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House of Commons

Friday 29 April 1994

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]

Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill

9.34 am

Sir John Hannam (Exeter) : I beg to move,

That, in the opinion of this House, Her Majesty's Ministers should provide sufficient time on the floor of the House before 27th May 1994 to allow all remaining stages of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill to be completed, and that sufficient time be provided before the end of the Session for the consideration of any Amendments to the Bill which may be made by the House of Lords.

The motion asks hon. Members to approve a resolution calling on the Government to provide the necessary parliamentary time for an important private Member's Bill to proceed. There are many hon. Members who support the Bill, but are unable to be here today. There are also many hon. Members who are present and will participate in today's debate.

There is one right hon. and learned Member who I particularly wish was present today--the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith), who is paying a visit to my constituency today. I was unable to persuade him to give up that trip to come here instead.

Last November, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) came seventh in the ballot. Although that is not a prime position for parliamentary time, it was very much to the delight of the all-party disablement group and all the disability organisations outside that the hon. Gentleman took the opportunity to introduce a Bill that had previously passed through all its stages in the House of Lords, had been sponsored by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and had come to this House, only narrowly to fail to obtain a Second Reading.

The Bill introduces comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation for disabled people, and seeks to outlaw discrimination on the ground of disability in every section of life--education, employment, training, banking, insurance, and access to buildings, houses and leisure and transport facilities.

Today's debate is not a debate on the Government's record in the subject. I am proud of the many advances achieved in recent years. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People knows of my admiration for the work he does for disabled people. The Government share our overall objective of removing discrimination, but we differ on the means and the paths of achieving it, which is why the Bill has been introduced.

Once the hon. Member for Kingswood announced his intention to promote the Bill, disabled people across the country began a vigourous and disciplined campaign in support. On 9 March, more than 2,000 disabled people, and their friends and relatives, lobbied the House and Members of Parliament asking them to vote for the Bill's Second Reading. Two days later, 231 hon. Members did just that,

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and no one voted against. With that unanimous vote the House expressed its opposition to discrimination against disabled people. The vote signalled to employers, service provides and disabled people that Parliament takes the issue seriously. We are determined to legislate to end discrimination.

My motion seeks to renew the commitment made on 11 March, and asks the Government not to let such a serious and well-supported commitment become a hostage to the restrictions of the parliamentary timetable. There is ample historical precedent for the Government allowing a private Member's Bill to progress. Rarely has there been a Bill more worthy of reordering parliamentary business.

I shall outline what happened to the Bill in Committee. Just before Easter, the Committee discussing the Bill sat for the first time and we moved a timetable motion expressing our willingness to sit mornings and evenings, Tuesdays and Wednesdays to give us sufficient time to look at the provisions of the Bill in detail, as the Prime Minister had requested on the Floor of the House.

It was with considerable disappointment therefore that members of the Committee greeted the Government's decision not to table any amendments in Committee, especially as that seemed to be contrary to the wishes that the Prime Minister had expressed in his statement on 8 March. However, sponsors and supporters of the Bill tabled amendments in Committee, listened to the concerns of opponents of the Bill and accepted the principle behind amendments suggested by others.

After three intense sittings of the Committee, we were all agreed that the Bill had been examined in detail and improved, and that it was now ready to return to the Floor of the House for its Report stage.

More than 20 amendments were discussed in Committee. Some extended the provisions of the Bill to telecommunication provision for people with sensory disabilities. The employment provision was extended to employers of fewer than 20 people. As 97 per cent. of the population are employed in small businesses and other such outfits, it was necessary to ensure that people would be covered against onerous responsibilities by the introduction of such phrases as "reasonable accommodation" and "undue hardship". We amended the Bill to ensure that that was the case.

The Bill was also extended to encompass domestic new buildings. For many years, we have been involved in a campaign for a reasonable standard of accessibility to be incorporated automatically into all new domestic buildings.

Other amendments dealt with the language of disability and the terms used. We changed, for example, the words "people with disabilities" to "disabled people". The disablement commission was changed to the Disability Rights Commission. Some amendments dealt with the workings and responsibilities of the commission. The commission was given duties instead of functions. A detailed procedure was set out in terms of

"consultation with Parliament before the Commission could issue its Codes of Practice."

