Meeting date: Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 16 May 2017
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Global Ransomware Incident, Further Education (National Bargaining), Disabled People, Decision Time, Outdoor Education
- Time for Reflection
- Business Motion
- Global Ransomware Incident
- Further Education (National Bargaining)
- Disabled People
- Decision Time
- Outdoor Education
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-05594, in the name of Jeane Freeman, on a fairer Scotland for disabled people. I remind members that the debate is being relayed in British Sign Language and—I should have warned myself—not to speak too rapidly to allow it to be properly conveyed.15:11
I thank the BSL signers who are here and the significant number of disabled people from organisations from throughout Scotland who have joined us in the gallery for the debate.
Last December, we published “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Our Delivery Plan to 2021 for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”, which is our delivery plan for upholding the principles of the convention. Disabled people are one fifth of our population—one in five. They are husbands, wives, partners, sisters, brothers and friends, but too many of them are unable to contribute to society or live the lives that they wish to live because of the barriers that we allow to stand in their way. Inaccessible facilities and communication are part of the issues that they have to deal with in order to live as everyone else wants to live. However, the bigger issue is the attitude of those of us who are not disabled: our limited expectations of our fellow citizens, our careless ignorance of the barriers that they face and, as we heard only this week, our increasing toleration of the discrimination, abuse and inequality that disabled people face.
To get Scotland to a point at which disabled people have choice, dignity and control to live the life that they choose requires transformational change. The scale and extent of change necessary will take concerted action over this parliamentary session and beyond, but our disability delivery plan, which was co-produced with disabled people, sets us firmly on that road.
For most of us, having a job defines a large part of who we are. It reinforces our feeling of being part of society, gives us some degree of choice and security and affects our quality of life and that of our families. Disabled people are no different. Time and again, they tell me that they want the chance to contribute their talents and skills through meaningful employment. I will focus on that. In doing so, I will say something about the environment in which we all work to give some context to the scale of the task that we are undertaking and, more important, the scale of the challenge that disabled people face every day.
In 14 weeks’ time, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Geneva will examine our track record on disability, along with those of the UK Government and the other devolved Administrations. That is the same committee that concluded that
“there is reliable evidence that the threshold of grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities has been met”
by the UK Government.
Some of our colleagues in the Parliament chose to ignore or belittle the seriousness of that conclusion, but the facts speak for themselves. The harsh reality is that disabled people are under attack from a UK Government that shows little or no respect for their human rights. Tory members in the Parliament and in the UK Government tell us repeatedly that the point of their welfare reforms—which will take £1 billion away from people in Scotland by 2021 on top of the £1.4 billion that has already been removed—is to help people move from benefits into work.
For disabled people—and, indeed, others—the exact opposite is the case, and anyone with any sense could see that. Cuts to support in the transfer from disability living allowance to personal independence payments; cuts of £30 a week to the work-ready element of employment and support allowance; the removal of people’s mobility cars, which is happening at the rate of 800 a week at the moment, even though they are essential to people’s independence and are a practical aid to working; the reduction in the work allowance on universal credit; a freeze on in-work benefits; the abolition of the independent living fund, which we have invested in from the Scottish budget to retain in Scotland; and the imposition of the bedroom tax, in relation to which our mitigation investment shows that 80 per cent of the households that we help have a disabled member—outside of the virtual reality that is inhabited by the Tories, where warm words and robotic soundbites are supposed to substitute for compassionate, caring action, none of those initiatives could possibly be considered to be ones that help people move into work.
Further, the fact that 65 per cent of PIP tribunal appeals, 68 per cent of ESA appeals and 56 per cent of DLA appeals were upheld in one quarter alone shows that it is not only the UK Government’s policies that are wrong but its delivery of them. It gets that delivery so wrong so often that it not only wastes public money but, more critically, leaves disabled people feeling—as one put it—crushed by the UK Government.
We hear a lot from this Government about people losing their mobility cars. People have lost their cars because the tests changed from “Can you walk 100 yards?” to “Can you walk 50 yards?” What definition will the minister have with regard to someone getting a car? Fifty yards? A hundred yards? A mile? Or will she just give everybody in Scotland one car each?
Mr Balfour is, of course, quite wrong. People are losing their mobility cars at the rate of 800 cars a week because the United Kingdom Government has imposed a completely arbitrary assessment with regard to how to determine whether people have to use a car in order to access the mobility they require.
Specifically in response to Mr Balfour’s question, I will give him a wee example. Last week, a young woman whose leg was amputated in January was told that she did not need her mobility car, despite the fact that she has two children, despite the fact that her prosthetic leg is not yet the one that she will use, despite the fact that she uses sticks and despite the fact that she lives a significant distance from a supermarket or any shop. Mr Balfour can tell me that that is the result of a fair system and I will tell him how we will determine what to do. We will make that determination on the basis of our experienced panels that involve more than 2,000 people with direct experience of the benefits system. They will help us and guide us with regard to what is a fair and just system.
Let us return to that supposedly just system. The fact that 65 per cent of PIP tribunal appeals, 68 per cent of ESA appeals and 56 per cent of DLA appeals were upheld in one quarter alone shows that it is not only the UK Government’s policies that are wrong but its delivery of them. It gets that delivery so wrong so often that it not only wastes public money but, more critically, leaves disabled people feeling—as one put it—crushed by the UK Government
That is the environment that disabled people face and which we have to work against. We are determined nonetheless to secure transformational change and we know that we can do that only by working directly with disabled people and the organisations that represent them. We will honour our commitment to maintain this year’s record level of investment in disabled people’s organisations and work towards introducing a three-year funding model to give a greater degree of certainty for the future, with the detail to be set out next month by my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities.
We recognise that, with the exception of Northern Ireland, Scotland has the largest employability gap in the UK between disabled and non-disabled people, and we know that that is unacceptable. Therefore, our plan sets out a number of specific actions to deal with that. We will reduce the employment gap by half; we will work with disabled people’s organisations and the public sector to set a target that will increase the percentage of disabled people in the public sector workforce; and we have implemented changes to the modern apprenticeship programme to give young disabled people the highest level of funding until the age of 30 and to deliver the important improvements around part-time and flexible engagement that were sought by disabled people’s organisations. All of that will help, together with the significant improvements in our devolved employment programmes, but we need much more concentrated effort on tackling the barriers to employment.
We committed to hosting a major congress on disability, employment and the workplace. That congress will take place this December. In order for it to have maximum impact, I can announce today that my colleague the Minister for Employability and Training and I will lead a week-long programme of events with employers, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, disabled people’s organisations and others to examine in detail the employability issues and to agree additional concrete steps to increase employment levels, which we will then take to the congress for its agreement. I am pleased to have the STUC’s support for that approach, and I agree with the STUC that it will
“provide a solid foundation for delivering fair work and equal employment opportunities for disabled people”.
In the meantime, I believe that we all have a part to play in improving the employment chances of disabled people. Some members will be aware of the hugely successful internship programme for disabled people that ran during the previous session of Parliament. The intern positions of my fellow MSPs Andy Wightman and Jamie Hepburn translated into full-time employment. Our delivery plan committed us to building on that through a new 120-place internship programme across the public and third sectors and in politics, so I am pleased to inform the chamber that we will lead the way with funding for a new Scottish Government internship programme for disabled people.
For some businesses and employers, what they believe to be the difficulties of employing a disabled person lead them to lose out on talent and ability that would bring real value to their company’s growth and sustainability. Part of the issue is to do with an assumption that there will be problems and difficulties, and part of it is to do with a lack of awareness of the help and support that are available. All of that leads to a lack of opportunity for the disabled person and a loss to the employer of a valuable employee.
I am delighted to say that, next month, the Scottish Government will launch a marketing campaign that is specifically designed to tackle that issue head on, which will feed into the congress that I mentioned. The campaign has been brought together with the support of disabled people, and it will be targeted at employers to raise their awareness of the benefits of hiring and retaining more disabled people in their workforce. It will also provide disabled people with the information that they need to secure support for the adjustments that will help them and their employer through the access to work fund. We are six months on from the launch of our delivery plan, but with those commitments and others that I have not had to time to go into already under way, we can drive forward towards the change that we need in the employment prospects of disabled people.
I want to turn to one other area of progress. Two weeks ago, we had elections to Scotland’s local authorities. They represented the first real test of our access to elected office fund. All of us here know what challenges and demands are placed on candidates who stand for elected office. For disabled people, those challenges can be almost overwhelming. The fund was put in place to meet their additional disability-related costs.
I am pleased to tell members that, of the 39 candidates who received support through the fund, 15 were elected to 12 local authorities. I was delighted to meet two of them—from the Green Party and the Conservative Party—earlier. I believe that that is a tremendous result and a clear demonstration that, with financial support and cross-party political will, we can make a difference. It is important that the Parliament genuinely reflects the population of Scotland. I am grateful to the Inclusion Scotland team that administered the fund on our behalf, and I am delighted to tell members that it has just been shortlisted in the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations charity awards for that work.
Although we have committed to keeping the fund in place until the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2021, I am disappointed that we cannot use that support for the current UK general election. The terms of the Scotland Act 2016 prohibit us from doing so. That situation is all the more regrettable when it is set alongside the repeated refusal of the UK Government to reopen its access to elected office fund.
That UK Government fund has lain dormant since 2015, denying disabled candidates the support that they need, and which we have demonstrated works, to stand in the current general election. Nonetheless, I am determined to build on the success of our fund, so we will explore options over the summer on how we might use it to assist disabled people who want to undertake other forms of public service. I will report back on my proposals in the autumn.
This Government will do everything that it can to support and advance the human rights and dignity of disabled people in Scotland. I hope that our first six months’ work demonstrates the seriousness of our intent and that, despite the additional obstacles presented by the harmful policy actions and decisions of the UK Government, our commitment is one that we are clearly determined to meet.
That the Parliament recognises the valuable contribution that disabled people make to Scottish society and Scotland as a whole; acknowledges that transformational change is needed in order for disabled people to realise their full potential; agrees that this can be achieved by working with disabled people and their organisations and therefore supports the co-production approach and actions set out in A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Our Delivery Plan to 2021 for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; recognises the Scottish Government’s commitment to implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities so that disabled people in Scotland can exercise all of their human rights; notes the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ report in 2016, which found evidence of grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights by the UK Government’s welfare reforms, and condemns the changes and cuts to disability benefits imposed by the UK Government, which are continuing to cause harm to the rights of disabled people.
Thank you, minister. I call Adam Tomkins to speak to and move amendment S5M-05594.2. Mr Tomkins, you have 11 minutes or thereabouts, please.15:25
This is the second time that the Parliament has debated “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People”. When we did so on 8 December, the minister made a number of commitments. She said that, among other matters, she would reform adult social care so that its focus shifted to the achievement of independent living; that she would consult on the future of long-term care capacity; that she would improve information about, and the accessibility of, self-directed support, especially as regards portability from one local authority to another; that she would improve the transitions for disabled children and young people from education to employment so as better to align learning and skills; that she would provide the highest level of apprenticeship funding for young disabled people; that she would make public transport more accessible; and that she would ensure that local authorities in Scotland set realistic targets for the delivery of wheelchair-accessible housing.
That was nearly six months ago. What progress on those undertakings was the minister able to report to Parliament today? There has been substantial progress on employment and very welcome progress on access to elected office, but precious little progress on all the other issues. Therefore, I will review them.
On the commitment to work with local authorities and other partners to reform adult social care, there has been no discernible progress; on the commitment to consult on long-term care capacity, there has been no apparent progress in the six months since we last debated the issue.
