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Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North) : I add my voice in support of the motion before the House and congratulate the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) on bringing forward the motion. I am happy to follow the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), whose voice has often been heard arguing with persistence for those who need help.
Two things distinguish a democracy--the Parliament of that democracy as the sounding board and representative of the people, and the willingness of the Government to listen when there is a need in society. Everyone acknowledges that there is a need for the Bill. I have heard no one in the House argue against that, today or on Second Reading. We all know that there is a need. We all know also that a firm majority of Members of Parliament want the Bill to be enacted.
Column 542There will always be people who bring extraneous matters into debate and there will always be people who have doubts about the way in which legislation would be carried out. However, the need has been firmly established. We are not arguing that there has not been advance, but are we to tell people who are in need in that respect, "As some advance has been made in the past, we shall not go further and establish your full rights." ?
Coming from Northern Ireland, I am surprised at the Government's attitude. In Northern Ireland, the Government were prepared to set up a commission and take action in law to try to get rid of discrimination in employment. There was a big debate in Northern Ireland about the way in which the Government set about doing that. Today, it has been established beyond all dispute that we need legislation and that a majority of Parliament wants the legislation to reach the statute book.
I want to stress what is happening in Northern Ireland--I am glad that the Bill states that it will apply to Northern Ireland. A former mayoress of the city of Belfast has a disabled child. She recently went to pay her rate bill and when she reached the door of the place where she had to pay she was told that she could not bring in her child in a wheelchair but would have to carry her child. When she entered the building, she was told that the rates office was up two flights of stairs on the second floor. She asked whether there was a lift and was told that there was not and that she would have to walk up the stairs. She replied, "But I know there is a lift", but was told that the lift was only for people who worked in the building. The woman had to carry her child up two flights of stairs in order to pay her rate bill.
Such procedures must be outlawed by legislation. People may feel that that is harsh, but we must be harsh. Today I have heard some arguments about the costs, but if we do not take action now, the costs will rise until they are almost prohibitive. The time for action is now.
I have wide experience of disabled people as I have carried out pastoral work for more than 48 years in the city of Belfast. Disabled people do not want the pity or the sympathy of the House ; they do not even want protection. They just want their rights to be established. They have a right to certain facilities. Hon. Members in the House today must realise that, because those facilities are not available to disabled people, they are cut off from their families, family outings and the benefits that would accrue to them were they active family members and able to go to the places that the rest of their families visit.
The time has come for the Government to cease erecting barricades and barriers to the Bill and instead to give it a fair wind. As the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe said, we have had many hours of debate on the Bill-- it is not undigested legislation ; much of the Government's legislation is far less digested than the Bill--and it would be expedient for the House to proceed with it.
The Bill contains the opportunity for the Minister to undertake consultations across the board before he begins regulating. The Government must lift the barriers, give the Bill a fair wind and let disabled people, of whom there are 6.5 million, enjoy their rights. That is what they are arguing for, and they deserve to have those rights. Their rights should be established now and the Government should say that they will back the Bill.
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Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting) : As the reaction of the Public Gallery just showed, the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) expressed the views of the people of this country. We could spend hours and hours saying, "We must look at the problem" and asking, "Has this been thought of ?", but how does that sound to disabled people who, as the hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members have said, want to lead their own lives ? That is what the House should seek to deal with.
I pay the warmest tribute to the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam), who has been in the House a long time and is held in the greatest respect by hon. Members, irrespective of party. He has always been committed and sincere and, to his credit, on an issue to which he is committed, he does not worry too much about the Whips. All people, especially disabled people, look to people like the hon. Member for Exeter for support.
Many other hon. Members, over many years, have been committed to the issue. One should never forget the continuing work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), who was committed to the issue at a time when the House and public were not as receptive as they are now to his views. I should also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) for introducing the Bill.
Many references have been made to the Second Reading debate and the enormous vote of support that the Bill received then. No hon. Member voted against it. We know, therefore, the feelings of hon. Members, irrespective of their party, when on 11 March they went through the Aye Lobby to support the Bill.
