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10.44 am

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) initially welcomed the White Paper, and I welcome his welcome. He then made a number of criticisms, but in such a way that he stood on the shoulders of the report, because he had important points to make on partnership, advocacy and monitoring. We all want the admirable White Paper to be acted on and delivered. The principles contained in it will shape the future for people with learning disabilities.

At the start of his speech, the hon. Gentleman said that everyone in the Chamber spoke with one voice on this matter, and I agree. However, that has not always been the case, as he said in a point he made about me. Back in 1994, when the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), following the Bill that had been introduced a few years earlier by Alf Morris, now Lord Morris, there was blood on the Floor of the House on a series of Fridays over how the rights of people with disabilities should be

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developed, including the rights of those with learning difficulties. That led to the resignation of Nicholas Scott and an apology in the House from Olga Maitland.

I welcome the change of attitude and approach that the Conservative party has displayed in opposition. The Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which I picked up and ran with in 1995, contained a provision for a disability rights commission. Labour tried to amend the Disability Discrimination Bill that was going through the House at that time to include such a commission.

We argued that the most radical change we could get out of that Bill—we secured a number of changes to that legislation—was the establishment of a disability rights commission. When the Labour Government introduced that measure it was solidly supported by both sides of the House. The Conservatives had changed their position. At one time they blocked such a measure, but because of the criticisms in 1994 they rather reluctantly introduced the Disability Discrimination Bill in 1995. Their approach has been transformed, and I welcome that and the role that the hon. Gentleman has played in that transformation. It is healthy that we have this consensus, but that does not mean conformity in all areas. I may press the Government on various matters.

The hon. Gentleman made a distinction between mental health provisions and learning disability. Although it is right to make that distinction, there is not that absolute division in every area. The general description of people with learning disabilities includes people who suffer from mental health problems. There is an overlap, and we need to bear in mind the fact that some important considerations affect what is said about mental health legislation from the Department of Health and about this admirable White Paper.

I gathered from the hon. Gentleman's speech that he wanted to pursue a particular case. I am currently hoping to initiate an Adjournment debate about a vaccine damage case with which I have been dealing during the nearly 15 years for which I have been a Member of Parliament. There has been a great deal of correspondence between me and Government Departments, but now I want to make the case more public, and as soon as I can agree on a form of words with parents, helpers and others I shall be pressing strongly for the debate.

Discrimination takes many forms. When it involves race, ethnicity, nationality, faith and gender, it has moral aspects that call for legislation to educate society and also deal with the most obnoxious cases—although I accept that sin and laws do not always go together. Those considerations apply at least as strongly to discrimination on grounds of age and disability, but such discrimination is, moreover, logically peculiar. Discrimination plays on, indeed shamelessly exploits, differences. A white person is not a black person, a fact that some will emphasise to justify their prejudices. A man is not a woman; a Christian is not a Muslim, unless he or she converts; and in Northern Ireland people are very conscious that a Protestant is not a Catholic. Indeed, people are not allowed to forget that, because it is a tribal distinction made by extremists.

An able-bodied person, however, is potentially a disabled person. Nearly four years ago, I had a stroke in the Chamber. The current Speaker, then a Deputy Speaker, took me to St. Thomas' hospital and stayed for a couple of hours, along with my hon. Friend the Member

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for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I have recovered now, but for a time I was clearly a disabled person, and I am well aware that as I get older and develop arthritis and other problems, elements of disability creep up on me.

Similarly, a young person is getting older, and, if he or she survives, will become an elderly person. My late mother developed Alzheimer's, which put her in not just the aged but the disabled category. We are all potentially old people with many disabilities. Discrimination against disabled people is therefore very peculiar: it is, in a sense, discrimination against oneself. People do not normally discriminate against themselves. When people come to me with tax problems I try to deal with them straight away, whereas I deal with my own tax problems last, so I suppose I discriminate against myself in certain ways; but discrimination against oneself is not a normal characteristic of human behaviour. People are generally very partial in their own cause.

The discrimination with which we are trying to deal is, then, both wrong and very odd. It should be possible for us, and for disabled people, to explain its peculiarity and to explain why it is actually against the interests of those engaging in it.

