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Column 839The commission could also carry out disciplinary action, removing that task from the individual associations that now, where necessary, validate insolvency practitioners. That, I hope, would mean a far more rigorous disciplinary regime than exists at present. Whatever the fate of my Bill, those proposals should be seriously considered when the Government next review company law--as, indeed, was suggested to me by hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Anthony Coombs, Mr. David Shaw, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mr. Keith Mans, Mr. Peter L. Pike, Mr. Tim Smith, Sir Fergus Montgomery, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. John Maxton and Mr. Peter Butler.
Mr. Anthony Coombs accordingly presented a Bill to improve the regulation of insolvency practitioners: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 28 April, and to be printed. [Bill 90.]
As amended (in the Standing Committee), further considered.
` .--(1) It is unlawful for a provider of information to discriminate against a disabled person--
(a) in refusing to provide, or deliberately not providing, to the disabled person any information which he provides, or is prepared to provide, to members of the public;
(b) in failing to comply with any duty imposed on him by section 15 in circumstances in which the effect of that failure is to make it impossible or unreasonably difficult for the disabled person to make use of any such information;
(c) in the standard of information which he provides to the disabled person or the manner in which he provides it to him; or (d) in the terms on which he provides information to the disabled person.
(2) For the purposes of this Part a person is a provider of information if he is concerned with the provision, whether directly or indirectly, to the public or a sector of the public, of information necessary to the purchase, maintenance and use of services.'.-- [Mr. Wigley.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
No. 33, in clause 15, page 11, line 6, after `services', insert `or a provider of information'.
No. 34, in page 11, line 8, after `service', insert `or of information'.
No. 35, in page 11, line 39, after `service', insert `or of information'.
No. 44, in page 11, line 40, after `services', insert
`or a provider of information'.
No. 36, in page 11, line 42, after `service', insert `or such information'.
No. 37, in page 11, line 43, after `service', insert `or the provider'.
No. 38, in page 11, line 48, after `services', insert
`or a provider of information'.
No. 39, in page 12, line 2, after `services', insert
`or a provider of information'.
No. 40, in page 12, line 8, after `services', insert
`or a provider of information'.
No. 41, in page 12, line 11, after `services', insert
`or a provider of information'.
Column 841No. 42, in page 12, line 19, at end insert--
`(cc) information of a prescribed description'.
No. 43, in page 12, line 23, after `services', insert
`or one provider of information'.
Mr. Wigley: I am glad of the opportunity to move new clause 9 in the early part of today's debate. I hope that we shall make some progress and that the Government will be responsive to the points made. Several aspects of the matters covered by the new clause were problematic in Committee and at earlier stages.
The new clause deals with the avoidance of discrimination in the provision of services, with particular regard to information that a disabled person needs concerning those services. It is absolutely fundamental, to be able to benefit from a service, that a disabled person knows that the service exists and how and where to get it. Without the availability of that information, the disabled person cannot take advantage of services or the provision of goods. Discrimination in services, therefore, may not arise because it is secondary. Clearly, if a service cannot be used, the discrimination has already occurred. To deny disabled people knowledge and information of what is available is the most fundamental discrimination.
The Bill is concerned with discrimination in a number of areas, many of which we discussed yesterday, such as education, shop services, transport, leisure and employment. How can, for example, a deaf person have access to educational information transmitted by the spoken word, such as on the radio or the television, without text to go with it? How can he have access to information by telephone? Many services are now provided over the telephone. How can a blind person or a person with a visual impairment catch a train if he or she cannot read the timetable? How can such people avoid electrocuting themselves with machinery if they cannot read the instructions? How can they apply for a job if they cannot read the advertisements? The purpose of the new clause is to cover such areas and to secure an effective right of access to information for disabled people, especially those with a sensory impairment, such as sight or hearing loss.
The matter clearly concerns the Royal National Institute for the Blind. Indeed, I am obliged to it for much of the background information for this debate and I am especially grateful to Alun Thomas, its parliamentary officer, whom I think a number of my hon. Friends have met. Alun is known to me because he worked for us as a researcher in Parliament before taking his present job. I know that, with his own visual impairment, people could easily have assumed that he was not capable of the sort of detailed reading and background work of a parliamentary researcher.
