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Column 519The minimum wage is a classic example of how a Labour party programme would lead to unemployment. Almost 20 years ago, the former Secretary of State for Social Services, Barbara Castle, produced a paper showing how minimum wage legislation would lead to increased unemployment, especially in the regions. She showed that there would be an especially severe effect in Northern Ireland, as well as in other regions, if there was any attempt to introduce a minimum wage. I noticed at the weekend that Bill Morris of the Transport and General Workers Union, one of the paymasters of the Labour party, was wriggling when asked what would happen to differentials if there was a minimum wage. He was more or less forced to concede that wages would leapfrog as differentials came in, which would lead us back to inflation, back to high interest rates and back to higher unemployment--perhaps the International Monetary Fund would come in again.
Looking at the picture in the United States, it is interesting to note that, according to The Economist this week, 16 per cent. of workers in the United States have wages that are below the minimum wage in France. If the minimum wage in the United States was at the level that it is in France, the jobs of 16 per cent. of workers in the United States would presumably be at risk. That shows why unemployment in France is double the level it is in the United States, where the latest figures show that it is at 5.8 per cent. and falling. In France, unemployment is at 12.7 per cent. and rising. There seems to be a clear correlation.
The minimum wage is a classic example of how Labour policies would lead to unemployment and to weakening the economy. By contrast, this Government's policies are leading to a strong economy. I am confident that the Budget which will be before us in a few days' time will be good for business in the country as a whole and for business in Bolton, where there is a strong emphasis on manufacturing. I am confident that the Budget will help to reduce unemployment even further. Unemployment in Bolton has fallen by 2,000 in the past 12 months, and I am confident that it will continue to fall. We have the strength of an economic recovery based on an export-led boom. Exports are up by 11 per cent. overall and by 17 per cent. to the European Community, much of which is still in recession. That has given us 4 per cent. growth in gross domestic product, the fastest in Europe. Inflation is at the lowest level for almost 30 years. Productivity is up by 6 per cent., and unemployment nationally is down by the best part of half a million. That is the way in which we can fund the sort of welfare state that we need.
I do not know what else we shall see in the Budget, but I am sure that we shall see further evidence of the control of public spending as the basis for it. I hope that items such as housing benefit will be brought under control. I am sure that it should be possible to cap housing benefit if it is done on a local basis and at the same to give a boost to the private rented sector. We may see housing investment trusts coming forward, and I hope that there will be a boost to the sale of council houses. We may need more legislation on that front to make it easier for
Column 520councils to dispose of their council houses, even if the tenants are unable to buy the whole freehold under the right to buy.
Mr. Alan Howarth: My hon. Friend has just advocated a regional, or even a local, cap on housing benefit. Would not that flatten out differentials and effectively set a going rate, which would encourage landlords to move their rents up to that level if they happened to be below it? That would do nothing otherwise to encourage the development of the private rented sector which, my hon. Friend said in the same sentence, he advocated. Will he explain a little more why he supports such a possible change?
Mr. Thurnham: As my hon. Friend knows, the rents that landlords set are limited by the rent officers. I am sure that he appreciates that there are no incentives for tenants to move to cheaper accommodation. There are no incentives for either tenants or landlords to seek any savings in the cost of the accommodation they have at the moment. We have seen housing benefit increase substantially.
I am sure that it should be possible to arrange matters so that there were incentives for people to make use of the least expensive accommodation that they can sensibly afford. At the moment, as my hon. Friend will be aware, there are massive abuses of housing benefit throughout the country, especially in areas such as London, where some high rents have been charged. I am confident that it should be possible to control that, although I take my hon. Friend's point that we need measures to boost the private rented sector at the same time.
We have the "rent a room to a lodger" arrangement, which gives £3, 000 free of tax. That should be extended to a lodger who is not under the same roof. In other words, people should be able to rent out a property they own at up to £3,000 a year without having to pay tax on it. That would be an incentive for them to provide accommodation up to that cost.
I very much welcome the fact that the Government are introducing their own Bill on disability. I am sure that that is to the credit of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the new Minister for Social Security and Disabled People. I also give praise to his predecessor. I am sure that there have been some strong discussions behind the scenes. We look forward to hearing the full details, and I hope that we shall have a full statement of the details this evening or before too long, so that we know exactly what the Government have in mind. When the Bill is published, we shall see the full details.
