People with Disabilities: Access to Services - Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords am 12:13 pm ar 16 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Baroness Hughes of Stretford:

Moved by Baroness Hughes of Stretford

That this House takes note of the challenges faced by those with disabilities including access to benefits, work, education, housing and healthcare.

Photo of Baroness Hughes of Stretford Baroness Hughes of Stretford Llafur

My Lords, according to the Family Resources Survey: Financial Year 2022 to 2023, published recently by the Department for Work and Pensions—the primary measure of disability prevalence in the UK—the number of disabled people has been rising steadily over the last 15 years or so. It now stands at an estimated 16.1 million people—24%, or almost one in four, of our total population—a figure that excludes people in nursing and retirement homes. Is that not a very significant minority of our population, such that we would expect their needs to be a high priority for any Government? When we consider that each of these disabled people is likely to have some family members or carers, the number of people affected by the challenges of disability will run into many millions more.

In two reports this year by the Institute of Health Equity, Sir Michael Marmot and his colleagues found reduced life expectancy, deterioration in health and widening health inequalities in all but the 10% most affluent areas of our country. The report showed that these were the result of cumulative government cuts since 2010 to the essential public services, particularly local government services, that are the key determinants of population health. Another important factor is the failure to tackle serious public health problems, especially obesity. The steady rise in disability rates must be seen in the context of the general deterioration in health and socioeconomic circumstances. Does the Minister agree with Sir Michael that the rise in ill health and disability is real and not the result of a “sick note culture”?

Some 11% of children are disabled, a doubling over the last 10 years, as are 23% of working-age people, which is a 7% increase. Over the last decade, the proportion of disabled people of state pension age has been fairly constant, between 42% and 46%. Apart from among children under 15, where there are twice as many boys as girls, there are more disabled women than men, both absolutely and relative to their respective populations. The Annual Population Survey by the ONS estimated that 9% of people aged 16 and over from a minority-ethnic group are disabled. There is also variation in disability prevalence by nation and English region, with Scotland, the north-east, the north-west and the east Midlands having the highest rates, and London and the south-east the lowest.

Disability prevalence in an area is affected by age distribution and reflects socioeconomic factors: income levels, poverty and health, all of which are of course interrelated. The type of disability reported varies by age group. Mobility is reported most frequently overall, followed by breathing and then mental health. The latter is reported by 44% of the working-age group. The most frequently reported disabilities for children are social and behavioural, at 50%, followed by mental health and learning disabilities.

It is important to say that, although we can summarise the demographic and social characteristics of disabled people, it would be wrong to imply that this population is homogeneous or that disabled people are defined primarily by their disability; they are no more homogenous than the rest of the population. Rather, they have a commonality in experiencing a disability that makes the following more difficult: first, to navigate the activities of daily living essential to us all; secondly, over a longer period, to acquire the assets and resources—for example, in education and employment—which enable them to reach their potential and have a good quality of life; and, thirdly and mostly importantly, to participate actively in social, community and political life. It is the challenges that disabled people have in achieving those ends that we are bringing to the fore in today’s debate.

I am sorry to say that, on every dimension important for a good quality of life, disabled people fare worse, and sometimes far worse, than non-disabled people. I do not want to present the House with a battery of statistics, because that would eclipse the overall picture. The numerical data from which this picture is drawn are available to us all in the excellent briefing from the Library and the references that it cites.

Disability benefit is notoriously complex. We have heard much from the Government recently about the personal independence payment—PIP—and their intention to exclude many current claimants from eligibility, particularly those with mental health problems. The contention is that PIP is too easy to get and that GPs “over-medicalise everyday challenges” and have fuelled a “sick note culture”. It may surprise noble Lords to know that applying for PIP requires the completion of a 36-page form and, often, a considerable wait for assessment, usually undertaken on the phone by a non-medical person. Half of the claims are rejected at that point. However, almost 75% of appeals to a tribunal convened under a judge, and a medical or disability expert, succeed. Perhaps the Minister will comment when he sums up, but this would not seem to support the view that this benefit is too freely given to people who are not in “genuine need”.

It also ignores the impact of long waiting lists for NHS treatment for physical and mental health disorders, and the interplay between the two. I saw one case reported recently of a man who injured his shoulder, causing extreme pain and immobility; he needed intensive physiotherapy. He was on the waiting list for treatment for three years, during which time he could not work, and, understandably, developed anxiety and depression, making his situation much worse. This is not an isolated case. The waiting lists for mental health support particularly, including for children, are in crisis. If people with mental health problems are to be helped into work effectively and humanely as an alternative to PIP, can the Minister say in his response where the treatment and support services will come from?

Of equal concern to me is the language being used by Ministers about disabled people. It is reminiscent of the rhetoric about migrants, fostering division, with a narrative about disabled people playing the system. I am concerned that the real intention of the Government here is to use disabled people to open up another divisive front for the forthcoming election.

Across a wide range of socioeconomic variables, the outcomes for disabled people are consistently poorer. They are much less likely to be in employment, and those with severe learning difficulties, autism or mental illness have the lowest employment rates. This in part reflects lower educational attainment: they are less likely to have a degree and more likely to have no qualifications at all.

Children with disabilities, including serious illnesses and learning difficulties, find it extremely difficult to access support in schools. We know that only 49% of education, health and care plans are completed within the statutory 20 weeks, with consequent delays for months on end in putting in place the support that is needed.

The disadvantages in education and employment, as well as caring responsibilities by other family members, mean that families with a disabled member have significantly lower median incomes. Poverty rates are higher, at 27% compared to 19%.

There are also disparities in housing, with families with a disabled member much less likely to be owner-occupiers and much more likely to be renting in the private or social housing sectors. Disability Rights UK has said:

“The housing sector is a dangerous mess for Disabled people”,

who contend with inaccessible homes and poor conditions.

There are also barriers for disabled people accessing healthcare because of transport difficulties, costs—including for prescriptions—and, again, long waiting lists. Research by Healthwatch shows that disabled people wait even longer than non-disabled people for treatment, and that proportionately more report problems with communication from the NHS. This particularly affects people who have sensory or learning difficulties.

Transport is another major challenge writ large for disabled people. Most public transport—shockingly, even new schemes—is not fully accessible; it lacks step access, and stations are difficult to navigate.

There are other areas of life where disabled people are disadvantaged. They are more like to experience crime, and this is particularly true for disabled children; those aged 10 to 15 are twice as likely to be a victim of crime. Disabled people report lower levels of confidence in policing and feel less safe. Disabled people are more likely to experience domestic abuse, with disabled women being twice as likely as non-disabled women to experience this. Finally, and not surprisingly, disabled people report lower levels of well-being and higher levels of loneliness.

This is a bleak picture, and although it does not mean that every disabled person has a bleak existence, it means that they have to grapple with many more challenges than those who are not disabled. Despite this, a government consultation last year shows that disabled people have high aspirations that public policy on inclusion should go far beyond the fundamentals of employment, education and the like, important though these are. The majority agree that they also want improved access to elected office; inclusion in emergency planning, resilience and climate change work; and access to assistive technology. They want better opportunities for disabled parents, as well as disabled children, including inclusive playgrounds. However, given the opportunity, they also restated the fundamental importance of better funding, accountability, accessibility and awareness in the workplace, better health and social care, and more financial support to help with the additional costs of living with a disability.

Before I turn finally to what the Government have been doing, I want to acknowledge the vital role of the many excellent voluntary and community organisations in supporting and championing disabled people. Noble Lords will know that many have contacted us, and their briefings testify to the invaluable, indeed essential, work that they do.

The multiplicity of complex challenges for disabled people across most areas of life demands from government a long-term national strategy that is multifaceted, robustly led at the political and executive levels, and translated into action plans with timescales, regular monitoring and reporting, holding departments publicly to account, and, most importantly, with the active participation of disabled people themselves. This is what the Government promised with their National Disability Strategy, published in July 2021, when Prime Minister Johnson described the scale of disadvantage experienced by disabled people as “a scandal” and committed to “bridge the gaping chasm” of inequality through regular progress reports. Unfortunately, the strategy hit major problems when, in 2022, it was challenged in the courts by disabled people’s organisations, which claimed that they had had no meaningful input into its development.

The report of the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee published last December criticised the lack of strategic approach, poor engagement with disabled people, the poor evidence base and a failure to update disabled people on implementation. It called for Ministers to update Parliament and disability stakeholders on specific timescales for delivery of all outstanding actions in the national disability strategy. Can the Minister inform the House what progress has been made on implementing the national disability strategy?

In February this year, partly in response to the House of Commons Select Committee report, the Government published yet another plan, the new Disability Action Plan, promising to involve disabled people centrally in the implementation and review of progress. Can the Minister explain how the new disability action plan will sit alongside the national disability strategy, and how progress on both will be reported to disabled people and to Parliament? Will the Government publish an implementation schedule, with clear dates for delivery and reporting, so that they can be held to account?

Improving the well-being and inclusion of disabled people is a moral imperative for all of us in this House, but it is also vital for our society that we harness the talents of all our citizens, whatever their level of disability or ability, and enable them to participate fully and on equal terms. I argue that, to do so, we need an approach that sees disabled people built into policy development and planning right from the outset, not bolted on as an afterthought, as has so often been the case. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Ceidwadwyr 12:28, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, on bringing this important debate to the Floor of the House today. I declare my interests, both in the register and as having close relatives who are in receipt of disability benefits and for whom I have some responsibility.

Today, I will focus on disability benefits. I am of course aware of the current consultation on PIP, which I will respond to in writing, in respect of those on the autism spectrum with learning disabilities and with mental health issues. However, I want to put on the record my ongoing concerns about the process of claiming disability benefits, the ethos surrounding the system, and the impact this can have on people, many of them already vulnerable.

These are some of the problems they face. There are lengthy forms, exceeding 20 or 30 pages, which put many people off applying in the first place. Many need help to fill them in, and there are often time limits, so finding that help becomes a pressure. Then there is the ability of the DWP to have applications assessed by qualified people with a working knowledge of the medical conditions they are assessing. It is dire. Do not take my word for it: as we have heard, the appeal rate for PIP is 70%—that is 70% granted on appeal. Only last year, a form that I assisted with was rejected. We asked for reconsideration, and when it came back, having been reconsidered, it had been awarded at an enhanced rate. What the person who looked at it in the first place was thinking about, I really do not know.

The questions are geared mainly to narrowly defined physical conditions, with each question scoring points, leaving out the complexities of autism, mental health and learning disabilities and giving few opportunities for people to explain in any detail how their lives are affected. They lose on points. This arbitrary points system is not flexible to take account of fluctuating conditions, good days and bad days, or degeneration. Complex conditions involving more than one disability do not stand a chance.

Despite paper forms, there is a presumption that applicants will then communicate via the internet or phone. Some will, but not everybody. I know several people on the autism spectrum for whom making a phone call to a stranger, or receiving one, is quite traumatic. There are long waiting periods, often without any money at all, and there is a problem with answering letters, even signed-for ones. We have heard that even children and young people starting cancer treatment can wait in excess of 20 weeks without any money at all.

All this builds anxiety and stress. It should be remembered that this is disability, not capability for work. PIP, for example, is a benefit that applies to people who are in work as well as those who are not. We are talking about disability, but somehow the debate seems to have moved to whether people are capable for work. I do not know quite where that has come from.

It is a given that many unemployed disabled people would like to work, and I support any initiative that supports that, but disability brings with it myriad extra costs, even for people who are working, and this whole process brings such a level of anxiety and distress. It is time the whole process was reformed. In doing so, the DWP should be as concerned about safeguarding the health—particularly the mental health—of claimants as it is about assessing them. I say that because even the very process of engaging in the benefits system can result in extreme outcomes.

I pay tribute to a former colleague of ours in this House, Lord Newton, Tony Newton, who was also a colleague in mine in another place. He got up out of his hospital bed to come here and speak on this subject. I also pay tribute to the much-missed late Lord Field, Frank Field, whom again I served with in both Houses. He was a champion in this area. On 25 September 2019, he tabled this Written Question in the House of Commons:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, how many inquests relating to benefits claimants who have ended their life by suicide her Department has submitted evidence to since 2013; and in how many inquests it was ruled that the policies of her Department were partly responsible for the deceased person’s state of mind”.

Noble Lords will be familiar with the reply from the Department for Work and Pensions:

“Unfortunately, the information requested is not held centrally and is therefore unavailable without incurring a disproportionate cost”.

Frank—being Frank—then approached the National Audit Office and asked it to investigate what was going on with the suicide rate among benefit claimants.

As a result of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, some progress was made at the DWP. I reassure my noble friend that I am aware that it has made progress, but the point is this: in what other area of disability would anybody or any department—least of all a government department—have to collate information about suicide rates that resulted from their own activities? That surely is unacceptable and I say to my noble friend: I know that the Government want to modernise the benefits system for disability, but it requires absolute root and branch reform.

Photo of Baroness Donaghy Baroness Donaghy Llafur 12:34, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, whose knowledge of this area is both impressive and moving. I thank my noble friend Lady Hughes of Stretford for initiating this debate and for her introduction.

We are privileged in this House to receive briefings from so many organisations when we put our names down for a debate. The brief from our own Library for this debate is absolutely outstanding. I do not know about anybody else, but I have felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of briefings from so many charities and organisations that reveal a mixture of inspiration, human misery and struggle for basic rights. I thank all the organisations for their work and hope they understand that it is not possible to cover in this debate all aspects of disability in our society. I shall concentrate on two issues: support for independent living, and the work of the Open University, which I will deal with first.

I was always inspired by Jennie Lee’s work to establish the Open University and was delighted to receive an honorary degree from it 21 years ago. It is the largest provider of higher education for students with a disability, with more than 37,000, and an increasing number citing mental health disabilities. The OU has suffered inadequate funding levels for far too long, yet in 2023, the teaching excellence framework mentioned the OU’s

“significant effort to ensure that the curriculum is accessible to students with a disability” as an outstanding feature of its provision. It was awarded gold for its overall provision for all students. I know that the Government set great store by these clunky assessments.

The Open University has launched some amazing initiatives, including the disabled veterans’ scholarship fund. Some 312 scholarships have been awarded so far and applications are open for 50 more disabled veterans in the next academic year. The university also supplies digital, accessible information system books, known as DAISY books, in a worldwide-standard digital-reading format that combines audio, text and graphical information in one production, making them accessible to a wide range of people with visual and print disabilities. Around 6,500 students are using DAISY books. To continue this outstanding—“gold”—work, the university needs adequate funding and the students need financial support.

The Office for Students provides grant funding to universities via the disabled student premium and the part-time student premium, which are crucial to the OU. The recent call for evidence by the OfS on public grant funding must strike terror in most universities. Disabled students need appropriate levels of funding to ensure access and participation. Without the disabled students’ allowance—DSA—many students would not be able to study. However, the timing of the award is unhelpful. Adjustments, such as assisted technology and non-medical help, cannot be put in place until a student is already studying. The lead time for receiving this help can be several months, which disadvantages those disabled students. Will the Minister say what steps are being taken to improve its implementation?

In preparation for this debate, I took another look at the Government’s announcement of the review of the personal independence payment—PIP—on 29 April this year. It starts with the Government saying that their priority is to

“make sure our welfare system is fair and compassionate”.

That is all well and good. Then we come to the verbal gymnastics. In referring to the decade since the PIP was introduced, the Government state that

“the appearance of disability and ill health in Britain has changed profoundly, and the clinical case mix has evolved in line with broader societal changes”.

They then rush their fences with,

“including many more people applying for disability benefits with mental health and neurodivergent conditions”.

It is clear that the review is all about cost. The number of those receiving the highest rates of PIP has increased from 25% to 36%. The Government call for a “new conversation” about the benefit system as almost a quarter of the adult population is now reporting a disability. It is hoped that that conversation, as my noble friend said in her introduction, will include the pressure on our health service, longer waiting lists and the complete failure to deal with social care. The Disability Benefits Consortium reacted strongly to the Government’s announcement, calling it

“a cynical, political point-scoring exercise – which cruelly and unjustly targets disabled people”.

The Office for National Statistics has said that the pay gap between disabled and non-disabled employees has widened to 13.8% in 2021. The largest gap is 33.5% for those with autism. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in its report UK Poverty 2022, talks of

“a gap of around 12 percentage points in poverty rates between disabled and non-disabled people”— you get paid less and your cost of living is higher. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation also states that, once again,

“the community will be punishing disability as if it were an indulgence – which will rather call into question whether it is a community at all”.

Arrears on bills are four times as likely between the disabled and non-disabled poor; 19% go hungry and 18% are unable to keep their homes warm.

The Government’s approach to work and benefits has been criticised by the Disability Rights UK and by Scope, which said:

“It’s hard to have any faith that this consultation is about anything other than cutting the benefits bill, no matter the impact on people’s lives”.

The British Medical Association’s mental health lead said that the Government should not

“blame individuals and strip away the support they need. This approach is as cruel as it is ineffective”.

What message will the Minister give to those who live in fear and uncertainty facing increasing living costs?

Photo of Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 12:42, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I will concentrate on access to benefits, education to some degree and work for those with disabilities. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, for tabling this debate and noble Lords for the wealth of knowledge that has been spoken in this Chamber in just the opening speeches.

The Government announced a series of reforms in April. They are looking at reforming the fit note processes—used for people to get signed off work on sick pay as well as being evidence for PIP—and to narrow the eligibility for PIP. Regarding the fit note reforms, we oppose the changes. The person best placed to determine someone’s ability to work on the grounds of their health is a medical professional, not some partly trained amateur, a point that was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Browning. It is not the fault of people who are ill or disabled that the Government have massive NHS backlogs; that is what must be tackled. A problem of “pass the buck” exists, with local authorities desperately trying to reduce the cost of social care. We are deeply concerned that the PIP proposals will simply make life harder and push more disabled people into poverty.

There needs to be a fair and independent process and for PIP descriptors to be reassessed in line with decisions made by tribunal judges. There needs to be an awareness of hidden disabilities. We must move on from not recognising mental health matters. I hope that my noble friend Lord Addington will expand on all this. We need to reinstate a form of the Independent Living Fund to help people who need it to live independently in their community and increase the role of local authorities in administering the support to ensure that it is properly responsive to local needs.

Every child, no matter their background, can achieve great things. Urgent action is needed to ensure that all children can access the tailored learning and support that they need. The template for the new EHCP—it is all initials nowadays; the education, health and care plan—will not be rolled out until 2025. The Department for Education and Department for Health and Social Care steering group will not complete its work until 2025, and no primary legislation is planned until at least 2025. We are concerned that other proposals in the plan intended to standardise the support available under EHCPs, such as tailored lists of SEND settings in each council area, will detract from the principle that the support that a child receives under an EHCP should be personalised to their needs, not a one-size-fits-all approach in order to cut costs, as the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, said.

Claimants for universal credit are required to undertake either activities relating to preparing for work or job searching to receive universal credit. Disabled people and those with long-term illnesses can apply for an exemption, but, to qualify, a claimant has to go through a work capability assessment. Claimants who are found unable to work are either categorised as belonging to the limited capability for work group—who are deemed able to undertake some work preparing requirements for future work—or the limited capability for work and work-related activity group if they are not thought capable of preparing for work at all.

By being placed in the LCW group, claimants and their partners have lower requirements in relation to preparing for work and they and their partners have a work allowance, which means that they can earn more before their UC payments taper off. By being placed in the LCWRA category—I am sorry for all the initials—claimants are not expected to take part in any work-related activities, have the work allowance and get an additional payment of £390 per month. The test is based on assessing various elements such as cognitive function, mobility et cetera. There is a further backstop test, where someone who fails the test can be exempt if it is considered that doing work-related activity would cause them serious harm.

There have been long-standing complaints that the assessors of the WCA do not fully understand disabled people and their needs and get decisions wrong. Government reforms apparently include short-term proposals to tighten the work capability assessment criteria on the basis that digital technology means more people can access work from home. The intention is to remove the mobility criteria from the WCA. They also intend to severely restrict the serious harm test. I hope that the Minister can address this when he replies.

We do not agree with the proposed changes to the WCA, short-term or long-term. This is not a serious solution to get disabled people into work but clearly just a way of taking vital funds away from people who already have additional costs which they struggle to meet. It is also vastly insulting to disabled people to suggest that they need to be forced to want to work. Most of them want to work.

Many disabled people rely on social care in order to live independently. It is therefore vital that we fix the broken social care system. All the research shows that it is more expensive to be disabled. Personal independence payments are meant to help pay for some of those extra costs. The PIP form is lengthy and complicated to complete. Disabled people say that it is confusing and stressful and can cause health conditions to decline.

There is an incredibly low level of trust between disabled people and DWP assessors. Assessments are often outsourced to people who are not really qualified to deal with them, and lots of mistakes are made. The assessment criteria do not work well for everybody. For example, they do not account for people with relapsing/remitting conditions such as MS or long Covid.