We have a right to feel annoyed and angry that we are now having to debate whether there will be sufficient time for proper discussion of the Bill. We can feel angry and annoyed, but what of the hundreds of thousands of people who are disabled and who saw the debate and vote on 11 March, after years of opportunity, discussion and hope, as a clear sign that, at long last, the Government would introduce the sort of legislation that they have been seeking for so many years ? In the run-up to that debate, all hon. Members received hundreds of letters or cards from their constituents. I cannot believe that any hon. Member, including the Prime Minister, did not have an enormous postbag of letters from constituents begging him to be here and to vote in support of the Bill.
Did any Member say, "I have had a letter from a constituent and I am somewhat sympathetic, but I don't really think now is the time to pursue this. There's the cost and the inconvenience to business" ? I bet that not one hon. Member wrote back to his or her constituent to say, "I am sorry. I am sympathetic to a degree, but I will not be supporting that Bill."
When the Bill went into Committee after the Second Reading vote, it should have been clear to the Minister that Parliament had spoken. The Government should have said that, providing there was clear evidence of progress in Committee, whatever time was needed would be made available.
I listened to the Minister's comments about procedure. I know all about procedure as I was a Government Whip for five years. I learnt how legislation is introduced, and the same system still operates. While I was the Government Whip for London Members of Parliament, I attended many
Column 544meetings with the two Prime Ministers under whom I served, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. We discussed many Bills and, if the Chief Whip said that one in particular was essential and that Government time had to be made available for it, the Prime Minister of the day always said that Parliament could have that time. We therefore know that the necessary time can be made available if the Government so wish.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood will pay attention to my next remark because it goes to the heart of the matter. The Minister referred to next Friday. He will be aware of the order of business for that day and of the fact that the Bill is second on the list. No one can predict how long the debate on the first Bill will last--it may last one or two hours. Let us consider the various things that could happen next Friday.
The Minister is in a position to tell us whether the Government intend to table amendments to the Bill before next Thursday. If they do, it will slow down, if not kill, any meaningful debate. I know that the Minister cannot comment on the next issue that I wish to raise but I see a Government Whip, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Mr. Wood), in his place, and he knows how the system works. Statements can be made at 11 am on Fridays. As I said, we do not know what time the Bill will come up for debate next week but let suppose that the first Bill is debated for an hour and that consideration of this Bill finally begins at 11.30 am. Can we be given an assurance that there will be no Government statement next Friday ?
Mr. Cox : I think that every hon. Member would accept that, if something of great importance were to happen, it is the Government's duty to make a statement at the earliest opportunity. However, the hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that the Government could say that they intended to slip in a statement although it could wait until the following week, thus reducing the time available for debate on the Bill. The hon. Gentleman knows, as the House knows, that a statement generally takes half an hour ; it can take much longer. Those are the problems at which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood needs to look in the coming week.
Let us consider the reaction of disabled groups to the events in the House on 11 March. I have here a copy of the Spastics Society's spring 1994 publication. It has a photograph of people in wheelchairs against the background of the House of Commons and the headline, "Civil Rights Victory". That is how those people saw the vote here on 11 March. They saw it as victory, at long last, in their long campaign. Some 231 hon. Members voted in favour of the Bill and no one voted against. Against that background, one has to ask about the Government's real intentions towards the Bill. Is their real intention to ensure that there is adequate time for discussion ? On 26 February 1993, I introduced a debate in the House on this very subject in which we sought to ensure equality of opportunity for disabled people. I said then that no hon. Member could say that, thankfully, disablement was not a problem in his or her constituency. We have heard today that, on average, there are, sadly, 10,000 people in every constituency who suffer various forms of
Column 545disability. What our constituents expect from us and most certainly from the Government is action--legislation--that will lead to the introduction and development of their civil rights.
