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Column 1079supporters of the Bill accept that it would have enormous consequences. One of the reasons why I oppose the Bill is because of those increased public expenditure consequences. The Bill is fundamentally regulatory and if it is to be enacted at all it is in order for me to suggest that we should have more time to consider such matters.
Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon) : If my hon. Friend looks again at clauses 8 and 10 and considers the amendments made in Committee he will realise that no time limit is set for compliance with the Bill. The relevant Secretary of State will have the discretion to determine how long the time scale for implementation should be. Comparable legislation in America allows public transport 20 years for implementation and here it could be even longer. Does my hon. Friend accept that proponents of the Bill are most anxious not to load unreasonable compliance costs on businesses, employers and society ? In the light of the spirit of reasonableness shown by supporters of the Bill, does he accept that it is sensible for the House to complete consideration of the Bill today, so that it can go to another place where, if constructive and helpful amendments are tabled, I am sure that their lordships will be willing to consider them ? Would not that be a proper procedure ?
Mr. Leigh : My hon. Friend is an eloquent supporter of the Bill and he is taking a perfectly honourable position. I understand his point of view. He has said on several occasions that the cost compliance figures suggested by the Government are exaggerated. He does not for one moment accept that the Bill will cost the taxpayer anything like £17 billion. I accept that there could be delays in implementing the Bill and that it could be introduced gradually. I accept his point of view. Presumably, we are not talking about a cost of £17 billion being imposed immediately on the public purse. From reading the arguments and the various briefs supplied to us by business organisations, however, I am convinced that, although we may not arrive at £17 billion in the near future, compliance costs would be enormous and would have serious implications for business, especially small businesses.
I hope that the House will at least accept that I have been perfectly honest in saying that I oppose the Bill. I accept that what I am doing might not be very popular with disabled people--many people will not understand what I am doing. Occasionally in this House, however, one has the right to speak according to one's conscience and to what one believes to be right for the nation, rather than always be influenced by what one pressure group or a series of groups, however worthy, may propose.
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way. He has made his position clear. He has said that it is not his intention to talk out this humane and extremely important Bill. Is he prepared to contemplate with serenity the talking out of the measure ? Is he prepared to contribute to a debate that may go on too long ? Is he prepared to say now that he would like to see the Bill at least go forward for further consideration to the House of Lords ?
Column 1080It has been accepted that the hon. Gentleman has acted with honour. He is in an extremely important position because my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) has said that we are prepared to accept his amendments--we are prepared to accept all the amendments--so that the Bill can go forward. Will he accept briefly, if he looks at the cost compliance assessment document, that it is badly dated ? It refers, for example, to the disablement commission, which was altered in Committee.
Mr. Leigh : I can confirm that I do not intend to continue speaking for more than a few minutes and therefore I do not intend to talk out the Bill. I am simply doing what I am entitled to do, which is to speak to the amendments.
I think I have dealt with amendment No. 11. I shall now deal with amendments Nos. 49, 50 and 51, which are in my name. That group of amendments would allow the Secretary of State more flexibility and a greater variety of exemption procedures and especially extend the scope for exemptions from the employment provisions of the Bill. The Secretary of State is given a power to make exemptions to the regulation of provision of goods, services and new constructions under part IV. That is reasonable and allows for some of the different difficulties and circumstances that may obstruct the attempt to implement the wide-ranging provisions of the section. However, the scope for exemptions, as currently specified, seems to me to be far too narrow and restrictive to allow for the full range of circumstances that may arise.
There are no exemptions for the part of the Bill regulating employment. That is an especially grave omission. An over-rigid Bill has much less chance of successful implementation than one that retains flexibility. As I did the previous time that we debated the Bill, I have moved a number of amendments. If it is to become law, the Bill must be flexible. One of the reasons why I oppose the Bill is that I believe it to be inflexible. Especially with regard to employment and to the current state of the recession, any flexibility that we can introduce would be worth while.
[See Official Report, 23 May 1994, col. 21.
