Previous Section Home Page

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott) : I will speak more briefly than I had originally intended, because I am conscious that there are still several hon Members who want to speak in the debate, as well as the Opposition spokesman. I also believe that there will be further opportunities later to discuss in more detail aspects of this Bill.

I add my congratulations to those of others who have paid tribute to the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry)--congratulations on his good fortune in the ballot and, although this might not be particularly convenient for me, on his judgment in choosing this legislation to bring before the House again. I also congratulate other right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed so constructively to the debate.

The hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) reminded us of the fact that all too often when we use the description "disabled people" we automatically bring to mind wheelchair users and forget the range of others with physical disabilities, sensory handicaps, learning difficulties and various forms of mental illness. We have, therefore, to look at disability in the round. No one who takes an interest in this subject can fail to be conscious of the strength of feeling and passion behind the campaign to eliminate discrimination against disabled people--but for that strength of feeling and commitment we would not be debating the Bill again today.

Column 566

I am also conscious of the all-party opinion recorded by those who signed early-day motion 2, and of the feelings expressed by the many people who attended the impressive lobby of Parliament on Wednesday. It vividly showed the strength of feeling on this issue among disabled people. I know from the numbers of letters to which I have responded that a great many hon. Members know the weight of that concern from their mailbags of recent weeks.

My discussions with the all-party disablement group and with its secretary and researcher have also reinforced my knowledge of the strength of feeling on this matter. There is no argument about the fact that discrimination exists and disfigures in many ways the attitude that we as a society have towards disabled people. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the House earlier this week, the Government share the aim of eliminating discrimination against disabled people. We recognise that the aspirations and expectations of disabled people in our society are now firmly part of the political agenda. It is impossible for us to ignore them, even if we wished, and it would not be right to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) spoke of the emotion that is behind much of the campaigning on this issue. It is an emotion which I share. However, I do not think that that should prevent us from focusing our minds on the practicalities, and deciding the best way in which we can set about achieving the aim of eliminating discrimination against disabled people.

The sponsors of the Bill believe that its approach is the right way forward. I say this only in the mildest terms, but in a sense I am disappointed that the Bill has returned to the House in precisely the same form that it appeared hitherto. I understand that that was a conscious decision by the Bill's sponsors.

As we discussed the matter on previous occasions, I had hoped that there might be some attempt by the sponsors to respond to the concerns expressed by Ministers, business and other interests about this approach to what is undoubtedly an important issue. However, I make no great complaint about that. It might have been a more sensible way forward if it had been possible to adopt a slightly different approach. If we go into Committee, we will have an opportunity to discuss and reflect on that.

Much has been said about education and persuasion. I simply want to address that briefly. The Government have been doing their best to achieve progress by using targeted legislation where necessary, but by using education and persuasion as a sustained way of altering attitudes towards disability in our society. That has led to significant progress recently in altering attitudes, and it will continue to play an essential part. There is more to be done in this area, and more will be done.

Even if we had the Bill on the statute book, there would still be a need for education and persuasion. No one doubts that in areas of race relations and discrimination against women, the simple passage of legislation did not at a stroke, as it were, alter attitudes in society ; a great deal had to be done. As one who voted in favour of race relations discrimination legislation when it was perhaps not the most appropriate thing in my party, I well understand the importance of education and persuasion on these matters, but it would be right for us to recognise that there has been progress in this area. There are some matters that are entirely in need of legislation, whether it is targeted or over-arching, and I shall address that issue in a moment. What I call the

Column 567

gratuitous discrimination against people who are denied access to restaurants, cinemas or other public places simply because of their disability, the inconvenience of their being in a wheelchair, perhaps a facial disfigurement or a learning difficulty which leads to a speech impediment of one sort or another, is more likely to be addressed by education and persuasion, and making it clear that that is an unacceptable way forward, than by legislation that may not be able to address that sort of gratuitous discrimination, which is too often a feature of the experience of disabled people in our society. I hope that the House will recognise that attitudes are changing and progress is being made on a number of fronts. Of course, we all wish that the pace of that change would accelerate.

