Minister for Disabled People - Question

– in the House of Lords am 11:37 am ar 19 Rhagfyr 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 11:37, 19 Rhagfyr 2023

To ask His Majesty’s Government why the status of the Minister for disabled people was downgraded from that of Minister of State to that of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

All Ministers speak with the authority of the Government, and it is for the Prime Minister to decide how responsibility is allocated. The role of Minister for Disabled People has been undertaken at both Minister of State and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State level in the past. The new Minister has been at the Department for Work and Pensions since 2019 and has the ability to get things done and extensive experience of the issues that disabled people face.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, disabled people are horrified by the Prime Minister’s decision. DWP estimates that 16 million people have a disability— that is one in four—and they face multiple barriers in their lives beyond DWP. It is harder to get a job— 29 percentage points less—their financial position is much worse, they have to spend much more on energy, and other barriers remain for health, education and transport. The former role of the Minister of State for Disabled People could focus on influencing change but the new PUS is covering a large portfolio including housing benefit, the military covenant and youth. Why have this Government once again downgraded support for disabled people?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I do not see it as a downgrade at all. The previous Minister was also the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work. To the extent that portfolios are changed, when Ministers are experienced—I know this myself—you can sometimes improve how the work is done through these other areas. There is a big example here in the back to work package announced in the Autumn Statement. We really need that multibillion-pound package pushed through with vigour and energy, which I am sure the new Minister for the Disabled will deliver.

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Llafur

My Lords, not only have the Government downgraded the role of Minister for Disabled People but a recent report of the Women and Equalities Committee concluded that:

“The National Disability Strategy does not resemble a strategy”,

and that engagement with disabled people in its formulation was poor to say the least. What steps are the Government taking to try to restore—or perhaps I should say build—the confidence of disabled people and the organisations that represent them?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

The Government are doing just that. The noble Baroness will know that the national disability strategy promised in the 2019 manifesto was held up in the courts. That is now behind us because the courts found in favour of the Government. We are also developing a disability action plan for the next 12 months. These are immediate actions to help people. The consultation on the action plan closed in October, and we will carry that forward very soon.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, when the definitive Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was passed, not only was there a senior Minister of State in charge but the then Prime Minister, John Major, took a direct personal interest in that matter. Does the present Prime Minister take any personal interest?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

The present Prime Minister does take an interest. I re-emphasise that the Budget had a major package for the disabled. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions represents the disabled at Cabinet. Even more importantly, we all have a duty in relation to the disabled. I work to try to get the disabled into public appointments; we debated One Login in the Moses Room and talked about its accessibility. The whole point about the strategy is that it is cross-cutting, and it helps us to move forward and help the disabled into life, because they can make such a great contribution.

Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, so important is the title “Minister for Disabled People” that I managed to persuade Mrs Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister, to change the name to that from its original name, Minister for the Disabled, because disabled people do not like being called “the disabled”. At first the Prime Minister objected, saying, “They’ll want to change all the notepaper”. I said, “Yes, they will, but make them use up all the old notepaper first”. Using this economic principle, could we not find some way of doing what the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, suggested and restoring the name, even though the pay may not be restored to what it should be?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Mims Davies is the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, but I do not think we should spend all our time focusing on titles. I do not want to tread on my noble friend Lord Younger’s toes but, having studied this subject in preparation, I was trying to talk a little about what we will actually do for the disabled. Of course we need to respect them and talk about them in an appropriate way but, as noble Lords will know, it is important to have action and get things done.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

My Lords, words matter, but action matters even more. Are my back-of-an-envelope sums right—is Mims Davies now the 13th Minister for Disabled People since the Government came to power in 2010? If so, does the Minister think that all this moving around is damaging things? For example, it is introducing massive delays to the Access to Work scheme, which left one autistic woman waiting 13 months to get a job. We need some action now, do we not?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

The noble Baroness may be right: perhaps Ministers do move around more than is ideal on occasions. I was delighted to discover that I was not moving in the last reshuffle and can continue. The key thing is to focus on the work in hand, and I believe Mims Davies will do that, with support from across the Cabinet.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, was not one of the greatest Ministers for the Disabled the late Alf Morris, and was he not a Parliamentary Under-Secretary?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I thank my noble friend. I also mention my noble friend Lord Hague, who in the 1990s took through Parliament some ground-breaking legislation on the disabled that has changed the infrastructure of the UK. Those of us who were in business found it quite challenging at the time—I see noble Lords around the House nodding—but it has had a beneficial effect across the UK economy.

Photo of Baroness Bull Baroness Bull Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, even with a Minister of State in place, we have repeatedly seen regulations and legislation over recent years ignore the needs and concerns of disabled people. You can point to Covid regulations, the aborted social care cap and, most recently, the Online Safety Act, which was silent on the needs of adults with learning disabilities. Given that, how will this Government take a more holistic look at legislation and ensure that the varied needs of the varied communities of people with disabilities are addressed in regulations and legislation going forward?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I mentioned the convening work done across departments, which is important in relation to legislation, as the noble Baroness says. Obviously, the Covid inquiry is looking at what happened during Covid, and these are the sorts of issues that I hope it will tackle. On individual Bills, I know from those I have done that we often debate disability—perhaps sometimes in response to amendments from the noble Baroness and others. That is very useful because it gives departments an opportunity to explain what they are doing. We have duties to the disabled and other groups, and we need to make sure that we take them seriously.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Llafur

My Lords, given the cross-cutting work that the Minister has described and feels so confident about, can she tell the House when the Government are next due to report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities? What are the challenges from the last reporting cycle that the Government will be keen to address in that report?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

This not being my area, I am not able to answer the question fully, but officials are due to represent the UK and attend the meeting of the UN in March to discuss these issues. I am certainly happy to take away any particular concerns that the noble Baroness would like me to pass on.

Photo of Lord Sterling of Plaistow Lord Sterling of Plaistow Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, many people, including everybody in this and the other House, want to help disabled people. We have talked in this House about their having work. Does the Minister agree that hundreds of thousands of small companies would be prepared, if approached, to give disabled people what they would really like: the opportunity to work—if they can—and be part of society in the normal way?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

That is a great point, and noble Lords will know that I am very concerned about small businesses and how we can help them. This point needs to be taken into account in the work we are doing, following the Autumn Statement, to help millions more disabled people into work. I came from Tesco, and we employed a lot of disabled people who made a very valuable contribution to the business over many years. Some noble Lords will have met the leading official on the Procurement Act in the Cabinet Office, who was a blind senior civil servant. It just goes to show what a contribution they can make in both small and big business.