Previous Section Home Page

Column 517

If that is not a ringing endorsement of the Bill, nothing is. It is a ringing endorsement of what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood is trying to do in his Bill.

The Prime Minister continued :

"These are the instincts of a free people ; an enterprising people ; a generous people ; a tolerant people. We believe in fostering freedom by giving people more power to choose for themselves. We believe in fostering tolerance by respecting the individual ; by recognising every citizen's power to choose . . . we have four cardinal principles : the principles of choice, ownership, responsibility and opportunity for all."

That is the most extensive quotation from the Prime Minister that I have ever made, but I make the point to Conservative Members. He continued :

"we have always worked to meet people's aspiration to own their own homes ; to have greater opportunities for themselves and their children ; to enjoy the respect that follows from the exercise of choice. This has always been a great Tory tradition--a continuous thread in our thinking. When Disraeli spoke of the elevation of the condition of the people' he made it clear, even then, that he meant all the people : all the numerous classes of the realm, classes alike and equal before the law'. If this was not exactly a classless society', it already expressed many of the aspirations of one : the equal treatment of all citizens by the state, and the chance of advancement for all."

I am tempted to say that my case rests. Our case for the Bill rests because the Prime Minister and, I am sure, the hon. Member for Exeter will appreciate those quotations.

We have a Government and a Prime Minister in his most thoughtful mode giving the basis of what he sees as opportunities for all. We are talking today about opportunities for all disabled people. I do not want to leave my quotations with the Prime Minister. Some Conservative Members do not listen only to the Prime Minister. Although some of them respect him as a Prime Minister, they do not respect him as a party philosopher, an ideologue or a great thinker about the future of Conservatism.

However, Conservative Members might listen to two other voices which I shall quote briefly. The first is the Secretary of State for Social Security, the right hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Lilley). [ Laughter .] In some wings of the party, he is seen as an ideologue and guru. He gave an important speech to The Spectator annual lecture on Wednesday 30 March 1994. That is the right-wing journal, not the spectator sport publication.

The right hon. Gentleman's speech was entitled--a somewhat hackneyed title- -"Conservative Ideas and Ideals Will Continue to Triumph". That was quite as stirring as the Prime Minister's title. He said : "The intellectual tide which dominated the 80s is still flowing powerfully in our direction. Ideas of choice and competition, less government rather than more, self-reliance rather than

dependency--still ring true with most people's experience and chime with their values."

Speaking of his long-term review of social security, he said that the Government's aim was

"also to reform the Social Security system on Conservative principles to make it a better system. That means, first encouraging personal responsibility. Second, we must try to reduce

disincentives--to work, save, and provide for one's own family. That is why we introduced Family Credit. And why I am introducing a disregard for child care costs to help parents return to work. Third, we must focus help on those in need . . . we should redouble our efforts to reduce other people's dependency--on government in general and local government in particular."

It is interesting to note that the right hon. Gentleman concluded his speech with a quote from Churchill. He said :


Column 518

" Trust the people'. Winston Churchill's own words express the thought better than I or anyone else could manage : Let the people use their good common sense, multiply the choices which are open to them at every difficult phase in their lives. Make freedom spring from its source in their hearts and then indeed you will have a country which with wise government may be made to play a great part in the world.'"

I am sure that Conservative Members would agree that that is yet another endorsement of the Bill. It has been offered from one of their own Secretaries of State or, in common parlance, it is straight from right hon. Gentleman's box.

I want to finish with a quote from the real high priest of the Conservative party and I know that you will enjoy it, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Last Friday, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo), made a speech to the North-East Fife Conservative Association. He said :

"I have no doubt at all the philosophy that shapes Conservative policy is closest to the beliefs of the majority of the British people.

We understand that it is our first duty to govern for the nation as a whole, not for partisan interests, to take decisions which will be judged wise in the long term, not just popular in the short term, to pursue the difficult virtues of thrift and providence rather than the easy option of satisfying every immediate demand."

One of the most marked features of the Bill is that it is not the result of yesterday's latest campaign. It is the result of one of the longest running political campaigns. Twelve attempts have been made to introduce such a Bill and this is the 13th. It is the culmination of years and years of effort by tens of thousands of people and hundreds of organisations. Those people do not represent a few siren voices.

