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Column 785Commons about the Bill. The best way to make good for their malfeasance is for the Government now to concede what the organisations of and for disabled people want from this debate. They want, like the vast majority of other people want, a strong and effective Disability Rights Commission that will fully enforce their rights.
The House knows my views on unfair discrimination against disabled people. It is that such discrimination is morally wrong, and that what is morally wrong ought no longer to be legally permissible. That requires a strong and effective disability rights commission, and I implore the Minister not to persist in obstructing that vitally important safeguard for disabled people.
The Bill reminds me a little of a cardboard cut-out policeman. It is cost- effective to start with, because it slows traffic and stops people speeding. Placed at the side of the road, it looks like a policeman from a distance and cars slow down. Everyone thinks what a great success it is, until they suddenly realise that it is a cardboard cut-out, and they will not be stopped or fined. Car drivers then ignore it and continue speeding. Without force, without compulsion or without legal sanction, the Bill will be as weak as that cardboard cut-out policeman. It is a public relations novelty with limited effect. Ultimately, unless we have a commission, it will appear to be ridiculous.
The Bill needs teeth. It needs a commission with the same monitoring and investigative powers as the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality, both of which support the setting up of a disability rights commission. They demonstrate that we cannot rely on good will and good practice alone for equal opportunities legislation to be adhered to.
By introducing the Bill, the Government admit that education and persuasion simply have not worked, and that legal sanction is required. Why, then, do they introduce an advisory council, which is a neutered body whose remit is purely to advise? Might it be that they could not withstand the criticisms or see their failure to adhere to UK or European legislation? I appreciate that they may be resistant to it, but the overriding importance for any legislation we pass is that it be effective and adhered to; otherwise, what is the point of passing it?
To remain consistent with existing legislation and precedent, the Government must accept this new clause. Our constitution is an unwritten and unspoken acceptance of parliamentary trust, and it requires detail and clarity. Our laws need detail and clarity, but also force. The Bill will be simply academic and will lack credibility unless we have a commission to enforce it.
It was traumatic enough to start with; the Government were forced kicking and screaming into providing it, and they introduced it in a hurried and embarrassed way. Let us hope that, when it reaches maturity, as I assume it will, it will have a few more teeth and be a little stronger and healthier than it is today.
I hope that the Government will accept the new clause.
Column 786and, at the same time, welcome the strength that they would give the Bill. It is good that the Minister has moved forward in positive ways. I hope not only that will he be able to accept the proposal in the new clauses and amendments, but that he will persuade his right hon. and hon. Friends to support them too.
The argument that we should deregulate was set forth by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin). The harsh reality is that this Government have regulated more than they have deregulated. The areas in which they have pursued deregulation have been specifically connected with market forces, yet, if one considers the proposal for this advisory council, one notices that one of its main thrusts is that the council should deal with finance rather than with the specific needs of people who have been blatantly discriminated against.
Such a proposal comes rather strange from a Government who changed the Fair Employment Agency in Northern Ireland to the Fair Employment Commission. Indeed, it is fascinating that some people in Northern Ireland are agitating for the extension of the Commission for Racial Equality to Northern Ireland. So, in future, a Chinese woman may be able to raise issues of discrimination, but if she happened to be disabled, there would be absolutely no redress in law. Per head of population, however, Northern Ireland has a higher percentage of disabled people than any other part of the United Kingdom. Considering the pressure on our time tonight, I simply urge the Government to think again. They have moved with the feeling so far and I welcome that, but I ask them to go a little bit further and to give us a commission, or a council with increased powers, which will strengthen the case of people with disability. Incidentally, it may be rather significant that the Northern Ireland Employers Forum for Disability has employed a person who once worked with the Equal Opportunities Commission in Northern Ireland so that it may forward the case of people with disabilities.