Will the member take an intervention?
In a moment.
On the commitment to make public transport more accessible, not only has there been no identifiable progress, but the Scottish Government has actually cut funding for concessionary fares and bus services, despite the fact that the delivery plan pledges the Scottish Government to
“continue to support ... measures such as concessionary travel”.
On the commitment to increase and improve wheelchair-accessible housing, there is no evidence in any of the Scottish Government’s news publications, ministerial statements or answers to parliamentary questions since December that ministers have had any discussions with local authorities about that; and on the commitment to set a clear target for employment levels of disabled people in the public sector, there has been, again, no discernible progress.
Therefore, there has been no open consultation, no sign of any public consultation and no evidence of any stakeholder consultations either. What is worse is that Inclusion Scotland reports that the proportion of disabled people applying for, and being appointed to, public bodies in Scotland fell last year.
As so often with this Government, when it comes to social security, social justice and welfare, it is all froth and no beer, all talk and no action, shouting and screaming about the Tories and about Westminster, whilst ministers sit idly on their hands, preferring the politics of protest to getting on with the day job of exercising the powers at their disposal.
I would be curious to know what evidence Mr Tomkins has for most of what he has just said. It is six months since we announced what we would do and I had only 15 minutes for my speech, but I would happily take a lot longer and take Mr Tomkins through the whole jingbang.
By the way, it was his UK Government that took 10 years to roll out universal credit but has still not finished it and has still not got it right. So, do not come here and talk to me about what has been achieved in six months, sir.
Well, that was a helpful intervention, was it not?
What we know is that, since 8 December, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has published a report warning that 20 years of progress towards real equality for disabled people in Scotland is at risk unless we see what it called “concentrated effort” around housing, hate crime, mental health, employment and education. According to the commission, 15 per cent of Scottish wheelchair users are “inadequately housed”—that is 17,000 people. The EHRC found that disabled pupils have a much lower attainment rate and are more likely to be permanently or temporarily excluded from school; that disabled Scots are two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people; and that the amount of wheelchair-adapted local authority housing has decreased.
Since our December debate, we have also learned that, as the Education and Skills Committee reported just yesterday, Scottish schoolchildren with additional needs are finding that barriers to their success are being erected and not removed under this SNP Government. Last week, we saw the devastating reality of the SNP’s undermining of Scottish education, with functional illiteracy on the increase and fewer than half of our secondary 2 pupils able to read and write to the expected standard. Yesterday, we saw how the number of teachers and other staff with an additional support needs specialism has reduced in recent years, as has the number of educational psychologists. Indeed, the Education and Skills Committee—
Will the member give way?
I will happily give way when I have finished the point about additional needs.
The Education and Skills Committee took evidence that the number of teachers working with learning support has decreased by more than a quarter. The committee’s conclusions on that are a damning indictment of SNP mismanagement, with children now feeling
“more excluded in a mainstream school setting than ... in a special school.”
With a reduction in the number of specialist staff in classrooms, a reduction in specialist support services and a reduction in special school places, none of that is surprising, but it should shame the SNP and it gives the lie to its empty rhetoric about treating young Scots with disabilities with dignity, fairness and respect.
Bill Scott of Inclusion Scotland said in evidence to the Social Security Committee:
“There are disabled children with sensory impairments and physical impairments but no intellectual impairment whatsoever who are leaving school with no qualifications. That makes their chances nil in the current job market. Unless we change that, we will not change their future ... and their children will be living in poverty, so we have to change the cycle.”—[Official Report, Social Security Committee, 20 April 2017; c 25.]
Excuse me a minute, Mr Tomkins. I am sure that I am not alone in hearing music. Has somebody got their phone on?
Also, I remind the member that the BSL interpreter is trying to follow him, so I ask him to slow down a little. I say that to everyone.
Indeed. I was more worried about running out of time. I apologise.
I will give you time if you slow down a little.
Bill Scott was giving evidence on the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, but what provisions are included in that bill even to address—never mind to tackle—the barriers that he was talking about? The answer is none, for the bill seeks only to measure child poverty, including poverty among children with disabilities, and not to tackle or reduce it. The bill is yet another SNP missed opportunity.
It is a bit of a cheek for a Tory to talk about child poverty when we know that, under his Government, it is going to rocket to unacceptable levels. We should also bear in mind the fact that children who live in poverty are more likely to have a disabled parent.
On the point about achievement, I wonder whether Mr Tomkins will recognise some facts. On school-leaver destinations, the percentage of children with additional support needs who achieve positive destinations has increased—it is now up to 85 per cent; in 2010, it was 71 per cent.
I also wonder whether Mr Tomkins recognises that there are an increasing number of classroom assistants. It is simply not true to suggest that the number of staff supporting children with additional support needs has fallen. That is not the case.
That was a long intervention, so I will give you the time back.
The facts, which the cabinet secretary wants to talk about, are these. There has been a reduction in the number of specialist staff in classrooms, a reduction in specialist support services and a reduction in special school places. All of that was reported unanimously, as I understand it, by the all-party Education and Skills Committee just yesterday. If the SNP, through its curriculum for mediocrity, is failing all of Scotland’s schoolchildren, it is failing in particular Scotland’s schoolchildren with disabilities.
As for how we have the cheek to talk about child poverty, I note that the Parliament is considering the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, which we on the Conservative benches will be seeking to make a bill with real teeth rather than just four flimsy pages—
You should be blushing.
I ask those on the Government front bench to contain themselves, please, and not to heckle but to intervene instead.
It does nothing to tackle or reduce child poverty but simply contains a series of provisions to measure it.
Will the member give way?
No, I will not.
Measuring child poverty is important, but tackling and reducing it are even more important. We will lodge amendments to the bill to give it real teeth.
I advise the member that he is deviating a little from the motion and his amendment. I ask him to get back to his amendment.
I was simply responding to the point that the cabinet secretary made about child poverty, Presiding Officer.
Instead of focusing on any of the matters that I have mentioned, Jeane Freeman would rather pontificate and point the finger at the UK Government, so let us look at the UK Government’s record, shall we?
This is a UK Government that is rightly proud of its long record of supporting disabled people to lead more independent lives and to participate more fully in society. It is a UK Government from the same party that, more than 20 years ago, enacted the ground-breaking and internationally celebrated Disability Discrimination Act 1995. It is a UK Government that spends more than £50 billion on benefits to support disabled people, a more than £6 billion increase on what the previous Labour Government spent—that is 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product and more than 6 per cent of all Government spending. The UK spends more on disabled people and people with health conditions than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average. It spends more than France, more than Germany and more than the United States of America.
Today’s Government motion says:
“transformational change is needed in order for disabled people to realise their full potential”.
We agree. If, as Inclusion Scotland and others have said, the “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People” delivery plan is a useful basis on which to build, it is time for action, not words, from Jeane Freeman and her ministerial colleagues. It is time for action on housing; action on public transport; action on employment support; and urgent action on additional support needs in our schools.
I move amendment S5M-05594.2, to leave out from “A Fairer Scotland” to end and insert:
“the UK Government’s document, Improving Lives, The Work, Health and Disability Green Paper, and in the Scottish Government’s paper, A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Our Delivery Plan to 2021 for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; notes the UK Government’s response to the report of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; recalls that the Parliament debated the Scottish Government's paper on 8 December 2016 and calls on the Scottish Ministers to provide a full update of the actions that they outlined during that debate; notes with concern that cuts in Scotland to the number of teachers to support children with additional needs risks jeopardising the life chances of disabled children in Scotland, and urges the Scottish Government to tackle this problem as a matter of urgency.”
Thank you very much, Mr Tomkins. You did not even need all of your time, despite all the interventions. I call Alex Rowley to speak to and move amendment S5M-05594.1. You have eight minutes or thereabouts.15:36
I support the general direction of the motion and I hope that we can find some consensus in Parliament this afternoon in this important debate.
Scottish Labour welcomes “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Our Delivery Plan to 2021 for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” and the use of the social model of disability, which states that it is society that disables people and that it is our job to remove the barriers. We also welcome the delivery plan’s approach and actions. In the delivery plan, the minister acknowledges that the scale and extent of the change that is necessary for transformation in disabled people’s experience will require concerted action over this parliamentary session and beyond.
Today’s debate is important, but it is equally important that we are able to be confident that progress on the delivery plan is measured regularly, otherwise the risk of not making the necessary progress will remain. I hope that the minister will answer that point in summing up.
I note for example that, on housing, the delivery plan quotes the chief executive of Glasgow Centre for Inclusive Living, who said:
“Accessible housing is the cornerstone of independent living. Without an accessible home, it’s clearly impossible for many disabled and older people to live as equal citizens—to work, to play, to have relationships, to be active members of our communities and all that follows from that: in other words to do all the things nondisabled people take for granted.”
I agree, but I am less than convinced that the Government’s approach to delivering on its promise of 35,000 social rented houses will deliver on that. Indeed, without any focused local delivery planning, I very much doubt that it will deliver the numbers, never mind the type of housing, that will be required for a fairer Scotland for disabled people.
Enable Scotland points out, for learning disability week, that there are key issues, not least in education, where more than half of young people who have learning disabilities and/or autism spectrum disorders feel they are not achieving their full potential at school.
Inclusion Scotland points out that although the Scottish Government has provided £250 million to health boards to pass on to integration authorities to support social care, that must be seen in the context of cuts to local government budgets of more than £500 million, which is likely to lead to further cuts in social care budgets. Furthermore, it said that it
“has frequently highlighted the crisis in social care which has seen the focus moved to meeting only critical and substantial ... need. It can mean disabled people effectively being prisoners in their own homes—dressed, washed, fed and toileted but unable to go out to meet friends or family to take part in social activities”
that most of us take for granted. We need joined-up government, but we also need the resources to be able to deliver the actions. In education, that means more direct support for teaching and learning, more teaching assistants and an end to cuts at local level.
The same is true for health and social care: we know that joint integration boards are struggling to balance the books and to meet the growing demands that are being placed upon them.
If we are to deliver the plan in all those areas, we need joined-up government and we must stop cutting local services. In supporting the plan, I want also to see more discussion on how progress and outcomes will be measured and monitored. We should be clear that it is in the interests of disabled people that we deliver on the plan, but it is equally in the interests of all Scotland that we do so.
I hope that we agree that disabled people make a huge contribution to Scottish society. It is therefore both despicable and unacceptable that over the past seven years the UK Government has ensured that disabled people have borne the brunt of Tory cuts to benefits and services. Not only have disabled people had to bear the brunt of those cuts but, disgracefully, the Tories have contributed to the vile narrative that vilifies people with disabilities using divisive rhetoric—for example, “scroungers” and “shirkers”. In that climate, the recorded level of disability hate crime has, sadly, increased and continues to increase.
The latest report from the Centre for Welfare Reform demonstrates how the burden of cuts falls on minority groups, with the greatest impact being on disabled people.
The fact is exactly the opposite of what Mr Rowley has just said. The current UK Government is spending £50 billion on disability benefits—more than £6 billion more than the previous Labour Government spent. The money has gone up; it has not been cut.
That is simply not the case. Professor Tomkins is ignoring the facts. The fact is that disabled people are bearing the brunt of the welfare cuts. That is just a fact, and he needs to look at the evidence. The fact is that people are getting poorer. The previous Labour Government lifted millions of people out of poverty. The Tories in Westminster, supported by the Tories in this Parliament, are driving millions and millions more into deeper and deeper poverty. That is a fact.
