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Column 772Lord Snowdon recently reminded me of what Martin Luther King said about discrimination:
"Morality cannot be legislated, but behaviour can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrict the heartless."
With the benefit of 30 years' experience of race relations law in this country, we can and should go further in this area. Effective law can make unthinkable forms of discrimination that were standard practice only a generation before. Enforceable regulations can change the rules of the game and allow those who have suffered discrimination in the past the benefit of the level playing field to which they are entitled in a modern democracy.
A disability discrimination Act--even the measure before us, with all its weaknesses and omissions--can transform the prospects for disabled people in future generations, especially if it is accompanied by an effective enforcement body that can ensure its implementation and inform Ministers of what more needs to be done to make discrimination against disabled people a thing of the past.
Mr. Alan Howarth: I have tabled new clauses 14 and 15 and amendments Nos. 52 to 59 to extend the powers of the national disability council. My objective is very much the same as that of the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), but I proceed by a different route. Instead of seeking to establish a disability rights commission, I seek to build on the institution that the Government propose to create, the NDC. My amendments would extend the powers of the council. At present, its role will be purely advisory. The amendments would give it a role and powers that would be in line with those of the commissions that have been established under other equal opportunities legislation.
Why do I wish to extend the powers of the council? I do so because I believe that for us to create rights without providing the means to sustain them is a hollow act. The rights of disabled people and our support for them should be no less than the rights and support that we accord to our fellow human beings on grounds of race and gender. Any discrimination against people because they belong to a particular group or category is odious, dehumanising and deeply offensive to the principles of a liberal and humane society.
It is not good enough to leave disadvantaged people to use their exiguous resources to assert and gain their rights against others richer and more powerful than themselves. Major employers, such as those in membership of the Employers Forum on Disability, agree with that proposition. For example, British Rail and the Midland bank have observed that, without an enforcement agency, too many firms will continue to do what they want and what is convenient to them. We have always accepted in Parliament that it is the role of the state to step in to protect the weak and the vulnerable from the abuse of power, whether exercised by mediaeval barons, mill owners, landlords, trade union bosses or the limited number of today's employers who insist on acting in a discriminatory fashion. We should have a disability rights commission or a strengthened NDC. I do not mind what the body is called, so long as it does the job that it is needed to undertake. It must have powers to investigate and enforce.
We need a commission that has a strategic role, in the same way as the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission. The legislative model
Column 773that we have in relation to those two bodies will serve us well in the establishment of the body that we need to sustain the rights of those who may experience discrimination because of their disablement.
Any such body should work with a light touch. No one wants a commission that bears down heavily and is excessively bureaucratic, excessively litigious and looking to interfere and to pick fights. I know that those are the fears of some of my hon. Friends, but I believe that they are very much misplaced. If my hon. Friends look open-mindedly and fairly at the record, they will recognise that that is so.
Nor is the organisation that I have in mind to be compared with the American Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, which has a particular role that I do not propose for a strengthened NDC. The commission has a remit, I understand, to screen all cases that may come to court. It is much better to do as the Government propose and to provide direct access to tribunals and courts for complainants. The strengthened council's role would, in a sense, be more selective. It would always be seeking to advance the principle of equal opportunity and the unacceptability of unjustified discrimination. It would proceed by taking up cases where there was a special cause to do so--for example, because of their representative importance or because of the wider beneficial impact that its involvement in a case would have.
The need for that is vital, as are the other needs that have been acknowledged by my hon. Friend the Minister. There is a need for the Government to receive advice and a need for individual disabled people to be assisted by the adoption of practical remedies. I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister has argued against a broader enforcement role for the commission or strengthened council on the basis that all disabled people are individuals and disabilities are unique. That is true, but we wish to act against the evil of unjustifiable discrimination, which occurs in an all too regularly repeated range of ways.
I shall give the House an example. Where there are medical screening procedures with overly restrictive criteria, a procedure that is simple in itself will act differentially and, in effect, involve indirect discrimination. If an organisation has a broad-brush policy, it is wrong to require individuals who may be unfairly affected by discrimination to seek an individual remedy.
I am assured that the Post Office--I was surprised and disappointed to hear this--has a policy of not allowing its employees who have diabetes to drive its vehicles. It is not against the law for diabetics to drive, but the Post Office has adopted a blanket policy. That is my information. If what I have said is incorrect, I shall apologise and readily withdraw. I am advised on good authority, however, that what I have said is, indeed, the position. The Post Office does not make an individual assessment of the ability of an employee who has diabetes to drive its vehicles.
The Post Office's policy seems unreasonable, especially as it does not apply the policy to someone who was diagnosed as diabetic before 1984. The policy seems to be comprehensively confused. That is surely a good
Column 774instance of a broad employment issue in an enormous organisation which a disability rights commission or a strengthened NDC could usefully investigate.
Mr. Pickthall: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I am insulin dependent and know a little about what he is saying. I had not thought of myself as disabled. It is important to understand that the licensing authorities will not allow the driving of public service vehicles by diabetics. That is true of the fire brigade and of heavy goods vehicle drivers, who automatically lose their licence if they become insulin dependent. They can apply for the restoration of their licence after a period, but it is extremely rare for such a driver to regain his licence.
Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman's intervention was interesting and helpful. We are clearly in debatable territory. It seems eminently suitable for a public-spirited and expert agency to investigate it and to consider what the appropriate criteria may be, and to make recommendations, if it judges that necessary, for improved employment policy or, possibly, improved legislation.
Rev. Martin Smyth : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will note that the body that has instilled that practice is under Government direction. Does he agree that it is important that the Government do something to change that direction?
Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He makes the point well. The Government have a responsibility to promote good employment practice throughout our economy and society, especially where large public service organisations are involved.
Let me give the House another instance where a commission could usefully be involved. I am advised again--on the evidence of a consultant psychiatrist writing in The Lancet --that it is the policy of some health authorities not to employ anyone with epilepsy. That seems quite extraordinary and to my mind is disgraceful and indefensible. If an employer does not take a rational view of the nature and prognosis of epilepsy, a disability rights commission or a strengthened national disability council, could look at the issue--for example, in health service employment--and make recommendations.
Mr. Devlin: Hang on a minute. Suppose a local health authority or health trust were to be sued by a patient for the results of an epileptic attack during a medical procedure, how would the national health trust justify itself to the patient in those circumstances?
Mr. Howarth: It is interesting that practice between health authorities is very different. Some health authorities--to my mind in this particular respect, the better employers--look carefully at the individual circumstances and the health of particular people whom they might employ, and they do not invariably take the view that there are no circumstances in which they could responsibly employ someone with epilepsy. There may well be certain responsibilities than an epileptic should not be expected to carry out, but I do not think that my hon. Friend, on reflection, would really wish to argue that there are no jobs in the health service that someone with epilepsy could reasonably be expected to perform.
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What my hon. Friend says bears out my contention that we badly need an intelligent, expert body charged with the responsibility to help us to evolve good practice in such fields. It seems to me that the system that my hon. Friend the Minister envisages would place unreasonable demands on individuals affected by such discrimination. Certainly, if the individual is left to fend for himself or herself, to try to establish his or her own rights, that will not help adequately to generalise good practice. Indeed, we may be left with a series of piecemeal, confused--even contradictory-- resolutions by different industrial tribunals.
It is tempting for employers in the unhappy situation where they have to make redundancies to look for rather simple rules of thumb, to look for simple criteria, for example, rates of absenteeism. If that is to be the criterion for selecting those who are to be made redundant, it is all too likely that it will bear heavily on people who have good cause to be absent, because they need medical appointments. Those people have valid reasons, because of their condition, to be away from work from time to time. Again, that seems to be the kind of problem with which a commission could deal.
Let me give one instance of the useful work that the Equal Opportunities Commission carries out. I refer to its investigation, the results of which were published in March this year, into employment agencies. The EOC found that there was indeed widespread sex stereotyping, and opportunities were restricted for all too many people. If individuals had been simply left to take their own cases in this matter to tribunals, they would not have had access to the knowledge and experience that the EOC had.
If some of those individuals had been successful in bringing their cases, I still do not believe that the outcome would have been sufficiently generalised to influence practice in the way in which an EOC investigation is able to do. Within five days of the EOC report being published, 250 organisations contacted it for further advice. I would like to see such opportunities and developments occurring in respect of disability.
The EOC and the Commission for Racial Equality provide invaluable advice to businesses. Similarly, advice and help will be needed in the disability field--certainly advice and help that go beyond what I believe, with the best will in the world, the placement, assessment and counselling teams or, indeed, citizens advice bureaux, will be able to provide. The citizens advice bureaux do a marvellous job in advising citizens on how they may find remedy for their grievances. I do not think that the CAB would wish to be entrusted with the major role of advising employers on what proper practice should be. I very much welcome the Government's commitment to remove the restriction in the National Assistance Act 1948 on the provision of direct payments to disabled people. It always seemed to me to be an unfortunate provision. I recognise the complexity of what will be entailed, however. I was sorry that my right hon. Friends
Column 776felt unable to incorporate in the Bill a clause that would at least have cleared away the legislative roadblock to further detailed progress. That is one more example of where I believe that a commission would be helpful.
There will, indeed, be much to be thought about, to be considered carefully and to be learnt from subsequent experience. My amendment No. 45, which has been selected, says that the national disability council should have a duty to advise on policy developments in a range of fields, apart from employment. That is one such instance in which it could play a valuable role. I hope that, in due course, it will do so.
I have proposed that the national disability council should be given additional powers. The strengthened national disability council should have wide powers to provide assistance to people who complain of discrimination. It should have broad law enforcement powers, including the ability to conduct formal investigations and to take certain forms of legal action in its own name. It should have the power to conduct formal investigations either to examine whether a particular organisation is discriminating or to promote equal opportunities within a specific area, such as the practices of employment agencies, to which I referred just now, or estate agents. It should have the power, in specified circumstances, to issue non- discrimination notices and to make recommendations about improving practices to specific organisations.
It should have the power to apply to the court for orders restraining persons from persistent discrimination. It should have the power to draw up codes of practice, subject to approval by the Secretary of State and Parliament, and to make recommendations for the improved operation of the law.
The existence of a national organisation, able actively to promote equality of opportunity, both through advising organisations and through taking legal action in specific instances where necessary, is crucial to developing our culture, to changing entrenched attitudes and to working effectively towards removing the patterns of discrimination which still disfigure our society, and which my hon. Friend the Minister deplores as much as I do.
It is important to recognise that the various powers, duties and activities that a strengthened council would undertake are mutually interdependent. They would reinforce one another. The capacity of the council to carry out successful investigations and to make valuable recommendations will depend on the accumulation of its practical experience: in advising individuals and in taking individual actions, as well as its broader overview.
It is through operating the totality of their responsibilities that the CRE and EOC have been able to build up the expertise that then makes it possible for them to draft effective codes of practice and recommend practical improvements to the law. It is not only the Government or the individual who is the victim of discrimination who would benefit from that, but organisations of many sorts, especially businesses.
The credibility and the depth of experience that the existing commissions possess enable them to work pro-actively to remove discriminatory barriers and to promote equality of opportunity. They wish to do that and, almost invariably, they indeed do so in a conciliatory manner. It is not their desire to seek recourse to the courts.
Column 777However, the existence of a strategic enforcement power enables the commissions, when necessary, to influence recalcitrant individuals and organisations as, sadly, is necessary from time to time. I am certain that that long-established mode--we now have 20 years' experience of it--is effective and efficient and would be more so than what the Government propose in respect of disability, which is to rely solely on individual claimants, if they are driven to it and if they can manage to do so, having recourse themselves to legal remedies.
As the hon. Member for Monklands, West said, that is why organisations such as the Employers Forum on Disability and the Institute of Personnel Management have called for a national body to oversee the operation of disability law, with powers, resources and status equal to those of the EOC and the CRE.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is willing to reconsider his position. I feel strongly that if we do not have either a disability rights commission or a strengthened national disability council, there will remain a hole in the heart of the Bill--a Bill that represents an enormous advance, for which my hon. Friend the Minister should be personally congratulated. I hope that he will recognise this necessity, and be able to persuade our right hon. and hon. Friends of the necessity, of completing the task that he has set himself.
Mr. Wigley: I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, not only to new clause 1, which I support, but to new clause 17, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friends. I am grateful to Madam Speaker for including my new clause in this group. My new clause provides for the position in Wales, but before discussing that I want to deal with the generality and to follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Stratford- on-Avon (Mr. Howarth). We all know from our constituency surgeries and from work in our own areas of the difficulties and frustrations faced by disabled people and their families because they cannot get what they need, what they know they need and what they feel they have a right to have. Our challenge is to make the Bill meaningful for them; for it to be more than just a tablet of stone that says, "Yes, you have a right, but you cannot have that right delivered to you." The Bill needs to be accessible to them, usable by them, understandable, comprehensible, sensitive, quick acting and within reach. It also needs to be effective--and for it to be so, I cannot but feel that there needs to be more than the council provided for in the Bill.
The danger is that the council may well give good advice, may well look at the generality of the scene and may be able to help individuals with conciliation services and so move their cases forward, but when it comes to the really hard cases, the ones that conciliation cannot crack, stronger measures may be needed. Existing bodies already try a conciliation process. For example, disability organisations such as RADAR, Mencap and Scope play their role within their client groups to try to get answers to problems. The citizens advice bureau does the same. Numerous agencies try, on a voluntary basis, to get people together to solve the problems, but fail to do so.
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I could cite individual cases in my area. In earlier debates, I have mentioned people with disability not being able to get work and not knowing where to turn to get the support that would ensure that the discrimination practised against them was set aside and that they got the opportunities they deserved. I know of a case in the Swansea area, which has been running for some months, of a family with a disabled son who need substantial adaptations to their house. That is within the power of the local authority's grant-making structures, but the machinery is not working and is highly unsatisfactory. There was a need for somebody to get in there and sort it out, but it was only when one of the voluntary sector bodies began to play it rough that the problems began to be sorted out, although they are still not totally sorted out.
In one of our earliest debates on civil rights, I cited the case of a cinema in Cardiff that would not allow access to someone in a wheelchair because of the difficulties should there be a fire. We have heard all that before. We need a body to which people who have been treated in that way can turn and which they know will take action on their behalf and make it stick. They need to know how to get access to such a body.
With all the good will in the world, the council, as it is described and defined in the Bill, will be much too passive a body. It will need to have teeth. Although it may be in only a small minority of cases that people need to go to court--the last thing I want to do is to give money to lawyers on either side of the argument--the ultimate sanction of being able to go to court, with an Act of Parliament behind them, must be significant for those who are trying to enforce all the other rights embodied in the Bill and the further rights that we want built into it now or at a later stage. If we are to overcome discrimination in employment, leisure services, the provision of facilities, transport and education, there must be a cast-iron guarantee. Without one, people will not have the confidence to come forward. They need to be sure that someone is there who will make sure that their case is heard.
Having referred to the generality, and having expressed my support for new clause 1 and the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon, I want to deal with my new clause 17, which provides for the establishment of a disablement commission for Wales. Such a body is needed; Wales specifically needs to have the structure of a commission, with the rights outlined in the new clause. The same case can be made for Scotland, and I am aware that new clause 19, tabled by the Scottish National party, provides for a similar body in Scotland. However, I shall confine my remarks to Wales.
I believe that such a body in Wales is necessary for three or four reasons. First, there is a high level of disability in Wales--some 300,000 disabled people. The profile of disability has, to some extent, grown out of our industrial past. The characteristics of that manifest themselves in, for example, the high level of invalidity benefit in Wales, which is some 50 per cent. higher than it is in other parts of the United Kingdom. There is a high level of need in Wales, which I am sure Welsh Members of Parliament from all parties recognise.
Secondly, the Welsh Office in Wales has a one-stop-shop function for a number of critical responsibilities relevant to disability. It has responsibility for health, social services, education, employment,
Column 779housing and planning. All those functions are relevant to disabled people. I have heard friends in the voluntary sector in the west midlands say how sorry they are that they do not have such a government structure that brings those various facets together to develop disability policy.
No doubt the existence of the Welsh Office enabled Wales to take strides that, I think, were not taken elsewhere in the early 1980s, when Nicholas Edwards was Secretary of State for Wales. The all-Wales strategy for mentally handicapped children and adults was a significant advance. Other advances have been made in Wales in other aspects of disability. We must have a body that relates to public policy, as has already been developed in Wales under the structure in the Welsh Office.
It is equally important that an interface exists between local government and either the commission, which the new clause would give us, or the council, which the Government have put forward. A new local government structure comes into force in Wales in April next year. The elections are in May of this year. That unitary structure throughout Wales will again bring together at local level all local government departments that deal with disabled people--social services, housing, education and planning. Again, a close working relationship should exist between what we would call the disablement commission for Wales, or the council as the Government would put it, and local authorities. No interface exists in the Government's model, but it is provided for in subsection (2)(a) of new clause 17.
We believe that it is important that that interface exists and that there should be a close working relationship between the commission and the voluntary sector. Goodness knows, in the world of disability, the voluntary sector is vital. In the past 20 years, that sector in Wales has reorganised itself to shadow the Welsh Office. There used to be a Mencap in north Wales, north-west England and south Wales. Mencap in Wales was established to respond in a strategic manner--I use the words "strategic manner", which were mentioned earlier--to disabled people's needs.
That is equally relevant in relation to the disablement commission for Wales, for which we are pressing. Coterminosity and co-operation on a day- to-day basis should exist between that body and the voluntary sector. It can be the provider of links with individuals. It can be part of the fine tuning of policy that is needed for feedback to go through to the Welsh Office and to the Secretary of State, as would happen on a general level in London.
One additional dimension is covered in subsection (12) of new clause 17. In the event of a parliament or legislative assembly for Wales, which is likely to happen after the next general election within a year or two-- [Interruption.] I see the Under-Secretary of State for Employment smiling. He may feel that the Conservative party will win the next general election, but opinion polls suggest otherwise.
When such elected bodies are set up in Wales and Scotland, there will be a question of answerability. The hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) is not here but, equally, I suggest to him that his model should include provision to ensure that such a structure is answerable to a Scottish or Welsh Parliament or Assembly. A close working relationship must exist with the decision-taking mechanism that affects disabled people. In the Scottish model, most of the powers would
Column 780be devolved to a Scottish Parliament and, in the Welsh model, to the Welsh Parliament or Assembly. Those ideas are on the cards. Any commission must be close to the people whom it is serving and who are taking decisions on a day-to-day basis. It should not be remote or faceless. We have felt the lack of a race discrimination structure in Wales. Some cases have been followed in an unfortunate way because of that lack. Developments are afoot to try to overcome that. We have recently established the Welsh Language Board. For many disabled people, the language dimension must be taken on board. An interplay exists between language ability and provision of services, not least in relation to speech therapy services, which are often inadequate.
Those are the reasons why we introduced our new clause 17. We want to ensure that there is a commission in the context of Wales. We would equally like the new clause moved by the hon. Member for Monklands, West to be brought into effect after Report. The Government may succeed in withstanding the new clauses in this group, but I hope that the Minister will say clearly how the council, as he has envisaged it, will interface, in Wales and in Scotland, with government structures. I accept that he may not go down the road of envisaging the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, but how will his council make adequate provision for the needs of Wales with the Welsh Office, the Scottish Office, the different local government structures, and the voluntary sector? There appears to be no provision on that in the Bill. That perhaps was not given an adequate airing in Committee.
If the Government, after considering the debate tonight, withstand our attempt to write in new provisions, will they at least say that some fine tuning is necessary in the other place to ensure that the structures that arise are responsive to regions such as Wales, where circumstances are slightly different and where we need the mechanisms to respond to that? Then and only then will disabled people in Wales receive the full benefits of the legislation that we are enacting. There is a responsibility on us to ensure that that takes place.
Mr. Devlin: In new clause 1, we have a foretaste of what would come if a Labour Government were ever elected. In the past, Labour Members have made a general onslaught on quangos throughout the country. Representing a constituency that is covered by an efficient quango--the Teesside development corporation--I know that such attacks are regularly on their lips. Despite that, tonight they are trying to establish yet another regulatory body to go along with the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. I am not sure that that is in the interests of the country or of disabled people.
The country is very much over-regulated. People constantly complain about the European Community coming in and interfering, in the niggly way that it does, with a range of regulation and red tape. They feel that the country is gradually being ground to a halt under a great burden of regulation. I do not wish us to have yet more interfering commissions to regulate the affairs, business and every other feature of life. Some hon. Members may be keen to make well-intentioned changes, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Column 781the country by virtue of the fact that they are denied access to transport, jobs and leisure opportunities? Would it not be nice to deregulate life for them?
