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Since the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 first started to come into effect, steps have been taken to plug the various gaps in that original legislation. The Bill represents another major step in that direction, and no one wants to see it fall at the last hurdle. For example, the Local Government Association recently said:
"The LGA welcomes this bill, which will give greater equality of opportunity to disabled people, extending their civil rights and addressing the barriers that they face, and looks forward to its enactment. The LGA believes this to be an important piece of legislation and is keen to see that adequate parliamentary time is made available for this bill to complete its passage in the current parliamentary session."
Many other organisations have said exactly the same things, but not everyone agrees. I do not know whether the Minister has seen an article in The Times today, in which Alice Miles criticises the Bill, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Government's advertisements in relation to disabled access to work, to shops, restaurants and transport and to life in general. That a supposedly serious journalist in a supposedly serious newspaper can write such crass and patronising nonsense in this day and age simply illustrates why the Bill is needed. The Times article implies that there is no problem of access for disabled people to businesses, shops, transport and work because good old British common sense and our sense of fair play mean that everyone helps out the "genuinely disabled" and all is well. Hon. Members should note the use of the phrase "genuinely disabled".
Mr. Gordon Marsden
: I very much concur with the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman expresses. Does he agree that one of the problems inherent in such comments is the assumption that the great British public can always see what the disability is?
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Paul Holmes: Absolutely. I agree with the hon. Gentlemanand the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) has just made the point that most people think about people in wheelchairs when they talk about disability, but that is a small category of the range of different disabilities, and much disability is invisible in that sense.
I think that was a reference to the regulation introduced under the 1995 Act. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that the public are indeed showing admirable common sense shows that the regulation is not over-burdensome in many cases, so the author was defeating her own arguments?
Paul Holmes: Again, I can only agree with the hon. Gentleman's observation. The article assumed that there were no problems with access and that everyone would realise how to overcome any difficulties that occurred. For example, it said specifically that the average adaptation to allow disabled access to premises would cost only £70 to £100. However, many small businesses do not know that. They fear that regulations will mean that they must install much more expensive adaptations and do not realise that relatively simply measures can be implemented. The article was wide of the mark.
There was a clear implication behind the article's reference to the "genuinely disabled". It seemed to be asking how many of the 10 million disabled people figure that it ridiculed might be classified as "genuinely disabled", rather than, presumably, malingerers or non-genuinely disabled.
Miss Begg: I am afraid that I did not read the article, but perhaps the author might class me as one of the "genuinely disabled". Although I would love to think that the general public were always polite and helpful to those of us with disabilities, I know that people who park in disabled bays too close to my car so that I cannot get into it with my wheelchair have not been polite when challenged about their lack of courtesy or forethought.
Paul Holmes: I agree with the hon. Lady. No one in the Chamber can speak with more authority about the issue than her. I drive my mother-in-law to the supermarket in my home town of Chesterfield. She has a blue badge so that we can access disabled parking spaces, but they are often full. After remonstrating with people who park in them for convenience rather than because they need to use them, I know from first hand about the arrogance and rude behaviour that the hon. Lady describes.
: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the converse of that situation is that some people do not recognise their own disabilities or claim what is their right, especially by accessing services? I am thinking especially of people with hearing impairments who regard that as a difficulty that they must overcome, rather than something of which other people must now take account under the law when providing goods and services.
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Paul Holmes: Absolutely, although we are in danger of going off into the long debate about the social and medical models of disability. The social model indicates that disability is society's problem owing to the obstacles that it puts in people's way, rather than the problem of the people affected.
Several organisations such as the Royal National Institute of the Blind and RADAR have put out responses to the ridiculous and demeaning article. I would be grateful to hear the Minister's response to it because she indicated earlier that she had read it.
Every serious commentator inside and outside the House welcomes the Bill. No one wants it to fail at the last hurdle, which is why it is disappointing that the Bill was introduced late in the Parliament and that it is running up against the buffers of an imminent general election. The progress of the Bill could have been a superb model of how to pass legislation in the 21st century.
The Bill first went before the Joint Committee for pre-legislative scrutiny. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) has indicated that he did not think that that was such a good idea, but I disagree completely. I have taken part in pre-legislative scrutiny with the Education and Skills Committee on the School Transport Bill, for example, and I think that it is a welcome innovation that can do much to improve the way in which Parliament works and improves legislation.
The pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill produced many suggestions about how to improve it and the Government accepted a great majority of them, although by no means every one. That process has led to major improvement to the Bill. However, I have never understood that pre-legislative scrutiny is supposed to replace one of the Houses of Parliament. An earlier speaker almost seemed to suggest that, given that the Bill had received pre-legislative scrutiny and gone through the House of Lords, there was no need for the House of Commons to play its part in the process. That is not the purpose of pre-legislative scrutiny. It was designed to add an additional stage to a Bill's consideration at an early time in its passage when the Government and the Opposition would not be entrenched in political stances and thus more open to accepting good, sensible suggestions. It allows legislation to be considered in a less partisan manner than is the tendency during the formal legislative process.
Miss Begg: I suspect that I am the hon. Member to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. I was not saying that I did not think that the Bill should complete each of its stages in this House, but that less time would be required for its consideration because it had been discussed in the other place and by the Joint Committee. I was not trying to undermine this House, but pointing out that it is at the end of the process, not the beginning, unlike most other Bills.
I accept all the points that the hon. Lady makes. The programme motion provides for the Bill to spend two weeks in Committee after the Easter recess, but more or less everyone accepts that that will not happen because of an imminent general election. Perhaps the Bill will get one day in Committee on 5 April, or we may get no time at all and the whole lot will be dealt with in the wash-up. A two-week
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Committee process would have been perfectly adequate for a Bill that has been thoroughly scrutinised and to which many amendments have been madealthough there are still some outstanding issues to addressso I agree with the hon. Lady that we do not need an especially long process at this stage. However, we need that legitimate process to be carried out, although that will almost certainly not happen after the recess because of the election.
The Bill's passage could have been a model example of how to pass legislation in the 21st century. It received excellent pre-legislative scrutiny after which many suggestions were accepted, and then went through its full process in the other place. The Lords did a lot of excellent work on the Bill, and I mention especially the work of Lords Addington and Oakeshott. Lord Addington successfully moved an amendment to require an annual report to be made to Parliament to monitor the number of exemptions granted to the rail industry to exempt stock from being accessible to disabled people. That measure will increase the pressure on rail operators to ensure that they not only meet the target by 2020, but hopefully exceed it and make all their stock accessible before that date. We hoped that we could finish the job in the Commons after such excellent work in the other place, but the Bill will probably go into the wash-up instead of being properly considered in Committee.
The Minister has said that the desired end of the process is an Act of Parliament, not a Bill that has been excessively well scrutinised. If the Government had introduced the Bill in 2001 or 2002, that would not have been a problem, because we would have been able to scrutinise it properly, improve it further and then get an Act of Parliament. If the Government had not left such a long gap between the report of the Joint Committee and the Bill's introduction in the Lords, we would not have had a problem and could have gone through the whole process properly. I am not making that point for the first time. On 10 June 2004, I stood in this spot during a debate on disability and made exactly the same point. I said that the responses from the draft scrutiny were being considered and asked whether the Bill would be timetabled to get through Parliament before the next election destroyed it. If the Government had given the Bill higher priority earlier, we would not face such a problem. However, given that I made the point last year and even before that, it is well worn and I shall not take it any further.
although that also applies to other bodies. It says that that will increase the number of "plans and strategies" that councils, the Government and other bodies are dealing with and trying to rationalise at present.
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The Bill instead goes down the road of placing specific duties on specific bodies to promote equality of opportunity, such as councils and schools. I shall talk about schools later. Lord Lester of course piloted the Equality Bill through the House of Lords, and although many hon. Members supported that private Member's Bill, the Government refused to implement it. We are putting the cart before the horse, in a way, because it is regrettable that we do not have a single equalities Act before moving on to address other matters and the single equality commission.
I seek the Minister's clarification on three specific areas of inclusion or omission in the Bill as it stands. First, I want to mention including cancer from the point of diagnosis as falling within the definition of disability. That was a welcome step forward, but the Government have chosen to exclude what they term minor cancers, because they are quickly and easily treated and will not therefore lead to discrimination. That unnecessarily complicates the Bill, and it will mean that the Government have to produce detailed statutory guidance about what would or would not constitute substantial treatment, for example, in individual cases of specific cancers.
More importantly, apart from complicating the Bill, such provision ignores the fact that stigma is the basis of discrimination, rather than the illness itself. The cancer organisations and disability charities argue that a cancer diagnosis, however minor, can lead to discrimination against an individual regarding employment, travel or life insurance, mortgage applications or income and payment protection on loans or mortgages. All the various bodies to which such people make their applications may discriminate on the ground of cancer. They may not draw the line between serious and minor, in so far as such a line can be drawn.
I welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to make regulations excluding certain cancers only after the Government have reviewed the evidence submitted to them, and to do so through affirmative procedures. I noted that the Disability Rights Commission was prayed in aid as saying that it was satisfied with that approach and that we did not need to go any further. The DRC is an admirable body with which I have done a lot of work and I have great respect for it, but although it says that that is enough, many other bodies do not agree. For example, Macmillan Cancer Relief, Cancer Research UK and CancerBACUP are still very concerned about the issue and would like to see further changes in the Bill to meet their concerns.
Will the Minister confirm that she has received a letter from the chief executives of those three leading and respected cancer charities? Will she confirm that they have appealed to her in their letter and in their detailed submissions to the Department's consultation, which has just ended, to strengthen a Bill that they welcome very much so that everyone with a cancer diagnosis is protected from unjustified discrimination from the moment at which they are diagnosed, in line with the proposals in the Bill for people with multiple sclerosis or an HIV diagnosis, for example? Will she explain to the House how the Government's acknowledgement on 26 November last year in a letter to one of her hon. Friends that stigma is the basis of discrimination can be reconciled with the Bill's proposal to exclude from protection people with certain types of cancer? Is she not
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thereby implying that the Government can somehow decide arbitrarily that one type of cancer will incur stigma, while another will not? How can they be so sure of that position?
On the question of substantial treatment, will the Minister comment on Cancer Research UK's view that the prescribed cancers should not be excluded from clause 17, partly on the ground that many of the exempted cancers frequently require substantial treatment eventually? There was a long discussion in the other place about the point at which a superficial skin cancer or melanoma, for example, became serious. At a depth of one sixteenth of a millimetre or slightly more, it would apparently become a serious cancer as opposed to a minor one. Many minor cancers require substantial treatment. Will she respond to Cancer Research UK's questioning of the definition of substantial treatment and comment on its view that the current definition ignores the distress caused to all patients, whether they have a minor or major cancer at the initial point of diagnosis?
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