MP for North Swindon

Justin Tomlinson MP

VIDEO: Justin Tomlinson Responds As Minister To Cross Party Debate On Hidden & Invisible Disabilites


Justin Tomlinson MP has used his role as the Minister for Disabled People, Work and Health, to throw his support behind the campaign to improve knowledge about hidden or invisible disabilities.

The North Swindon MP was speaking as he responded on behalf of the Government to cross party debate in the House of Commons. In particular, Justin spoke about his desire to work with MPs in all parties to break down barriers to accessibility and encourage people to do more to educate those who do not understand that not all disabilities are visible.

Justin also added his support to the campaign to improve the signage used to identify services & facilities used by disabled people, to make them clearer and improve understanding around invisible disabilities.

Text of Justin's speech

It is a real pleasure to respond to this proactive and constructive debate. Until the last two, the majority of speakers stuck to the spirit of this incredibly important subject, and I know that people worked incredibly hard to get this vital debate secured through the Backbench Business Committee. First, I say to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), “Yes, yes and yes.” How about that? There are not many debates in which a Minister can just totally and whole- heartedly agree.

I had a stroke of luck, because on Saturday a Red Box was dispatched to my house. We knew this debate was coming up, so a 3,500-word draft speech was prepared and there was a lot of briefing on what subjects would be covered. I thought that the best thing to do was to pop the kettle on, have a cup of tea and look at something else first. As I did so, I found an invitation to a meeting of the all-party group on this very subject on Tuesday. As a matter of luck, I was therefore able to attend a brilliant meeting to discuss exactly what would be coming forward. I had further luck, as the various areas of priority for us were then connected to three further meetings I had later in the week, prior to this debate, and I will be covering all those in a little more detail.

There is a huge amount of respect for the hon. Gentleman, who has built a brilliant reputation in this area for a long time, both in his role before he came to the House and in the House. He is widely respected and he is right to recognise the progress that has been made since the Equality Act 2010. I pay tribute to the Labour party for its work in that area. Our Government has rightly continued, as I am sure all future Governments will, to work with stakeholders to build on that incredibly important step, which does make a real difference.

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that we need to improve awareness. He talked about how 93% of people who challenge feel that they are doing the right thing because they want to stand up for those who are marginalised in society, and I am acutely aware of that point. This was summed up by an incident I saw where someone with a disabled autistic daughter parked in a disabled parking space, with a blue badge, yet received abuse.

It was not a one-off—I am sure it happens all over the place. On that stat—93% of people would challenge someone—they probably feel that they are doing the right thing, but because of the lack of awareness and the additional challenges of hidden disabilities, society is creating awkwardness and putting people off and that is affecting people’s lives.

I shall come shortly to Grace, the inspiration, but first let me whizz through some of the excellent speeches and respond to them directly. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) has done brilliant work, both in her constituency with the partnership board and in her former role as everybody’s favourite sports Minister. When I was previously a disability Minister, we worked together carefully to push organisations such as the Premier League, which was, to its credit, very proactive. Richard Scudamore, the departing chief executive, took a personal interest in improving disability access in premier league stadiums. I could not have asked for more support from the sports Minister in that policy area.

My hon. Friend was absolutely right to highlight the importance of the Special Olympics. The point that I really picked up on was just how happy people are—in all the visits in my 19 years as an MP, a Minister and a councillor, nothing has come close to the joy that I saw when I went to a learning disability netball session. I literally thought that the young adults were going to explode with excitement. I am glad that my hon. Friend also took the time to highlight the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), who has done a huge amount in this policy area.

The hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) has made a good impression since her recent arrival in the House, from which we are all benefiting. This is the second debate to which she has contributed and I have responded. She brings real-life experience in this area, particularly in respect of strokes, and it was really important to highlight that. She reminds us how important it is that we do this because some people will need extra time and space. That is crucial.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) led a brilliant Westminster Hall debate just a few weeks ago and carried on today in the same form. Not every disability is visible. He was right to highlight that there is not an immense cost to making a real difference in this policy area. That came through in many speeches, and I will cover it in more detail later.