In other aspects of the Bill, one cannot find a scrap of evidence of support for the most deprived section of our community. If the views of the hon. Member for Stockton, South were accepted, those people would be in a fascinating position. Lawyers approached by disabled people could be dilatory in taking up their cases because they had a remit from the firm which could be sued for disability. There is a place for an independent commission or a council with teeth to take up the rights of people with disability. I support, on behalf of my colleagues, the cry from the Conservative and Opposition Benches that the Government should accept such a proposal with good grace and go forward with vigour and power.
Mr. Barnes: There have been some important votes tonight and we shall have some important votes tomorrow on this Bill, but the most important of them all is that on new clause 1. If the disability rights commission were to be established, it would entirely transform the nature of the Bill. The Bill would still have imperfections if definitions were not put right, and whole areas of exemptions would not be covered, but agreeing to the proposal in new clause 1 is exactly what we should do.
There are two main factors about the disability rights commission. First, it has already been stressed considerably that it would be the key enforcement agency.
Column 787It is no use giving people rights, even if under this Bill they are restricted rights, and having no means by which we may begin to put them into operation. That would be a cruel deception, and we do not want the Bill to be guilty of that. Conciliation services, legal back-up and the other items described by Opposition Members and certain Conservative Members are the key elements.
The other thing that annoys the Government, and certainly annoys the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin), is that the commission would be a dynamic force. In time, it would help to extend the areas covered by legislation, so that discrimination against disabled people did not take place.
The concept of reasonableness runs through the Bill, as it does through the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. What is reasonable now depends on current circumstances, the interpretation of the courts, back-up and understanding. That concept is not necessarily static, because the boundaries of its responsibility will be extended as fresh interpretations of that concept are made. The commission would have a key role in that regard. It would monitor, conduct research, issue reports and codes of practice, as well as publish annual reports which would be available to the House. The commission would push the fight against discrimination across different areas of responsibility.
Because of its intended work, that commission would come to realise that the Bill is subject to certain limitations and restrictions. In time, it would recommend that the enactment of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill represented the final required means of removing exemptions and clarifying definitions. The commission is the key to the Opposition's support for the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, as distinct from the Government's stance.
The commission would not be bureaucratic, nor would it dominate and control, as the hon. Member for Stockton, South has suggested. It would make reports available to the House, which would then have the opportunity to investigate and respond to them. The House might even recommend that certain of the commission's notions should not be adopted, or that the direction of the commission should be altered. The commission would do a service for disabled people; a service for others in society and a service to Parliament by resolving the problem of discrimination. A future Secretary of State for Social Security, of whichever party, will always need to be pushed and nudged to ensure that the concerns of disabled people are always before him or her at all times.
I hope that the key vote on the new clause will be carried, so that we are left with an entirely different Bill.
Mr. Hague: As hon. Members have explained, the large group of new clauses and amendments is intended to substitute a commission for the national disability council or provide that council with powers akin to those of a commission.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) reminded us that, if we pass legislation, we must ensure that means of redress and enforcement exist. I thoroughly agree that we must be confident of being able to enforce legislation that we pass. The Government have no interest, and I have no interest, in securing the passage of legislation that would not work in practice.
Column 788I believe, however, that the assumption that the creation of a commission represents the only means of approaching the problem is flawed. It is not the only way, and it is certainly not the best or most effective way, of providing for enforcement.
Hon. Members have maintained that disabled people need a commission with powers similar to the commissions that deal with discrimination in sex and race. We must decide whether disabled people will be best served by a single organisation with those powers. I ask the House to be open to the concept that there are other ways to provide for the needs of Government and Parliament to receive expert policy advice and for the needs of disabled people to be able to seek redress. 9.30 pm
There are other ways that will be highly effective in taking us towards our goal of ending discrimination that provide for much of the role carried out by commissions but are better suited to that purpose. They will be better suited because they recognise the need for a high-level organisation to advise Government about policy and to prepare clear, practical codes of practice for business and disabled people, and because they recognise and provide for the specific needs of disabled people for accessible mechanisms to resolve disputes. They will be more effective because they have been developed taking account of the social and economic circumstances of disabled people and business, and will provide technical assistance and the individual approach necessary to overcome discrimination against disabled people.
Before I discuss the Government's proposals, let me respond to one or two of the specific arguments made during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) referred to employment policies in the Post Office and in health authorities. I cannot necessarily comment in this debate on the specific examples he gave, although I can tell him that the example that he gave of Post Office drivers with diabetes is one that I am pursuing in my role not as Minister for Disabled People but as Member of Parliament for Richmond, Yorks on behalf of a constituent. I have written as a constituency Member of Parliament to the Post Office and asked it for the basis of that policy.
The employers whom my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon mentioned would be required by the Bill to consider whether a reasonable adjustment might allow disabled people to work for them. My hon. Friend cannot sustain his argument by saying that employers such as the Post Office or the national health service would flout the law proposed in the Bill. Indeed, as he said earlier in another debate, legislation itself has a great declaratory force, and I think that, especially with organisations of that type, we would discover that it has great declaratory force. The question of whether the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency permits people with diabetes to drive certain types of vehicle is exactly the type of question that the national disability council may wish to consider and advise the Government on.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), with all the consistency and force of someone who sits in the House as a nationalist, made the case for new clause 17 and for a specific organisation for Wales. The Bill relates to the whole of the United Kingdom. Although there is considerable precedent for setting up a separate Northern Ireland disability council because of the different body
Column 789of Northern Ireland legislation already in existence, and because Northern Ireland has its own advisory bodies such as the transport advisory committee and committees for the employment of disabled people, that is not true of the rest of Great Britain, where a unified approach has traditionally been taken to such matters. I said in Committee that we intend that the national disability council will include members representing Wales, Scotland and England as well as the regions of England. Experience of other Great Britain organisations--and of the House, too--suggests that Welsh Members are well able to argue their point of view and to ensure that their interests are appropriately taken into account.
There are considerable benefits in one organisation taking a consistent approach in advising on the elimination of
discrimination--for example, in ensuring that the best and most effective practice can be shared. We are not aware of a need for a separate Welsh or indeed Scottish organisation of any type. Of course, the national disability council will want to listen to the advice and the representations of local government throughout the country--throughout Wales, Scotland and England--and there is no reason why there should not be contact and discussion between the council and representatives of local government.
There are two reasons why people are asking for a commission to be created in relation to the legislation.
Mr. Wigley: Does the Minister regard the council as a fairly centralised body, or will it have offices not only in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast but in English cities, such as Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham and Leeds? What role will such offices have? It is vital that disabled people should feel that they are able to access a body that is close at hand rather than a remote body centralised in London.
Mr. Hague: I do not envisage that the body will have offices around the country, but I expect that it will take steps, through its membership and the way in which it organises its discussions and seeks information, to keep in touch with views from all over Great Britain--and, in the case of the Northern Ireland council, views from all over Northern Ireland. I agree with the hon. Member for Caernarfon that disabled people must have an easily accessible and available body to which they can turn for advice about the matters to which the Bill relates. I will return to that point in a few moments.
Mr. Hague: No, I must continue with my speech. The hon. Gentleman and I have had many constructive discussions in Committee. I will give way to him later if time permits, but I wish to afford the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) the opportunity to respond to what I have said and to enable the House to reach a decision. People seek a commission for two purposes: first, to give advice, follow progress and provide a forum and a focus of expertise; and, secondly, to help people to seek redress. As to the first purpose, I believe that our proposals for the national disability council provide for a strong and well-informed body that will advise the Government on issues relating to discrimination against disabled people.
Column 790It will be a powerful voice for disabled people that will focus on the wider issues, informed by the skills and experience of its members and by information collected by its advice and support services, to which I shall return shortly. It will also be assisted by research commissioned on its behalf and by consultation with existing advisory bodies. I am confident that it will fulfil the important advisory function every bit as well as a commission would and every bit as effectively as the National Council on Disability in America.
Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend is extremely generous. Will he explain to the House how he foresees the national disability council being able to provide advice of the reach and the quality that he requires if it does not have powers of formal investigation?
