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House of Commons

Friday 11 March 1994

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]


Disabled Persons

9.34 am

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) : I have the honour of presenting a petition under the seal of the city of Edinburgh district council in support of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), which prays that this honourable House will take steps to ensure that the bill shall be passed into law in order that people with disabilities can achieve equality of opportunity throughout the land.

To lie upon the Table.

Heathrow (Mortar Attack)

9.35 am

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wish for guidance relating to incidents that occurred in my constituency during the past two days. You will recall that Heathrow is in my constituency and we had a mortar bomb attack on Wednesday evening. I wrote to you on Thursday, asking for you to give consideration for me to ask a private notice question, which you, in your wisdom, turned down. I wrote to you in that way because I understood that the Home Secretary was not prepared to come to the House and make a statement.

As you know, there was another mortar bomb attack last night in another part of the airport in my constituency. If the Home Secretary is not prepared to come here to make a statement, for whatever reasons he may feel valid, and you decline, in your wisdom, to allow me a private notice question which would make him come to the Chamber, how can I raise issues on behalf of my constituents about that major situation if I cannot get access to the House ?

Those issues are being debated in the public domain, but we are being prevented from debating them here in the House of Commons.

Madam Speaker : It is not my usual habit to grant a private notice question on a matter of terrorist bombings, which involve the national security, but I would remind the hon. Gentleman that neither the submission of a private notice question nor its subsequent rejection by me should be referred to publicly.

I understand the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman may well be placed in. He wants to keep his constituents informed, and to give them some confidence in these matters. The Home Secretary of course did make an announcement during the debate on Wednesday evening. The hon. Gentleman might, at that time, have tried to put

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questions or involve himself in that debate, but at present I am not inclined to grant a private notice question on matters of security.

Mr. Dicks : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. First, I apologise to you for making public that decision. I was not aware that it was a confidential decision. The reason that I did not raise the subject in the Chamber was that I was not here at that time, but the Home Secretary made a statement only on the facts as they were coming in. I wanted a statement the next day, when the picture was becoming clearer.

Madam Speaker : I do understand. The Home Secretary did not make a statement. He in fact made an announcement. He informed the House of the factual occurrences at the time.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Well, it would have been difficult for anyone to engage in a debate with the Home Secretary the other night when the House was discussing the finality of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989, because he told the House what had happened in the last two minutes of his statement, and he used it for another purpose, as we all know. The hon. Member could not have questioned him at all, and neither could anyone else. It used to be the case that, if there were crises of that type, and major disruptions, there were statements in the House. I find it very strange and disturbing that this Government, as opposed to any other, have decided in recent years that it is not the done thing to talk about such matters as bombing.

The public know that that is a big issue, and the House of Commons is supposed to represent the views of the people outside. I cannot understand why the Government can be very selective about those issues that they want to talk about, but matters of major importance--irrespective of the issue and the side that anyone might take--are not debated in the House at all. Therefore, I would have thought that it was incumbent on the Home Secretary or one of the Ministers to put themselves at that Dispatch Box to answer questions about those major matters.

Madam Speaker : To make the matter clear, I may tell the hon. Gentleman that I have not been told by any Minister that he seeks to make a statement.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. On a day on which we are to debate civil rights and disabilities, I am sure that you and the rest of the House share my opinion about the taking of the basic civil right in Northern Ireland last evening, when a police constable relaxing in his pastime of greyhound sport was murdered. That is a much more serious aspect. I know that the House, on behalf of all the people of Northern Ireland, would wish to express its sympathy.

Hon. Members : Hear, hear.

Madam Speaker : I am sure that we all endorse the hon. Gentleman's sentiments.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. There was a series of outrages throughout Northern Ireland last night, including that to which my hon. Friend referred, yet no statement has been forthcoming from the relevant Minister. The time has come for a statement to be made to the House on matters that are

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in the public domain and of real concern, and which ought to be debated in the House. Where else should the nation's difficulties be debated than in the House of Commons ?

Madam Speaker : I am sure that those who are present on the Treasury Bench this morning have heard the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and they may well take note of them.

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Orders of the Day

Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.40 am

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The aim of the Bill could not be clearer--to secure for disabled people a statutory right to protection against discrimination. It is not about charity, being paternalistic or--as someone said to me the other day--being nice to disabled people. It is about rights. The Bill's purpose is to ensure that the disabled have the same rights as everyone else in employment, housing, education, public transport and provision of other goods, services and facilities. It is certain that the Bill, or something like it, will eventually reach the statute book. When that happens, we shall look back and wonder why on earth that took so long--why, in 1994, we had to spend time debating whether or not 6.5 million people in this country should have the right to protection against discrimination.

