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

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Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): I second the vote of welcome to you in the Chair, Mr. Cunningham.

I come to the debate as an Englishman, but as one who has, I hope, tried to take a proper and informed interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland. Furthermore, I realise that the avoidance of discrimination in all its forms is as important in Northern Ireland as it is anywhere else in our United Kingdom. Some would argue that it might be more important there. I am not here to advance that argument, nor to dissent from it, but on my most recent visit to Belfast, when shaping my programme I made a point of seeing the people and agencies responsible for human rights, equality and discrimination issues.

This is not merely a recent interest for me. Eleven years ago I served as the then Government's Northern Ireland Whip, responsible for the conduct through the House of the parliamentary stages of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989. I do not intend to make a long contribution in the 90 minutes that we have at our disposal, but I have some questions for the Minister, and a strong recommendation to him which I hope will influence the final draft of the codes of practice referred to in article 11.

My first question concerns the commencement of part II of the order. Part II is regulated by article 1(2), which states:

    Part II shall come into operation on such day or days as the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister may appoint.

Will the authority of that office subsist if there is no restoration of the Executive at that time? If not-and I suspect that it will not occur-will the authority otherwise reside with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? If so, should not the order state that explicitly?

My second question concerns article 9, which deals with the provision of legal assistance in relation to proceedings under the order. Some Committee members are well aware that in relation to legal proceedings in the jurisdiction of England and Wales, apparent unfairness or ``inequality of arms'' results when one party in a civil dispute is assisted by the state and the other is not. Will the Under-Secretary give an assurance that that matter will not be lost sight of? Are there circumstances in which the party complained of, being of limited means, will also be entitled to assistance, in the name of equality? Taking that point to its logical conclusion, will there be safeguards against frivolous or vexatious complaints?

My third question concerns the commission's composition. Will the Under-Secretary undertake to ensure that the commission's membership will be balanced and reflective of all interests, including those of employers as well as, obviously, the disabled? The order is not explicit about the appointment of commissioners.

Finally, I strongly urge the Under-Secretary to take appropriate action in relation to the drafting of the codes of practice-the relevant provisions are contained in article 11. In recent years, there has been a strong and welcome move away from adversarial dispute resolution and towards a more constructive and less aggressive culture in our various jurisdictions-I know most about the jurisdiction of England and Wales. That process is usually generically known as alternative dispute resolution. Arbitration has been encouraged, as have mediation, not least in matrimonial matters, and conciliation. With our approval, conciliation-which is by no means the same as reconciliation-has found its place in the idiom of the order. The order is explicit about that approach. Will conciliation be the technique of first resort, and will it be persisted with, so that parties will not doubt that it is the commission's greatly preferred method of dispute resolution?

In this respect, as with all matters relating to Northern Ireland, conflict should always be the last resort.

4.48 pm

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): I join the previous speakers in welcoming you as our Chairman, Mr. Cunningham. I have not seen you in the Chair before-this may be the first time that you have served as Chairman, but I hope that you will enjoy serving in that capacity on many occasions.

On behalf of the Ulster Unionist party, I welcome the order. The Minister rightly said that it did not generate great controversy in Northern Ireland. I am glad to come across an order that I can support. Most of the time I oppose the orders that are imposed by the Government. This is a welcome change.

The proposed legislation must be introduced as an order because of the suspension of the Assembly. It will have the same time scale as Westminster legislation. As the Northern Ireland Assembly is likely to be suspended for a long time, I hope that, in future, orders-or at least primarly legislation-will be subject to the same consideration as other Acts of Parliament. For too long, Northern Ireland's citizens have been treated as second-class citizens-as if Northern Ireland were a distant colony rather than an integral part of the United Kingdom.

One in six of the adult population of Northern Ireland have some form of disability. Only one in four of those of working age are in employment, earning about 12 per cent. less per hour than those who are not disabled. About half of disabled people have difficulty using services, such as going to the Assembly, going to the cinema, eating out or shopping. Of those, four in 10 have problems travelling to such destinations. One in three have problems with access to shops, which is unacceptable. Although the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has promoted considerable change, this order is welcome.

I echo the Minster's words by expressing appreciation of the excellent work of the Northern Ireland Disability Council. In the past few years, a raft of changes have been introduced to aid those with disability in Northern Ireland. For example, in October 1997, when he was Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) launched the access to work scheme. That provided a raft of servics: adaptations to premises and equipment, communication support at interview, personal reader service, special aids and equipment, travel to work and so on. In June 1998, the hon. Gentleman announced a new deal for people with disabilities, including special programmes for them. In January 1999, a new deal for disabled people was announced by the then Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall). A voluntary programme will be introduced as a pilot in April 2000. The hon. Gentleman welcomed the publication of a good practice guide for health and social services called ``Less Disabling''. New rights for disabled customers were introduced from 1 October 1999, which culminated in the formation of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

Considerable change has taken place, which is welcome. The duties and powers of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland will ensure that disabled people will have similar rights to those available to disabled people in Great Britain. We welcome the provisions in the order that aim to eliminate discrimination, promote equalisation of opportunity, improve access to services and encourage good practice in the treatment of disabled people in all areas of employment, health, education and accommodation.

