Previous Section Home Page

Column 707

distinguished speech in this debate, won enormous respect for his constancy in support of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. That support made it crystal clear long before today that he is opposed to differentiating between firms that employ more or less than 20 employees. That is also the view of nearly all the organisations of and for disabled people.

Did the Government consult before today's debate Sir Peter Large for his view? It was Sir Peter Large whom I appointed, as then Minister in 1979, to chair the Committee on Restrictions Against Disabled People. That Committee recommended as long ago as 1982 that we should have legislation on the statute book to make it unlawful to discriminate unfairly against disabled people. The Minister must surely agree that Sir Peter Large, who has served so long and with such distinction the Disablement Income Group and, for an even longer period, the Joint Committee on Mobility for Disabled People, is well worth listening to on the subject of this debate.

Has the Minister consulted Rachel Hirst or Richard Wood, of the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People? They are in no doubt that it will make bad law to distinguish between firms that employ more and those that employ fewer than that number. Have the Government spoken to Professor Ian Bruce of the Royal National Institute for the Blind, or to Ann Robinson of Scope?

Not only they, but all the representatives of the major disability organisations have said over and over again that it would make discrimination in employment worse to distinguish between employers with fewer than 20 employers and those with more than 20. We hear that view not only from distinguished representatives of disabled people--those to whom I have referred among many others--but from many employers who are strongly opposed to the drawing of any such distinction. The Employers Forum on Disability, much to its credit, has said that it is wrong. This is our opportunity to correct a part of the Bill that is resented and bitterly criticised throughout the disability world.

There is deep resentment of unfair discrimination in all its forms. There is also resentment about condescension towards disabled people and about patronising attitudes towards them. Is it not patronising to act as though the views of Sir Peter Large, Rachael Hirst, Richard Wood, Ian Bruce, Ann Robinson and other leading representatives of disabled people count for very little? It must be bad government not to listen to people who are experts in any policy area--and who is more expert about the effects of discrimination than those who suffer from it? We could have tackled the problem in 1982 by making discrimination unlawful on the basis of Sir Peter Large's report. Yet, disturbingly, we are now introducing a very painful sort of new discrimination. The House of Commons accepts that there are groups in society that need protection if they are not to have their problems compounded by unmerited discrimination. If the Bill stays as it is, the House will be drawing a distinction between discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, as compared with discrimination against disabled people. If it is right for people who are black and from the ethnic minorities to have protection regardless of how many people their employer employs, it must be right to protect disabled people irrespective of the number of people a firm employs.

Column 708

This is our first debate on the Report stage of the Bill. I appeal to Ministers to think carefully about the strong reservations that have been expressed from their side of the House, and to all the compelling points made by my hon. Friends, as well as by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley)--I regard him as an hon. Friend, too. I am sure that people who are not committed to any particular point of view will accept that their arguments were worthy of support by the House.

Let us start this Report stage in the right way by accepting the proposition that it is wrong and indefensible to distinguish between employers in the way proposed by the Government.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale): I should like to place on record my support for the new clause. Other people outside are beginning to call the Bill the "Disability Discrimination Justification Bill", and for good reasons. One of those reasons is the exemption for small firms. The Bill has more or less become an exemption charter. It is riddled with caveats, qualifications, exemptions and let-out clauses. The exemption for small firms is a stark example of that. The exemption is wrong for three main reasons. First, there can be no degrees of equality. Someone is either equal or not equal. People are not more equal than others. That is why the small firms exemption is wrong. It is absurd and legally inept to have different rights for people, based only on how many people they work with.

