mobility and access to political mentorship. We have worked with Government and the Department for Work and Pensions to host disability-confident workshops in this House, which resulted in more than 100 of my cross-party colleagues participating and pledging to offer a variety of work experience and internship opportunities to people with disabilities in their constituencies up and down this United Kingdom. That is fantastic, and I hope to follow that up with an additional session early next year.

We have about 24% of the House participating, but we will not stop until 100% of MPs are offering people with disabilities opportunities for work experience in their offices. I request that the Minister champion this type of inclusion across the Cabinet and with colleagues, as this initiative is entirely cross-party. It is an endeavour to ensure that no matter their background, everyone in the UK can have the opportunity to meet their full potential. We have continued to keep diversity and politics central to our work in the all-party parliamentary group and have also launched an inquiry into access to elected office, and I will be presenting its recommendations in this Chamber in 2022.

In the past two years, we have had 17 meetings of the all-party parliamentary group, focusing on a disability-inclusive covid-19 response. Members have tabled more than 200 written questions and 400 oral questions on disability issues. We now have a membership of more than 200 MPs, making it one of the largest all-party parliamentary groups in Parliament. I encourage MPs who are not yet members to join us, but I would like the Minister to note how important working on disability issues is for people across the House and across the UK at large.

The inequalities that people with disabilities face in everyday life have been exacerbated during this pandemic. While covid has affected us all, it has had a disproportionate impact on the lives of people with disabilities. The Office for National Statistics estimated that disabled people made up a staggering 59% of all coronavirus deaths during the peak of the pandemic. Research from Sense shows that nearly three quarters of disabled people believe their needs have been ignored and they have not received enough support. Furthermore, nearly two thirds of disabled people have said their mental health has worsened, showing that we need a holistic approach. We need not only a focus on physical health, but an approach that deals with mental health and wellbeing needs.

Sense has launched a petition alongside our APPG calling on Government to ensure that disabled people are a key focus of next year’s pandemic inquiry. The petition has already gained more than 26,000 signatures. Echoing that, I would like the Minister and the Government to ensure that the panel leading the inquiry is representative of people with disabilities and looks closely at the issues involved.

With almost three quarters of disabled people feeling as if their needs have been forgotten, it is vital that they are central to our recovery strategy. People with disabilities should never have to experience the lack of information and the loss of everyday practical, health and social support, as they have seen during this pandemic. Only last week, I met with local parents in my constituency who are still awaiting day services to resume after such a long time, and I heard about the negative impact on young people’s wellbeing, who are becoming introverted, losing confidence, becoming depressed and experiencing cognitive decline. I am heartened that local authorities will look afresh at the issue and we will closely monitor that to ensure it is addressed satisfactorily.

Economic research by Scope and the Disabled Children’s Partnership shows that the experience is widespread. There remains a £2.1-billion funding gap in disabled children’s health and care. That has led to an entirely unacceptable contrast between the quality of life and opportunities available to disabled children and their families compared with those without disabilities.

Freedom of information requests by the Disabled Children’s Partnership reveal that NHS trusts are struggling to meet targets for therapy appointments. Many local authorities have cut respite care and are struggling to meet targets for education, health and care plan assessments, which leaves many children unable to access diagnosis and vital services. As a result, nearly three quarters of disabled children surveyed saw their progress in managing their conditions regress during the pandemic.

Remedying the disability health and care gap is crucial in our post-covid inclusive society. I request that the Minister addresses that urgently. Much has been said lately about social care, but little has been said about the social care requirements of children and adults with disabilities, who have been largely missing from the conversation.

On employment, people with disabilities have the right to expect the same access to financial security and career satisfaction as those without disabilities. If we are to champion leadership and participation, access to work must be prioritised. In the UK, as in other countries around the world, people with disabilities face significant barriers to accessing and staying in employment. The starkest evidence of that disadvantage is the disability employment gap, which remains shockingly high at more than 28%.

Disabled people in employment also face a stark pay gap of 19.6%, which shows that equality is far from being reached. It is clear that the Minister must take urgent action to enable people with disabilities, particularly young disabled people, to emerge into the labour market for the first time. Will the Minister consider a programme similar to the kickstart scheme that could address some of those issues, and discuss it with Cabinet colleagues?

Not enough of the Government’s attention has been on the demand side, from the point of view of what the Government can and should do to encourage employers to ensure that their workplaces are properly accessible to disabled people, and that the barriers disabled people face are identified and removed. With that in mind, the all-party group, in collaboration with stakeholders such as Disability@Work, had several meetings with the former Minister for Disabled People and officials from the Cabinet Office Disability Unit and the Department for Work and Pensions. We outlined a package of proposals aimed at encouraging employers to engage more fully with the disability employment agenda. I would value a follow-up meeting now that we can meet in person again.

