This article is part of a wider research project on the support and opportunities available to adults with learning disabilities in Scotland. Read more here.
An easy read version of this article is available here.
In the 2016 election, learning disabilities were mentioned just once across all the major parties’ manifestos. Yet adults with learning disabilities experience social, economic and health outcomes far worse than other groups of the population, including the disabled population in general. The types of structural barriers in society that entrench these inequalities can be different for people with learning disabilities compared to people with other types of impairment. So it was surprising to see none of the parties set out a plan for addressing these barriers in their election manifestos.
As we head into the 2021 election, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has raised the urgency of action needed to support a group of the population that has been particularly hard hit by the virus[i] and by associated restrictions[ii][iii]. Furthermore, the latest Implementation Framework for the Scottish Government’s Keys to Life strategy on learning disabilities expires this year.
So what are the parties’ plans for people with learning disabilities in the 2021 election and how are their wider policy pledges likely to affect this group of the population?
Easy read manifestos
The first positive signal for people with learning disabilities is that four of Scotland’s five major parties have published an easy read version of their manifesto to accompany the main document, and other inclusive communication formats have been adopted as well. Only around 30% of people with learning disabilities use their vote[iv] and putting policy pledges in an understandable format is a step towards making the democratic process accessible for everyone.
Easy read manifestos:
Changes to legislation
The most striking manifesto pledges for people with learning disabilities are a proposal to introduce new legislation and another proposal to establish the world’s first commissioner for learning disabilities, autism and neurodiversity (see below).
The legislative changes regard the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003[v], which sets out the conditions under which a person with a mental disorder can be placed under compulsory detention in hospital and given compulsory medical treatment. A review in 2019, carried out on the request of the Scottish Government, recommended that learning disability and autism were removed from the definition of mental disorder included in the Mental Health Act and a new, proportionate, law be introduced to better safeguard human rights[vi].
The SNP manifesto promises that a Learning Disability, Autism and Neurodiversity Bill will be brought forward, but offers no further details. The 2019 review recommended swift action, however there is no mention of timings set out. Meanwhile, the Scottish Liberal Democrats propose to update existing legislation on guardianship and adults with incapacity although, again, the manifesto does not provide much detail on what these changes would mean in practice.
A commissioner for learning disabilities, autism and neurodiversity
Alongside legislative changes, the SNP and Scottish Labour are promising a commissioner for learning disabilities, autism and neurodiversity, with the hope that the new role will champion peoples’ rights across government. The Lib Dems will “consider the case” for a commissioner but make no firm commitment.
The pledge to create a commissioner role comes after a campaign by third sector organisations. However, there has been some opposition to combining learning disability and autism in the government’s recent Towards Transformation plan and this might be the case for a joint commissioner.
Other learning disability-specific policies
Apart from the above, learning disabilities were also mentioned in the Greens’ manifesto, as they pledged to create drama training pathways for people with learning disabilities. The Liberal Democrats have promised to introduce new statutory guidance for children with learning disabilities to “eliminate the unnecessary use of restraint and seclusion in schools and children’s services”, as well as training for families and education staff.
Another eye-catching pledge has been made by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, SNP and the Greens to make accessible communication the norm across government. This might mean publications being produced in accessible formats as standard, such as easy reads, videos or large print documents.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
There are several other wider policy areas that will be of particular interest to many people with learning disabilities. One example is the proposed incorporation of the UNCRPD into Scots law.
The UNCRPD[vii] is an international human rights treaty that guarantees the rights of all disabled people. Governments in several countries (including the UK and Scottish governments) have ratified the treaty, and the Scottish Government’s delivery plan is set out in A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People. But ratifying the treaty is not the same as incorporating the rights that it sets out into law. An example of this being done is the incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, for example, prevents public authorities acting in a way that is incompatible with the convention’s requirements.
Three parties – the Scottish Greens, Scottish Liberal Democrats and the SNP – support incorporating the UNCRPD into Scots law.
