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Column 179access to easily, including Parliament. One of the most difficult places in which to hold a meeting of people with wheelchairs is this very building.
Those people seek access facilities so that they can be normal like everyone else, and they seek fairness at work, especially in the gateway to obtaining work, which is the job application scrutiny procedure. That is why I am very happy indeed with so much of the focus of the present piece of legislation on accessibility and on work.
In the spirit of harmony, I shall mention three thoughts that the Minister will perhaps do me the kindness of taking away and considering.
First, although the advisory body that the Minister proposes will be very helpful, surely we should work towards a more difficult goal--the establishment of an organisation for equal opportunity for all our citizens. If a woman came to me who was disabled and non-white, where would I send her--to three different organisations? That is an extraordinary thought. It is ludicrous. Surely we should have one organisation offering equal opportunity for all our citizens. I would back that with advisory outreaches for people with special needs, such as people with disabilities.
I ask the Minister to consider that difficult topic. I appreciate its sensitivities because the two organisations that already exist would believe that they were being downgraded. However, the disabled are far larger in numbers than any of us can necessarily recognise in the context of any legislation, and fairness for all our citizens should surely be our goal.
I would therefore reject the Minister's proposals if he was suggesting the creation of another organisation similar to the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality, because I do not want that structure to become entrenched. I would prefer one organisation for any problem of that type.
Secondly, on the very difficult question of legislation affecting companies, I am unhappy that there is a numerical limit on fair treatment. I believe that we are discussing imposing a social need on companies, and that, if we wish to progress down that path, a social fund to right company discrimination should be created. That means that we need a long-term plan, to be implemented as the country can afford it. Would the Minister care to consider a longer-term plan for disabled matters at work, irrespective of numbers employed in a company, while accepting that it cannot be carried out immediately? Thirdly, the Minister's task is the more difficult because the outreach of his work affects all Departments. I ask him to consider tasking the Government to take on a new voluntary commitment--it need not be statutory, but I am sure that it would be carried out in our system of benign legislation--that all Bills that this place passes should be put through the mesh of his Department's basic needs for people with disabilities before final assent.
I shall give a simple example of what I mean. In ADAPT, we have felt strongly that one of the most important matters affecting disabled people and access to the arts is the way in which organisations that are appointed to distribute the profits from the national lottery may carry out their work. Although the lottery is outside the terms of the Bill, we believe that, taken together, the Bill and the national lottery represent the biggest single opportunity to advance the cause of disabled people's rights that we have ever had in the United Kingdom.
Column 180As those two functions are so inter-related, we want the people who are responsible for making decisions about grant applications for the arts, heritage and general charities to ensure that moneys will be given only when it can be demonstrated that disabled people will share in the improved facilities. That is the type of suggestion that the Minister could take up if he had a commitment, in general terms, from the Government that all legislation should be put through the mesh of his Department to consider how it could affect disabled people for the better. My suggestion would not cost the state a penny more, and what a difference it would make, not only in actuality but in cultural attitude.
It would always be difficult for any Minister for Disabled People to bring forward a Bill that would satisfy everyone, but I beg the House to approach the Bill in the spirit of harmony and tolerance. The Minister and his predecessor have done a fine job. I want the legislation to succeed; it is the best first building block for the future that the Minister could have brought to this place. 5.58 pm
Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale): I wish I could say that it gives me great pleasure to speak in the debate, but I am afraid that it does not. I find myself in the awkward position of not wanting to bury the Bill but not wanting to praise it. It is typically badly drafted, and can be open to a great deal of secondary legislation. Moreover, it is timid, and it certainly does not go far enough. However, I suppose that it is something, and something is better than nothing. At least the Bill is a Government Bill. At times last year, other hon. Members and I gave up the idea of the Government proposing legislation, especially after the disgraceful tactics that were used by some hon. Members to get rid of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. Now the Government appear to accept the need for civil rights legislation to be enshrined in law to a certain extent--but only to a certain extent. They seem to accept that legal protection against discrimination is needed, but again, only to a certain extent.