I believe that we in this Parliament must speak up in support of disabled people who are under attack and are being driven further into poverty as a direct result of Tory Government policy. We must demand a halt to the current programme of cuts and an independent assessment of the cumulative impact of the cuts on disabled people and other vulnerable groups.
It is clear from the Tory amendment that the Scottish Tories stand four-square behind the attacks on the weakest, the poorest and the disabled: so, no change there. One would think that the findings of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission would embarrass the Scottish Tories into stopping the attacks on disabled people, but no—they are just the same old Tories, standing up for the few.
However, as the Green amendment—which was not accepted for debate—pointed out, we have in this Parliament the power to start to address the worst aspects of the Tory attacks on disabled people. I say to Jeane Freeman that we need to hear more about what can be done and more about specific timelines for transfer to, and use of powers in, Scotland. I know that there are complex issues, but we must take the powers as soon as possible and we must begin to use them in the best interests of Scotland and its people. We have had the consultation, we have established the principle that we must build a fairer and more dignified social security system, so I look forward to the draft bill and to making the necessary progress.
Finally, I call on the Scottish Government to launch a nationwide benefit uptake campaign, in partnership with councils and the third sector, to ensure that the tens of thousands of people who are not getting the support that they need, and to which they are entitled, will be supported. We can do more; we need to do more. Actions speak louder than words and in this area we need actions.
I move amendment S5M-05594.1, to leave out from “, and condemns” to end and insert:
“; is particularly concerned at the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s findings that these welfare reforms imposed by the Conservative administration have resulted in a ‘particularly disproportionate, cumulative impact on the rights to independent living and an adequate standard of living for disabled people’, and condemns these cuts, which have caused major harm to the rights of disabled people.”15:44
I remind Parliament that I am the parliamentary liaison officer for the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities.
It is a real pleasure to take part in the debate and to stand here as a member of a party that is determined to create a fairer Scotland for disabled people. I will focus on the experience of people with hidden disabilities—people who are deaf or have a hearing impairment—in order to highlight the barriers that they currently face in terms of work and in accessing social security.
I decided to focus on their experience because of an event that I attended last week, which was sponsored by Fulton MacGregor, for Action on Hearing Loss. It particularly touched and affected me. Their situation is also pertinent, given that this is deaf awareness week. All the points and issues that were raised at that event need to be given a wider airing. We all need to be aware of what is happening and to understand the problems so that we can actively try to change things for the better. I think that the subject is also particularly important because—to be perfectly honest—it highlights my own ignorance in some areas.
It is embarrassing to admit it—I do not know whether any other members would have been aware of this—but, until that event, I did not understand the basic point that English is a second language to many people who are deaf, whose first language is British Sign Language. That is just one thing that I had never fully considered or appreciated. At the event, we heard examples of barriers that that presents when it comes to applying for jobs and social security—most notably in the personal independence payment application. The application itself is long and complex—about 40 pages—and is not simple to fill out, especially given that it is in a different language from the language that deaf people use.
There is also the fact that inquiring about and applying for benefits requires initial contact via telephone calls or extensive written communication, which has obvious pitfalls for someone who is deaf or has a hearing impairment. The face-to-face assessments are no better, because applicants need the support of an interpreter or note taker.
It was disturbing to hear stories about some medical assessments. We were told that, at one medical assessment, the assessor stood behind the person and shouted, “Can you hear me?” from a distance. We heard of another assessment at which a client was asked to spell the word “world”. When it was highlighted that a note taker was present and the spelling could be seen on a screen, the assessor simply asked the client to turn around and spell the word backwards because that would make it more challenging.
We also heard of improper and entirely inappropriate conversations being held in front of the client because the assessor knew that they could not hear them. We were told of a local council that, when presented with a deaf client who was in crisis and in need of support, refused to pay the costs of an interpreter and refused to accommodate their communication preferences. Action on Hearing Loss was then forced to intervene and to arrange and pay for the support. Lack of clear communication, downright insensitivity and improper conduct are commonplace. Those are just a few examples that we heard of.
We heard directly from Pamela, who suffers from a number of conditions—she is deaf and has Meares-Irlen syndrome, dyslexia and depression. She worked until eight years ago, when she was forced to stop because of those conditions. She also has a 30-year-old son who suffers from a number of complex conditions and needs round-the-clock care. Pamela outlined many of the problems that she had experienced as well as some of the changes that could be made that would make a massive difference to her and her family, as well as to many others. One thing is clear: the PIP application and assessment process needs to be fundamentally changed. In respect of people who are deaf, it is about education and making people more aware.
Sometimes it is the most simple and basic things that need to be taken account of, such as that communication must be in plain English and in a format that does not exclude people with certain conditions. We must also eradicate the process of continual reassessment for people with lifetime conditions that are degenerative, offer no chance of improvement or are terminal.
Foremost in all that, we must make sure that those who need the support of social security get it and that it is enough to enable them and give them a good quality of life. That means taking a fundamentally different approach from that which has been damagingly implemented by the Tories at Westminster—an approach that has seen a massive increase in the number of people who are living in poverty and which is, to be frank, ruining lives. For example, 39 per cent of people living in poverty are in a household that includes at least one disabled person.
Changes to DLA and the transfer to PIP have seen many people falling through the cracks and either losing their benefit entitlement altogether or losing significant parts of it, including the mobility element. Since PIP was introduced in 2013, 51,000 people have lost their Motability vehicles, which act as a lifeline, especially to people in rural constituencies like mine. We have also seen the cutting to the tune of £30 a week of ESA, which, for some people amounts to a cut of nearly a third of their income. That is the very deliberate policy approach that has been utterly condemned by the international community, as was highlighted in last year’s report by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That report is so damning that it would be an embarrassment if it were not so downright catastrophic, because it highlights violations of the rights of disabled people directly because of the policies that have been implemented by the Tories.
In Scotland, we have the chance to do something about the issue, which is why I welcome the Scottish Government’s delivery plan that puts people at its heart by building a system from the bottom up, based on the experience of those who have been through it before. There will be no more farming out assessments to the highest-bidding private company, no more sanctions and no more dehumanising and humiliating the people who most need our support. Instead, the plan is about building self-esteem and confidence and treating everyone equally, with dignity and respect, and, quite simply, like human beings.15:51
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. I make it clear that I am registered as disabled, I am in receipt of PIP and was for 20 years a DLA tribunal and then PIP tribunal member.
I will start with a comment that is aimed not necessarily solely at the minister, but at all members in the chamber. In previous speeches, we have heard a lot about “disabled people”, which I am not sure is the most helpful language for us to use. Disabled people come from different backgrounds, have had different experiences and have different disabilities. To categorise us all in one group is sometimes slightly demeaning. I understand why we use that term, and the difficulties around it, but I am not sure that we would get away with using such language for other protected characteristics. We have to be careful with the language that we use.
The reason for my saying that is that I want to talk briefly about PIP and the former DLA awards. The advantage of both DLA and PIP is that they do not look at a person’s disability, but at the effect that the disability has on that individual.
I thank Jeremy Balfour for taking my intervention. Disabled people have a right to be themselves, just as everyone else has. Will the member explain to me what advantage there is in taking £30 a week from disabled people who are on PIP? The UK Government classes them as disabled. How can he say that such a cut is an advantage?
If Sandra White will bear with me, I will develop that towards the end of my speech, if I have time.
It is important that we do not look at disability and say that a person has a disability and therefore should get an award. It is much better to ask what effect the disability has on that person’s lifestyle and then ask how we can help. That means that we will end up with people who have very similar disabilities, in medical terms, getting or not getting awards.
To go back to people losing their Motability cars, the test is very clear. It is about how a person walks, in terms of speed, manner and distance. That is what the law lays down, both for DLA and for the new PIP. The only change was that the Government reduced the distance figure from 100 yards to 50 yards. To answer the minister’s question about the lady whom she met last week, the position will depend on how her walking goes with an amputee leg and with sticks.
Jeane Freeman rose—
If the minister will bear with me, I will come back to her. A number of years ago, a person who had artificial legs came to the tribunal of which I was a member. With the use of sticks, she could walk a fair distance, so she did not get the old DLA award. That seemed to be right to me, because the award is made in respect of how a person walks and not just because they have only one leg or no legs.
I thank the member for that explanation, but will he explain why, if PIP decisions are so clear cut and fair, 65 per cent of appeals against those decisions are upheld? That suggests that if we really look at what disability benefit is for and at the real person who is in front of us, we can see that the initial decisions that the member is talking about are badly wrong.
As the minister will be aware, only 6 per cent of people who are refused PIP appeal that refusal, so it is clear that the majority of people who do not get PIP accept that the decision was correct.
We need to look at how assessments are done. I am not saying that the decision is right in every case. In my experience, when I filled out the PIP form and went to the assessment, I was treated with respect and it all went smoothly, but I accept that not everyone has that experience.
I am slightly concerned about where the Government is going when it says that we should rely on medical records, and on letters from teachers and social workers. Such documents have value, but my 20 years’ experience—including, at tribunals, an exercise in which we used to get all the medical records in—tells me that most doctors do not know whether I need help to peel a potato or to get in and out of the bath. The answers to those questions can come only from direct evidence.
Mairi Evans said that we need to reform the system but gave us no ideas about how. Will we have no decisions, with everybody who applies for an award getting it? Where will the lines be drawn? Is it 50 yards, 100 yards or 200 yards for a Motability car? The Government has simply not answered such questions.
On the point about evidence, is the member suggesting that healthcare professionals lie when they send in reports to PIP or DLA assessments?
Absolutely not; I am saying that they simply do not know. I go to my general practitioner if I have a cough, but we are talking about writing to a GP to ask how far a person can walk or whether they can peel potatoes. The GP does not lie; they simply do not know that information. The best evidence is always from the claimant himself or herself. A tribunal should be a positive experience because the claimant has been able to put forward their story.
We all agree that there needs to be some sort of assessment, but we have had no clarity from the Government on what that should be. I know a lot of disabled people—I use those words myself; a lot of people who have a disability do—who are worried that something will take them out of PIP. Will the minister say that, from now on, everybody that has PIP will continue to get it? Can she make that claim? If so, what is the justification?15:58
It is fair to say that the UK and Scottish Governments disagree on many different things, but there is perhaps no clearer difference between them than can be seen in their respective approaches to the rights and welfare of disabled people in our welfare system.
This debate is about the Scottish Government’s ambitious plans to deliver on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Meanwhile, the UK Tory Government’s on-going welfare reforms have been condemned as being in “grave” and “systematic” violation of the very same convention. Whatever our party politics, that should appal and horrify us all.
It is worth reminding Parliament of some of the conclusions reached in that UN report. Changes to housing benefits and PIP criteria, together with the scrapping of the independent living fund, have
“disproportionately affected persons with disabilities and hindered various aspects of their right to live independently and be included in the community.”
The bedroom tax was described as having
“failed to recognize the specific living arrangements that persons with disabilities require”.
Assessments were found not to take into account
“the support persons with disabilities need to perform a job or the complex nature of some impairments and conditions”.
Perhaps of most concern, it was found that welfare assessors displayed a
“lack of awareness and limited knowledge of disability rights and ... specific needs”,
which forced disabled people to endure unimaginable anxiety and psychological strain.
It is shocking, if not surprising, that more than half the disabled people who have been declared fit to work by the Department for Work and Pensions have successfully appealed the decision. That is testament to the fact that the work assessment process is a shambles, although a successful appeal is of cold comfort to those who have been put through hell and back to secure the support that they are entitled to.
