|Previous Section||Home Page|
What has happened, since the Government killed off the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill last year, to bring forth, first, a ministerial statement, then a consultation document, a change of Minister and a White Paper and now, the Bill? The Government realised the strength of feeling in support of equal rights for disabled people, and the credit for that must go to all the people and organisations that raised public awareness on the issue. I pay special tribute to the "Rights Now" campaign and the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People.
I welcome the Government's recognition of the gross injustice of discrimination against disabled people and the need to do something about it. I also welcome their recognition of the fact that education and persuasion on their own are not sufficient to deal with the issue, and their agreement that legislation is workable and necessary. I do not welcome the Bill, however, and I am not being churlish--an accusation that was levelled at some of my colleagues.
There are massive differences between the Government's Bill and the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. Essentially, the problems with the Government's Bill are that it is not comprehensive and will not be effective or enforceable. Reference was made to the position of the all- party disablement group. It is true that the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam),
Column 204with whom I have worked closely on the issue for some years as one of the co-chairs of that group, expressed support for the Government's Bill. I must place on record, however, that the view of the all-party disablement group, of which I now happen to be secretary, is more accurately reflected in our submission on the Government's consultation document. The overwhelming majority of members of that group, of all political parties--I stress that--supported the civil rights approach.
Many hon. Members have dealt with the first problem, so I shall be brief. The Bill is certainly not comprehensive; it fails to deal with discrimination in a number of respects and provides for exemptions. Hon. Members have mentioned education and transport because, last Tuesday, the Prime Minister said that they were covered by the Bill. The Minister's device of saying that when the Prime Minister referred to education and transport, he merely meant that the employment provisions of the Bill would apply to those sectors, was ingenious, but it did not fool anyone because the Prime Minister's full answer to the question can be read in Hansard . He dealt with the employment provisions before he identified education and transport as sectors in which the Bill dealt with discrimination.
Clause 12 excludes education and means of transport. I never carelessly charge that the House has been misled and, naturally, if the Prime Minister had implied anything contrary to clause 12, he would have been incorrect. Clause 12 excludes education, the means of transport and some other areas.
I am pleased that the Minister said that exclusions relating to the renting and purchasing of property will be reconsidered, but clause 12 excludes other things, including civic rights, and contains a general provision to enable whatever exclusions the Minister might want. The Bill is not comprehensive if it provides for exclusions. The employment provisions also show that the Bill is not comprehensive; on the contrary, it is discriminatory. Companies that employ fewer than 20 employees are to be let out. Why? I cannot understand it, nor can the Confederation of British Industry or those who responded to the Government's consultation document.
The red book that I have here--a red book that I find more interesting than the other one to which reference is often made--contains important information about what those consulted on the Government's measures said. In answer to the question, "Should small firms be excluded?" 84 per cent. of consultees said no. That percentage was exceeded only by the percentage of employers who said no--91 per cent. Frankly, I cannot comprehend why the Minister chooses to ignore that response.
Clause 7 deals with exemptions for small businesses and subsection (2) states:
"The Secretary of State may by order amend subsection (1)"-- which refers to 20 employees--
"by substituting, for the number of employees for the time being referred to there, a larger or smaller number."
I hoped that the assumption was that the Minister wanted to apply the measures to all firms and that we might start at 20 employees and work down, but the Bill allows him to start at 20 and work up. It is bad enough that one third of employees are to be excluded, but the Minister is giving himself the power to exclude the majority. The Bill defines a disabled person as someone who has
"a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his"--
Column 205or her--
"ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities."
The Government are saying that discrimination is okay and acceptable if impairment is not substantial, and it is fine if it is based on short-term impairment. Discrimination on the basis of past, perceived or expected impairment is also acceptable. I do not believe that that is so, and that is why the definition of disablement needs to be amended for the purposes of the Bill. It should not be lawful to discriminate against someone who has a previous history of mental illness, or is HIV positive and perceived, or expected, to be impaired.
Enforceability is a key issue because the new rights--however limited--will be effective only if they are enforceable. Rights that cannot be enforced are frequently worse than no rights at all, simply because they obscure the true nature of discrimination--one gets the impression that measures are being taken to deal with discrimination, which we all recognise exists, but the situation is not significantly improved if one cannot enforce them and it could be made worse.
Mr. Fabricant: I take the hon. Gentleman's point. If he uses that to argue in favour of his original Bill, rather than this Government Bill, however, does he not accept my earlier quotations, in which I proved that his Bill contained so many opt-outs that it suffered the same deficiencies- -his term, not mine, as that is what he implies they are?
One of the fundamental differences between the Government's Bill and the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is the fact that the national disability council proposed in the Government's Bill is no substitute for the disability rights commission because it will not have similar powers to investigate and enforce to those of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Campaign for Racial Equality. Under the Government's proposals, disabled people will find it extremely difficult to enforce their rights. Legal aid is not available for tribunals and is pretty difficult to get for anything else. On enforcement, we must ask why disabled people are treated fundamentally differently from people who suffer discrimination on grounds of gender and race. The Government say, "Well, it is too bad. In any case, we are not happy about the Equal Opportunities Commission or the Campaign for Racial Equality." The White Paper says that the purpose of the national disability council is
"to advise the Government on the progress being made to tackle discrimination against disabled people"
"to advise the Government on measures to reduce or eliminate discrimination".
I should have thought that the Government had received all the advice that they need. Organisations of disabled people and many others have been offering advice for years and years. They want the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. If the Government want advice on what disabled people want, they should listen to the "Rights Now" campaign, which represents every major organisation for disabled people--some 50 organisations,
Column 206which I do not have time to list. They should listen also to the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People, which represents another 100 or so organisations and 300,000 individuals. It is understandable why those groups feel that the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is the correct approach.
When the Government consulted on their proposals last summer, a number of us asked why they did not consult on the civil rights Bill as well. They refused to do so. Nevertheless, the responses to their consultation document--the red book--show overwhelming support for the civil rights Bill. Of those who mentioned the civil rights Bill, 98 per cent. supported it. Why would the Government want to set up a national disability council to tell them what they already know--that what disabled people want is proper anti-discrimination legislation? Support for that civil rights approach has come from every organisation of and for disabled people, the 98 per cent. of those who refer to civil rights legislation in the Government's consultation exercise, the all-party disablement group and a clear majority of Members of Parliament. I remind hon. Members that not a single vote was cast last year against the civil rights Bill. Not only did it pass Second Reading by 231 votes to nil, but at no stage on Second Reading or in Committee was a vote cast against a single clause. We all know how the Bill was blocked. It was not because we lost the votes or the arguments.
Hon. Members must determine their position on the Government's proposals and the reasoned amendment. I hope that they will support the amendment in the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends and support the Second Reading of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) on 10 February. By their actions today and on 10 February, hon. Members can help bring about civil rights for disabled people. If not, we shall demonstrate that, collectively, we are part of the problem.
Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon): I welcome the Government's frank recognition that discrimination against disabled people in our society is extensive, utterly unacceptable and demeaning to us all and that the Government should act to eliminate it.
To exclude people with impairments and disable them from playing the full part that they might is to disable our society and ourselves. It diminishes, or should diminish, our self-respect, for we are members--limbs --one of another in our body politic. By discriminating, we maim our humanity, with incalculable consequences. We also rob ourselves of our economic potential with consequences that are, at least approximately, calculable, although they should be calculated on a proper cost-benefit analysis rather than a one-sided, solely negative compliance cost basis.
Our public debate and the Government's view have developed a long way in the past year or so. The credit for that must go, above all, to the disabled people who have carried the banner of the "Rights Now" campaign. They, with other committed supporters--it gives me pleasure to mention the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), whose speech I follow--have insisted that, in Parliament and Government, we should face our responsibilities.
Column 207I also acknowledge that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Sir N. Scott) needed no persuasion on that. His task, on which he was determined, was to persuade others. Since my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People succeeded him in office, he has acted with alacrity and skill to gain acceptance in the Government of much that needs to be done.
