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Column 229that it is not their job to run business, so why in heaven's name do not they let business get on with the job that it says it wants to do? They are stopping business doing the job that it wants to do. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said, 91 per cent. of the employers who responded to the Government's consultation paper rejected the idea of a cut-off point for firms with 20 or fewer employees.
I will now show what can happen at work and describe the experience of a former press operator at the Leyland DAF plant at Washwood Heath in Birmingham. That man lost three fingers at work but was still regarded as a valued and productive employee. Then he was made redundant. He applied for a similar job with a small car component firm and was invited for interview. All went well until he mentioned that he had lost three fingers. From then on, the prospective employer did not want to know. That man could not be refused a job on grounds of his race or gender because that would be against the law, but the Bill would not stop him being refused a job on the ground of his disability. He said:
"I didn't think of myself as being disabled until I was discriminated against."
How can the Government say--quite rightly--that they will not tolerate discrimination on grounds of race and gender but then tell 96 out of every 100 firms that it is all right to discriminate on grounds of disability?Lawyers will have a field day if the Bill reaches the statute book. If a disabled job applicant happens also to be gay or lesbian and from an ethnic community, the lawyers could keep the case running into thousands of pounds.
Mr. Alfred Morris: My hon. Friend referred earlier to Jane Campbell of the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People, who is highly regarded in this House. How can the Government pretend to correct Jane on this issue? She is a severely disabled person and she knows the realities of disabled living. She knows what she is talking about in defining disability. How can they say that they know more than Jane?
Mr. Corbett: My right hon. Friend makes an exceptionally good point. I applaud the fact that the Government decided to carry out a consultation. The only trouble with consultation is that it implies that one will listen and, where one feels it right to do so, respond to what is said. All the evidence, even in the document that the Minister has now published, is that the Government have taken little notice of what people said because they do not like it.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: the House should show some humility. The best people to tell us about discrimination against disabled people are those who suffer from that discrimination, who face it every day of the week and who come to anticipate it because of what happens in our society.
As other hon. Members have mentioned transport, I will omit that issue in view of the lack of time available.
Column 230The Bill is silent on financial encouragement for employers or owners of shops or other commercial properties to improve access. For example, the Royal National Institute for the Blind wants the national insurance contributions holiday for employers who take on the long-term jobless extended to employers who take on disabled people. Why not? What about tax relief on spending to assist the employment of disabled people? If people can apply for grants of up to £20,000 to improve their homes, why cannot some modest help be offered, perhaps on a pound-for-pound basis, to small retailers and others who need to make their premises accessible to disabled people?
Perhaps the biggest weakness of the Bill is the total absence of a proposal to set up an organisation with responsibility for enforcement, to develop case studies and practice, as well as to encourage and spread good practice. Virtually every organisation of the disabled and for the disabled that has commented on the Bill has made that point, but again, the Government have ignored it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East said, it is pretty rich for the Government to indulge in a consultation exercise, spend a million quid boasting about it and then spend just £2,000 on putting out versions on audio and in Braille. The very people from whom we desperately need to hear, so that we have a better chance of getting the legislation right, are effectively locked out of the debate.
I commend especially to the Minister for the Disabled the excellent booklet published by People First, which states:
"People with learning difficulties had found it impossible to understand and comment on the Government Disability Discrimination Bill because the summary . . . was not written using pictures and simple text."
I wish we could use video screens in the Chamber, but we have not come to that yet. I commend that booklet to the Minister. There would be no need to employ civil servants to produce the Government's own version, as I am sure that People First would make it available to the Minister, his Department and others at a reasonable cost. We should have the humility to accept that the best people to talk about discrimination are those who know about it, meet it and are offended by it because they are denied the same rights as other citizens. The Government must understand that calls to end discrimination against people with disabilities are not about services and benefits, important as they are, but about civil rights--rights equal to those that the rest of us are able to claim and exercise.
To deny the Bill a Second Reading today will not rob disabled people of their rights because the Government can take over the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill after they help it to secure its Second Reading on 10 February.
I echo the tributes that have been paid to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Sir N. Scott) for the huge amount of work that he did to support the work to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities. I congratulate my hon. Friend the current Minister for
Column 231Social Security and Disabled People on producing an excellent Bill and on the huge amount of work and consultation which went into it. With one or two exceptions, the tone of the debate has been entirely reasoned. Many points were raised and, for that reason, I may not be able to respond to all of them tonight. I should like, first, to address the reasoned amendment.