Such legal protection would allow disabled people to take their rightful place in society. It seems amazing that, in this day and age, we should be talking about anyone's rightful place in society, but that issue lies at the heart of today's debate, just as it was at the heart of last year's debate and of other legislation on civil rights for disabled people that was brought before the House.
Disabled people want to be given equal treatment to other members of society, not different treatment. That is not much to ask and it is the least that they can expect. The fact that the Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to present even this meagre Bill might lead one to assume that disabled people were asking for something outlandish, not basic human rights.
If one gives the Bill even a cursory glance, one sees that the Government are still not totally committed. That is why I shall support the reasoned amendment. Over the past few days, I have been worried and in two minds as to whether to support the reasoned amendment. I thought that it might be seen as gesture politics and might split the consensus that built up last year during the passage of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. I believe that it may do that, and I am sorry. Having read the reasoned amendment, I can see nothing in it to dispute. I wish that the Government had taken it on board and gone further,
Column 181but they have not. The reasoned amendment will be a shot across the Government's bows and, for that reason, I shall support it. I contacted a number of disabled people's organisations and a number of disabled people before I took my decision at the weekend. Every one of them wanted me to support the reasoned amendment--that was the bottom line. When I heard disabled people and disabled people's organisations asking me to support the amendment, who was I to say that I could not? After all, the Bill is for disabled people, who have a right to a voice in the debate. They do not have a voice here today, but we can express their opinion.
I shall now discuss the Bill in detail. I believe that its definition of disabled people will leave out various individuals, such as those suffering from the HIV virus. It could possibly exclude some multiple sclerosis sufferers and those suffering from myalgic encephalomyelitis or epilepsy. I do not know why the Government did not take on board the definition in the American legislation for disabled people which speaks of people who are discriminated against by reason of bodily or mental condition. That would be far more satisfactory and I do not know why the Government resisted it. I know that the Minister said that he had not made up his mind on that, and I sincerely hope that he will listen to the arguments and take action to close the loopholes in the definition.
Even if the Government had got the definition right, which would have taken us forward, as other hon. Members have said, there remains a problem relating to employment. Firms employing fewer than 20 people will not be covered by the Bill, despite the fact that the Bill states that reasonable adjustment will have to be made. Even the Confederation of British Industry has stated that it cannot see why the Bill contained that qualification. If the CBI, which has always supported the Government, believes that, I do not know why the Government have not taken that approach.
Many small firms in my constituency and across the country employ many people--not as many as large companies, but still a large number. Such firms are often more accessible to disabled people because they are situated in their locality. The 20-employee rule will lead to discrimination on a massive scale.
The other day, the Prime Minister seemed to think that the issue of transport was included in the Bill, but I am sure that the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People and the Secretary of State are well aware that that subject is not included in the legislation because the Minister himself has said that he will introduce appropriate provisions. What sort of measures will he introduce, and when will he introduce them? The Bill refers to accessibility to bus and railway stations, but not to vehicles. It seems incredible that disabled people will arrive at railway stations and bus terminals and be unable to get on the buses or trains.
Last year, I conducted a survey of new train operators. We rang all of them and asked what facilities they had available for wheelchairs and electric buggies. Only one of the new train operators could take electric buggies. The rest had limited spaces for wheelchairs and most of them stated that two wheelchairs could not travel in the same carriage. The majority of the operators could take only one wheelchair per train. My survey related to newer
Column 182stock--with reduced spaces--not older stock. It is therefore clear that something must be done about that problem.
Another problem raised was that of unstaffed stations. A disabled person may arrive at a station, which is fine, but if there are no staff on hand, it becomes extremely difficult for that person. It will become even more difficult if the privatisation process goes ahead, especially with through ticketing. If a disabled person turns up at a station and wants a through ticket, he will be told that he cannot get one and will have to go to a shop or other outlet to purchase a through ticket. That problem must be given careful consideration--the Bill's failure to tackle it is a grave omission. Another grave omission from the Bill is that of education. In a written reply, the Secretary of State for Education said that new schools would have to be accessible from September onwards. He did not know the date from which other schools would have to be accessible--it is more likely to be 100 years than 10 years. That is why I should have liked the Bill to contain the phrase "within a practicable period". I am not saying that there should be a defined time scale, but if the Government had stipulated that access should be given within a practical period, we would know that they were bearing the subject in mind.
One of the Bill's worst aspects involves enforcement. I know that the Minister has explained why he wants to set up the national disability council--that is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Why should ethnic minorities and women be represented by proper commissions with teeth, while disabled people are not? I do not think that the Minister has given a proper explanation to the House and I hope that he will take the opportunity to do so later. Disabled people will be at the mercy of the legal system and will not be entitled to legal aid. If disabled people are discriminated against, they will be unable to fight their case successfully --a commission could have taken their case up for them.
The Bill contains numerous deficiencies, but I acknowledge that it is a welcome step in the right direction. However, the Government must not award themselves laurels and then be allowed to rest on them. Disabled people should congratulate themselves on having pushed the Government so far. The Minister said that it was a feeble Bill because he wanted to take people with him. He has said that in the past, but it is an insult to the British people, who do not believe that it should be a feeble Bill and cannot see why disabled people should be discriminated against. The Minister may laugh, but at a meeting of the all-party disablement group he said that it was a feeble Bill because he wanted to take people with him.
The Minister also said that the Bill constituted an historic advance. It is not an historic advance, but a small advance. An historic advance would be made if legislation on civil rights for disabled persons were introduced. The Bill wastes the potential of disabled people. It should involve disabled people's basic human rights. If the Government could accept that, there would be no further arguments. That is why I shall vote for the reasoned amendment.
We need proper legislation on civil rights for disabled people, who deserve no less. Disabled people want to be treated as equal citizens, not second- class citizens.
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Mr. David Congdon (Croydon, North-East): Over the past year or so, we have had a number of debates on this important issue, during which there have been, rightly, a number of impassioned pleas for disability legislation. I make no apology for supporting such legislation in principle, but I make it absolutely clear at the outset that I give the Government's Bill my unreserved blessing. I believe that it is a big step forward and I shall expand on the reasons later in my speech.
It is a great pity that the Labour party has tabled a reasoned amendment which declines to give the Government's Bill a Second Reading. If we were persuaded by the Opposition parties' arguments to vote for the amendment and against the Bill's Second Reading, the Bill would fall and we would be back to square one, facing the perils of private Members' Bills and the difficulties that we encountered last Session.
In view of the genuine attempt to build a broad coalition across the Chamber in support of the legislation proposed by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), I was disappointed by the speech of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke): it was churlish and did nothing to persuade me to vote with the Opposition parties.
I agree--as I hope other hon. Members do--with the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), who said that discrimination is morally wrong. Of course it is; that is why we are having this debate and why we had earlier debates. All hon. Members want to make progress in this area and put a significant measure on the statute book.
I had the pleasure of serving on the Standing Committee that considered the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill last Session. I wished to serve on that Committee because I supported--and still support--the underlying principles of that legislation. However, having read widely on the subject, I recognised that there were concerns as to whether that legislation was affordable and workable. I hoped that the Government would move amendments in Committee to make that Bill acceptable and to put it on the statute book last Session.
I was very disappointed--I shall resist the temptation to say more than that--that the Bill did not make progress on Report. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Sir N. Scott) was put in a very difficult position. He has always been committed to the principles of such legislation and I pay a warm tribute to his work over the years in looking after the needs of the disabled. It is fair to say that, until a few months ago, few of us believed that the Government would introduce their own Bill. Before the summer recess, we were given the impression that, although the Government were engaged in consultation, there were likely to be separate private Members' Bills dealing with different aspects of this important subject. I was very pleased when the Queen's Speech made it clear that the Government intended to introduce legislation on this subject.
Unlike a private Member's Bill, Government legislation stands a real chance of making it to the statute book. That is a key reason for supporting the Government's Bill tonight. We can all engage in gesture politics and say, "We will not accept this; we will go for broke and the civil rights legislation." Hon. Members can
Column 184make a lot of headlines and receive a lot of credit from voluntary and lobby groups by doing that, but at the end of the day, there is no legislation on the statute book. I would rather put legislation in place and, if it does not work, I will knock loudly on the door and press my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government to strengthen it.
I pay tribute tonight to my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People, who spoke on behalf of the Government. I was impressed by his determination to make progress on this issue after the summer recess and by his presentation to the all-party disablement group. I thank him for trying to put this important Bill on the statute book.
I wish to compare the Government's legislation with the private Member's Bill from last Session. Many people in disability lobby groups are disappointed that the Government have decided not to introduce a full-blown civil rights Bill. Those groups are also concerned about the establishment of a national disability council rather than a commission. I can understand their concern, but I believe that we should give the national disability council the benefit of the doubt.
I do not want to get into a fierce debate about it tonight, but I do not believe that the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality have been sure-fire successes. In the early days, they created much resentment--the last thing we want to do is to create resentment in disability matters.
I was impressed by the Minister's arguments in his speech to the all-party disablement group when he talked about using the legislation to change attitudes. I stress that it is a sign of failure when one has to resort to the courts to resolve difficulties. I hope that the Bill will lead to a change in attitude and performance by employers and others.
We have heard a lot about employment rights this evening. I have no doubt that too many employers engage in discriminatory practices--they might not even recognise that they are discriminatory and come up with all sorts of excuses for not employing someone. Therefore, I welcome the right to non- discrimination in employment proposed in the Bill.
I share some of the reservations that have been expressed about the Bill's exemption of small employers. However, the Bill provides powers to change the figure through regulations. I hope that the figure in the Bill will be lowered if it is demonstrated that smaller employers are discriminating against disabled people. My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) reminded us that 40 per cent. of disabled people are employed by small companies--an important point to bear in mind.
I turn to access to goods and services by disabled people. I must admit that I thought that the changes to the building regulations which were introduced a few years ago would lead to greater change. I am glad, therefore, that the Bill provides rights of access for disabled people. It is difficult for them to gain access to too many shops, restaurants and public buildings.
Of course it is important to ensure that the costs of adapting buildings for disabled access are within reasonable bounds, and the Bill goes a long way towards keeping those costs at manageable levels. I am very pleased that the compliance cost assessment was published before today's debate--I shall not comment on the previous compliance cost assessment for the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Kingswood.
Column 185This legislation attempts to put sensible bands on those costs, and I was disappointed by the somewhat hostile reaction to that provision in a recent leader in The Daily Telegraph . Based on 750,000 businesses using cost limits of £500 or £1,500 per business, the compliance cost assessment showed a likely maximum cost of between £375 million and £1,125 million. The figures could be far less than that because buildings can be adapted fairly easily.
The measure which makes it illegal to refuse to serve disabled people is particularly important. However, I flag one concern on which the Minister could perhaps comment in his winding-up speech--clause 14(3), which relates to circumstances in which less favourable treatment of disabled people is justified.
One of the conditions under which discrimination can be justified is if there is a danger to health or safety. I am no lawyer--that could be an advantage or a disadvantage in today's debate--but I am worried about the classic situation which I have raised in previous debates when someone wants access to a cinema where there is room but the manager says, "I am allowed only one or two disabled people in wheelchairs because it might lead to difficulties in the event of a fire." We need to address that, too often it could be used as an excuse to deny disabled people access, and we must avoid that. In the White Paper, the Government rightly make great play of the Education Act 1993 with the extra powers which it gives parents and, we hope, results in better access to schools for pupils with disabilities. I had assumed that the earlier Education Act 1981, which was the hallmark Act in terms of education for children with special needs, would have done just that and that there would not be many schools today from which young people were excluded because of a particular disability. I certainly urge the Government to look at that aspect very closely. If the biennial review which is included in the Bill for examining schools and their degree of access shows access that is not being achieved, they must introduce further measures.
It cannot be right to deny youngsters the opportunity to go to a suitable school simply because no one will put in a ramp or a lift. Lifts are slightly more difficult than other pieces of equipment to install, but some schools--particularly primary schools--do not need them. An imaginative approach and the will to open up schools to youngsters with disabilities are needed. Too often, physical access is used as an excuse, and a disabled youngster ends up going to a special school. I commend to the Government the earlier report produced by the Spastics Society in conjunction with Coopers and Lybrand which suggested that 75 per cent. of schools could be adapted at a relatively small cost. I urge Ministers to think again on that matter.
I very much welcome the Bill. As I said earlier, a few months ago I did not believe that the Government would introduce such a Bill and I welcome their determination to get it on the statute book. I hope that it will be scrutinised carefully in Committee to make sure that any alleged loopholes are plugged. It is a major step forward and it is a pity that it was not recognised as such by the hon. Member for Monklands, West.
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Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South): The hon. Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Congdon) referred to his difficulty in voting for the reasoned amendment, despite his many reservations about the Bill. I remind him that he would have no such difficulties if he came back to the Chamber on 10 February in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), who is proposing precisely the legislation that it appears from his speech he requires. I shall confine my remarks to two age groups in which I take a particular interest, as well as a general interest in the disabled--the young and the old. I shall discuss them in reverse order. In a number of respects, the Bill fails to protect them in matters that touch importantly on their rights and their quality of life.
I refer first to the older members of society. I see in the Bill opportunities lost to make inroads into agism, which is another cause of discrimination in society. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) told us that there are 6.5 million disabled people in Britain, 63 per cent. of whom are over 60. In other words, the majority of disabled people are over 60 and they all have the right to live their lives to the full without discrimination. They also have the right to work. One might ask, "Are they still seeking work at that age?" Certainly, any man over 60 is entitled still to be seeking work. If the pension age is to be equalised at 65, many women may also need to work, given the changing patterns of work and concern for their pensions in old age. There is less concern generally about the disabilities of older people. People tend to express more concern about disability in the young; they simply accept disability in older people as the natural process of aging. Thus, the Bill is open to criticism in that the definition of disability that it offers is too narrow. It refers to long-term impairment that restricts a person's ability to carry out day-to-day activities, but the aged are disabled by their very age, which affects, for example, employers' perceptions of them. The protection of the Bill should, therefore, extend to those who are perceived to be disabled, although they are not physically or mentally disabled. For example, when an employer makes a judgment that an older person is disabled from carrying out the requirements of a job merely by reason of age, that employer is making presumptions about older people.
The concept of reasonableness referred to in clause 5 is of great concern to those who have an interest in the rights of older people. Reasonableness on the part of an employer when judging whether a person is fit to do a job is too vague and subjective, particularly with reference to older people.
Also with reference to employment, clause 7, to which a number of hon. Members have referred, and which exempts businesses with fewer than 20 employees, works to the detriment of older people. Those are precisely the businesses, often locally based, in which older people commonly seek employment.
The Minister mentioned that 83 per cent. of disabled people are covered by the Bill. I very much doubt whether 83 per cent. of older people are covered by the Bill.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe told us that two fifths of all disabled people are known to work in businesses employing 20 people or fewer. One
Column 187may deduce that that applies to at least two fifths of disabled older people, and I would guess rather more. Therefore, as a number of hon. Members have said, the exemption in clause 7 should be narrowed, removed altogether, or replaced.