I welcome, therefore, the determination that the White Paper and Bill express to end unjustifiable discrimination in employment and the provision of goods and services, as well as to monitor and ensure that good advice is available to the Government. If the Bill, even as it stands, becomes law, disabled people's prospects will be significantly improved. I hope, however, that in its passage through Parliament, it will be amended to carry us further forward. My hon. Friend states in the White Paper the Government's "one central objective" as being
"the elimination of discrimination against disabled people". That is exactly as it should be; but the Bill fails to meet that objective in a range of important ways--notably, by offering too little on education, transport, and civic rights and duties. I welcome the enlargement of the Bill's scope to include the sale and letting of property, which my hon. Friend the Minister announced this afternoon. What we need, however, is a resounding new clause at the head of the Bill to establish a general duty not to discriminate unjustifiably against disabled people in any sphere whatever. We must improve the definitions in the Bill. The Government have made a morass in schedule 1, where they set out on the impossible task of specifying the meaning of disability. Rather than attempt to enumerate or describe the conditions and contingencies that amount to impairment, my hon. Friend should have accepted the broad definition used in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which draws on the hard-won experience of other countries, notably the United States of America, which are ahead of us in this matter.
My right hon. and hon. Friends used to intimate, as an objection to anti- discrimination legislation, that it would provide a field day for lawyers. Schedule 1, by using expressions such as "clinically well-recognised illness" and
"circumstances in which . . . an effect which would otherwise be a long- term effect is to be treated as not being such an effect", will be a positive paradise for lawyers and, by the same token, infernal for disabled people.
I am particularly concerned that the definitions in the Bill will not protect from discrimination people who have a history or reputation of mental illness and people who are HIV positive. Is my hon. Friend aware of the concern, which was powerfully expressed by the Huntington's Disease Association, a body with which I have had some involvement over the years, the Alzheimer's Disease Society and the Genetic Interest Group, representing more than 100 charities, that paragraph 7(2) of schedule 1 specifically excludes from protection against discrimination people who do not yet show symptoms of a disease but are likely to do so in time because of genetic factors? The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) touched on that subject.
Column 208Does my hon. Friend the Minister recognise that that provision will discriminate appallingly against people who have to expect eventually to suffer from a terrible disease such as Huntington's and whose life is difficult enough without being exposed to discrimination in the labour market? Does he realise that that provision will powerfully discourage people from undergoing predictive tests? If those tests produce the feared result, people will at least be able to receive the appropriate medical treatment and plan their lives in the light of the knowledge that the tests provide.
I very much regret that, at this stage, my right hon. Friends do not propose to bring businesses employing fewer than 20 people within the requirement not to discriminate. The concept of reasonableness in the Bill provides the necessary safeguards. It simply cannot be right that people's basic rights as citizens and members of our society should depend on who happens to employ them. It is unimaginable that we would say to an employer who wanted to operate a racist recruitment policy, "Okay, since it is only a small business, you can indulge your prejudice," and that we should enshrine that in law. We should insist no less on basic decency where disabled people's employment is concerned.
I note that it is provided that the threshold of 20 may be changed by regulation. If the Department of Trade and Industry were to pluck up its courage, perhaps we might match the Americans at 15. That, too, would not be good enough. We should straight away match the Australians, and I believe the New Zealanders, who do not allow discrimination in employment in businesses of any size.
I am willing, of course, to contemplate reasonable phasing-in periods. The access-to-work scheme, properly funded by the Government, should also be permanent. We must, however, be determined on this matter of a threshold, because it is in smaller businesses--the most rapidly growing sector, as the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) observed--that discrimination is most often found. It is simply wrong to establish in the law of the land that unreasonable, unjustified discrimination may be condoned anywhere.
It seems that the Government find it peculiarly difficult to reconcile themselves to establishing a disability rights commission with the role and powers to match those of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission. It really is time that those bodies were redeemed from the demonology of my right hon. Friends' imaginings. They do important good--not by means of for ever meddling and bullying, as certain folklore tells us, but because, by their very existence and by virtue of powers which they rarely use but hold in reserve, they guard against discrimination. A national disability council, such as the Government propose, with powers to advise and draw up codes of practice, but with no powers to investigate and enforce, will be quite insufficient.