For example, an employer might come under the force of the Bill tomorrow. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) says that the purpose of the movers of the Bill is to bring it in gradually. However, as I understand it, an employer might come under the force of the Bill straight away. He might acknowledge, and agree to, his obligations to make changes to his premises, but be unable to complete the changes for some time, due to the size of his business. In that case, surely it is better to allow an exemption period while the changes are made and keep the employer within the law than to prosecute an employer who wishes to stay within the spirit of the legislation.
Column 1081principle that employers should be required only to "make reasonable accommodation"--I quote from the terminology of the Bill--and that there should be no imposition of undue hardship on employers completely covers the worries that he, otherwise perfectly reasonably, expresses. Therefore, will he accept that it would not be appropriate to detain the House more than another moment or two on that subject and that it would be in the interests of Parliament, as well as in the interests of disabled people, that we should be enabled to reach a conclusion in our consideration of the Bill today, so that hon. Members who may have objections of principle, which they are fully entitled to express, can have those objections tested, if necessary, at a vote ? It is not acceptable that the Bill should simply be talked out and be frustrated for lack of time.
Mr. Leigh : I shall not comment on the latter argument because I do not believe that it is relevant to the amendment that I am discussing, but if what my hon. Friend says is right, and the proposers of the Bill wish it to be as flexible as possible, I believe that my amendments would improve it.
Mr. Leigh : The amendments are narrow and that is why I intend to finish speaking in about a minute, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to do so. I have tabled the amendments, however, and I am perfectly entitled to speak to them. The Minister is also entitled to speak about them, if he feels it necessary to do so.
It is better to keep an employer within the law than to prosecute an employer who wishes to stay within the spirit of legislation. The Bill would be left rather inflexible and would not be put to its best use if it allowed for exemptions solely for periods of time and did not allow for any other circumstances.
The Secretary of State may wish to exempt an employer or service-provider from the requirements of the Bill while the nature of his business premises means that he is unable to carry out the alterations necessary--for example, the building might have a preservation order. I could cite many other examples, but I shall sit down now. I hope that the House will recognise that the amendments are sensible and that if the Bill is to become law, they would improve it.
The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott) : Given the considerable controversy that surrounds the Bill and the proceedings in the House on 6 May, I should preface my remarks on this group of amendments with a clear and unambiguous statement.
The Government have, and have always had, reservations about the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry). That comment is not new ; I have said it on numerous occasions and I will explain exactly its context before I consider the amendments. My introductory remarks will be brief.
Mr. Berry : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that we were dealing with the amendments now. Surely we should not have a statement from the Minister about Government policy in general at this stage.
Column 1082proceedings today, but I should be grateful if he left it to me to make a judgment about what is in order and what is not in order.
Mr. Scott : I have no intention of unduly prolonging my introductory remarks, but they must be judged against a background in which my own position has been under attack from the hon. Member for Kingswood and others--not always, I may say, with the degree of accuracy that one would expect.
Mr. Skinner : I do not want to waste time, but if the right hon. Member had any guts and had earned the title Minister for Disabled People, he would give a welcome to the Bill. He would sit down and let us get on and finish the proceedings for the benefit of those 6.5 million disabled people. What he has been doing up to now is kicking their crutches away. Come on, get on with it.
Mr. Scott : Despite the vulgarity of his language, the hon. Member knows that in the six years in which I have been Minister for Disabled People I have consistently endeavoured to improve the quality of life for disabled people through a range of Government initiatives and support for those voluntary organisations of and for disabled people, who play such an important part in enabling that progress to be made. I have done that consistently and I am determined to go on seeking to do it.
The Government themselves have made clear their intention to consult and to act in five key areas that affect the quality of life of disabled people and the obstacles that are placed before them in a number of important areas. I want that work to continue. What I have never said is that the Government support the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Kingswood.
Mr. Scott : The bottom line has always been that the Government cannot accept the Bill because of the considerable cost implications involved. That applies to this group of amendments as it does to others. [Interruption.] If hon. Members will allow me to respond, albeit to the sedentary intervention from the hon. Member
Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich) rose
Column 1083the Bill, but if that is the case, why did neither the right hon. Gentleman nor any other member of the Government vote against the Bill on Second Reading
Mr. Scott : In parenthesis--literally, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in a sentence--I have explained on a number of occasions precisely why, for constructive reasons, we did not oppose the Bill on Second Reading and allowed it to go into Committee
The common theme of the amendments is the time scale for implementing the Bill's provisions.