I know that Conservative Members are obsessed with the notion of a few people. It brings to mind the popular expression of Burke about the crickets chirping under the leaves--there may have been many cows in the field, but all that could be heard were those half a dozen crickets. Conservative ideologues are keen to argue that we should listen to the quiet majority. It is interesting to recall that a year ago the Prime Minister described it as the "silent majority", but the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has changed that term to the "quiet majority". They mean the same thing.

The fear is that a few people get the attention of the media and railroad through the House bad legislation, which imposes enormous duties and responsibilities on business and the community. It is thought that such legislation is very expensive, fouls up the economy and generally does a disservice to the country. I understand that obsession, although I do not agree with it. Conservative Members could hardly claim that the campaign for civil rights for disabled people comes in that category.

The campaign for those rights is run by the quiet majority. Those people have gone unheard for years. They have not had the chance to articulate their rights and demands or fulfil their ability to be full citizens. They are the very people to whom the Conservative Government should listen, especially if there is any truth behind the speeches of the ideologues, philosophers and gurus from whom I have quoted.

The Bill to which we are urging the Government to devote time and consideration is absolutely in the grain of those thinkers. I will not delay the House with any more quotations, although I could go on.

Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak) : Do go on.


Column 519

Mr. Sheerman : I have quoted those Conservative gurus to show that there is nothing to be afraid of but fear itself.

Conservative Members may argue that the Bill would be expensive to implement. They may argue that it would impose many regulations when another Bill, which has just finished its Committee stage, is designed to deregulate. They are worried that the Bill that we are discussing would centralise. The fact is, however, that the Bill would free that quiet majority, that enormous number of people. A recent poll revealed that 75 per cent. of the population know someone with a disability well. That is equivalent to far more people than the usual quoted figure of 10,000 people with a disability in each constituency. It also covers the carers and families. We are talking not just about 6.25 million people with disabilities, but about the majority of the people who are touched by disability. We are talking about the quiet majority. If Conservative Members are serious about the beliefs that have underpinned the Conservative party for the past 150 years, they must accept that the Bill is in tune with them. The Bill will do no harm to, or interfere with, people's ability to make a living ; nor will it impose too many regulations. On the contrary, it will free a potential in our country that will aid the very process that Conservative Members believe to govern their party.

In the past few weeks, I have witnessed some interesting changes in parliamentary language. I have been here for 14 years and suddenly all sorts of things can be said that were judged unparliamentary when I first entered the House. I should like to conclude by breaking a minor rule, which the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire got away with earlier. He said that he chose his researcher, who has a severe disability, because he was a bloody good researcher. We support the Bill and we believe that Conservative Members should support it because it is a bloody good Bill.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is the word "bloody" considered to be parliamentary language ?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris) : There are no words listed in "Erskine May" as inappropriate. It is for the judgment of the Chair. I thought that in the particular context in which that word was originally used it was appropriate. I do not applaud the fact that it was reused later by another hon. Member and would suggest that it is not repeated.

11.18 am

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury) : I whole- heartedly support the principle behind the Bill because no one who is kind hearted and humane would want to discriminate against the disabled. I therefore pay my respects to the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), for his dedication to the Bill, and to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), who is the original author of it.

Why are we in politics if not because we want to help those less able than ourselves ? I am always very grateful that the good Lord provider has given me good health thus far and I value that greatly. I would not want to be one of the long-term sick or disabled. I am sure that the 6.5 million disabled people in the country will welcome the Bill. However, we are discussing a Bill that will have long-term implications for most people


Column 520

in the country, and therefore it is wise that we should consider it in detail and see whether there are any worries that should be tackled. Three questions need to be answered when we consider the Bill. What facilities and help are already available to the disabled and what is the Government's record in the sector ? What are the implications of the Bill for the rest of the community ? Does the Bill sensibly achieve the help for the disabled that it purports to achieve, or does it contain flaws ? I shall explore those issues in more detail.

What help is already available ? What do the Government already provide for the long-term sick and disabled ? I suppose that one should start with the usual amount that is spent--that figure, which is always trotted out, of £16.5 billion. It is a huge figure and difficult to comprehend, except that it is up by 225 per cent. in real terms on the same period in 1979.