Given that very few people with learning disabilities have the opportunity to work[viii], many rely on financial support from the social security system. Our research has also found widespread support amongst the public for the government to provide financial assistance to disabled people to meet the additional costs associated with their disability[ix].
Social security is therefore an important policy area for many people with learning disabilities and their families. This is especially the case in this election, following the devolution of powers over disability and carer benefits, on which we have previously set out a policy brief.
There is consensus in all the manifestos on the need to provide more support for carers. Other than this, the parties’ pledges broadly centre around extending eligibility for some benefits and using devolved top-up powers to provide additional (albeit fairly limited) financial support to households with a disabled person or carer.
The Conservatives plan to introduce a taper rate to the Carer’s Allowance, so that carers who increase their income above the threshold (currently £128 per week) don’t lose all of this benefit. No further details are given, though for context, their cost estimate of £80 million per year is around 22% of the total cost of Carer’s Allowance in Scotland.
The Greens promise to “immediately increase the Carer’s Allowance top-up to £105 a week” (Carer’s Allowance currently pays £67.25 per week, with a twice-yearly £231.40 top-up funded by the Scottish Government, which equates to £76.15 per week). They will also consider a lower caring hours threshold for Carer’s Allowance and a “more flexible earnings limit”. The Greens also intend to double the Young Carer Grant to £600 per year and expand eligibility.
Labour’s manifesto proposes few significant changes to the level of financial support on offer but does propose to expand eligibility. They would examine ways to extend the earnings threshold for Carer’s Allowance and expand eligibility of the new Scottish Carer’s Assistance to those providing above 20 hours of care per week (the current threshold is 35 hours). They would also end private sector disability assessments for the new Disability Assistance (the Scottish replacement of PIP) and grant ‘ongoing entitlements’ to those whose conditions are unlikely to change.
Labour also support an unspecified increase in Carer’s Allowance and a £5 per week supplement to the Scottish Child Payment to households with disabled children or parents. They also want to ensure that Disability Assistance is paid at a rate that covers the extra costs associated with disability, although do not specify what this means in cash terms. Interestingly, Labour would also establish a Disability Poverty Target “with interim goals and sufficient funding to ensure aims are met.”
Scottish Liberal Democrats
The Liberal Democrats will consider using devolved social security top-up powers, like those used to establish the Scottish Child Payment, to increase payments to families with one or more disabled parent or child. They also plan to scrap social security reassessments for irreversible conditions.
There are also a series of commitments to carers, such as guaranteed respite support and free leisure centre access, as well as a campaign for a UK-wide uplift to Carer’s Allowance of £1,000 per year (a 29% increase).
Scottish National Party
On top of the planned roll out of disability benefits, which we set out in our policy brief, the SNP are promising a one-off doubling of the Carer’s Allowance Supplement in December 2021 to £460. They also intend to introduce a top-up payment of £10 per week to those caring for more than one person.
The social care system
Our research on the policy landscape for adults with learning disabilities in Scotland has shown that the support received through the social care system is a significant aspect of life for many learning-disabled people and their families.
On social care, the election manifestos are divided over whether to establish a National Care Service, which was recommended in the recent Independent Review of Adult Social Care[x]. We set out an overview of these recommendations in a policy brief and it is important to note that a National Care Service is not necessarily the same as nationalising providers of social care. The Greens, Labour and the SNP are in favour; the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are against, citing concerns around a loss of local autonomy.
The Independent Review’s recommendations are for accountability over social care to sit with government ministers and for some elements to be delivered nationally, such as care for those with complex needs and care for prisoners, as well as national care standards and pay settlements for staff. However, local bodies would maintain commissioning and delivery responsibilities.
The Conservatives support nationwide employment conditions for care workers and a person-centred approach to social care, but without a restructuring of the system. There are few specific social care policies to analyse in the Conservatives’ manifesto, best reflected in the fact that social care policies do not appear in their costing document.
The Greens set out a vision broadly in line with the Independent Review but will go further, by introducing a £15 per hour minimum wage for care workers and removing private provision of social care, although it is unclear what this means for third sector providers.
