Wednesday is UN International Day of Disabled People. A day to celebrate the contribution disabled people make to our world, and a moment to redouble our efforts on inclusion and equality. Yet the Government is sneaking through Parliament without a substantive vote regulations on Disabled Students Allowances which would impose a £200 charge on disabled students in England who need assistive technology – computers, apps or software – to study. The Government which brought us the pasty tax and the granny tax has now just signed off on the laptop tax. Disabled campaigners and manufacturers have been scathing of the lack of Government consultation over this stealth tax, which will affect companies in UK-wide supply chains for assistive technology.
I experienced at first hand as a University lecturer in Glasgow and London for a decade how essential the support provided by assistive technology to students’ learning experiences is. It is a necessity not a luxury for disabled people. Government should be working with Universities to ensure that more students from backgrounds where there are special learning needs can prosper in higher education, not wash its hands of responsibilities in terms of promoting and delivering inclusive education under either the Equalities Act or Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People.
There has been no answer from the Government about how the laptop tax would be paid or collected, and complacency about its impact upon the higher education sector. 83% of students purchase their laptop for studies through their DSA payments. In terms of supportive software 98% of students told the NUS it was the source of their funding for acquiring it.
The UK is the world leader in the assistive technology sector, comprising 1,000 businesses and other enterprises providing approximately 1,500 products to students with disabilities, helping employ nearly 10,000 people in education and other connected sectors, and exporting this technology across the world. The British Assistive Technology Association is concerned about the knock-on impact this tax will have on 21 small and medium sized enterprises in this sector which collectively contribute £55m annually in tax revenues to the Exchequer.
On Tuesday, I held a debate in Westminster Hall to expose the unfairness of the Government’s case on the laptop tax. The Minister for Universities Greg Clark did not attend the debate, but left it to his colleague Nick Boles to reply. In an astonishing performance, Boles did not defend the laptop tax in its own terms, but claimed it was necessary in order to reduce the budget deficit. So the Government which began with the Prime Minister claiming we should judge society by how it looks after the most vulnerable has come to this. The Chancellor who said he would never balance the books on the backs of the poorest is failing on public borrowing and prepared to tax disabled students in this underhand way. The laptop tax has provided further evidence that this Government stands up for the wrong people, giving millionaires a huge tax cut, while seeking to tax disabled students who contribute hugely to society when they graduate. If it is to redeem any of this further damage to its reputation, the Government should axe the laptop tax.
William Bain is Labour MP for Glasgow North East and a member of the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee