Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Berry: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Paice: Of course, I will happily give way.

Mr. Berry: Can the Minister give one example of where I have misinterpreted the figures in the Red Book? Just one example.

Mr. Paice: I was just about to do that.

The hon. Gentleman again paraded the fact that the majority of respondents, be they employers or employers' organisations, did not say that they were in favour of the exemption.

Mr. Berry: Correct.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He can clearly still read his book.

Column 732

The fact is, as the hon. Gentleman said this afternoon, that the consultation document clearly set out the proposition that businesses employing fewer than 20 people would be exempt.

Another hon. Member--I have forgotten which one--said that he found it surprising that organisations are not usually backward in coming forward when they feel strongly about something--

Mr. Corbett: It was my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson).

Mr. Paice: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not remembering him.

The fact remains that, when one starts off with a positive proposition and people do not respond to say that they do not like it, it is reasonable to assume that they are agnostic. If they felt clearly that the proposition that we were making was wrong, they would have said so. I am the first to recognise that they did not take the opportunity to say that they like it, but they did not say that they did not like it. [Interruption.]

It is no use hon. Members starting to suggest that perhaps the organisations did not bother to reply. They did reply to the overall consultation document, but chose not to express a view on this particular issue. Therefore, the least that one can conclude is that they did not have strong feelings one way or the another: otherwise, they would have so done. If that is the case, I come back to the point that twice as many employers' organisations supported the exclusion as opposed it. That was the point that the hon. Gentleman tried to ridicule when I intervened on him earlier.

Mr. Berry: Will the Minister acknowledge that the employers associations that supported the small firms exclusion amounted to 15 per cent. of respondents to that question?

Mr. Paice: We can all do the maths, but the fact is that the organisations that did not respond on that issue clearly did not feel strongly about it one way or the other.

Another aspect of the figures that has been used this afternoon is the fact that small firms play an increasing role in the labour market. Nevertheless, as drafted, the Bill covers some 83 per cent. of employees, or job opportunities. I must be straightforward and tell the House that, if the Government's amendment proposed tomorrow are passed, that figure will drop to 80 per cent., but it is in that bracket.

Mr. Alan Howarth: Will my hon. Friend accept that the other 20 per cent. really do matter equally as much? Will he further accept that, in Australia and New Zealand, which do not accept that it should be lawful for any firm of any size to discriminate unjustifiably against disabled people, it is not probable that firms will be driven out of business wholesale? Will he accept that there are some 6.5 million disabled people as against the very small number of unreconstructed organisations whose objections he is citing, and that it is for the Government to lead in that field?

Mr. Paice: I was going to come in a moment or two to some of my hon. Friend's specific comments. Of course I understand the points he made, and if he will allow me

Column 733

just a moment or two, I will respond to them all during the course of my remarks, which I need to pursue at this moment.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Paice: This must be the last time.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I appreciate the Minister giving way, and apologise for the fact that I was not here earlier for the debate, for reasons that the House will understand.

Does the Minister accept that, taking global figures, one may discover that 85 per cent. of the people are outside the small business area, but does he also accept that, in some areas, a higher number of people are looking for employment in the small business sector, and that they should be encouraged to do that?

Mr. Paice: Of course I accept the hon. Gentleman's apologies for not being here earlier. I am sure that all of us would have wished to be at the same funeral, where I assume he was, paying tribute to our former hon. Friend, the Member for North Down. I was about to address precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman raised.

I recognise, as the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Pickthall) and my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter said, that there are many parts of the country where small businesses tend to be the norm. Of course, "small" in the normal context does not just mean employers with fewer than 20 employees. Since this subject was debated in Committee, I have thought through my constituency--which I like to think I know well. It is a fairly large rural constituency, but even there I can think of many, many employers who are certainly small, but in no way near being below the 20 limit.

Even with a threshold of 20, and even in rural areas, there will be considerable opportunities for disabled people in organisations that are covered by the Bill. However, even that presupposes that organisations with fewer than 20 employees will want to discriminate against disabled people. We do not want them to do so; we are not encouraging them to do so; we are simply saying that, at present, we do not believe that we should create legislation to require them not to do so, for all the reasons that I stated earlier.