This Bill and others having the same objective have been before the House several times previously. The Bill is not new, and nor is it mine--except that I used my good luck in the ballot to reintroduce it. Credit for the Bill's authorship and promotion must go to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), who is the parliamentarian above all who has done most to campaign for equal rights for disabled people and to secure legislation to support them. It is a privilege and pleasure for me to move the Second Reading of what should be regarded as my right hon. Friend's Bill. I am grateful to those right hon. and hon. Members who sponsored the Bill and so successfully campaigned for it. The Bill literally has all-party support. For the first time ever, it can be said that a clear majority of right hon. and hon. Members are on record as supporting such a Bill. I pay tribute to the crucial role played by the all -party disablement group--so ably co-chaired by the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) and by my noble Friend Lord Ashley--in promoting anti- discrimination legislation. The role of the group will no doubt be referred to later. Suffice it to say now that its support for the Bill was both unequivocal and extremely active. I place on record my respect for the sterling work of the hon. Member for Exeter.

Credit for any success today and any success at subsequent stages of the Bill must go to organisations and individuals outside the House who campaigned long and hard for anti-discrimination legislation. There cannot be a right hon. or hon. Member who has not been lobbied and received letters, telephone calls and, yes, postcards. A quarter of a million postcards were sent to right hon. and hon. Members--and that campaign was certainly not co-ordinated by me.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) : By the Post Office, perhaps ?

Mr. Berry : Then God bless the Post Office.

Although we all like to take credit when we can, that remarkable campaign-- which included Wednesday's

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mass lobby--was co-ordinated by a network known as Voluntary Organisations for Anti-Discrimination Legislation. Every organisation of and for disabled people was involved. The number is so great that it is impossible to name them all, but they are well known to right hon. and hon. Members. They want not thanks for a campaign well run but action from the House to eliminate discrimination.

I have received countless letters of support from organisations, and many local councils went to the trouble of passing resolutions. I also received letters from mayors here, there and everywhere. I am grateful for them all, and if I do not refer to all those organisations in this speech, it is only because I want to leave time for the many other hon. Members who want to speak.

Of the thousands of letters, telephone calls and postcards that I received in support of the Bill, I have yet to receive one opposing it. If any interests, community organisations, hon. Members or other individuals are unhappy about the Bill, thus far I have not received such communication.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his success in the ballot. Presumably he is not on the mailing list of the Institute of Directors, because there are some rather uncertain signals coming from that body. Yesterday, I received a fax from the institute that suggested, somewhat disappointingly, that right hon. and hon. Members should oppose the Bill. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should note that opposition from one quarter.

Mr. Berry : It would appear that I am not on that institute's mailing list, because I have not received a communication from it on the Bill, or any other matter, in recent weeks.

At least 6.5 million disabled people in Britain face discrimination every day--an average, I remind right hon. and hon. Members, of 10,000 people in each parliamentary constituency. Discrimination may be direct or indirect, and the Bill seeks to address both forms. A disabled person with the skills required to do a job may be denied it because the employer refuses to appoint disabled people. Alternatively, inaccessible buildings, inadequate public transport and necessary conditions of employment may exclude a disabled person from undertaking a particular activity.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North) : I must tell my hon. Friend that the Houses of Parliament are among the worst in provisions for disabled people. In the mid-1980s, a friend of mine who suffered a disability came into the House. There were no handrails on the steps coming in to Central Lobby to help him to get up. He asked me whether I would undertake to try to get them provided. Does my hon. Friend realise that it took two and a half years to get them ? Even when we start to make some progress in the House in helping people with disabilities, it takes an awful long time. Should we not also put our own House in order ?

Mr. Berry : Yes. Indeed, one of the most obvious examples of indirect discrimination is present today. There is no ban on people who use wheelchairs from attending the debate and sitting in the Strangers' Gallery, but only four places are provided for them.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : I apologise to my hon. Friend for interrupting, but there are serious problems. In the seminar for disabled civil servants, one pointed out

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to me that his promotion is limited by the fact that his wheelchair cannot get into the Box in the corner. There are problems in the House that must be addressed, and will be addressed by the Bill.

Mr. Berry : That is an appalling situation. It is clear that one does not need much wit and intelligence to get around that problem. I hope that that it is resolved quickly. If the powers that be have any difficulty in identifying individuals who can advise them on how to get around that problem, if they contact myself or the organisations to which I have referred, we can give some advice. My hon. Friend is right.