Secondly, at a stroke, the exemption undermines the argument and necessity for the measure. Thirdly, the exemption is superfluous. The Bill's main exemption clause, which includes the words "reasonable accommodation", can cover all the things that the Government are worried about. If a small firm is suffering undue hardship and unreasonable costs, under "reasonable accommodation" it can claim that it is not liable That should meet everyone's concerns. What evidence is there of those concerns? It is not coming from businesses. For instance, the Employers Forum on Disability supports the removal of the exemption. I agree that it is made up of larger companies, but, as other hon. Members have said, it includes firms like McDonald's, which have franchises. I cannot understand how a firm with such a large amount of money and such large resources can be exempted when it has franchises that employ fewer than 20 people. Where is the evidence from other countries that the Government keep on putting forward? In the United States of America, thousands and thousands of small businesses and shops are benefiting from the disabled persons legislation that was passed there. One example is a small pizza delivery company employing between 15 and 20 employees in New York. It decided to install a minicom for its deaf customers. Its profits have risen enormously. Another example is an attorney's practice in Houston, again with 15 to 20 employees.

I cannot understand why the Government have gone for 20 and not 15. I would prefer them to go for 15 now, and then to reduce it to none. That is the compromise that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) was talking about. I hope that the Government will accept that.

That small attorney's practice installed ramps, lifts, surfaces with bold colours and tactile variations for the blind. The word got around that it was disability-friendly. It had a totally untapped client group who wanted its

Column 709

services, and its profitability went up. All that happened because of compliance with--not avoidance of--the legislation.

That is the difference between the USA and this country. Before the legislation was enacted there, people were talking about the benefits. They did not talk about its negative aspects. This Government, however, are concentrating on the negative aspects of compliance with the legislation. The USA talked up how businesses could benefit from the legislation.

The Government offer no incentives. Again, the USA offered incentives to small firms. The only thing that the Government are saying is that small firms can opt out if they have fewer than 20 employees. We want from the Government the positive approach that was taken in the United States, but we are not getting it.

There have even been cases in the United States of small firms employing fewer than 15 people which wanted to opt in because they could see the benefits of doing so. They introduced facilities within their companies to cater for disabled people.

The Bill sends out the wrong signals to people throughout Britain. More important, it sends out the wrong signals to disabled people. I repeat that the exemption is unnecessary. It is covered by the "reasonable accommodation" provision. I certainly hope that the Government will take that point into account. I support the new clause, and I hope that other hon. Members will do likewise. 4.30 pm

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood): I suspect that this time last year no one would have thought that we would be here debating an exemption for small firms from a Disability Discrimination Bill introduced by the Government: certainly, 12 months ago no one said to me, "Hang on for 12 months and we shall have a Government Bill." No one suggested that the first debate on Report would be on whether small firms should be excluded. We did not expect that the campaign by organisations of and for disabled people such as the Rights Now campaign would be so successful in forcing the Government, first, to publish the consultation document and then to introduce a Bill of their own.

I speak as someone who is bitterly disappointed with most of the content of the Government's Bill. I do not disguise that fact, but there is a measure of success in today's debate--the very fact that the Government now recognise that legislation is required. A mere 12 months ago, they did not believe that we should legislate on discrimination against disabled people in employment or anywhere else. Twelve months ago they were not talking about rights for disabled people at work. Indeed, to talk about the need for rights and to talk the language of legislation to secure equal opportunities was to invite comments that one was obsessed with being politically correct, that one was out to bankrupt the economy or similarly foolish comments.

I have grave reservations about the Government's Bill, especially clause 7, but we must acknowledge the movement that has taken place. Although the principal tribute should be paid to organisations and individuals that

Column 710

have campaigned for the full civil rights Bill, I acknowledge that many members of the Government and other Conservative Members have consistently supported such legislation.

Yes, there has been movement; yes, the Government now finally talk the language of rights for disabled people; yes, the Government are finally saying that we should legislate to secure those rights; and, yes, there has been a shift. But we find some odd things in the Bill. We are debating the exemption for small firms. Why on earth should firms employing fewer than 20 employees be exempt from the employment provisions of the Bill? I am happy to give way if a Conservative Member would care to intervene and offer some reason for the exemption.

I note that so far in the debate no one has offered a reason why there should be exemptions. We have had a flood of speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House who have said that to exempt small firms makes no sense whatever. I am awaiting a speech in which someone will say why there should be an exemption for small firms. I am more than happy to give way at this point if a Conservative Member would care to explain. Clearly, there is not enormous enthusiasm in the Chamber to do so.