Last week, I was delighted to visit Coca-Cola in my constituency to mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities and to encourage its steps towards disability inclusion in its workforce. It is one of the valuable 500 pledge signatories—companies that are prioritising inclusion and leading the way.

It is fundamentally wrong that disabled adults who are unable to work, including more than 600,000 who are not expected to look for work because of their illness or disability, are left out from the announced universal credit support. That widens the equality gap for those who are most disabled and vulnerable across our society. The Government must look at that and support people into work. They should also support those who cannot work and ensure that they are not further disadvantaged.

I also ask that the Minister looks at supporting the entrepreneurship of people with disabilities. Too often in this House, debates about disability are about the Department for Work and Pensions, but they should be about all the Departments equally, including the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It should be about people harnessing their skills. People with disabilities should be able to be employers and should have the support to overcome the financial barriers to doing so. They should be able to start their own businesses, employ others and mentor others into work.

It is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and I would like to conclude by asking the Minister to ensure that the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has disability equality at its core, and that while we support girls into school, which is extremely valuable, we also support girls and boys with disabilities internationally, via our UK aid, to enter and complete education and employment.

It is staggering that just 1% of women with disabilities across the world are literate. It is essential that education programmes fully include girls with disabilities in developing countries and provide effective, targeted support to address the barriers they face and enable them to thrive and fulfil their potential. Globally, an estimated 33 million children with disabilities are not in school, and children with disabilities are two and a half times more likely than other children never to attend school in their lifetime. The barriers they face can include schools not being accessible, teachers not being trained to properly support students with disabilities, and a lack of assistive technology and rehabilitation.

Everyone across the UK believes that aid should reach the most vulnerable, and a focus on children and adults with disability worldwide is a focus that we can all agree on. I urge the Minister to ensure that this remains core, and is expanded across our programmes. I pay absolute tribute to staff in the Department in East Kilbride in my constituency for their fantastic, innovative disability inclusion work.

In summary, as we join together here to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in Parliament, we have the opportunity to include disabled people at the forefront of policy and policy making. No longer should disabled people feel forgotten, no longer should their needs be at the back of the queue, no longer should they be hit with the brunt of the pandemic and no longer should their services be depleted. In the summer of 2020, the Prime Minister responded to my open letter on a disability-inclusive response to the pandemic by pledging an “ambitious and transformative” national strategy for disabled people. The strategy, though broad, has a long way to go to live up to this ambitious and transformative approach. It is vital that the Minister harnesses the motivation of this Parliament, the cross-party colleagues who want to contribute, the all-party parliamentary groups and the Government to ensure that the United Kingdom is a leader in disability inclusion, and that the opportunity and ability to meet and fulfil potential is extended to all.

I am delighted to join you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) in speaking in this debate to celebrate the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Can I start by thanking the hon. Lady for all her work leading the APPG on disability and the work of other hon. Members in that group?

The theme for this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities is leadership and participation towards an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-covid-19 world. We have all seen the challenges that covid-19 has brought, especially for disabled people. It is a timely and important theme, and we aim to step up our efforts to build back better and fairer for a society that is truly inclusive of all of our citizens.

We are committed to improving disabled people’s everyday lives. That is why, in July, we published the national disability strategy, and our long-term vision is to transform disabled people’s lives. The strategy aims for both a positive vision for long-term societal change and also a practical plan for action now. I welcome the hon. Lady’s argument, which is quite right, that this needs to be broad. That is why the strategy sets out probably the widest-ranging set of practical actions to improve the lives of disabled people ever to be developed by Government—across jobs, housing, transport, education, shopping, culture, justice, public services and so much more. Commitments come from every part of Government, and will be delivered and held to account by ministerial champions in every part of Government. That is all in the service of opening up opportunities and breaking down barriers. Everybody should be able to participate fully whoever they are, wherever they live and, importantly, whether or not they have a disability.

One of my top priorities, therefore, is to deliver on that plan, and we are making good progress. For example, in September the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy launched a consultation on making flexible working the default in Britain; the Department of Health and Social Care has trials well under way to test new training on autism and learning disability; the Cabinet Office is creating a taskforce of disabled people’s user-led organisations to improve such organisations’ access to Government contracts; and the Department for Education is investing a further £300 million this year to create more school places for children and young people with special educational needs and disability—and there is so much more.