The Government have an excellent record of helping long-term sick and disabled people over the past 15 years. I do not want to go through the long list that I have here. Among other things, we set up extra help for special needs in education. We set up the Disablement Advisory Service. We introduced sheltered placement schemes. We have already altered the building regulations to take into account services required for the disabled.

In 1988, we required all grant-maintained schools to have facilities for children with special educational needs. We introduced the independent living fund, which enabled a large number of people to live independently. From 1989, all new licensed taxis were required to have wheelchairs so that they were accessible to disabled people. We introduced the mobility allowance, which was extended to the deaf, blind and amputees.

In the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, we imposed a duty on all local education authorities and the Further Education Funding Council to have regard to people with learning difficulties. We introduced the disability and orange badge schemes and introduced the disability and working allowances, which, among other things, extended help to 300,000 less severely disabled people and later provided a major stepping stone into employment. In 1993, we introduced the independent living fund to allow 18,000 people to live a more normal--a more independent--life.

Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich) : Would the hon. Gentleman care to tell the House by how much in real terms individual disablement benefits have increased since 1979 ?

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I do not have that figure off the top of my head, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are spending, as I said, about £16.5 billion on disabled people, which is up 225 per cent. in real terms on 1979. Although I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the figure in the form that he requires, the measures that I have outlined, and a few more that I will mention, prove that the Government are already sympathetic and understanding to the needs of long-term sick and disabled people.

Mr. Hendry : Can my hon. Friend confirm that, although the individual sums paid to people with disabilities have not increased dramatically, the massive increase in spending is accounted for because the Government have greatly widened the eligibility factors ?


Column 521

We are thereby able to help many more people than was the case 15 years ago and that, in itself, is a desirable and laudable objective.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I welcome that thoughtful intervention, and my hon. Friend is right. Some of the figures that I have given show the wide spectrum of help that is available to a large number of people. It is not only the Department of Social Security that helps disabled people. As I have said, considerable help is available from the Department for Education and the Departments of Employment and of Transport, among others. Many Government Departments and agencies have a role to play in helping long- term sick and disabled people.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) : To help the hon. Gentleman, whereas salaries and wages have increased in real terms by much more than 20 per cent. in the past 15 years, the real value of individual disablement benefits has increased by only 1 per cent. The words "widening gap" have been used to describe the difference in expenditure now and 15 years ago, but the real widening gap--indeed, the yawning gap--is that created by what has happened to other people and what has happened to disabled people with regard to individual incomes. Much of the increase in public spending that the hon. Gentleman referred to is caused by demographic change and by more people being entitled to benefits than before.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : The right hon. Gentleman used the words, "a yawning gap". I am not sure that I would quite concur with him on that phrase. I am sure that he would also agree with me that the needs of long- term sick and disabled people are now much better understood than they were hitherto and that it has been possible to target what resources the state is able to give them in a much more focused way. The independent living fund is an example of that, enabling 18,000 people to live a more reasonable, a more independent, life.

I am sure that the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe would agree that two things above all are necessary to give self-esteem to disabled people. The first is to be able to live independently without needing too much help from other people, and the second is to be employed. Therefore, as should be borne in mind when I discuss the part of the Bill that is concerned with employment, all of us would wish every disabled person wherever possible to be able to find a job because it gives him that self-esteem and that life fulfilment which everyone on all sides of the House wants.

To conclude my description of the help provided by the Government, the Education Bill will provide further help and the training and enterprise councils already have a duty to provide help for the disabled, and provide considerable help. The Department of Transport sponsored a trial scheme-- the London dial-a-ride--and provided funds for two trials for low-floor wheelchairs on the buses in London and North Tyneside. As I shall discuss later, the Bill makes provision for providing wheelchair lifts on all public transport.

What are the implications of the Bill on the rest of the community ? I intervened deliberately in the speech of the hon. Member for Kingswood because I wanted to explore those implications with him. Although we all applaud the aims of the Bill, if we are to consider it and sensibly to consider possible objections by employers' organisations,


Column 522

we have a duty to provide them with an idea of the costs that will be imposed on them. We live in an increasingly competitive age and it is no good providing jobs for disabled people, or anyone else, only to impose such high costs on any business that eventually it is unable to compete in the rest of the world and goes out of business. We want long-term sustainability of businesses so that we can provide the maximum amount of employment.