Mr. Barnes: Perhaps there is some movement among Conservative Members. Perhaps their silence means that they are going through a process that leads them to realise that there is a point in the arguments that have been advanced in the House. After all, the Government made two adjustments to the Bill in Committee by making it apply to Northern Ireland and to property provisions. They now have a chance to say that there is some sense in the proposals before the House.

Mr. Berry: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out again that the Government have moved their position in relation to discrimination against disabled people. In Committee, there was movement--not a lot, but there was some--and today there may be further movement.

Mr. David Congdon (Croydon, North-East): Will the hon. Gentleman cast his mind back to consideration of his Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill in Committee last year? Will he remind me whether that Bill included a restriction on small firms before it was amended?

Mr. Berry: The hon. Gentleman is correct. The Bill, which I took over from my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), included an exemption for small firms. [Interruption.] I have said that the hon. Gentleman was correct, but one of the first things that members of the Committee who supported the Bill did was to propose that there be no such exemption, and I moved that it be deleted. It seemed to the supporters of the Bill--and to most Members present--that there was no reason to exclude small firms. Small firms are not excluded from the provisions of the Race Relations Act 1976 or the Sex Discrimination Act 1986. If they are not excluded from that anti-discrimination legislation, why should they be excluded from legislation that aims to outlaw discrimination against disabled people? Why should disabled people be treated as second-class citizens? Sponsors of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill did not support the exemption for small firms precisely because they believe that disabled people should be treated equally.

Column 711

The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Congdon) gives me the opportunity to refer to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. The Bill now being promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) does not exclude small firms for the simple reason that if equal rights in employment are right and proper for women and for black people, they must also be right for disabled people. All organisations of and for disabled people are outraged at the suggestion that disabled people should be treated in a second-class manner in employment.

Mr. Barnes: Is not the purpose of Committee to examine measures and to propose amendments to consider the means by which improvements can be made? Debates in Committee are important, and the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) was considerably improved by the time it was considered on Report. I picked up the amended measure to promote the current Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, and it would be valuable if we could debate its provisions on employment and other matters to see whether polishing and improvement are necessary.

Mr. Berry: Reference has been made on two occasions now to the Committee's discussions of my Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill last year. In relation to that--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. The fact that reference has been made to that Bill does not mean that we should go down that route. The hon. Gentleman should return to the amendment. 4.45pm

Mr. Berry: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

If the exclusion of small firms were so important, why did not the Government raise that point at any stage in our debates on the employment provisions of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill last year? We had an extensive discussion on the use of legislation to outlaw discrimination in employment against disabled people, but not once--this is a matter of record and can be checked--did the then Minister express concern that small firms should be exempted. I do not want to repeat important arguments made last year on the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill and it would be out of order for me to do so, but there is something strange about the Government now saying that we should exclude small firms from the employment provisions of this Bill when that proposal was not made in Standing Committee last year. I wonder why they are doing so. Could it be because of the outcome of the consultation exercise? One outcome of the Government killing off the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill last year was that they consulted on anti-discrimination legislation and focused on employment.

It is extremely important for us to recall what the Government said about the employment provisions of their plans at the time and to note the responses of those who were consulted. The Government state in paragraph 2.37 of their consultation paper:

"The Government proposes that a new right would apply to people who are or would be employees or apprentices and to people who contract personally to provide services. The right would apply to work at establishments in the United Kingdom. This would be consistent with the approach under race and sex discrimination."

Column 712

The small firms exemption is not consistent with that approach. In paragraph 2.39, the Government continue:

"Research and experience indicate large organisations are more likely to have positive policies for employing disabled people and therefore should experience little difficulty in complying with the new right. Smaller firms could find it disproportionately difficult to consider and implement some of the adjustments that may be required under the new right."

The argument seems to be that we need not worry about large firms because they are doing okay and research shows that they are more likely to have positive policies already--that is what the Government are saying.