On access in general, I also refer to the exclusions from transport and education, which are clearly in the Bill. Both are extremely important to older people, but I shall concentrate on transport. The Minister's gradualist approach ignores an important consequence of Government public transport policies. Perhaps Conservative Members do not use buses, but if they visit any conurbation such as Merseyside, they will see clapped-out buses dashing around competing for business. Most are inaccessible to the disabled.
As a consequence of privatisation, buses are in use longer and not replaced so frequently. They remain in service, with all their inaccessibility to older disabled people in particular. Incidentally, the British bus production industry has been decimated as a by-product of Government policy. Many older disabled people will be dead before they see the benefits of the Government's gradualist approach to public transport accessibility.
There is a wide variation among local education authorities as to the number of pupils aged five to 15 who are referred to segregated special schools. Figures for January 1992 from Barnardo's show that in Barnsley and Cornwall, one pupil in 200 was referred to a segregated special school, whereas the figure for Lambeth, Hackney and East Sussex was five times higher. That is a prima facie case of discrimination based on residence. Does that matter? Yes. I concede that segregated special education should be available by choice, but disabled children should also have the choice to be educated in mainstream schools.
The hon. Member for Croydon, North-East referred to the Education Act 1981, which is engraved in my memory because I was an education chairman at the time. That legislation was introduced with the mantra, "within current resources". It never was resourced, and that has been much of the problem with special education provision ever since.
Children who are denied mainstream education are deprived of experiences that would help them to live a fulfilling life and play a full part in society. Research suggests that deprivation affects their self-concept. They are certainly deprived opportunities of socialisation. They must frequently travel long distances to attend special schools, which further prevents them participating properly in their own communities.
That denial also affects society in general--non-disabled people. Many hon. Members present know the story of the individual who looked down pityingly on a disabled person in a wheelchair and said, "Man, you've got problems." The disabled person looked up and said, "No, but I think you have." The hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) referred to cultural disregard. Some people have a problem accepting the existence, role, rights and abilities of disabled people. I remind the House of my earlier remarks about perceptions of the older disabled.
In respect of exclusions affecting special education, the Bill works against the spirit of the legislation stated by the Minister, of altering society's perception of disability. He referred to the Education Act 1993, but the provisions that he cited have insufficient bite to justify the Bill's
Column 188omissions. It should contain targets and timetables for local education authorities to make incremental improvements to existing education premises and their facilities for the disabled. There may be difficulties, but faith can move mountains sometimes. Sadly, there were many cases of thalidomide children on Merseyside. The much-maligned Liverpool city council managed to adapt a mainstream comprehensive school on the city's inner ring road, to cater for all those thalidomide children. Impressive achievements can be made with will and determination.
The Bill's major weakness is the proposed national disability council. It will be advisory and will be charged to produce codes of practice, to consult and to provide costings--but it will have no powers. That is unlike the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality, which presumably it is supposed to mirror. That is illogical.
In the play by Euripides, Hippolytus gave the ultimate excuse for hypocrisy:
"My tongue has sworn, but my heart is unsworn."
I hasten to emphasise that I do not accuse the Minister of duplicity. I accept his sincerity, in stating his commitment to changing social attitudes through the Bill. I commend him for that aspiration, but I shall turn my quotation from Euripides on its head. Although the Minister's heart may thus be sworn, his tongue does not speak with sufficient strength to underpin his sincerity. There is insufficient force and detail in the Bill to do that. For that reason, I shall certainly enter the Lobby to support the reasoned amendment. I look forward also to returning to the Chamber on 10 February to support my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North- East. 6.38 pm
Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome): I was grateful for the little lesson in the classics from the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara), and I am glad of the opportunity to speak in support of the Bill. I have long had an interest in the subject, as honorary president of Mencap in Frome and as honorary vice-president of Action Aid for the Disabled in my former constituency of Newport, West. I follow also the activities of the all-party group, so I was pleased to hear strong support for the Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) earlier this afternoon. It served to underline my view that this legislation is a positive step forward for disabled people. Indeed, had it been on offer more than 12 months ago, I believe that it would have been welcomed by the Labour party--although its members might not care to admit that today. I find it extremely disappointing to note that the Opposition seek to oppose the Bill's Second Reading by means of a reasoned amendment. That amendment would not just deny the Bill a Second Reading, but it would do so on grounds that are good debating points for Committee but rather short of substance when it comes to opposing the entire legislation.
For all the emotion that emerged in the debate on the private Member's Bill last year, there has been steady progress in recent years in advancing the rights of, and opportunities, help and benefits for disabled people. Education has played an important part in that process. There has been great progress in the way in which public services, architectural designs and a range of other
Column 189activities are provided for disabled people, in the community and in the workplace. I think that, confronted with the achievements of the past two decades, people 20 years ago would have been dubious about the possibilities of making so much progress.
This Bill carries the process forward. As the Minister said, it should not be seen as an isolated measure; it is part of a package outlined in the recent White Paper. There is much to be said for introducing legislation such as this in a properly staged and managed way. It makes sense to secure progress in a structured manner. After all, it is not just a question of forcing the public and businesses by means of legislation to uphold certain standards of conduct. It is also a question of educating people, so that the proper treatment of disabled people gains ever wider acceptance in the community--that is happening already.
Hence there is a case for concentrating on larger employers with the resources to deal effectively with such legislation. The United States Congress, after considerable thought, decided to exempt companies with 15 or fewer employees. I believe that we were wise to follow a similar path, at least for the time being. We can always return to the issue if the need arises.
Mr. Robinson: There is always the opportunity for the Government to change their mind. The figure might change in Committee: who knows? The important thing is to establish the principle, which is what the Bill rightly does.
A new law can easily be brought into disrepute if it is quickly found to be unenforceable. We must therefore ensure that this legislation is practical, sensible and readily accepted in the workplace.
It is also wise to provide a measure of flexibility if the responsibilities demanded by the Bill are to be properly implemented. When I visit new buildings or projects in my constituency, one of my first questions is always, "What facilities have you got here for disabled people?" I am rarely disappointed; usually a lot of thought goes into ensuring that the facilities in public buildings, voluntary sector buildings and businesses are appropriate to the needs of disabled people. Of course, people will always have different definitions of what should be provided, but in the main progress is positive.
The comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) about the desire for access expressed by disabled people struck a chord with me. Arriving at a public place or in the workplace and being forced into a stressful entry always entails a degree of humiliation. As one of my constituents said at the well-attended Mencap annual general meeting in Frome last Friday night, disabled people feel demeaned and second rate when they are denied. That applies across the board--to access, to attitudes and to the constant fear of being talked down to or patronised.
A great deal of what happens to disabled people is demeaning but could not possibly be put right by any discrimination legislation. We must not be misled into thinking that passing legislation will provide all the
Column 190solutions, and we must not allow it to turn into an excuse for not doing more. There must be a concerted drive, beyond this or any other legislation, to educate people about the disabled, demonstrating to them that disability does not disqualify a person from leading a perfectly normal life. That sort of education goes well beyond legislation. It extends to attitudes at work, in schools and in public offices.
Some time ago I was delighted to visit a project under way at St. Arthur's school in Wincanton in my constituency. The project is known as the Monday club--[ Laughter .] I thought that hon. Members might find that strange. I certainly raised my eyebrows when I was told I was to meet the Monday club without knowing exactly what that would entail. In any case, in that project students work with disabled people for one hour a week. The reaction among the teenagers was highly encouraging. When I spoke to them individually, they all admitted that their attitudes to disabled people had been altered by their experience with the project. Such work in schools is immensely valuable in the process of changing attitudes right across the spectrum.