Mr. Scott : I am sure that that is the hon. Gentleman's hope, but in the same way as we debated on Second Reading and in Committee, we must discuss these amendments against the background of the need to carry forward discussions about the obstacles that stand in the way of disabled people in society and for Parliament to address them in due course. The Government will of course take note of this debate, as they did of debates on Second Reading and in Committee, as they develop their own proposals. Before I gave way, I was saying that the common theme of the amendments is the time scale for implementing the Bill's provisions.
Mr. Austin-Walker rose
Mr. Alfred Morris rose
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) rose
Mr. Rooker : I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman is in a difficult situation and I do not want to make it worse. Will he tell the House and those outside whether the amendments form a tranche of any of those that were drafted or examined in his Department ? If so, and as the Minister's amendment has been accepted by the Bill's promoter, why are we debating them ?
Mr. Scott : In the light of the trouble in which I found myself after I was last asked such a question, I will let the hon. Gentleman know the answer. I would have to look at the particular amendments. They may reflect amendments that were moved earlier. I would not want to make any commitment today that would get me into the sort of trouble in which I found myself when I was trying to be helpful on a previous occasion.
Mr. Alfred Morris : All the world knows now that most of the amendments were drafted by the Government. We accept them. The right hon. Gentleman is speaking for the Government. Will he now allow us to proceed with the rest of the amendments--one of which is a new amendment from the Minister ?
Mr. Scott : I made it clear that the Government cannot accept the Bill. I want to use the proper procedures of the House to explain the Government's reservations about this particular group of amendments. It is right that the House should have the opportunity to discuss them and
The House should understand why we are resisting the amendments and why we should consider them in some depth, whether or not some of them may be acceptable. We need to discuss those matters today. That will better inform our discussion of the future since, as I am making clear, the Government cannot accept the Bill.
Mr. Dicks : By devious routes, the amendments are my right hon. Friend's, the Department's or Government amendments. Why does he want to tell us about amendments that he helped to get through to Back Benchers to table ? There is an old rule about life, and it is a simple one--if you are in a hole, stop digging.
Mr. Scott : What a number of my hon. Friends have done by moving the amendments before the House is to express concern, particularly about the speed with which the Bill would take effect, the costs that it would impose, and the speed with which that cost could be imposed on businesses, employers and shops. I take the point that is frequently made, and it is a common point between the hon. Member for Kingswood and myself that the concessions that he made in Committee did not, as he will recall, involve me in moving amendments, but in making clear during discussions on the Bill the Government's reservations that they placed the responsibility for the timing into the hands of the Secretary of State. In other words
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : I think that the whole House accepts what the Minister said about his own contribution to the disabled, and we accept that, of course, Government matters put him in the hands of the Treasury. But does he agree that the
Mr. Spearing : Does the Minister agree that amendments that were referred to in the answer of the Leader of the House to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) were drafted by his Department and that, therefore, he is not overtly, but covertly speaking against amendments that he has tabled ? What is the object of doing that ?
I am concerned to see that we have an opportunity this afternoon to explain to a wider audience, as well as to the sponsors of the Bill, our concerns about the speed with which the costs that will be inherent in the Bill, if it reaches
Column 1085the statute book in its present form, could be placed on employers and providers of various facilities for disabled people.
I believe that it is naive of the hon. Member for Kingswood to infer that, because these matters have been placed under the authority of the various Secretaries of State concerned, there would not, if the Bill reached the statute book, be considerable and powerful pressure for the immediate implementation of the various matters. That, in my view, would arouse the expectations of disabled people, and would be very difficult for Secretaries of State, perhaps of either party, who have to take into account not just meeting the needs of disabled people, important though that aim is, and one which I share, but the costs that might be borne by the Government and, perhaps more importantly, by industry, commerce and business. I believe, as I shall seek to explain if I am given the chance to develop a coherent argument, that we need to take those people with us as we develop policies that are designed in a constructive way to meet the needs of disabled people in society. So I am nervous, despite the fact that there is built-in flexibility about timing, and that power is given to Secretaries of State, that, in passing the Bill in its present shape, the speed and the pressure for immediate implementation would create considerable problems for those in Government who have to take responsibility for its implementation.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire) : I accept that my right hon. Friend has concerns over the points that he made, but could not they be dealt with in another place, were the Bill to be allowed to get to another place ?