Given the right lighting, the right-sized print and the computer services available these days, Alun did an excellent job. His ability to do so could have been denied--not only by ourselves but by others who might have been considering employing him--because of discrimination based on a perceived disability. It is an example of people seeing the disability rather than seeing the ability, which is what this Bill is all about.
According to research undertaken by the RNIB, at least 500,000 people in the United Kingdom cannot read ordinary-sized print. In practice, that means a denial of access to information, such as mail, dosage advice on medical items or use-by labels on food, which fully
Column 842sighted people take for granted. For many people with visual impairment, access to such information is a problem. Of the 1 million blind and partially sighted people in the UK, almost half live alone and 90 per cent. are over the age of 65. Many visually impaired people are often isolated in their homes, seldom receiving visitors, with a diminishing number of friends and finding it difficult to get out and about on their own. People in those circumstances should not, and often cannot, rely on a friendly neighbour to read their bank statement, council tax bill or other confidential information. The Bill introduces two new rights that we hope will lead to more freedom of choice for disabled people. The first hurdle for blind and partially sighted people in exercising their rights under the Bill is the difficulty in obtaining information in a usable form. For example, finding a job is made immensely difficult for visually impaired people by lack of information that they can readily access. One person told the RNIB:
"I'm looking to change my career at the moment but it's really difficult because the information I need is only in print." That brings home the fact that access to work is made that much more difficult. Discrimination takes place before the question of applying for a job has even arisen because visually impaired people are unable to obtain information about jobs.
A deaf-blind person reliant on braille as a means of communication told the RNIB that while he had persuaded his local council to provide his council tax bill in braille, any information unrelated to the council getting money, including information about council services, was sent in print. In practice, that meant that the person had to overcome a hurdle before deciding which swimming pool to use or finding out the opening hours of the local library.
Why is the new clause necessary? The success or failure of the Bill will hinge on whether it can help to deal with the instances of direct and indirect discrimination faced by disabled people in their daily lives. For wheelchair users and those with mobility difficulties, discrimination is often most acute in the context of access to buildings and vehicles. For visually impaired people, discrimination is often caused in the first instance by the lack of accessible information.
Will the Bill mean that visually impaired people such as a shareholder in Northern Electric will receive information about that company on tape without having to expose the company's reluctance to do so in the media? Will it mean that a visually impaired person will receive assistance from the local supermarket to identify items on shelves so that he can shop at a time of convenience to him and find the bargains of the week? Will it mean that no one will receive a renewal application form from his council for his blind person's travel pass in print and not in braille?
I have described some of the practical difficulties faced by people who have visual impairments. Research proves the case for new clause 9. Research conducted by the RNIB and published in the document entitled "Seeing it our way" discovered how access to information had changed the lives of visually impaired people. One person said: "I get the Radio Times in braille, which I would be totally lost without. Now I don't need to ask anyone what is happening on `Neighbours'".
Column 843That is a day-to-day practical example of something that is meaningful to people in their everyday lives.
Research also revealed how the lack of accessible information hampered the daily lives of blind and partially sighted people. One of them said:
"The Council said that if I wanted to be rehoused because of my sight problem I'd have to fill in an application form. But the form is so tiny I can't read it!"
Goodness knows, many of us who do not consider ourselves to have a massive visual impairment find difficulty with many of the forms that are put before us. One suspects that the size of the print is used as a deterrent to stop people following things through.
Other research undertaken by the RNIB, published in February in the report entitled "Second class citizen", revealed how difficult it was for visually impaired people to obtain access to information. More than half of councils in London are unable to provide council tax bills in formats other than small print. That most certainly should not be so.
Although there are pockets of good practice such as in the Department of Social Security and its agencies, the performance of Government Departments is very poor. There is a distinct lack of a co-ordinated approach to serving the needs of visually impaired people in many Government Departments.