The principle of consulting employment organisations was accepted, which is an important point.

We all accept that employers are apprehensive about the Bill's cost implications. That is why we had meetings with the Employers Forum on Disability, and why we are setting up meetings with the Institute of Directors and the Confederation of British Industry.

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On 22 April, the CBI wrote to ask for consultation. A letter that I received from Howard Davies, the director- general of the CBI, contained two important passages. He wrote :

"The first concern is that, while there is clearly a need for a new legislative framework"

a key phrase

"to protect people with disabilities in employment, and possibly in other areas, to introduce such legislation without consulting employers and other groups that will be instrumental in ensuring that such legislation is effective is unlikely to produce the best solution. There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration, and which could be tackled in a consultation exercise."

He then lists those factors, which we have discussed. He continues :

"I also hope that you will be able to support the proposal that I am making to the Secretaries of State concerned with this area. I am suggesting that Government should acknowledge the need for action in the areas highlighted by the Bill and bring forward its own White Paper on the civil rights of people with disabilities. I hope that my comments also demonstrate that the CBI would want to make a positive and constructive contribution to that process."

That is a significant letter. It suggests a White Paper and it shows that the biggest employer organisation in the country wants action on civil rights for disabled people.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) : Did the hon. Gentleman gain the impression that the CBI was seeking a White Paper as a substitute for the Bill, or to supplement and complement it ?

Sir John Hannam : The CBI recognises that the Government have difficulties in accepting the Bill. That is a realistic appraisal. It wants to have consultations and is setting up meetings, but it is moving from basic stand-off hostility to the concept of legislation. That letter clearly shows that the CBI recognises that there is a need for action in employment and other sectors. It is saying that the Government cannot just stand back ; that they must move forward ; and that, if the Bill is not acceptable to them, they must produce a White Paper that will show their intent. The CBI has taken a significant step.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting) : Has the hon. Gentleman had any discussions with the Institute of Directors ? Today, I received through the post, as possibly other hon. Members have, the May edition of "Disability Now" in which Lord Young, the president of the Institute of Directors, is highly critical of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Dr. Berry).

Sir John Hannam : We are having a dialogue and setting up a meeting with the Institute of Directors, which has expressed hostility to the Bill. It is probably the one organisation that has expressed the greatest hostility, representing the fears, which I mentioned earlier, of the business sector.

The business sector in the United States also had those fears when it went through the same process. We hope to set up discussions with the CBI and the Institute of Directors to start reassuring them and to explain that not only costs but benefits are involved. One has to be realistic and include costs and benefits in any analysis of the effects of the Bill.

In Committee, we extended the powers of the Secretary of State to exempt certain categories of covered entities.

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We proposed an amendment to allow for much longer phase-in periods for compliance with the requirements of the Bill. That is an important factor and will be of significant reassurance to the Institute of Directors, the CBI, businesses and the Federation of Small Businesses. That amendment is a reaction to, and should reassure the fears expressed over, the possible costs of immediate implementation of statutory legislation on adaptation to buildings and equipment.

The amendments showed that the promoters and supporters of the Bill had acted, in the absence of any amendments from the Government, as a respectable mouthpiece and channel for the concerns expressed outside.

Members of the all-party disablement group and the disability lobby have approached the Prime Minister, Secretaries of State and the organisations that oppose the Bill. We have offered to meet them and to discuss concerns about the legislation's effects. Meetings are now being arranged. Unlike most private Member's Bills, which emerge from Committee basically unamended, this one was improved in Committee. It is ready for and deserving of a full Report stage.

As I mentioned, the Institute of Directors, the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses have expressed their concerns about the Bill's provisions. The CBI has expressed rational and valid misgivings about its effect on businesses. Those echo the concerns that were expressed in the United States, where people were worried about the effect of the Americans with Disabilities Act on their businesses. Like the American legislation, our Bill safeguards business interests with clauses that include such terms as "reasonable accommodation" and "undue hardship", which are further backed up by the long phasing-in periods for the most inaccessible and expensive facilities.