My message to the Government is that they should be as bold as possible. They have an excellent record on disability overall, and spending on disability has trebled to £17 billion a year. The Government's general approach has been a step-by-step, balanced approach, in contrast to that in the private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill.
I see that the hon. Gentleman is here at the moment. He knows that I had reservations about how one could proceed with a big-bang approach. I shared his aims, but I believed that, when it came to implementation, it would be more sensible to proceed in stages rather than to try to achieve everything at once. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be as bold as possible, and that he may
Column 521be able to go beyond what was in the consultation paper, by introducing measures that will provide as much additional opportunity as possible for disabled people.
The Government's own example is important. The public sector is a huge employer in its own right, yet organisations such as the BBC employ only one tenth of the so-called "quota". There are health authorities and local authorities that do not employ any registered disabled people. That goes to show that the quota itself is nonsense. There is no doubt that we can dispense with the quota and go towards legislation that will outlaw unfair discrimination in the whole area of employment. We have excellent examples of some organisations, such as the Shaw Trust, which work to provide opportunities for disabled people at a cost substantially lower than that of the Government's own arrangements through Remploy.
I hope that the Government will go as far as possible to provide access to buildings. This is the expensive area, and we have already had long debates about what the costs would be. The Government need to assess what sort of time scale is appropriate.
We must outlaw some of the blatant discrimination one comes across. Recently, I saw a case of a lady suffering from cerebral palsy, who had worked all her life. When she came to retire, she put her name down for a retirement home and was given an indication that she would be able to proceed with her application. However, when the owners of the retirement home found that she suffered from cerebral palsy, they suddenly said that they did not think that they could proceed with the deal.
It is that sort of nonsense which needs to be totally banned, because it is blatant discrimination of the worst sort. We look forward to seeing the details of the Bill, and I hope that it will be strong in all the areas that I have outlined.
I hope that the Bill is especially strong in the area of transport. A recent opinion survey of the members of the Conservative disability group showed that their number one priority was transport. I hope that we can bring in measures such as ensuring that all new buses are of the low-floor type, and that taxis and so on are made to enable disabled people to make as much use as possible of all forms of transport.
In deciding where the right balance should be struck and how far the Government should go with their Bill, we need to keep as wide a perspective as possible, and not only consider exactly what we may want to do in this country. We must bear in mind the fact that, in a global sense, there are enormous difficulties for disabled people. Although we should do everything that is sensible, practical and pragmatic in this country, we should bear in mind the considerable difficulties and chaos abroad.
It is a few years ago that I visited Romania, but I remember going to an adult psychiatric hospital--so-called--at Podriga, where the conditions were simply frightful. There was no doctor in the hospital, patients were dead in their beds, there was no running water or proper heating, and the lavatories were blocked and overflowing from one floor to the floor below. The conditions in that place were absolutely horrific.
My daughter happened to be working in Romania in that hospital at that time. If anyone would like a Christmas present, I certainly recommend the book published this
Column 522week, entitled "Sophie's Journey", in which she describes the dreadful conditions under which the people in that hospital were placed, as well as the conditions in the Ionashen orphanage where she also worked.
I give great credit to the Government for the measures which are in the Gracious Speech. I wish them well with those measures, especially the measures which will be announced shortly in the disability Bill.
Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood): Twelve months ago, we would have been surprised to hear that the Government were to introduce a Bill to tackle, in their words, discrimination against disabled people. I welcome the fact that we now have that Bill, although perhaps it is useful to reflect on what has happened over the past 12 months to change the situation. As a matter of fact, a Government report published in 1982 by the Committee on Restrictions Against Disabled People--the CORAD report--recommended that the Government should make discrimination unlawful. Of course, every year since then, no action has been taken.
Comments have even been made about how inappropriate it is that private Members' Bills deal with the matter. I could not agree more. The fact that the issue had been left for so many years and private Members had to seek to legislate on an important matter of civil rights was wrong. If we are now generally agreed that we should use the law to outlaw discrimination against disabled people, I very much welcome that change of heart.
It is, in fairness, generally recognised that disabled people face discrimination in every aspect of their lives--in employment, in education, in access to leisure facilities, transport, and so on. No doubt some right hon. and hon. Members will have attended the Scope reception at lunchtime, where one of the reports published, the result of an extensive survey of disabled people undertaken by an independent research agency, concluded:
"The problems faced by disabled people in coping with hostile attitudes and inadequate support are much greater than many think." I hope that it is now recognised that this is a serious area of discrimination and also that there needs to be legal redress. After all, we have laws in this country that seek to banish discrimination on the grounds of gender and race and, indeed, in Northern Ireland, on the grounds of religion. Why, therefore, should we not make it illegal to discriminate on grounds of disability? We should. If the House has achieved that consensus over the past 12 months, I am very grateful. It has to be said--I say this in as constructive a manner as possible--that, in the past Session, not many issues were as controversial as the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. It resulted, of course, in a couple of apologies for misleading the House, and led to the departure of a Minister. It resulted more positively, perhaps, in raising the political profile of the issue. I have no doubt that the events of last year also resulted in the Government's publishing a consultation document in the summer and I have no doubt that the events of the past 12 months resulted in the commitment in the Queen's Speech to introduce a Bill to tackle discrimination against disabled people.
I believe very strongly that disabled people's organisations deserve every credit for the fact that this issue has been put at the top of the political agenda. We must recognise that every organisation of and for disabled
Column 523people was saying last year, as such organisations have said every year recently, that comprehensive, anti- discrimination legislation was required and, therefore, that they wanted the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. The Rights Now campaign deserves credit for the way in which that lobbying was conducted over the past 12 months.
Support for the Bill has been voiced not only outside but inside the House. A clear majority of hon. Members support the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. They did so last year and, if we examine support for early- day motion 1, we see that they also support it this year.
Briefly, I shall refer again to Scope. I am not advertising it, but its reception happens to be the only one to which I have been today, so far. The Scope reception also published another report. Again, it was an independent survey of how Members of Parliament feel about civil rights for disabled people. I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware of the outcome--70 per cent. of Members of Parliament responded by saying that they supported civil rights legislation. A clear majority responded by saying that they supported the specific measures in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. I believe that it is the extent of support outside the House and inside the House that has brought about the change in the Government's attitude, and I welcome it.
The Government ought to be aware that some of us may be slightly less charitable than the hon. Member for Bristol--sorry, the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham). Goodness me, what a strange slip, given that I am from Bristol myself. The hon. Gentleman has a vision that the Government have been struggling to liberate themselves from various constraints and have finally done so. I suspect that, rather than the Government struggling to get out, people were pushing the Government.
The Government have now realised the extent of support for the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. Indeed, that is probably why none of them voted against the Bill on Second Reading in the last Session. Not one vote was cast against it. It is probably also why not a single vote was cast against a single clause in the Bill in the past Session. Indeed, not a vote was cast against the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill in the entirety of the debate in this Chamber in the past Session. That was not how the Bill was killed. This House has repeatedly supported the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. It has been through all its stages in another place. Indeed, in the past Session, it had yet another unopposed Second Reading in another place. In summary, the Bill was not defeated in the past Session because it lacked support. It is a fact that support was so clearly demonstrated that the Government were forced to respond to it.
The Bill envisaged in the Queen's Speech has yet to be published, although I have read some very interesting accounts in the press. There has obviously been some degree of either briefing or lack of security--I do not quite know which. If the Bill is along the lines of the consultation document, clearly, there are problems for many of us. The consultation paper that the Government issued in the summer did two things: first, it made untrue statements about the civil rights Bill; secondly, it set out a number of measures that in my view--this was the view also of disabled people--were far from comprehensive.
Column 524I shall refer briefly once again to the Government's arguments on the costs of the civil rights Bill. I hope genuinely that we shall never again have to listen to the contention that we cannot have the civil rights Bill because it would cost £17 billion. It was not argued that it was badly drafted or that the Government could produce a better Bill. The cost argument should not be repeated, because £17 billion is a bogus figure. As I have said before in the House, it is true that the compliance cost assessment arrived at that figure. The all-party disablement group has said--the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) and I are members of it, and we share the view of the group--that £17 billion is the result of several serious errors, conscious or otherwise. There is double counting in the assessment. For example, the chapter submitted by the Department of the Environment includes certain costs of access to buildings. Those costs crop up again in the chapter produced by the Department for Education and in that produced by the Department of Employment. The double counting accounts for about £6 billion.
It is not good enough for people to reiterate numbers that they know are wrong, and I hope that it will not happen again. The documents which demonstrate clearly that such assertions are wrong have been in the hands of Ministers for several months.
Mr. Thurnham: I wish to intervene because the hon. Gentleman referred to me. Perhaps he will admit that he had not been able to provide a costing of the provisions of his Bill. Is it not naive to imagine that a Bill that, on any reckoning, would have cost many billions of pounds could be slipped through the House on a Friday, when attendance in the Chamber is often very low, and at the same time to claim that there was no opposition to it because most hon. Members were not present?
Mr. Berry: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. The Second Reading debate was hardly about slipping the Bill through the House. On the Friday that debate took place, 231 Members were present to vote for the Bill's Second Reading; taking account of the four Tellers, there were 235. With great respect, we surely cannot say to those right hon. and hon. Members who took the trouble to be in their places in such numbers on that Friday that they were doing something casual in trying to slip the Bill through the House. The Government were invited to oppose the Bill on that day if they wished to do so, and they did not. It is for the Government to explain why, having not opposed the measure on Second Reading or in Committee, they were then to invent the story that somehow the Bill was fatally flawed or that it would be so expensive that it would wreck the economy.
I have always contended that it would be difficult to put a precise figure on the civil rights Bill. I moved an amendment in Committee to ensure that there could be no reference to a binding time scale. I recognised that it would be for the Secretary of State of the day to determine the level of expenditure implied for his or her Department. If it is said that I cannot produce a figure, it should be remembered that the Committee and all those who supported the Bill were anxious not to tie any Government to a specific timetable. That argument cannot be used as an excuse for blocking the Bill.
Column 525The compliance cost assessment, as I have said, engaged in double counting. That was wrong. The assessment assumed also that all the Bill's provisions would be implemented within five years. There was no reference in the Bill to five years or any other period. The report to which I referred demonstrates that, if we allowed for the phasing in of accessible public transport vehicles--producing such vehicles, not retrofitting--we would be able to save £5 billion to £6 billion. That leaves only £5 billion.
When I mentioned that saving earlier in a packed Chamber--I think that the House was waiting for a debate on sleaze--hon. Members groaned and said, "We are left with only £5 billion." I say with the greatest of caution that £5 billion phased in over a few years is not a great deal of money. The outlay would be about a third of what it cost the Government to introduce the poll tax, to try to prop it up and then to axe it. If the Government are able to find about £14 billion for an exercise of that sort, I shall not apologise for seeking to find £5 billion to ensure that there are equal rights for disabled people.
Mr. Alan Howarth: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the cost of compliance with the civil rights Bill would be about £5 billion spread over many years. Does he agree that netted off against that cost should be the economic benefits of introducing the Bill, which consist of having a significant proportion of 6.5 million disabled people contributing to the economy through their employment opportunities, the development of new consumer services and tax and national insurance contributions? When those economic benefits are netted off--they must be real, but they are difficult to assess with precision--it is at least possible that the net cost of the Bill's implementation will be zero.
Mr. Berry: The hon. Gentleman is right. I pay tribute to the fact that over recent months he has stressed the need for a proper cost-benefit analysis of the civil rights Bill. It is absurd that we have a compliance cost assessment of proposed legislation but no proper cost-benefit analysis. It is absurd to examine the costs of operating a Bill without assessing the costs of not doing so. That is an odd approach. To give credit to the private sector, I am sure that it would not make decisions on such a basis, and nor should we. Several studies have estimated the benefits to the Treasury of removing discrimination in employment. The estimates range from £2 billion to £4 billion. If we cease denying disabled people their right to work, they will pay tax and receive less benefit. Studies have been made of access to public transport, something that would benefit disabled people and enable us all to move more quickly. The experience in Holland shows what can happen. Estimates vary, but it seems that about £1 billion could be saved.
I do not seek to argue that the civil rights Bill is something for nothing. There would, of course, be costs, especially in the short term. In the medium term, however, there would be direct financial benefits. As the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) suggested, they would be of the same order as the costs. Surely the most unacceptable costs are those of discrimination.
Column 526Last week, the Prime Minister said that the anticipated Bill "will include a right not to be discriminated against in employment, a right of access to goods and services and the establishment of a national disability council to ensure that the voice of disabled people is heard more clearly within Government."--[ Official Report, 16 November 1994; Vol. 250, c. 31-32.]