We have heard today many examples of the injustices that, sadly, exist. During our debate on 26 February 1993, the Minister said : "Education and persuasion remain important parts of the way forward".--[ Official Report , 26 February 1993 ; Vol. 219, c. 1181.] Whatever our thoughts on education and persuasion as the way forward--I do not dispute for a minute that they have a role to play--we all know that what is required and what people, especially disabled people and their families, expect is legislation to give them their rights.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe have outlined the events of the past 12 years during which hon. Members on both sides have sought to carry through similar legislation. We know, sadly, what has happened repeatedly. The Government, sometimes from malice and sometimes, I am prepared to say, from genuine concern about the possible effects, have delayed the progress of legislation such as we are discussing today.
References have been made today to the Prime Minister. I am sure that many hon. Members visit groups of people and meet individuals who are, sadly, disabled. Such people in my constituency in south London say, "You know, Tom, when we hear the Prime Minister talking about the citizens charter and about what it means, where do we fit in ? Do those charters mean anything to us, given our sad disabilities and the restrictions on the way in which we lead our lives ?"
It would be interesting to know whether the Prime Minister was thinking about disabled people when we had that blaze of publicity not so long ago about charters. We do not hear too much about them now, but I am told, and I understand, that they are still part of Government policy. We hear all the talk about the Whips and, as I have said, I was a Whip, but if charters are still part of Government policy, I suggest that the Prime Minister of the Government who control the affairs of the country, as the person who can decide the allocation of time for any debate in the House, should insist that sufficient time is given to the Bill.
Indeed, at the beginning of the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) made what I thought was a very generous comment. He asked the Minister whether, if the Labour Opposition were prepared to give up half of one of their Supply days, the Government would provide another half day so that there would be a whole day allocated for further discussion of the Bill. We did not get very much response from the Minister. It is possible--I hope that I may say it without being unfair-- that he is not in a position to make such comments. However, I hope that he pursues that suggestion, because it was obviously made with the approval of the Opposition Chief Whip. One will listen with interest to what will happen.
Let me make one or two further comments in reference to the House of Commons research paper 94/37, which was published on 28 February and which outlined the proposals of the Bill. All of us know, because we make great use of the research papers that the Library provides, that that
Column 546paper outlines the principal objectives of the Bill on page 2. I shall not comment on them, but on page 11 the paper gives the names of 13 groups representing disabled people which were consulted and which put forward their ideas on the proposals contained in the Bill.
Those 13 groups cover a whole range of disabilities and, as we all know, have a great deal of contact with people throughout the United Kingdom. Every one of those groups was in total support of the Bill which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood introduced on March 11. To his credit, through today's debate, the hon. Member for Exeter is seeking to ensure that we have adequate time for full discussion of that Bill.
I agree that there must be full discussion of the Bill. Consultation is vital. I thought that we were given to understand that the Minister and his Department were actively involved in the Bill. If they are, I hope that we shall soon see the publication of the results of those consultations. It is not a political issue. I can be critical of the Government for what I see as a delay, but I genuinely believe that they have a commitment to legislation. So I shall not comment on the aspects of speeches that were made by two Conservative Members that I found questionable. I heard all the comments which expressed the sentiment of, "Yes, it is wonderful, but, but, but . . . " We have a right to expect the Government, and the Minister and his Department in particular, to be involved in consultation, to listen to what are no doubt the genuine fears of organisations and businesses, and then to explain to us how they have sought to reassure individuals and organisations that have had comments to make.
On about 20 April I received a letter from the Spastics Society of 19 April, headed :
"Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill".
The letter may have been sent to many other people. The final paragraph says it all in setting out what the House and the Government should be seeking to do. The paragraph reads :
"Having come so far we cannot let the Bill be smothered and die due to the technicalities of Parliamentary Procedure. If this were to happen the 6.5 million disabled people in this country will understandably feel let down and ignored by the democratic process." I do not think that any hon. Member could better sum up the issue that is at stake. That paragraph sets out the test for the House today, but more so the test that we shall face next Friday. It is a test for the House but, above all, it is a test for the Government, and especially for the Prime Minister.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire) : I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) for bringing forward such an excellent motion. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State has said that the effects of the motion are not technically enforceable, but I am sure that he and other right hon. and hon. Members will accept the spirit of the motion. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), who has been seeing the Bill through the House.
My natural inclination is to be a libertarian. That approach has been inculcated through my background in business over the past 10 or 12 years and through training at university in economics before that. Initially, I was rather opposed to the Bill as it was presented on Second Reading. That was not because I feel that there should be discrimination against the disabled. I said in an
Column 547intervention that I happened to have a political researcher who is disabled. That person is employed not because he is disabled but because he is a good researcher.
I am not a great believer in conversions on the road to Damascus, but to a large degree I am converted in this instance because of the changes that have been made in Committee. It is worth emphasising what the Bill is now certainly not. First, it is not a Bill that is advocating positive discrimination. It is simply a Bill that argues, as it were, that there should be equal opportunity. As I would always argue for libertarianism for industry, I would also argue for libertarianism for our entire population, the able-bodied as well as the disabled.
I believe that the Bill will create a climate and a spirit in which businesses, local authorities and the Government will have to act to introduce legislation in future that is in line with this Bill if it becomes an Act. I hope that it will become an Act given the amendments that were made in Committee.
Although the Committee stage was open in its dealings and there was much co -operation on both sides of the Committee, the Government did not table any amendments. I hope that extra time will be found for the Bill. If there are any other areas on Report, in respect of which the Government believe that the Bill is not as we would wish it to be to the benefit not only of the disabled but of the community as a whole, including business, I hope that the Government will table suitable amendments.
Let us examine more closely the amendments that were made in Committee and why I support the Bill now when I previously did not. The main alteration has occurred in clause 10 under exemptions. Clause 10(1) states that the Secretary of State of the day "may by regulations provide for the exemption, for a specified period,"
that is, a period which the Secretary of State specifies "of any person or body, or class of person or body, from any requirement of this Part of this Act specified in the regulations." Clause 10(2) states :
"Regulations under this section may specify different periods of exemption in relation to
(a) the provision of different goods, facilities or services ; (b) different persons or bodies ; or
(c) different classes of persons or bodies."
That means that the Secretary of State can decide who may be exempt from the Bill and for what period they may be exempt.
Those are far-reaching powers. I am prepared to accept that any Secretary of State will be able to make the right judgment and to perform the balancing trick, which always has to be performed, between the requirements of one part of our community and those of another part of our community.
Let us not forget that if we were to force small businesses to introduce ramps, disabled toilets or whatever over a very short period--which would be reducing the Bill to absurdity and which is now not the case--that would not benefit the disabled. Those small businesses would simply go out of business and would not be able to serve the disabled or the able-bodied.
Mr. Hendry : In a small retail community in which shops provide similar services, if the shopkeepers who are most aware of the needs of disabled people carry out the kind of work at an early stage to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) referred and possibly at significant cost, how does my hon. Friend square those costs with the fact that less responsible retail
Column 548businesses, which decided to apply for an exemption on the grounds that they could not afford such work, would be in a better trading position than the shopkeepers who had carried out the letter of the law ?
Mr. Fabricant : As ever, my hon. Friend raises a very valid point. However, under the Bill, individual trading bodies or shops would not have to apply for exemptions. Instead, the Secretary of State would specify classes of businesses that are exempt.
My hon. Friend raises another valid point : what about the business that goes to the expense of producing a ramp and other facilities for the disabled ? I hope that such a business will get extra custom, and I hope that that extra custom will come from not only the disabled but the able- bodied, who will say that a specific shop or business is proving that it has a duty of care to the community which deserves reward. If that reward is custom, so be it. All things being equal, I know that I will always choose to buy goods in a shop that provides facilities for the disabled, rather than a shop that does not provide such facilities.
