Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

6.13 p.m.

Earl Haig: My Lords, it is a great privilege to be able to say a few words in the debate on this meaningful subject. It is particularly meaningful for me because my mind goes back to a march in 1926, and the British Legion parade from Horse Guards to the Cenotaph. I remember being with my father. There was an enormous parade of men on crutches and many in wheelchairs. Many of my early days were spent with such problems around me.

My noble friend Lord Campbell has chosen an appropriate moment to raise the problem of the disabled in the wake of the recent Statement about discrimination and on the eve of the proposed Government disability Bill. My noble friend, with a wonderful record of service to others, despite severe war disablement, has called attention to ways in which the community contributes to the alleviation of disablement. Perhaps the Motion should also have included a phrase emphasising service to the community, and how disabled people, despite their physical difficulties, place whatever health, strength and talents they may have at the disposal of the community.

14 Dec 1994 : Column 1336

Such a two-way approach has created links between the disabled and the communities to which they belong. Many communities have been inspired by the way in which disabled ex-servicemen have overcome their disabilities. A number of young servicemen are injured every year in road accidents while on duty or on leave from their units. They are discharged and left in hospital without support from the Ministry of Defence. They are left to themselves and suffer from loneliness and lack of support. The Royal British Legion is considering the establishment of a care unit in its village at Maidstone. I hope that the Minister will offer support to that plan if and when it comes to fruition.

Another Royal British Legion enterprise which deserves support is the British Ex-Servicemen's Wheelchair Sports Association which does much to raise morale and find jobs. Many of your Lordships will have seen its members at the Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall and will know of their success at the disabled Olympics. The Royal British Legion is hoping to move them soon from Docklands to a more accessible part of London.

In a recent Statement on disability, my noble friend Lady Cumberlege said that the objective is to give disabled people more power over their own lives. The Government Statement proposed the establishment of a national disability council. That is welcome at a time of bitterness over the loss of the disablement Bill last summer. The new Bill is urgently awaited by the British people who are aware of the need to improve facilities for the disabled. To accomplish that the Bill must provide legislation which will be effective. Some years ago various organisations representing disabled people—ex-service organisations among them—explored the idea proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, to establish an organisation which would work on behalf of all the organisations. We had a meeting in the House of Lords. However, the tide was not right to achieve such an organisation, because there were too many differences between younger disabled people and the established voluntary organisations. But delays in closer cohesion will be to the disadvantage of the disabled.

One example of disabled organisations getting together is the organisation called Disability Scotland. The proposed national disability council would help to ease the difficulties of co-operation. It should advise the Government at arm's length; it should be a catalyst to enable disabled people to voice their concern; and it would be required to report annually to Parliament. To do all that it would need adequate funds. Perhaps in some ways such a body would perform the functions of the disablement advisory committees on which I served as chairman in the south of Scotland. It is now more than 20 years since I handed over and since then matters have improved. In my view the quota system was difficult to enforce. I am glad that it is now to be repealed.

Although I realise the need for better buildings and transport, I still believe that the problem of employment is at the crux of this debate: how to find job opportunities for the disabled and to mesh individuals with their particular capabilities into those jobs where

14 Dec 1994 : Column 1337

they will find love, companionship and fulfilment. There is now the supportive employment scheme whereby financial support is designed to help employers take on individuals whose output is reduced, on the understanding that that output is not less than between 30 per cent. and 80 per cent. of that of a normal person.

There is the access to work scheme which seeks to overcome some of the practical obstacles and to ease disabled people into jobs. Funds are available to equip disabled people to take advantage of the scheme which provides supporters for disabled people, to help them use or understand special equipment. It helps visually handicapped people to understand the technical details of machinery by having instructions read to them. It provides special chairs for people with back problems. In the Borders region, a blind piano tuner has a supporter to drive him from piano to piano.

The Scottish National Federation for the Welfare of the Blind, though welcoming the access to work scheme, has criticised some of its requirements, particularly the £21,500 ceiling over a five-year period and the shelving of employer contributions pending further investigation.

Then there is the job introduction scheme which enables employers to take on registered disabled people for a preliminary period of six weeks, during which time they can recoup £45 per head per week against the wage. That encourages employers to try out possible employees while still uncertain whether the employment will succeed on a permanent basis.

So great progress has been made these last 20 years, both in the dominion of support schemes and benefits, as well as in the dominion of public awareness of the nature of disability. There is greater support available through modern medical skills and from social workers. There is greater care available at local level from individuals and voluntary organisations.

