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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:34 pm ar 16 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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?