Another reason why I support the Bill is the sheer inevitability of this type of Bill becoming law. I shall be somewhat controversial and say that it is as inevitable as the age for homosexual consent reaching equality. I think that, through cowardice, we put off the inevitable a few months ago, and it will inevitably come back again. However, I do not wish to raise such controversial matters at this stage. This Bill is even more inevitable. For that reason, too, I support it.
Some hon. Members have asked why we should put off the inevitable, especially when it would be more expensive if we were not do it now but at a later date. It makes sense to do it now. All the arguments that I have heard from my hon. Friends and Opposition Members where doubts have been expressed have been covered in clause 10 which deals with exemptions. There are further points in the Bill which convince me that the Bill is worth pursuing and passing into law. As I said earlier, I invite the Minister to table amendments on Report if there are still areas that he is unhappy about.
I should like to clear up a few misconceptions about the Bill. As I said, it is not seeking positive discrimination--I am very much against that. It is simply asking for equal opportunities for the disabled, just as there are equal opportunities for the able bodied. I was amused and delighted by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) who, in a marvellous peroration, put forward the Conservative party philosophy with, dare I say it, such conviction that I almost felt the desire to invite him to join us on this side of the House. As he rightly said, it is Conservative party philosophy that we are one nation. He quoted Winston Churchill. I shall quote from another speech of Winston Churchill. [Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) like me to give way ?
Mr. Fabricant : Winston Churchill said that the Conservative party wishes to provide the opportunities for people to soar as high as they can possibly go but also to provide from the wealth created through private enterprise a safety net below which no one should fall. That philosophy is not exclusive to the Conservative party ; I am
Column 549sure that there are certain socialist modernisers who might also agree with that--if not all Opposition Members. I see some frowns opposite.
Basically, I see nothing in the Bill that is contrary to Conservative party philosophy. All my qualms and fears about the possible damage that it could do to businesses have been allayed by the fact that the Secretary of State of the day can make decisions with regard to what classes of business can be exempted and for how long.
Mr. Sheerman : I will probably take a long time to live down the hon. Gentleman's mention of my remarks. I was trying to make the point clear, because it was depressing to hear some of his colleagues still emphasising the benefit and dependency role of disability and disability legislation.
I want to hear the Minister and Conservative Members saying that the legislation liberates people to benefit both the private and public sectors. Whenever people are given the opportunity to use all their abilities, costs are reduced and wealth is created. That is the whole thrust of the Bill, and I think that there will be undisguised benefits in terms of costs. When the Minister looks into costs--as he is doing now--I hope that he will balance that against the physical modifications which too many people harp on about.
Mr. Fabricant : The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I mentioned that, before I was in business, I read economics at university. One does not need to study economics at university to know that it is always worth while to undertake a cost-benefit analysis. For every cost, there can also be certain benefits, and, as I made clear in an earlier intervention, there will have to be some benefits from a large proportion of the 6.25 million registered disabled people being able to leave social security and get into the jobs market. They will contribute to the Exchequer and to the wealth of the nation and they will also, as has been pointed out, provide greater dignity for themselves by playing a more active role in the community. That is in no way to condemn those disabled people who would be unable to get a job because of the degree of their disability.
I shall also point out another misconception. We are not talking about extra money for the disabled for a job that they are unable to do. That is not what the Bill is about. It is not about putting people in jobs if they are not capable of doing them. As I understand it, if a disabled person is only able to work at two thirds of the productivity of an able-bodied person because of the degree of his disability, it is accepted in the Bill that that person would, if it was the employer's wish, get two thirds of the wages.
There is no question of positive discrimination. The Bill is very fair, both to employers and to the disabled. I talked about the inevitability of the Bill. It is inevitable not only because of its innate fairness and the rightness of having such a Bill, but because it has been done elsewhere. Not only has it been done elsewhere ; it works elsewhere. It works in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France and Sweden.
