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Isherwood: Equality for disabled people in Wales

Speech to the Disability Rights Commission.

"We must change the way we all think of disability.

My party therefore welcomes the launch of the Disability Agenda today as the day fast approaches when the functions of the Disability Rights Commission will pass to the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights.

As Sir Bert Massie, Chairman of the Disability Rights Commission, has stated, 'The positive developments of the last decade have undoubtedly helped to create a more open road for disabled people to do the things they want to in life.

'But the unhappy irony is that, at the same time, the public services, resources and support many need to take up these new opportunities have either not materialised or have gone into decline because of rationing'.

Noting that the number of unpaid carers would increase to 9 million of the next 25 years we must be concerned at the statement by the Chief Executive of Carers UK that the Local Government Association has already warned that care would have to be withdrawn from 400,000 people unless funding were increased.

This echoes the statement by the Welsh Local Government Association that the current care system is 'unsustainable - where two thirds of Councils are facing an overspend in Adult Care Services and a quarter face deficits of over £1 million'.

Only last Friday I met a self advocacy group of adults with learning difficulties and learned of the problems that they were facing.

We must also be concerned that the Children's Commissioner has described Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services as being in crisis.

Only on Monday, I visited the Royal School for the Deaf, which takes children from North Wales with severe and complex difficulties, and was told that there were no mental health services for deaf children.

Speaking in the Assembly last December on the 7th Equality Annual Report I referred to the crisis in the youth justice system noting that a large proportion of these young people have mental health problems or learning needs.

Action is needed to address this - early intervention that works and increased investment in rehabilitation.

I referred to bullying and the group that had recently expressed its concern to me that bullying strategies are too often bits of paper that do not actually inform the culture within schools.

This is clearly a particular issue for disabled young people.

I referred to a parent of a child with ASD who had recently written to me to express their concern about the lack of specialist teaching provision in mainstream schools for pupils with ASD.

We therefore still have to address the need for specialist teacher training for additional learning needs.

The Assembly seeks to remove barriers to social inclusion. However, the law of unintended outcomes often means that Assembly Government policy can itself create such barriers.

Flexibility is required to remove such barriers which, for example:

- Prevented the new residential facilities for children with ASD at Ysgol Plas Brondyffryn in North Wales from starting preparations to open, despite being ready for use

- Prevent people in Wales with HIV Aids, unlike people in England with HIV Aids, being referred to Tyddyn Bach respite centre in Penmaenmawr, of which I am a patron - the only such centre in England or Wales

- Closed without replacement the only civilian centre for ex-service personnel with PTSD and associated substance misuse in the UK. The cost of this has had a direct impact on suicides, homelessness and violent crime.

Speaking in the Assembly last November on the Disability Equality Scheme, I welcomed the introduction of amended legislation making the Disability Equality Duty compulsory.

This will shift the emphasis to employers and service providers - who must become more accessible to all disabled people.

And the role of the Disability Rights Commission will move to that of enforcement agent in all public services excluding schools. They will be expected to draw up their own schemes from April 2007.

The Assembly's Disability Equality Scheme must promote equality of opportunity for disabled people - where a person has a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

By mainstreaming equality for disabled people, we must integrate respect for equality of opportunity principles, strategies and practices into the everyday work of the National Assembly and other public bodies.

We should also address discrimination faced by carers on the grounds of their caring responsibility.

A Welsh Conservative Government would provide support and respite for those delivering a substantial amount of care through a series of initiatives.

Specific proposals will be included in our full Manifesto.

We have already announced that we would introduce incentives for employers to provide flexible working times for parents and carers.

Welsh Conservatives want to improve the quality of life for carers and personal assistants. We will work with the UK Government to simplify the benefits system, ensuring assistants apply for what they are entitled to. We will also ensure that assistants are given regular health checks on the NHS, which will include regular blood pressure, diabetes and mental well-being checks as well as providing further opportunities for respite leave. We believe that this is in the interests of the health of both the assistant and those they assist.

We will review the Independent Living Scheme in Wales - Wales should be leading, not following England.

A Welsh Conservative Assembly Government would also seek powers from Westminster to reform Mental Health treatment in Wales.

As a North Wales Assembly Member, I am particularly concerned by the finding that disabled people in North Wales feel detached from the Assembly and would welcome more time and resources devoted to identifying and addressing their needs.