Mr. Hague: I have mentioned that it will have the range of information that is provided by research that can be commissioned on its behalf. It will be able to consult existing advisory bodies, information will flow from the operation of the advisory and support services and it will have the continuing day-to-day experience of its members--at least half of whom will be disabled people or their parents or guardians and all of whom will have a great interest in the matter. I do not think that the national disability council will be short of views, evidence and examples of what is happening around the country with which to inform its discussions about the future progress being made in tackling such matters.
The national disability council's code of practice will be invaluable in providing clear and practical advice to disabled people and to business in what could potentially become a very complex area, given the vast range of businesses that will need to comply with the legislation and the varying and possibly conflicting needs of disabled people with different impairments.
Our proposals for the national disability council to prepare codes of practice clarify the responsibility of Government and the council, while permitting an open exchange of advice on which to base policy decisions. We have no wish to silence the voice of the national disability council. It will be open to its members to recommend, for instance, that a code of practice be prepared or that an existing code requires updating. The council will be a continuing, powerful voice that will speak to the Government and have its reports laid before Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I intend to ensure that the council's membership will be such that it will be in a strong position to be that powerful voice.
Some hon. Members advocated a commission not so much to provide advice to the Government and Parliament but to help people seek redress. The Government recognise that disabled people will have a need for advice and support, but that role does not have to be played by the same body that advises the Government on wider issues. The skills needed to advise individuals and to
Column 791resolve disputes are in many ways different from those needed in giving advice and making policy recommendations.
The discrimination suffered by disabled people is different from that faced by others, and is unique. While the disadvantages may have a similar effect, it is too simplistic to suggest that the causes are the same as those that give rise to sex or race discrimination. The Bill recognises and seeks to address the wide range of causes of discrimination against disabled people.
It requires service providers and employers to go much further than they have had to do in the past to overcome discrimination against other groups. They are being asked to do more than change their attitudes to those commonly considered proper in a civilised society, as in other legislation. In this case, service providers and employers must act to ensure that their employment practices and their services are accessible to disabled people in the manner required by the Bill.
An important plank in ensuring that the Bill is enforced and effective is communicating its provisions properly to employers and service providers. The hon. Member for Monklands, West rightly spoke of the CBI's concern that clear and impartial advice should be available to employers both nationally and locally. We will discuss with the CBI and other business organisations how best to make such advice available. We will consult them on draft regulations and the operation of the legislation, and they will have an opportunity--as will other people--to comment on any codes of practice.
We know from the experience of the Americans with Disabilities Act how important it is to make information available as widely as possible. Despite all the commissions and enforcement bodies in the United States, several years after the enactment of the ADA, most of the public had not heard of it. In those circumstances, of course it is difficult to provide for enforcement.
I am determined to ensure that employers, service providers and traders across the nation will be in no doubt of what they are expected to do and why. As well as written guidance, we are considering freephone advice lines and other facilities so that employers and service providers can be sure of their responsibilities under the legislation. I am sure that the vast majority of them will want to act in accordance with the measure, provided that we make clear to them the measures passed by this House and the other place and the reasons for our doing so.
We are determined not only to communicate but to provide conciliation, advice and support. Because the Bill reflects the needs of disabled people, our proposals in those regards also take a different approach. In goods and services, we intend to provide a nationwide, locally available advice and support network whereby people can meet face to face if necessary, without travelling long distances--a point of particular concern to many disabled people. That process will inevitably involve an exploration of the facts, and local knowledge could play an important role in bringing greater understanding to resolving disputes involving physical access. We also intend that a standard investigation procedure should apply throughout the country--service providers will welcome a consistent approach, which will consequently help to maximise the number of disputes which are settled in a spirit of co-operation. Where disputes cannot be resolved in this forum, there will be recourse to the courts.
Column 792The Employment Service will be able to help employers and disabled people to identify suitable adjustments at the workplace to overcome the practical effects of a disability. This should help to avoid many disputes arising in the first place. When a complaint is made to a tribunal, there will be access to the conciliation services provided by ACAS, which has many years of experience of conciliation on employment issues. Should these not reach a resolution, there will be access to industrial tribunals, which are tried and tested mechanisms for securing employment rights.