Although I have no objection to the principle of the Bill--as I said, I applaud it--we have to examine every aspect of the Bill carefully with employers' organisations, employees' organisations and trade unions. I take on board what has already been said this morning about the wide range of consultation, but, as a result of what I have read, I think that before the Bill reaches the statute book a great deal more consultation needs to take place.

Mr. Berry : Will the hon. Gentleman tell Members of the House how much consultation there was with businesses a couple of years ago when the Government increased interest rates to such an extent that billions of pounds of extra costs were imposed on British industry ? Is that the type of consultation that the hon. Member has in mind ?

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I regret that intervention because I thought that the debate had been of high quality until now. The hon. Gentleman knows well that the Government have to run a fiscal policy for the long- term benefit of the country. Whatever the rights or wrongs of imposing increased interest rates, it was obviously deemed necessary by the Government of the day to increase interest rates in the short term so that we could put the economy of the country on a sound footing. That is why we are now able to have an economy that has almost the lowest inflation, the lowest interest rates and the lowest unit wage costs in the European Community. Indeed, that is why we have the only economy in the European Community that is growing this year. It is why we have an economy in which unemployment has dropped by more than 200,000 in the past year alone. Clearly, the Government set the right fiscal framework for the country's economy, which has done a great deal of good for businesses.

As I explained earlier in my speech--if the hon. Member for Kingswood had been listening instead of intervening, he would have heard--the Bill is a long-term measure that will affect businesses. It is incumbent on the hon. Gentleman, when considering the Bill's detail, to ensure that it is right and strikes a sensible balance between the needs of the disabled and the needs of businesses. They have to keep their costs low and be able to compete with the rest of the world, as that enables them to employ even more staff--not only disabled people, but others. That is a difficult balance to strike and a difficult equation, but we need to ensure that we get it right.

The Bill sets up the Disability Rights Commission--the regulatory organisation that will police the provisions. Of course, the Bill must contain some method of policing--I do not object to that. We must consider the detail of the Bill. Paragraph 20 of the schedule deals with the powers of general investigation of the commission. I have no objection to the power of investigation into a business when it is suspected that an offence has been committed. However, a general power of investigation when there is no particular reason to suspect that an employer has committed an offence ranks alongside the sort of general


Column 523

powers that Her Majesty's Customs and Excise currently have and the powers that we are about to give, under the Finance Bill, to the Inland Revenue. Businesses and individuals find such authoritarian powers offensive. I wonder whether it is necessary to include such a general power to request information when there is no suspicion of contravention of the Bill's provisions.

Mr. Austin-Walker : Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the Race Relations Act 1976 gave the Commission on Racial Equality the power to carry out formal investigations even when no complaint of racial discrimination had been made ? Where those formal investigations have been carried out, even where there has been no suggestion of discrimination, employers have recognised that often their procedures and practices may have discriminated indirectly. Those employers have found the formal investigations helpful in developing equal opportunity policies. Does not the hon. Gentleman feel that that would be equally true in relation to discrimination on the grounds of disability ?

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the parallel with the race relations legislation, but two wrongs do not necessarily make a right. There is a growing tendency to pass legislation giving organisations unnecessarily authoritarian powers. Agricultural measures give officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the power to enter farms without notifying the landowner or tenant. Such power should not be given to organisations to interfere, as they do increasingly, in the lives of individuals or businesses. We are a democracy and should rely on the fact that one is innocent until proved guilty. Perhaps the Bill's promoter would look at the schedule's wording. I am all in favour of policing powers and a commission with policing powers, but could not we phrase the description of that power to ensure that there must be a reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed before the commission investigates ?

Mr. Sheerman : Will the hon. Gentleman think about the use of the phrase "authoritarian powers" ? My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) mentioned the community relations powers--the Equal Opportunities Commission has similar powers. Their powers are not authoritarian, but are usually implemented on a happy and co-operative basis. They allow an investigation of policies on, for example, recruitment and promotion. A general report is made and most companies, local authorities or whoever is being investigated make the necessary changes and approach the investigations in a co-operative and positive way. The powers are not authoritarian, and do not work as if being implemented in a police state. I think that the hon. Gentleman is raising spectres that do not exist.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I am grateful for that interesting intervention. I am in favour of the commission conducting investigations on a voluntary basis, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but paragraph 20 contains virtually no qualification of that power. It is not reasonable to require information from any commercial organisation without the business or the employer being suspected of having committed an offence. I do not want to dwell on that detailed issue as it is not one of the main thrusts of the Bill, but it is nevertheless important.