The staff of the Serjeant at Arms' Department have gone out of their way to be extremely helpful today. I thank them most warmly for that. But I have to say, with not a little sadness, indeed anger, that the lack of sufficient space in the Strangers' Gallery for people who use wheelchairs is one reason why members of the disability equalities advisory sub- committee of Avon county council--my local council--have had to cancel their visit here today. They were planning to attend the debate, but cannot do so because of inadequate access in this place.

On a personal note, that means that many of those who contributed to my own disability awareness--people associated with Avon county council's equal opportunities unit and the Avon coalition of disabled people, to whom I pay great credit--like many others, are excluded from the debate today.

As we all know, the problems of access at the Palace of Westminster were illustrated on Wednesday, when 3,000 people--mainly disabled people-- attended one of the largest lobbies to be seen here in many a year. Despite the best ever efforts of the staff of the Serjeant at Arms' Department--I again pay tribute to them--the situation, to put it mildly, was extremely difficult. Access was inadequate.

It was a successful afternoon, but the quote of the afternoon was the announcement, "You have to use the toilet now--the contractors are taking it away." Can one imagine the situation if, after Prime Minister's Questions, Madam Speaker said that to the House ? If hon. Members do not have to accept that nonsense in the House, why on earth should the people we represent, who pay our salaries, have to suffer that appalling situation ? There are countless examples of discrimination that, no doubt, will be referred to this morning.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) : I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on presenting the Bill, particularly representing the constituency he does, and recalling what happened on an earlier Bill. We hope that it will not be talked out today.

On access, some people make a big meal of the fact that it will cost a lot of money over time to get it sorted out. Will he confirm that clause 8 enables everything to be brought on stream over five years, thus avoiding the possibility of not having a starting order, and having a coherent time frame in which to ensure reasonable access to buildings which the public have a right to enter--not only private buildings--and that those problems have now been faced constructively and should make the Bill acceptable to hon. Members in all parts of the House ?

Mr. Berry : I very much welcome that comment. I shall refer to costs in a few moments.

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Before I do, and perhaps at the risk of repeating some obvious examples of discrimination that we have encountered simply by reading the newspapers, I shall give one or two examples of matters that we should address, and which can by addressed only by supporting the Bill.

Examples are legion : a doctor who spent much of her life helping fellow blind people, arrived at Buckingham Palace to receive the MBE in recognition of her work and was ordered to leave her dog outside ; students with hearing impairment achieved three straight As at A-level--I used to work in a university and do not know many people who achieved that--and were not given interviews for a university place because of their hearing impairment, except by Bristol university ; children are refused places in mainstream schools because of difficulties in physical access or because, allegedly, it is cheaper to segregate them in special schools.

The official statistics speak for themselves and are worth repeating. Disabled people are three times more likely to be unemployed than non- disabled people. Employers are six times more likely to turn down for an interview a disabled person with identical qualifications and experience as they are a non-disabled applicant.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent) : The 1991 census shows that, in Blaenau Gwent, 41 per cent. of households had someone suffering from long- term illness or disability. That is one of the highest in England and Wales. Blaenau Gwent is also the second poorest borough in Wales. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in attacking discrimination, we are also attacking poverty, because more often than not the disabled have the greatest problems in achieving employment ?

Mr. Berry : That is right. The statistics fully support that position. The denial of basic rights is confining millions of people to low incomes and poverty. That is one of the things that follows from discrimination. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that.

The evidence is irrefutable. Today in the United Kingdom there is no difficulty in discriminating against disabled people without breaking any law. Such discrimination is simply not illegal. Quite rightly, legislation outlaws discrimination on the grounds of gender and race, but no such protection exists for disabled people. The Bill seeks to put that right.

Before I outline the main provisions of the Bill and deal with the arguments against it, let me remind the House of its origins. Early in 1979, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe, who was then Minister for Disabled People, appointed a committee of inquiry to examine the matter, following extensive representations from disabled people and their organisations. The Committee on Restrictions Against Disabled People reported to the Government in 1982 and recommended comprehensive anti- discrimination legislation. I refer briefly to three of its recommendations :

"There should be legislation to make discrimination on the grounds of disability illegal."

"The law should cover all areas where discrimination occurs". "There should be a regulatory body or Commission with powers to investigate, conciliate and if necessary take legal action on individual complaints of discrimination".