A report in 1993 launching the RNIB campaign for accessible information entitled "See it right" also revealed many examples of good and bad practice in the provision of information. Examples of good practice included the availability of the Boots pharmaceutical catalogue in braille, the introduction of a bank's braille facility and British Telecom's braille bills. I am told that British Telecom co-operated well after learning of the difficulties of reading invoices, which are now sent out in large-print versions where necessary. Those good examples are to be praised.
There are bad examples, one of which was brought to my attention by the RNIB concerning a gentleman from London. He said:
"I recently received my Green Employment card from the Department of Employment, this proves that I am blind for employment purposes. The renewal letter is in print . . . the Department know that I am a braillist because I have a braille machine on loan from them, which I also get a print renewal for."
In other words, information is given in print form to a person who is known to the Department not to be able to use print. That must have resulted from a breakdown in the provision of services. The Bill should address that breakdown, and new clause 9 attempts to do so. Another example of bad practice was given by a man from Kent, who said:
"Many of the forms I receive are unreadable, for example, an income tax form could not be completed without some assistance. If such forms could be in large print together with the literature that accompany them, much of the difficulty might be overcome." No one is saying that every form for every person--whether he has a visual handicap or not--needs to be in such formats, but we must ensure that there is a facility that can meet the needs of visually challenged people when necessary, particularly with regard to mail shots, which are now overwhelmingly sent out from a database.
Column 844New clause 9 is the most effective way of ensuring that the needs of visually impaired people are identified and properly addressed. The Government could claim that the new clause is unnecessary since access to information is already referred to elsewhere in the Bill. In a letter to the RNIB, the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People confirmed that, under that right, service providers will be required to provide communication aids where reasonable and necessary to enable disabled people to use the service in question. He emphasised that where facilities for the communication and the provision of information are provided as services in themselves, they must also be made accessible where reasonable. Unfortunately, the spirit of that letter is not reflected in the wording of the Bill, although Government amendment No. 77 may help. I shall come to that in a moment.
An unequivocal statement is needed in the Bill to counter the current ignorance of the needs of visually impaired people among information providers. The new clause would make it clear that the provision of information is a service in itself, and would recognise that gaining access to information is a prerequisite to allowing visually impaired people to exercise a meaningful choice about facilities, goods and services. It is not a matter of an auxiliary service--it is a matter of principle.
Another objection may be that the new clause would require all information to be produced in braille, which would impose onerous obligations on service providers. In reality, the new clause would not oblige a company to produce all its internal memos in braille, large print or in parallel. The new clause clearly relates to part III of the Bill, and is subject to the test of reasonableness and the justifications for less favourable treatment for disabled people in clauses 13 and 14.
The attitude that those objections reflect is often based on a number of misconceptions about visual impairment. Braille is a vital means of communication, but only for its 19,000 readers out of a total visually impaired population of 1 million people. The majority of visually impaired people can read print that is distinct and fairly large. Adhering to good practice in print standards would help a service provider to communicate its message much more effectively to fully sighted people. New technology has made it simpler and more cost-effective to produce braille in-house, and there are also a growing number of external transcribers. It is wrong to overstate the difficulties in providing braille for the relatively small number of people who need it.
Another objection may be that the new clause proposes the provision of information directly or indirectly, which will mean that manufacturers that are not service providers will come under the terms of the Bill. In reality, the purpose of the inclusion of indirect providers is to acknowledge that some companies are better placed to supply acceptable information about their products, even though they are not regarded as service providers as they make their products available through a retailer.
British Telecom, for example, will be considered a service provider under the terms of the Bill, since it sells telephones directly to the public, and will be expected to provide braille instructions for its answerphones, if requested to do so by a visually impaired customer. As the Bill stands, however, Creda would not be obliged to provide taped information about its cookers on request since its products are available only through high street
Column 845retailers. We would thus have the bizarre situation that has been suggested to the RNIB--responsibility for explaining how a cooker worked would fall on Mr. Jones, the high street shopkeeper, since he would be the service provider. Clearly, such anomalies must be sorted out.
The rights established under the Bill must be clear for disabled person and service provider alike. As the Bill stands, the service provider is likely to be completely unaware of his or her new responsibilities to visually impaired customers. For blind and partially sighted people, the reference to information is so nebulous that there is no guarantee that they would succeed in progressing cases under the Bill. The problem of enforceability is exacerbated by the fact that the Government believe that most cases will be settled out of court under this part of the Bill.
The new clause does not state that all information must at all times and in all places be produced in parallel in print, braille and spoken tapes. That would not be feasible, Mr. Deputy Speaker--[ Laughter .] I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. How could I make such a mistake? It would not be feasible to provide all information in all modes in every circumstance, but we need to ensure that the various modes are available as appropriate.
Under the terms of the new clause, refusing to provide information if requested to do so would be illegal. In other words, thought must be given to how vital information, which is needed to avoid discrimination, can be at hand in an understandable form for those who need it. The new clause should lead people to think in advance how information can be made available for blind, visually handicapped or deaf people.
The first part of Government amendment No. 77, which is linked with my new clause, refers to
"access to and use of means of communication",
which is certainly a step in the right direction; it would help deaf and deaf and blind people in particular. The second part of it, however, refers to
"access to and use of information services",
which is far too restrictive. We are concerned about information on services, not merely information services. We need to ensure that we do not include only the services that consist exclusively of provision of information, which is what the second half of the amendment seems to suggest. We should be concerned about information on goods and services generally.
I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify the intention behind the second half of the amendment. Perhaps the Government are trying to do what we want to achieve under the new clause, but the wording does not achieve that. What about circumstances in which the provision of information is peripheral to the main service being provided--for example, information on a credit card statement? Does Government amendment No. 77 provide that that information should be in a usable form for those who are visually impaired, as the main service is the provision of credit and not of credit card statements? The information on a railway timetable is another example-- British Rail runs a rail service, not an information service.
Those examples must be clarified. Clearly, that area needs to be tightened considerably if the Bill is to deliver the support that is needed by many hundreds of thousands
Column 846of disabled people, especially those who are visually challenged, and if they are to avoid continuing discrimination against them in the provision of goods and services. The Government clearly understand the need to strengthen the Bill because they tabled an amendment, but it does not go far enough, which is why I tabled new clause 9.
The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. William Hague): I have a great deal of sympathy with many of the points madby the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), although if I had to explain what had happened in the last episode of "Neighbours" I, too, would have to ask someone.
I understand fully why the hon. Gentleman has moved new clause 9 and the associated amendments. I agree that it is essential that disabled people, particularly those with visual or hearing impairments, have access to information about facilities and services.
In constructing the right of access to goods and services in the Bill, our aim was to develop a statutory right of non-discrimination that is universal, all-embracing and applies to all providers of goods, facilities and services to the public.
The basic structure of that right is set out in clause 12, which provides that it is unlawful for a service provider to discriminate against a disabled person by not providing goods, facilities and services that he provides for members of the public. I am happy to make it clear now, as I did in Committee, that the provision of information is one such service and is definitely covered by the Bill.
Clause 15 sets out the duty on service providers to make adjustments to practices, policies and procedures to enable disabled people to access the service being provided. Subsection (5) already makes it clear that that includes providing information in accessible formats, such as on tape or via an interpreter, where that would be an auxiliary aid or service enabling a disabled person to make use of the service. The Bill thus covers the provision of information services either as a service in itself or as an adjunct to other services.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon mentioned several examples of what he meant. May I give a few examples? Timetables that help people to use the service of a transport network; leaflets that help people use the service of welfare benefits; menus that help people with restaurants; recorded information about theatres; statements about banking; directional signs about car parking; verbally communicated information in a butcher's shop; guide books in art galleries; and subtitles or voice-overs in broadcasting are all intended to fall within the scope of the Bill. I agree, however, that we may need to make that clearer and, as the hon. Gentleman noted, to achieve that we propose Government amendment No.77.