I give a warm welcome to the Bill. I am certain that it will emerge from Committee further improved. That is why I hope, once it has got through its ritual denunciation, that the Labour party will work constructively with the Bill once Opposition Members have had their pound of flesh in the Division Lobby tonight.
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): There are 500,000 disabled people in Wales, for whom this legislation is very important indeed. No doubt they, like many hon. Members, would like it to go quite a bit further. If the legislation moved in the direction of the provisions of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which we shall have the chance to consider in a couple of weeks' time, it would be relevant not just to disabled people but to countless thousands of others for whom the facilities to be provided are of direct significance. I am glad to speak in this debate. I should be even more pleased if the Government had adopted the anti-discrimination legislative approach incorporated in a number of Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bills which I have sponsored in recent years. The Bill does not meet the objectives spelt out by the Government in their consultation paper, on page 9 of which we read:
"The Government accepts that measures to end discrimination must be comprehensive."
Regrettably, the Bill is not comprehensive, although it is a step in the right direction. Paragraph 1.9 on the same page states: "The Government is introducing wide-ranging anti-discrimination legislation".
But this Bill is fairly narrow. That is not to say that the parts of it which bite are not worth having, but it would have been far better if it had adopted the general approach of the other Bills that have been introduced on the same subject.
We need comprehensive legislation. The principle of
non-discrimination should be inviolate. Either we believe in discrimination or we do not. If we do not, we should legislate against it. If we believe that it is applicable in law in some areas, it should be applicable in all areas. Discrimination should not be allowed or tolerated in any circumstances. It is just not good
Column 191enough to say, for example, that it will be outlawed for 83 per cent. of employees, but allowed for the remaining 17 per cent. The position of companies employing fewer than 20 workers is unsatisfactory. As I understand it, the legislation in Australia and New Zealand has no such exclusions. Some hon. Members argued the American case, and one can equally argue the experience there. If a worker in a company employing 20 people has his or her rights with regard to disability safeguarded, what happens if suddenly there is a redundancy in the company and it then employs fewer than 20 people? Does that person lose his or her basic human rights, as recognised in the Bill, by virtue of the fact that there has been a redundancy? That seems totally unsatisfactory and unacceptable.
A letter from the Employers Forum on Disability--I dare say that other hon. Members have also received a copy--tells us:
"There should be no exclusion from the Bill's provisions on grounds of an enterprise's size. It cannot be right for a disabled person to be discriminated against just because an enterprise has fewer than 20 employees."
That is something that we should take good note of.
In rural areas, such as the constituency that I represent, the vast majority of companies have fewer than 20 employees. That means that disabled people will have fewer civil rights in rural areas of Wales, Scotland or, indeed, England than in urban areas. That cannot be right. It cannot be conceptually right and it should not be the way in which we make progress on these matters.
I will deal now with some of the other problems of the Bill. On definitions, clause 5(4) contains the words "unsuitable for the employment". No definition is given of "suitable" or "unsuitable". It is totally open-ended.
Clause 5(1)(b), refers to an employer. It means that there can be an exclusion if
"it is reasonable, in all the circumstances of the case, for him to hold that opinion."
That is a terribly subjective provision and cannot be a reasonable basis on which to make law.
I am also concerned about the position of those who may have long-term disabilities, perhaps HIV. Schedule 1 on page 27 of the Bill states that if a person has a progressive condition but "does not have an impairment which has a substantial adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to- day activities, he shall be taken to have such an impairment if that is the expected effect of that condition."
In other words, if the expected effect of a condition in the fulness of time is disabling, that can be considered as a reason to exempt that person from the provisions of the Bill.
Again, that cannot be right. Steps should be taken to ensure that people who are currently--and will be for the foreseeable future--capable of undertaking work should not be discriminated against because of some long- term effects. After all, we all get older and eventually become less able than we were when we were younger.