Much needs to be done. We need some reassurance from the Minister—and from the Labour Front Bench, one of whom who might be in his position in a few months—on what the Government are going to do, without kicking this into the long grass. The long grass certainly needs cutting, so that we can help people now, not at some time in the distant future.

Photo of Baroness Grey-Thompson Baroness Grey-Thompson Crossbench 12:50, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, for tabling this debate and for giving your Lordships’ Chamber the opportunity to discuss a wide range of interconnected issues. The barriers that disabled people face do not sit easily within one government department.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to my register of interests. I am president of the LGA, chair of the Wheelchair Alliance and I receive a PIP.

I thank the huge number of disabled people who contacted me. Bearing in mind what the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, said about the wide range of issues, I am going to give it a go and cover as many as possible. I will take a deep breath and see how many I can get through. Everything included in this speech is from my personal experience or is what disabled people have told me directly.

I am treated in one of three ways: as a Paralympian, very nice; as a politician, quite mixed; but as a disabled woman I experience most discrimination. I have been told that people like me should not be allowed to get married, have a job or have children, but one of the biggest barriers that many disabled people face is that non-disabled people often do not understand those barriers and make wild assumptions. They think that, because they once sat in a wheelchair or pushed their grandmother somewhere in a wheelchair, they know everything about it. I am horrified to see companies still offering these experiences as a way to help non-disabled people understand the barriers we face. It is appalling and outdated; it is what we in the disability community call “cripping up”.

It is a long time since the DDA was implemented and I sat on the National Disability Council with the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, but what has really changed? The Paralympics in 2012 were great, but the people who tell me that they changed the world are non-disabled people. We are portrayed as Paralympians or as benefit scroungers, with a healthy dose of inspiration porn thrown in. The reality is that the least privileged disabled people are mostly invisible in society. Representation in the media is far from equal.

I accept that we work in an old building, and it is not the most accessible. It is much easier if you are a pass-holder. I am very grateful to the team who have been talking about accessibility, but using the new carpet that has been put around the Chamber is like pushing through sludge. I very much enjoy sitting next to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, but the fact that we are both wheelchair users means that we cannot actually sit with our groups.

I was contacted by a teacher, who told me that children sitting GCSE English who need a scribe will not be able to access the 20 marks available for spelling, punctuation and grammar, so they have already been put at a disadvantage.

Employers do not really understand the Equality Act or the legal obligation for a reasonable adjustment. It is a get-out clause. Disability Confident is simply a reimagining of a previous scheme; I question how many people’s lives it has actually changed. We are far from sorting out working from home for disabled people, and mandatory requirements for companies to provide it for a certain percentage of jobs are not helping disabled people to get into work. Access to Work is out of date and has a huge backlog. It is awful for the creative industries or contract work.

Expanding the definition of disability may be helpful for some people, but just lets companies get away with not employing more disabled people. One company told me that, as only 50% of disabled people who can work are in work, its target for employing disabled people needed to be only 10%—I think not. There are good practices out there, but not nearly enough.

I will mention PIPs briefly, because many other noble Lords will mention them, but we need a wholescale reform of the system. I know from when I filled in the forms that I was pages in before they asked who the best medical professionals are to explain my impairment. There are none, because I am not sick.

Disabled facilities grants for housing are out of date. The National Planning Policy Framework does not mention equality or duties for local authorities or homebuilders to consider the Equality Act. It is notable that recent consultations on proposed changes to the NPPF have not been accompanied by a government equalities impact assessment. Why not?

On the built environment, disabled people are rarely consulted at the point when changes are being made. A-boards, pavement parking, abandoned rental bikes and countryside paths that have barriers to prevent cycles all stop wheelchair users. A Sustrans report into the cycling network identified 16,000 barriers. There was a removal programme but funding for it has been cut.

There are inaccessible restaurants and toilets, and a lack of changing places—not least in this building. Floating bus stops are not always near zebra crossings, or the island may be too narrow for wheelchair users.

In hotels, there is a lack of definition of what their accessibility actually is. It should not be just putting in a grab rail. Their walk-in showers may not have a seat.

If you want to go out to the cinema or a restaurant, you can have only one friend, because that is the way they are set up. When I took my daughter to see “Winnie the Pooh” when she was three, I was told that, because she was not my carer, she was not allowed to sit with me and had to sit 20 rows away.

There are issues with access to sport, and to buses. There is only one wheelchair space per bus. On flying, I am only going to mention Frank Gardner.

I will briefly mention trains, which were meant to be step-free by 1 January 2020. By the Government’s own data, it will take 100 years to make that change. Transport for the North launched an accessibility survey and found that only 48% of its stations had step-free access. Greater Anglia trains are fantastic for level boarding but, when I asked about accessibility, I was told not to worry because I would be in sight of the café-bar. All my dreams for inclusion became as one when I realised that I could see the café-bar, but could not actually buy anything from it.

London Bridge has no contingency plan for a single lift failure, yet billions were spent on its refurbishment. Crossrail has level boarding only at its core. The lifts have been out at St Pancras for months. I can access only one-third of Tube stations. The Network Rail map has inaccurate information: it tells me that the lifts are working at my local station—fantastic—but my local station has no lifts.

Our legal right to turn up and go is being eroded, because we are being forced to book through an app that has no in-app contacts. You cannot buy tickets and it does not show lift status. Every trip is a magical mystery tour. It goes on. Shockingly, John Pring from the Disability News Service reported that market-testing companies are using non-disabled people to pretend to be disabled to test the access app. I am very interested in understanding what the noble Viscount thinks of that. I have deep admiration for Doug Paulley, who continues to fight for change through legal means.

Lack of ATP enforcement means that luggage is put in wheelchair spaces. There are no primary or secondary timescales in the draft rail reform Bill. Accessibility is seen as an add-on or a nice-to-have. Disabled people cannot buy concessionary tickets through ticket vending machines, except for on Northern. You have to buy them through ticket offices—and we saw what happened with them last year. ScotRail has not changed its ATP, so mobility scooter users are not allowed to travel on Scottish trains. They can get there by Avanti or LNER, but they might not be able to get home.

Today, Southeastern announced that it is moving towards level boarding and Steve White, the CEO, said that anyone bidding for contracts has to show level boarding, but there is no guarantee that it will ever happen.

Tony Jennings wrote to me saying that he cannot turn up and go at his nearest station outside staffed hours, because there is a barrow crossing.

I could go on: lack of EV charging; inaccessible dental chairs; not buying the right wheelchairs for the right people at the right time; disability hate crime; Covid; elective office—I have run out of time.

I understand that the noble Viscount is not able to answer these questions, but I would welcome any of the departments writing to me to continue this conversation.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 12:59, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, follow that! The noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, has set us a challenge by going across the entire panoply. That probably should be done, but we may need a debate about three times as long, or three different goes at it. Let us use this as our opening shot.

We have passed a law that we do not enact. Most people in this Chamber are veterans of various phases of this and its precursors. A good few years ago, I realised how long I had been here when it had been 20 years since we passed the initial DDA. I was one of the youngest people in the House then, so it was a great reminder of just how mortal I am. One theme has recurred again and again: we talk the talk without walking the walk.

The Government have reassured a certain group that they will have continued employment—those who make appeals to idiotic decisions by government, in this case for disability benefits, because there will be appeals to this. The Department of Health said that it would take care of mental health and that it would become as apparent as physical health, but has just said, “Oh no, there is far too much of it”. I cannot think of anything that would generate appeals and conflict more quickly. Congratulations—effectively, we have two departments at each other’s throats. All Governments have done this to an extent, and I hope that any new Government will be aware of this.

We also do not seem to have taken on board that many fixes can be made quite easily, because we are bound by convention. I must once again remind the House of my declared interests: I am dyslexic and president of the British Dyslexia Association, and I am chairman of Microlink, a disability access company. When chatting through what could be done, I felt one of the easiest things would be to look at communication. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, has just given us a good example of physical communication for one priority group. There is no consistent approach.

For communication of ideas, the dyslexic will always go to English. We have reached a point where we are worrying about passing an English exam. This is ridiculous. For over two decades, I have used voice-operated technology. It used to be an add-on to a decent computer—it had to be decent to handle it—and it is now standard on our operating systems. Most people do not know it is there, but it is: all you have to do is press a couple of buttons, or voice call them into action, and have it read back. But we still have a system where people repeatedly say that you have to pass a written English exam to get into certain places.

I have been looking around this Chamber, and most of us are using an old, established assistive technology—a pair of glasses. You have taken a manufactured substance, changed the lens and stuck it on the end of your nose. That is okay, but using a computer is not. There is a certain degree of absurdity built into the responses here. We and government agencies are still saying, “You’ve got to pass certain tests in a certain way”, and not, “Can you communicate information? Can you pass it on so that somebody knows what you are saying?” No, you have to write it down. We all know how absurd that is.

Let us face it: in the modern world, nobody writes anything much with a pen, other than a couple of lines, after you have left school. You do it all on a computer. I have asked this many times and have not heard a reply against it. Does anybody care if you have word-processed by talking or tapping a keyboard? There might be some weirdos somewhere who think that this is the essence of life, but I hope they are not in this Chamber today. Will we start addressing the practical problems and say that it does not matter as long as you can communicate? We could do this very easily if the Government were to lead on it.

The implications might be biggest for those with dyslexia. We have already heard about autism, and I shudder to think what the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, who will follow me in this debate, would say about this, because the technology for those who have a visual impairment has been very well established for even longer than for those with dyslexia. Why do we not just ask: “Can you communicate properly?” Other groups would benefit from this as well, and this idiotic barrier to accessing training and information throughout the system would be removed. The Government have the capacity to say: “Yes, we will do this, and we will do it in the school system”. We can now say very easily, “You can learn through these methods”.

This is only in pockets: at university, it is perfectly accepted. If you suffered English GCSE and got through it at the fourth attempt, you are allowed to carry on. Even if you are very bad and do not stand any chance of getting through, you can get through. Only certain groups are affected. Are we going to start to remove this communication barrier for things such as training, accessing other types of activity, et cetera? Are we going to do this in a cohesive manner? Are we going to take a lead? This debate does not speak to one department: it speaks across government.

I hope that the Government will be in a position to give us a better steer. At the moment, we are creating artificial barriers that we can resolve easily. This is just one of them. Will the Government please give us some indication that they will do it? They have precedents and legal requirements saying that they should; they should say to people and employers that this communication problem does not matter. It is easily solved: all you have to do is press the button that is already on your computer and you will be able to work, with a bit of guidance about how it works. I am probably damaging Microlink’s client base here, but it is not rocket science. Making sure you do not get noise on the microphone is probably the first step, and then you have done it. It is as simple as making sure that you have a chair that does not give you backache—although people do not do that either.

