On 15th October 2020 there was a Westminster Hall debate titled, 'Covid19: Disability-Inclusive Response' during which our President, The Rt. Hon. Maria Miller MP, the Conservative MP for Basingstoke delivered the following speech. We have also included the response from the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Justin Tomlinson MP.
"It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship Mr Rosindell, and also to be able to take part in this debate called by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Lisa Cameron).
The impact of coronavirus on disabled people has been profound. It is absolutely right that we should be drawing attention to that at this time. The scale of the issue is concerning: disabled people have accounted for 59% of deaths due to coronavirus between March and July. It is an enormous issue. Another issue is the hidden deaths that have occurred as a result of people not being able to access the healthcare they need, and the way that that has particularly impacted people with learning disabilities. The deaths of people detained in hospitals subject to the Mental Health Act 1983 in the community have doubled from the number of deaths in the same period last year. It is a concern, and we are right to be debating it.
There is also the impact on people who care for disabled people. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), during lockdown I was speaking to my constituents in that position, who were caring for somebody without the support that they may otherwise have. We need to look at the whole family when we consider the issue as we move forward. The Government’s response has been entirely as it should be: an extra £9 billion of welfare support has been put in place. Specifically within the area of disability, spending this year has increased from £19 billion to £20 billion. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place, and we could not have a better Minister looking at these issues with the sort of credentials that he has for action in the area.
Easements - I would like to talk about three issues. The first is easements, the second is communication relating to disability, and the third is employment. The easements are causing all of us concern. The emergency Coronavirus Act 2020 allowed the suspension of some of the duties that local authorities have within the Care Act 2014. Many organisations are now calling for a rethink on that, including Liberty and Disability Rights UK. The easements are there for a reason: to make sure that local authorities can operate in a really difficult situation. Where easements are operated, local authorities may not be complying with what disabled people need within their community. There has been no correlation between the number of covid-19 positive cases and the decision to operate easements in local authority areas. I would appreciate the Government giving us an update on that and on their plans with regards to guidance on the use of easements in the future.
Communication - The second issue is communication. A number of hon. Members in the Chamber today will, I think, hope that as we move forward, accessible communication will become fully embedded into every single bit of Government communication. I remember sitting in the Minister’s place, and it is difficult to get easy-read versions and British sign language versions when trying to bring out policy recommendations. It takes time and I understand that. We must still challenge ourselves to communicate with everybody when we are communicating with the British public, not just with those who do not have a disability. I challenge the Minister to think of new and better ways to ensure that a lack of information for disabled people is a thing of the past.
Employment - Finally, on employment, we know that many thousands of disabled people in this country want to be in employment but are not. The Minister has done an enormous amount to make sure there is support in place to ensure that as many disabled people as possible are able to get into employment, though Access to Work, the Work and Health programme and intensive personalised employment support programmes. We need to redouble those efforts and challenge Access to Work, to make sure adaptive technology is available to disabled people who may now be having to work from home for the first time.
The national strategy for disabled people is a crucial part of supporting people with disabilities in our country and I applaud the work of the Government on that. Can the Minister provide an update on the work that he is doing to make sure that the strategy delivers for every single disabled person in the country, across all Government activity?
The response from the Minister to the debate was as follows:
The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Justin Tomlinson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again in Westminster Hall, Mr McCabe. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), who has a long-standing reputation as a proactive, constructive chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability. I have had the pleasure of attending many meetings, including one this week virtually, as we embrace new technology. She is held in high regard across Government and that was reflected in the nature of this debate. It has been good-natured, conducted with good spirit, and has highlighted the important concerns that we collectively have to address as we navigate the unprecedented challenges of covid.
I also pay tribute to the former Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) pan-disability, have benefited hugely from. I will try to respond to as many points as I can, in particular where MPs have raised specific points, but first, a sense check: I am the Minister for Disabled People, but the Department for Education leads on special educational needs, for example, and the Department of Health and Social Care leads on care easements. However, I have attended a Women and Equalities Committee hearing that covered those things, so I have a reasonable understanding of them. As the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, I have two primary roles. I am responsible for all things related to disability in the Department for Work and Pensions - predominantly the provision of disability benefits - but I am also responsible for our Disability Unit, which was launched last year and which is based in the Cabinet Office.
The unit is the eyes and ears of disability issues across Government, making sure that disability issues are embedded in policy development. It is personally supported by the Prime Minister, which makes my job much, much easier. Disability issues are brought up at Cabinet and in inter-ministerial groups, where I get to instruct other Ministers about their importance. We are an asset across Government, because we spend—I in particular spend—a huge amount of time on stakeholder engagement. In the past seven days, just as part of my ongoing work, I have met representatives of all the national charities that have been mentioned in the speeches today. I enjoy talking to people with real lived experience, and we then flag up that experience with the relevant Department if it is not DWP, and it makes a tangible difference.
Many people today have talked about the challenges of accessing food during covid. Actually, the Royal National Institute of Blind People was one of the many charities that we were able to link up with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which allowed its representatives to bring their real lived experience to bear, and that sped up the process of improving the situation. The DEFRA Minister was then able to share that exchange as best practice with other Ministers and tell them to look at Disability Unit as a helpful resource, because we can signpost people to experts, who speed up policy development and make sure that it is right first time.
Looking at the broader points that were raised, one was accessible communications, and it is absolutely vital. Again, through inter-ministerial groups and with the support of the Prime Minister, we have been reminding cross-Government Departments and public sector organisations outside Government that they have a duty under the Equality Act to ensure that communications are accessible. Using the RNIB again as an example, it has proactively helped us to look at communications and put them into Easyread and braille. In my own Department, we have launched our deaf-signed YouTube channel, which explains benefits through British Sign Language. There is a lot more best practice that we have to share, but again, through the Disability Unit, we are keeping a very close eye on what the Government and other connected organisations are doing.