I know that some hon. Members are concerned that the conciliation, advice and support services will not actually provide financial assistance in taking cases to industrial tribunals and courts; they fear, therefore, that disabled people will not be able to enforce their rights. I believe that those fears are unfounded. The procedures in both small claims courts and industrial tribunals are relatively simple. The decision makers in each institution are familiar with, and used to, ensuring that individuals are helped to present their case.
I would also, however, draw to the attention of the House the evidence of experience with other legislation. Experience of the Commission for Racial Equality suggests that the vast majority of cases are settled without recourse to legal action. Furthermore, of the cases brought to industrial tribunals under the Sex Discrimination Act, 90 per cent. are not assisted by the Equal Opportunities Commission.
I believe that our proposals will provide the assistance that disabled people will need without setting up the centralised bureaucratic monitoring and policing body proposed in new clause 1 and the amendments.
I also believe that conciliation, advice and support services will be more effective in achieving resolutions and encouraging employers and service providers to go that bit further to end discriminatory practices when they slip up. We cannot ignore the fact that this legislation, in giving new rights to disabled people, places considerable duties and obligations on business. It will need good guidance to comply with it--we shall give business that--and to increase its understanding and awareness of the needs of disabled people. This we intend to provide through extensive publicity, through guidance about the Act and through practical codes of practice.
I believe that the new rights can and will be enforced under the arrangements that I have set out, but that they could not be achieved without obtaining the good will and efforts of both service providers and employers. Another policing body could well prove
counter-productive. A commission positioned entirely as an advocate for disabled people would not be best placed to encourage those efforts, and as such its success, in my view, would be limited. I believe that the combination that I have set out will work. There will be a national disability council to provide continuing advice in the coming years to this House and to this and future Governments. Its membership will include strong representation of disabled people and of others with expertise. We shall make extensive efforts to communicate thoroughly with all those who have duties placed on them, to tell them what those duties are, why they have been placed on them and what, in detail, they are expected to do about them. In
Column 793addition, there will be a locally available advice and support network, where people can talk to people who know the high street in question and who know the circumstances of the employer. All these provide the right combination and will encourage the right kind of attitude across the nation to ensure that the legislation works well in practice.
I therefore hope that the House will reject the new clauses and associated amendments.
Mr. Tom Clarke: The more I listened to the debate, including the Minister's speech, the more convinced I became that the rights of disabled people will be well served by the decision of the House to endorse new clause 1. It was moved from the Opposition Benches, but it became clear during the ensuing debate that the divide was not on cross-party lines. We heard the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), whose views we deeply respect, say that rights without means to sustain them are unenforceable. Nothing that the Minister and a handful of his hon. Friends have said has altered my view about the realism of the approach of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon.
The Minister has said otherwise. He has asked the House to ignore the American experience, to ignore what has taken place in Canada, Australia and New Zealand and to ignore the impact of the Equal Opportunities Commission on gender and race discrimination. Instead, he has asked us to embrace an advisory council that is still ill-defined and still promoted by a Government who are appallingly lethargic in advancing the rights of disabled people and their carers. Given the Government's record of talking out Bill after Bill which would have delivered genuine civil rights, the Government are on trial and I do not believe that they were convincing to a national audience.
We have heard some interesting speeches. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), who makes such excellent contributions on these issues, seemed to be looking forward to a time when we have genuine subsidiarity-- which I think that the Father of the House would endorse--in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere. Contrary to the Government's claim that they are handing power to people, the Minister struggled and struggled again in resisting the new clause. He failed hopelessly in his efforts to persuade 6.5 million disabled people, 7 million carers and those who are determined to embrace civil rights that their rights would be recognised.