Mr. Boswell: These are interesting points. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to borrow the old Latin tag "Everything that is unknown is inflated". One of the main difficulties with disability issues is the fact that there is ignorance in the population unless or until disabilities are encountered directly. That is why it is important for us to have had a lively and open debate in the Chamber and beyond, so that people understand the issues and how they should be handled.

Mr. Barnes: There is indeed a great lack of understanding, but avenues exist for the development of understanding. There are so many people with disabilities, including learning disabilities, that we all rub shoulders with them. Someone in most people's family networks will fall into one of those categories, which should enable us to sympathise and empathise.

In August, I led a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation on a visit to Nigeria. There we met Professor Akinsete, leader of the national action committee on AIDS. I asked her whether the committee had made any mistakes. She said, "Yes. I am a professor of medicine, and we dealt with AIDS as a medical problem. But it is not just a medical problem; it is a wide social problem that encompasses a number of departments and interests. Now we tackle it by trying to bring together those departments and interests, and we are making much better progress." The committee is receiving good support from the Department for International Development's team in Nigeria.

When I saw that the White Paper had been produced by the Department of Health, I was a bit worried at first. What was happening here? Were the Government treating this as a purely medical problem? The White Paper, however, does not make that mistake. It does deal with health issues, but it also deals with housing, employment, family life, the problems of lifelong carers and the experiences of those with learning disabilities throughout their lives. It deals with special educational needs, pre-school provision and the transition that is involved when people leave school. Families begin to have fears at

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that stage. Parents think, "Things were fine when there was school and the day centre, but we are getting older. What will happen to the child who is now growing up?" They have helped that child to subsist. Provision is needed to give people the independence that they need in order to function in society. As those people get older, their difficulties are compounded.

On Monday, I visited a special needs consortium in Clay Cross, which wants me to deal with some particular problems. It is based at the Clay Cross pre-school playgroup, but three other groups are attached to it, two in the constituency of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), the Newbold parish church pre-school and the Walton village pre-school, and another in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover, the Stonebroom pre-school playgroup.

A lottery grant enables those playgroups to operate, but the funding for their special needs work goes up only to March 2003 and they do not know what will happen after that. They are exactly the type of group that needs assistance in line with the principles outlined in the White Paper.

While I admire the interdepartmental and interdisciplinary approach adopted in the White Paper, there is a worrying counter-trend in the Department of Health. It produced an earlier White Paper called "Reforming the Mental Health Act". I want to stress the links between the two concepts—the Venn diagram.

"Reforming the Mental Health Act" responded to popular fears about dangerous mental health patients. Obviously the public needs to be protected where there is a risk but there is a danger that the measure applying to mental health services is becoming a public protection measure and is taking away from some of the activities involved in community health provision. I am drawing on the experiences that the hon. Member for Chesterfield and I had when we visited the Hartington ward of the community health trust in north Derbyshire.

There are fears that the measure extends the criteria for detainment to those with drugs and alcohol-dependency problems, that there is no effective discharge procedure, and that patients lack rights prior to tribunals dealing with appeals. The measure may set back the campaign to reduce stigma, which we are anxious to do, deter patients from seeking help and break confidentiality. Professionals who share those feelings may want to detach themselves from that activity. Recruits may not want to work in that sector because of those pressures.

I hope that we will try to reconcile the two measures, although I recognise that we need to take public protection considerations into account. Whether the Department of Health should be leading on that is another matter, but in this White Paper the Department has been sensible enough to adopt the interdisciplinary approach. I want that approach to be taken to the mental health White Paper. I hope that, if there is a battle between the two White Papers, the one we are debating will be the victor.

The size of the problem in relation to learning disability has been outlined by the Minister. We need to deal with discrimination problems and to ensure that legislative, financial and support needs are met. I present the figures in a slightly different way from the Minister. In each constituency in the country, there are some 10,000

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disabled people and 3,000 or so people with learning difficulties, of whom 500 are severely disabled people, so the problems are known to all MPs. It is a pity that more colleagues are not in the House today because we need to impress upon them the significance of the White Paper and the attention that needs to be given to it.