Labour support a National Care Service with national care standards and a pay settlement for care workers worth £12 per hour, with the ambition of moving towards £15 per hour at an unspecified date. They would also abolish non-residential charges and expand eligibility criteria. Labour would also give nominated loved ones the same access rights as care home staff, in response to relatives being unable to visit care home residents during the Covid-19 pandemic.
They also plan to introduce a housing strategy that will include “properties which are fully accessible both within the home and externally”.
Scottish Liberal Democrats
The Lib Dems support national pay bargaining and national care standards but are against a restructuring of social care. They would abolish charges for at-home care services and give relatives the same access as care home staff. They would also open the Independent Living Fund to new claims, although no further details are offered.
Scottish National Party
Whilst the Independent Review gives far more detail than the manifestos, the SNP appear to be proposing implementing the Review’s recommendations. They promise to establish a National Care Service by the end of the parliament, with national pay settlements and care standards, as well as the abolition of non-residential care charges. Like Labour and the Lib Dems, they would also give nominated loved ones the same access to care homes as staff. They propose a 25% nominal terms increase in social care funding, which equates to an annual real terms increase of 2.6% (the equivalent figure for health spending is 2.1%).
The manifestos make no mention of employability support for people with learning disabilities, but, more generally, there are plans to support people with disabilities. One potentially “big idea” comes from the Scottish Conservatives, who propose establishing a state-owned company based on the Swedish Samhall model that would employ people with disabilities, with the aim of providing them with the skills and experience to gain long-term employment. However, this plan is not included in the party’s costing document, so it remains unclear how the company would be funded (the Swedish equivalent takes 53% of its income from the state). The Conservatives also pledge a dedicated employability service for carers returning to work.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Liberal Democrats promise to “include disabled people in the design of employability schemes” and the Scottish Greens pledge to “remove employment barriers for disabled people”. Scottish Labour will introduce a Carer’s Employment Strategy. The SNP say they will “invest in employability support for low-income and disabled parents” as part of their plans to tackle child poverty. No further details on these commitments are provided in any of the manifestos.
Interestingly, Scottish Labour also propose to offer every disabled person without a job who is not already benefiting from other job schemes a job within the public sector, “with a wage paid for an average of six months”.
Transitions to adulthood
The support given to young people with additional support needs as they transition to adulthood is crucial to their life chances[xi] and this applies to people with learning disabilities. Transitions are mentioned in most of the manifestos, but with very little detail behind it.
The Scottish Greens promise to deliver “an inclusive education system so that disabled children and young people receive appropriate care and support before, and during, the transition to adulthood”. The Lib Dems and Labour will support a bill to guarantee every young person with additional support needs a transition plan. The SNP and Labour pledge to introduce a national strategy on transitions to adulthood, but don’t set out what that strategy will entail.
The Scottish Conservatives do not mention transitions specifically but will weight their proposed £120 million education catch up premium so that children with additional support needs receive more funding.
Overall, the manifestos include far more ambitious plans for people with learning disabilities than in 2016. This is perhaps in recognition of the harms caused to this group of the population by the Covid-19 pandemic and by the steadily increasing visibility of this group in society thanks to the efforts of campaigners. The remainder of the campaign provides voters with a chance to ask for more details on how these plans will be achieved and implemented in practice.
[i] Scottish Learning Disability Observatory, 2021
[ii] Fraser of Allander Institute, 2021
[iii] Scottish Commission for People with Learning Disabilities, 2020
[iv] ENABLE Scotland, 2021
[v] Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act 2003
[vi] The Independent Review of Learning Disability and Autism in the Mental Health Act Final Report, https://webarchive.nrscotland.gov.uk/20200313213229/https://www.irmha.scot/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/IRMHA-Final-report-18-12-19-2.pdf
[viii] Fraser of Allander Institute, 2021
[ix] Fraser of Allander Institute, 2020
[x] Independent Review of Adult Social Care in Scotland, 2021
[xi] Fraser of Allander Institute, 2021