Column 524

While I welcome the principle that employers should not discriminate against disabled people, I believe that we must look at the details of the provision. I should like the Bill's promoter to look carefully at the clause dealing with how a business is run and the consideration that must be given to the needs of the disabled people employed in that business.

If one disabled person were employed, would that mean that the entire ethos of the business would have to be altered to accommodate that one person ? If so, how could the business compete in an increasingly competitive world in which the European Community has, over the past 10 years, seen its share of world trade reduced ? Those are details that need to be considered carefully before we enact the Bill. Clause 4 (2)(c) mentions the

"criteria or methods of administration that have an adverse effect on a person's opportunities".

Perhaps the hon. Member for Kingswood will explain how that provision will work in practice. I am genuinely interested.

Mr. Berry : If the hon. Gentleman supports the motion, the time will be made available for him and other hon. Members to raise just such issues on Report. If attempts are made to talk the Bill out on Report, the hon. Gentleman may never receive answers to his questions.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : In response to that intervention I must make clear the purpose of my speech. We are discussing a motion that asks for more time to debate the Bill. In considering whether to give more or less time to the Bill we must discuss its merits. I am not talking out the Bill today ; I am merely mentioning one or two reservations that I have so that, before Report, other hon. Members can consider those reservations and table sensible amendments--I may want to do so. By flagging up my reservations and difficulties today, I give all hon. Members plenty of time to think about some of the Bill's weaknesses. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we all welcome and applaud the Bill's aims and aspirations, but any Bill has the ability to be improved. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take and consider some of my reservations in the genuine spirit in which I opened my speech.

The Bill proposes a commission of between eight and 15 members. It provides for a quorum of at least five, which, with a commission of only eight, is a high hurdle to have to overcome. I ask the hon. Member for Kingswood to consider that and perhaps to be a little more prescriptive. A commission of between eight and 15 allows enormous discretion. With a commission of 15 people, a quorum of five might be realistic. The commission must be properly represented, and I am sure the promoter will want to consider that. The Bill provides for the commission to have a member from England, from Wales, from Scotland and from Northern Ireland, which is a laudable aim, but one or two other bodies might be represented on the commission-- for example, Save the Children, which has a large membership.

As a chartered surveyor, I am interested in clause 8, which proposes alterations to the building regulations to ensure that all new extensions and buildings take into account the needs of disabled people. Again, that is a laudable aim, but it would impose a huge cost on the construction industry when the vast majority of extensions and new houses will not be occupied by disabled people. The hon. Member for Kingswood needs to consider that aspect carefully. If there is a reasonable prospect of a


Column 525

building or extension being occupied by a disabled person, of course we would all want that person's needs to be considered, but a blanket provision for new extensions and buildings would impose a completely unnecessary cost on the construction industry, which would ultimately feed through to everybody.

Part IV covers a large number of organisations that will have to modify their buildings--hotels, schools, cinemas, ports, airports, clubs, sports grounds, council offices, telephone boxes and access to lawyers--to cater for the needs of disabled people, and all public liability and employers' insurance policies will have to take into account the increased costs caused by liabilities from disabled people.

Again, that is a laudable aim, but the lack of a realistic transitional period to allow that huge number of bodies to adapt their premises to deal with the needs of disabled people will impose a great cost on those bodies, which will be reflected in higher prices and will feed through to the general level of taxation. The hon. Member for Kingswood shakes his head, but that is the wording of the Bill. Nobody objects to such alterations, but the hon. Member must offer some realistic costings and a realistic timetable to the organisations and local authorities that would have to implement paragraphs (a) to (n) of clause 6(2).