The Government's consultation document makes an important point--that one should address legislation to small firms as well as larger firms. Finally, in paragraph 2.41, the Government offer not a firm recommendation but the comment:

"Views are sought on the exclusion of firms with fewer than 20 employees in line with the quota scheme."

Most hon. Members will probably agree that the scheme is not a good precedent, so one can leave that comment aside.

The Government were offered views on the exclusion of firms with fewer than 20 employees. Right hon. and hon. Members who have studied the red book, "An Analysis of the Responses"--I always enjoy reading the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Red Book, but this book has become almost as interesting-- will know that table 26 analyses what consultees said. Let us ask ourselves the question, "How many employers felt that it was really important that the Government's Bill excluded smaller firms?" Was it 5,000, 2,000, 500, 100, 50 or five?

One employer in the United Kingdom, when responding to a Government consultation document that asked, "How do you feel about excluding firms with fewer than 20 employees?" said that it did not like it. Most employers did not have much of a view on the subject--one employer amounts to 3 per cent. of those who responded.

If consultation exercises, spending taxpayers' money on such consultation documents and producing responses like that mean anything, how can the Government ignore the very obvious point that only one employer felt that it was necessary--

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. James Paice): If the hon. Gentleman is going to quote from the Red Book and that table, will he tell the House how many employers' organisations supported or opposed the exemption for small firms?

Mr. Berry: I am always happy to assist.

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Berry: I have just given way to the Minister and I will happily give way to my hon. Friend in a moment. I should have thought that the Minister might make such points in his speech, but he asked me a factual question and I have no problem in giving him the answer.

In table 26, six employers' associations wanted the exclusion of small firms and three did not--

Mr. Paice: Precisely.

Mr. Berry: Will the Minister allow me to finish reading from table 26? In answer to the question, "Should

Column 713

small firms be excluded?", six employers associations said yes, three said no and 30, the overwhelming majority, had no comment--precisely, Minister.

Mr. Corbett: I am sure that my hon. Friend heard me say that one should not set too much store by these figures, but perhaps he would like to remind the Minister of the fact that the organisations that speak for the majority of employers--the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors and the Employers' Forum on Disability--are all of one mind and believe that there should be no exemption for small firms.

Mr. Berry: My hon. Friend is correct. The Confederation of British Industry is on record as stating firmly that there should be no exemption for small firms, as is the Institute of Directors. I have grave reservations about the views of the IOD on disability matters generally, but as my hon. Friend said, it opposes a small firms exemption, as do the Employers Forum on Disability and the Law Society, which represents many small firms, as well as many other employers' organisations.

Since the Minister pressed me, it is a matter of fact that only six, or 15 per cent., of employers' associations supported the small firms exemption and I am grateful to him for enabling me to clarify that.

Reference has been made to the United States and the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act provides an exemption, which stands at firms employing 15 or fewer people. It has been asked why if 15 is good enough for the United States, should we not accept the same figure. Reference has also been made to the Minister's visit to the United States, and I am sure that many other right hon. and hon. Members have visited the United States. I was there a fortnight ago and had several meetings with the principal architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and many others.

The point that is not made is that, in framing the Americans With Disabilities Act, supporters were trying to ensure similar anti- discrimination legislation for disabled people as that provided under the Civil Rights Act 1964 dealing with discrimination on the grounds of gender and race. The figure 15 is included in title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act for the simple reason that the terms "employer" and "employee" used in title 7 of the Civil Rights Act have been transferred lock, stock and barrel to title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The exclusion from the Americans with Disabilities Act of small firms that employ fewer than 15 workers exists simply because it was in the Civil Rights Act. Disability groups and organisations campaigning for equal rights for disabled people argued for equal treatment.

I see no logic in having a small firms exemption. Labour Members are not totally out of touch with what happens on the other side of the Atlantic. We know that the exemption exists in America because those who drafted the Americans with Disabilities Act were anxious to have the same provisions as existed in their civil rights legislation, which deals with discrimination on the grounds of gender and race, and they urged equal treatment on the American Congress. In opposing any

Column 714

small firms exemption, I argue for treatment for disabled people that is equal to the treatment provided in our other

anti-discrimination legislation--no more and no less.