At the outset, I must say that the Government will ensure that the Bill is examined carefully. We are aware that questions have been raised about it by employers and by industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North- West (Mr. Stern) addressed a number of those issues. A series of press releases from the CBI have suggested that it would prefer a code of practice in that area rather than legislation, and the Forum of Private Business is concerned about the impact of the legislation on business. The Institute of Directors' initiative has already been mentioned today, and I will not return to it. The Federation of Small Businesses has expressed concern about the impact on small business.

Those fears have been expressed, and it is right and sensible that we should address them as we discuss the Bill in detail in Committee. If we are to have legislation, it is important that it is comprehensive or targeted to carry employers and other providers with us in our efforts to eliminate discrimination. It is right that the Bill should be examined carefully to see which aspects are consistent with the aims that the Government share with many who have spoken during the debate.

I have stated some of the reservations in terms of the concerns expressed by business, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West also stated significant reservations. However, it is important that those matters should now be discussed in a calm, sensible and constructive manner. I believe that a Standing Committee would help us in that regard.

Whatever the outcome of that consideration, it is right for me to set out some of the advances that have been made to open up avenues of opportunity for people with disabilities and, what is more, the way in which we hope to extend those boundaries.

Mention has been made of education. There is a recognition that, although much needs to be done, there has been significant recent progress in the arrangements for children with special educational needs, including those with disabilities. The Education Act 1993 builds on the principles of the 1981 Act and signals a significant advance in this area.

The Government will be shortly laying before the House a code of practice on the identification and assessment of special educational needs. It will be a comprehensive document, and it has already been widely welcomed in consultation. At the same time, the Government are taking action to improve access for disabled children to our educational establishments.

Column 568

In further and higher education, attention is also being given to improving the position of students with disabilities, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England has now allocated some £3 million to some 38 projects which are designed to improve access for those students to institutions of higher education. The aim of improving access for students with learning difficulties or disabilities is also reflected in the further and higher education charters which education departments issued last year.

I am conscious that students with disabilities frequently find that they do not receive co-ordinated service in the transition from school to further or higher education, or into employment. There is sometimes a conflict between educational, social services and employment training funding. We must seek to ensure that there is increasing co-ordination in that area, leading to increased job opportunities for people with disabilities.

Obviously, our aim--it is also the aim of the sponsors of the Bill--is that people with disabilities are recognised as people with abilities who can contribute to wider society as well as to a range of enterprises in our economic pattern. They wish to contribute their skills and talents fully in a job, in the same way as anyone else in society. With that aim in mind, a programme has been developed to raise employers' awareness, to encourage them to concentrate on people's abilities and help them achieve success by releasing individual potential and initiative.

The programme includes a code of good practice and the disability symbol which has also been mentioned during the debate. The Employment Service recently enhanced the symbol. It carries the clear message, "Positive About Disabled People". The service asks employers who use it to make five specific commitments to good practice. In the past six months, the number of employers who have opted to use the new strengthened symbol has doubled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) mentioned the role of the civil service and its use of the symbol. I am advised that there is a legal difficulty with it, but am assured that it is being urgently addressed. I hope that I may have better news for my hon. Friend in the not-too-distant future.

Mr. Thurnham : I think that I was told a year ago that the matter was being urgently addressed.

Mr. Scott : In response to the pressure that I am receiving from my hon. Friend, perhaps I can seek to ensure that it is even more urgently addressed. I accept that there are no grounds for complacency in either the public or the private sector. We have had a code of practice in place in general terms for 10 years, and we all recognise that there is still a long way to go.

Inside the civil service, which has a code of practice that will be upgraded to a programme of action in the near future, we have made substantial progress in recent years. Within the private sector, about 0.7 per cent. of employees are registered disabled people. The corresponding figure in the civil service is 1.5 per cent.--about double the level achieved in the private sector--and even that is, in a sense, an understatement of the number of disabled people employed in the public sector.

In the Department for Social Security and its agencies--the DSS family--the percentage of employees who are registered disabled people is 1.8 per cent. But 5 per cent.