Can the Minister say when the Government will start to intervene to tell people what is possible and that these things are easily solvable? If they do, they will remove a great deal of stress and some of the queues for benefits. That sort of positive action is long overdue. I hope that we will have a coherent attitude that gets through to people—not to those who dig around and wait in long queues for it, which is aggressively done.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Ceidwadwyr 1:07, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, on securing such an important debate. I agree with all previous speakers that we need much longer to discuss these issues, in more detail and more often, both in your Lordships’ House and in the other place. If my noble friend the Minister was unaware of the lived experience of disabled people in the UK today at the beginning of this debate, he will not be now, so I will cut to the chase on employment and education.

If you are a disabled person in the UK, you are far less likely to have a good experience in education, to gain employment, to keep that employment if gained and, if kept, to receive a comparable level of pay to your non-disabled colleagues. Can my noble friend say what the current education gap is for disabled people at key stage 2, GCSE and A-level? What is the current employment gap for disabled people? What is the current disability pay gap? This thread runs through all elements of a disabled person’s lived experience, writ large through employment and education. If there is not that opportunity, as there is for every single person in society, to get it right the first time in education, life is made so avoidably difficult from that point onwards.

When will the EHCP system become equitable, accessible and resolvable in reasonable time and not just a matter of lottery or ability to pay for professionals to help you through a process that should be open to all those who need it?

We have heard about the difficulties with employment and education, but what about if you are not even able to get to your job, or if you are so stressed and done in by the journey to get to work that it feels like you have done your day’s work before you have even arrived? We come to the question of transport, and the lived experience of disabled people of what passes for public transport in the UK today.

Will my noble friend the Minister commit from the Dispatch Box today—why not?—to having a moratorium on floating bus stops? For noble Lords who may be unaware, these are bus stops that are essentially stuck in the middle of the road, with a cycle lane between the bus stop and the pavement. How can a disabled person—any person—effectively, efficiently and, crucially, safely access the bus? It is a planning folly: a planning disaster. Can we commit today that buses can only pick up and drop off from the kerbside? This needs to be urgently resolved.

I turn to taxis, another critical part of our public transport infrastructure, though seldom treated by the department in policy terms as that critical part of public transport, not least for disabled people. This very morning, the planning committee in the City of London is deciding whether to recommend that Bank junction should be reopened to black cabs. Its proposal is that the ban on black cabs at Bank junction continues. Why? There is no safety reason; black cabs have never been involved in a collision at Bank junction. It is planning folly and not evidence-based. Will my noble friend write to the City Corporation, reminding it of its equality duties, not least under the public sector equality duty, and urge it to reconsider reopening Bank to black cabs—yes, on a trial basis, to assess how it will go? The Court of Common Council will decide this on 20 June, and it is in everybody’s interests, not least those of disabled people, that we have black cabs being allowed to go back through Bank junction, because the message it sends right across the country is that cabs matter as a part of public transport. Ditto for Tottenham Court Road; if my noble friend could write to Camden council, that would be appreciated as well, while he has his pen out—or indeed his laptop, or whatever means of communication he chooses.

We do not have public transport in this country; we have transport that is accessible to certain sections of the public—partial public transport, if you will. For disabled people, be it buses, rail or indeed the absolute nonsense of so-called “shared space”, transport is at best patchy. I ask my noble friend the Minister: when will it be in this country that disabled people can experience accessible transport—whichever mode, at whatever time and whenever they choose, like everybody else, to turn up and seek to use it? Can my noble friend report on the so-called “shared space” experiments; we have managed to achieve a moratorium on future shared space, but how are the existing schemes going? They effectively plan out disabled people from their local communities.

Floating bus stops, taxis and shared space—all are problematic for disabled people, and all are resolvable. Then there is education, particularly the potential for personalised education. On employment, it is entirely resolvable to have similar rates of educational attainment and employment for disabled people. These issues are all entirely resolvable if we just start from the key principle: inclusive by design, accessible by all. I ask my noble friend the Minister: when will all government policies be able to pass those tests—inclusive by design, accessible by all? Fundamentally, all we are talking about here is talent: all of that phenomenal talent in all disabled people, up and down and across the UK. We still suffer from this tragic truth—talent is everywhere; opportunity, currently, is not.

Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Llafur 1:15, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I join others in the Chamber in thanking my noble friend Lady Hughes for securing this debate, which has given us an opportunity to raise a whole range of matters that affect people with disabilities. No one took greater advantage of that than the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson; so many of the things she talked about, which many of us in the Chamber take as quite normal and natural to use, present challenges to people with disabilities. We are grateful to her for that hugely important contribution.

In Britain today, fewer than three in 10 people of working age with learning disabilities are in employment. That means that seven in 10 are denied the opportunity of an independent life and the sense of life-fulfilling achievement that work can bring. Businesses across Britain are denied the benefit, enthusiasm, skills and commitment of this group of our fellow citizens. And it is not as if we are not aware of this injustice. It has been on our agenda for decades; Governments, including the present Government, have genuinely committed to reducing the disability employment gap. In 2017, the Government set the goal of helping 1 million disabled people into work by 2027 and, to be fair, there has been progress as a result—but it is simply not enough.

A year earlier, in 2016, the National Autistic Society, of which I am a vice-president, an honour I share with my noble friend Lady Browning, produced a report on the autism employment gap. The image on the front cover bears the words:

“I’m not unemployable, I’m autistic”.

This image makes me despair because, despite the Government’s good intentions, millions of people with learning disabilities and autism are still without a job. No matter our ambition to make a seismic change to help disabled people into employment, people with learning difficulties and autism still find it hugely challenging. I passionately believe that the right to a life with a job—an opportunity to be independent and self-supporting—is a basic human right. Those who are denied that are being denied their human rights.

In February, the chair of the Autism All-Party Group, Sir Robert Buckland, published a most detailed review of the employment of people with autism. Robert was my Conservative opponent when I was elected to the other place in a by-election in February 1995, and I have nothing but admiration for his commitment to supporting people with autism. For me, the recommendations in the report can be summed up in one sentence that Robert wrote:

“These recommendations are mostly aimed at changing employer behaviour”.

For me, that is the essence of the challenge we face—changing employer behaviour. If we want to reduce the level of unemployment among people with learning disabilities and autism, we must change employer behaviour.

I have spoken to many businesspeople about this and in almost every case there is a willingness to help, but also a reluctance. “How will my staff cope with working with a person with a learning disability?” I am asked. “What if they don’t fit in?” “What support do I have to provide for them?” “Is there any financial support for me to help employ a person with a learning disability?” “Are there any examples of where employing a person with a learning disability has worked out?” These are perfectly reasonable questions—and, in answer to the last question, yes, there are good examples of employers who have employed people with learning disabilities. I will mention two.

The Fair Shot Cafe in Covent Garden is well worth a visit. It is a social enterprise charity that aims to change the lives of young adults with learning disabilities and autism. It offers a year-long hospitality programme, training skilled baristas and cafe assistants. The cafe is an accredited London living wage employer. At the end of the year, it finds paid employment for its graduates and continues to support those graduates and the employer for a further six months. Since it was set up in December 2021, 36 young adults have been trained and are now in employment. More than 10,000 hours of training are completed each year, and the Fair Shot Cafe has 15 employment partners dedicated to creating inclusive opportunities for people with learning difficulties and autism. Its 2023 impact report estimates that the employment programme it is offering has saved the taxpayer £210,000 in benefits; 80% of their employment partners state that they would now employ another neurodivergent person; 100% of the graduates report increased confidence and improved mental health; and, moreover, the Fair Shot Cafe has a 4.8-star rating on Google. To learn more, look at its website or, better still, go there, have a cup of coffee and find out for yourself.

The phs Group is the leading hygiene services and commercial cleaning services provider in the UK. I visited its headquarters in Caerphilly a while ago. With help from Hft, an amazing learning disability charity, it operates the Project Search scheme. It recruits interns with learning disabilities and autism and offers training, with a view to them gaining full-time employment in a job at the end. The company say it has been a most valuable experience. For the students, what is on offer is life-changing. The phs Group first became involved in the programme as an initiative to give back something to the local community. The company told me that, as the interns learn from phs staff, they in turn provide just as many opportunities for phs staff to learn, develop and understand the problems that people with learning disabilities and autism face. By becoming mentors, phs staff are learning new skills every day, as well as learning about disability in the workplace. They learn how to make reasonable adjustments and remove any barriers faced by the interns. The phs Group says that the scheme brings diversity of individuals and thought, and, as evidenced by how many interns it offers permanent roles afterwards, a fantastic team of people to its staff. The phs Group says it is a better business because of this project, and would recommend that all businesses look into providing more opportunities to students like those it employs.

We need more companies like these two to operate similar work chance schemes, and we need companies such as these to act as mentors to encourage other companies. I believe we need a nationwide scheme to make real progress, and a national strategy with a clear and achievable objective. That objective can be summed up in a sentence: it is to change employer behaviour.

Photo of Baroness Thomas of Winchester Baroness Thomas of Winchester Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 1:22, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I welcome this debate and declare that I receive DLA.

The Government have made no secret about wanting to cut the benefit PIP—personal independence payment—which is paid to disabled people of working age, in work or out of work, who qualify, saying that it is now unsustainable. Last month, they published a Green Paper, with a consultation period of three months, but said that any change could not be attempted before a general election.

I have always been concerned that the PIP assessment does not officially involve any healthcare professionals because it has been characterised as a functionality test only, not a medical test. The assessment process has been outsourced, and claimants are often turned down initially for eligibility for PIP, even if they have a condition such as muscular dystrophy. The next stage is for the claimant to ask for mandatory reconsideration, but all too often the original decision is rubber-stamped. Finally, a claimant can ask for a tribunal to examine their claim. Tribunals very often overturn the initial decision, probably because the tribunal consists of a lawyer, a doctor and a disability specialist. The whole appeals process in itself is long-winded and stressful for a disabled person to go through, let alone being very expensive for the Government.

I think the time has come for a report from a healthcare professional to be mandatory, perhaps at the very latest at the first appeal stage, which is reconsideration by the DWP. I am told that problems with PIP assessments are the number one issue on MDUK’s helpline, particularly the change in the walking test from 50 metres to 20 metres. In general, more PIP claimants than ever have psychiatric disorders, so having a report from a healthcare professional would surely be welcome. Even better, of course, would be faster treatment for mental health problems.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Llafur 1:25, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, it is a great pleasure and privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester. She has fought her corner on disability issues for so many years, and it is no surprise to hear her focusing on PIP and the need for medical assessment. I am very grateful to my noble friend for introducing the debate in the way that she did, which was comprehensive, passionate and measured at the same time.