I also believe that we need to be smarter about how we use our stakeholders in future announcements regarding the difference in guidance on tiers 1, 2 and 3. What we should do is to make sure, as quickly as possible, that we communicate to our extensive network of stakeholders the potential impacts or opportunities as guidance changes, so that they can then share that very quickly with their members. That is because a lot of communication is reliant on people watching the news and following our powerful speeches in Parliament, but sometimes they do not do that, so we need to rely on our network of stakeholders, who have much better reach than our Twitter channels. Both my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington South (Andy Carter) and for Southend West (Sir David Amess) highlighted the trust, expertise and reach of good local organisations. Again, if they are part of sharing the communication, we know that those who are most in need of good communication will be able to get it.
On social distancing and hidden disabilities, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) is absolutely right about the sunflower lanyard. The dilemma for the Government is that technically it is produced by a commercial organisation, because it can sell these lanyards, and Governments do not normally publicly endorse a commercial organisation when it has competitors, because we are not supposed to pick winners; we are supposed to do open exercises. However, my personal view is that these are unprecedented times and that of all the different schemes—there are many very good schemes—that is easily the best known one and I think that we absolutely should get behind it.
Other Ministers who have been in conversation about this issue with the hon. Gentleman have also talked to me, and we are trying to work out the best way to promote this scheme, because it works two ways. One, we absolutely need to make things as easy as possible for people with hidden disabilities, and the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) very eloquently set out the importance of that. However, there are also people we rely on to challenge people who are not abiding by the rules, because they do not like it when they get it wrong and they ask a question of somebody with a hidden disability. We have to get it right for both parties. However, this is an issue that I am really keen to push on, and I think that is the best possible scheme.
I pay tribute to organisations such as Transport for London, which have been brilliant at improving communications, so that the general public are more aware about hidden disabilities. I know that lots of other businesses are looking at that issue and I encourage them to do more. I also welcome the fact that the NHS is trialling 250,000 clear masks. Again, there will be lessons to learn from that.
I turn now to care easements, which have been used by only eight of 151 local authorities and are meant to be a last resort. It is not carte blanche, as they are underpinned by the Human Rights Act, but the broad principle is that if covid causes an organisation to have such a depleted workforce, we do not want a situation where immediate urgent care in somebody’s home is missed for the sake of filling in an annual report. That is an extreme example, but that is the sort of reason why, with great reluctance, we all collectively voted for that. Absolutely, the moment when we do not need those emergency powers, they should go. What stakeholders are asking me—many of the stakeholders actually deliver adult social care, so they are saying it from two angles—is to ensure good transparency so that, when a local authority does that, not only the Care Quality Commission but independent stakeholders can keep an eye on it. That is an example of where something came to us, the Disability Unit took it across Government and, within hours, guidance was pushed through and it was easier to be more transparent. Again, we will keep a close eye on that.
I turn now to my responsibility in the DWP in terms of face-to-face assessments. My shadow, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), kindly said that we should continue to improve them, and rightly so. They were introduced under a Labour Government, and we have done over 100 improvements following five independent reviews. One thing about suspending face-to-face assessments and doing auto-renewals is that what limited capacity we had left was then able to concentrate on new claimants, so new disabled people and people with health conditions could access financial support; those whose conditions had changed and who would be entitled to more money; and, absolutely, those with terminal illness, so we could still process those in four to six days.
We brought forward telephone assessments. We had planned to pilot them over 12 to 18 months; we piloted them over about 12 to 18 minutes in the end. As part of the Green Paper, we will be looking at how well received they were. Anecdotally, the stakeholders like them. They are not perfect, and there is more work to do, but stakeholders want them to stay. Will video assessments help? What more can we do to gather clearer evidence that increases the likelihood of a paper-based review and getting the assessment right first time round? Collectively, the improvements we have been making have delivered an additional £10 billion a year to support people with disabilities or long-term health conditions.
Access to Work is changing, and that is a good thing and an opportunity for the future. It recognises, for the first time, that people do not always have to come into the traditional workplace. We will provide funding for people at home and towards additional travel costs if there are links around covid. We are doing proactive webinars through Disability Confident, and I pay tribute to Microsoft, which has sponsored an additional round of those. Our Disability Confident leaders are sharing best practice through their business networks.
On the broader points about disability employment, all the funding for the Work and Health programmes, intensive personalised employment support, Access to Work and Disability Confident has been protected, and all of the £30 billion Plan for Jobs package is open to disabled people. Access to Work can help if additional assistance is needed. We are working proactively with our jobcentres to promote that.
On the final, broader point about the national strategy and the Green Paper, both are happening. The Green Paper focuses on the DWP around improving access to evidence, assessments, monetary consideration, appeals and employment support. We are actively doing pre-stakeholder engagement before we look to launch the Green Paper towards the end of the year. The national strategy for disabled people, personally supported by the Prime Minister, is cross-Government. Each Department has to set out what its ambitious priorities are to remove barriers and be more inclusive for disabled people. We will put that to disabled people for them to audit, and we will then bring forward conclusions on both of those papers.
We are absolutely determined that there will be an inclusive recovery. Disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and stakeholders will always be at the heart of our policy development. We are proud that we have delivered record disability employment and that we are increasing funding for those most in need in society. Covid has given us unprecedented challenges, but we will not be diminished in our ambition to improve the lives of disabled people.
The full debate can be accessed on Hansard including speeches by other MPs, including Conservative MPs, Joy Morrisey MP, (Beaconsfield), Sally-Ann Hart MP, (Hastings & Rye), Mike Wood MP, (Dudley South), Andy Carter MP, (Warrington South) and Sir David Amess MP (Southend West).