All too often, disabled people, whose means are most often less than those of the generality of our fellow citizens, will not be able of themselves to sustain the legal rights created for them in the Bill. There will be no legal aid to assist them in taking cases to industrial tribunals. If this proposed law against discrimination is not to be hollow, it is imperative that a disability rights commission is created with power truly to champion disabled people,
Column 209individually and in class actions, which, notwithstanding my hon. Friend the Minister's view, could be of great value.
Everyone wants to proceed by good will and conciliation, but we cannot sufficiently depend on that. Powers of enforcement would need to be used only occasionally, but their latent existence is indispensable if we are to overcome prejudice.
My last contention is that the Bill should incorporate provisions to amend the National Assistance Act 1948 to remove the bar to local authority social services departments making cash payments to disabled people, so that, if they wish to do so, they can manage their own budgets for personal and domestic care. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has agreed in principle to remove that obstacle to independent living, but, presumably for reasons of bureaucratic demarcation, the Bill does not so provide. I recognise, of course, that the detail of a model scheme needs to be worked out carefully, but good progress has already been made. At the request of a number of us, members of the Association of Directors of Social Services submitted a scheme to my right hon. Friend last summer. Disabled people should not have to wait for that provision another year. We should use the legislative opportunity of this Bill to remove the block in primary legislation and the details can be established in secondary legislation or by whatever other means is appropriate.
I shall not support the reasoned amendment and I shall vote for the Bill on Second Reading. The Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is the model of legislation that I wanted the Government to adopt. It provides the clear- cut affirmation of values and the comprehensive principle that we should assert. However, I accept absolutely the good faith and good will of my hon. Friend the Minister. The Bill contains much that is good and important. We should use it, in a spirit of cross-party co-operation, as a platform on which to build. I will certainly seek to have it amended to improve its definitions and its scope and to incorporate the necessary powers of enforcement.
If the Bill were defeated tonight by Conservative Members supporting the reasoned amendment declining to give the Bill a Second Reading, and if the Government were then, regrettably, not to support the private Member's Bill, there would be no legislative advance for disabled people. Without in any way abandoning our ideals, let us be practical and constructive.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth). In a previous incarnation as a Government Whip he helped me when I piloted my Bill, now known as the Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1989, through the House. I welcome the balanced approach that he demonstrated tonight. I welcome the Disability Discrimination Bill. It is gratifying to see that the Government have attained a degree of enlightenment over the plight of the disabled, albeit as a direct result of democratic pressure within the Chamber and from outside. I hasten also to say that despite the fevered imagination of some that a deal has
Column 210been done with the Ulster Unionists to extend the scope of the Bill to Northern Ireland, that has not happened. I welcome, however, the Minister's announcement to do just that.
The hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) rebuked hon. Members for their adversarial approach to the Bill. The reality is that it is the job of the Opposition parties to test Government proposals and to push them. Because of the legislative method that has been adopted for Northern Ireland over the years--we have had no opportunity to explore, test or amend Bills--some bad legislation has, unfortunately, been introduced. If such an adversarial approach was not taken to the Disability Discrimination Bill, it, too, would run the risk of being bad legislation.
Mr. Barnes: The Government's last-minute concession to extend the scope of the Bill, once it is in Committee, to Northern Ireland may have something to do with the pressure openly exerted by hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland, because four of those hon. Members, who represent different political parties and between whom there are often considerable disagreements, have sponsored my Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. It commands the support of three other political parties of Northern Ireland.
Rev. Martin Smyth: I accept that. If hon. Members remember my intervention during business questions and on other occasions, they will recall that that pressure was exerted openly. Perhaps I am in a unique position tonight because I represent the commonality of political interests in Northern Ireland.
The House will be aware that, for many years, I have been at the forefront of the campaign for disability rights. As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) has said, I am a co-sponsor of his Bill, which will be discussed by the House soon. That Bill would solve most of the discriminatory problems faced by the disabled, but the Disability Discrimination Bill will not do that. Given my professional background, I might ask,"Who doth hinder the union of the two?", because we might do better to unite those Bills if we are truly concerned about the interests of those with disabilities. The call for comprehensive legislation on the issue is clear. I am not usually known as a supporter of quangos, but I call in support of my position the Government's own human rights watchdog in Northern Ireland--the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights. Among the recommendations in its recent comprehensive report on disability, the committee comments on the preparation for the Bill. It has done much research in it, some of which is unique. The committee says: "the Commission has become convinced that the proposals in the government consultation paper do not represent an adequate response to the issues revealed by the research. In effect they do not meet the concerns identified by the research team in respect of, for example, education, employment and mobility. The rights predicated in the paper seem unenforceable in practice--since legal aid would not be available and there is no provision for an effective enforcement agency."
There we have it--an honest opinion by, I believe, an independent Government body.
The report commends the former Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill introduced in the previous Session by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), which is being
Column 211introduced again by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East. I have received a similar message from people involved in disability action in Northern Ireland.
As I understand it, the Bill fails in several aspects. I acknowledge that it is complex in many ways. I was amused when the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) commented that there were more advisers in the Box than there were hon. Members on the Back Benches. He would have been more accurate if he had looked at those on the Conservative Back Benches at the time, because throughout the debate the Opposition have normally been running ahead of them and we are now just about equal.
Clause 7 states that the Bill will not apply to small businesses with fewer than 20 employees. That has been mentioned before, but it is doubly unfortunate in the Northern Ireland context, for I understand that about 90 per cent. of companies in Northern Ireland have fewer than 10 employees. That fact makes nonsense of the provisions in the Bill. It is not the size of a firm or, for that matter, the turnover of the firm, that matters, but the fact that someone who is able to work in a specific post is disqualified from doing so--and sometimes not even interviewed for a post because he or she may have some disability.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) referred to the second issue to which I shall draw the House's attention--genetic testing. I am worried about genetic screening and access to that information. The narrow definition of disability will discriminate against those people who can be identified by predictive genetic testing as being at risk of becoming disabled as a result of genetic causes. I understand that the Minister of State, Department of Employment, who will reply to the debate, may have some anxieties, as I have, at another level about genetic testing, but it appears to me that the information from such tests, were it to be made available, might also be used to discriminate against a person applying for insurance cover, for example. Legislation that takes into account the rapid developments in genetic engineering must be included in the Bill. One of the objections to the earlier Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill was its cost, the estimates of which escalated beyond human comprehension. Many of the objections revolved around transport costs--the costs of new coaches, buses and so on. I understand that one of the figures quoted was that an increase of about 25 per cent. on the usual cost of a bus would be required if we were to provide an integrated transport system by road for people with disability--and age can also be a disability if one wishes to hop on a bus. The issue is interesting. I spoke today to a Northern Ireland coach company, Robert Wright and Son of Ballymena, and I can give the House at least some good news. That company is in the process of finalising its plans and announcing that it will manufacture other low access coaches, which can carry as many as 70 people at a cost of only about 5 per cent. in excess of current bus prices. I believe that there is a message there for the Department and others: that we should make urgent progress down the road in renewing our coaches at a level that is economically viable, and which will facilitate people with disabilities.
Column 212Other anxieties have been mentioned today. In the Bill and the accompanying paper, "Disability--on the Agenda", the Government have relied on good will and on what is "reasonable" to make the legislation work. Will the Minister accept that legislation ring-fenced with exceptions is no solution? That applies to the problems with education.
I understand, for example, that in the North Antrim area where, a few years ago, there had been an increase in the number of young people being integrated into normal education, they are now being siphoned off into special care schools because the problem of access has not been properly tackled. I believe that that is contrary to the education provision. It is certainly contrary to the intentions of those of us who have campaigned for the right of people with disabilities to be integrated into mainstream education.
Among Government Departments, the Department of Health has not been a star performer in employing people with disability under the quota system. It has been recognised that the quota system failed to have an effect on discrimination against disabled people. Surely that points to the need for a foolproof system of policing the proposals. Although I welcome the step that has been taken along the road, there remains a long way to go. If anyone says, "We have been doing the best we can," I am always mindful of the colleague with whom I was an assistant minister as a young man. On one occasion, in the General Assembly, a convenor pleaded, "We have been doing the best we can," and Dr. Martin went to the rostrum and said, "Moderator, their best is not good enough." If this is the best that the Government can do, I hope that they will hasten to marry the two Bills together, even in Committee.