This has been an excellent debate, and I have learned a huge amount. I am not going to repeat some of the things I intended to say. The Government strike me as being very hyperactive suddenly about disability. The problem is that anything with the term “modernisation” in the title strikes the fear of God into me, because, basically, we know that modernisation means greater cuts, more difficult assessments and a narrower gate to go through. We have to be extremely careful in our response, because clearly there is so much that needs changing—goodness knows that we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, about the enormous scope of the things that need to be done.

One of the things that has struck me this morning, and in reading the White Paper and Green Paper, is the gap between what is being proposed and the reality of people’s lives on a day-to-day basis, when every encounter is a struggle. We are not even taking account of the impact of cost of living increases on the ability to live a decent life if you are disabled. The Trussell Trust has been measuring the increasing dependence of disabled people on food banks, for example. We know how difficult it is to find and keep a personal assistant; not only are they scarce but the effort that goes into having to employ them is enormous. These are things that can be simplified. It seems to me that the Government have taken a stiff broom to the wrong end of the problem. What we should be doing is just the sort of thing that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, talked about—that is, making employer contracts more robust and requiring much more changes by way of specialist support being available for people looking for work and so on.

I have a question for the Minister. Why did the Government not involve experts by experience in the design of the White Paper? They are the people who know what it takes to change things effectively, and cost-effectively as well. It is pretty outrageous that they have had to go to law to make their case about not being included. It did not improve the situation as the other White Papers came forward.

I want to raise two specific challenges which are having an effect on the ability of people to seek and keep work. They are about the people who look after disabled people. Obviously, one of the outstanding issues in recent years has been the collapse of mental health services for young people and children, but compounding that is another disaster, which is less visible but really bears down on educational opportunity.

I know that school transport for disabled children is not, strictly speaking, within the Minister’s brief, but he has a colleague who is responsible for it, and I would be very grateful if he could act as a messenger in this respect. It is no secret that transport for disabled children to go to school is reaching breaking point in many local authorities. There has been an increase in the number of children who are eligible, I believe, but there have also been huge cuts in local authority budgets. Appeals are mounting up, increasing numbers are frustrated, parents are scared and children are bewildered.

I want to give the Minister one example, and I declare an interest because the parents are known to me. Their child is 16, and she has been moved to an FE college appropriate for her age and condition. It takes her working parents three to four hours a day, driving back and forth twice a day. Previously they were able to access a taxi, which was free, with a carer. That has been withdrawn. Two appeals have failed. The child has, among other chronic conditions, epilepsy, and so she cannot travel alone.

The parents, in this case, are self-employed. They are distinguished artists who work to commission, so they cannot make up the time lost during the day because they have to care for the child, who requires intensive care when she is at home. She has become increasingly frustrated and violent towards them because she cannot go to school, which she loves and where she thrives.

What is going to happen to those parents and the child? They have no other family to support them. They are both at risk of losing not only their income but their health. How will the child be able to remain in school at all? What will be her future? This is not an isolated case; I am sure many other noble Lords will know of such cases. I have one question here. There seems to be a tendency towards discriminating against self-employed parents because their work is seen as less predictable and less guaranteed. Will the Minister ask his colleague to look at that point?

My final topic is the problem of carers who are in receipt of carer’s allowance but are finding that, mostly inadvertently, they have worked too many hours and are therefore having to pay back some of that allowance. In our Select Committee report, A Gloriously Normal Life, we showed how interdependent carers were with the people they cared for—if you harm one then you harm the other. We catalogued the many different ways in which unpaid carers were suffering from invisibility. We asked the Government to look again at the carer’s allowance—at a princely £81.90 a week, it is the lowest benefit available—and at the hours and conditions of employment.

The Government rejected those recommendations, and things have got worse. All the evidence suggests that the health of unpaid carers is getting worse, and they have little access to information. That bears down on the point I want to make. Carers who have managed to hang on to a part-time job are desperate to maintain their links with work and with normality. They are allowed to earn up to £151 a week—13 hours at the minimum wage. To add insult to injury, thousands of carers are now being pursued by the DWP for breaching the income threshold and are being criminalised. Let me explain why that is so unfair.

The DWP has an IT system that flags up when a carer’s income breaches a threshold but fails to trigger action, so that they know and can pay back their debt as soon as possible. Debts pile up. In 2022-23, 26,000 carers were asked to repay sums relating to earning breaches. Some of the sums were tiny, at £1.50, while 800 people owed between £5,000 and £20,000 and 36 people owed over £20,000. Carers have told me they cannot understand why the DWP has not been notifying carers of overpayments in a timely manner. It is very difficult to get hold of the DWP about the carer’s allowance, so they have to sort out these mistakes themselves. The impact is devastating. Many carers are now thinking of giving up their carer’s allowance because it is too risky. It is a very serious situation.

One carer says:

“This is an additional stress you choose to go without on an already stressful life. We are neither heroes or scroungers but people who care and who are doing a complex job we have no training or experience of and very little support for”.

I ask the Minister to consider with his colleagues whether the whole system should be paused so it can be reviewed at this point.

Photo of Lord Shinkwin Lord Shinkwin Ceidwadwyr 1:33, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, for this important opportunity to reflect holistically on the significant challenges that disabled people continue to encounter in so many aspects of their lives, as my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Baroness Grey-Thompson, made clear. Like the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, I shall focus on employment, in my case as a former chair of a CSJ disability commission and the current chair of the IoD commission on the future of business: harnessing diverse talent for success. I refer Members to my register of interests in that regard.

I ask myself, from a disabled person’s perspective, what success in addressing the challenges we face in employment might look like. What are the key performance indicators I would expect to see? Take the KPI of closing the disability employment gap, which my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond has mentioned. What progress has been made there? Not that much, it seems; it hovers stubbornly at around 30%, partly because disability prevalence at work has increased from 16.5% in 2013 to 24.6% in 2024. I would be grareful if my noble friend could tell me to what extent the DWP takes disability prevalence into account when calculating the disability employment gap.

I turn to Disability Confident, the Government’s flagship employment scheme for disabled people. How effective has that been? The DWP claims that 11 million people are now employed by Disability Confident firms, so surely there is clear evidence of a corresponding step-change improvement in both the disability employment gap and the disability pay gap. We know the answer on the disability employment gap. On the disability pay gap, the IoD commission that I chair recommended mandatory workforce reporting for big business, which would allow for its calculation. The director-general and I wrote to the Prime Minister 18 months ago, but to the best of my knowledge we have not received even an acknowledgment. That may not be a KPI, but it is certainly a revealing indicator of the Government’s disdain, which, unfortunately, was also on display in their car crash of an announcement last December about the role of the Minister for Disabled People.

What is the evidence that the Government’s flagship Disability Confident scheme actually improves disability employment outcomes? According to Professor Kim Hoque, from King’s College London, and Professor Nick Bacon—both of whom are from Disability@Work—the percentage of the workforce that is disabled is no higher in Disability Confident level 1 or level 3 organisations, and only marginally higher in private sector level 2 organisations, than in non-Disability Confident organisations. Also, the percentage of the workforce that is disabled is no higher, and disabled employees’ experiences of work no better, in organisations in the Disability Confident business leaders’ group than in non-Disability Confident organisations. Can my noble friend tell me how these findings are meant to inspire confidence among the primary stakeholders of the scheme—that is, disabled people?

Is my noble friend aware that, of the 129,000 jobs listed on the DWP’s Find a Job service, only 0.51% are fully remote and just 2.75% are listed as being hybrid remote? As Professor Hoque said when he gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee in the other place earlier this month:

“The idea that there are all of these working from home opportunities out there for disabled people … is just a complete myth”,

not least because competition for those jobs, scarce as they are, is going to be even higher.

Unjustified disability discrimination may have been outlawed on paper by the DDA 30 years ago, as already mentioned, but, far from being eradicated, it has in my experience as a disabled person instead become normalised because of a lack of enforcement, which has been informed not by malice but by a deficit of lived experience. Subsumed within the EHRC since the abolition of the Disability Rights Commission, the unique nature of disability and, thus, the need for reasonable adjustments has meant that disability is the heaviest stone, which inevitably falls to the bottom of the equality policy pond—and there it stays.

I want to look beyond where we are now to the next Parliament. I hope that the next UK Government recognise in policy design and implementation that our lived experience as disabled people is not only valid but valuable, and that harnessing it adds value and reduces costs over the medium term. I hope that the next UK Government carry out a review, led by a disabled person, of what is needed to ensure that the legislative framework is actually delivering in the way it was intended to for disabled people; and that, at the very least, that Government abide by the recommendations of the House of Lords ad hoc Select Committee, so ably led by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, which found almost 10 years ago that the Equality Act 2010 was not working for disabled people.

In conclusion, unless and until disabled people are brought into the decision-making process on merit, including as Members of your Lordships’ House, the challenges we are discussing will remain and we will be having exactly the same debate in 10 years’ time as we are today.

Photo of Lord Davies of Brixton Lord Davies of Brixton Llafur 1:42, 16 Mai 2024

It has truly been a privilege to sit and listen to this debate. Thanks are due to my noble friend Lady Hughes of Stretford for introducing it but all the other speakers have contributed so much. I have just two thoughts to advance: first, this is as much about mental as about physical disablement; secondly, I am going to say something about the challenge faced by disabled people in securing an adequate pension.

It is totally appropriate that we consider the mental health aspects. The noble Viscount, Lord Younger, has had to leave the Chamber but I can see that he is aware that it is Mental Health Awareness Week, so we need to include that in our thoughts. Of course, it arises in two ways. First, as I think a number of speakers have highlighted, coping with the situation creates mental health problems for people with physical disablement but, secondly, parallel to that are the problems faced by people who have mental health problems in coping with the situation as it is. My noble friend Lady Donaghy quite rightly drew attention to the excellent briefs that we receive because we are taking part in these debates. I will just highlight those from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and from the British Psychological Society, which clearly focus on the mental health aspects.

The royal college is particularly forthright about the reform of the disability benefits system. It points out the stark rise in the number of people facing mental problems and nails the canard that it is, in some way, due to more people taking a day off because it is a blue Monday. The royal college says:

“This increase is driven by serious issues such as poverty, housing and food insecurity and increased loneliness and isolation. These factors are known to put people at greater risk of having a mental illness and were compounded during the pandemic”.