The hon. Gentleman now points at the Minister. Perhaps the Government should make such costings, but somebody must do so before the Bill is enacted. I should add, in fairness, that clause 9 contains appropriate caveats to deal with the viability of the business and nature and costs of the actions in question. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on the promoter of the Bill to offer an estimate of costs because, for example, a body responsible for local authority buildings or schools must have some idea of the timetable proposed for new buildings, old buildings and buildings in the pipeline. These serious questions must be addressed because they involve much public money.

Clause 16 applies the Bill to all Crown servants and properties. I have already said that the Bill has huge implications for the public purse. All buildings in the public sector will have to be altered to take the needs of disabled people into account. I should not be surprised if, under the clause, some lifts in this place would have to be ripped out and replaced to make them wide enough to take a wheelchair. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with that, and I am not necessarily criticising it, but we need to have an idea of the cost and of the timetable for such alterations.

Mr. Berry : As we have specifically said that the timetable for those changes should not be set out in the Bill but should be for the Secretary of State, subject to parliamentary approval, to determine, how on earth does the hon. Gentleman think that we can respond to his specific comments ? What is the alternative other than having the timetable in the hands of the Secretary of State and subject to parliamentary approval ? Does not that timetable then determine the cost and is that not why no hon. Member can say specifically what the cost would be ? That is not set in concrete in the Bill.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I repeat--I cannot repeat often enough--that we all applaud the aims and aspirations of the Bill but if I, as a responsible Member of Parliament representing almost


Column 526

90,000 constituents, am to be asked to vote for the Bill, the hon. Member for Kingswood must give some idea of its costs. I cannot responsibly vote for a Bill until I have been given guidance on the increase in the general level of taxation and in corporation tax to pay for those burdens on business. One must be given an idea of the costings. The Bill represents an open-ended cheque book.

Mr. Berry : It does not.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : It does. I am sorry to disagree with the hon. Member. I know that he does not like the tenor of my remarks, but many of the Bill's provisions, and therefore the costs that will be imposed on employers, are open ended, partly because it gives a great deal of discretion to the Secretary of State. Until we have an idea of how the Secretary of State is likely to use that discretion in practice, I cannot see how we can know what costs will be imposed on businesses.

Mr. Austin-Walker : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that much of the opposition of small businesses and transport undertakings in the United States to the American legislation was based precisely on those grounds, yet experience in the United States disproves and discounts all those fears ?

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. The Americans may become less competitive compared with emerging parts of the world. That is all very well as long as we accept the costs that the Bill would impose on businesses and the community at large and its probable implications for employment and our constituents understand that income tax would have to go up by several pence in the pound.

As I said, we applaud the aims of the Bill but, before we put it on the statute book, it is our responsibility to ascertain the costs involved. It may well be that the Secretary of State should provide details of the costs but, certainly, someone needs to do so, and rapidly, if, as the hon. Member for Kingswood wishes, it is to be passed before the summer. In any event, someone has a great deal of work to do.

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to keep shaking his head--I know that he dislikes the tenor of my speech--but he must co-operate with the Secretary of State because he knows the Bill's background, having been involved in its drafting. Before Report, it is incumbent on the hon. Gentleman to consult the Secretary of State to ensure that the House is provided with the information that it requires.

On behalf of my disabled constituents, I welcome the thrust of the Bill. It is right that we find out where discrimination against disabled people occurs. I cannot stress too highly the fact that I am grateful to have so far enjoyed good health. I meet disabled constituents and I am sympathetic to their needs. I am always prepared to help them obtain every benefit that the Government provide ; and, as I have already explained, the Government provide a wide range of such benefits.

Some of the Bill's aims are extremely laudable, but I hope that the hon. Member for Kingswood will take into account some of my remarks and will provide the information that the House requires. I also hope that he will examine some of the Bill's weaknesses. I do not have time this morning to deal with all of them but I should be delighted to go through them in detail with the hon.


Column 527

Gentleman to see whether I can spot more loopholes and to discover whether some of my fears could be allayed by the tabling of appropriate amendments on Report. The Bill that ends up on the statute book needs to be effective and needs to achieve the aims for which we all strive on behalf of our disabled constituents, of whom there are an average of 10,000 in a typical constituency. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's efforts in trying to achieve legislation whose aim is to oppose discrimination against disabled people.