This week, I received a letter from America from the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which has a membership of about 263,000 businesses. In that organisation, Jennifer Ley deals specifically with the effects of the American legislation. She writes : "I must admit some shock at the temerity of your UK colleagues in the business community. As you will find in the US General Accounting Office Report, ADA, Initial Accessibility' . . . business response (in America) has been very positive to the ADA. In as much as the BBB bureau system has as its members some 263,000 businesses I can tell that the response that we have received from businesses has been very positive."

She goes on :

"I must also point out that the financial burdens your opponents quote are not quite accurate. In the case of new construction the requirements of"

the legislation in the United States

"only increase the original price by 1 per cent. The buying power of 49 million people and the addition to the workforce are also factors they have neglected to mention."

I must stress that the only people who need be afraid of this legislation are those who have not properly read the Bill, and those who wish to continue unfairly to discriminate against disabled people.

There are, of course, many misconceptions about the Bill, and I shall try to clarify some of them. There is a misconception that the Bill would require an employer to hire a disabled person even if he were not best suited to the job, but that is not true. The Bill is not a positive discrimination Bill, but would give disabled people the right to legal redress if they felt that they had been discriminated against unreasonably.

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A further misconception is that all buildings would have to be made accessible immediately, whatever the cost involved and whatever the size of the building. Again, that is just not true. As I have already said, that would be prevented by the use of terms such as "reasonable accommodation" and "undue hardship", and long phase-in periods where appropriate.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire) : Does my hon. Friend feel that such provisions water down the Bill too much ?

Sir John Hannam : No, they follow the pattern of the American experience where, after negotiations with all the representative bodies involved, a solution was reached which allowed a suitable phase-in period. In fact, that period was up to 20 years. Let us consider transport systems for a moment. It would be ridiculous to expect our underground system to be adapted for disabled people within a week, six months or a year. It will take a very long time and will have to be carefully planned and phased in, all of which, now that the Bill has been amended, would come under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of State.

We have not laid down a fixed period for implementation of the Bill's provisions. In America, a period of 20 years was laid down but, because of the concerns expressed, we have gone further and left it to the Secretary of State to work out the length of time that would be necessary for the changes to be made. I hope that that explains the reassurances given in the Bill. The Bill will not lose its effectiveness, because such legislation can change the climate overnight.

Another fear that has been expressed, and which is connected to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant), is that the Bill would bankrupt small businesses and create financial hardship among many commercial interests. Again, that is not true. In addition to the legal reassurances in the Bill, practical reassurance is available from the experience of business in the United States. As I said on Second Reading, there have been no business collapses as a result of the 1990 legislation in America. The Institute of Directors claimed that it would be cheaper to provide disabled people with separate special facilities instead of improving access in general. I do not believe that the institute understands the basic concept of equality which underlies anti-discrimination legislation. It also severely underestimates the role that disabled people can play in the economy once workplaces become accessible to them.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest) : One of the complaints made by the Institute of Directors in particular was that there had been no prior consultation with business organisations before the Bill was drafted, and that what was inevitably a difficult matter--the attempt to quantify the cost to business of such legislation--became even more important. What consultation is now taking place with businesses, the Institute of Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses or the Confederation of British Industry ?

Sir John Hannam : At the Prime Minister's behest, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People consulted on anti-discrimination legislation. At the same time, meetings were taking place between

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the all-party disablement group and the Employers Forum on Disability to discuss the implications of the Bill. I should not like to go too far, but I think that we have been able to persuade members of the forum that there was a sound case for the presentation of this legislation. In this connection, I have quoted from a letter written by the director-general of the CBI, and we are now setting up meetings with the other two organisations that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Another misconception that has been peddled is that the Bill would require employers to pay equal wages to less productive employees, but that is not true. The Bill would cover only qualified individuals, by whom I mean disabled people who would otherwise fit the criteria for a vacancy, but who might need some accommodation of their disability in order for them to be able to carry out the essential functions of the job.