Unless the Bill is amended, we shall have the ludicrous position whereby small firms cannot legally discriminate on the grounds of race and gender-- I am delighted about that--but can on the ground of disability. That lack of equal treatment is fundamentally unacceptable.

Had any Tory Members taken up my invitation to intervene and offer a reason for this provision, they might have said that small firms would experience difficulties with the costs of what the Bill calls "reasonable adjustments" --modifying the workplace to enable disabled people to take up employment opportunities--or what the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill calls "reasonable accommodations". As the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) said at the beginning of the debate, clause 6 provides specific protection by deploying the concept of reasonableness.

The Government make it perfectly clear, and I agree with them, that the adjustments required at the workplace to enable disabled people to secure rights at work should be reasonable. They will specify in regulations what is "reasonable", just as they would in the case of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East. The hon. Member for Exeter is absolutely correct to say that the concept of "reasonable" in clause 6 provides all the protection for small firms that is necessary.

Mr. Wigley: Does the hon. Gentleman recall experience in the United States that, where "reasonable expenditure"--that was the term used--was undertaken to accommodate the needs of disabled people in their workplace, average costs amounted to $200 and, in 68 per cent. of instances, the total cost was less than $500? That is not an excessive burden on any company.

Mr. Berry: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have with me the latest publication of the Job Accommodation Network in the United States, published by the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, which includes precisely the figure to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It says that 68 per cent.--more than two thirds--of all the adjustments and accommodations made under the Americans with Disabilities Act cost less than $500. Our exchange rate fluctuates, but let us assume that that is about £350. The hon. Member for Exeter quoted the Minister's comments on Second Reading to emphasise the fact that the Minister had stressed that reasonable accommodation costs, in many cases, nothing and, in some cases, very little. Interestingly, the latest analysis of the cost of adjustments made in the United States as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act showed that, in 18 per cent. of cases, no costs were incurred; in 68 per cent. of cases, costs of up to $500 were incurred; in 78 per cent. of cases, costs of up to $1,000 were incurred; in 86 per cent. of cases, costs of up to $2,000 were incurred; and only 5 per cent. of adjustments cost more than $5,000, or £3,000 to £4,000.

The story does not end there. Throughout this debate, not just today but in recent years, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) has consistently said

Column 715

that there are not only costs but benefits. The Job Accommodation Network asked firms what were the benefits of making adjustments. The survey asked

"which of the following benefits did your company realise?" These are the latest figures covering the past two years or so of operation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and 52 per cent. of companies responded "yes" to

"Allowed you to hire or retain a qualified employee". If an employee becomes disabled or suffers an impairment at work, and if the employer provides reasonable adjustments to enable the person to continue to work, the employer saves money on retraining and redundancy costs and retains a skilled worker. In answer to that first question in the survey, the majority of employers said that there were significant benefits in retaining a disabled person. The benefits that employers typically mention, in addition to retaining qualified employees, are: saving on cost of training a new employee; saving on workers' compensation and other insurance costs and saving as a result of increasing the workers' productivity. Employers in the United States are now asked to put a dollar value on the benefits of providing reasonable accommodation or making reasonable adjustments.

I have the document before me and can make it available to the Minister, but his civil servants have frequently visited Washington and I am sure that it is already available to him. He will know that the current estimates of the Job Accommodation Network are that for every dollar spent on providing reasonable accommodation for disabled employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers save $27; employers receive $27- worth of benefits. Before people go running away with the idea that providing reasonable accommodation only incurs costs and never confers benefits, they should take on board the evidence from the United States, which shows explicitly that costs are often very modest and benefits are often substantial.

Mr. Barnes: The example of Macdonalds in Britain has already been given. The Bill, inadequate though it may be, will apply to Macdonalds, which because of its provision of goods and services, will incur some costs. The costs, however, will be outweighed by the returns that my hon. Friend has mentioned. The Bill applies to companies in other matters, so why should we not say to Macdonalds that its employees should be provided with access to work? That extra cost, if any, would be very marginal.