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People on introducing the Bill. It builds on substantial work that the Government have done for disabled people for a very long time, starting long before the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill was even invented.
It is worth noting that spending on benefits for long-term sick and disabled people and their carers has increased to £17 billion in the past year; that is almost as much as we spend on national defence. Therefore, no one could say that there is not a whole-hearted and deep commitment by the Government to support the wishes of the disabled.
Although the Opposition, by and large, have been very grudging about the Bill, I welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne), who described the Bill as
"a welcome step in the right direction".
Coming from the hon. Lady, that is significant, because she and I have not always agreed, and we shall probably disagree about many issues for some time.
None the less, I welcome a lower tone, greater calm and, on the whole, a desire by many people to ensure that the Bill can be workable. I have spoken to many disabled people who freely tell me that the Government's Bill is a good Bill and an excellent start in the process to right
Column 213many wrongs which have not been dealt with so far. As one disabled person said to me only yesterday, "It has great merits--there is no question of that."
The Bill strikes a balance between justifiable aims and what is possible in terms of provision. It is a courageous effort when we bear in mind the fact that the interests of disabled people have, in the past year, been clouded by highly charged emotion, aspirations and political activism that has tended to cause disarray and concern among disabled people. In Sutton, disabled people have been alarmed and unnecessarily frightened at the idea that we are not trying to help them.
It is significant that the Bill has been put together on the basis of extensive consultation. All told, more than 1,000 people or organisations have responded in writing. My hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People has received scores of interest groups and has travelled across the country to meet others. Above all, he has listened and taken careful note of the views of enablers--businesses, Government agencies and local government--in his efforts to improve provision for the disabled. He is, rightly, deeply conscious of the financial burden that such groups will bear. It was never realistic to expect them to finance to the tune of £17 billion the changes proposed in the private Member's Bill.
I voted for and supported the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill on Second Reading. But I did so because I supported the spirit of it. What had not been made clear at that time and only became clear afterwards was the burden of costing that outweighed the Bill's possible advantages. The Government's Bill is expected to limit the costs to about £1.5 billion, which will be phased in over 15 years. The cost to an average business could range from £500 to £1,500 over that period.
Mr. Alan Howarth: My hon. Friend has argued in favour of a lower tone and against political activism. Does she also agree that fair-minded analysis is important and that, as well as the cost that a measure may carry, we should also look carefully at its economic benefits?
Lady Olga Maitland: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It is always important to look at both sides of the equation. I hope that, as the Bill progresses to its Committee stage, that will happen. The greatest chance of success is to develop policies that encourage individual effort-- going with the grain of the market rather than imposing untenable requirements. In my constituency, the Sutton alliance of disabled people-- an energetic and articulate group--appreciates the consultations that have been held so far. I have worked closely with that group, which has given the Bill careful thought and come up with some useful ideas.
One proposal that the group could have made could be integrated at a later stage: easier access to information on where disabled people can go for support and advice. Only this evening a disabled Sutton constituent came to visit the Houses of Parliament. She had no idea whether she could park her car outside Members' Entrance. Only after extensive phone calls did she tumble to the idea of calling her Member of Parliament. We should work far harder to ensure that the disabled community understand where help can be obtained.
Column 214The Bill cannot hope to satisfy everyone--no Bill can ever do that. I am sorry that the Opposition were so grudging that they could not give the Government any credit. Why? I think that it was because the Bill does address the deep concerns of disabled people. The Bill recognises the distress, frustration and humiliation experienced by them. They should not have to tolerate being treated as third-rate citizens --as, at best, an inconvenience, or, at worst, imbeciles. When it is clear that reliance on common decency fails, a statutory framework can undoubtedly help to remedy the wrongdoing. The Bill breaks new ground over and above the consultation document, and I shall mention three ways in which it does so.
