Draft Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (Amendment) Regulations 2003

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Paul Holmes (Chesterfield): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hurst.

The regulations are welcome and have been well drafted. There is little to argue about in relation to their content, and we offer our wholehearted support for them.

I would like one point to be clarified by the Minister. How exactly will the new provision be communicated to small employers, whose exemption will be removed? How will they be educated about the process? I am thinking, for example, of MPs who typically employ two, three, four people. One might assume that because of their job, MPs would be more aware than most about the issue. However, if a questionnaire were conducted tomorrow of the 650-odd hon. Members, there would be a fair degree of ignorance about the requirements of previous legislation and these regulations. If that is true of MPs, who have all the support of the parliamentary Fees Office, how much more true will it be of the small employers to whom the regulations will apply?

Small employers are often one or two-people businesses, which cannot employ personnel officers and expert advice, as the bigger firms do. They need to know about not just the new regulations but all previous regulations that will now apply to them. Will

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the Minister therefore elaborate on the education and publicity programme that will be implemented and aimed at small employers?

One could not find fault with the regulations, but there are two areas of concern. One is the manner of the legislation, and the piecemeal, incremental nature of the changes. The other relates to the things that are not included in the regulations. Everyone acknowledges that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was a great leap forward, although it had many gaps and omissions. Since then, the Government have filled in many of those gaps and omissions. They are doing more with the regulations and promise to do more with their draft disability Bill, which was promised in January and is still awaited six months later. However, piecemeal action and incremental changes via delegated legislation lead to complex law. Debating the regulations in the other place, Lord Lester said:

    ''One needs to be almost a rocket scientist to appreciate the law, but it does not have to be that way.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 June 2003; Vol. 649, c. 141.]

Further complexity arises from the separate strands of equality legislation. Week by week we get new announcements and regulations on disability, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and age.

The Government are missing a huge opportunity—not to mention breaking a manifesto promise—by not introducing single equality legislation. Lord Lester recently introduced such a Bill in the other place and 242 hon. Members backed it in an early-day motion just last month. Such modern, coherent and accessible legislation would remove the growing complexity of layer on layer of legislation, regulations and amendments covering three—soon to be six—areas of discrimination.

Such legislation would also remove the areas in which discrimination is legal in one respect and not in others. For example, in some cases, people can discriminate against disabled people when they would not be able to discriminate on grounds of race or gender. Such an Act is regarded by disability organisations as an essential precursor to a single equality commission.

As for the promised disability Bill, my first reaction in January, when the Government trailed it, was to warn of the lack of a firm timetable and the danger that it could be squeezed out or lost as the next general election looms. I was interested to see that echoed in a Disability Rights Commission briefing on 10 June. It stated:

    ''Urgent action is now required to implement recommendations made 3½ years ago, otherwise this Manifesto commitment could run the severe risk of not being met, given the Election cycle and uncertainties as to other legislative priorities over the next couple of years.''

I was pleased, and perhaps reassured, to hear the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions tell the all-party group on disability on 17 June that the manifesto commitment

    ''still stands and will be met this Parliament.''

He assured the group quite categorically—unless I wrote his words down incorrectly—that

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    ''The Bill will be passed this Parliament.''

Perhaps the Minister could tell us more about that.

The regulations are good in themselves, but contain important omissions that still leave the Disability Discrimination Act short of fully implementing both the EU employment directive and the recommendations of the disability rights taskforce in 1999. Practical work experience is now covered, which is welcome. Recently, I was the guest speaker at the annual conference of PlaceNet, which is the association for university lecturers who deal with placements for undergraduate sandwich courses. There was a morning session, run by Skill, that considered the details of the 1995 Act and how it would apply in the near future to undergraduate placements. The people attending welcomed the extension of the provisions and were keen to learn more.

Welcome as the extension to practical work placements is, however, the regulations do not cover all aspects of work placements. The extent to which the regulations will apply to all aspects of the new deal is unclear. Also, volunteers are excluded from the regulations. During the debate in the other place, Baroness Hollis conceded:

    ''I am not saying that we have necessarily got it absolutely right—the provision may in future have to be revisited''.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 June 2003; Vol. 649, c. 147.]

Will the Minister tell us why the regulations were so tightly drawn and why they apply only to practical work experience and not to the whole range of work experience or volunteers?

Councillors are also excluded from the regulations, even though the disability rights taskforce recommended in 1999 that they should be included. The Disability Rights Commission has had cases brought to it by councillors who have been denied reasonable adjustments to allow them to take part in meetings during their political work. School governors, who are absolutely essential to the management of our schools, are also still excluded from the regulations. Can the Minister tell us why, and what consideration she has given to including those groups?

I was a teacher for 22 years, and I am puzzled by the apparent omission of exam boards. They deal with qualifications such as GCSE and A-level, but those are not deemed to be work related and employment focused, so do not fall under the regulations. However, basic academic qualifications at 16 and 18 are the pre-requisite—the first step—for any young person to move into the world of work. Why, therefore, exclude exam boards, or the aims of exam boards, that deal with such qualifications?

A number of other areas are excluded, including the extension of the definition of disability to those diagnosed with HIV or other progressive conditions such as multiple sclerosis. There is a need for those conditions to be defined as a disability from the point of diagnosis and before the person develops full blown symptoms.

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I shall conclude with the issue of public bodies, such as the DRC, not being allowed to take cases under their own names and having to rely on individuals to pursue cases with DRC advice. Such a power to litigate would provide a valuable addition to the commission's enforcement role on behalf of disabled people. I hope that the Minister can respond to my questions and reassure us that all the issues that I have raised will be tackled in the near future.

3.31 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): I broadly welcome the provisions, but seek clarification from the Minister on the interpretation of the word ''reasonable'' in part 2, proposed new section 3A(2), and as it relates to access to premises and buildings.

During the years that I worked at a special school, we had difficulties in finding work experience placements for students with severe mobility problems—not just students in wheelchairs, but those who walked with callipers and used rollators. One student in particular gained a place at the local further education college only to find that the course that he wanted to take was on the first floor. The student could walk small distances, but could not use a wheelchair because he could not sit or bend his knees. The college in question did not have a lift. The happy end to that story was that the college had a lift installed, but there was a massive capital investment required for the structural alterations to the building.

How will the word ''reasonable'' be interpreted in respect of small businesses, which are no longer exempt from provisions? If they employ fewer than 15 people, one can assume that they have a relatively modestly turnover. It might be beyond their ability to pay for high-cost adjustments to buildings. For example, a ramp outside an outside door is inexpensive and could be provided easily by most organisations. More expensive alterations, such as widened doors, disabled toilet facilities or the installation of a lift would involve a lot of capital investment.

Mr. Boswell: Although I understand my hon. Friend's point about the relative cheapness of many adjustments—she referred to ramps—she may need to reflect on the case of a particular bank in the south of England that wanted to build a ramp across the pavement to facilitate access. The bank was invited by the city council to pay £325,000 in ransom for the privilege. That was not acceptable, and negotiations continued for many years. It shows that we have a long way to go in changing attitudes.

Angela Watkinson: Unfortunately, some of these things are not as simple as we would like, but I know from personal experience that there is such a thing as a portable ramp. However, there is the inconvenience of anticipating when it will be needed, and of putting it out and removing it afterwards.

I hope that the regulations encourage employers to consider employing disabled people, rather than putting them off. I was a little alarmed about the reference to Members of Parliament being small businesses—I know that I am a small business,

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because I am a member of my local chamber of commerce and industry.

 
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