The hon. Gentleman touched on the distinction between those examples and placing a duty on retailers or manufacturers to produce operating instructions in accessible formats. We are entering an extremely difficult area. If, for instance, we were to place a burden on manufacturers it would, first, be difficult to tie down what was meant by "instructions". For example, would the operating instructions for a CD player include the labels and knobs on the machine itself? If so, the implications for designing and bringing new products to market could be enormous.
Column 847Secondly, foreign-made products would present difficulties. Foreign manufacturers would be outside the scope of the Bill, so those which make many products for which operating instructions are most required, particularly electrical equipment, would not have to comply with a requirement to change their format.
Thirdly, the liability on retailers would also be extremely onerous. I am not sure that we could expect supermarkets to provide information in alternative formats on all the goods that they sell. Those are difficult areas which even those responsible for drafting the Americans with Disabilities Act did not attempt to solve. The ADA makes no provision for accessible instructions. I am clear, however, that the Bill should cover information services, information about a service and access to and use of means of communication.
We debated the issue at some length in Committee and I have received a number of representations, to which the hon. Member for Caernarfon referred, about including a specific reference to the provision of information in accessible formats in the Bill. I am happy that the Bill, as drafted, already makes provision for that, but I am prepared to take on board the concerns of disabled people with physical and sensory impairments, who will be most affected by the provision.
That is why I tabled Government amendment No.77, which makes it absolutely clear that
"access to and use of means of communication"
"access to and use of information services"
are included in the right of access. That requirement adds to the requirement to provide information about a service, which is already contained in the Bill. I therefore believe that the amendment clarifies the position beyond doubt in a practical and sensible way, and does so within the framework of the Bill.
Mr. Wigley: I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying how far the Government are prepared to go, but I want to ensure that we understand him properly. The Minister has said that it will be a statutory requirement to provide information services and information about services when the Bill becomes law, but that information about goods will not be subject to a similar requirement. How will a visually challenged person, who may use some electrical equipment purchased from a shop, avoid being electrocuted if the necessary information about how that piece of equipment should be used is not provided? That visually challenged person may be capable of using such machinery or equipment if he or she is provided with the relevant information. If it is not possible to provide a parallel braille or enlarged instruction set, surely some provision should be made for a fallback so that those individuals can get that information. That responsibility must lie, if not with Mr. Jones, the shopkeeper, with someone else. If we do not tackle that problem, the Bill will have a big hole in it.
Mr. Hague: I certainly understand that problem. It would be good practice for manufacturers and retailers to ensure that information was available. One may place a legal duty on manufacturers and retailers to make information available in every case about operating
Column 848instructions and directions for use. It would be difficult, however, to differentiate between different types of goods. The problem with that legal duty is that it is extremely difficult for manufacturers to define that information and, as I have already said, many manufacturers are outside the United Kingdom and would not be subject to the law in any case. The United States Congress was unable to solve that problem when it framed the Americans with Disabilities Act. I cannot find a satisfactory way of solving it in the Bill. I hope that the hon. Member for Caernarfon will at least be able to welcome the clarification that I have given about the purpose of the Bill. I believe that it will cover the provision of information and the means of communication. Government amendment No. 77 provides additional clarification by making it clear that information should be provided in an accessible format, whether that information is a service in itself or information about a service. That will be incorporated within the framework of the Bill if we use Government amendment No. 77 for that purpose. I hope that it will command--
To what extent are a specific category of disabled people--those with learning difficulties--covered by the Bill? Certain organisations, such as People First, make considerable efforts to spread information. People First has produced a version of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill in a good, readily available form. Although the terms of the new clause and the amendments are general, they may apply to the visually impaired in particular and I believe that they should also refer to those with learning difficulties. Would the Minister's analysis apply to those people?
Mr. Hague: Most of the debate has focused on people with physical or sensory impairments, but the duty would be to provide auxiliary aids and other formats where it is reasonable to do so. It does not exclude providing information on the lines suggested by the hon. Gentleman, but a judgment must be made about where it is reasonable to do that.
I hope that I have clarified the Government's position. We will improve the Bill if Government amendment No. 77 is accepted and I hope that it will command the support of the House.