To echo the wise words of my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, North- East (Mr. Congdon) and for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), we have a choice: either we can accept a Bill which has been introduced by the Government and which, amended or otherwise, will reach the statute book, or we can reject it. If we do that, we will for ever after have to explain why, when we had the chance to get an anti-discrimination measure on the statute book--we will not be able to accept the Bill sponsored by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes)--we turned it down. That is the question that faces hon. Members tonight.
The hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) said that she would vote for the reasoned amendment because there was nothing in it with which she could disagree, but she must remind herself that if she does that, the Disability Discrimination Bill will be rejected. That could easily result in no anti- discrimination measure being on the statute book. I am talking straightforward fact. If hon. Members who have been in the House for a long time, and who know the workings of the system, do not understand the logic of that, I am unable to assist hon. Members further.
Secondly, I believe that much of what is in the reasoned amendment either is inaccurate or refers to matters that are being addressed. For example, my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People said clearly that we shall now consider the possibility--and, if possible, enact legislation to that effect--of making it unlawful to discriminate in the sale and letting of premises.
It is also said in the reasoned amendment that the Bill is unacceptable because its employment provisions would extend to less than--
Mr. Tom Clarke: The hon. Lady has said that the reasoned amendment is inaccurate. She then referred to the Bill, but there is no reference in it whatever to premises in the way in which the Minister discussed them in his speech. Will she therefore withdraw what she said, because it is she who is being wholly inaccurate?
Miss Widdecombe: With respect, the hon. Gentleman did not listen to what I said. I said that there is much in the reasoned amendment that either is inaccurate or refers to measures that have been addressed. When I spoke about measures that have been addressed, I meant the unlawful discrimination in the sale and letting of premises, which was discussed by my hon. Friend in his opening speech. [Interruption.] I shall proceed, because I assume that the reason that hon. Members have made so many arguments tonight is that they wish to hear answers. I suggest that we make some progress on that. The reasoned amendment claims that our Bill is unacceptable because the employment provisions extend only to less than 5 per cent. of firms. Although, strictly, technically, statistically, that may be true, the reasoned amendment conjures up a wildly inaccurate picture of the
Column 232vast majority of the work force not being covered, whereas the exact opposite is true; 83 per cent. of employees will be covered. It does not follow that, just because a small firm is exempt, it will make a practice of discrimination. It simply means that we have recognised that there are burdens on businesses that it is not sensible to inflict on very small businesses. However, we have also said more than once tonight that, although we have written into the Bill the dividing line of 20 employees, we are taking a power to amend that in the light of experience.
We were asked from the Opposition Benches whether we could amend that to a larger number as well as a smaller number, but that is certainly not the intention of that power. There would have to be some mighty compelling evidence and some consultation as well. The idea is to find out, in time to come, whether experience shows that we could decrease that number, but we are starting with what we consider to be a reasonable number.
I am sorry to take issue again with the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), because he has quite a reputation on that issue and I honestly thought that he would have read the consultation document extremely thoroughly. I must take issue with him when he says that 91 per cent. of employers oppose an exemption. When it comes down to 11 employers, 10 of whom oppose an exemption, that does not describe the opinions of employers. He omitted to add that, of the employer associations that were actually consulted, six out of nine supported an exemption.
Mr. Berry: I was absolutely correct when I said that, of the employers who responded, 91 per cent. opposed an exemption. That was 10 out of 11 who offered an opinion. Will the hon. Lady admit that, of all the employers who were consulted and who responded, only one--the one that she has mentioned--actually wanted an exemption for small firms? I am grateful that she has strengthened the argument that I was trying to make.
I shall now proceed to make progress.
Miss Widdecombe: I shall not give way now. I intend to make progress. I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once and I have given way to the hon. Member for Kingswood; I shall give way on sensible points, but I want to make progress.
Much has been made of our decision to set up a national disability council rather than a commission. There appears to be some received wisdom that, just because 20 years ago a Labour Government decided that the best way of monitoring and policing equal rights was to set up commissions, that was the only way it could be done. I invite hon. Members to compare the two very different tasks faced by commissions and the council.
The Equal Opportunities Commission represents 50 per cent. of the population and is largely engaged in class actions. The number of individual cases that it supports before tribunals amounts to a minority. The work entailed by the disability laws will largely involve individuals-- no two of whom will be the same--coming before tribunals.
Column 233I noted the call from the Labour Front-Bench team earlier to introduce legal aid in tribunals. In his response to an intervention, the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) seemed to commit a future Labour Government--hypothetical, of course--to introducing legal aid. I hope that he has consulted the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer on the likely cost of that policy.
Mr. Clarke: I thank the Minister for giving way. I do not want there to be any misunderstanding about the next Government, but I want to be particularly clear about the present Government's view. In my speech, I mentioned a boy who suffers from cerebral palsy and who has taken a case of unfair dismissal to a tribunal. That tribunal has been suspended today because his family does not have the money for further representation. What advice would the Minister give that family tonight?
Miss Widdecombe: I shall. I would say to that family--I am surprised that the hon. Member for Monklands, West has not already done so--that tribunals are specifically designed to be user-friendly, cheap and informal. The majority of successful cases before tribunals are those where there is no representation.
The Education Act 1993 and the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 set out extremely clear provisions for disabled pupils and students. We have already said many times during the debate that the Department for Education is carrying out an audit of accessibility to establish the current position on access within schools, but the majority of schoolchildren with special educational needs are already in mainstream schools and there has been a vast increase in the percentage of children with statements, right across the age range, who are now taught in mainstream schools. With due respect to the hon. Members who were concerned about the issue, the Government are ahead in their thinking and are already beginning to take action of the sort that we have been asked to follow.
Of course, education will be caught by the conditions imposed on employers in the Bill. Schools will have to observe
non-discriminatory practices in employment, and vocational training--which is provided under the Employment and Training Act 1973--will be covered by the Bill. We are left with schools which are already subject to an audit and which have made remarkable progress in a fairly short time.
A further question which was raised about education referred to the fact that only new schools will be accessible under the legislation. However, it is worth pointing out that, each year, half the capital budget goes on new build, and schools will have to observe the rules. It is not reasonable to suggest that there is only a limited amount of new build and that nothing else will be covered.
I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) intends to vote against the reasoned amendment, and his speech about his reasons for coming to that decision should stand as an example to those who may be thinking of taking a different course.
Column 234My hon. Friend asked about the importance of addressing the question of lack of disabled access to our courts. The Government place a high priority on ensuring that disabled people are able to access our courts. Much work has already been done in that area. For example, at least one court room in every new Crown and county court is equipped with an infra-red hearing system for people who have poor hearing. Courts will be subject to the new right of access and we will bring forward proposals for consultation on how that right will apply in this area.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon that we make provision in our tribunals for hearing and sight-impaired individuals and for those with communication difficulties. Special arrangements are made to ensure that they are helped in that context.
Mr. Alan Howarth: Will my hon. Friend consider extending that support, for example, to assisting disabled people in preparing their cases before they come to the tribunals? Could that be associated with green form support?
The winding-up speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) departed in tone from much of the debate. He asked how the Government could be trusted with looking after the rights of people with disabilities. All he has to do is look at our record of caring for people with disabilities. I suggest that he look at the dozens of measures that we have implemented since 1979. I shall list some, in case Labour Members have forgotten them.
Do Labour Members recall how we look after not only the disabled but their carers? We extended the invalid care allowance to non-relatives in 1984. The Education (Special Educational Needs) Regulations 1983 placed further requirements on local authorities concerning assessment and statements for school children with special educational needs.
What about the introduction of the disablement advisory service in 1983-84? What about the introduction of the severe disablement allowance, the disability living allowance, the disability working allowance and the sheltered placement scheme? What about the provisions that we put in place for building regulations? What about the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986 and the provisions in the Education Reform Act 1988? We have introduced all those measures, but the Opposition do not think that we can be trusted.
Do Labour Members have a record which compares to that? Of course they do not. Tonight, we have a choice: we can accept the Bill and move towards the most comprehensive proposal for safeguarding the rights of disabled people that has come forward in decades, or we can reject the Bill and return to the situation of last year, with a thoroughly unsatisfactory, very ambitious but very impractical substitute measure.
Column 235explanation of the views of employers. I shall not give way to Opposition Members, and I hope that no one in the House will give way to the reasoned amendment. I hope that we shall now put on its journey towards the statute book a major measure which everybody out there who is disabled or who is caring for the disabled wants and hopes to see.
Question put, That the amendment be made:--
The House divided : Ayes 280, Noes 307.
Division No. 47] [10.00 pm
Column 235Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A J
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F
Blair, Rt Hon Tony
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell-Savours, D N
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Robin (Livingston)