Column 569

of our work force identify themselves as having disabilities of one sort or another. A significant number of our employees with disabilities do not choose to register themselves as disabled, and it is important to recognise that distinction.

Mr. Wigley : Does the Minister accept that performance within local government varies considerably ? Some local authorities, including my own in Arfon, have a good record, but some have appallingly bad records. Can anything be done to encourage the bad ones to do better ?

Mr. Scott : That may be one of the issues that we want to consider when we discuss the subject in more detail. It may be no bad thing for local government if central Government set an example. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment announced the final details of the access to work scheme, with extra funding. Most important, the plans for that scheme will no longer contain a requirement for employers to make a contribution. I understand the widespread concern that was expressed about that. I am particularly pleased that my right hon. Friend felt able to progress with the scheme without that provision.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam) : I warmly welcome the access to work scheme, but is my right hon. Friend aware that we need to work much harder to encourage the disabled to apply for that scheme, because they are totally lacking in confidence ? We need to identify their skills so that we can make maximum use of them and propose them for the scheme.

Mr. Scott : I think that my hon. Friend may be understating the confidence of many disabled people and their wish to gain employment. There is a range of incentives and opportunities for disabled people to find employment--in the benefits system, through employment training, through the work of the placement and assessment counselling teams, and training and enterprise councils around the country.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment is clearly determined to carry forward that programme, and to build on the confidence and ambitions that are increasingly evinced by people with disabilities. They are anxious to find employment and to contribute, both to society and to the particular enterprise in which they are seeking work. As recently as this week, changes have been announced to the funding arrangements for the sheltered employment programme, which should improve its effectiveness and help severely disabled people to increase their employment opportunities. We recognise that education, employment and living arrangements are important, but transport is also vital to disabled people. It is no good having job opportunities if disabled people cannot get to work. They need also to be able to engage in the social activities--visiting family and friends and shopping--that the rest of us are able to enjoy. In that aspect, too, I believe that real progress is being made.

The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee has recently updated a specification for local bus services, which will be a big step in the right direction. The Department of Transport has recently made widely available a training videotape teaching bus drivers and conductors how to be sensitive to the needs of disabled

Column 570

people, and that is being incorporated in the formal national vocational qualification training that is now required by many bus companies.

The next stage in improving physical access is to eliminate steps at entrances and exits of buses. The first route to be equipped with those vehicles went into service at the end of January in London, and by summer 70 low-floor buses will operate on five routes throughout London. Some hon. Members visited the bus that was brought into New Palace Yard just before Christmas last year. The designs of bus stops and bus stations are also being tackled.

Even the railways are now making significant progress in terms of accessibility. The hon. Member for Kingswood acknowledged that it will take time to transform the whole of the rolling stock on the railway system in this country to make it fully accessible for disabled people, but he urged on us the importance of ensuring that all new rolling stock was so accessible.

All rolling stock that is now being built is wheelchair accessible and incorporates other features to make rail travel easier for anyone with a mobility problem. All InterCity services are already wheelchair accessible and all new rolling stock on InterCity incorporates a wheelchair-accessible lavatory. In the privatising of the railways, the needs of passengers with disabilities will be safeguarded.

Railway providers have to tackle another problem--the difficulty posed by unstaffed stations. That problem was mentioned to me more than once at the reception that I gave for organisations of and for disabled people last evening. We must also tackle the issue of access facilities at stations, such as stair lifts, information systems, warning and guidance for those with visual impairments, and so on. All those are being actively pursued.

Mr. Austin-Walker : I welcome the Minister's comments in relation to British Rail. Will similar considerations apply to the London underground, which is perhaps the most inaccessible place for disabled people ?

Mr. Scott : I was about to move on. The hon. Gentleman anticipated my next remarks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter said that it might take 20 years to make the London underground--the oldest, and probably the deepest, underground transit system in the world--accessible to passengers with disabilities. London Underground has changed its attitude--there is no doubt about that. When I speak to other audiences, I frequently quote the spokesman for London Underground who said, when he was announcing its first steps in opening up the system to wheelchair users :

"From now on we shall be finding reasons to say yes rather than excuses to say no."