It seems astonishing that anyone in the Chamber can say that a Bill of this nature is unworkable and would provide such great additional costs that the economy would collapse or be seriously damaged as a result. Where the
Column 550Government are still unhappy, let us make further alterations. But that would require adequate time in this place for Report. I do not believe that there is one Member of Parliament out of the 651 hon. Members who has not received letters from constituents about the matter. Incidentally, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) said that it is difficult to believe that there are 10, 000 disabled people in his or any constituency. I would not be surprised if it were perhaps not 10,000 but 9,000, 11,000, or some similar figure. The amount of disability in Britain is fairly high. It has been pointed out that one of the reasons for the amount of disability is better health care. People can survive certain types of injury that they could not have survived earlier.
In the past, disabled groups believed that institutional discrimination was the main problem. Anti-discrimination is the form of legislation which is most likely to tackle it.
The Bill may contain several loopholes. It may not be perfect. It may be only a first step, but, unless it is passed, we shall not establish a precedent in United Kingdom legislation. Just as there should not be sexual discrimination, racial discrimination or--now I shall really incur the wrath of the Whips--age discrimination, there should not be discrimination against the disabled. If I had my way, there would be anti-agist legislation, too.
Similarly, there must be legislation to protect the disabled and give them not greater but equal opportunities. Who in the House could deny that ?
Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak) : Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make a brief intervention in this important debate. I join my colleagues on both sides of the House in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) on the way in which he moved the motion. As ever, he did it with the generosity of spirit, common sense and dignity which has won him friends and respect throughout the House.
I also join my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) in saying how much I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). He made perhaps the most compelling case of anyone for giving the Bill more time. If his speeches are to consist predominantly of quotations from the speeches of my hon. Friends, the Prime Minister and former Prime Ministers and members of the Cabinet, they will be valuable speeches. It is notable that he could not find a single speech from the Leader of the Opposition or a previous Labour Prime Minister that he wanted to quote. If he wants us to have more time for further debate on the issues so that he can bring to the attention of the House the extremely powerful and noteworthy comments of my right hon. and hon. Friends, that is a powerful emotion indeed.
Mr. Sheerman : If the hon. Gentleman had listened to all of my speech or been present for the Second Reading, he would know that on Second Reading I concentrated precisely on the tradition in the Labour party in favour of disability legislation. I tried to think intellectually and honestly of something different to say today and I lit on an examination of the philosophy of the governing party. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the two speeches, he will find that they contrast quite nicely.
Mr. Hendry : I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I simply wanted to make the point that for those of us on the Conservative Benches it was a great pleasure to hear the articulate words of our colleagues coming from his mouth so clearly.
There is no doubt about the tremendous support and enthusiasm that the motion and the Bill enjoy among the public at large. That is clear from the meetings that I have had with people in my constituency who have disabilities, and from the letters that I have received. Therein, however, lies a dilemma for us. While the Bill is clearly a popular measure, introducing it is like offering a child a lollipop. Of course, the child says, "Yes, I want it." Then if one says to the child, "Now you have to pay for it", he may not want it after all. The costs associated with the Bill must be considered. Hon. Members have referred to the fact that the Bill was debated extensively in Committee. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would accept, however, that, often, the nature of debate in Committee is not a true reflection of the issues behind the relevant legislation. I am not referring directly to this Bill, but to the Standing Committee on the Tobacco Advertising Bill, on which I served. During that Committee, it became clear that most of the amendments were being tabled by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. They were pushed to a vote, although he explained that he did not agree with them. Because of his actions, those of us who had deep reservations about the Bill were forced to curtail our speeches. Although the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill has been discussed in Committee and amendments were not tabled on behalf of the Government, that should not be taken to mean that the Bill was discussed as fully as it should have been.
Repeated reference has been made to the fact that the campaign for the Bill has lasted for 12 years. Some of my colleagues have also drawn attention to some of the developments in that time. If we look objectively at the position of people with disabilities, it is clear that it has improved significantly over that time, although the rate of that improvement has not been as fast we would have wished. I do not intend to rehearse the long list of developments and changes, but I should like to pick out a couple which give me the most satisfaction because I was involved in their development when I was an adviser at the Department of Social Security. The disability living allowance and the disability working allowance have made an important contribution towards enabling people with disabilities to lead more fulfilling lives. We can take great pride in that. The way in which children with disabilities are taught has changed dramatically and represents an absolute breakthrough. I welcome whole-heartedly the fact that children with disabilities now go through the main education system wherever possible, rather than being hived off into special schools. There is a need for such schools for children with the most severe disabilities, but the fact that many other children with disabilities are integrated in the mainstream education system is a welcome development.