Mr. Scott : That is true, but, in my years in this House, I have never thought it a proper principle that because there would be opportunities for discussion in another place, the House should not give proper consideration to proposals that are being placed before it, and particularly since the House has a special responsibility for the public purse, which does not in the same way
Mr. Scott : If I may say so, I made it very clear that it is a proper concern of those who are responsible for public expenditure in this country that we should not be placing undue burdens on the public purse or on businesses, which are the engine of economic success.
Mr. Berry : The Minister kindly acknowledged that in Committee I moved that the Secretary of State, subject to parliamentary approval, should determine the time scale for introducing each of the measures. Therefore, the cost implications would be entirely under the control of the Secretary of State. Will the Minister tell the House what else one could have done to make the provisions acceptable ? The pressures that he mentioned will exist whether or not the Bill reaches the statute book. I repeat that the costs will be under the control of the Secretary of State, which is why we accept the amendments.
Mr. Scott : I have to tread a narrow path and address the amendments, while setting them against the background of the pressures that could exist in the areas affected by the amendments. The amendments properly consider the time scale. To set at rest the minds of right hon. and hon. Members who have intervened about the drafting of the amendments, I can say that all the amendments in the
Column 1086group were drafted by Parliamentary Counsel, as was amendment No. 64 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern).
I have another worry about the path on which we would be embarking were the Bill to achieve Third Reading today and we sent it to another place. It is a concern that I have expressed frequently in previous discussions--the failure of the Bill's sponsors to consult the many sectors of the economy that would be affected by the Bill's provisions. It is important that those sectors of the economy have an opportunity, before the legislation reaches the statute book, to express their concerns, not just about the totality of the cost, but about the speed of impact of the costs that might be placed on them.
Mr. Alfred Morris : Never was an accepted amendment parried at such length from the Treasury Bench. Does the Minister recall the money resolution, tabled by Treasury Ministers in support of the Bill ? That underwrites the cost. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) said, the right hon. Gentleman has total control over dates and expenditure.
Mr. Scott : The money resolution does not do that. It is a technical device--in a non-pejorative sense--tabled to ensure that those parts of a Bill that attract significant public expenditure are in order as the Bill is discussed. That is not the implication that many people would draw from the right hon. Gentleman's intervention. The money resolution was in no sense underwriting all the public expenditure that might flow from the Bill. That was why the Government were under considerable pressure--and had a duty once the Bill had received Second Reading and before its Report stage--to produce the compliance cost assessment that has been before the House. That assessment is the assessment of the expenditure. As anyone who has had dealings with legislation in the House knows, the money resolution in no sense underwrites that. The money resolution simply makes it clear that it would be in order for various matters in the different clauses of the Bill to be discussed properly. As I was saying before I gave way to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), I am concerned about the lack of consultation with many sectors of the economy which would be affected by the Bill's provisions. I expressed my disappointment to the hon. Member for Kingswood that the Bill had returned in virtually the same shape as it had appeared before the House more than a year ago in February 1993. The Government had previously expressed their concerns about the practical implications, costs and potential for litigation. I had hoped that, before the Bill came back to the House for consideration, there would have been widespread consultation with those on whom its requirements would fall and who are very properly concerned--a point highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West--about the costs and any wider consequences that would flow to them.
Column 1087of not restraining hon. Members' contributions. I suggest that he listens to the full debate before making such accusations.
Mr. Sheerman : I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being absent from the Chamber for a short time and for any disrespect to the Chair. I wanted to intervene on the Minister because he cannot get away with what he is saying. He referred to a wholly spurious cost assessment which everyone outside the Government knows to be laughable. He also said that there had not been sufficient consultation or time. In his capacity as Minister with responsibility for the disabled, he has for years said that he was benevolently neutral about the Bill while he could have been encouraging and helpful. The truth is that he did not think that this Bill would come to fruition.