That notion is also embodied in the access to work provisions now coming from the Department of Employment. I hope that the provision will clear up any misconception that the Bill would require employers to open up positions of employment for all the wrong reasons. I believe that I reflect the views of most hon. Members when I say that disabled people want to be able to pay their taxes, to go to work and to live reasonably, just like everyone else. It is as simple as that. I hope that I have cleared up some of the unfounded fears expressed by opponents of the Bill.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury) : Part IV deals with the provision of goods and services, and clause 6 contains a fairly long list of bodies and organisations that must provide facilities for the disabled. It will clearly involve a great deal of money. My hon. Friend mentioned a phase-in period of 20 years in the United States, but I can find no mention of a phase-in period in the Bill. As I understand it, organisations will be required to provide the necessary facilities overnight.

Sir John Hannam : If my hon. Friend reads the amendments that were made in Committee, he will realise that the reverse is the case. It is true that the unamended Bill laid down a five-year period for implementation, but the Committee considered that that was too short. We therefore made the phase-in period open-ended, at the discretion of the Secretary of State. We have allowed a longer period than that in the United States, because we took account of the fears that were being expressed.

However, some things can be done literally overnight, as I shall show later. In the United States, a vast raft of access was provided overnight by many employers who had always been able to do so but had never bothered because there had been no requirement that they should not discriminate against disabled people. The psychological factor can determine a sea change in attitude towards disabled people. The Bill received an unopposed Second Reading, and was thoroughly examined in detail in Committee. It should now be allowed to pass through the rest of its stages, with both Houses being given the opportunity to express their views on an extremely important subject. We need the Government to show that they are serious, and the best way to do that would be for them to allow Government time for the remaining stages.

Disabled people have waited too long to the Bill for it to be killed by parliamentary procedure. We should not be

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doing ourselves any favours by hiding our concerns behind excuses of timetables and so on, especially when the Bill's sponsors have shown such willingness to discuss the concerns of others and, where reasonable, to meet them halfway.

I have received many letters from organisations representing disabled people and from disabled people themselves. I shall read from a couple to give some flavour of the feelings of many organisations and people outside. In a letter dated 21 April, the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People wrote : "It would be very sad if Disabled People failed to gain full and equal rights due to parliamentary procedure, particularly when so many of you"

Members of Parliament

"clearly support the Bill."

A letter from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People states :

" Much excitement has been generated throughout the deaf and hard of hearing communities at the degree of support the Bill has received from all sides of the House : And I know every one of the 7.5 million people who have some hearing loss throughout the UK would . . . wish you every success next week."

There are many other letters from which I could quote for half an hour or an hour.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those organisations would be dismayed if sufficient time were not allowed for the Bill, especially in the light of rumours going around the Palace that the House will probably rise for the summer recess earlier than we have done for many years ?

Sir John Hannam : I welcome that intervention. If I was making an objective analysis of the parliamentary programme, I would say that there was not a great deal of business to keep us here late into the summer. The Government therefore cannot use the argument that we have such a crowded timetable that time cannot be found.

The Government must consider granting the extra time, for several reasons. First, support for the Bill is overwhelming. All the national disability organisations--I have mentioned one or two--the House of Lords, the all- party disablement group and the majority of hon. Members, including a growing number of Conservative Back-Bench Members, have expressed their support for comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation.

Secondly, the Prime Minister expressed a desire for the Bill to be examined in detail, and individual Secretaries of State have said that they are looking with interest at the Committee record ; they have stated that in answers to parliamentary questions and in letters. The Prime Minister and Secretaries of State should be given the opportunity to discuss their position on the Bill on the Floor of the House during later stages.

Thirdly, when a Bill has such support and is the subject of such attention from the general public and from 6.5 million disabled people, it should be allowed to be voted on, and not left to fall foul of the parliamentary timetable.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : I fully agree with the argument that there is plenty of time in this parliamentary Session to get the Bill through. Last year, Parliament sat for only seven months out of 12, so there would have been time then. The chances are that we shall not sit much longer this year.

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There is another way in which the Bill can complete its parliamentary progress. I have consulted my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). We use this debate as an opportunity for the Government to respond. Opposition Front-Bench Members would seriously consider granting half an Opposition day--our parliamentary time--if the Government would guarantee to give the other half and would give a guarantee to get the Bill through, as has been the case for many private Members' Bills in the past. If the Government responded to that, the Bill would get on the statute book.