11.52 pm

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale) : I welcome the motion and am pleased to support it on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. We are keen to extend the rights of all citizens and enshrine them in law in a way that, unfortunately, the Government's toothless charters are unable to do. Disabled people do not want only charters ; they want and deserve civil rights, and they want them enshrined in law. That is something that only the House can do, yet the House epitomises the very discrimination that the Bill aims to outlaw.

How many Members of Parliament are disabled ? There are more than 6 million disabled people in Britain, accounting for more than 10 per cent. of the population. Obviously, 10 per cent. of Members of Parliament are not disabled, and it is hard to believe that disabled people's under- representation here, as in so many walks of life, does not have a great deal to do with the institutionalised discrimination that disabled people suffer.

Being under-represented means that the disabled people of Britain can do no more than depend on us to guard their interests. It is a responsibility which I feel keenly, and which I hope to honour. I only wish that the Government were able to feel that responsibility in the same way. I know that many Conservative Back Benchers do, and I wish that the Government would follow their lead.

If the Government had been able to feel that responsibility, we should not be here this morning, debating this excellent motion tabled by the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam), which calls on the Government to give the Bill Government time.

Report and Third Reading have been allotted second place on Friday 6 May. As we all know, that gives the Government every opportunity to talk out a Bill which we know only too well they oppose in principle. The Government were perfectly happy to do the same thing last Friday, when they chose to talk out the Energy Conservation Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). Among other things, that Bill would have provided money for the insulation of the homes of the elderly and the disabled to cushion them against the iniquitous imposition of value added tax on fuel. This Bill is also far too important to be treated in that way. I deplore the Government's instincts which seem to be to sabotage Bills that they do not support. Whether or not they support this Bill, I ask them to consider whether it is proper not to dedicate sufficient time to it. As I said, the disabled people of Britain are relying on us to look after their interests.

People who are disabled are so called not only because they are confined to a wheelchair or are blind ; what disables them is the fact that they cannot get access to buildings, that written material is not available in braille,


Column 528

that work is denied them because the workplace cannot accommodate a particular disability, or that an employer is prejudiced against disabled people. The list is endless, and its existence is an indictment of us all. It amounts to discrimination that would be wholly unacceptable if it were targeted against women or ethnic minorities.

If a group of black people was told by the owners of a holiday camp that they could not book a holiday at his establishment because they would upset other guests, there would, quite rightly, be a national outcry and a prosecution. However, it is allowed if the group consists of people with cerebral palsy. Indeed, it recently happened.

If a woman were refused a job because the employer could not be bothered to install changing facilities suitable for her, there would also be a national outcry and a prosecution, but if the applicant were in a wheelchair or had controlled epilepsy, that employer would be within his or her rights to put the application straight into the bin without a second thought. That has also happened.

The Government have faced private Members' Bills seeking civil rights for disabled people several times in recent years. Such Bills have had cross- party support. The last time this Bill was debated, it received support from members of all parties and a total of 231 hon. Members voted in favour. Not one hon. Member voted against it, but, whenever such a Bill has come before the House, the Government have taken effective steps to block it and have argued that legislation in this context would create too much red tape and would be too expensive. They seem incredible reasons for resisting the claim of more than 6 million people, who are seeking only the rights enjoyed by the rest of the population.

In the country at large, people understand that everyone is part of society, and that, if any members of that society are grossly disadvantaged, the whole of society suffers. If the Government can justify their arguments against giving disabled people rights that most of the rest of us take for granted, let them make their case in a proper debate, and let the House and the country judge their efforts.

If the Government do not give sufficient time for the Bill to complete all its stages, there is only one conclusion that the country can draw--that the Government are frightened, that their arguments could not convince the House, and that they would scandalise the country.

The Bill will be implemented if the House is allowed to vote on the issue. I am certain that right hon. and hon. Members could not in all conscience vote against a Bill whose whole purpose is to make it possible for disabled people to take their rightful place in society from which they are at present in so many ways excluded.

The Government should have the courage to prove me wrong. All I ask is that they should accept that the Bill is extremely important, not only to disabled people, who are directly affected, but to the moral health of the nation. Today and every day, until the Bill is enacted, disabled people will be discriminated against in a way that should be utterly unacceptable. I urge all hon. Members to support the Bill. 12 noon


Next Section

  Home Page