Through the direct experiences of his wife, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) raised some incredibly important points about access to work and sanctions. He has raised them before in other debates and he always raises them in a constructive manner. I want to try to keep to the spirit of the debate, so I offer him a personal meeting so that we can explore the issues in more detail and do them justice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) was absolutely right to highlight the challenges in respect of public transport, an area on which she has worked tirelessly. She also raised the issue of assistance dogs, on which British Guide Dogs has been one of the best and most visible campaigning charities, particularly in respect of the misunderstanding of what taxi drivers should or should not do and how we can tighten things up through licensing. My hon. Friend was also right to highlight the brilliance of medical dogs that can smell certain conditions—it is the equivalent of detecting one particle in a swimming pool, which is absolutely amazing. What a difference we can also make in the retail environment, which I will cover a little later.

Perhaps the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) did not quite follow the spirit of the debate—that is one of the challenges when one arrives with a pre-written speech. I gently say to them that we are spending £55 billion a year on supporting those with long-term health conditions and disabilities. That is a record amount and is up £10 billion. Only 16% of DLA claimants had the highest rate of support, compared with 32% of those on PIP. Disability employment is at a record high: in respect of our target of 1 million by 2027, we are at 440,000 after two years. As I said in an intervention earlier, for the first time we have more disabled people in work than not in work. There is still more to do, though, specifically for people with autism in jobcentres. I am grateful for the work of Autism Alliance UK, which helped to create the autism toolkit. In the spirit of the debate, I am happy to meet both Members to discuss all those issues in detail, but will keep to the theme.

This debate has happened because of Grace Warnock, a truly inspirational superstar who had a fantastic teacher, who can take some credit for starting this brilliant journey. She is an amazing young person dealing with the challenges of Crohn’s disease. She was targeted with abuse because of her hidden disability. Understandably, many people, including many of us, would have shied away. I am sure that, day in, day out, people are shying away, but she stood her ground and she has made a difference. We should all celebrate her courage. I am very proud that she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Points of Light award in 2018—the very least that we can collectively do to celebrate her brilliance. It is absolutely right that her energy, enthusiasm and ideas are used to drive us forward.

Sense sent us all a briefing in which it summed up why we should listen carefully to Grace. It said that many public facilities are not currently fully accessible. Many people have multiple complex and/or invisible disabilities and require greater support and accessibility in order to access the local community, but these facilities are often not provided. Change could include the invisible disability sign, greater Changing Places provisions, improved accessible public transport and greater staff awareness for people working in public places. Greater provision of such facilities would lead to better inclusion and help to improve attitudes towards disabled people. Every one of us in this place would agree with every word of that.

That brings me to the all-party group meeting that I attended only yesterday. It was fantastic to see such cross-party support and some really impressive individuals making a difference in an area which, as the hon. Member for East Lothian rightly highlighted, is complex. We all agree that we want Grace’s sign to be a stepping stone to improved signage that is internationally recognised but, as ever, it is not simple. Everything in the political environment takes a little bit longer than perhaps we would like. To get international recognition of a new symbol involves a process with various stages from the initial proposals, through to consensus building, public consultation and publication. It can take a number of years, but that does ensure that, when it is done, it is done properly and is of long standing.

In our country, the British Standards Institution, the UK national standards body, in effect audits and approves something before it is considered by the International Organization for Standardization. The APPG gave an update and a presentation on the work that is being done and I was thrilled that the BSI was fully involved and fully supportive. It is right to highlight those people, beyond the MPs on the APPG, who have done so much work. Lucy Richards, the designer, has taken on Grace’s idea to international stellar levels. I was incredibly impressed by that. Having run a marketing company, it gave me a warm glow to remember the joys of looking at designs. There has been support from Life Changes through Anna Buchan, who provided the funding needed to carry out that extensive work. I should also mention user experts such as Dr Gordon Hayward, Steve Milton and Robert Turpin from the BSI. We had all the movers and shakers making sure that this has been fully road tested, so that when we are ready to take it to the international standards organisation it will tick all of the boxes. I thank the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), who were all present and supportive of that vital work. I will do everything that I can to support that going forward.

I did say that I was lucky with the other meetings that came up. This week, I met various sector champions who are helping to represent all of us to challenge those particular areas to do more and to highlight best practice. The first of those was retail sector champion Samantha Sen. Many of the speakers today have talked about the importance of getting it right in retail. That highlights the fact that this is a win, win. This is not just for those with hidden disabilities. If retailers can get it right, they can access the combined spending power of disabled people, which stands at £249 billion—those 13 million disabled people have considerable spending power.