Mr. Devlin: Yes, it would be very nice. I have been a member of the all-party disablement group for many years. I have examined many different ways in which these things could be done. I do not see that to create yet another commission is the right way to go about it. When I asked a question of the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), who is not here any more, I said that perhaps the best way forward would be to merge the existing two commissions, put the further commission in with it and create a single commission called something like the fair employment commission. To carry on building yet more bodies which will turn out to be great empires of bureaucracy, officials and inspectors with investigating powers issuing codes of practice will create yet another industry all by itself.
I have seen the Equal Opportunities Commission, and in particular the Commission for Racial Equality, in action. They take the attitude that anyone who does not agree with the positive discrimination measures that they suggest is politically incorrect and to be treated in an offhand manner.
The House should be wary of creating any more such bodies. I dealt with a complaint to the Commission for Racial Equality not many months ago. The initial reaction was negative, even though my constituents had a perfectly valid point. They wanted to know why there was positive discrimination in respect of Asian women in a particular situation. The next thing we knew, there was some fobbing off comment in the local press. People got angry about it and the whole thing became ridiculous, simply because the people in the commission would not accept that there was another point of view which should be treated in a valid and sensible way. I wonder whether we would not be going down the same road with the disablement commission which has been proposed by the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair).
I listened with great care to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on- Avon (Mr. Howarth), who always makes eloquent and impressive speeches. I have known him for a long time--since he was at the Conservative research department. I know how well informed he is and how much he cares about disabled people and the voluntary sector. I was worried when I heard him say that the commission should work with a light touch. It should not be bureaucratic, overbearing or self-advancing--I think that those were the words that he used. My experience of the two commissions is that that is precisely what they are--bureaucratic like nobody's business, overbearing, intrusive and self-advancing in every aspect of life. If we set up another commission, having had experience of the two commissions, we will find ourselves in yet further trouble.
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Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend is kind. He has explained to the House why he does not think that it would be a good idea to have a disability rights commission. He is a lawyer. He will undoubtedly have a commitment to justice. If he does not think that a commission is a good way to promote justice and insists on seeing a commission as only a regulatory body and not a suitable agency to promote justice in our society, what constructive means does he propose?
Mr. Devlin: If we are to advance further rights for disabled people, which is the purpose of the Bill, we must encourage them to use the court system if they find themselves prejudiced in any way. As my hon. Friend says, I am a lawyer. Rights are enforceable in the courts of law.
I should like to see, and I am sure that the vast majority of my constituents would like to see, legal aid given to deserving disabled people taking action against bad employment practices rather than handed out to the Maxwell brothers or to people who want to sue the tobacco industry, having spent their entire life smoking and knowing the risk. There is a great deal that we could do with legal aid to make it more accessible to people so that we could make the justice system work rather than allow it to be the perquisite of people who could afford to pay lots of money.
In my time at the Bar, I took a percentage of cases for nothing because I believed that poor people who cannot afford to go to law should be able to do so and be represented at tribunals. I have appeared before medical appeals tribunals and other tribunals for nothing. That is the way it has to be if we are not to reduce the ludicrous charges which are passed on to the consumer of law.
Mr. Devlin: No. I am sorry. I have taken two interventions. I am trying to keep my speech short because I know that many hon. Members are anxious to have a go. If the hon. Gentleman wants to debate law with me, I will be happy to do so in a debate on a more appropriate piece of legislation.
The debate tonight is about whether we should have a commission for disabled people. I firmly believe that we should have no more commissions and that the commissions that we have should be merged. We should have something like a fair employment or equal employment rights commission. We should have no more extra bureaucracies, no more inspectors, no more codes of practice. Let us leave the people of this country to get on with the serious business of creating wealth and adding to the value and quality of life in our country.
Mr. Alfred Morris: Again, I follow the hon. Members for Stratford-on -Avon (Mr. Howarth) and for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) who, as before, made well-informed, highly principled and strongly persuasive speeches. I also wish to say a brief word about the speech by the hon. Member
Column 783for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin). The House ought to be grateful to him for letting us hear in this debate the authentic voice of Conservative opposition to the very concept of a disabled rights commission.