This is not the first time that the House has been asked to implement the recommendations of that report. The

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matter has been discussed often in the past, most recently on 31 January 1992 and 26 February 1993, when we debated the Bill for a total of seven hours.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) : I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing this Bill. Will he comment on the electoral consequences of previous attempts to bring forward the Bill and on how it was blocked ? The hon. Gentleman has good cause to know that the person concerned not only ceased to be a Member of this House but failed to return after the Christchurch by-election.

As the Bill has such strong support in the south-west, including my area of Cornwall, does he think that the Government have understood the lessons of that experience ? Has he received any assurances that, whatever happens in the House today, the Bill will not be emasculated in Committee ? Many hon. Members on both sides who support the Bill are afraid that that might happen.

Mr. Berry : On the first part of that intervention, I have already said that many people are concerned with equal rights for disabled people. Each constituency has an average of 10,000 disabled people. I am convinced that people who elect representatives by an overwhelming majority want such a provision. I do not wish to intervene further in private grief. Of course, the issue came up in Kingswood during the last election, but the key point is that the vast majority of people, all disabled people and organisations representing disabled people, without exception, want the Bill. I shall therefore not be diverted further in that direction.

When the House last debated the Bill, it passed a motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), endorsing it. The Bill has been through all its stages in the other place. On the first day of this Session, together with other sponsors of the Bill, I tabled an early-day motion calling for anti-discrimination legislation and the Bill's early introduction. That early-day motion currently has the support of 310 hon. Members, which is more than any other early-day motion this Session.

Although, by convention, Front-Bench Members do not sign early-day motions- -at least, some of them do not--I have 20 written statements from Front- Bench Members. So that makes a total of 330 Members who have supported the Bill in writing. I do not wish to be controversial this morning, so I am almost tempted not to mention that that is many more than the number of Members who voted for the Maastricht treaty. It is a clear majority of Members of this House, and we have never been in that position before. Parliamentary democracy requires that that be recognised with the speedy passage of the Bill.

The Bill seeks to be comprehensive. It outlaws discrimination in employment, housing, transport and the provision of goods and services of all kinds by public and private sectors. It also sets up a commission to pursue those objectives in line with the CORAD report, investigate complaints and assist disabled people to enforce their rights. The Bill provides that at least two thirds of the members of that commission should be disabled people. It also provides disabled people with new rights to equal treatment at every stage in the recruitment, promotion and dismissal process of employment.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South) : Does my hon. Friend share the concern expressed by many people that, as the labour market is forced to become more

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flexible and employers become more selective in their employment policies, unless the Bill is put on the statute book, discrimination in employment opportunities for people with disabilities is likely to get far worse ?

Mr. Berry : I very much agree. The present position is clear and accepted by everybody : no-one can argue that discrimination does not take place, or that it is not serious. As the labour market becomes more difficult, unemployment and casual labour increase, and it becomes harder for people to enforce their rights. The Bill becomes even more important when people have more difficulty in securing employment because of high unemployment.

Not only does the Bill provide protection against direct discrimination, but employers are required to make reasonable accommodation for disabled people by adapting or modifying the work place. It makes unlawful direct and indirect discrimination in the provision of goods, services and facilities. Businesses and organisations that provide goods, services and facilities must provide reasonable accommodation for disabled people. Finally, the Bill establishes a commission to monitor the effectiveness of new legislation and assist in its enforcement.

There is nothing exceptional about those provisions. They are commonly found in anti-discrimination legislation dealing with sexism and racism in this country and in more comprehensive

anti-discrimination legislation in other countries, notably the United States' disability legislation of 1990.

Although the Bill has overwhelming support, a few opponents still raise objections to it. Opponents of anti-discrimination legislation cannot and do not deny that discrimination exists, but they argue, first, that discrimination can be eliminated by education and persuasion ; secondly, that legislation is unworkable ; and, thirdly, that its implementation would be too costly.

If education and persuasion were sufficient to guarantee disabled people equal rights, we would not need this debate today. The fact that discrimination still exists on such a scale exposes that argument for the nonsense it is. Even if we go back no further, we have had 12 years of education and persuasion since the CORAD report. We were told then that we did not need comprehensive

anti-discrimination legislation, because education and persuasion would work. Although those who believe that have been working hard to educate and persuade, 12 years later we still need to debate the matter.

I am in favour of educating and persuading people but discrimination against disabled people--or anybody else--is wrong. Anyone who thinks that it provides a credible alternative to legislating simply ignores the evidence before us. Without the proper legal framework, education and persuasion simply do not work. Those who used to oppose laws against sexism and racism said that education and persuasion would work. They were wrong for exactly the same reason that it is wrong to put that argument against this Bill. The second argument is that legislation will not work. We are told that legislation cannot be used to promote equal opportunities for disabled people, because it would be unworkable.