5 pm

Mr. Berry: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have been partly surprised and partly angry about debates on the cost of legislation in recent months. The compliance cost assessment of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill was simply fraudulent. More significantly, people have always looked at the costs and have ignored the benefits. To the best of my knowledge, the Government have not yet offered any estimate of the benefits of anti-discrimination legislation on, for example, employment. I would be happy to give way if any hon. Member would like to offer advice on the issue.

Indeed, a compliance cost assessment of the Government's Bill has been made but, to the best of my knowledge, no estimate has been made of its benefits. Nobody would produce a budget without looking at the

Column 716

benefits as well as the costs--not if they were producing it seriously. No employer would consider expenditure without looking at the benefit that that expenditure may confer. No economist would dream of looking at costs and excluding benefits.

It is extraordinary that we still face the ridiculous situation in which Conservative Members--if one eventually contributes to the debate--tell us that small firms have to be excluded because of the costs that the legislation would impose. I suspect that, yet again, there will be no acknowledgement of the importance of benefits. Why, I ask myself, have no estimates of benefits been prepared by the Government? Why has the Department of Employment confined itself simply to looking at the costs of anti-discrimination legislation and not its potential benefits?

It is absurd. We live in a society in which we happily throw away £30 billion keeping people out of work, instead of investing that money in jobs, which explains our culture. We never look at the benefits of creating employment; we only ever look at ways of trying to deny people jobs. It cannot be overstated that, if the Government were serious about this matter, they would be considering the benefits involved.

The small firms exclusion is supported not only on the grounds of the costs of adjustments implied by the Bill but it is also sometimes said that small firms cannot respond to complaints. The idea is that, even if somebody's complaint about discrimination was unfounded, the firm would have to make some response and, in extremis, it might end up at an industrial tribunal. It is sometimes argued--I am doing my best to try to identify arguments that others should be putting--that the very fact that complaints may be made imposes a burden on the small firm because it would have to respond to those complaints. Under anti-discrimination legislation that seeks to deal with gender and race discrimination, we do not worry about the possibility of complaints. We do not say that small firms should not have to deal with complaints on the grounds of gender or racial discrimination, so why on earth should we use that excuse for disability? We do not exempt small firms from having to deal with a whole range of requirements, such as health and safety, building regulations and so on, so why should we select this area of discrimination for special concern?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) said, a properly staffed and resourced commission with powers to investigate complaints--such as the commission in the United States--could deal with frivolous complaints quickly and protect small firms or, indeed, any large firm. It would be extraordinary to argue that small firms should be excluded from employment provisions because even though they are able to deal with complaints of discrimination on the grounds of gender and race, they cannot deal with complaints of discrimination on the grounds on disability. In conclusion-- [Hon. Members:-- "Hear, hear."] I am faced with an interesting situation. I have been inviting Conservative Members to speak. The hon. Member for Croydon, North-East made an important point, with which I dealt and agreed. There was no dispute between us and, as a long-standing supporter of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, the hon. Gentleman knows that what I say is exactly correct. I have been trying to identify arguments that Conservative Members would deploy in support of

Column 717

the small firms exemption should they be minded to do so, but I have noted that, so far, not a single Conservative Member has been minded so to do. I have not heard any other arguments in favour of the small firms exclusion. I honestly believe that, briefly, I have dealt with the usual arguments that are deployed. I think that, equally briefly, I have pointed out that the arguments that are occasionally deployed in favour of a small firms exclusion are totally without foundation.

I have also pointed out--I hope that it is taken on board by the Minister-- that those who have responded to the Government's invitation to comment on proposals have not been jumping up and down and saying, "Please can we exclude small firms?" Only employer one wanted a small firms exclusion and only 15 per cent. of employers' associations wanted it. The clear majority of firms do not want such an exclusion or, frankly, do not care one way or the other.