Having brought to this House more legislation on disability than anyone else--all of which has stood the test of time--I offer the present Minister a word of well-meant advice. It is that nothing does more to damage to the reputation of a Minister or to that of this House than to enact legislation that cannot be enforced. That is what could happen in the case of this Bill if the Government persist with their proposal for a mere advisory council in place of what we propose in new clause 1. My inclusion in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill of provisions for a strong commission to enforce the Bill's other provisions was to avoid the serious danger of unenforceable legislation.
Nothing upsets the disability organisations more than the Government's refusal give disabled people in this Bill the same protection against discrimination as the law already affords to women and to ethnic minorities. They cite that as proof positive that, in their Disability Discrimination Bill, the Government are offering only second-class rights to second-class citizens. The Minister must have heard that statement from the disability organisations, as all of us have heard it from them in their condemnation of the Bill for failing to confer full citizenship on disabled people.
The Government said year after year that to legislate on discrimination against disabled people would lead to a lawyers' paradise; that there would be a glut of litigation. But the disability rights commission we propose is about reducing, not provoking, litigation. It is about keeping differences within bounds, not about encouraging litigation. Disabled people are not looking for avoidable trouble. They have enough problems to contend with already.
The Government's Bill provides only for an individual to take an action at a tribunal or in the county court, but there will be issues to be determined that affect whole groups of disabled people and that a disabled rights commission could tackle in a constructive way. As I said at an earlier stage of the proceedings on the Bill, the Government's proposal for an advisory council is, in the words of Sir Peter Large, a whey-faced ghost of what is required.
Not only does it lack teeth: it enjoys no life of its own. It can act only in response to summonses of the Secretary of State. Its subservience is blatantly obvious in that it will be specifically excluded by statute from even daring to offer advice on any of the important issues covered by the Government' Bill. In saying that, I was reflecting the opinion in the organisations of disabled people. They reject the national disability council, and they want, in its place, the disability rights commission for which the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill provides.
The Government's attitude has not basically altered since an hour-long meeting I had with the Prime Minister after the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill was first talked out in January 1992, for which the then Member for Kingswood had to make a personal statement of apology for misleading the House. The Prime Minister said to me at our meeting:
"The proposal for a Disability Rights Commission sits uncomfortably with the Government's policy of deregulation."
Column 784That is what he said and what the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) has said again tonight. I repeat that the hon. Member has given the House tonight the authentic Conservative view to the very concept of a disability rights commission.
Mr. Barnes: The view of the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) was so strong that, logically, he should also oppose the national disability council. Even though we think that it is a limited measure, it has certain functions to fulfil and considers such things as codes of practice put to it by the Secretary of State. That is the logic of the hon. Gentleman's position, and he should oppose the Government's Bill.
Mr. Morris: I welcome the opportunity to pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend, who has done marvellous work in carrying on the battle to enact the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. I am absolutely certain that, if his energy and commitment can turn that Bill into law, then the battle between the two Bills is not yet over by a long chalk.
I agree with the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry). The lives of disabled people are very heavily regulated by the limitations imposed upon them by their disabilities. They want their very lives to be derogated by a disability rights commission with the full powers of enforcement. I return to what the Prime Minister said about the commission being inconsistent with the Government's policy of deregulation. If that is the case, then so is the Equal Opportunities Commission. That also sits uncomfortably with the Government's policy of deregulation. So does the Commission for Racial Equality. That sits uncomfortably with the Government's policy on deregulation as well.
So I use this debate to warn the millions of people who benefit from the Equal Opportunities Commission and from the work of CRE that there is an implied threat to the EOC and the CRE in what the Government are saying about our disability rights commission. I hope that people other than disabled people will wake up to the significance of this debate. I hope that they will recognise that the bodies that exist to protect them are in danger if we cannot protect the proposal that we are making for a similar body to protect disabled people.
There are many views about what precisely it was that plunged this Government to their unprecedented unpopularity last year. Different Members will have different views about that phenomenon, but all of us here should listen to the views of others as well as to our parliamentary colleagues.
In Wales the week before last, in the constituency of my good and hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), I was in discussion with constituents of his who work in the professions supplementary to medicine. Let me confide to the Minister that they were in no doubt why the Government's standing plummeted to an all-time low last year. They agreed without exception that nothing did more to damage this Government than their wholly scandalous treatment of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill.
They were disgusted, like millions of other people all over Britain, that such a Bill could lead to three Members of Parliament having to make personal statements of unreserved apology for misleading the House of