It would be churlish not to admit that there was some support for the Minister's view. It did not come from organisations of disabled people or for disabled people. It did not come from the two commissions which exist to ensure that there are equal opportunities and no discrimination. It did not come from the Confederation of British Industry or from the Employers Forum on Disability. It did not come from the overwhelming majority of people who responded to the consultation document which was hastily published and submitted to the British people during a recess last year. There was no support from those organisations and people for the Minister's views. There was support from the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin)--
Madam Speaker: That is not a point of order for me. The hon. Gentleman was attempting to intervene. It is up to the hon. Member who has the Floor to decide whether to allow another hon. Member to intervene.
Mr. Clarke: Thank you, Madam Speaker. I have an efficient colleague in my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who took the trouble to write down even that which was uttered by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin). What was the hon. Member for Stockton, South saying? The overwhelming body of opinion which advised the Standing Committee that considered the Bill, and which advises the House, took the view that there was a case for a commission. The hon. Gentleman said that the Opposition were offering no more than a quango. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that a quango is indeed on offer in the Division Lobby today, but it comes from Ministers on the Government Front Bench, not from my hon. Friends or from Members of other parties, to whom I pay tribute.
Right hon. and hon. Members have travelled from all parts of the United Kingdom tonight to take part in a vital vote, and I welcome their presence. They are not here to support a quango. They say that, in the light of our experience and on the basis of everything that we have talked about today-- education, vital though it is, transport, jobs and human rights--the Government have failed miserably in their attempts to reject the case for a commission.
It is true that the Minister said tonight, as he did this morning on BBC Breakfast News when he spoke from his ivory studio, as I sat elsewhere, recognising the rights that some of us will introduce in a few months' time --or no more than a few years' time--that we would not have a commission, as we rightly have for race and gender, but a little advisory body. He suddenly decided, almost as a flash of inspiration, when questioned on television, that the citizens advice bureaux would have a network of opportunity, which had not been mentioned hitherto in any of our discussions. That is an interesting development.
The Minister did not say that on Second Reading. He did not say it during the weeks of Standing Committee sittings. Not until this morning, and confirmed tonight, did he announce that he intended to depend so firmly on the activities of that admirable organisation, the CAB. I shall tell the House why he did not say it--
Mr. Hague rose --
Column 795Far from suggesting that our new clause is unworkable, the Minister knows that to make further demands on the CAB is unworkable, not least because of the staff reductions that have taken place from one constituency to another as a result of Government policy.
Mr. Hague: The hon. Gentleman and I, and our colleagues in Committee, discussed the Bill for five weeks earlier this year. In Committee, I set out my proposals and how they related to the CAB, and I explained the discussions in which the Government are currently engaged with them. Does the hon. Gentleman have no recollection of that at all? It was clearly set out in Committee.
Mr. Clarke: I have a full recollection of the ideas that the Minister floated as to the "options"--as he called them--that were before the Committee. Not only do I have a vivid recollection of the fact that there was no agreement, but I challenged the Minister--I will give way to him even in the closing minutes of our debate--to say whether the CAB agreed at any time to accept that responsibility. Of course they have not, because of the reductions in resources and manpower.
In a letter of 27 March, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux said to my hon. Friend the Member for Erdington: "As you know, NACAB strongly supports the call from many organisations for a Disability Commission to ensure enforcement of disabled people's rights. Without a body along the lines of the Commission for Racial Equality or the Equal Opportunities Commission, disabled people will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to enforce their new (albeit limited number of) rights."
That does not sound to me like an organisation determined to co-operate with the new ideas that the Minister has produced. I end by referring, not to hon. Members' important views--if they will forgive me--but to two recent opinions that have been expressed to me as I have travelled around the country, in support of the commission and of civil rights. A woman in Leicester told me last Friday, while sitting in a wheelchair, that her dream was to travel to London--something that she had never achieved and will not achieve because of the limited transport provisions in the Bill. A man from Birmingham told me that he had gone to see a film, as all of us are entitled to do, and was told at the door, "We have three wheelchairs here already." He replied, "I am not a wheelchair--I am a person." On behalf of people like that--6.5 million of our fellow citizens--I plead with the House to endorse our new clause.
Question put , That the clause be read a Second time:--
The House divided : Ayes 286, Noes 299.
Division No. 117] [10.00 pm
Column 795Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy