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MPs debate assistive technology

MPs debate assistive technology

An adjournment debate entitled ‘Government Policy on the Assistive Technology Sector’ took place in Westminster Hall in December.

This was an excellent outcome from a series of meetings with MPs and has helped raise awareness of BATA’s concerns around DSA and wider Government policy towards assistive technology.

William Bain Glasgow North East MP began the debate with his opening speech highlighting the issues facing the SMEs that BATA represents.

Focusiing on the proposed £200 charge for systems supplied under the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) he called it a laptop tax and dismissed government claims that the levy would have no effect on students or AT businesses.

“I experienced first-hand, as a university lecturer in Glasgow and London for a decade, how essential the support provided by assistive technology to students’ learning experience is. It is a necessity, not a luxury,” Bain told MPs during the debate.

“Many universities have improved greatly the resources available to students with particular learning needs, but it is wrong for the Government to shift the burden more and more on to universities.”

“It is grossly unfair that the Government have proven to be so out of touch in drawing up the new rules and bringing in a £200 laptop tax, even though the average expenditure per student has fallen over the past eight years.

He pointed out that 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, which helped to employ nearly 10,000 people.

Assistive technology companies are one of the new economic success stories in manufacturing, he said. The 21 small businesses directly involved, some of whom have been scathing about the lack of proper Government consultation and engagement.

 “The views expressed to me by the assistive technology sector—by individual companies and by the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) — have been somewhat different from the complacent attitude shown by the Minister,” he said.

“It is striking that the Minister believes that the imposition of this new laptop tax would have no impact on the ability of students with disabilities or particular learning needs to attend university.”

It is the case, he said, that 83% of students purchase their laptop through their DSA payments and 98% of students told the NUS that that was the source of their funding for acquiring supportive software.

In reply Nick Boles, Minister for Skills and Equality, said that the cost of DSA Disabled students’ allowance expenditure had increased by more than 30% in the space of less than three years and that was “simply not sustainable”.

“A growth in expenditure has taken place under this coalition Government, who are pledged to try to bring the budget deficit down,” he said. “To be clear, expenditure went up from £87.8 million in 2009-10 to £125 million in 2011-12”.

However, Ian Litterick, BATA council member and founder of AT company iansyst said after the debate that the cost of AT had gone down significantly over recent years. From £46m in 2011/12 to around £30m last academic year, 2013/4. “It is already completely under control,” he said.

Overall, the cost of DSA, including both AT and non-medical help, was now static, he added, not increasing at 10% per year.

“The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills choose as its starting date 2009/10, which was the year that DSA expenditure actually decreased over the previous year because of scandalous inefficiencies in handling the DSA when Student Finance England first took it over from Local Authorities: it should have been significantly higher that year.

A full report of the debate from Hansard can be found here