We hope that small businesses will continue to grow, to prosper and to become a larger part of the economy. That is one reason why the Bill includes provision for the Secretary of State to raise or lower the threshold. I said in Committee that we would need mightily compelling evidence to increase the threshold above 20. I resisted an amendment that would have removed the upward power in case the threshold was moved to a figure that experience then proved to be too low.

Obviously, since the Committee stage, we have looked at the matter again, and I am pleased that we are able, through amendment No. 122, to deal with any concerns about a possible future move to a threshold higher than 20. The amendment inserts a maximum figure of 20 into the Bill. That was one of the points referred to specifically by my hon. Friends the Members for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) and for Exeter. I hope that I have satisfied them.

Column 734

I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter not only for moving new clause 6 so excellently, but for his sterling work for disabled people over many years--work matched by very few in this House. He rightly recognised the special position of small firms by proposing that, for those with fewer than 20 employees, the Government should make special provision to help them comply with the law. That presumably assumes that amendment No. 7 is passed, although that is not entirely essential.

I have explained to my hon. Friend and the House that we believe that the threshold is necessary anyway, not least because the action that he proposes in subsection (2) of his new clause would be highly unlikely to deal with the position of all small firms, from farms to factories, shops to offices, or any other organisation. We believe that the code of practice will be drawn widely enough to cover all types of businesses. As I have said already, we will encourage small firms to adopt it, and they will be consulted upon it.

New clause 16 was tabled by the Opposition, who have striven for flexibility, but I am afraid that they have achieved complexity. First, the new clause does not make it clear that the financial provision to which it refers would have to be provided through a scheme or similar arrangement that would need complicated rules in order to operate fairly and effectively. The new clause purports to make provision, but does not provide the means to do so.

Secondly, I do not believe that it would be sensible to attempt to set down in regulations every circumstance in which the wide range of possible adjustments could be considered reasonable for any given employee in any type of small firm--or, for that matter, that it is practicable or sensible for regulations to set deadlines by which particular adjustments must be made. The new clause appears to be an inflexible and bureaucratic approach.

It would be an administrative nightmare to introduce regulations as set out in subsection (3). The use of the word "different" five times in that subsection shows the complexity of the problem that hon. Members seem intent on creating. The permutations would be endless. The new clause would be most unwelcome to small firms, because they would not want to be confronted by such a degree of uncertainty. What we propose is much better and clearer--a clause that sets a clear threshold.

On several occasions today, hon. Members have referred to franchises. A franchise is a business arrangement between one business and another, under which one agrees to sell the goods or services of the other. A firm that takes on a franchise may or may not be a small firm in itself, but if it is small it will face the same difficulties that any other small firm will face, and it will be in no better position to cope with them than any other organisation that is not a franchise.

If it is a larger firm, even one operating at several locations--although we are talking not about locations, but about the firm itself--it will come within the framework of the Bill.

Mr. Wigley: When I intervened earlier, I pressed the Minister for an interpretation of whether "number" includes zero. In other words, by passing amendment No.

Column 735

122, would that give the Government the facility, by order, to include all companies? It is important for the House to know that.

Mr. Paice: Yes.

Several hon. Members have referred--and I listened carefully--to concerns about the potential for uncertainty when a firm employs seasonal workers or people on fixed-term contracts, so the size of the work force moves up and down through the exemption threshold. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) mentioned that, together with the hon. Members for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) and for Lancashire, West and some of my hon. Friends. I recognise that concern, and I shall consider whether action needs to be taken to clarify the position. It may require a new regulating power. I recognise that the concern is real and needs to be dealt with.