I welcome the Government's conversion to the idea of rights for disabled people. Not long ago there were those in the House and elsewhere who thought that the idea of talking about rights for the disabled was extraordinary. I remember being savaged by Bill Deedes in the columns of The Daily Telegraph for being obsessed with political correctness and for using the term "rights", a demand so unreasonable as to put one beyond the pale. Against that background, I welcome the Prime Minister's talk about rights instead of talking only about what good government can do for disabled people. Let me explain why, on present signs--based on the provisions set out in the consultation document--the Government's Bill is likely to be inadequate. If the Government follow the line set out in the consultation document that was published in the summer, we will have a set of piecemeal proposals. We will not have the comprehensive anti- discrimination legislation that disabled people want and require. Two very important areas--education and transport--were completely excluded from that document.
In the consultation document, access to goods and services was limited to direct discrimination. For example, if a publican refused to serve a Down's syndrome sufferer, that would be outlawed. I welcome that, but that would not deal with physical access. The consultation document states:
"It is very important that those providing goods and services should not be required to carry out modifications to existing premises."
That may be important to the Government, but it is not important to disabled people who require access to premises. Anything that deals with the broad area of access to goods and services must address physical access.
Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister referred to setting up a new advisory body called the national disability council. I am deeply alarmed that that might simply be a talking shop. Unlike the disability rights commission which would have been set up under the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, the Government's advisory body would have no investigative or enforcement powers. It would not have the same status as the Equal Opportunities Commission or the Commission for Racial Equality. If that is true--the document shows that it is--disabled people would again be offered second-class treatment, and that is simply unacceptable.
My response to the Prime Minister's comment last week about ensuring that the voice of disabled people is heard more clearly within Government is that I believe that that voice has been clear. Disabled people have stated very clearly what they want and require. The obstacle to the voice of disabled people being heard more clearly in Government have hitherto been the Government themselves. The Government should recognise that every organisation of or for disabled people, whose views have been known over the past 12 months before, during and after the consultation exercise, has said that a
Column 527comprehensive civil rights Bill is necessary. Anything less than that will be unacceptable. Anything less than that will not defuse the campaign for civil rights.
As I have said before, in a few years we will look back and wonder why on earth we had to have this debate in 1994 about whether we needed to ensure equal treatment for disabled people in exactly the same way as we seek to ensure equal treatment for women and black people. Let us hope that we have a comprehensive civil rights Bill as soon as possible. I very much hope that that is what the Government have in mind.
Several hon. Members rose --
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. In the two hours before the winding-up speeches, no fewer than 10 hon. Members hope to catch my eye. With a little co-operation, I hope that they will all be successful.
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): I warmly welcome the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. I particularly admire her for her vigorous support for the achievements in the national health service that we have made over a considerable period. I was sorry that the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) made a rather mean-spirited speech. It is almost as if the Labour party is seeking to make the health service its own health service rather than our health service in respect of which we, the Government, are the custodians of the future of the health service. The remarks made by the right hon. Member for Derby, South bore no relation to the health service that I know. I am proud to use the health service. I visit a national health service GP and I queue up like everyone else in her surgery. I have never been let down. It may be worth while to travel overseas and ask people in other countries about their fears and their terror of falling ill and being unable to afford the treatment that they desperately need. By contrast, we should then be able to understand and appreciate how precious and valuable our health service is. It is terrible to learn that one third of the American people have no automatic health cover. We should compare that with what we have in this country. We have a fine record, of which we should be enormously proud. The fear in America does not exist here.
What concerns me is that, where there is fear in this country, it is the result of scaremongering. I often knock on people's doors wanting to know how they are getting on. When I ask about their concerns, people say that they are worried about the health service. When I ask whether they have had any treatment which has gone wrong, I am told, "Oh no. In fact, the treatment has been the best possible. It has been fast and speedy. The doctors were wonderful, the nurses were dedicated and I'm feeling fine."
When I ask, "Well, why do you feel like this?" The answer is, "Oh, it's what they say on television and in the media. It's what the Labour party is saying. Clearly, they
Column 528are trying to make me feel that there's something wrong." However, their personal experiences have always led them to be appreciative and supportive of their treatment.