With quite astounding, if not unfamiliar, arrogance, the UK Tory Government has rejected the UN report’s findings. As an MSP who helps constituents and as a member of the Parliament’s Social Security Committee, I have heard extensive and first-hand evidence of the reality of the horror of and damage caused by the UK welfare reforms, particularly for disabled people. Enable Scotland has described the cuts to employment and support allowance as “devastating”, and evidence that Inclusion Scotland submitted to the Social Security Committee set out how a disabled person on the Tories’ work programme is three times more likely to be sanctioned than to be found a job. I will just let that sink in.
The contrast with the Scottish Government’s actions, values and plans could not be starker. Despite the political and economic confines of devolution, the Scottish Government has diverted substantial amounts to mitigate Tory welfare cuts, including to fully protect households from the bedroom tax—and 80 per cent of households that are affected by the bedroom tax have a disabled adult in them.
The Scottish Government is building a Scottish social security system that is based on dignity, fairness and respect for all our citizens. Listening to the people who use and rely on social security must be at the heart of that. Important first steps have already been taken to ensure that people’s experiences are listened to and inform policy through the setting up of social security experience panels. Creating our social security system in consultation with those with real, lived experience of social security is of particular importance for disabled people, as their needs and the barriers that they face are quite often poorly understood.
When Inclusion Scotland gave evidence to the Social Security Committee, it noted that employability services for disabled people down the years have often been flawed due to the limited understanding of the barriers to work that disabled people face. For example, Dr Witcher pointed out that, although it is often assumed that the problem is something to do with the person—the individual’s lack of skills or confidence, or how they manage their condition—in fact, it tends to be just as much to do with employer attitudes or the fact that employers do not have the information or the support to know how to advertise roles in an accessible way. That point underscores the fact that transformational change is required to shift societal attitudes and remove barriers. For that very reason, I welcome the fact that the delivery plan is based on the social model of disability, which views disability as the relationship between the individual and society, as opposed to the medical model, in which an individual is understood to be disabled by their impairment.
Supporting and enabling disabled people is in all our interests. Disabled people already make an immensely valuable contribution to Scottish society. With even better support and individual freedom, they will be able to flourish and contribute even more in the future.
Each time that we discuss social security in the chamber, particularly when disabled people’s rights are concerned, I am torn between feelings of anger and contempt for what the UK Tory Government is doing, and feelings of comfort and hope that, in Scotland, under the Scottish National Party Government, we can take an entirely different path.
I urge Tory colleagues to take stock of the UN report, which castigates them for their punitive welfare cuts—cuts that disproportionately impact on disabled people and violate their rights—and join the rest of the MSPs in firmly committing to equality for disabled people and striving to create a Scotland that is fair and inclusive for all.16:04
I very much welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I welcome the motion, the later section of which draws attention to welfare reforms and the hugely negative impact that they have had on too many disabled people. I will focus on that issue in my speech.
The debate is well timed because, from tomorrow, the Parliament will have the power to legislate on disability benefits. Scotland can chart a different course from the one that the UK Government has charted for it, and can create a fairer and more respectful system of social security for disabled people. I hope to lay out some suggestions as to how that might be achieved.
As the motion notes, welfare reform has impacted disabled people very negatively, and people who have disabilities and health conditions are being particularly hard hit by cuts to benefits that help them with additional costs. Most people who receive such support through the disability living allowance benefit are being transferred to the new system of personal independence payments. While some DLA claimants have benefited from the move to PIP through getting higher awards, the opposite is also true. Figures from October last year show that 25 per cent of DLA recipients who were assessed for PIP were denied support altogether, and 23 per cent had their benefit reduced. The Scottish Government’s annual report on welfare reform suggests that approximately 30,000 people will lose entitlement, with an average loss of £2,600 a year.
The figures for new PIP claims are even worse, as almost 60 per cent of all new applicants to January 2017 were denied help. That risks plunging disabled people into poverty, given that 39 per cent of people in poverty are living in a household with at least one disabled person and that the costs associated with disability average £550 per month.
It is not just a matter of recipients having to cut back a little and go without a few extras. Disability living allowance pays for the support that people need to live their lives—it pays for essential care or allows them to see friends and family or go out to work. That is why the motion is absolutely correct to say that the reforms harm the rights of disabled people, including the right to live independently and with dignity and respect.
In a week when many more DLA claimants lost their adapted car, scooter or electric wheelchair, Ruth Davidson chose to pose on one of Trossachs Mobility’s all-terrain scooters for a publicity stunt. Ms Davidson may have been able to go anywhere she wanted on one of those machines, but many disabled people are stranded in their homes and are no longer able to get to work, which increases isolation and poverty.
Before I move on, I draw attention to the system of testing that is used for the new PIP benefit. Narrow points-based approaches do not capture the real, lived experience of disability and ill health and the impact on people’s ability to live independently. Such tests, which are administered by people who do not know the claimant, are doomed to be wrong in many cases—indeed, they are wrong.
Will the member take an intervention?
I call Adam Tomkins.
It is Jeremy Balfour, actually. [Laughter.]
I beg your pardon—I did not even bother to look. I apologise to both of you; I do not know whom I have insulted more.
It is clearly me, Presiding Officer.
I thank Alison Johnstone for taking my intervention. She does not like the present test. What would she use in its place?
I will get this one right: I call Alison Johnstone.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I would listen to the advice of the medical professionals with whom claimants have been dealing for many years, rather than use an arbitrary test of whether people can walk 50m or 100m. As we have heard, many conditions are complex and change from day to day.
I point out to Mr Balfour that the PIP test costs £182, in comparison with £49 for the previous DLA assessment. That is around three and a half times as much, and that £182 is paying for failure. Across the UK, around 70,000 PIP appeals went to tribunal last year, and the most recent figures show that 62 per cent of the decisions were overturned. Tribunal cases cost almost £250 each to hear, so millions of pounds are being wasted.
The published statistics for Scotland show that, as at August last year, there were 170,000 DLA recipients, and around 23,000 reassessments are being processed each quarter. That will continue even after tomorrow, when legislative power over those benefits is passed to this Parliament.
The Scottish Government has made some encouraging initial statements on how we might move towards a more dignified and accurate system of testing. It is absolutely right that we should move towards long-term awards for conditions that are unlikely to change, so that recipients do not have to go through the stressful process of constant reassessments.
I was very pleased to get a positive response from the Minister for Social Security to my question about bringing GPs and other medical professionals back into the heart of the assessment process. In many cases, medical evidence from GPs and other medical staff should be sufficient of itself to support a claim. That would be a big step towards a more respectful and dignified system.
To make the benefits fairer, we need to take urgent action on the mobility element of PIP in particular. According to Inclusion Scotland, 45 per cent of disabled people who were entitled to the higher mobility component of DLA lose that entitlement when they are reassessed for PIP. I ask the Scottish Government to look at what transitional support can be offered to those who are affected.
Older people who are reassessed cannot get support for their mobility needs through the attendance allowance as it does not contain a mobility component. In the previous parliamentary session, Age Scotland said that it had been unable
“to find any published official rationale”
for why that is the case. I would be grateful to hear the minister’s comments on that.
Tomorrow is an important day. We can begin to build a fairer system of helping disabled people with the costs of their disability and reject the welfare reforms that are debasing our social security system.
The motion refers to co-producing a better future for disabled people with disabled people. That is exactly the right approach, and the experience panels are welcome. However, let us follow that through to its logical extent. For far too long, under successive Westminster Governments, disabled people have been asked their opinion on welfare changes but they have been ignored. We can build a fairer system only with the involvement of disabled people at all levels, and I warmly welcome the one in five campaign and Inclusion Scotland’s access to elected office fund, which encourage disabled people to get involved in politics.
If the Scottish Government is willing, fully and genuinely, to listen to what disabled people have to say and build a fairer system based on that, it will have Scottish Green Party support.16:11
This is an extremely emotional debate. I am a great believer in getting emotional about a debate, but not in getting angry in the chamber. However, it is difficult in a debate such as this, when we hear the Tories defending the undefendable.
Sometimes, members can surprise us, but sometimes, as in the case of the Tories today, we can see them for what they are. They think that it is okay to attack the disabled, because disabled people are not part of their grand plan. Thank goodness that we have a Scottish Government that has the vision to include people who have disabilities in our society.
Presiding Officer, you will be thankful that today is not a sunny day. As we all know, the sun glares into the chamber so there would have been an incredible shine off Adam Tomkins’s brass neck, given some of the things that he has said today.
I take the debate personally because various disabilities have affected members of my family. As many members are aware, my wife Stacey has multiple sclerosis. As such, she has mobility issues and her disabilities can sometimes be quite severe. There are 11,000 people living with MS in Scotland. The condition can fluctuate, so the PIP assessment can be very difficult. It makes no difference whether someone who has MS is able to walk 50 yards or 100 yards, because two days later they could be totally fatigued.
Members might not be aware that my wee sister Jennifer had a brain haemorrhage when she was in her mid-20s, which left her with mobility problems and constant fatigue. In modern Scotland, where 20 per cent of the populace has a disability, that is not unusual.
I will talk first about what the Scottish Government is doing—I will come to what the Westminster Tory Government is doing later. This is indeed a tale of two Governments. One Government believes that those who have disabilities are valued members of our community, but the Westminster Government clearly does not. The Scottish Government has always said that it wants those in our communities who have disabilities to be able to add their talent, diversity and richness to society. I, for one, think that it is extremely important to maintain a strong focus on addressing the negative attitudes that some have towards disabled people and which contribute to the many inequalities that disabled people face.
I want to go through some of the disability delivery plan, which will be the Scottish Government’s main vehicle to address those inequalities. The plan contains a commitment to deliver 120 disability internships across the public and third sectors during the current parliamentary session. Inclusion Scotland delivered the pilot programme in 2014-15, giving disabled men and women the opportunity to work in the Scottish Parliament.
I remember one woman who had MS and who worked for my colleague James Dornan. Although the programme was challenging for her and for him, it proved that such work is not impossible. That is great news for people who live with MS, most of whom are diagnosed in their 20s, which are key working and educational years. Seven internships were successfully completed and all the interns went on to positive destinations.
Something that is a wee bit closer to home for me—it has already been mentioned—is the Scottish Government’s access to elected office fund. The local government elections a couple of weeks ago were the first proper test of the fund. The fund was created to ensure a level playing field between disabled and non-disabled candidates. It provides disabled candidates with the support needed to get to the stage of putting their name on the ballot paper and campaigning on that level playing field.
As the minister said, the fund, which is administered by Inclusion Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Government, enabled 39 disabled candidates to take part in the local elections, and 15 of them were successful, spread over 12 different councils. I should declare an interest, as my wee sister Jennifer—or, as she likes to be called now, Councillor Adam-McGregor—was one of the successful candidates, joining the ranks of SNP councillors throughout Renfrewshire. Her success is down to her own hard work and her ability, but let us not forget the support of Inclusion Scotland, which was there for her all the way.
The SNP Government’s vision for disabled people in Scotland is to treat them with dignity and respect, finding ways to level the playing field and promoting the belief that everyone has something to give and contribute to our society. That is in stark contrast to the Tory Government’s ideals, as it continues to harass and pursue our disabled. The Tories’ so-called welfare reforms are having a harmful effect on those living with disabilities. Policies that the Conservative Government has pursued—from abolishing the independent living fund and introducing the bedroom tax to the work capability assessment and changes to PIP—are harming the rights of disabled people.
About 800 Motability cars a week are being taken off disabled people as a result of Tory cruelty—800 cars a week. Those cars are vital for disabled people who are dealing with their personal disability and trying to create a better future for themselves by going to work. It is all right for the Tories to talk about work as the best way forward, but if they take away disabled people’s transport, there is no way that they will be able to achieve that aim. So far, as the transfer from DLA to PIP continues, the Tories have ensured that 48,000 people have had their vehicles taken from them. It is ironic that that the transfer to PIP is taking away the independence of many disabled people.
Surely there must be a Tory on the Opposition benches who finds that difficult to live with. There must be one of them who wants to break ranks and state how disgusted they are with the UK Government’s treatment of disabled people. I am happy to take an intervention from that brave Tory soul.
You cannot, because you are in your last minute.
That is unfortunate but none of them was getting up anyway, so it appears that we are dealing with the same old toxic Tories who believe that there is no such thing as society and would gladly sell their own grannies in pursuit of their goal.
I believe in our communities and in the people throughout Scotland who make up those communities. The type of Scotland that I want is one that gives not the select few but everyone an opportunity. That is why I became involved in politics, and I intend to continue to subscribe to that vision of the future.16:18
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate on how we can help to build a fairer Scotland for people with disabilities. My party welcomes the Scottish Government’s fairer Scotland action plan for disabled people and we support its objectives.
We want fairer working lives and higher incomes for disabled people. We want accessible public transport and accessible workplaces. We want to confront the stigma and discrimination, low expectations and prejudice that so often hold back people with disabilities in Scotland.
That means endorsing the social model of disability and recognising that it is not mental or physical health conditions but the barriers that society constructs around them which drive inequality between able-bodied and disabled people. Those barriers become apparent in education and training. Only 64 per cent of young people with a disability participate in further education, compared with 71 per cent of able-bodied youngsters.
Many of the buildings at Scotland’s ancient universities were just not built with accessibility in mind. It is essential, if our universities are serious about widening access, that local authorities, the Scottish Government, and institutions work together to make campus a place that is truly accessible to all.
Although one in five of our fellow citizens lives with a disability, Scotland still has work to do in making modern apprenticeships accessible to all. Eight per cent of modern apprenticeships now go to disabled people, and although that represents progress, there is more to do. If the Government was serious about building an inclusive society for everyone, it would not have cut the numbers of additional support needs teachers and taken away that support.
I, too, am concerned about the cutting of additional support needs teachers. Can the member explain why the Tory councillors in Dumfries and Galloway voted in favour of swingeing cuts to additional support needs teachers in 2015?
The member will find that local government budgets have been cut by the Scottish Government. People have to make choices, and those councillors had to make a choice because their budget was cut.
It is no surprise that disabled people and those with learning disabilities and mental health issues can face particular and complex barriers to sustained employment, such as stigma and discrimination or a lack of confidence and skills. Ultimately, those result in the lower levels of employment that we are all too familiar with.
Will the member take an intervention?
I would like to make a bit of progress.
We have more people with disabilities in employment than ever before, with nearly 500,000 more since 2013 and 360,000 more than just two years ago. Despite that progress, the disability employment rate in Scotland of 42 per cent is now lower than it was when the SNP first came to power, and it is lower than the UK average. In 2007, the disability employment rate in Scotland was 45.2 per cent.
The Scottish Government’s 2016 annual population survey shows substantial regional variation in disability employment rates across Scotland. In Shetland, the rate is 87.7 per cent, but in Glasgow it is a paltry 24.9 per cent. There are many barriers that prevent disabled people from finding work and progressing in employment. Those include negative attitudes from employers and recruitment agencies, inaccessible workplaces and inflexible working practices. Too many disabled people experience a fragmented system that does little to support their ambitions of employment.
The UK Government’s vision, which was set out in its recent publication “Improving Lives: The Work, Health and Disability Green Paper”, is to create a society in which everyone has a chance to fulfil their potential and where all that matters is someone’s talents and how hard they are prepared to work.
Can Ms Wells explain how that ambition in the green paper sits beside the cuts that have been imposed by the UK Government, such as those to ESA and Motability cars? How does it sit with a UK Government that, when its treatment of individuals with mental ill-health was ruled against, simply changed the rules rather than changing its behaviour?
We spend almost £50 billion a year to support people with disabilities and health conditions. It will be the Scottish Government’s turn to set the rules when it takes control of the powers.
The UK Government is determined to remove the long-standing injustices that prevent disabled people and people with long-term health conditions from getting work and that restrict their aspirations. To break down those barriers, it is essential that disabled people have equal access to labour market opportunities and are given any support needed to advance. We need employers that deliver effective health and wellbeing practices. We must help employers to create a workforce that reflects society and we must ensure that they are equipped to take a long-term view on the skills and capability of their employees, managing a varied workforce to keep people in work, rather than reacting only when they lose employees. We must do more to effectively integrate the health, social care and welfare systems to support disabled people to move into and remain in sustainable employment. Most important, we must change cultures and mindsets across society, so that we focus on the strengths and capabilities of the disabled workforce.
Finally, I turn to the challenge of mental health. The Scottish Government has made some progress in the area by increasing investment for the provision of mental health treatment. However, if we are truly to achieve a step change in mental health treatment in Scotland, additional resources will be needed. The Scottish Government’s mental health strategy represents a missed opportunity to change our approach to the issue for the better. One in three Scots annually is affected by mental illness. There is so much unfulfilled potential in our communities because of inadequate provision.
You must close, Ms Wells.
If disabled people are to achieve their ambitions and aspirations, we must work hard to ensure that their needs are supported by more active, integrated and individualised support. That will improve health and wellbeing, benefit our economy and help us to build a Scotland that is truly fairer and more equal for disabled people.16:24
I put it on record that I am the legal guardian of a person who lacks capacity through severe disability.
Adam Tomkins and Jeremy Balfour said that the UK Government had a proud record on disabled people. I dispute that and I think that most of the country’s charities for disabled people would do so too.
In the chamber last week, I raised the devastating effect that cuts to the provision of Motability vehicles have on individuals throughout the UK. Those changes to PIP were highlighted yesterday by Cathy in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, who confronted the Prime Minister on a rare occasion when Mrs May met the public. Cathy complained that the move from disability living allowance to PIP had meant that she lost her allowance. That is all too typical. Figures from the DWP show that 27 per cent of people who transferred from DLA have been rejected for PIP since it was launched. We now also know that, when independent appeal tribunals assess those cases, 65 per cent are overturned because the original DWP decision was wrong.
The minister has announced that the new system that is being built in Scotland to replace those benefits will have no place for private companies such as Atos that conduct such assessments. That makes me enormously proud. It is yet another example of the contrast between how the SNP does things and how the Tories do things.
The charity Muscular Dystrophy UK found that between 800 and 900 people a week are losing their disability vehicles in the UK. Many affected individuals use those vehicles to get to work. Without the car, they cannot work. They can lose their jobs and, instead of being net contributors through their taxes, be forced to claim even more benefits, which is a cruel and false economy. If the cut to their mobility PIP is overturned on appeal, many months may have passed between the loss of the Motability car and the decision being overturned.
That is exactly what happened to a constituent of mine recently. The gentleman was employed and worked hard. He suffers from scoliosis and is an amputee, which means that he has a full artificial leg. He also has a brace attached to his back, which means that walking or standing for any period of time is excruciating for him. I will quote him. It is a pity that Jeremy Balfour is not in the chamber, because he may learn quite a bit from the quotation. My constituent said:
“If I had to use public transport I would need to walk a long way to work—so it is not practical as I would be in agony by the time I got there. Every day is different when you have an artificial leg like mine, you might have a good day where you get it on ok. But then on other days it can take a long time to get semi comfortable. Some days I have to force it on because I know I have to get to work, but at the weekends when I have problems like that then I wouldn’t wear it. The weather has an impact on me too. If it is icy or snowing I would have a problem going out without a car. If it is really windy I struggle as the wind just catches the back of my leg and I struggle to stay upright.”
The DWP removed his Motability car. A man in excruciating pain with an artificial leg, who struggled to stay upright in some weathers, was deemed not to need the higher rate of PIP mobility allowance. After six months, the gentleman won his case on appeal, but by then he had lost his car, which was his lifeline.
That case is not unusual. Another constituent—a lady this time—was threatened with the loss of her vehicle after losing the higher rate of PIP mobility. She has osteoarthritis, lymphoedema and damaged vertebrae. Since she was first assessed for disability benefits a number of years ago, her condition has worsened and she has developed an additional illness—fibromyalgia. The doctor confirmed that. When a doctor confirms that a person’s illness has got worse, what is the logic of the DWP ignoring that and claiming that she deserves less?
That lady lives in an isolated rural area and was at her wits end. She said to my staff:
“I stay out in the sticks, so if I get my car taken away I will be stuck.”
Again, that flawed original decision was overturned on appeal, but not before huge additional anxiety had been inflicted on a very sick woman.
If I have time, Presiding Officer, I want to highlight one final, heartbreaking case that further illustrates the human impact of the Tory party’s social security cuts.
A constituent wrote to me about his wife losing her PIP. They had to travel to a city in England for her assessment, which he described as being really stressful. The assessment was, of course, conducted by one of those private companies that will have no place in our Scottish system when we build it. The husband explained:
“No way could she manage to get on a bus. She has had Epilepsy from a child and over the last four years she gets no warning when a fit is coming on. If standing she just collapses. She has brittle bones now and as a result she has broken her hip, collar bone, her pelvis and three ribs. She has split her head open twice. In the midst of all this she has lost a great deal of her hearing. I had to give up work to look after her.”
It beggars belief that assessors could claim that that lady does not deserve the full rate of the PIP mobility component or a Motability car. I would love to hear Jeremy Balfour explain why such a decision was made.
Under this Tory Government, such cases are happening right across the UK. I know that every member of this chamber will be able to tell similar heartbreaking stories—or should be able to do so—because people in these situations come into my constituency office every week. My question to the Tories is: why are you not moved by these stories from your own constituents?16:31
I greatly appreciate the fact that the Scottish Government regularly uses its parliamentary time to bring us back to this important issue. I commend the motion and assure the Government of our support, and I also assure the Labour Party of our support for its amendment.
In the course of our nation’s history, there have been several moments that have marked significant enhancement in the support that we offer to people with disabilities in our society, such as the creation of the national health service and the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and the promise that is shown through initiatives such as the introduction of self-directed support and, indeed, the delivery plan that we are, rightly, debating today.
However, the road to full equality is long and, although this Government and its predecessors are to be congratulated on those areas of progress, we do a disservice to the citizens we represent who are affected by disability if we assume that we have met in any significant way the challenge that is before us and, indeed, before them.
Debates such as today’s offer us an important moment of reflection and an opportunity to reaffirm our understanding of all that we have to do to push ever nearer to the goal of realising that equality. As we have heard, tomorrow, new doors open in that effort, with the empowerment of this Parliament in areas of social security, and we would do well to encourage each other in the reach of our ambition in relation to the use of those powers.
We in this place should never by the sin of omission miss an opportunity to remove an existing barrier to the inclusion of our disabled citizens or by the sin of commission unintentionally erect a new barrier. Therefore, it is absolutely right—and it is a measure of the progress that has been achieved by this Parliament—that each statutory instrument or new law that comes before this place must be subject to an equality impact assessment that will reveal any unintended consequences.
It is right that we should take the necessary time to fit out our new social security system in the best, most empowering and humane way possible in order to meet the needs of the people we represent.
Whether a disability is congenital or is acquired in later life, it brings with it a range of barriers and problems that we can ameliorate through the powers that we possess. Disability comes in many forms and has a range of applications. It is not always visible and is not always immediately detectable. In fact, the detection and diagnosis of debilitating conditions can be one of the first barriers encountered by people with disabilities and their families. The fight—and it is a fight—even to get a diagnosis in the first place is often the initial struggle that disabled people and their families encounter. When the disability involves learning faculties in early life, that struggle is compounded by issues such as child and adolescent mental health service waiting times, which are nothing short of outrageous. The process can take years and, without a diagnosis, the individual and their family are not entitled even to be assessed for further support, whether that involves benefits or social care provision.
It would be good if that were the end of their struggle, but many families—particularly those affected by learning disabilities—find that, once they finally get to the races in terms of diagnosis, they are met with yet another protracted delay in terms of the support that is available to them. The support that they are eventually offered can be a lottery. Indeed, market conditions for social care provision can make availability or quality of care and support highly variable from community to community, and that disparity is undermining the roll-out of self-directed support.
When I worked for the disability charity Aberlour, I advised Angus Council on the roll-out of self-directed support in its area. The 104 children with disability who required respite support were all served by the authority’s own respite unit. I helped the council to conclude that, with so few service users and an existing, well-regarded unit, it could not hope to attract another provider to the area to offer an alternative facility, as the business case for such a venture just would not stack up. Therefore, although self-directed support offered the families of those children the promise of choice, the market realities on the ground meant that there was no choice.
The point is that well-intentioned policies, and legislation that is passed here and at Westminster, do not always meet the challenge that they were created to meet. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995, for example, has done wondrous things when it comes to compliance of the fabric and construction of new buildings, but that does not mean that we as legislators should imagine that we have somehow cracked the accessibility problem in our society.
Earlier this year, a hardy and dynamic constituent who uses a wheelchair as a result of an acquired brain injury came to see me with a report that she had prepared about the accessibility of some of the capital’s busiest attractions. The results were shocking. Of the 66 public premises on Lothian Road and Bread Street alone, 80 per cent are completely inaccessible to wheelchair users because of stairs. There are only two disabled toilets in the whole of the Grassmarket, and one of those is virtually unusable. The report gives a glimpse of the full scale of just how physically inaccessible our society is to those with disabilities. It stands as a crucial reminder that we have barely scratched the surface in the execution of our duty to those who are impaired not just by the physical limitations of their condition, but by the lack of political will to turn rhetoric in this chamber into meaningful action and material redesign in our communities.
Debates such as this afternoon’s are important, so I again thank the Government for introducing it. I also thank colleagues for the broadly consensual tone in which it has been conducted. The eyes of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens look to the Parliament for hope and for change, and we owe it to them to stretch our ambition and our resolve in the reach of the social security system that we begin to construct from tomorrow and the barriers to access that we break down. We must help to foster in every child and adult who lives with a disability in our society an understanding that helps them to transcend any barrier that they might encounter as a result of their disability and which says to them of their disability, “Own this—it’s part of you—but don’t let it define you and never let it beat you.”16:37
I wanted to speak in the debate for a variety of reasons. Before I explain them, I make members aware that I chair the Parliament’s cross-party group on visual impairment, which will meet tonight at 6 pm in committee room 3. I am also a member of the cross-party group on disability, which met at lunch time.
Joan McAlpine told a moving story about one of her constituents, and she made the point that every MSP has similar examples. That made me think about a constituent who came to speak to me a few years ago. He had been refused particular benefits and he wanted to appeal the decision. When I questioned him to get further information, I was genuinely gobsmacked by the dramatic extent to which his life was going to change as a result of the loss of the benefits that he had hitherto received. He had a visual impairment, which was getting worse and making his life ever more challenging day to day. Despite that, he was told that he could still work in a job that involved a computer, even though he had never switched on a computer and was not PC literate—he did not use a computer day to day. He worked on building sites and had held a provisional driving licence for more than 20 years so that he could travel to work.
That person was told that he was no longer allowed to obtain particular benefits and that he should get a job working in information technology, with computers. However, that individual had no idea whatsoever of how to switch on a computer, never mind how to do anything else with that kit. I assisted him with his appeal, which was successful.
I could not understand how the welfare system could be so cruel as to take away someone’s ability to live not a luxurious life but a life where they could go about their day-to-day business, while knowing full well that in a very short time they would be blind. What type of welfare system or society do we have when that kind of thing is allowed to happen on a daily basis?
There are more than 1 million disabled people in Scotland, who add talent and diversity to our society, but far too often they face barriers that prevent them from contributing fully. We have heard figures mentioned, but I thought that Jeremy Balfour made a shocking point—I am glad that he has come back into the chamber. He said that a low number of people appeal when rejected for PIP. I would argue—as I am sure many other members would—that people are not appealing probably because they are distraught, sickened and humiliated by having to go through the process in the first place and because they certainly do not want to go through that bad experience again.
Will the member take an intervention?
I will let Mr Balfour speak in just two wee seconds.
It is probably because they went through such negative, bad experiences that people do not want to appeal.
The member has just made a fairly serious claim. Where is the evidence?
I have listened to my constituents and I read messages in my inbox from people who contact me. I do not know what planet Mr Balfour is living on, but I represent my constituents and I will certainly do what I can to help them, particularly when it comes to welfare issues.
The UK Government’s withdrawal of most of the current budget to help disabled and long-term unemployed people to find work leaves us with a wholly inadequate resource. The Conservatives have talked in the past about hugging a hoodie and the big society, but I do not know what type of big society we have, given that the UK Government has cut benefits hugely and given that a further £12 billion-worth of welfare budget cuts are coming. How will that help to bring about the big society that the Conservatives have talked about in recent times?
The United Nations report, which other members have commented on, stated that in the UK
“persons with disabilities continue to experience increasing hostility, aggressive behaviour and sometimes attacks to their personal integrity.”
The report also stated that the UK Government’s reforms have resulted in people
“experiencing increasing reliance on family and/or kinship carers, reduction in their social interaction, increased isolation and, in certain cases, institutionalization.”
That is not the way forward for Scotland or the UK or for anybody who is disabled and who is seeking employment.16:43
I am delighted to take part in today’s debate. Before becoming a member of the Scottish Parliament, I spent more than 18 years working closely with those who have disabilities and learning difficulties. I therefore have a good understanding of their needs and ambitions when it comes to housing, employment and transport. That involvement and experience was recognised when I was asked to open the making where we live better conference in February. There were more than 100 delegates, carers and supporters there, who all wanted to make a difference for those living with disability. They see that as a right, and it is up to each and every one of us in the chamber to ensure that their ambition becomes reality.
A recent survey by Mencap found that only one in three people with a learning disability lives independently and one in four lives in a care home. That is despite the fact that many people who have learning difficulties and disabilities would like to live independently and, with the right support, would be capable of doing so.
I have experience of ensuring that individuals who had lived in supported units for a large part of their adult lives got the opportunity to become tenants with supported care. I assure each and every member in the chamber today that that unlocked those people’s potential in so many ways. From being independent tenants, they then got the opportunity to become employed part time, which transformed their lives. That gave them the hope and opportunities that many of us have and, as I said, it unlocked their potential.
That is why I support the crucial work that groups across my region have done to ensure that such individuals have the chance to progress. By working together, we can achieve so much more and ensure that every disabled person is afforded the same opportunity. The Scottish Government has its part to play in that.
I move on to employment. I echo much of what my colleague Adam Tomkins said in the chamber merely six months ago, in December 2016. One of the greatest stories of modern Conservative Britain is that we have more jobs in the British economy than ever before. In Great Britain as a whole, more women and more disabled people are employed than ever before, and that should be recognised and welcomed. In December 2016, the figures were nearly 500,000 more than in 2013 and 360,000 more than two years earlier.
The member said that we have more jobs. How beneficial does he believe it is to people with a disability that there has been an explosion in zero-hours contract work, precarious work and poverty wages?
Flexibility gives individuals the opportunity to work, and I can tell the member that I have seen that flexibility. It gives people the chance to do something and take up the opportunities that are there, so I look forward to seeing more of that, potentially, for people who get the chance to work flexibly.
Will the member take an intervention?
I have taken one already; I would like to make progress.
In Scotland, the disability employment rate is not good enough, at 42 per cent. Many employers seem only to pay lip service to dealing with individuals with a disability. Scotland has to do better, as much more needs to be done to make education, training and support available to individuals with disabilities, to ensure that they can develop. More than half the young people who have a learning disability or autism disorder believe that they are not achieving their full potential. That is a worrying statistic.
The additional support needs advisory committee of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association asked local authorities to give it an insight into what is happening, and its figures for teachers who were recorded as working with learning support and ASN show a decrease of 24 per cent in secondary and 31 per cent in primary between 2010 and 2016.
Will the member give way?
I want to make progress.
Between 2010 and 2016, the number of ASN auxiliary or care assistants and behaviour support staff decreased by 18 per cent. We must acknowledge that the number of classroom assistants increased over the same period, but the extent to which classroom assistants support pupils with additional support needs is unclear.
Some 62 per cent of class subject teachers have experienced stress or professional anxiety about not being able to meet the needs of pupils in their classroom who have learning difficulties or disabilities. I also note that 60 per cent of young people with a learning disability feel lonely.
A lot requires to be done to ensure that we move forward. We must do all that we can to protect the vulnerable in our society at home, at school and in employment. I echo many of the comments that my fellow Conservative MSPs have made this afternoon. More support and more training are required to unlock people’s potential, and that will break down the barriers. I urge the Scottish Government to tackle the issue urgently. I support the Conservative amendment.16:49
I welcome members of the various disability groups who are in the gallery. I also welcome the BSL interpreters, who do a fantastic job. I will try to speak slowly, so that they are able to keep up with me.
I start with an unusual quotation from a speech that may come as a surprise to people. It will not come as a surprise to one person here, but it certainly came as a surprise to me. I will cite a small excerpt:
“We swear to oppose all forms of discrimination on the grounds of gender, ethnic origin, religion, place of birth, age, disability, sexuality or language.
We aim for an independent Scottish Republic in which people may live with dignity and with self-respect”.
That was Adam Tomkins in 2004.
Let us move to last week’s Sunday Herald magazine. We have learned that the two policy issues that convinced Mr Tomkins that he belonged to the Tory party were Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms and Michael Gove’s education reforms. Now we all know. My goodness me, what a turn-up for the books, eh?
I wanted to make that known, so that we know what we are dealing with and what we are hearing from the Tories. Yes, I am angry—as we all are—but all I can do is shake my head and say that the contributions that have come from the Tory benches are shameful.
The Tories are keen to mention issues that prevent disabled people from getting into training and work: stigma, barriers and discrimination. I agree with that, and I think that we all agree that we need to break those down. However, the Tories here are not so keen to tell us the facts about Tory policies from Westminster, which they support. George Adam has called them the “toxic Tories”. That is a good term for them, so I am going to call them the toxic Tories over here, with their mixed-up words.
They are not so keen to tell us—perhaps the previous speaker might learn from this—that the Tory Government’s work programme is failing thousands upon thousands of disabled and ill jobseekers. Even though the Tory party—we have heard this from Tory MSPs opposite, too—made a pledge to halve the disability unemployment gap, its policies are fundamentally failing to support those living with disability into appropriate work under the UK Government’s work programme.
Among the worst hit are the long-term sick and disabled people on employment and support allowance—ESA—who have been ruled fit for work. Statistics using claimants’ self-assessments of disability show that 33 per cent of people without a disability have received a job outcome on the work programme, compared with 17 per cent of disabled people, or about 110,000 people. Those figures come from the Department for Work and Pensions tabulation tool from January 2016.
Will Sandra White take an intervention?
I will finish my point first. The UK Government is also cutting support for disabled people not just through changes to disability benefits, but by implementing £30-a-week cuts to the employment and support allowance work-related activity group—the ESA-WRAG.
I am sure that Sandra White is as angry as I am that when the UK Government’s work choice and work programme schemes were being devolved to this Parliament, an 87 per cent cut was made to the budget with the transfer of power.
Stuart McMillan hits the nail on the head. People need to be reminded that there will be an 87 per cent cut from moneys from the UK Government—that must be taken into account.
However, we are not just talking about that 87 per cent cut. The ESA cuts announced in the 2015 summer budget were estimated to reduce welfare spending by £450 million at the UK level. The Tories are always reducing the costs, never helping the people—that is how I see it.
The cuts will see—Annie Wells and the minister mentioned this—new claimants to ESA from April 2017 who are in the work-related activity group receive £29 less a week, which is a reduction from £102 to £73. That is significant and, rightly, there are huge concerns about the significant impact on people’s lives that will result from the recent amendments made by the Social Security (Personal Independence Payment) (Amendment) Regulations 2017 by the UK Government. That is important, and it has been referred to by the minister.
The UK Government was challenged on how it was applying the narrow definitions of eligibility and two cases were taken to the upper tribunal in 2016. The Tory Government lost both those cases, and as a result—being tricky and fly—it amended the current PIP legislation through the Social Security (Personal Independence Payment) (Amendment) Regulations 2017, so that it was not required to pay out on the wider eligibility as interpreted by the courts. The Government was up against the interpretation by the courts, and it was found guilty, yet it changed the law to suit itself.
The Disability Benefits Consortium has said that about 160,000 recipients of PIP will be negatively affected by the changes. As Alison Johnstone said in her speech, PIP helps people with essential and unavoidable costs.
In closing, I ask Annie Wells, who raised the issue of mental health, to contact the black triangle campaign, which will tell her how many people have committed suicide as a result of those absolutely ridiculous cuts.16:56
As we have heard, several of the UK Government’s austerity measures
“have disproportionally and adversely affected the rights of persons with disabilities”.
Also, before austerity was implemented, impact assessments by the UK Government
“expressly foresaw an adverse impact on persons with disabilities”,
and the UK Government’s actions have caused
“grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities”.
I am not the one who is saying that, and it is not the SNP. Those are the exact words of the United Nations, which was investigating the UK Government.
The Conservative Government has actively targeted our fellow citizens with disabilities. Let us reflect on the fact that one in five of us in Scotland has a long-term health problem or disability. When we in this chamber attack the Westminster establishment for introducing and voting through measures that violate the rights of people with disabilities, it cannot be brushed off by the Tories as party politics. Let us be clear; it is an aggressive, pointed and systemic attack on those with disabilities. The Westminster establishment has colluded under the banner of austerity to wage an attack on the welfare state and to undermine the protections and mechanisms that most people have agreed upon in this island over the past 70 years. Under austerity, traditional values of collectivism, of social security and of helping the less fortunate have been thrown out by the Tories.
In Scotland, where we in the SNP are the largest party, there is a very different picture. Instead of being criticised by the UN, we in this Parliament are actively working to deliver on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities with our delivery plan for 2021. Westminster looks to attack and undermine those most in need, whereas here in Scotland, as others have said, we fully recognise not only their rights, but also the value and the contributions that people with disabilities can make to society.
As I have said before in this chamber, I accompanied a friend and constituent of mine to a PIP review meeting that she had unexpectedly been asked to attend in Glasgow. This lady has a degenerative condition, has multiple health problems, takes numerous medications and is under the care of a variety of consultants and medical professionals, all of whom had given detailed outlines of the care that she needed to receive and the conditions that she had. Despite having a PIP award in place, she was called in for reassessment nine months before her award period ended.
Everything about the experience was bordering on the hostile, with my constituent being treated in the manner that we have come to expect from a system run by the Tories and slammed by the UN. Since I last spoke about her in the chamber, her surprise reassessment has had an outcome—her PIP award has been reduced. Her award was reduced from December onwards, not from September, which is when her original award period was due to end. That has, in effect, cut her benefits nine months early, leaving her to face the anguish of having to appeal the decision. Why should people who have lengthy, well-documented health issues need to be reassessed? Once they have been through that stressful assessment process, why should they have to be assessed again? Above all, why should people with serious health conditions live in fear of a fair system? The answer is that the system is not fair—it is designed to be hostile.
Thankfully, the SNP Government has recently announced that, using new powers, we will ban private companies from running benefits assessments in Scotland. Profit has no place when it comes to life and death. Where the Tories have cut the independent living fund, scrapped various employability programmes and slashed entitlements, the Scottish Government has had to use its limited powers to fight a rearguard action against that attack on the most vulnerable in our society. We have had to use our budget to mitigate the bedroom tax, spending money to spare low-income people in Scotland from the grim realities that are being experienced by those in England. Disabled adults live in four out of five households that have been spared the bedroom tax by the Scottish Government, showing that we in Scotland value those that the Tories would rather ignore.
As the Minister for Social Security, Jeane Freeman, says:
“Our goal is nothing less than for all disabled people to have choice and control, dignity and freedom to live the life they choose”.
We are committed to the co-production of services for those with disabilities. No one knows better the challenges and impediments that the system throws at those with disabilities than those people themselves. The Scottish Government wants to empower those with disabilities, not target them. “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People” is a plan that details 93 concrete actions to improve the everyday lives of people with disabilities. That is 93 more actions than the UK Government has delivered for some of the most vulnerable people in the UK.17:02
A million people in Scotland live with a disability. Because of that, they often live with prejudice, discrimination and attitudes that marginalise them and make their lives more difficult than they need to be. The delivery plan that we have been discussing this afternoon, although good, must not be simply a collection of pledges. The million people whom we are talking about are a diverse group with various different needs—they are individuals, first and foremost. Therefore, as other members have said, we must be careful and agree on the language that we use.
People with disabilities are underrepresented in virtually all areas of life, including in Parliament. I therefore welcome the 15 newly elected councillors who have some form of disability, whom the minister talked about. It is unfortunate that the fund to support candidates will not be available for the coming general election. The number of appointments of people with disabilities to public positions has fallen, according to Inclusion Scotland. The Scottish Government must act on that urgently and explain why it is the case.
Alex Rowley said that it is society that disables many people—people who could have much better quality of life if barriers were removed and attitudes transformed. Jeremy Balfour also said that we should review our language and attitudes. Other members have said that we must recognise that becoming disabled is something that could happen to any of us.
Scottish society needs to make serious and long-lasting inroads into changing attitudes and creating equality for the one million-plus disabled people. I have said it before in a previous debate and I mean it: this is the area of equalities in which Parliament has most to do in the current parliamentary session.
My question for us all, and for ministers in particular, is this: what are the big ideas for transformational change? I listened to what the minister said and welcome virtually all of it, but what is not coming across to me so far is what the big ideas are that will make the transformational change that we are all calling for. We have only four years of this session of Parliament left—a year has already gone.
I listened with interest to the BBC sport report on premier league football, which I did because the debate cannot be simply about the important issue of cutting benefits. Others have talked about very important areas in which we should make progress. I need hardly say that there are millions of football fans in Scotland; many people with disabilities are football fans, but they find it difficult to support their clubs, to which they are very loyal.
The Scottish disability rights campaigner Euan MacDonald has welcomed pressure being put on all the UK’s football teams to improve facilities at stadiums, and has said that it is not enough just to provide wheelchair access, and that English clubs could learn a thing or two from Scottish teams. Still on the subject of football, Rangers striker Kenny Miller and the legendary John Brown officially opened Broxi’s den, which is a facility that will allow supporters with complex learning difficulties and sensory challenges such as autism to enjoy matches. Such initiatives are what we should be considering in order to transform people’s everyday lives.
In the midst of the 93 action points are some areas that merit focus as being big areas for transformation. Alex Cole-Hamilton mentioned one that I think should be a top issue, which is the availability of toilets. Many people with a very broad range of conditions would appreciate a bigger campaign on why the provision of accessible toilets is very important.
The subject of employment is fundamental; I will be interested to hear about the progress that will be made—I presume in the congress that the minister has talked about.
In a previous debate Miles Briggs mentioned transport, which should also be one of the areas for transformational change.
It is an affront that any party has presided over the grave and systematic violation of the rights of people with disabilities that was stated in the UN report. Rather than defend that, the UK Government and Tory members here should address how it happened. Changes to housing benefit and the criteria for parts of PIP, along with a narrowing of social security law and the closure of the independent living fund, have all hindered disabled people’s rights. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Damian Green, rejected the findings of the UN report by arguing that the UK is recognised as a world leader. I have never said that the UK Government has not done good things for people with disabilities, but I am saying that failure to recognise both what is in that UN report and what people with disabilities are saying about welfare reform undermines the work that has been done.
Sandra White asked why it was considered fair that ESA claimants will have a cut of £29. Measures that are intended to cut public expenditure are affecting claimants with disabilities, who will have lower disposable income as a result, particularly because, as we now know—or should know—the cost of being disabled means that their everyday living expenses are higher.
I listened, with interest, to the exchanges between Jeremy Balfour and other members, in which Mr Balfour seemed to defend the cut to Motability entitlement. He said that that is a rule change, and that the only change is in respect of the distance that a person can walk. I suggest that the change must be bigger than that, because of the number of people who have been affected by it. He asked Alison Johnstone what type of test she would like. I am sure that she will not disagree with me: I would like a test that does not disenfranchise 50,000 people who previously relied on their Motability vehicles but now cannot do so. How can that system be defended? Either there is something wrong with the assessment or, perhaps, the Tories did that by mistake. I am not clear what Mr Balfour’s argument for defending that is.
In closing, there are a few things that I ask of ministers. The Scottish Government should consider extending the employer recruitment incentive scheme, because it allows employers to retain disabled workers over a period, with a bonus of £4,000. However, it applies only to 16 to 29-year-olds.
There is a lot of work to be done in ensuring that there is the right assistance for people with disabilities at work. If we were to make that transformational change, we would all be proud of what Parliament has achieved.17:10
I commend the signers, who have been working away all afternoon. I hope that we have not taxed them too much.
The matter that we are debating is of utmost importance to the one million-plus disabled people in Scotland. New welfare powers are coming to Scotland, and Parliament will have control over benefits and support services that can improve the quality of life of disabled people. There is a lot of work to be done to make “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People”, but the Scottish Government seems to have used today’s debate purely as an attempt to attack the record of the UK Government. As Adam Tomkins said, the disabled people of Scotland deserve action, not rhetoric.
I will begin by trying to find areas on which there has been agreement. Jeane Freeman talked about the need to remove barriers, change attitudes, remove discrimination, cut down on abuse and intolerance, and focus on meaningful employment. She said that cross-party support and good will can make a difference.
Jeremy Balfour made a useful comment about how we use the words “disabled people”. Interestingly, he has been through a personal independence payment assessment and had a good experience.
We can all learn from the issue of hidden disabilities, to which Mairi Evans referred. I have suffered from that and know that we all sometimes assume that the way someone looks is the way they are.
Many members commented on PIP, which was introduced by the UK Government and which, it is claimed, has resulted in cuts that have affected the rights of disabled people and caused them harm. Jeremy Balfour was right to point out that PIP ensures that support goes to those with the greatest cost associated with their disability. Greatest support is going to the most vulnerable people, and more than a quarter of those on PIP receive the highest level of support. Support for the disabled amounts to 6 per cent of all UK Government spending. Since 2010, real-terms spending on disability has been at a record high.