If only that attitude could be transported elsewhere in our society, many of the difficulties that confront disabled people in our society might be overcome more quickly.

London Underground has provided a free access guide to each station. It recognises that it is still a long way from creating a fully accessible system, but it aims to give wheelchair users especially the right to make their own choices about where and when they travel by tube and to provide them with information to enable them to make that choice.

Freedom to travel is important in many other ways, and I am pleased that many service providers in the leisure and tourism business are giving the needs of disabled people greater priority.

Column 571

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) emphasised that the Railways Bill did not originally make provision for consultation with disabled people, but it does now place a duty on the regulator to prepare a code of practice in consultation with the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee--ADAPT--to protect the interests of disabled people. That is an important step in the right direction. Mention was made of the Museums and Galleries Commission. It recently published guidelines to be used as the basis for developing a policy on admitting and giving help to people with disabilities. Considerable work has been inspired by ADAPT, under the guidance of Geoffrey Lord, to enable proper access for the disabled to a wide range of arts venues, concert halls, museums and galleries. We still have a problem with many cinemas. When I addressed the annual conference of cinematograph owners and managers, I urged them to change their attitudes. There are signs that they are changing. The introduction of multiscreen cinemas all at ground level, allowing easier access, is making a difference. It is more difficult to adapt older cinemas, but I hope that it will be increasingly possible for proper provision to be made for disabled customers in those cinemas as well.

We are weakest in the provision of auditory aids for the deaf and hard of hearing, but cinema owners are beginning to examine ways in which they can improve that provision. I am looking for further improvements from cinema and club owners in their attitude to many disabled people who seek to use their facilities. I know that if I fail to honour that obligation, Lord Snowdon, who sits on the Cross Benches in another place, will vigorously remind me of my duties in that regard.

I return to the recurrent theme of the importance of better education and awareness of the needs and potential of disabled people. I pay particular tribute to the work of the Employers Forum on Disability. That national organisation represents some of the most important high street names in business--including Sainsbury, Abbey National, London Electricity, the Post Office and Marks and Spencer. The forum's guides on best practice in attracting disabled people as customers and employees are to be warmly applauded.

I was particularly glad two weeks ago to launch a new scheme to ensure that disabled people who need the assistance of dogs--whether guide dogs or dogs trained to help those whose hearing is impaired--and others who need the support of four-legged animals will be admitted to the food departments of Sainsbury, Marks and Spencer and other large organisations. That was a difficult barrier to overcome and many factors had to be taken into account.

The fact that a number of large providers in the retail sector found it possible to take that step will, I hope, set an example to others and, on a wider scale, persuade more retailers to acknowledge not just the social responsibility but financial advantage of attracting support from the large number of people in society who have disabilities of one sort or another.

Sainsbury, Tesco and Safeway have installed wider automatic doors and checkouts, adapted trolleys for wheelchair users and provided better signposting of goods. Progress is being made and we should recognise that, whatever view we may take of the Bill.

Access is immensely important. Building regulations

Column 572

require access and facilities for disabled people to and within new and extended non-domestic buildings. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is currently assessing whether it will be practicable to extend the scope of those requirements to non-domestic buildings subject to alteration or to change of use. I draw the attention of the hon. Members for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) to the fact that funds have now been given to Disability Action in Northern Ireland for the employment of three access officers to promote and improve access to the built environment. I hope that that will be of significant importance in Northern Ireland.

I now address the problem of facilities within our place of work, which has been mentioned. Many of us are conscious of the lack of facilities here for disabled people. Many people may well say that it is not before time that we should address that problem. An audit of the Palace of Westminster and its facilities for disabled people has been carried out by Mr. Wycliffe Noble, who has considerable expertise in that area. A series of proposals for the improvement of access for disabled people have been drawn up and are now being considered by the Accommodation and Works Committee.

Some progress has been made. I understand that £250,000 has been allocated in the immediate future for improvements to the Palace to meet the needs of disabled people. I hope that that will be only the beginning of a process that will ensure that, as soon as possible, this place--the heart of our democracy--is properly accessible to disabled people.