Attitudes towards disabled people and disability are changing, but we know that there is far more to do there as well, so we will develop a UK-wide campaign to increase public awareness and understanding of disability, to dispel stereotypes and to promote the diverse contributions that disabled people have made, and continue to make, to public life. Of course, disabled people fundamentally have the same wants and needs as anyone else: to access public services, to travel, to shop, to enjoy leisure, to meet friends and family, to work, to learn, to develop—to have full and fulfilling lives. I will add at this point that the Government are committed to reforming health and social care, and in a way that works for people with disabilities. Our recently published White Paper is a bold step in delivering our vision for a reformed adult social care system that is fit for the future.

Further advancing the rights of disabled people is as important now as it has ever been. We have heard from disabled people that there is so much more to be done, and we fully agree. The Government are committed to supporting a long-term movement for change on disability inclusion, as reflected in our national disability strategy, in the UK and through our international influencing and programmes around the world. I was glad that the hon. Lady remarked on the great work done by many of her constituents. I thank her for those points, which I endorse.

We remain fully committed to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which the UK ratified in 2009. That treaty promotes and protects the full enjoyment of human rights by disabled people. The central elements of our strategy complement those of the UNCRPD and focus on the issues that disabled people say affect them the most in all aspects of life. Indeed, our strategy was informed by the voices of more than 14,000 disabled people and carers who answered the UK disability survey, as well as the many disabled people’s organisations and charities that shared their experiences and issues.

It is an absolute priority for me to listen directly to the voices of disabled people, too. I intend that to include using our regional stakeholder networks across the country, which include disabled people, disabled people’s organisations, parents and carers, and working with disability charities and those businesses that are leading the way on disability issues, such as through Disability Confident.

Last Friday, to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I had the great privilege of hosting a group of disabled people and others at No. 10 to hear about their challenges and successes. We discussed participation in politics and public life, and I welcome the hon. Lady’s points on that theme. We are fulfilling our promise to review the way in which the UK Government engage with disabled people, again in discussion with disabled people and organisations and charities. I think that will, in turn, continuously make our work better and fairer.

I want to say a word more about the pandemic, on which the hon. Lady raised very important points. Since the start of the pandemic, the Government have worked hard to ensure that disabled people have access to employment support, disability benefits, financial support, food and medicines, as well as accessible communications and guidance, during the outbreak. We continue to monitor the impact of covid-19 to ensure that the needs of disabled people are understood and to help shape the Government’s ongoing response.

I am afraid that that was just not reflected in Greater Manchester. I welcome the Minister to her place, but I think she should know that 80% of those disabled people who responded to the survey by Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People—a substantial number responded—were not eligible for support. An algorithm identified those who were eligible for support, and 80% were not, even though they had substantial disability needs.

I am sorry to hear about the experiences of the hon. Lady’s constituents and am happy to discuss that further. I am conscious of her work on the Work and Pensions Committee and know that she takes a great interest in this area, so I look forward to taking that further with her.

I turn to the points made by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow about young people with special educational needs and disability. That is at the heart of her work, as is absolutely right. Throughout the pandemic, the Government sought to ensure that parents and carers could continue to access respite care to support them in caring for their disabled children. To support that, councils have been able to draw on more than £6 billion of unringfenced direct Government funding to help them with the immediate and longer-term impacts of covid-19 spending pressures. We have also extended access to assistive technology for that group, with investments in remote education and accessibility features that can reduce or remove barriers to learning. I hope that that will start to address some of the disproportionate impact on their learning from the pandemic. I acknowledge her suggestion about the composition of the covid-19 inquiry.

I turn to employment, on which excellent points were made. I am determined to make further headway in reducing the employment gap for disabled people, building on the progress already made. Too many people who can and want to work do not have the opportunity to do so, so the Government are looking at concrete action to help disabled people into good jobs and to progress, with a commitment to continue to break down barriers and improve support.

We have more work coming out shortly, including a consultation on workforce reporting. We are looking to encourage employers to recruit, retain and progress their disabled employees and to be Disability Confident in doing so. I share the hon. Lady’s call for hon. Members to take part in Disability Confident in any way that they can. I also welcome the recent initiative of the disability employment charter and met just today with some of its signatories.

Coupled with our strategy, the Green Paper on health and disability that my Department published in July sets out our ambition to support and empower disabled people to achieve their full potential. Our response to the “Health is everyone’s business” consultation also ensures that better support is provided to help disabled people to start, stay and succeed in employment.

The UK has been a leading global voice on disability inclusion, having hosted the global disability summit in 2018. We have done much work in follow-up. We support interventions around the world to promote the rights and dignity of disabled people. We recognise that, at home, the Government have a leading role in the further transformation for disabled people that we must achieve. But we must do this together, so this is a call for action across society. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for calling today’s debate and pleased to work with her on this challenge.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.