Lady Olga Maitland: The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) asks about the nurses. I frequently visit my local hospitals. Morale at the St. Helier national health service trust hospital is excellent. I have yet to come across a nurse, doctor or consultant who has criticised the management. To a large extent, criticism is politically inspired by the Labour party. Perhaps Labour Members should visit hospitals to see for themselves what is happening.
Having made clear my appreciation of the health service, I have a message for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. I support comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the House about mixed-sex wards. It is clear to me that many people, particularly women, do not wish to share a mixed-sex ward. A close elderly relative of mine was in that situation and, frankly, it was very embarrassing for her.
Ms Tessa Jowell (Dulwich): I support the hon. Lady's call for single -sex wards. Will she join me in pressing the Secretary of State to instruct and direct purchasers to ensure that women--particularly those being admitted to psychiatric hospitals, 50 per cent. of whom have suffered sexual abuse at some time in their lives--have a choice when they are admitted to hospital and can choose to be cared for on a single-sex ward?
Lady Olga Maitland: I sympathise with the hon. Lady and I support her call. It is something that we should be seriously considering, not something about which we should be doctrinaire. There is a way around the problem while also ensuring that we get the most efficient health care available.
I give a warm welcome to the Government's plans, outlined in the Gracious Speech, to introduce a Bill to tackle discrimination against disabled people. It seems somewhat ironic that the first person even to touch on that topic today happened to be my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North -East (Mr. Thurnham) rather than a Labour Member, despite the fact that the Opposition's amendment mentions it. I was surprised that the matter was not raised until rather late in the debate, and then by a Conservative rather than a Labour Member. It makes me wonder whether it really is such a high priority for the Opposition after all.
Disabled people are entitled to new rights which give them greater dignity and respect and more facilities to enable them to lead the life of their choice. I have seen their frustrations--the "does he take sugar" syndrome is grossly insulting. More than that we, the able-bodied, are the losers because we deny ourselves the benefit of the massive contribution that disabled people can make to our society.
Column 529In short, as one disabled man, a former high -flying executive in my constituency--Mr. Ted Gates--said:
"Think of us in terms of what we can do. The white stick, the wheelchair, the hearing aid can mask able and quick-minded people whose talents we should be taking advantage of. In any case, why should we be denied access to services that everybody else takes for granted?"
I totally agree with him.
The truth is that education and persuasion can go only so far. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rightly said, the point is to focus on what can be done now and to present a Bill that will progress quickly. Sweeping statements calling for "comprehensive civil rights", which in any case is an American term tailored to their constitution, not ours, are not in themselves tangible, practical answers to daily problems. The borrowing of moral and legal fashions from America, ignoring the fundamental differences between our two systems and cultures, is rapidly becoming a curse in British politics. It is far better to concentrate on practical, day-to-day matters on which everybody is fully consulted--both the disabled and the providers of services on whom financial burdens can fall. It is appropriate to concentrate, as our consultation document does, on employment rights, building regulations, access to goods and services and the establishment of a national disability council. Judging by the response from disabled people whom I know, those moves are very much appreciated. In my constituency, the Sutton Alliance of Disabled People welcomed the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People last week. Among the points that were put to him was the need for a fully accessible transport system, and especially for accessible buses. They should be more widely available. I have to agree that, interlinked with the section in the consultation document on goods and services, attention must be paid to transport.
Interestingly enough--my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East touched on this--when a survey by the Conservative disability campaign asked responders to list in order of priority the three disability issues that they felt were most important, they put improved access to public transport first. The second was access to public buildings and only third came anti-discrimination legislation. Over and over again, people have said to me that access to buildings is meaningless unless they can physically travel there. Not everyone has an adapted car. Indeed, barely half a million disabled people hold a driving licence--hence the importance of considering bus provision.
Sixty-eight low-level platform buses are already being piloted in north London on five routes, with great success. They are sought after not just by wheelchair users, but by mothers with children in buggies, by people laden with shopping and by the elderly and frail who do not have the strength to haul themselves on board a normal bus. The custom is there, but sadly only a small number of bus companies are bringing such buses on stream. I accept that they cost about 15 per cent. more than a conventional bus, bringing the final cost to more than £120,000, but bearing in mind the fact that demand for them goes much wider than just registered disabled people, why not insist
Column 530that all new buses coming on stream must be fitted with a low-level platform? That is something that cannot be left to persuasion; it requires legislation.
I also welcome the decision to consider employment rights. Again, it is an area on which persuasion needs to be hardened up, but by the same token we must listen carefully to what the employers tell us about the problems that they have in employing disabled people. I wholly agree that it is iniquitous to have about 2 million fit and able-bodied people with disabilities who are not working. To get them off benefits and into earnings would make them net contributors, which must be to our advantage. In any case, employers would find that disabled people were excellent workers and more reliable because the job would mean so much to them.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People appreciates the need for an advisory body--the national disability council--and that he accepts that it must have teeth. A toothless tiger would be a waste of time and money. There is no point monitoring discrimination without the power to do something about it.
A case that such a body would take up might be that of a young woman in Sutton who came to me for advice. She is in her early twenties, has two university degrees and is a skilled computer operator. Unfortunately, she cannot get a job. Admittedly, she is not very mobile and she does not speak very clearly. However, so desperate was she to prove herself that with one potential employer she even offered to work for one week free of charge just to show what she really could do. As it happened, the job was well below her academic qualifications and she was rejected out of hand. I should like to think that the proposed national disability council would fight such monstrous discrimination tooth and nail. That woman should not be fobbed off without any means of seeking conciliation or redress. The council must not be just a talking shop.
Having said that, the major steps that the Government have taken over the past 15 years to make life easier for disabled people are well documented. In all, 35 pieces of major legislation have been introduced. Last year, we spent £17 billion supporting current disability programmes--that is equivalent to £300 for every person in the country, which is almost as much as we spend on our national defence, whose budget is £23 billion. There will always be more to be done, but we do not have a track record of which we should in any way be ashamed.
I have one plea to make, and it is to the ardent campaigners who work with such great zeal on behalf of disabled people. The uproar in the summer may have had the positive effect of concentrating our minds on the cause, but it also had the dangerous effect of raising disabled people's expectations to unrealistic levels. I visited disabled groups in Sutton and saw for myself just how unsettling that was. Sadly, the whole issue became political and partisan. As a result, disabled people became confused, worried and anxious. I trust that now we shall have a period of calm and thoughtful work to take advantage of the 1,000 responses that have come in from all over the country from national and grass roots level organisations in shaping a Bill that will respond to very real needs.
Of course, some will say that the Bill does not go far enough. One can never satisfy everyone, but the truth is that most people will find that it plays a significant and
Column 531helpful role in their life. I am glad to say that, after a hiatus in the summer in which many passionate words were spoken, I now have a good working relationship with the disabled community in Sutton. We understand each other much better and I look forward to continuing my links with it. I should not like to see that relationship destabilised by those who seek political advantage from elsewhere. In conclusion, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People on his determination to chase across the landscape from north to south, listening to groups and grass roots individuals, let alone to go to the United States and examine the strengths and weaknesses of the American disability legislation. No one could argue that the Government are not a listening Government. The consultation document made that clear as it repeatedly said, "Let us have your considered views."
The Bill is the disabled people's Bill. I want it to reflect their practical input. I welcome the report that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security argued strenuously for an extra £100 million to support the Bill. All that is on top of the £17 billion that the Government spend every year on helping the disabled. There is commitment on our side. For the sake of all the disabled people whom I have met over several years, I hope that the Bill will have a smooth passage through Parliament.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I appreciate being called in the debate on the Loyal Address. Those hon. Members who know me will appreciate that I always welcome conversions. However, I recognise that genuine conversions are preceded by true repentance. I wholeheartedly support the movement for action to remove the discrimination against disabled people that has existed for far too long. I do not retract my support for them. I have had a good relationship with the people in my community for many a long year. There has been no hiatus.
In the United Kingdom, the reforms of the national health service have been proceeding for some four years. In Northern Ireland, they are just getting under way. They started later, but they are now getting up a head of steam. Elements of the Eastern board have moved to trust status. The Northern and Southern boards are well on the way, but the Western board shows little sign of movement. Has it spotted something that the other boards have not? Could it be that it looks with dismay at the pain and confusion which has resulted from some parts of the transition?
From my knowledge of the slimming down that has taken place in the Eastern board and the Southern board, I wonder whether the supposed reduction in administration that will result from the abolition of the regional authorities is not merely a move to other areas of management. We have discovered that most of the people in the Eastern and Southern boards have moved to the various trusts and continued in management.