I pay the warmest possible tribute to the all-party group for its hard work, co-operation, energy and advice that it consistently and energetically gives me on this important matter. I have had a number of meetings with the group during the past year. It is fair to say that we have all learnt a great deal from our discussions and can whole-heartedly agree that a change in public attitudes is crucial if we are eventually to eliminate discrimination against disabled people.

I have set out to the House some of the areas where we have taken action since we debated the matter last year. I have made it clear that we will continue to examine what more needs to be done to ensure that disabled people are able to enjoy their full rights in our society. There is more to be done, and more will be done, but the House needs to look carefully at the detail of the proposed legislation to see whether it is the right way forward.

There are practical questions, some of which I have addressed, that we should not ignore. I have made it clear that the Government fully share the aim of the Bill : to eliminate discrimination against disabled people. There is no dispute about that. Our concerns are about the practicalities. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) talked about compliance cost assessments. Once the Bill has received a Second Reading-- as I expect that it will--they will be provided as soon as possible.

I have tried today to give the flavour of the progress that is being made in the United Kingdom. I am not complacent about that progress. There is still a great deal of work to be done. I believe that we are getting there and I know that we can and will increasingly create a climate in which people with disabilities can share the opportunities that we freely accept, and enjoy the life that the rest of us can take for granted.

Column 573

In closing, I repeat once more our commitment to ensuring that there is no discrimination against disabled people. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said at Question Time earlier this week : "I hope that the Bill will go into Committee for detailed examination of its provisions."--[ Official Report , 8 March 1994 ; Vol. 239, c. 148.]

I look forward to that process.

1.13 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) : The Labour party unequivocally welcomes this historic civil rights initiative. I add my congratulations and those of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry). The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks), who chided me in his speech--the only one that I had left the Chamber for, but not because of that reason--thought that I was too party political the last time we discussed this issue.

I feel a lot better about today than the last time we discussed this matter. I hope that he will find me in a different mode. After all, the Government hope to see the Bill proceed into Committee, which we very much welcome. I take it that there will not be a Whip shouting "Object", or that anyone will talk the Bill out today. Today's atmosphere is one of liberation, so I hope that I can respond to the change.

The measure has had the Labour party's full support for a considerable time. I can think of hardly a Labour Member who has not signed early-day motion No. 2 supporting the Bill. The Leader of the Opposition is an enthusiastic supporter of the rights which the measure would give disabled people. He only regrets that the Scottish Labour party conference prevents him from being here today. It is not only Labour Members who have supported the Bill. Some of us who have joined this debate a little later than others feel a sense of humility when we look around the Chamber and see the number of dedicated Members who have tried to make the Bill happen year after year. They have never given up, but have always returned to have another go. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have worked tirelessly through the all-party disablement group. I pay due credit to the many Conservative Back-Bench Members have risked their easy life on those Benches by trying to persuade the Government to change their mind and accept the principle of the Bill.

Today, the strong measure of cross-party support is demonstrated by the increased number of people who have signed the early-day motion and the almost unanimous--just one speech prevents me from saying unanimous-- support of the Bill. I am therefore optimistic that we shall succeed this time, because there has been a transformation in the mood not only of this House but of people outside. We are merely reflecting the change in public mood, not leading it ; the public mood is dictating to us.

There has been an uplifting of consciousness and political leadership among disabled people and their organisations. I pay tribute to them, because they are responsible for the change in public mood. We follow that ; we do not lead it. Disabled people have become increasingly aware of their political power and the part that they can play not only in the national political arena but by using their sheer power, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster) referred time and again.

Column 574

He pointed out that, in the average constituency, there are 10,000 disabled people, not to mention their families and carers, who are rightly learning to flex their muscles. We politicians would be foolish indeed to ignore that power, the new mood of leadership and that heightened consciousness.

As an historian, I cannot resist the temptation to outline a little of the history of the struggle for civil rights for disabled people, and to put it into context. We are all aware of the history of the Bill from the early 1980s and the brave attempts since then to bring it into law. We also know of the fine efforts which so many hon. Members have made to introduce measures that would benefit, and have benefited, disabled people. The Opposition do not say that no progress has been made. Considerable progress has been made, but we cannot get past a certain level of achievement without a legislative structure.

During the months in which I have shadowed the Secretary of State, our basic disagreement has been on how far we can get by education and persuasion. When I first came to the House in the early 1980s, I spent many Fridays in the Chamber. My first private Member's Bill was the Safety of Children in Cars Bill, which led to the seatbelt legislation. In those days, we found that we could reach 30 per cent. by persuasion--Jimmy Saville doing his "clunk-click" publicity--but we could not go further. But once we had the legislation, we zoomed up to 95 per cent. That did not mean that we did not need to continue education and persuasion in terms of transport safety but the two--education and persuasion, and legislation-- went hand in hand. That is the lesson that the Government have to learn. We need both to work together to form a successful combination.

I must mention noble Lord Ashley, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam), who have especially remarkable track records. I also mention my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), who not only introduced his own Bill--which went somewhat wider than the Bill that we are debating because it had a double side to it--but tabled an amendment to the employment legislation some years ago, which was one of the first occasions on which the House voted on such a measure. I pay tribute to all those right hon. and hon. Members and to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood.

Is it not strange that the history of the struggle for civil rights for disabled people is comparatively short ? It was initiated to a large extent by a growing awareness of the issue and some far-sighted initiatives. In this context, I again refer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe, who introduced the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1972, which, as it were, lies almost halfway between the present and the other great landmark--the sometimes underrated 1943 Second Reading of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944. There was, of course, a coalition Government during the war.

That Act was passed 50 years ago and the "Wythenshawe Act", if I may call it that, was passed about 27 years later, halfway between the great landmark and the present day. In other words, there have not been many landmarks in terms of initiatives and progress. The 1944 landmark was underrated but it has been rightly criticised today. By golly, why should it not have been uprated, brushed off and modified ? I think that we all

Column 575

support the principle of the 1944 Act, but no one would claim that nothing could be done to upgrade and improve it, and make it more workable in new circumstances.

In a sense, the struggle for civil rights for disabled people had failed, certainly in the 1960s--a crucial period--to match the momentum of civil rights for women and ethnic minorities to which many hon. Members eloquently referred. That is surprising, because discrimination against disabled people is evident throughout recorded history.

For those who are so minded, it can be traced through literature, theatre, novels and medical treatises. Discrimination against this minority has an ancient and shameful pedigree. There is a catalogue of discrimination, neglect and hardship endured by many men and women, with just the few bright interludes to which I referred. So much territory has been covered today that I shall concentrate on one or two aspects of the Bill--what it could achieve and the criticism that, if it became law, it would somehow cost the taxpayer, the private sector and the country dear. If my colleagues will allow me, it is to those aspects that I shall direct most of my remarks. Dear old Ernest Bevin got it right in the famous debate in 1943 on what was then the Disabled Persons (Employment) Bill. He was answering critics who said that the Bill would be costly and was being introduced only as a reflection of the "poignancy of war"--what a lovely expression. His language is a little archaic, but it is good none the less. In winding up the debate, he said :

"No, it has not been the poignancy of war which has led to this ; it has been the terrible cost to the nation and to the individual that has forced this matter upon our minds. I saw the other day a note in one of our papers to the effect that this Bill was going to cost £3 million. It will add to the national income by many hundred of millions. It is an investment. It may be a charge on the Exchequer, but . . . the thing that influences my mind in all these problems is how many man-hours of production I can get to add to the total national wealth".--[ Official Report ; Vol.395, c.1345.]

That was especially important, as we were at the height of hostilities.

Those remarks, that the Bill will cost, could be directly addressed to the Bill's critics 50 years later, but the other side of that argument is that the Bill will liberate talent, resources and energies which will repay a thousandfold the cost of which anyone is speaking in the House.

Civil rights for disabled people are an investment in lives, in hopes and in opportunities. If we liberate disabled people and enable them to use their abilities, talents and labour, as a country we shall reap a rich reward. Yes, there will be an initial charge on the Exchequer, but we shall enrich our nation in every way.