I think that I have dealt with most of the comments by hon. Members from both sides of the House. There are already a number of exceptions for small firms in legislation. The one point to which I have not referred was raised by the hon. Member for Erdington, who said that the cap that he envisaged the Government proposing on the financial costs of alterations would somehow help small businesses. I am afraid that he has misread our proposals. We are not proposing a cap on part II of the Bill; our cap refers to part III--the adaptation of premises for goods and services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter and other hon. Members who have spoken feel extremely strongly about the issue, and I respect that, as does my hon. Friend the Minister of State. However, I hope that they realise that our intent to get rid of discrimination is just as strong as theirs. Our desire to see all firms acting properly towards disabled people is just as strong as theirs.

Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend will not pursue his new clause. The Government want to eliminate discrimination against disabled people and to use legislation as a vehicle for ultimately changing attitudes. That is best achieved by a Bill that strikes the right balance between the needs of disabled people and the proper priorities of businesses to succeed. Too onerous a Bill would create resentment among the very people whose attitudes we are trying to change.

I have no doubt that, when the Bill is enacted and implemented, we will all learn from experience. That is why I am willing to give an undertaking to the House that we will table an amendment in another place that will require the Government to review the operation of this measure within five years and to give the House the opportunity to debate the issue.

In the light of my comments and the very genuine concern that I and my hon. Friend have to ensure that the Bill's objective is achieved, I hope that the House will reject the new clause.

6.30 pm

Sir John Hannam: The debate has been extremely useful, with a clear message coming from hon. Members who have participated. My hon. Friend the Minister has shown that he is trying to find a way through small firms' fears, and the desire of all hon. Members to avoid leaving a large number of small firms outside this important anti-discrimination legislation. I welcome Government amendment No. 122, which removes the power to

Column 736

increase the level of 20 employees. I hope that, as the Bill progresses, a commitment to reduce that figure of exclusion will be made even more strongly.

My new clause 6 is a probing amendment that does not go far enough to satisfy Opposition Members--who, I understand, want to vote for amendment No. 7, which removes the exclusion. Whatever happens tonight, the issue will return to the foreground of debate in the other place. I hope that the Government will consider all the arguments that have been advanced by hon. Members today, and that they will introduce further changes in the other place. However, I recognise the inadequacy of my new clause, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn .

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) misunderstood the views of Opposition Members. We were far from convinced by the Minister, and we ask that our new clause 16 be put to the House.

New clause 16

Small firms (No. 2)

`(1) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to have regard to the needs of employers who have fewer than 20 employees and to make such financial provision by way of grants or loans as he deems appropriate to enable them to meet their obligations under this Act.

(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations specify the circumstances under which adjustments will be considered reasonable for employers who have fewer than 20 employees, and such regulations may specify appropriate periods within which such adjustments shall be made.

(3) Regulations under this section may make different provisions for different circumstances and different sizes of employer and specify different periods within which different adjustments shall be made; and regulations made under this section may be varied by subsequent regulations.'.-- [Mr. Tom Clarke.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Motion made, and Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:--

The House divided: Ayes 267, Noes 297.

Division No. 115] [6.32 pm


Column 736

Abbott, Ms Diane

Ainger, Nick

Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)

Allen, Graham

Alton, David

Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)

Armstrong, Hilary

Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy

Ashton, Joe

Austin-Walker, John

Banks, Tony (Newham NW)

Barnes, Harry

Barron, Kevin

Bayley, Hugh

Beith, Rt Hon A J

Bell, Stuart

Benn, Rt Hon Tony

Bennett, Andrew F

Bermingham, Gerald

Berry, Roger

Betts, Clive

Boateng, Paul

Bradley, Keith

Bray, Dr Jeremy

Column 736

Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)

Burden, Richard

Byers, Stephen

Callaghan, Jim

Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)

Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)

Campbell-Savours, D N

Canavan, Dennis

Cann, Jamie

Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery)

Chidgey, David

Chisholm, Malcolm

Church, Judith

Clark, Dr David (South Shields)

Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)

Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)

Clelland, David

Coffey, Ann

Cohen, Harry

Cook, Frank (Stockton N)

Cook, Robin (Livingston)

Corbett, Robin

Corbyn, Jeremy

Corston, Jean

Next Section

  Home Page