We must be concerned that access to education and training premises for disabled people is still inadequate and that the Assembly Government's NHS reconfiguration plan - Designed for Life - does not appear to take account of the much greater difficulty faced by disabled people in travelling to more remote hospitals.

Assembly Government's before and after May 2007 must respond to the areas of potential weakness identified by the Disability Rights Commission.

They state that concerns over social care provision are the highest profile disability issue in Wales at present - and particularly so given the proposals by some Local Authorities to reduce or withdraw levels of social care provision.

In the Assembly's Equality of Opportunity Committee, I raised the need for positive action to deliver not only equality at recruitment but also to develop people's skills and qualifications once employed.

My Party's candidate for Cardiff South and Penarth, Karen Robson, who works with disabled students at UWIC and is a former Welsh Women of the Year, has called on employers in Wales to end discrimination against people in the work place.

This followed figures showing that the number of disabled people employed in the public sector in Wales has grown by just three per cent, compared to 18 per cent in England and Scotland.

Disabled people are twice as likely as non disabled people to be unemployed.

A recent Government report showed that almost 55 per cent of long term sick and disabled people are economically inactive in Wales.

Despite legislation, discrimination against disabled people is alive and kicking in Wales. This is more than a tragedy. It is a downright waste of talent and ability.

If Wales is to compete on the world stage we need to harness every individual able to make a contribution. We must also be prepared to rethink our approach.

Flexible working, accessing technology and building disability access in to all that we do is the way forward, to ensure that the one in five people in Wales with a disability are able to make their contribution.

Politicians have a responsibility to facilitate an environment which promotes independence and ensures that everyone who can and wishes to work is enabled to do so.

Ensuring that disabled people aren't put off from trying a job for fear of losing their benefits is part of this process.

There are a number of organisations which support disabled people entering the workforce.

We need to ensure they have appropriate funding. We also need to work with disabled people and learn from their experiences.

More disabled people must be enabled to pursue education and training to reach their potential.

We also need to put preventative measures in place to reduce the likelihood of people developing mental health difficulties which will inevitably limit their working contribution.

MIND describes Mental Health as a Cinderella Service.

The Mental Health Charity, Hafal, seeks to give ownership to the service users - but recently I was in a meeting with a County Council at which service users stated that consultation hadn't made a scrap of difference and that instead of promoting independence, the Council was promoting isolation.

We must therefore work with the WLGA to ensure full understanding of the Disability Equality Duty and what mainstreaming equality really means.

This will require equality awareness training, which should be provided by equality organisations rather than the statutory sector itself.

Housing Forum Cymru state that housing is creating a more divided Wales and that the consequences for social cohesion, reduced life chances and poor health are enormous.

Welsh Conservatives therefore propose a £16 million increase in the Social Housing Grant and a Housing review in real working partnership with the Housing Sector.

We also believe that Housing related support can make huge savings on other budgets and contribute to the aims of Health and Social Services, regeneration, education, lifelong learning and skills.

We will therefore take measures to protect supporting people grants and to ensure that they reach frontline services providers.

Poverty is an economic waste and a moral disgrace.

We need to think of poverty in relative terms - the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that under present UK Government policies, child poverty would fall substantially short of meeting Government targets for reduction - where work incentives strengthened after 1979, but have weakened since 2000.

We will have to work with UK Governments to tackle child poverty.

However, tackling poverty involves much more than the redistribution of money through the tax and benefits system.

We have to think about the causes of poverty.

Save the Children calculates that there are 50,000 children living in severe poverty in Wales - below 40% median income - and overall the number of people living in severe poverty across the UK has increased by 410,000 since 1997.

Conservatives are committed to the government target of ending child poverty by 2020. It is an aspiration, not a pledge, because we do not know how far from it we will be when we enter government. On current trends, we will miss our shared goal. If we don't change direction, we will continue to move those just below the target to a position just above, without helping those at the very bottom.

As David Cameron states 'we have a social responsibility for disabled people'.

Welsh Conservatives stand ready to take our good work of championing equality rights to the heart of Government.

We look forward to tackling the challenges that face disabled people in Wales.

By working closely with the corporate and voluntary sectors and engaging meaningfully with disabled people themselves, we will overcome those barriers and achieve our aim, which is true equality and autonomy for disabled people in Wales."

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