Seventy-five per cent. of disabled people and their families have left a shop because of poor customer service. I do not believe that there is a single retailer who wakes up in the morning and says, “I want to turn away business.” I do not think that, on any of our visits, we have ever had a retailer saying, “I have too much business. Please do less.” I had the pleasure this morning of speaking at and opening the Retail Forum, at which many of the leading retailers and estate owners—including British Land and the Crown Estate—were present. They absolutely buy into this. They have a real appetite for sharing best practice. It is being channelled through the Purple Tuesday campaign, which many MPs support. On 12 November, we will have a genuine focus on this issue. When they set that up, they expected 70 retailers to be involved; it was actually over 700, and this year they expect it to be over 900. That is making a difference in retail and I commend all those retailers for being so engaged.

I also met Stephen Brookes, who is our transport sector champion. Many people will have worked with him on his brilliant work to tackle disability hate crime, which made a real difference to the Government’s way of going forward. He has real expertise; he initially started with the challenges on the Blackpool buses and spread out to rail and buses across the whole country. Part of the way through our conversation—this was amazing—I said I had been to an all-party parliamentary group that was beginning to look at how we can improve signage. I said, “One of the things I would like you to do is to meet the members of the APPG to give your expertise.” He said, “I have got something to show you. I have seen a sign that is amazing,” and he brought out the sign that had been presented at the all-party parliamentary group. He has confirmed that he would be delighted to support the APPG’s work. That will build on the Government’s new inclusive transport strategy to create a transport system that provides equal access for disabled people by 2030. That is a really important area, because disabled people should be able to travel confidently, easily and without extra cost.

Stephen Brookes reassured me that, over the last three years, there has been a complete shift, particularly with the rail companies and providers such as Network Rail. Any of their major improvements now have to go through their built environment access panel, for which there is a pan-disability group, to make sure they get things right for everyone and that they get them right at the beginning—it is a lot easier to do that then than it is to retrospectively fix things. I was encouraged that so many providers have understood the importance of this issue.

I also met Andrew Miller, who is our arts and culture sector champion. He, again, talked about the huge progress that is being made in our cultural venues and our live music venues. I pay tribute to Attitudes is Everything, one of my favourite charities, which makes live music venues accessible. When I was first a disability Minister, and I insisted on having a picture of Attitudes is Everything, my officials airbrushed out the pint glasses some of its members were enjoying as part of their evening entertainment, saying that that probably was not right for a ministerial wall. I got that corrected and the picture was put back in place.

I understand the importance of this issue, given that my first graduate job was as a nightclub manager. Interruption.]There are not many who could say that. [Interruption.] Mr Deputy Speaker has suggested that that was maybe because I liked dancing; actually, I was probably a manager because I was not very good at dancing. Andrew Miller and I talked in detail about what more all these venues, which an individual may visit only once or twice, could do. Many now put a lot of additional information up in advance on their websites so that users can check. What disabled users do not want to do is travel all the way to a venue and be left red faced when the facilities are not accessible.

I had a look at a website, which looked, in theory, like it was following good practice. It talked about free admission for carers or helpers; free loan of a wheelchair or motorised scooter; providing a personalised guiding scheme for unaccompanied disabled people, as long as it was booked in advance; subtitled video and large print being available; low-level counters; the induction loop system; and guide, hearing and assistance dogs being welcome. However, there was not a single point of contact, and probably the most important thing that any retailer or leisure provider can do is make it crystal clear that there is one. Those with disabilities do not fit into a neat box—everybody has their own unique challenges —and being able to talk things through and knowing where to go if there is a problem can make a real difference. It can also benefit facilities, which can then tap those 13 million customers with their £249 billion.

Finally, I met Huw Edwards, who is our physical activity and leisure sector champion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford highlighted the importance of sport, I pay tribute to Sport England for doing lots more to focus on opportunities for those with disabilities, recognising the importance of sport and physical activity for disabled people through the Sporting Future strategy. I welcome the fact that we are seeing increases in activity. Again, there is still lots more to do, but it is right that we promote opportunities and share best practice. So many want to do more but need this information.

As I initially indicated with my triple yes, I am keen to do everything I can, as quickly as possible, to get this. I was blown away yesterday when I saw the designs and the right balance of the imagery, dealing with all the competing demands across the pan-disability spectrum and getting more detail with the words. I think this will make a real difference. As was said, not all things have to cost a huge amount of money. On this issue, everybody will do everything they can to make sure that Grace’s brave stand really does make a difference, not just in the UK but internationally.

It has been a real pleasure to take part in such a constructive and positive debate. Parliament is at its best today.

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