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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Equality (Disability, etc.) (Northern Ireland) Order 2000

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 30 March 2000

[Mr. Jim Cunningham in the Chair]

Draft Equality (Disability, etc.) (Northern Ireland) Order 2000

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howard): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Equality (Disability, etc.) (Northern Ireland) Order 2000.

I begin by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Cunningham. I know from previous enounters that the Committee will be chaired firmly but fairly, and possibly even with a little humour, should the opportunity arise.

The main purpose of the order is to expand and strengthen the disability functions of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland so that they are broadly similar to those given to the Disability Rights Commission in Great Britian under the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999. The order will ensure that disabled people in Northern Ireland have access to a disability rights enforcement body no later than their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The establishment of a Disability Rights Commission for England, Scotland and Wales is an important step towards fulfilling out manifesto commitment to secure

    comprehensive, enforceable civil rights for disabled people.

During the passage of the Disability Rights Commission Act we also gave a commitment that disabled people in Northern Ireland would have the same rights as disabled people in the rest of the United Kingdom, and at the same time. The order meets that commitment.

Disability rights attract much interest from Northern Ireland parties. Indeed, last year Northern Ireland Members, organisations representing disability interests, the Northern Ireland Disability Council and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland expressed concern about the absence of any progress on the legislation to introduce disability rights enforcement powers in Northern Ireland.

The original intention was to introduce the order last December, but devolution intervened and prevented us from doing that. Following devolution, the Executive Committee introduced the legislation as a Bill in the Assembly. Unfortunately, the Bill did not proceed beyond the Second Stage, because of the Assembly's suspension. The Government deeply regret the circumstances that led to the Asssembly's suspension and hope that in the near future the devolved institutions can be restored, including their responsibility for equality legislation. We are determined to honour the commitment given during the passage of the Disability Rights Commission Bill, and I am pleased that I can now introduce the order, which will ensure that disabled people in Northern Ireland are placed on an equal footing with disabled people in England, Scotland and Wales.

The order, in line with the Disability Rights Commission Act, reflects proposals put forward by the disability rights task force, which included a representative from Northern Ireland, and was set up in December 1997 to report on the way to secure comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled people. Its recommendations on the role and functions of a disability rights commission formed the basis of the White Paper ``Promoting Disabled People's Rights-Creating a Disability Rights Commission fit for the 21st Century'', which had a UK-wide launch in July 1998.

The White Paper acknowledged that in Northern Ireland wide-ranging proposals for promoting equality of opportunity had already been made in the ``Partnership for Equality'' White Paper, which included a significant proposal to merge the existing equality commissions and the Northern Ireland Disability Council into one unified equality commission. The White Paper made it clear that, in relation to disability rights, the role and functions of the equality commission should in many ways be similar to those of the Disability Rights Commission in Great Britain.

Interested parties in Northern Ireland had an opportunity, which I am pleased to say they took, to comment on the proposals during the UK-wide consultation on the Disability Rights Commission. As part of that consultation, Disability Action, the main disability organisation in Northern Ireland, held a special conference in Belfast to consider the proposals in detail. The conference was attended by people with disabilities, by disability organisations, by representatives from the equality commissions and by members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I am please to report that there was widespread support for the proposals on the role and functions of an enforcement body. The order results from that consultation.

I want to give some context to the order, which is specific to Northern Ireland. Regrettably, Northern Ireland has the highest prevalance of disability in the United Kingdom. There are estimated to be more than 200,000 disabled people in Northern Ireland. One in six adults in Northern Ireland have a disability or, to put it another way, 17 per cent. of adults in Northern Ireland have a disability compared to 14 per cent. in Great Britain.

We know from research by the Northern Ireland Disability Council that disabled people have difficulties in accessing the services that many of us-probably all of us in the Committee-take from granted. We also know that such activies as going to the cinema, eating out or even going shopping can create difficulties for people with disabilities.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Can the Minister explain why the disability level is higher in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom? Can he also allay a concern? it is well known that it is difficult for officials to check whether people are disabled and entitled to the Motability scheme, because the intimidation from certain parts of the community has made checking elgibility a no-go area. Is that the explanation for the large number of registered disabled people, or is there another explanation for the disparity?

Mr. Howarth: I am not in a position to comment on the Motability scheme. Although the Government make payments through the disability living allowance to those who qualify for a Motability vehicle, we do not have a direct responsbility for that scheme. I have no evidence that intimidation is a factor.

I could speculate on the factors that might account for the higher prevalence of disability in Northern Ireland, but it would be just that-speculation. There is, for example, more cancer and heart disease than in the rest of the UK. Many such illnesses, including some levels of disability, are often directly related to povery and other factors that lead to inequality. It is a complicated picture, so I would not want to speculate in statistical terms on the disparity. I suspect that there is not enough hard information for us to arrive at a firm conclusion.

Whatever the reasons, people in Northern Ireland have greater difficulties than people in the rest of the UK. I am sure that the Committee will agree that those statistics are unacceptable, and justify the need to enforce disability rights.

The order, together with the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999, builds on the advances made by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and will go a long way towards eliminating discrimination and promoting equal opportunities for disabled people across the United Kingdom. The disability rights task force's recommendations on the wider issues were published in December 1999. Northern Ireland Departments are currently considering how to take the recommendations forward.

I mentioned the Northern Ireland Disability Council, and I want briefly to express my thanks to that body for its helpful and valuable work in advising Northern Ireland departments over its three-year life. The Northern Ireland Disability Council was successful in raising awareness of many important disability-related issues. Its advice to departments was always of a high standard and its close work with the National Disability Council on a code of practice in part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 proved very beneficial.

The main provisions of the order are the same as comparable provisions in the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999, although we have taken the opportunity to include in part III of the order some miscellaneous minor amendments in relation to the legislation concerning the functions and procedures of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

The order makes provision for the Equality Commission to work towards the elimination of discrimination against disabled people; to promote the equalisation of opportunities for disabled people; to take steps to encourage good practice in the treatment of disabled people; to keep the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 under review; to assist disabled people by offering advice and support in taking cases forward; to provide information and advice to employers and service providers; to undertake formal investigations; to prepare statutory codes of practice in order the provide practical guidance on compliance with the law; and to arrange independent conciliation between service providers and disabled people in relation to access to goods and services.

The other minor miscellaneous amendments relate to the functions and procedures of the Equality Commission. These provisions create no new powers or duties, but either clarify existing arrangements or carry forward powers inadvertently removed by recent legislation.

Two of the articles amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998, first to provide for the terms and conditions of appointment of additional commissioners to carry out formal investigations, and secondly, to enable the Equality Commission's annual report to be made on a financial year basis, bringing it into line with its accounts. I am sure that the Committee will agree that that is sensible. The third article amends the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 to enable the Equality Commission to continue any investigations initiated by the Fair Employment Agency under the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1976 that have not been concluded.

Disabled people campaigned for an enforcement body for many years, and they fully deserve this major enhancement of their civil rights. It gives me great pleasure to commend the draft order to the Committee.

4.43 pm

 
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