Help from the community is needed for families who have a member who suffers from mental illness such as schizophrenia. Professional alleviation of disablement is essential, but caring community support is also needed. It is at moments of anxiety, when help is essential, moments when there is stress, when worries turn to despair, that there is a real danger that the sick person will go off and live rough in large cities. That is a move which too often ends in suicide. It is in that context that my noble friend's debate is so relevant tonight.

6.22 p.m.

Lord Rix: My Lords, I begin with an apology that at this exceptionally busy time of year I have to leave before the conclusion of the debate, to fulfil a long-standing engagement. As well as owing apologies to those who follow me for not doing them the courtesy of being here to listen to them, I owe thanks to those who have allowed me to join the middle batting order to play a brief innings.

So many of the barriers that people with learning disabilities encounter are in our minds rather than in our architecture that I particularly wanted to take the opportunity that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has offered us. I also wish to join with him in doubting the wisdom of pressing the phrase "civil rights", which I suspect is a red rag to a government bull. We want that

14 Dec 1994 : Column 1338

bull charging ahead with effective and comprehensive legislation—not pawing the ground and glowering at all and sundry in an agony of indecision because of semantics or because they fancy going next door to the field of cows.

All those years ago, in the dawn of the era of disability politics, when the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy—I am sorry that he is not in his place to hear this compliment—pointed the way to the first major survey of disabled people, he can have had only a tentative idea of the developments that would follow. In making a determined effort to influence public attitudes for the better, we cannot be sure of the outcome. Virtue is not learnt by rote or goodness secured by instruction, but we can make a substantial dent in ignorance. That is worth doing.

The Government have made a move in this direction by producing a little booklet entitled YOU and disability, and there are posters all over the place proclaiming its publication. Imbued with the spirit of Christmas, I wish I could welcome this "guide for everyone" unreservedly. Alas, I cannot; for, while recognising the need for a public education campaign, I believe that this work of the Department of Social Security fails to address the real problems and issues facing disabled people, taking a superficial view of the world as it really exists out there for them. For example, in the booklet is the story of Steven who,

    "has a learning disability caused by complications when he was born".

The story may make you feel sad for a fleeting moment, but it does not really suggest that being treated badly, as has been Steven's lot, is quite simply discrimination of a particularly unpleasant and unacceptable kind. After all, bullying at school, being ignored in company, being turned out of a swimming pool are happenings in the lives of many young people, disabled or otherwise—more's the pity. Steven's story seems relatively common. The horrors of intolerance, inhumanity and ignorance faced by so many people with a learning disability are kept well at bay, while the degrees of disability, from a learning difficulty to a profound and multiple handicap, are dealt with only fleetingly.

On the other hand, Mencap is producing a schools pack with teacher's notes which seeks to do in greater depth for the younger generation what the Government's booklet does more parsimoniously but for a much larger audience. The Mencap pack talks about discrimination and prejudice, about what people do, not knowing what they do. It tells stories of people with a wide range of learning disabilities and related disabilities, so that they can be seen as real, three-dimensional people, not types of disablement.

The worst thing we have done to people with learning disabilities is to put them in boxes of our making, with labels of our choosing. What can we do to make amends? Can we avoid the heresy of treating them all as people from another planet, without falling into the other heresy of pretending that there are no differences?

I want to offer three suggestions. One is that some of the new money for improving the access of disabled children to schools should be used to encourage imaginative projects for children with profound and

14 Dec 1994 : Column 1339

multiple disabilities to share time and activity with children without disabilities in a way that will benefit both groups.

The second suggestion is that in diversifying and in plugging the large gaps in day services, we build on the experience of teaming up people with and without learning disabilities as partners in leisure. Mencap's leisure arm, the Gateway Federation, is already developing such activities and it is clearly a fertile ground on which to sow and reap.

The third suggestion is that, in celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 1971 White Paper on what were then called "mental handicap" services, we produce for a mass audience some of the success stories of community care, seen through the eyes of the people themselves. There are those out there ready to say that community care has failed; and there are communities out there which are failing as communities. Lack of money is generally blamed for any shortcomings, but I believe that the worm of discrimination is at the core of the problem.

Clearly, public education is of vital importance in any campaign to change attitudes and the Government are now coming round to the view, long held by many of us, that such a change has to be backed by legislation. A pity, maybe, but a prerequisite nevertheless. It was Alexander Pope who wrote:

    "'Tis education forms the common mind,

    Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined".

In the first two years of life, children seem to be wholly unaware of disability. Thereafter, they learn prejudice ... from us. Since Christmas begins with a small child, maybe we can drag ourselves nearer to one of the virtues of early childhood and give open-minded acceptance a chance—not only at this season of goodwill, but when the realities of the year ahead have once more to be faced.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page