First, our society is the poorer if able-minded but physically disabled people are unable to work because we are unimaginative about how to assimilate them into the working environment. By making it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a disabled person, we will make the employer think all the more carefully about the talents of that disabled applicant. Although the provision applies only to companies employing 20 or more people, we must remember that it will account for 82 per cent. of the businesses in this country, leaving just small and potentially vulnerable companies out of the equation.
I support the remarks made by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber that we should keep an open mind as to whether the 20-employee limit is appropriate. If it is not suitable, we should reduce it to a lower level and learn from the experiences of companies in Australia and New Zealand.
It is not unreasonable to expect companies to make reasonable adjustments to working conditions to facilitate disabled people. Such measures need not be draconian, and could incorporate flexible hours or merely moving a desk. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) explained so powerfully, we need more will--and where there is a will, there is always a way. The second way in which the Bill breaks new ground involves the conciliation services. The crucial element in solving any dispute is to make full use of the locally based conciliation service--the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service--with the co-operation and support of the local citizens advice bureau. No one wants bureaucratic delays when confronted by a problem. People seek fast remedies and easily accessible advice and support--that aim is most effectively achieved through ACAS, whose personnel, as they are locally based, can see the employers or the providers of services immediately.
The experience of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality shows that 90 per cent. of all disagreements are settled in that way. That is not to say that someone who is dissatisfied cannot go to an industrial tribunal--that has always been an employee's right. I support the comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the House that we should reflect on whether, when a disabled person is seeking redress in that way, he should be entitled to legal aid.
The third innovative measure in the Bill is its introduction of the national disability council--an important step. As it is, no other concerned group--ethnic minorities or those seeking redress for lack of equal opportunities--has a Minister directly answerable to it. It
Column 215is significant that there is a Minister with responsibility for the disabled who provides ready access to all who need it.
Mr. Berry: I was not aware that the Bill proposed that the Minister should be answerable to disabled people. One might think that, if the Minister were answerable to them, he would introduce the Bill that disabled people want.
The Government are going one stage further by establishing the national disability council--which will act as the Minister's eyes and ears. The council will closely monitor progress on the Bill--spotting where measures need tightening up and making recommendations to the Minister. Nobody should fall between two stools, without a substantial and authoritative organisation to which he can refer. Quite rightly, at least half the council's members will be people with disabilities, or the parents or guardians of people with disabilities. With an input from a group of people who, to date, have demonstrated their ability to articulate their concerns, I have no doubt that the council will be effective, but it might be helpful were the council also to include representatives from recognised organisations for the disabled such as the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation and the Spinal Injuries Association. Finally, I turn to the question of disabled access. Common sense must prevail; we must be reasonable about access demands on public buildings and places of employment. I welcome the focus on improved access for disabled people at railway stations. It is certainly good news for commuters in my constituency who have a choice of nine railway stations, all of which have access problems. By seeking reasonable changes there is more chance of immediate redress. For example, a restaurant could be required to designate a table with sufficient space for disabled people. A tiny corner shop would be within the law if it installed a bell outside which disabled people could ring in order to be served.
The Bill will make it illegal to refuse to serve disabled customers. Making it easier for disabled people to shop can only be good for retailers who will benefit from the increased custom. That has been the experience in Sutton, where there are extensive high street facilities for the disabled, including wheelchair access. I commend the determination of the Government in promoting the Bill and I particularly congratulate the Prime Minister on taking such a personal interest in it. We must ensure that the Bill promotes action which is practical, workable, enforceable and fair for all. I reject the Opposition amendment and I will have great pleasure in supporting the Government in the Division Lobby.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East): When I reintroduce the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill on 10 February, I shall have the chance to make a substantial speech on this subject. On that occasion I hope to gain support for the Bill in order to secure its Second Reading. I wish to direct my remarks tonight to the current legislation and I shall advocate my own measure on 10 February.
