Mr. Dave Anderson (Blaydon): I speak as someone who worked in the coal mines for 20 years and as a care worker for 16 years. I am also someone whose family has been devastated by muscular dystrophy and who ?has spent some time being unemployed or off work due to ill health. Throughout my life, I have come into contact with Departments of Health and of Social Security and the Department for Work and Pensions in their various forms. As a trade union representative, I have represented people at tribunals and sat as a wing member of tribunals, so I understand very clearly the history of Government relations with the welfare state.
I am glad to have a consensual debate, as I want to speak mainly about my experience as chairman of the all-party group on muscular dystrophy, but it is right and proper for the shadow Secretary of State to highlight that at last year's general election the Government went to the people with a pledge to cut £12 billion from welfare budgets and refused to explain from where they were going to take the money. That is a simple fact. It is not rhetoric or scoring party political points; it is absolutely true.
I was glad to hear the Secretary of State say that he wants to work across government and across agencies. He twice mentioned the role that local authorities can play. I would be delighted if Gateshead council could play a role in helping to get disabled people back to work. If, however, 48% of a local authority's budget is cut over six years, it will be stretched to the limit unless something is done to close the gap and try to provide help.
I want to talk specifically about the information that has been given to the all-party group on muscular dystrophy by the young people who came together under the title of the Trailblazers. I know that the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) is a strong supporter of that group and has done tremendous work, so I was pleased to hear him speak today. These young people have clearly said that they have real concerns. They produced a report, "Right to Work", in which they said clearly that young people should have the right qualifications and skills and exactly the same opportunities to gain paid employment - whether or not they are disabled.
Often these young people with ambitions are restricted by the inbuilt prejudices that they encounter in the workplace. The report shows that fewer than half of the disabled people in the country - 48.5% - are actually in employment, in comparison with 78.8% of able-bodied people. They believe that the best way to address that is by giving as much support to individuals looking for work as is given to businesses and organisations already working.
The group also believes that the abolition of the work-related activity component of employment and support allowance has and will continue to put disabled people at a significant disadvantage. Almost half a million people are currently in receipt of the WRAG component, and it helps disabled people to get their interviews and to ensure that they are fit and healthy enough to get to work and stay in work. This abolition means that people with muscle-wasting diseases have had removed from them the support they need for sustainable, long-term and gainful employment, and it is likely significantly to widen the gap at a time when we are all saying that we want to close it.
When members of the Trailblazers went around the country to find out what was the reality, they found some basic things. They found far too many recruitment agencies that people were physically unable to reach ?because they were inaccessible up a flight of stairs. They were told that all jobs were available on-line. As Government Members said earlier, what happens if people are trying to go on-line, but the desk is set at a level from which it is difficult to operate the computer, or if people do not have access to a computer? These are the sort of basic issues that we should be working together to put right.
Some of the people carrying out the work for the report - disabled young people themselves - went for office-based proficiency tests, but instead of being based in the place where they were working, some of the interviews were happening in places such as coffee shops, where many other customers were milling about. How on earth can people show how proficient they are in circumstances like that? Trailblazers said that that while disability employment advisers were a hugely positive resource, it believed that they should all be given an enhanced level of disability awareness, so that they would recognise when disabled people came looking for a job that they might need to look at things in a very different way.
Some disabled young people seeking jobs face a dilemma: they must decide whether or not to disclose that they have a disability; obviously, not all of them will have a visible disability. They worry about the possibility that if they disclose their disability, there will be prejudice against them before they even get through the door. It should be made clear that they should have the right to decide whether or not to disclose their disability, rather than being told that they must state "I am disabled" on the form, and fail as a result. If they do that, they will already be behind the curve. Trailblazers said that when young people went for interviews, they should be given support so that they felt that they had been invited for a genuine interview, and were not just there to make the numbers up so that someone who could tick the boxes.
I ask the Minister to talk to those people, listen to them, learn from them, and apply the lessons.
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