I also welcome the improvements in premises owned by the Government. On Wednesday, I opened a new jobcentre in Glossop in my constituency, which combines the former jobcentre with the unemployment benefit office. Anyone who knew the old building would agree that it was a most hostile environment not just for people claiming
Column 552unemployment benefit, but particularly for people with disabilities. The barriers and glass screens made access difficult for disabled people. Although there were three means of access to the building--one for women, one for men and one for employers--there was no means of access for people with disabilities. The building has changed beyond recognition and that means that people with disabilities who are seeking work will now be aided back into work, or into work for the first time, in a much more user-friendly environment.
I accept that a great deal more needs to be done. I am certain that discrimination is still too widespread. I am aware that too many employers who know in advance that an applicant has disabilities are less likely to interview that person and will opt for someone who is able bodied. Such practice cannot continue to be accepted by a civilised society.
Progress to end discrimination is still too slow. I was particularly shocked by the figures produced by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), who has done so much for the Bill, which revealed how Government Departments have failed to meet the voluntary target to have work forces of whom 3 per cent. are people with disabilities. The fact that one Department has reached just 0.3 per cent., or one tenth, of that target, must be addressed. Many of us are concerned that the proposed legislation would mean that significant costs were incurred in converting buildings to make them easily accessible to people with disabilities, though I accept the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid- Staffordshire that such conversions would enable more people to shop in retail outlets and therefore boost business. To many of them, it would also bring in a different type of business--for example, mothers with pushchairs, who at the moment cannot take their children into those shops. It must be accepted that many of the businesses in our constituencies which are experiencing difficulties in a market which is beginning to pick up but in which the recovery is slow would find it difficult to undertake those conversion costs now or in the foreseeable future.
Let me consider a couple of towns in my constituency and relate that directly to the experience that I see about me in High Peak. Buxton would never have been built if one had been thinking about the needs of people with disabilities, because there are not many towns with more slopes and hills. New Mills, not far away, is not dissimilar in many ways. Buxton was developed due to the healing spa waters there, which attracted many people with disabilities to go there.
In Buxton, perhaps some of the earliest facilities in the country for disabled people are being refurbished--the Slopes. The Slopes were a series of slopes of different gradients where people who were recovering from debilitating illnesses could start to walk up increasingly steep gradients day by day. There they were able gradually to be returned to full health. As a result of money being committed by High Peak borough council, by the Government and by the European Union, those are being restored and they are a tremendous asset in the town.
The geography of Buxton means that the cost of ensuring that all the retail outlets were accessible to people with disabilities would be enormous. We have a huge number of retail outlets, public buildings and houses to which access can be gained only by climbing a significant number of steps.
Column 553We have a jewel of an opera house, the Buxton opera house, built almost 100 years ago. It desperately wants to do more to make itself accessible to people with disabilities, but, at the moment, that is not easy. There are narrow stairways, access is up little narrow streets and it would be difficult, and would cost a tremendous amount of money, for those conversions to be carried out. The opera house has led the way in signing stage plays and operas. It is one of the first opera houses in the country to sign opera. That is an indication of its desire for the facilities to be improved, but a tremendous cost will be involved in making access available in the near future to people with disabilities.
Mr. Fabricant : I am familiar with the Buxton opera house, which is an excellent opera house, and I have been to several performances there, including a performance of "The Magic Flute" a while ago, which was excellently done.
Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that the Bill has been amended-- although I would not encourage opera houses or other places of entertainment to take that route--to enable the Secretary of State, should he so wish, to say that old buildings or buildings of a specific size or shape could be exempt for so many years from undertaking such work, especially if such work might jeopardise the existence of the opera house ?