It is important to remember at this point that the Bill has already had a Second Reading and been through all its stages in another place. There are probably more lawyers per square inch in another place than in the Old Bailey. If

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those lawyers say that legislation can work, they are sending out an important message : they say that it can work, and that it is absolutely essential.

Moreover, in its report of November 1992 entitled "Disability, Discrimination and Employment Law," the Law Society concluded : "There is a need for the creation of a new statutory civil right to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities in the workplace."

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West) rose

Mr. Berry : I shall give way in a moment.

The report went on to say :

"the employment provisions appearing in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill indicate precisely the direction in which the law should move."

Yesterday, the Law Society took the trouble of writing to me to reiterate that it believes that the civil rights basis is the correct approach to extending the rights of people with disabilities, welcomes the Bill and hopes that the Government will agree to support it. In that spirit, I am delighted to give way to the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern).

Mr. Stern : I simply wanted to ask whether the hon. Gentleman could recollect a previous occasion on which the Law Society had argued for less work for lawyers ?

Mr. Berry : I can indeed, because the Law Society has not always supported anti-discrimination legislation in this sphere. As always, I am extremely grateful to my colleague, the hon. Member for Bristol, North- West, because he has made my point for me.

I should not want anyone to think that the Law Society has always supported the Bill simply because it would create jobs for lawyers. I am not a lawyer, so I too can have that suspicion. The Law Society reached its conclusion after a careful study of the situation and, with its knowledge and professional expertise, arrived at the result to which I referred.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : Is it not a confession that the Law Society and others recognise that there is wholesale discrimination and that they are frightened of being caught out ? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the real purpose of legislation is to reflect the basic values and standards of the society in which we live ? Surely there is something wrong if we are not allowed to discriminate against a black person but can discriminate against a black--or white--disabled person.

Mr. Berry : Quite so. Discrimination is wrong, and the law should be used to protect people against it, whatever its cause. The United States passed the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990, which is probably the most comprehensive civil rights legislation for disabled people in the world. It provides the legal framework that establishes the right of all disabled people to participate equally in society. When President Bush signed the Act--this is probably the first time that I have complimented President Bush in public ; I hope that my colleagues will not hold it against me or think that I am becoming more moderate in my old age--he said :

"Let the shame of the wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down."

All credit to him for that.

Since the introduction of that Act, all the evidence confirms that the quality of life of disabled people there has

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been significantly enhanced. If legislation can be effective in tearing down the "wall of exclusion" that faced millions of disabled people in the United States, it can be effective in the United Kingdom. That view was shared by the Select Committee on Employment in its report of 1991, which also called for legislation of this type. As I said, similar legislation already exists to deal with sexism and racism.

The third argument is that of cost, although I hope that it will not be deployed for much longer. It is perhaps the issue on which there is the most genuine disagreement. Those who oppose the Bill tell us that we might be right about education and persuasion, and they take our point about legislation--they accept that it might be difficult to argue that the law cannot be used to prevent discrimination against disabled people, but can be used to fight against racism and sexism--but the problem is the cost. They say that it would cost too much to secure equal rights for disabled people. That is the thrust of an anonymous document that appeared on the table in the Press Gallery on Monday afternoon. It is entitled "Background Brief : Eliminating Discrimination against Disabled People." I recognise some of the documentation, but there is no name attached and no Government Department is identified. However, I think that it is fair to say that it seeks to put across the Government's view. In any event, that is how journalists interpreted it. The document states that the Bill

"would potentially result . . . in massive costs to the taxpayer, business and the consumer . . . it is estimated to run into many billions of pounds."

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most despicable aspects of that argument is that no one has pointed out the cost to society of denying the many talents that the disabled can bring to our economy and all aspects of work ?

Mr. Berry : Absolutely. There are two remarkable things about the document. The first, to which the hon. Lady referred, is the fact that there is no mention of the costs that disabled people face as a result of discrimination. There is no mention of the possible cost of not enacting legislation--not a word.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington) : I have here a document signed by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People which makes none of the comments to which the hon. Gentleman refers. It gives his reflections on the situation and some facts about costs.

I know that my right hon. Friend supports anything that we can do for disabled people. I, too, support the Bill, but it is unfair of the hon. Gentleman to make such accusations unless he is sure that the document comes from my right hon. Friend, who, as evidenced from this document that bears his name, adopts a reasonable and helpful approach--although I do not necessarily accept it--and has nothing to hide.

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