Sir John Hannam : I am sure that ways have been found in the past, as the hon. Member says, in which to provide the time. There are all sorts of different ways, and I hope that we shall get some positive proposals from the Government once the House has passed the motion overwhelmingly today. That is the key first step.

We know that some hon. Members may have serious concerns about the drafting of the legislation. The sponsors and supporters of the Bill have expressed- -indeed, we have acted on--a willingness to listen and to take on board those concerns whenever they complement the overall aim of eliminating discrimination against disabled people. The current situation has been going on for too long. The Bill is the 13th attempt to introduce such legislation. Over past years, the subject has been taken up by individual Members who have received through their post bags and through surgery doors many examples of discrimination.

At the Prime Minister's behest, the all-party disablement group was involved with discussions with the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People. After several months of discussions, the officers of the group decided that the Government's approach, which had the same objective of removing discrimination, but by means of education and persuasion alone, Department by Department, was insufficient as a strategy for ending discrimination against disabled people. I now turn to the procedural aspects of the motion. I know that I am not exactly the flavour of the month with my Whips Office for choosing this opportunity to table a motion calling on them to find extra time for a private Member's Bill. I also know that they understand my motives for doing so, and my deep conviction that I must do everything possible to assist the cause of removing unfair discrimination.

Private Members' Bills and their procedure would confuse and intimidate anyone. It is to the credit of the hon. Member for Kingswood that he has been able to pilot the Bill so smoothly so far in its proceedings. It would baffle and anger even our greatest cynics if the Bill were to be left hanging in mid-air when so much work has been undertaken by so many people, inside and outside Parliament, to see it through its previous stages.

We all know that procedure can be used to stop unpopular or contentious Bills progressing through the private Member's Bill channels, yet this Bill is neither contentious nor unpopular. Even those with concerns about the details of the Bill support its underlying aim of ridding society of unfair discrimination against disabled people. As we have already seen, the Bill has the support not only of the majority of the House of Commons, but of the majority of the House of Lords.

The history of private Members' Bills suggests that Bills that receive an uncontested Second Reading progress

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through the remaining stages even if the Government have to give extra time for them to do so. In the 1979-80 Session, the Representation of the People Bill achieved an unopposed Second Reading with 42 minutes of debate. It passed through its Committee stage when it was approved with no discussion by a Committee of the whole House. The Bill's Report and Third Reading stages were taken on the nod on the fifth day.

Two of the most contentious post-war private Members' Bills, the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Bill and the Abortion Bill of 1967, provide ample evidence of Bills that could not have been enacted within the time allotted to private Members' Bills. Indeed, the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Bill had an extra day provided by the Government to allow it to complete its Report stage. As one political commentator writes :

"All the classic private Members' legislation of the 1960s obtained Government time, and none of the Bills involved would have received Royal Assent without the additional time."

Leo Abse's Sexual Offences Bill was introduced as a ten-minute Bill in the 1966-67 Session. It had an unopposed Second Reading, and he persuaded the Government to give the Bill Government time in Committee. On Report, the Bill again ran out of time, so the Government agreed to provide an extra Friday. After that extra day, the Bill still had not finished its Report stage, so the Government offered more time on a Monday. The House sat from 10 pm until 5.50 am the following morning. Hon. Members would be willing to do the same to get this legislation through.

The very important Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970--the "Alf Morris Act" promoted by the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe--was given extra time by the Government so that it could complete its parliamentary progress.

We are not asking for the impossible or even for the original. Between 1951 and 1985, 64 private Members' Bills were given Government time, of which 33 were granted extra time by Conservative Governments. Library records show that, between 1979 and 1986, four private Members' balloted Bills were given Government time. All those Bills show that, where there is a parliamentary will, there is a parliamentary way.

I am not asking the Government to create a precedent. I have looked at the Library's books and records on the matter. The final paragraph of the Library's book on Government and private Members' Bills makes interesting reading. It says :

"In conclusion. The pattern which emerges is clear. The Government is crucially involved in the private members' bills legislative process. In fact, it is the key actor. Most importantly, it is evident that most successful back-bench Bills are now Government Bills in all but name. None of this means that the Government is totally omnipotent. As we shall see later, the MPs and interest groups involved with promoting private members' business have some ways of fighting back--but they are very limited."