Mr. Hendry : That clause has significantly improved the Bill as it stands. We shall now enter a legal minefield about what constitutes a right to appeal against that. People may say that they cannot afford to do the work, when they may be able to do it. If two shops are next door to one other and one is granted an exemption but the other is not, although one may attract more business as a result, it has obviously had to put much money up front and, in the difficult economic trading climate, that may cause it further difficulties. Last week, I met some people with disabilities in
Chapel-en-le-Frith, a village in my constituency. There has been significant coverage in the local newspapers of the difficult trading circumstances in that village and in towns and villages nearby. We have a number of empty shops there and I am cautious about imposing further costs on those businesses--indeed, pressure of any type on those businesses--in addition to the costs that they must incur to survive the recession. I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire has just said. It must be accepted that inherent in the Bill are additional costs on companies and businesses. We must consider those factors.
A disabled constituent could not come to my surgery and felt that discrimination was being practised. Access to the Conservative association office is up a flight of stairs, so people with disabilities find it difficult to enter it. I offered to give my constituent a home visit so that, instead of a surgery slot of a quarter of an hour, I gave a one-and-a -half hour visit, which I thought had served my constituent's interests better than a visit to a surgery. What people with disabilities sometimes regard as discrimination can be used to ensure that their problems are listened to and answered.
Castleton caverns in my constituency are a series of
internationally renowned underground caverns--I suppose that caverns are, by definition, underground. The nature of
Column 554the caverns means that they are difficult to enter. If the caverns have to comply with the regulations, it will have to be on the understanding that, geographically, by their very nature, they may not be able to be used by people who require wheelchairs. We must consider the transport provisions of the Bill. We all know that trains with slam doors cannot be converted for wheelchair use. There is a programme to improve them and replace them with more modern rolling stock, but that will take time. The Bill must contain an acceptance that changes will take a long time. I fully accept the assurances of my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter that no physical date has been put on the changes.
The biggest danger is that we may raise a banner of hope for people with disabilities when we say that the issues will be tackled and the law now says so, then in 10, 20 or 30 years' time, disabled people find that the changes have not taken place because the legislation contained no time scale. Their sense of frustration and betrayal will become all the greater. Therefore, when we take action now, we must ensure that the provisions that we deliver are enforceable. When we talk about the provision of taxis or the conversion of taxis for use by people with disabilities, we must be aware of the tremendous costs entailed. The taxis that are most readily usable by people with disabilities are black cabs, which cost £20,000- plus. There is one black cab in the borough of High Peak, and it is used by people with wheelchairs. If we require every taxi in High Peak to be converted to a black cab over a certain period, we shall put most of the cab drivers in Buxton and the rest of the borough out of business because they simply cannot justify or afford that investment. Attitudes to disabled people in employment are changing. With each generation of new managers and people who have grown up with people with disabilities around them, we have become much more open minded and far less discriminatory in our attitudes towards people with disabilities. That means that opportunities for people with disabilities will improve.
There are tremendous examples in High Peak of companies that employ well above their quota level of disabled people. Otter Controls, a firm in Buxton which makes electronic equipment and electrical components, employs well above the level set in the voluntary code. If we simply say that 3 per cent. of a company's work force must be disabled people, companies that employ above that level will say that they have fulfilled their legal obligation and cannot justify to their shareholders taking on more people with disabilities. The best employers would scale back because the law simply required them to meet a floor level.
The voluntary agreement has not worked as well as it should have--in the public sector it has not worked nearly as well as it should have done. The Government could make a much clearer commitment to ensuring that those targets will be met within government. The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe gave a high figure of, I think, 100,000 jobs for disabled people that were being created by Government Departments. That is an important way forward and legislation is not necessarily required to achieve that goal.
It is clear from what my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter has said that employers are far less unhappy with the Bill's provisions than they would initially have been. That clearly opens up an opportunity for them to say,