It is absolutely clear that it is no easy ticket to be receiving support for a mental health problem. It stresses:

“Only those with conditions which significantly impact their ability to function and have lasted over a year can receive PIP”.

It would be good if the Minister could acknowledge the knowledge and experience of the royal college in assessing where we are in this situation.

The royal college also stresses the importance of getting the Mental Health Act on board and of having resources to support mental health services, not just in the health service but in schools and the employment service. The British Psychological Society echoes those concerns. It stresses the importance of more education and understanding within the public services, so that the people providing these services are more aware of the challenge faced by people with problems with their mental health.

Turning to pensions, I recall that, more than 40 years ago, I was a member of a body called the Occupational Pensions Board, which produced a report Occupational Pension Scheme Cover for Disabled People. I reread our report, and we quite rightly found that the difficulty faced by disabled people is not with the pension; it is with getting a job in the first place. When they have a job, they accrue a pension. I think I have learned a little more since then because, of course, being disabled interferes with your career pattern. It means often that you have periods out of work. Because of that, your earnings and earning prospects are lower and you have gaps. Because of those factors, you end up with a lower earnings-related pension, and we have a system that depends on earnings-related pensions. That is an issue which needs some further consideration in the context of the benefits system.

I declare an interest, as in the register, with the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, which is doing work on identifying the problems faced by people with mental health problems in the financial arena. It has recently produced a report on pensions that included a series of key recommendations, which I would like to highlight, regarding the issues faced by people who are mentally disabled in achieving a decent pension. It highlighted the importance of the Money and Pensions Service—MaPS—and calls for MaPS to put more effort into understanding and providing support for people with poor mental health. There is a need for specialist advice in this area and a need for MaPS to train the staff it has to acknowledge the problems that are faced. It is also important to ensure that, when advice is given, it is provided in an accessible way.

These issues come together. Poor pensions go with disability, and this needs to be acknowledged. I know the Minister has heard my speech on the gender pensions gap on more than one occasion; no doubt he will hear it again. Equally, we have a disability pensions gap, which needs to be addressed and acknowledged in a similar fashion.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 1:49, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, on securing this important debate and setting the scene so well on the problems disabled people face in our country today. It is also a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton. I declare my interests as vice-president of the LGA and the chair of the LGA disability forum.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, for her comment on wheelchair users not being able to sit with their party groupings. Should any of us in wheelchairs become Government or Opposition Front-Benchers, we could not, for example, use the Dispatch Box. At least we have this space here, which is more than can be said for the House of Commons, where there is no provision.

The noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, and I took part in a survey by Westminster Council on the accessibility of Parliament Square, given the very large volume of pedestrians there. The researcher who conducted it said afterwards that he had never understood how hypervigilant people with disabilities need to be moving around our streets today. Actually, that woke me up too, because I had not understood the constant pressure one is under.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, also referred to John Pring of the Disability News Service. He is an outstanding journalist who is not afraid to expose the realities of how challenging it is for disabled people to live in the UK today. I think he has had more refusals on FoIs from the DWP than anybody else, but still he rightly persists and we thank him for that.

This building is getting worse for people with disabilities. With security problems, they are closing doors. I do not know if any noble Lords have ever tried to open a door towards you sitting down, but when you have arthritic shoulders, I have to tell you that it is almost impossible.

I am sure that the Minister, in his summing up, will extol the details of the Disability Action Plan published in March this year. I remind your Lordships’ House about how that was received by Transport for All. Katie Pennick said:

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

My noble friend Lord Addington reminded us that the Government often say the right thing but then legislate in completely the opposite direction. Many noble Lords who have spoken have covered that issue.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for reminding us of the importance of unpaid carers and the consequences of the appalling benefits regime for them. Will the Government address the very particular problem they face now?

Health and social care remains a really big area for disabled people, especially under the current crisis conditions. The Cystic Fibrosis Trust says that people with CF should have access to social workers and to clinical psychologists. But one in four children with CF cannot access a CF social worker and CF clinical centres report that 61% of vacant psychology posts have remained unfilled for over six months. Young Lives vs Cancer reports that diagnosed patients face delays of upwards of 20 weeks for PIP/DLA decision-making. Why is there a three-month waiting period after diagnosis with cancer before applications can even be made for benefits?

Last month the UN once again criticised the UK Government on disability issues. The UN’s CRPD called on the Government to end the detention of people with disabilities in hospitals. So have many of your Lordships over the years. When will this end? Can I ask the Minister for a timetable for this outrageous act to be discontinued?

The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, referred to school transport and the problems caused by the severe cuts to councils. Also because of severe cuts to social service budgets and the increase in specialist care fees, a number of councils are now telling families that their disabled loved ones can no longer be supported at home and must go into residential care permanently. This is unacceptable and truly shocking.

I am glad so many noble Lords included transport in this debate, for without it many disabled people cannot get to work or have a social life. I point out the getting to work bit because the Government say not enough disabled people want to work. Getting there would be a good start. Outside London, without the wonderful black Hackney cabs, getting a taxi is a complete and utter lottery. Blind and visually impaired people with guide dogs are still refused rides with some Uber drivers. Doug Paulley’s victory in the Supreme Court eight years ago about ensuring wheelchair space in a bus is a legal priority for—guess who?—wheelchair users. This week I have twice had to argue with bus drivers who have refused to move buggies. I had to intervene yesterday to negotiate for an empty buggy to be folded and ask somebody with a pram to pull it back, let me into the space and then put the pram back in front of me. The driver sat there silently.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, referred to lifts. At Watford Junction, my local station, a few years ago they decided to completely replace two lifts at the same time, disabling access from four platforms and therefore journeys for six months. Lifts are as important as ramps. There is no point having ramps on a train if you cannot get to the platform. And I echo the points from the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, about bus lanes and bizarre decisions like Bank and the problems of shared space.

Housing has not been much mentioned so far. Habinteg Housing research shows that only 7% of our housing stock meets basic accessibility standards such as a level entrance. And a government report says that, on average, a three-bedroomed semi-detached house would cost an extra £521 to build to the category 1 lifetime homes standard, with a further space cost of just under £1,000. This would mean thousands of elderly and disabled people could remain in their homes. Think how much money the state would save if that happened. We are still waiting for this standard to be implemented.

On supported housing, there is a real problem, because we are being told that, alongside financial pressures on existing schemes, there are now significant barriers to new development. A recent National Housing Federation survey showed that, because of a cash crisis, there is a significantly reduced appetite to develop any new schemes at all—which is ridiculous given the demography in the country at the moment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, rightly brought up the work of the OU, which was rightly awarded gold for its provision. Disabled students are not just welcomed there but encouraged, and live in the mainstream of its provision. My noble friend Lord Palmer set out the delays with the changes to EHCPs. The scheme was originally proposed in the Children and Families Act 2014, but, despite review, it is still failing the children it needs to serve.

Many people have spoken about benefits, and I will say only a couple of points. I will pick up what my noble friend Lady Thomas and the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, said in setting out very helpfully the problems of claiming and the complexity of forms and processes when claiming PIP. The noble Baroness, Lady Browning, said that seven in 10 people who appeal a PIP decision get a judgment, but there is an extra clause that goes with that statistic—“on the same evidence that DWP already held”. This is not new evidence.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, rightly highlighted the problem of people with mental health difficulties. This Government seem to have forgotten that the coalition Government agreed that mental health services were woefully underfunded, and agreed parity of esteem and funding. It took one year after the coalition ended for this Government to renege on that funding. People with serious mental health problems now face years before they can access treatment, which is a bigger scandal than people with severe depression and other psychiatric conditions wanting to access PIP, because they too face extra costs.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for his expertise on disabled people’s access to work. One of the main problems, though, is what happens when people get into work. I am passionate about training, whether it is training for what is happening inside work or for the front line. My stepmother has been in hospital for most of the past month—three different hospitals and a care home. None of the front-line staff understood how to look after her at all. At one point, a pharmacist held up a very small pot of tablets and asked her what was in it. She said, “I can’t see”, and the pharmacist brought it closer to her eyes.

We have heard today from everybody that there is a real issue. Our lives as disabled people—and we are 16 million people in this country—are affected in our fundamental rights and access to services. We are also victims of attacks and hate crimes. This Government really need to understand how they have further disabled us through their policies and language. We need to make sure that that changes. It needs to change rapidly, otherwise the next report from the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will be as unfavourable as its previous three.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 2:00, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for the depth and breadth of this fabulous debate, and particularly to my noble friend Lady Hughes of Stretford for the very comprehensive and helpful way in which she framed it. As she pointed out, we are debating the challenges facing nearly one-quarter of our population. That makes it a major issue for any Government.

Let me start by setting out a couple of principles behind Labour’s approach. Just for the record, Labour is committed to using the social model of disability. We will look to produce policies in partnership with disabled people that have dignity and respect at their heart, and we are determined to provide support and break down barriers to opportunity for disabled people. I shall try, in the limited amount of time that I have, to offer some of the things that a Labour Government would do, if we were elected—not to make party-political points but simply to offer accountability from our side as to the kinds of things we would want to do were we to be entrusted with government in future.

Disabled people who can work should have the same right to access decent jobs as those who are not disabled, but that is not where we are—a point well made by the noble Lords, Lord Holmes and Lord Shinkwin. At the end of last year, the disability employment gap was 28 %, and it has barely moved in recent years. Disabled people are more likely to be unemployed and much more likely to be economically inactive. Only 13% of those with complex disabilities are in full-time jobs. The position of autistic people was highlighted very well by my noble friend Lord Touhig. I pause briefly to say that I hope that autistic people realise what a good advocate they have in both him and in the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, and how well their interests are represented in this House. I commend them for that. The contrast that the noble Lord drew between the vast majority of autistic people who want to work and the minority who are doing so is stark, and I look forward to a cup of coffee in the Fair Shot cafe at some point.

The quality of work is also poorer. The Learning and Work Institute tells us that, in the last decade, disabled people in Britain have seen sharper increases in rates of flexible working, self-employment, zero-hours contracts and jobs at risk of automation than have non-disabled workers. I wonder whether that is a contributing factor to the fact that the ONS says that the disability pay gap is 13.8%, as my noble friend Lady Donaghy pointed out. That is two percentage points higher than 2014. We are not going in the right direction, but I can take the opportunity to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, that Labour’s new deal for working people will introduce mandatory disability pay-gap reporting for firms with more than 250 staff, as well as stronger family-friendly rights, including carer’s leave. Will the Minister match that today at the Dispatch Box and send his noble friend home happier than perhaps he arrived?

