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Tom Levitt : I am not sure that the DRC regards the present proposals as its abolition. There has been considerable consultation with all the representative bodies—not just with the three existing strands that have commissions, but with the other strands that will be included in the 2006 regulations—which is why the equalities legislation is being introduced now. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the DRC has welcomed the consultation on the equalities commission and, as it now stands, is happy to go along with it?

Mr. Goodman: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the DRC expressed anxieties about protecting the role of disability work in the new commission. We wait to see exactly what happens during the passage of the Bill. We want to reserve our position until the issues in that Bill have been fully explored, but we have no opposition to an equalities commission in principle.

The barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating on equal terms in modern Britain are formidable. There is concern that the distinctive identity mission and work of the DRC could be imperilled, which is why we look forward to discussions on the Bill.

Consideration of Bills is necessarily a dry and dusty business, at least in part; clauses are examined, improvements are suggested and intentions are probed. There is far more to the Bill than the sum of its clauses. It is part of a story of legislation and action to try to ensure equal opportunities and social justice for disabled people. The source of that legislation and action is not Government, but disabled people and the wider community.

Some progress has been made under the Governments of both main parties, although that progress is hard to measure. However, disabled people all too often remain an untapped source of talent and potential and all too frequently find themselves marginalised and excluded. We should remember that a disabled child is still less likely to survive birth than a non-disabled child. As a disabled child grows to be an
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adult, they are less likely than a non-disabled adult to gain qualifications, go to university, get a job, earn as much money, have easy access to transport or enjoy leisure activities. As a disabled adult ages, they are still less likely to enjoy the same income in retirement, access to the benefits system as quickly or live as long as a non-disabled person of the same age.

Equal opportunities have not yet been realised. Perhaps they will always be work in progress, just as anti-discrimination legislation, like the Bill, is always work in progress and always capable of improvement. Although, sadly, the House may not have further opportunities to improve the Bill, it is part of a process of legislation and action to fight discrimination and to deliver better life chances for disabled people. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to play a part in that.

2.21 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I am delighted to be involved in the debate on this Bill. A few weeks ago, I met some disabled people at the Labour party Scottish conference and may have given them the false impression that, if there were an early election, the Bill might fall and not reach the statute book. However, I was delighted when I returned to the House the following week and spoke to the Minister for Disabled People, because he assured me that the Government have every intention of ensuring that, whenever the election is called, the Bill will be on the statute book. I apologise to those whom I spoke to that weekend if I gave them a false impression about the Government's intention; it is clear that they intend to put the Bill firmly on the statute book.

I take issue with the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) about whether our discussion has been truncated. It is worth remembering that, when a Bill is introduced in the House of Commons first, that is generally the first bite of the cherry in amending and scrutinising it. However, this is the third attempt at scrutinising the Bill. The draft Bill was first considered by the scrutiny Committee on which the hon. Gentleman and I served. Many changes were made as a result of that, probably more than would have been achieved during the normal parliamentary procedures in Standing Committees in either place.

Mr. Goodman: Can the hon. Lady confirm that I did not say that consideration of the Bill had been truncated at this stage? I said that it was likely to be truncated after Second Reading. Does she disagree?

Miss Begg: That answers the point I am making that, by the time the Bill goes into Committee in this House, most of the serious work will have been done. Not only were serious amendments made to the draft Bill—the hon. Gentleman will agree that those amendments were welcome—but it has been further amended in the other place. As a result of those amendments, the scrutiny remaining for this House to do is perhaps less than would normally follow Second Reading, Standing Committee and remaining stages in this House followed by those stages in another place. The Bill is at the end of that process and has gone through a lot more scrutiny
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than many other Bills would have had by this stage. The Government cannot be accused of lack of scrutiny of the Bill. I believe that everyone in this House wants the Bill on the statute book and I hope that it will go speedily through Standing Committee in this House.

The Bill is the final missing piece in a jigsaw of equality legislation. It does not hang together easily because it is slightly bitty and covers different aspects, partly because of its purpose, which is to fill the gaps left by other legislation. Starting with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, we have seen that legislation works.

Long before I was elected to this place, I was involved with a number of organisations for the disabled. I often met people who argued that to bring about the changes in people's attitudes to disabled people that we have seen in recent years required education and persuasion, not legislation. That argument was often used in this House against private Member's Bills. It was argued that the best way of changing attitudes and the way in which disabled people are perceived in society was not by legislation, certainly not heavy-handed legislation, but by education. However, we know that education and persuasion did not work. The 1995 Act proved that, when there is a framework of legislation, attitudes change more rapidly than with gentle persuasion or pointing out that things are wrong. That is mainly because in this country people want to abide by the law, and legislation can provide the framework or civic context that says that something is wrong. To discriminate against people because of their disability is wrong. To stop someone getting a job because they happen to have a disability is wrong. Without the context of legislation, people are not always sure what is right or wrong. Legislation has been proved to work and I am pleased that the Government are continuing to plug the gaps of the existing legislative framework.

I do not want to go into the details of the Bill, because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out the framework very well in his speech, and I am conscious that other hon. Members want to scrutinise the Bill. I am most pleased about provisions covering, for example, private clubs. The fact that private clubs could discriminate against people with disabilities was always a huge gap in the provision. Guests and members of clubs with more than 25 members will be covered by the Bill.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend, not least for highlighting the provision covering private clubs, which will do a great deal. Does she agree that the perniciousness of the previous situation was not just that disabled people went to clubs and were not admitted, but the climate of uncertainty and the feeling that they would not be welcome in such clubs in the first place?

Miss Begg: That is important because we want disabled people to play their full part in an equal society. That includes social life and engagement with other people who may not share a disability. For many disabled people the only clubs they could go to were those for disabled people where they would meet only people who shared some of the same problems. They want to be able to go to mainstream clubs. Just because someone has a disability, it does not mean that they
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necessarily share the same hobbies and interests as other people with disabilities. It would be absurd to assume that, but 30 years ago it was often assumed that if someone was severely disabled and in a wheelchair they would like to go along to a club to play draughts, dominoes and other passive pastimes.

When I was teaching, one of my pupils said to me, "I think we should have clubs for disabled people, so that they could go along and play draughts or whatever. That's how we should get disabled people back into society." I asked that young girl if she would like to go to a club to play only draughts and dominoes. She said, "No, I would hate it." I said, "Well, I would hate it too." It took a wee while for the penny to drop that I as a disabled person—perhaps she did not regard me as a disabled person—would hate such a club. The limit of imagination about what disabled people are capable of doing often limits disabled people themselves.

That story illustrates the perception of what disabled people could do on the part of those who are not disabled. However, I am glad to say that attitudes have changed immeasurably in recent years, thanks to this Government and the legislative framework. When the Bill was undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny, I received an email from a climbing club, which was concerned that if it was, as a private club, brought under the remit of the DDA it would have to make its huts—or bothies, as they are called in Scotland—accessible to people in wheelchairs, which would be an unreasonable cost. I pointed out to the club the test of reasonableness. If someone in a wheelchair could not get up the mountain to the hut, there would be no need to ensure wheelchair access. However, less than 5 per cent. of people with disabilities use wheelchairs and what the climbing club could no longer do was to discriminate against someone who was blind or had a limb missing, but who could still get up to a hut to stay the night. We often need to point out that people with disabilities have different disabilities and a raft of different access needs. It is important that private clubs be brought under the DDA, and the Bill will achieve that.

Another important provision in the Bill concerns housing, especially in the rented sector. As the hon. Member for Wycombe pointed out, in the Joint Committee I was concerned about what happens when disabled people cannot get adjustments made to the access to their homes because it is along a communal path, up communal stairs or through some communal ground and the other people who have access object. That concern was based on the experience of one of my constituents, who had bought their own council flat, as had the person who lived upstairs—the properties were four-in-a-block flats. The upstairs neighbours objected to a ramp being installed up to the front door of the downstairs flat because it would have been along the communal path. That seemed grossly unfair. The Bill would not necessarily answer all such problems, but I welcome the fact that the DRC can act as mediator when relationships break down in such circumstances. That was what was missing in my constituent's case. No one had the ability to act as mediator to ensure that the changes could be made. I am glad that housing, especially in the rented sector, will be brought under the DDA by the Bill, because inevitably many disabled people live in the private rented sector and it is
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important that landlords have the duty not to block the aids and adaptations that may be necessary to allow disabled people to live in their own homes.

I am also glad that councillors will be covered by the DDA under the Bill. As a disabled MP, I am probably already covered under employment legislation, so I cannot be discriminated against, although since I was elected I have not faced such discrimination. It is good, however, that councillors, who are not employees in the normal sense, will be covered.

Perhaps the aspect of the Bill that will make the biggest change in the lives of disabled people is the inclusion of travel and transport. It was a huge gap in the original 1995 Act that transport was not regarded as a service, and it has been a perpetual bugbear for disabled people that transport is so difficult. Disabled people have difficulty getting around in the first place, and then they find that the vehicles that they may use are not adapted for their needs. That is a double whammy and feels like a particular insult.

I noted that the Budget introduced free bus travel at off-peak times for disabled people in England, following Scotland's example. However, there is no point in giving disabled people free bus travel if they cannot get on the buses in the first place. The imperative is to ensure that all new rolling stock is accessible. That will not be the case for coaches, and we need to do more work on that. When disabled people want to travel by bus using their free bus pass, they should have access. There is no point in giving people extra freedoms if the transport providers have not come up to scratch.

I am glad that the other place put into the Bill an end date for accessibility for rail rolling stock. I would have liked it to be earlier, and the Joint Committee recommended 2017 by splitting the difference between what the Government wanted and what the disabled organisations wanted, which was 2015. I was heartened to hear the Secretary of State reiterate that 2020 is an end date, not the date at which change must start. I hope that rail operators will recognise the economic advantages of providing accessible rolling stock. More disabled people will travel more, but so will those who accompany them. I always have somebody else with me, and if I cannot travel, they do not travel either. It is not only the disabled people, but their friends and families who are discriminated against. There is, therefore, an economic case for making all forms of transport accessible as soon as possible. That is crucial and I hope that the rail operators will take heed of it.

The issue of education tribunals was raised by the hon. Member for Wycombe, with regard to what is happening in Scotland. Under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, the SEN provisions apply to England and Wales, but the civil rights provisions apply to the whole of Scotland, because education is a devolved function. Although education as a service was brought under the auspices of the DDA, how that was implemented was obviously left to the Scottish Executive.

At the time, when disputes arose over a child's special educational needs, tribunals were to be set up in England and Wales to hear such cases, but the Scottish Parliament had not legislated for the equivalent provisions in Scotland. The only way that any argument over such access could be settled in Scotland was
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through the existing legal system—the sheriff courts—as SEN tribunals did not exist in Scotland at that time. Since then, the Scottish Parliament has legislated in respect of SEN. Such tribunals now exist with regard to SEN provision, but access issues must still go to sheriff courts.

In the past day or so, I received an e-mail from the DRC in Scotland to say that, following constructive talks with members of the Scottish Executive, positive moves are taking place to set a time scale in Scotland to ensure that tribunals hear cases that relate to SEN provision, as well as cases where a child has been discriminated against because of a disability and perhaps not allowed to go to a certain school. The time scale has not yet been set, but I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government are in discussion with the relevant Ministers in the Scottish Executive to ensure that they have the powers to bring both sorts of dispute under the same type of tribunal hearing. I am sure that a solution can be found.

There was some discussion about whether the House would need to pass the necessary legislation or whether that could be done by the Scottish Executive, but I hope that the Minister can assure us she is engaged with Ministers in the Scottish Executive to ensure that they have the powers they require to make that decision themselves. The decision has to lie with them and it is for them to make up their minds, but if any legislative quirk means that the relevant changes must be made by the House, I hope that they will be put in place when the time comes.

Those are some of the things that I welcome in the Bill. There is a lot more in it—it has lots of little bits that fill in the various gaps—but it is worth remembering that the Bill is not the only thing that the Government are doing in relation to disability. Although the Bill will help to ensure that people will not be discriminated against on the grounds of their disability or for many other reasons, it is worth nothing that the Government are taking a great deal of action—for example, on employment—to ensure that disabled people play their full part in society and are not excluded.

It is one thing to ensure that disabled people will not be discriminated against when they go for a job interview; it is another to ensure that they are properly equipped to go to that job interview in the first place and, indeed, that the job exists so that they can apply for it. All the other things that the Department for Work and Pensions is doing with regard to encouraging disabled people into the workplace—whether young disabled people or those who are sitting on incapacity benefit—cannot be divorced from these proposals. That work is crucial to ensure that disabled people can take advantage of the rights that the Bill will give to them. It is one thing to have the rights; it is another thing to be able to use them fully.

I should like to raise another issue that has slipped past: genetic discrimination. I was delighted to hear that the moratorium on insurance companies gaining access to information about someone's genetic make-up in determining the policy that they will award has been extended. That is very important because, at some time
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in the future, the House may have to pass legislation saying that it is as wrong to discriminate on the grounds of genetics as on those of disability.

I do not want to take up any more of the House's time at the moment, but I want to reiterate what both the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the hon. Member for Wycombe have said: it is absolutely crucial the Bill get on to the statute book before the election, because many of the rights that disabled people are still waiting to receive are included in the Bill. It will make a difference to people's lives. It will ensure that those of us who have a disability are not disadvantaged in the lives that we lead, and we will be able to hold our heads up high and go out and do what everyone else is doing.

2.45 pm

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