That brings me to the heart of matter, which we cannot evade and which many of us have mentioned. Does discrimination exist ? I do not want to tell the House that discrimination exists. The experts in the House know that it exists. I not sure whether all hon. Members realise that it exists. We only have to listen to the disabled lobby and to disabled people.

We have all the methods by which to do that and they have all been tried-- opinion polls, personal interviews and so on. The message is loud and clear, as it was at the lobby in the past week, that people are discriminated against, they feel that discrimination bitterly and they want an end to it. That is why the Bill is before the House, and that is why we must get it into Committee and on to the statute book.

Column 576

We all have poignant feelings about the lobby in the past week. The most poignant moment for me, which I must share with the House, was when two young deaf girls talked to me through a signer. There is a crisis over signers, because of the terrible dearth of them in the courts and everywhere one goes. Even if one can use an interpreter, there is a crisis in their availability to enable deaf people to participate and to converse.

One of the wonderful things that the all-party disablement group and Victoria Scott have done is to enable days when one can go to constituents who are deaf, have interpretation provided and have a proper political debate and discussion. One does not get an easy time, whatever the political party.

I asked the young girl why she did not get into politics, because we needed more women in Parliament and we needed more people with a disability as representatives in the House, which is evident if one looks around the Chamber today. The girl asked : "How do I start ?" She said that she could not even go to a political meeting or to a ward meeting to have a discourse, because there was no signer. It suddenly came to me that that young girl of 17 or 18 years old, at the beginning of her life, was totally inhibited from doing what we all did--become politicians and get involved in the political discourse--because they have no ability to do so. We must do something about that situation, whether through Emily's List or the 300 Group. We need a new initiative to enable access for people with disability, not only to the House--that is important, as the Minister and so many other people have said--but to political discourse. I hope that we can do something for that young woman.

Yes, there is discrimination ; and no, the path of education and persuasion on its own will not do. Perhaps attitudes have changed. Language has changed. We have had the debate on political correctness, and if one goes to the far extreme of that concept in this sphere, one is frightened of saying anything. A lot of gross and vile language has disappeared, is no longer acceptable, and if people use it, they are frozen out of conversation and are disapproved of. I approve of that. If that is politically correct, "right on", as we used to say. There have been changes and no one would say otherwise, but in fighting so many years of great prejudice and discrimination, it is not enough to educate and to persuade. We need the legislation, because so many hundreds of years of prejudice lie behind the issue.

Consider the record of achievement of disabled people through the eyes of one leading campaigner, Richard Wood at the British Council of Disabled. I hope that the Minister is listening, because he knows Richard well. When I talked to Richard only yesterday, he said : "Education and persuasion has achieved 60 per cent. unemployment, 50 per cent. of children in segregated schools, 80 per cent. dependence on social security, no coherent policy on transport or housing all against a background of pervasive unfair discrimination."

That is how one disabled person thinks about the matter and describes it. I believe that he is right ; we need the legislation. The momentum towards securing civil rights legislation is unstoppable. Thank goodness the Minister and the Prime Minister have said that the Bill will be considered in Committee. I warn the Minister that we shall go for all-party agreement as far as we can get it, but that, if the

Column 577

Government try to stifle the Bill in Committee, there will be a row to end all rows. The truth is that the legislation is unstoppable. We and disabled people themselves will not let it be stopped. I repeat Ernest Bevin's words. In that famous debate, he said : "I know that this is a subject which has been boiling in the body politic for some time."

That is the politician's job. He meant that he did not invent the subject and that other politicians had not invented it, but that they could recognise--I love the language--that it was

"a subject which has been boiling in the body politic for some time. All that has fallen from my hon. Friends and myself to-day has been with the object of crystallising the desire for action and putting it fully before hon. Members in a Bill which will, I hope, remove forever a blot from our national life."--[ Official Report , 10 December 1943 ; Vol. 395, c. 1346.]

That is precisely what we are about today. We are trying to remove a blot from our public life.

Our role in the House today is to crystallise the desire for action, felt by the electorate, by disabled people and by their leaders, to remove a blot from our national life and to introduce a liberating, comprehensive civil rights bill for disabled people. 1.31 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North) : I am sure that the House is indebted to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) for his historic digest of the matters before us today. I associate myself and my fellow Members with his tributes to those who have fought long and hard to come to this day. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) on introducing the Bill in the House today. All of us who have been in the House and who have witnessed the strong and courageous stand taken on these matters by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) salute him today and pay tribute to his courage, persistence and patience.

I am probably the only Northern Irish Member who will have an opportunity to address the House today. As such, I tell the House that we are grateful and indebted to the hon. Member for Kingswood and to the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe because, when they have sponsored such legislation, they have added the words :

"This Act extends to Northern Ireland."

I put on record today the indebtedness of the people of Northern Ireland, and especially the disabled people of Northern Ireland, for that. Those words are deeply appreciated.

The debate today is not about privilege ; it is about rights. I have done pastoral work for a long time and I know that people with a disability do not want preference, pity or patronage ; they want equality. The debate today concerns the belief that they should have equality and that they should be on a level with the rest of the community. People with a disability could have a tremendous input in our communities. I trust that today we shall enable them to go about their business normally and to have the privileges that others enjoy.

A few weeks ago a woman from Belfast went to the rates collection agency to pay her rates bill. One would think that the authorities would be glad when people were prepared to pay their rate bills. She arrived at the office with her four-year-old disabled son. She was told that she could not gain access to the building unless she agreed to take her child from his wheelchair and carry him up two

Column 578

flights of steps. When she reached the ground floor, she saw a lift and asked whether she could use it. She was told that it was for staff only.

That is discrimination against a disabled person and the person who takes care of him. We are discussing such cases rather belatedly. Some hon. Members have spoken of money. Take it or leave it, money will have to be spent. From a financial point of view, it would be better for money to be spent now because costs are always increasing, just as it would be better to replace transport now rather than later. Now is the time to be getting on with the job of looking after disabled people.

Many issues spring to mind. The first is public buildings. The vast majority of public buildings in Northern Ireland do not have the facilities that they should have. Disabled citizens cannot even attend a public meeting in their town hall because there is no wheelchair access. They are excluded from restaurants and cinemas because owners regard them as a fire hazard--or that is the excuse that is given.

We should face the issue realistically. I hope that the Minister is not sweeping the matter under the carpet. I was surprised when I received a copy of the Minister's letter--it may have been sent to me by mistake because I sit on these Benches. The third paragraph says :

"Whilst the Government share the overall aims of supporters of anti- discrimination legislation, we believe that the best approach to eliminating discrimination is through a vigorous programme of increasing awareness, education and persuasion, backed up by targeted legislation, where necessary. Comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation would present practical difficulties, lead to increased litigation and unquantifiable costs for business and tax-payers." The Minister has visited Northern Ireland, where he stepped into a minefield of controversy with regard to employment in Northern Ireland and religious discrimination. It is interesting to note that a Protestant, not a Roman Catholic, received the largest sum of money ever paid to an employee through the Fair Employment Agency, so there is discrimination. The Minister was all for a commission when he was on the other side of the Irish sea, but now he tells us that the commission will present difficulties.

Without a commission, the legislation will not be applied effectively. I am delighted that it is envisaged that the commission will include a large majority of disabled people, who will be able to monitor properly the application of every law passed by the House. There will be costs, but it is a tall order to say that costs cannot be quantified. For the Minister to say today that he will quantify them and announce what he thinks they will be shows that at least we have made some progress.

As I heard the Minister speaking so ably at the Dispatch Box today, I was reminded of what was said in our old Stormont Parliament about one of the Ministers there : he had the perfect bedside manner. I only hope that the Minister does not intend to bury this Bill or to give it a lethal injection. The Bill needs to survive and to go into Committee. The principle must not be tampered with in Committee. It needs to remain intact, because it is only by building on that principle that we can give disabled people their rights and their equality.

I trust that today a blow will be struck in this House towards those ends, and that this great goal will be achieved.

Next Section

  Home Page