Mr. Scott : I do not want to repeat myself because it would be tedious and almost certainly out of order to do so at length, but I must say that the Government have made their position clear a number of times, most particularly when I wrote on 17 January this year to every hon. Member to express my reservations about comprehensive legislation in this area. I said that the Government believed that the best way forward was through education, persuasion, the raising of awareness in society as a whole and, where necessary, targeted legislation. I made it clear that I was opposed to the sort of over-arching legislation that we are now discussing in this part of the Bill. That was made abundantly clear by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and by me on numerous occasions to hon. Members and to the sponsor of the Bill.
The hon. Member for Kingswood knows my concern as well as I do. To be fair, in Committee he acknowledged my concern about the lack of consultation that had led many employers' organisations and others to express worries about the costs and the rate of imposition of those costs on their members and the interests that they represent. It is perfectly proper for those organisations to have done so. They might not have expressed such reservations or felt it necessary to make representations to a range of hon. Members had the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues undertaken the necessary consultation themselves as the Bill passed through its various stages. I now know that, somewhat belatedly, they are doing so and are arranging discussions with various employers' organisations and other providers. The hon. Gentleman made it clear in our exchanges in Committee that he rather regretted that he had not embarked on that process before. Mr. Berry indicated dissent .
Mr. Scott : It would be worth the hon. Gentleman looking at the record. If I have misrepresented him in any way I apologise, but he acknowledged that it might have been better if the consultation process had started rather earlier than it did.
Mr. Rooker : Like everyone else, the Minister realises that parliamentary time is extremely valuable. His points might be halfway valid, but, if the Bill could go to another place today having secured a Third Reading and if it were to be amended in another place, it would not be subject to the vagaries of private Members' legislation on a Friday. It could be dealt with late at night during the week, possibly in the overspill after the summer recess. That would
Column 1088provide a possible four months for consultation without damaging the Bill's prospects of receiving Royal Assent. The Bill would not fall to be debated on a Friday--that is not the procedure once it has left this place. The Minister is putting his successors in an impossible position. He cannot say with sincerity that he wants widespread consultation and detailed discussion about when particular clauses will come into force if it appears that he has sought to kill the Bill stone dead. I ask him not to do that.
Mr. Scott : I am nervous because of the constraints under which, manifestly, I operate in terms of the rules of order. However, I want briefly to refer to the approach that I announced when the Bill was discussed at an earlier stage and which the Government have adopted. Within the next six months or so, we intend to engage in a proper process of consultation with a range of interests about proposals in a number of key areas, which will address many of the concerns raised today by the promoter and sponsors of the Bill. They need to be addressed
Mr. Sheerman rose
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. We must get back to amendment No. 11. There will be a Third Reading debate at some stage during which the wider points can be made. I should be grateful if we could get back specifically to this group of amendments.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I ask the Minister firmly to stick to the amendments. When the House has finished its discussion on them, we can put the question on them. We are discussing amendment No. 11.
Mr. Scott : I am certainly in accord with that aim. I do not want to challenge your ruling in any way, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The amendments concern the impact of costs, the speed with which the provisions of the Bill could be implemented and the worry, which is being expressed even today by the Institute of Directors and the CBI, about those pressures. The amendments have been tabled to address those matters and it is to those amendments that my remarks are directed. With my normal generosity in this area, I am only too willing to enable those who feel that they have points to make to put them to me and to respond to them to the best of my ability, despite a somewhat unfortunate experience recently.
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : My right hon. Friend has made it clear that the Government are not prepared to accept the Bill. Some people had hoped that when the Bill was discussed in Committee--I was not a member of the Committee--it might have been amended in a way that made it possible for the Government to accept it. Clearly, that was not the case, so it is important that we now use whatever time we have available to learn more about the way forward and about what the real objections are. The compliance cost assessment came out only after the Bill had completed its Committee stage. I have not
Column 1089been here to debate it previously. It is important that we use the time positively to explore what the Government's objections are and to spell out more clearly what course could be followed in future so that we can have a Bill that has the support of the Government as well as the support of all those whose interests are being expressed so clearly today.