On how government helps disabled people to get and progress in work, Scope says that it is just not working, with disabled people saying that coaches do not understand the true impact of conditions and impairments. There is the Access to Work scheme, but polling for Scope found that 40% of those who had left work because of their disability or impairment had never heard of it, and those who do apply face long delays. In March 2021, under 5,000 people were on the waiting list, which was bad enough. Last month, the figure was over 32,000.

A Labour Government would overhaul Access to Work, with improved targets for assessment waiting times and also in-principle indicative awards, so that disabled people would know what kind of equipment, adaptations or support they could get before they start work, to give them more confidence to take the plunge. We would also reform jobcentres, with a new focus on tackling the barriers to good employment, devolving powers over employment support and requiring better collaboration with the NHS and other support agencies. We would make it simpler to secure reasonable adjustments in a timely manner, such as when jobs or circumstances change, and we would introduce an into-work guarantee, so that sick and disabled people could try a job out without being pushed back to square one if it did not work.

That takes me to social security. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, who it is lovely to see in action, and the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, for their accounts of the way the system is working at the moment—or rather is not working. PIP was created by the Government: in 2013, they abolished DLA and created PIP, which they promised us would be better, more sustainable and more sensitive to issues of mental health, and sensory and cognitive impairments. After various reviews and consultations, in 2021, the Government published a health and disability Green Paper, launching a consultation on PIP and ESA. Last year, they published a health and disability White Paper, which promised to change how universal credit supports those who cannot work and abolish the work capability assessment, which was people’s gateway to those benefits. They then said that there will be only one health and disability functional test in future: the PIP assessment. Roll forward a year and we now seem to be going backwards.

Having said that DLA was the problem and PIP was the answer, the new Green Paper says that PIP is the problem and that the PIP assessment will be abolished as well. No one loves the PIP assessment, but how is anyone going to get assessed for anything? People who depend on PIP are panicking. Carers want to know how they will get support, because PIP is the gateway to carer’s allowance—and that is on top of the issues with carer’s allowance highlighted by my noble friend Lady Andrews, for which I thank her.

The Minister says gently that there will a conversation, and I have a lot of respect for his character and the way he approaches these issues. I am sure he believes that things can be worked out. Meanwhile, his colleagues in the Commons are chasing headlines about getting tough on “sick note” Britain. I am sorry, but it all feels rather more about politics than policy.

A record 2.8 million people are locked out of work due to long-term sickness, but how much of that is down to the Government’s own policies, a point flagged up by my noble friends Lady Donaghy and Lady Hughes of Stretford? The chair of the Work and Pensions Committee told the Commons that

“PIP assessment providers confirm that worsening delays in NHS treatment are a big factor in the increase in the number of people applying for PIP”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/4/24; col. 52.]

This needs urgent attention. A Labour Government would drive down NHS waiting lists, with 2 million more weekend and evening appointments, and would provide specialist mental health support in every school, and walk-in access in every community.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and others spoke about the wider challenges of healthcare for disabled people. We have heard about problems with transport, costs and long waiting lists, and a lack of understanding. Sense reports that many people with complex disabilities are still getting letters that they cannot understand, and cannot get the communication support they need for appointments.

The pandemic shone a light on healthcare and disability. The ONS reported that disabled people in the UK were more likely to die as a result of Covid, and the Marie Curie briefing that we have all seen shows that the approach to making “do not attempt CPR” decisions during the pandemic revealed a lack of understanding and that assumptions were being made about people’s quality of life that were key barriers to involving them appropriately in decisions about their own health and life. Can the Minister tell the House what the Government are going to do about this?

I do not have time to go into social care but I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, and some of my noble friends for raising this. I hope the Minister will have something to say about that as well.

As we heard from a number of noble Lords, we have problems with accessibility, the condition of housing and poor landlord behaviour in the private sector, and with challenging conditions and costs in social housing. The RICS says we have an “accessible housing crisis” which is getting worse. Can the Minister tell the House what systematic work is being done in government to address the crisis in accessible housing?

A number of noble Lords highlighted some of the challenges in education, both in differentials in qualifications and the real challenges, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and others, for young people with special educational needs and disabilities. ONS research shows that parents are struggling to access appropriate schools and get support plans, and that schools are just not responsive enough to young people’s needs.

There are big issues around transport, as the case raised by my noble friend Lady Andrews highlighted so clearly. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for his strong challenge on what it is we measure, why we measure it and how we use, understand and value the technology that enables people to engage in society and take the steps forward that are needed. What are the Government doing about this?

I am a follower on Twitter of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and follow her adventures in attempting to turn up and go at many stations around the country on a regular basis. I commend her tweets to noble Lords who want an insight into the day-to-day life of someone with a disability, and I commend her on a fabulous speech. She revealed that the journey of life is like a swimming test, in which everybody else is allowed to swim downstream and disabled people are made to swim upstream, and then someone asks why they are not going as far or as fast. At every single stage, things are thrown in their way. I thank her for highlighting that so comprehensively and brilliantly.

There is so much more I want to say but time is running out. What we have heard today is a scandal. If I want to criticise the Government for what has, or has not, happened in the last 14 years, I need to look back at Labour’s record. There is much there that I am really proud of—the Disability Rights Commission, EHRC legislation, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, the landmark Equality Acts of 2006 and 2010, and legislation on public transport and discrimination against disabled pupils—but listening today I know that there is so much more to do. If we get the opportunity to serve again, a future Labour Government will work with disabled people to create policies that remove barriers to opportunity and will try to level the playing field.

It is wonderful to hear as part of this debate from so many disabled Members of this House who have achieved so much and continue to do so. It is a sign for all of us that we need to change society, not only to make life better for disabled people—though we should do so—but because of what we are missing out on from all those who cannot play a full part in society, through no fault of their own. We have to do better than this.

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 2:10, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their very valuable contributions to this important and wide-ranging debate. As it has highlighted, disabled people share the same hopes, aspirations and ambitions as non-disabled people to fulfil their potential and play a full part in society. However, I acknowledge that they often experience barriers that can prevent them realising this.

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, who provided a good overview of the many issues that are challenges for disabled people. Although she would not expect me to agree with many of her conclusions, she raised a number of questions which I will attempt to cover. As the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, acknowledged, it may not be possible to cover all the many themes encompassing disability that were raised today. Having said all that, the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, in her usual style, won the verbal marathon to canter through most of the issues.

Over the last 25 years, this country has made important progress in tackling the barriers, through the work of campaigners and across different Governments, from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Addington—he was here in the House for that, which is interesting—to the Equality Act 2010 and, more recently, the British Sign Language Act and Down Syndrome Act. Today, in Mental Health Awareness Week and on Global Accessibility Awareness Day—I have a badge to match—I reflect that these are reminders of how far we have come in talking about, and having awareness of, disability and accessibility issues. They also highlight what still needs to be done.

I have listened carefully to all the issues raised. Let me say clearly that there is more to be done. My noble friend Lord Holmes is right that I should be aware— I reassure him and others that I am—of the lived experience of those who are disabled. I will take back to the relevant channels his points about floating bus stops, black taxi cabs and the bank issue; I very much noted that.

Having said all that, I am proud that this Government have continued to tackle the barriers faced by disabled people. As a bit of a pushback, let me say that there are now 2 million more disabled people in work when compared to 2010. We have 20 Ministers across government committed to championing accessibility and opportunity for disabled people within their departments. Our Disability Action Plan, which we published in February, sets out the actions that we are taking this year across these and other areas, and lays the foundations for longer-term change. I will talk more about this later.

To ensure that this country is the most accessible place in the world for them to live, work and thrive, we are going further through the support delivered through the benefits system, helping disabled people to start, stay and succeed in a more flexible and accessible labour market. We are also ensuring that disabled children—also mentioned today—get the best start in life, creating more accessible homes, which I will allude to later, and improving health and care outcomes.

This Government are delivering for disabled people. The noble Baronesses, Lady Hughes and Lady Sherlock, asked when disabled people can expect an update on the national disability strategy and the disability action plan. The actions set out in the disability action plan are planned to be delivered over 12 months, to lay the foundations for longer-term change. To track our progress, we will publish updates on the progress of actions from the disability action plan after six months and 12 months. The six-month update will also include an update on the delivery of the national disability strategy.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock and Lady Hughes, raised the differences between the documents. The disability action plan will be taken forward in parallel with the national disability strategy and is designed to complement the long-term vision set out in the strategy. In a Written Ministerial Statement of 18 September 2023, we announced how work on the strategy would be taken forward. Other significant work being taken forward by individual government departments in areas that disabled people have told us are a priority include reforms to employment and welfare via the DWP’s Transforming Support: The Health and Disability White Paper and strategies to address health and social care via the DHSC’s People at the Heart of Care White Paper, which the House will be aware of.

I turn to the support provided through our benefits system. I am proud that we have a strong and generous safety net for those who need it. We expect to provide £88 billion worth of support for disabled people through the benefits system this year. Last month, we increased the extra cost disability benefits by a further 6.7%. I have listened carefully to comments today on access to the benefits system. We know that, in some cases, people may not be able to engage effectively with the claim process due to various vulnerabilities. That is why the DWP has a range of different support measures at every stage of the benefit claim. This includes a “move to universal credit” helpline, a “help to claim” service delivered independently by Citizens Advice and face-to-face support in local jobcentres, where the staff will have been specifically trained and prepared for this work. Where a claimant cannot manage their claim due to a lack of capacity, they can appoint a third party to manage the claim on their behalf.

Our wider reforms look more fundamentally at different options to reshape the current welfare system. As the House will know, we have published a Green Paper, which was much spoken about today. It considers options to provide better-targeted support to those who need it most, ensuring that it is fit for the future. This subject was raised by my noble friend Lady Browning and the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. I was particularly pleased to hear the remarks from the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas—it is good to hear from her again.

My noble friend Lady Browning asked how PIP provides support to claimants with mental illness. PIP was designed to help disabled people and people with long-term health conditions by making a cash contribution towards their extra costs. As part of this consultation, we want to understand whether there are other forms of support that may be more suitable for people with mental health conditions. We know that being in suitable work is good for people’s physical and mental health, well-being and financial security. As we set out in 2023 in Transforming Support: The Health and Disability White Paper, the Government aim to support more people to start, stay and succeed in work.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, asked about the reason for the rise in PIP, suggesting that it was not due to the increased prevalence of disability and health conditions but was perhaps linked to NHS waiting times. I reassure her and the House that cutting waiting lists is one of the Prime Minister’s top priorities. We are making good progress in tackling the longest waiting lists, to ensure that patients get the care that they need when they need it. This is incredibly important. Thanks to the incredible work of NHS staff, we have virtually eliminated waits of 18 months. NHSE management information from March 2024 suggests that these waits have been reduced by over 95% since September 2021, but there is clearly more to do.