That is a good analysis of the situation that we face.

There is no reason why private Members' Bills should not occupy Government time if the Government are willing, or parliamentary time if Parliament approves. If the Government do not give the Bill adequate time, disabled people and the general public will know that the Bill did not succeed because the Government opposed it. What is worse is that they will know that the Government did not openly oppose it. They will know that the Government would not give each Member of Parliament the opportunity to vote on an issue that affects,

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on average, 10,000 of his or her constituents. They would know that, instead, the Government used parliamentary procedures to block the Bill, when they could just as easily have used parliamentary procedures to help it through.

As joint chairman of the all-party disablement group and one of the sponsors of the Bill, I urge all hon. Members to support the motion which calls for adequate time to be given to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill so that it can complete its remaining stages. Let us take this opportunity to put paid, once and for all, to the shameful exclusion of disabled people from our society.

10.9 am

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) on his good luck in the ballot and, of course, on his excellent choice of motion.

I was serving with other members of the Standing Committee who were considering the Bill at its last sitting when it was announced that the hon. Member had come top in the ballot for private Member's motions. I can assure the House that the enthusiasm and the excitement of hon. Members in that Committee was probably rivalled only by the enthusiasm and excitement for that result in the Government Whips Office. It was cheered warmly by all members of the Committee, who saw it as an opportunity, as the hon. Member for Exeter has said, of furthering a laudable Bill.

Why is the motion necessary ? The history of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill clearly shows why we need to ask the Government for sufficient time to complete its remaining stages. It is extremely important to say that, when I was lucky in the ballot for private Members' Bills early in this Session and I chose to pick up the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, it was not a new idea. It was not a new Bill. The case for comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation to protect disabled people had been around for a very long time, and the details of the Bill proposed at Second Reading had been available for all interested parties for well over two years. In addition to paying tribute to the hon. Member for Exeter and all right hon. and hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee, for whom the House ought to express its gratitude, I especially pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris). It would be extraordinary if I did not do so, because, as the first Minister for Disabled People, he commissioned a committee of inquiry early in 1979 to examine the issue.

However, consideration of the matter goes back further than 1979, because disabled people and their organisations were campaigning for the precise provisions in the Bill in the early 1970s. But, in early 1979, my right hon. Friend set up a committee on restrictions against disabled people and, as we all know, that committee reported to the Government in 1982. Its report was available 12 years ago for all who wished to consult it.

Three of the recommendations in that report are three of the essential pillars in the Bill before the House : first, there should be legislation to make discrimination on the ground of disability illegal : secondly, the law should cover all areas where discrimination occurs : thirdly, there should be a regulatory body or a commission with powers to investigate, conciliate and, if necessary, take legal action on individual complaints of discrimination.

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The basic principles of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill have been a matter for public debate for at least 12 years. Consultation on the present form of the Bill, as I shall say again in a moment, is welcome, and along with my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter--sorry. I am sorry if I have got the hon. Member for Exeter into even more trouble with his Whips by referring to him as an hon. Friend. However, I must say that I regard him as both a friend and as honourable.

Of course, as the hon. Member for Exeter said, we have met various organisations, and we have given an unqualified commitment to meet any organisations which have a legitimate interest in the Bill, but the proposals have been on the table for 12 years. Over that time, any organisation could have asked to see the Minister, the Secretary of State, the all-party disablement group, or anybody concerned with the Bill. Indeed, many of those organisations have done that. So let us be clear about consultation. It is right and proper that we should consult as much as we can before Report, and that is happening, but there have also been many years during which that consultation could and did take place. The Bill is not new, and the provisions are not new.

Mr. Rowlands : In the light of what my hon. Friend and others have said, does that not mean that the argument of lack of consultation cannot possibly be used as an alibi to impede the progress of the Bill ? Surely the Bill is absolutely justifiable. It has had a great deal of consultation, it has had 10 years of thorough preparation and therefore should be carried forward.

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