We want, however, to avoid cases of positive discrimination in employement. Candidates should be chosen on academic achievement and experience, not merely because they are disabled so as to adhere to the equality protocol. We support the elimination of discrimination, but we do not want employment legislation to discriminate against those who are not disabled and not in a minority. Even the Training and Employment Agency says in its advice to disabled job seekers that

    disclosing your disability at the job application stage could be an advantage.

The order covers those who have had a disability. We welcome that, especially in cases of mental disability, where the disability has been cured but the person might be discriminated against when applying for employment because employers are concerned that such disabilities could recur.

Everyone has an interest in equality and is entitled to expect equal treatment, no matter what their background or circumstances are. We welcome the Government's determination to make a more inclusive society for disabled people. Service providers, shops, banks, leisure centres, places of entertainment and employers need to show the same determination and willingness to make their services more accessible to disabled people. It is only by changing policies, practices and procedures, and by providing auxiliary aids and services, that an inclusive society will become a reality.

However, it is not just service and entertainment providers that need to change-public opinion must also be changed. Unfortunately, the public still think in stereotypes and fail to recognise or appreciate the diversity of those who are disabled. Disabled people should be recognised as individuals who happen to have a disability. By changing public attitudes to disability, we can ensure the full equality for disabled people that might at present be denied to them.

I welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), and look forward to hearing the Minister's answers to his questions. Ulster Unionist Members-and, I am sure, all those who represent political parties in Northern Ireland-welcome the additional support that is to be given to disabled people, and hope that many of them will enjoy the fruits of the order.

4.57 pm

Mr. Blunt: I should like to ask the Minister a few questions, mainly for clarification. Some add to the points that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull.

Why are we debating the order now? The Minister explained that when he initially intended to introduce the order, devolution intervened, which meant that it should not pass through this House. It reached Second Stage in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but the Assembly was then dissolved. The order states:

    Part II shall come into operation on such day or days as the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister may by order appoint.

That cannot happen now, because there is no Assembly to authorise the order or any actions that they may choose to take. The order contains no provision to transfer that authority to the Secretary of State, who, given the current circumstances, would presumably be the appropriate person to introduce it.

Given that situation, what are we all doing here? An hour and a half of our time, plus preparation time, is being taken up-[Interruption.] Labour Members are clearly doing other things as well as attending to the Committee's proceedings. Will the Minister explain why we are here? Will the situation change if the current position continues indefinitely, and the Assembly does not return? Will the authority have to be given to the Secretary of State, or is there another mechnnism for dealing with the measure?

I found the statistic that 17 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland are disabled alarming. That is a very high proportion. The definition of disability can be extremely wide. Many people would say that most Members of Parliament have a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which provides that

    a person has a disability for the purposes of this Act if he has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

All members of the committee might fall into that category, so we must be careful about how wide the definitions are drawn.

The Minister could not give an explanation when I raised the point during an intervention, but I am suspicious about the difference in the number of people who register as being disabled on the mainland and the number who do so in Northern Ireland. Between one in six and one in seven is more than a statistical blip, given the numbers involved and I should be grateful if the Minister would speak to his officials and give us an explanation for those numbers. There must be statistical evidence of how much poverty is a generator of disability and, therefore, the relative position between the mainland and Northern Ireland. I am not sure whether that is a significant factor, but it is obviously significant that thousands of people have been maimed during the past 30 years in Northern Ireland because of the activities of terrorists. I suspect that that number is now so large that it has a statistical impact on the figures, and that might be an explanation.

Another explanation is that it might be difficult for officers of the Benefits Agency to verify some claims. It has been suggest to me that there is a climate of intimidation in one community in Northern Ireland, which would make it difficult for officers to discharge their duty to check that claims are correct. I hope that the Minister will at least investigate that.

Article 4(5) of the order states:

    In this Article-

    ``disabled persons'' include persons who have had a disability.

That change from the definition in the 1995 Act might be covered in the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999 and apply to the whole of the United Kingdom, but I should be grateful for his reassurance on that. Section 1(2) of the 1995 Act stated that

    ``disabled person'' means a person who has a disability

and I should be interested to hear the Minister's explanation of why that now includes persons who have had a disability. I am not sure why someone who has had a disability that has ceased to affect him or her should come within the range of the order and I should be grateful for an explanation of that.

I concur with my hon. Friend on the general issue of burdens being placed on people on the receiving end of claims for disability. Under the 1995 Act, small companies employing fewer than 20 people were exempt from the Act, presumably to try to reduce the burdens on small and medium-sized enterprises, which are extremely vulnerable to people bringing funded claims against them. Will the Minister explain the reason for article 13 of the order, which substitutes new subsections for subsections (3) to (10) of section 7 of the 1995 Act covering exemption for small businesses, because that will place additional burdens on small companies? That might already have happened elsewhere in the United Kingdom, in which case, why should Northern Ireland be penalised?

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister can appoint a vast number of commissioners if they wish and the only restriction on their powers of appointment seems to be that they must have the consent of the Department of Finance and Personnel. Will the Under-Secretary explain how that will work in practice? Is that a curtailment of the powers of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to appoint individuals? How much will it cost? At what point will representatives of the Department of Finance and Personnel think, ``Hang on a minute, these people are being paid too much'', or, ``There are too many commissioners''? Will the Under-Secretary reassure us that this is not simply an open-ended quango that, like all quangos, is established with the best of intentions but will impose an expense on us all that would be better avoided?

5.5 pm

 
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