There is no denying that some aspects of the NHS reforms have brought improvements. However, too many decisions have been ill thought out. I wish to comment on several of them in Northern Ireland. Many of the factors also have relevance to other parts of the United Kingdom.
For example, I understand that boards and trusts in Northern Ireland have been told that they must implement a cost improvement programme and make efficiency
Column 532savings of 3 per cent. in the coming year. Although 2 per cent. savings are likely to be made from improved productivity, where will the remaining 1 per cent. come from? In a public service which has been required to find regular savings, there comes a time when such cuts can be made only by imposing redundancies. I am concerned that the time is nigh.
Redundancies are also likely to result from some of the competitive practices that are being employed. I have nothing against competition; it often leads to a better deal for the consumer. However, the practice of multiple service tendering is causing a great deal of angst in the Province. In the past, NHS organisations had in-house services. Many such services were by nature small scale and not, on the new basis of competitive tendering, cost-effective ventures in their own right. For that reason, few private suppliers entering the NHS market wish to bid for individual services. Instead, the companies bid to supply all the services to a trust.
Under the competitive tendering system,the former providers can set up a company and tender an in-house bid. I take a particular case in Belfast, in which the contract winners bid £1 million less than the organisation in second place and £1.5 million less than the in-house bid, which came in third place. How can a company offer a bid £1.5 million lower than the in-house team, which has a detailed knowledge of what is involved?
Mr. Campbell-Savours: I am sponsored by Unison, which pays me no money directly, as the hon. Gentleman will know. As members of Unison, we are repeatedly approached by health service workers in Northern Ireland who express the deepest anxiety about the issue he raises. They say that competitive tendering is simply a charter to cut pay.
Rev. Martin Smyth: I appreciate the intervention. Under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981, contractors are obliged to take on the staff under the existing terms of employment. However, human nature being what it is, even the acceptance of a small financial inducement changes those terms and leaves the staff vulnerable. I suspect that the contracting companies, as in the Belfast case, will be able to come in under budget only by making staff redundant.
It is fascinating to discover how competition has been eroded. In my constituency, the saga of the City and Royal Victoria hospitals continues. A decision has been made to rationalise laboratory services, and one laboratory or part thereof is likely to close. The element of competition, which was one of the prized benefits of the new approach, has gone. The closure rather appears to be an attempt to avoid competition. The inevitable result will be redundancies among some of the finest medical scientific staff one can find anywhere.
I do not wish to spend time on the issue of the Jubilee maternity hospital again, but will the Minister clarify, either in the reply to the debate or in a few days, his response on complementary medicine? The issue is causing great concern throughout the community. I welcome the letter that he sent to all of us, but the very fact that confusion remains has been emphasised by early-day motion 14 and the subsequent amendment to it. It shows that there is still some concern, which is heightened by the fact that we in the United Kingdom are apt immediately to implement European legislation, and
Column 533that officials go further than they ought to. Other countries either ignore it or take years to implement it. It is time we started to protect our industry and services.
May we have an explanation of the outburst against "The Cook Report", which investigated sudden cot deaths? I raised this subject years ago, but I was never satisfied with the answers we were given. Neither am I satisfied with the attempt to rubbish the work of a scientist who has been pursuing the matter for years. I welcome the fact that the trend towards making children sleep on their backs has minimised the number of deaths--but have the pathologists and scientists at the Department examined the issue? My information is that they have not. Instead, they have accepted other explanations, without doing the necessary pathology work.
I have no intention of playing down the good work of the national health service, but I disagree with those who keep telling us that we are better off than other countries. That is not saying much. We want to maintain the high standards of our health service.
I offer the House a simple illustration of how the tendency towards privatisation can be detrimental. A constituent of mine with a small business to run was prevailed upon, because he needed heart surgery, to go private for the operation. The operation was successful, but then septicaemia set in. Specialists at the hospital advised his wife to take him home, on the grounds that he was going to die in a short time, anyway. She refused. She said that he had contracted the problem in the hospital, so he should be treated in the hospital. He was given antibiotics and, once he had recovered, he was transferred to another hospital for treatment of his arthritis.
Owing to his long stay in hospital, my constituent's firm went bankrupt. He was charged not only for the cardiac surgery but for the time he spent in hospital recovering--a further nine days at £200 a day, simply because he had contracted septicaemia. That is scandalous. As we seek to keep our health service moving forward, we must begin to eliminate some of these anomalies.