Column 216Of Conservative Members who have spoken, I compliment the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) on his speech. Although there are serious tactical differences between us about how to vote tonight, his arguments are based solidly upon experience, upon a clear analysis of the situation and, above all, upon the correct principles. I could argue that he is rather naive in supporting the Government's position rather than the reasoned amendment, but I respect that judgment because I respect the person who made it. I trust that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon will explain to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), who has just spoken, why the Government's legislation is inadequate. Society does not want to see provision for bells outside shops, which will reinforce the idea that disabled people have special problems and should be treated differently. Disabled people should have easy access to all public buildings, as well as benefiting from the measures that are in the Bill that the hon. Lady supports. I feel entirely justified in my decision to select the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill as a private Member's Bill. I could have had egg on my face, as the Queen's Speech foreshadowed that the Government intended to introduce their own Bill in this area. However, I based my judgment upon the fact that the Government were not likely to introduce adequate legislation. Although it is an advance for the Government to introduce any legislation at all in this area, I believed that the Government's measure would block off further advancement by disabled people rather than extend the opportunities that are demanded.
That is what has occurred. This Bill is entirely inadequate. The long titles of the two Bills describe the scope of each piece of legislation. The Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill will allow amendments to be made that will extend the boundaries of that legislation. That scope is not contained in the Government's Bill. In fact, such measures are specifically limited and blocked. In order to carry amendments to the Government Bill in Committee, hon. Members will have to make amendments to the long title of the Bill and change the nature of the legislation. In effect, we shall have to change chalk into cheese. We shall have to make fantastic alterations to the legislation. The council will have to be changed to a commission and the definition in the Bill will have to be based on entirely different principles.
The Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is not my Bill; it is not a Bill to which any one person can lay claim. It has evolved from a movement in society. I am merely taking up the baton that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) carried last year. I have picked it up because I believe that the measure is right for this time.
I introduced a different measure two years ago dealing with electoral registration. That subject is very dear to my heart and it would have been easy to reintroduce it and carry on the campaign with which I have been involved. However, that argument is still developing; it needs to be extended and it needs to receive more publicity--its time will come. The time has come for extensive and comprehensive civil rights for disabled people. Such rights should not be constrained by the very limited and often contradictory measures in the Government's legislation.
When the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People introduced the Bill on behalf of the Government, I said that I would introduce the Civil Rights (Disabled
Column 217Persons) Bill unless someone else picked it up before me. I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) did not pick it up, given his experience in the area of disability. He has now said that the Government measure can be altered and advanced and that the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is in some way counter- productive.
If the Opposition's reasoned amendment is not carried tonight and if progress is made with the Government Bill, the private Member's Bill that I propose to introduce on 10 February will put continuous pressure on the Government. It is the marker against which the Government Bill will be judged.
I recognise that this legislation represents a big step by the Government; they have crossed the Rubicon by contemplating and producing legislation about disablement. The problem is that it is a very small step for disabled people. It will not get them anywhere; it will barely take them past the Rubicon--in fact, the Bill's provisions may push them backwards.
Conservative Members are faced with a dilemma. Can the Government Bill be amended to operate in some meaningful way, or should the all-embracing measure of civil rights for disabled people be placed on the political agenda? They could then seek to offer amendments within the spirit of the legislation that is put forward. The problems with the Government Bill have been described in considerable detail by Opposition Members. The most highly restrictive definition of disablement is set out in part I and schedule 1 of the Bill. The figures in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill relating to the numbers of people involved have never been disputed and were used in connection with cost assessment. It was a false assessment, but it was based on the same numbers of people.
It has always been estimated that 6.5 million people would be covered by the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. Can the Minister tell us how many people will be covered by the Disability Discrimination Bill as it stands?
We have heard about all the interest groups that are worried about being excluded. They have been quoted by hon. Members representing four political parties who have raised important issues. The Bill refers to those with substantial disabilities and those with long-term disabilities and states that the categories involved will be decided and explained in guidance issued by the Secretary of State. Do we trust the Secretary of State to provide the broadest possible definitions? We may finish up with an extremely limited measure.
I hope that, before we vote on the Bill, we shall be told what number the Government believe it will cover, compared with the 6.5 million covered by the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill.
Mr. Alfred Morris: It is possible that the Minister could help us now by giving that figure, which it seems to me is a crucial figure, not just for the purposes of my hon. Friend's argument, but in terms of the whole debate about the Bill.