Alongside the support available through the welfare system, the Government also recognise the valuable work and the needs of those who care for disabled people while holding down a job. My noble friend Lady Browning and the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, asked whether the PIP consultation was simply a money-saving exercise. It is not a money-saving exercise; this is about the Government’s long-standing approach to supporting disabled people and people with long-term health conditions. We want the system to provide the right support to those who really need it. It is right that we should look at this after 10 years or so—as I said, we introduced it in 2013.

As the House will know, the Carer’s Leave Act came into force in April, giving a new unpaid leave entitlement that is available from day one of employment for employed unpaid carers. I will briefly touch on the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. I am very aware of the issues surrounding overpayments for carers; the Government are taking this extremely seriously. It is the responsibility of individuals who receive the carer’s allowance to let us know if their earnings exceed £151 per week. We are looking very seriously at it, particularly to see how we can improve the communications exercise. Everyone will receive a letter every year to remind them, but I believe there is more that we can do. As was said the other day in the media, we are already ringing as many people as we can, from the information that we have received, to remind them of what happens if their earnings go over the threshold, so that they understand what to do.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Llafur

My Lords, I am extremely grateful for what the Minister has said. Do I understand correctly that this is the response to the issue of the IT system not automatically triggering any action that would lead to information being sent immediately to the carer? Does the Minister think that this will address that issue?

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I think that it will go a very long way. We are looking seriously at getting the information out quickly—the link with HMRC is incredibly important here. We already get real-time information from HMRC anyway. We are asking the same question: what more can we do to be sure that those who do not let us know, for whatever reason, will do so? We also must not forget that the vast majority do let us know. This is a very important point. I believe that there will be a Question in the House next week on this issue, which I will be willing and ready to answer.

The subject of work was raised in particular by my noble friend Lord Shinkwin. This Government will always protect the most vulnerable, but we must also do everything possible to support those who can to move into work. I echo the Prime Minister’s speech at the Centre for Social Justice on 19 April, which I attended:

“The role of the welfare state should never be merely to provide financial support … but to help people overcome whatever barriers they might face to living an independent, fulfilling life”.

That is why we are supporting thousands more disabled people to start, stay and succeed in work through our £2.5 billion back to work plan. That includes exploring reforms to the fit-note process through the call for evidence—another theme raised today—and rolling out WorkWell, to bring together local health and employment support. Questions were raised today about who is best placed to make health assessments for work. I do not intend to go further on that, but we may well receive some information through the conversation and the PIP consultation on that subject.

From 2025, we will reform the work capability assessment to reflect new flexibilities in the labour market while maintaining protections for those with the most serious conditions. My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond and others raised the disability employment gap. The Government have an ambitious programme of initiatives to support disabled people and people with health conditions. The disability employment rate was 52.9% in the first quarter of 2024, compared to 81.7% for non-disabled people. For disabled people, that is an increase of 0.1 percentage points. The disability employment gap was 28.8 percentage points in the first quarter of 2024, a decrease of 0.6 percentage points on the year before.

We are also expanding access to mental health treatment, with nearly 400,000 additional places through NHS talking therapies, which I think the House will be well aware of. All this builds on existing support, such as Access to Work grants, our Disability Confident scheme and disability employment advisers in jobcentres.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Donaghy and Lady Hughes, asked what the Government are doing to help those in poverty. There is a long answer I could give, but the short answer, which I think I have given in the House before, is that we are committed to supporting people on lower incomes and expect to spend around £303 billion through the welfare system in Great Britain in 2024-25, including around £138 billion on people of working age and their children. These statistics cover 2022-23, a year when inflation averaged 10% and benefits were uprated by 3.1%, in line with the CPI.

On the disabled, the latest statistics show that the number of people in families where someone is disabled and in absolute poverty—which is our preferred measure—fell by 100,000 between 2021-22 and 2022-23. The proportion of people in families where someone is disabled and in absolute poverty after housing costs has decreased by two percentage points since 2019-20, and the number of people in such families has increased slightly due to an increase in the number of people in families where someone is disabled.

Briefly, on education, which I think was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and others, in the special educational needs and disability sector our improvement plan will establish a single national system so that children can achieve good outcomes. We have increased high-needs revenue funding for children and young people with complex needs to cover £10.5 billion this year, up 60% over the last five years. The Law Commission is also undertaking a review of disabled children’s social care legislation to help clarify the law and to ensure that families of disabled children receive the support that they need. I hope that this may help address the remarks from the noble Lord, Lord Addington.

I will go further on the question of what the Government are doing to achieve greater national equality in the support offered to children. Our improvement plan outlines our commitment to establish a single national SEND system with a proposal to deliver national standards. National standards will improve mainstream education by setting standards for early and accurate identification of SEND need, and they will include clarifying the types of support that should be available in mainstream settings and who is responsible for securing the support. Finally, national standards will create a more consistent SEND system. That may not provide the whole answer, but I hope that helps.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

Are we suggesting that there will be a consistent approach to those who are not taking on plans in the classroom? Much of the talk here is about the plan, which is incredibly expensive and slow, is appealed and then goes through. Will we get better support for those who have not had that official diagnosis? That is the real issue here.

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I certainly always listen to the noble Lord. It will be for others to judge, but I very much hope so, and I take note of that.

Quickly on housing, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and briefly by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, thanks to the Government’s actions more disabled people have the support that they need to be able to live independently and safely. The Government have more than doubled the funding for the disabled facilities grant, from £220 million in 2015-16 to £625 million in this financial year. Our Renters (Reform) Bill, abolishing no-fault evictions and creating a new ombudsman for the private rented sector, will give disabled tenants more security and confidence to hold landlords accountable for reasonable adjustments. The Government have also proposed to mandate that all new homes will be built to a higher accessibility standard, providing greater independence and safety at home—which again was raised.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

Could the Minister write to me about my other question, which was about supported housing and the ability for housing organisations to be able to access capital for it? They are finding it very difficult to do so.

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Certainly, I will write to the noble Baroness on that.

Briefly, on healthcare matters—I realise that time is marching on—my noble friend Lady Browning was right to raise the issue of loneliness. We are aware that people with disabilities or long-term health conditions are more than four times more likely to report feeling lonely. New research on that matter will emerge during the summer.

The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, spoke about access to social care for disabled people. Local authorities are responsible for assessing individuals’ care and support needs and, where eligible, for meeting those needs. Where individuals do not meet the eligibility threshold, they can get support from their local authority in making their own care arrangements for care services, as set out in the Care Act—as the noble Baroness will know.

On the subject of local authorities, I noted the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, about school transport. I will certainly pass her message through the right channels.

I am also aware of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, about autism. He will know that we published our refreshed national autism strategy in July 2021, which aims to improve understanding in society, reduce diagnosis waiting times and improve access to high-quality health and social care for autistic people. I could say a lot more about that, but I shall just say that, through the rollout of the Oliver McGowan mandatory training on learning disability and autism, which he will know about, we are helping health and social care staff to have the skills and knowledge they need to provide safe and compassionate care for autistic people and those with a learning disability.

Through the NHS long-term plan, the Government are increasing the mental health workforce so that more people, including disabled people, can get the mental health support they need. That is a very important point to make.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Grey-Thompson, Lady Andrews and Lady Brinton, asked about accessibility and transport. I shall allow myself some time in the last few minutes to address this because they are right: the voices of disabled people should be central to how transport policy is planned and implemented. That is what it means to be truly inclusive. The Department for Transport’s statutory advisers, the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, provide expert advice and constructive challenge to Ministers to help in the development and delivery of policies. The DPTAC has a statutory requirement for at least half of the committee to be disabled people, meaning that it is well placed to provide advice that will ensure that the DfT builds into its work the needs of all disabled people.

To pick up the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and my noble friend Lord Holmes, the Government are fully committed to improving transport accessibility, supporting disabled people to have the same access to transport as everyone else. The Department for Transport has made good progress against the commitments in the Inclusive Transport Strategy. I acknowledge and say to all those who have raised points today that there is definitely more to do.

I realise that time is against me and that I have not been able to answer a lot of questions. As noble Lords would expect, with my team I will look in Hansard at the questions raised and write a letter to all those who have contributed.

To conclude, this has been a fascinating and important debate. The range of significant support and reforms that we, as a Government, are undertaking within the welfare system and the world of work, as well as in education, housing and healthcare, underlines this Government’s determination to make sure that disabled people and those with health conditions get the right support to improve their everyday experiences—the lived experience of being disabled—so that they can lead full and independent lives.

Photo of Baroness Hughes of Stretford Baroness Hughes of Stretford Llafur 2:33, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, this has been an absolutely extraordinary debate, with powerful contributions from right across the House that have been passionate, challenging and full of insight. I thank all noble Lords who have made their contributions, many from personal experience of living with disability themselves or of having disabled people in their families. Should anyone assume that debates in this House are pedestrian or formulaic, they should read the Hansard record of this debate. I will certainly read it, and I am glad to hear the Minister say that he will, too. I hope that he will take it back to his colleagues, because many of the points made here bear discussion in the ministerial team.

I cannot thank everybody, and it has already been done, but I want to pick out a few themes which are important. We heard powerful contributions about how disabled people feel about how they are treated by the department and their experience of assessments that do not seem to be fit for purpose. I hope that the Minister will take that away. The daily discrimination at every turn in every minutia of daily living, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and others, and meeting barriers in almost everything that we have to do to get through the day, let alone make our way through life, education and employment—this all needs to be heard.

The pre-eminent importance of inaccessibility to good education, employment and transport, the lack of progress in those areas, despite government commitments and the Minister’s comments, and the Government’s failure to follow through, are causing disabled people and families to lose confidence in whether the Government are serious about this. There are also the negative attitudes towards disabled people, their invisibility in public policy and so much of daily life, and the disastrous and sometimes ridiculous consequences of making decisions without input from disabled people. The example of floating bus stops will stay with me for a long time. However, we did have a welcome challenge at least, that if only the Government would stop sticking doggedly to conventional ways of doing things and think creatively and radically about what modern technology offers, many of these artificial barriers would fall.

Overall, the key message raised in my opening speech and by so many noble Lords is that disabled people must be at the heart of policy and implementation. “Inclusion by design and accessible by all” should be the watchwords. This debate has demonstrated, if anybody needs evidence, the profound difference that it makes to have the voice of disabled people with lived experience in the room, and its benefit.

Motion agreed.