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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 2:00 pm ar 16 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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.