Inclusion Scotland tells us that the change from DLA to PIP will result in about £272 million per annum less by 2018. Is Bill Bowman aware of that?
I do not know Inclusion Scotland’s figures.
I return to something that Alex Rowley said. We agree that local delivery plans need to be measured and that a cornerstone will be accessible housing for disabled people, which is endangered by local budget cuts. However, Mr Rowley does not accept that spending under this UK Government is more than under the previous Labour Government—“no change there”, to use his own phrase. In fact, there seemed to be quite a few occasions when one party quoted statistics and the other side said something else. It would be helpful if we could resolve that. Perhaps Adam Tomkins is a good source of the real facts.
Alex Cole-Hamilton said that the debate had reaffirmed his understanding. He also mentioned sin, so maybe it was more of a religious experience for him.
I am glad that there was mention of the accessibility of buildings to disabled people being fundamental. To move on to whatever rights people do or do not have, if they cannot get into a location, they will struggle.
Annie Wells was right to stress the Scottish Government’s dismal education record for the disabled. Yesterday, the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee released a report that sets out the dreadful circumstances of children with additional support needs in our schools. The number of children who are classed as having additional support needs has risen by around 153 per cent since 2010, but the number of support teachers has fallen. Different numbers have been quoted for that; the number that I have is 25 per cent. That is a terrible state of affairs. Without the right numbers of staff, schools cannot provide an inclusive education for disabled pupils.
One teacher who was interviewed by the Education and Skills Committee said:
“We are in a desperate state and letting so many pupils down.
Inclusion will only work if we invest in training and professional staff.
Our young people deserve better.”
The Scottish Government is yet again failing to deliver on education. The Scottish National Party will blame anyone but itself for that, but members should be in no doubt: the fault lies with the Scottish Government and its dismal education record.
A number of Conservative members have said that they are proud of their record in supporting the disabled people of our country. Will Bill Bowman comment on that in summing up? I do not understand how they could be proud, because the recent UN inquiry found credible evidence that the UK Government’s treatment of disabled people has led to grave violations of their human rights. It seems to me that no one could be proud of Conservative policy in this case, as it violates people’s human rights.
I think that £50 million more has been spent, and the UK Government has robustly rejected that report.
The challenges that people with disabilities face are very real, serious and many. There is always more that can be done. Ambition is vital but, if progress is to be made, urgency is the key. In the foreword to the Scottish Government’s “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People” action plan, the chair of the Scottish independent living coalition, Dr Jim Elder-Woodward, made his feelings on urgency very clear. He stressed that the Scottish Government should never forget the lesson of Gandhi, who wrote that
“The future depends on what we do in the present.”
At present, the Scottish Government is showing a lack of urgency. I cannot stress enough that it has the powers that it needs to make the changes that it wants. The opportunity exists to press ahead and bring about that change. The Scottish Government should grab that opportunity with both hands. Urgent action is required to improve the provision of additional support teaching, for example.
I urge members to support Adam Tomkins’s amendment.17:18
I am delighted to close the debate on the Government’s behalf. It is encouraging that most members have welcomed the opportunity to participate in the debate, but it is clear that the Tories would rather not have had it, given the tone and tenor of their contributions, which have been somewhat grudging and curmudgeonly. However, perhaps that is not surprising if we consider their record and actions, which have been crystallised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report. Its verdict was that the UK Government’s welfare reforms and austerity agenda have had a “disproportionate, cumulative impact”—a crushing impact—on people who live with disabilities in this country. It described the UK Government’s actions and policies in that regard as “a badge of shame”.
In contrast, the Scottish Government seeks debate and scrutiny, because they are essential if we are to achieve transformational change. We are six months into the new disability delivery plan, and we have proactively come to the chamber with an update to keep Parliament informed in its endeavour to scrutinise and to share and debate ideas.
The Minister for Social Security focused primarily, but not exclusively, on employment, the employment gap, modern apprenticeships, the congress in December, the access to election fund and the marketing campaign to persuade more employers, large and small, of the benefits of diversity to their business. If businesses employ people with disabilities, that is not just the right thing to do but the smart thing to do for the businesses and for our economy.
I agree that that is the smart thing to do. I highlighted what the delivery plan says on housing. Will the cabinet secretary look at bringing to Parliament in the near future a report that sets out how each local authority in Scotland plans to meet the specific commitment on housing?
I was intending to come on to housing. The Minister for Local Government and Housing has been reviewing the strategic housing investment plans, which must be based on local housing needs. Alex Rowley was right to say in his opening remarks that the issue is not just the number of houses but ensuring that the right types of houses are in the right places for individuals and communities. I will ask the housing minister to take that suggestion away, work collaboratively with our 32 local authorities and report back to Parliament in due course.
We discuss housing needs with local authorities all the time. I have visited projects—I am somewhat disappointed that Adam Tomkins does not read all my press releases—and did so most recently in my area of West Lothian, where there is cutting-edge housing that is designed specifically for people with disabilities.
Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention on that point?
No—perhaps I will give way later. I want to move on to a point that Pauline McNeill raised. Adam Tomkins will get his chance—maybe.
Pauline McNeill asked where the big idea is in our disability delivery plan. I stress that this is not about soundbites. We have 93 actions in the plan, which recognises the need for comprehensive, systematic and sustained action over the piece and for an enduring commitment in all aspects of Government—for joined-up government in every sense of the term. We must demonstrate that our commitment is enduring and that we are in this for the long haul until we achieve transformational change.
I highlight that the disability delivery plan belongs not to me or Jeane Freeman but to the people who co-produced it. That is an important point. We are determined to demonstrate that our words will be underpinned by deeds.
I clarify that I was in no way suggesting that the 93 action points are simply rhetoric. I was making the point that a focus on something big is sometimes helpful, especially given that four years is not really a long time. If the focus was on employability, for example, the Government could point to transformational change on that, which would lead on to other areas.
With disabled people, we will prioritise the work. That takes me on to a point that another Labour member raised, which was about the need for milestones in the disability delivery plan. We will work with the disability representative organisations on that, and they will set the measurements by which the Government will be held to account by Parliament and by wider civic society.
There were comments about the need for benefit take-up campaigns. We have completed phase 1 of our general benefit take-up campaign, and we are moving on to a more focused and targeted campaign. We will take forward the good suggestion about having a round-table event with local authorities.
Given that the number of public appointments of people who have disabilities is declining, we will extend the access to election fund to other areas of public life.
Jeremy Balfour did something that is quite uncharacteristic for him when he belittled the debate about Motability and the personal testimony of many people who have had their Motability car removed from them. The purpose of our endeavours is to ensure that, as we move forward with our new powers and as the Motability scheme is adapted to the Scottish context, we get the right information from the right person at the right time. That might well be from doctors and other healthcare professionals, or it could be from other professionals. The personal self-assessment is important. In our endeavours to build a social security system and deliver it from the ground up, we need to operate in the spirit of co-production, through our experience panels, and we need to take cognisance of the work of the disability and carers benefits expert advisory group.
Does the cabinet secretary agree that, whatever scheme is devised, some people will get cars and some will not? There will always be disappointed people who do not get a car, or is the cabinet secretary going to give everybody a car?
That is exactly what I was referring to. It is a matter of regret that someone who has made some really good contributions in the chamber has repeated his mistake of belittling the whole debate.
Answer the question.
I will answer the question. Jeremy Balfour asks, “Will it be 50 yards or 100 yards?” and “Are we going to give everybody a Motability car?” I have already answered the question, as the Minister for Social Security answered the question. We will go through the criteria and the process hand in glove with our experience panels and with the expert advice of the advisory group.
What we will not be doing is demonstrated in the experience of a lady from West Lothian called Anne Meikle. She has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and arthritis. She has had a mini stroke and is weakened down one side of her body. She is 68, is partially blind and has had operations on both knees. She has had radiotherapy treatment for cancer that makes her dizzy and prone to collapsing. She cannot go shopping in the supermarket without the help of a wheelchair. After 10 years, she has had her Motability car taken away from her. It would be much better if Tory members just hung their heads in shame and condemned that sort of action.
If members read the newspaper article about Anne Meikle, they will see more of what we will not be doing. We will not ask a 68-year-old woman to stand up and balance on one leg and go through a demeaning and pointless interview for 40 minutes. We will take no lessons from the Tories.
As is usual, we have heard more nonsense from the Tories about education. The fact is that the number of classroom assistants has increased by 15 per cent and, crucially, the overall number of teachers and support staff whose job it is to specialise in supporting children who have additional support needs has risen slightly. The figure of 15,888 teachers and support staff has remained relatively stable since 2008.
We must recognise and certainly do not demur from the fact that the majority of children who have additional support needs are educated in mainstream education. It is the job of all teachers and everyone who is employed in the education system to support those children. An inclusive education system is the basis of an inclusive society.
We must recognise the achievements of children who have additional support needs. The percentage of such school leavers who are going to positive destinations, such as work, training or further education, has improved from 71 to 85 per cent. The figures need to improve further so that those children are on a par with their peers, but we must recognise that our children are now better qualified than they have ever been. More young people are going to positive destinations and fewer are leaving with no or lower-level qualifications.
Unlike the Tories, we will not deny the difficulties or dismiss the critiques; we will face up to the reality of the lived experience. As the Minister for Social Security demonstrated, there is an employment gap between disabled people and non-disabled people, and that gap is bigger in Scotland than it is in England or the UK as a whole, although it is smaller than the gap in north-east England and smaller than the gap in Northern Ireland. I am very interested in the work of Professor Colin Lindsay, who attributes the clustering of ESA claimants around west central Scotland to the job losses of the 1980s and 1990s, which were part of the deindustrialisation process that the Tories presided over.
In contrast to our approach in Scotland, the UK Government has dismissed and belittled the damning verdict from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which had a specific inquiry on the impact of welfare reform. The inquiry concluded that there was reliable and credible evidence of “grave or systematic violations” of the rights of people with disabilities. The UK Government’s response was that welfare is not the only way to help people who are living with disabilities. That is true, but it is not an excuse to strip welfare support from disabled people across the UK.
When the UK Government was found wanting by the courts in relation to PIP rules, it did not change its behaviour; it changed the rules—it moved the goalposts. It is writing out people who need support to manage their therapy and it is writing out people who cannot follow a journey route because of psychological distress. That is somewhat ironic, given that this is learning disability week and, only a few weeks ago, it was mental health awareness week.
When it comes to the Tory rhetoric on supporting people with disabilities into work, I do not know whether we should laugh or greet, because 800 disabled people lose their mobility cars every week across the UK. How on earth does that help people into work? The Tories have cut £30 a week from ESA work-related activity group payments. How on earth does that help people into work? They have abolished the independent living fund, which we reintroduced. How does abolishing that help people to live independently?
Then there is the bedroom tax—we have seen what has happened south of the border with that. It has a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities. We have seen rent arrears and evictions increase. According to the UN, the bedroom tax
“curtailed the right of persons with disabilities to choose a place of residence in accordance with article 19 of the Convention”.
Cabinet secretary, can you please wind up?
In contrast, the Scottish Government is spending £47 million to assist 70,000 households, 80 per cent of which include someone with a disability.
None of the Tory measures is fair and none of them is effective; they are nasty and toxic. However, the Tories still say that the measures make them proud.
Cabinet secretary, please conclude.
I know that disabled people and their families often have to fight for everything that should be theirs by right. That is exactly what this Government is aiming to change with our disability delivery plan.
I end my remarks where the Minister for Social Security started and I thank all the disabled people and disabled people’s organisations who have worked so hard to produce the disability delivery plan, which we will implement and put into action.