However, we are mistaken if we think that experts, advisers and politicians alone will solve the problems that have been highlighted in the White Paper. The Minister highlighted the significance of self-help provisions, and we must listen and give authority to organisations for disabled people. We are lucky in north Derbyshire because a number of organisations are doing exactly that. At Clay Cross in my constituency, the Derbyshire coalition for disabled people campaigns on behalf of disabled people in Derbyshire. At Ripley, outside my constituency, the Derbyshire centre for integrated living is the servicing, enabling body. Some of the same people are active in the two, but although their areas of responsibility cross, they wear different hats. Many areas have disabled access groups. In Dronfield, where I live, there is an active access group which is keen on the proposals in the White Paper.

Because of the impact of the Derbyshire coalition, North East Derbyshire district council has provided a breakthrough to work programme for disabled people, including those with learning difficulties. It has been able to place into work, sometimes in the district council itself, people with those difficulties.

The Minister mentioned London People First and Carol Lee. London People First is made up of people with learning disabilities. One of the proudest moments for me in my period in the House was when I introduced the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, and London People First produced it as a document for their members, in a form that was meaningful to people with learning disabilities. I will always remember my visit to that organisation when that document was produced. No doubt it will be working on the White Paper so that its members also have access to it.

We must listen to and empower such groups. We can do that through developing further the correct legislative framework and providing for self-advocacy, for example, which the Minister mentioned.

The Government have made a sound start. They have made full use of the Disability Discrimination Act. The scope of that legislation developed considerably, partly because it was in conflict with the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill which I was introducing at the time. Initially, the Disability Discrimination Bill was not intended to apply to Northern Ireland, so all the Northern Ireland parties signed up to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. That led the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who was the Minister responsible at the time, to announce that Northern Ireland was to be included in the disability Bill. There was some lack of provision in terms of transport and education, but this was rectified as the Bill went through the House. Some Conservative Members who were interested in extending civil rights were working behind the scenes to improve the legislation and some agreed to block my Bill so long as the Government's proposed legislation was changed in line with their requirements. That is all good politics and helped to improve the legislation which is now in force.

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The Human Rights Act 1998 offers other avenues that can be pursued and developed. As I said earlier, the big achievement that resulted from the 1995 Act was the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission. It is only a pity that it was not set up a few years earlier.

The White Paper states on page 23 at paragraph 2.2:

There has always been support in Government circles for the provision of full civil rights for disabled people and there have been encouraging indications that the Government have that objective in mind. The White Paper helps them to work towards that end.

In current legislation the problem is medically defined in terms of physical and learning disabilities. We need provisions that are directed against the discriminator. The primary factor is the perception in the mind of anyone who is crude enough to discriminate on the grounds of disability. The fact that a person is disabled is secondary; the hideous factor is the discrimination, although I agree that those whose problems are covered by the legislation to help chronically sick and disabled people need empowerment, assistance and the right to lead full and decent lives. That is required from future legislation.

The White Paper sets out the rights that people with learning disabilities should have, including the right to vote and ease of access to electoral provision. It proposes

I have always taken a considerable interest in electoral registration matters. The Minister who introduced the rolling register that is now in place was kind enough to describe me as the father of the rolling register. However, there is a great deal more to be done and we have various issues to pursue.

In 1994, when my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood introduced his Bill on civil rights, I introduced a Bill on electoral matters which included proposals concerning access to polling stations. Giving everyone, including disabled people, registration rights still does not cover the difficulties faced by disabled voters, who should have the same right as able-bodied people to exercise their franchise in person. They should not be pressurised to resort to proxy votes and postal votes. Obviously they should have the same access to those facilities as anyone else, but if they want to vote in person everything should be done to enable them to do so.

My Bill was not successful, but those provisions were included in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill—a Bill I inherited from the disability movement and to which I added provisions to address that particular concern, which is shared by many disability organisations. I commend the publications by Scope, which produced three reports at consecutive elections about the continuing problem of access to polling stations. As votes are the building blocks of democracy, I hope that this matter will be further pursued and that the Home Office as the body responsible for such measures, will respond to the points that are raised in the White Paper.

The White Paper is an extremely valuable document. Along with the hon. Member for Daventry, I have climbed onto the shoulders of the report which has provided us with a commendable platform to present our argument.

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