I very much hope that the Government have listened to the consultees who responded to the White Paper in the summer, I hope that they have listened to the debate on Second Reading, in Committee and again here today and I hope that they will acknowledge that equity demands that employment provisions should be essentially the same as those in the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act. There is no small firms exclusion in those Acts and there should not be in this Bill.

The Bill's employment provisions would be unacceptable if a small firms exclusion were to be retained. Will the Government please indicate as quickly as possible that they are convinced by those arguments, will show further movement on the issue and will recognise what disabled people have a right to demand--no small firms exclusion?

Mr. David Congdon : I listened carefully to the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry). He put his case well--I hope that that comment does not undermine his position in any way--and he was right to praise the Government for their response to the difficulties that he encountered last year when he introduced the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. I did not think then that I would be speaking on Report on a Government Bill on disability discrimination, and I should like to thank the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People for all he has done to enable us to reach this stage.

It is partly for that reason that I do not want to be difficult about part II of the Bill. That is also why I intervened earlier on the hon. Member for Kingswood, because I genuinely could not remember exactly how we started out, many months ago, when we first discussed exemptions. Having asked that question, I now remember which way round the debate went in Committee.

To begin with, the Bill contained an exemption for small businesses. I was relatively happy about that because I think that certain aspects of small businesses are different from those of larger ones. I accept, of course, that we could debate the extent to which those differences are significant and the extent to which the Bill should take account of them.

I now recall, having had my memory jogged, that an amendment was moved early on in Committee to remove that exemption. I had some difficulty with that, because I

Column 718

was ambivalent about its removal. I am still somewhat ambivalent about that amendment to the Bill. I accept the logic of the argument that all firms should be included in the legislation, but it is important to consider carefully the needs of small businesses. I would therefore like my hon. Friend the Minister to spell out in detail exactly why the Government believe that small firms should be granted an exemption. In particular, I should like to know why that decision was reached when, as the hon. Member for Kingswood has pointed out, businesses were hardly unanimous in opposition to their inclusion in the Bill. That is an important point to consider. I noted Ministers' arguments that small firms should be excluded because they are not equipped to deal with complaints because they do not have personnel departments. I previously worked for a large company, and I am not sure about the truth of that argument. Large companies may have the apparatus and resources to deal with complaints, but that machinery is sometimes overly bureaucratic, and it can take a long time for a complaint to be dealt with. At the other end of the spectrum, I am conscious that firms employing one or three employees do not have the resources to deal with any complaints. One can therefore construct an argument--I would not wish to push it too far--that an employee limit should be set at which certain firms should be exempt from the Bill. I am not suggesting that firms employing 20 employees should be exempt, but I certainly accept that certain circumstances should be taken into account when considering firms that employ one man, two men or two women and a dog.

The reasonableness test could counter that argument, because it is important to apply that test to any aspect of legislation. I accept that the Bill does that, but the new clause tabled by my hon. Friends and I, and other hon. Members, was designed to achieve even more than that provided by the routine reasonableness test in the Bill. It recognises that, notwithstanding that test, the Bill should be extended a bit further in relation to smaller firms. It would give the Secretary of State the power to specify what would be reasonable conduct by those firms. I should like the Minister to explain specifically why he feels unable to accept the new clause. The new clause is important, because it was designed to try to break through the log jam that had been created by the argument that because small firms are different, they should therefore be exempt from the Bill. People recognise, however, that any cut-off is arbitrary. Some people have argued for a lower employee limit, but, as a compromise, I believe that small firms, especially those with just one, two or three employees, should be treated a little differently in recognition of their special circumstances. I hope that the Minister will consider that option.

I am pleased that Government amendment No. 122 removes any ambiguity about whether the exemption limit could be raised upwards. I know that assurances on that have been given before, but it is important to be unambiguous and to make it clear that the only change to the limit would be downwards.

5.15 pm

If the Minister feels unable to accept new clause 6, I urge him to give serious consideration to whether a commitment should be made as soon as possible--in the

Column 719

House or elsewhere--to lower the employee limit from 20. The danger is that the existing limit will be considered as set in tablets of stone. If my hon. Friend is wrong and we find that, in the light of experience, the Bill, once enacted, does not cause any particular problems for firms employing between 20 and 25 people, but causes problems to disabled people who want to work for firms employing between 15 and 20 people or 10 and 20 people, the limit should be lowered. That change would be based on practice rather than theory. Surely the ultimate goal must be to ensure that all firms treat disabled people fairly when they seek employment. We may argue about the pace of change, but the goal must be to ensure that no employee, disabled or otherwise, is discriminated against when seeking employment.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): I must first thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving instructions to pull the shades down against the glare of the sun.

I have some sympathy for what the hon. Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Congdon) said about companies which employ two or three people--be they one man, two women and a dog, or whatever. I accept that such firms may encounter difficulties in some circumstances.

New clause 16, which is grouped with new clause 6, is designed to end discrimination relating to all firms, large or small. We have a long history of Administrations who have sought to provide legislative exemptions for small firms. Today's debate reminds me of the Industrial Relations Act 1971, which sought to introduce labour law directly into industrial relations. That Act also provided an exemption for small firms. I thought that that was a mistake, just as I think that clause 7 is a dreadful mistake on the present Government's part.

The 1971 Act had some good parts to it, because it introduced disciplinary and grievance procedures, but those procedures should have been made available to those working in small firms as well. Similarly, it is utterly wrong to discriminate against employees of small firms.

As for employment opportunities for disabled citizens in small firms, medium or large ones, I am confident that the experience I have gained in my constituency is no different from that gained by other right hon. and hon. Members. Some of my local firms, large and small, have an excellent record on employing people with disabilities. One that always comes to mind is Lithgow Electronics, which, given its total work force, employs a large number of disabled people. Those people with disabilities are treated in exactly the same way as those fortunate enough not to suffer from disabilities. That company in my constituency provides us with a remarkable and heart-warming record in that regard.

There are also smaller companies in Inverclyde which are only too anxious to provide good terms of employment for their employees with disabilities. It is likely that such firms--whether in Inverclyde, elsewhere in Scotland, south of the border or in Northern Ireland--do not require the type of regulations that would be imposed of new clause 16 were introduced into the Bill.

However, in Inverclyde and elsewhere in Scotland, there are small firms and large firms which have an extremely poor record regarding the employment of people with disabilities. New clause 16 would provide

Column 720

many people with employment opportunities that are denied them now--with reasonable pay and good conditions of employment which do not treat people with disabilities as second-class employees, as has all too often been the case.

I appreciate that there may be some difficulties with new clause 16 for small companies, but they need only consider other small companies in their region with excellent industrial relations records to dispel some of their anxieties about the external checks and restraints which would be brought into small companies to defend the needs and interests of employees with disabilities.

Such employers need to be guided and, if possible, helped financially, to recruit, train and employ disabled people. It is important that those external checks and balances are introduced to defend the interests of employees of small companies because it can be exceedingly difficult for such employees in small firms to draw attention to their grievance if they believe that they are being unfairly treated by the employer. It is better that employees in those circumstances should be protected by what I have called elsewhere "external checks and balances" on the discrimination exercised by employers.

Small companies employing fewer than 20 people have little or no experience of trade union involvement and trade union representation of employees, so it is important that we introduce other measures by which such employees' interests may be defended.

If costs are an issue, as the hon. Member for Croydon, North-East seems to suggest, I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) said earlier: that issue can be considered in terms of the costs and benefits to employers of taking on people with disabilities. If there are problems of costs in respect of people with learning disabilities, cannot the Government and the European Union provide financial assistance to implement training programmes and introduce modifications to a company's premises and equipment? Over the years, research has shown that people with learning disabilities can carry out many of the functions in a company which are performed by others with no disabilities. Given the right training, they can acquire a range of occupational skills. Such training may be more extensive than that needed to bring other employees to a defined benchmark, but, with the right training and with the right modifications to plant and equipment, it can be achieved. I wonder whether the Minister has taken advice about whether help can be obtained by such small firms by way of European structural funds.

Next Section

  Home Page