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Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con):
Like others who have contributed to this debate, the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) made some constructive points in relation to education and leisure, and was also right to highlight the importance of carers and the large role of all the voluntary organisations in the field of disability which protect the various interests and people concerned. His remarks were entirely consistent with the general tone of this debate and the deserved welcome that the Bill has received from all
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quarters of the House. I am no exception to that: I am pleased that the Bill is being discussed today. I would have no problems with its passage into legislation, and would not seek to frustrate it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), in a speech of some breadth and complexity, prefaced his remarks with some of the parliamentary history of the scrutiny of this legislation. It is not necessary to revisit all those points, except to say that the House will know that I had Front-Bench responsibilities for these matters for my party before he did, and I had the same experience as he had of trying to persuade the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), to get on with it, and of warning her of what might happen if progress was not made. We now have a pistol to our head. It would be mistaken of Ministers, the Disability Rights Commission or whoever, to assume, in the mode of a reactionary Member of the House prior to the Reform Act of 1832, that the British constitution was so perfect that no possible amendment could be considered. Quite a lot remains to be considered in terms of the various interests, including points that have been made today, and that is why I would very much welcome detailed scrutiny of the Bill in Committee, although, sadly, that might not happen.
Perhaps my last contentious point is that what has happened with this Bill has, in a sense, been a paradigm of the marginalisation of disability issues more generally. This Bill comes very much at the end of the queue in relation to consideration by this House, although it is not the only such Bill. In addition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe reminded the House, the last time that we considered such matters strategically was on European election day. I, the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), to whose contribution we look forward, and otherscoincidentally, with a strong representation from the east midlands, partly because we all had all-postal ballotsspoke on that day and felt strongly about the issue. If that happens in the House, perhaps it is merely a paradigm of what happens elsewhere.
Having taken an interest in disability matters in the House for some six years, apart from those as a constituency Member, my impression is that there are two parties. There is a minority party, which is represented on both sides of the House, who take an active interest and wish to promote these issuesMembers from both sides of the House have said generously that this is an all-party effort, through the disability group and otherwiseand a much larger number of people on whom these matters do not impinge day to day. If it is difficult to create awareness in this place, how much more difficult it is to create it among service providers or users outside. That is part of the role of legislation, to which I will return in a moment.
In closing my remarks on the legislative history, it would be fair to sayfrom time to time Ministers show generosity, and I note the remarks made by Baroness Hollis in the other place about the Disability Discrimination Act 1995that this is not an oppositionist issue.
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We are not emerging from darkness into light. Social progress in this country, in many contexts, is secured through the progressive activities and influences of different Governments building on each other's experience. If we can claim credit for the 1995 Act, the Minister can equally claim credit for the Disability Rights Commission, for the extension to education in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, and indeed for this Bill. There is no need to argue about it; we are on the same side in seeking progressive improvement.
We should also record our gratitude to those who have helped to lay the foundations for these additional changes: the Disability Rights Task Force and the Disability Rights Commission. When the commission was first established, I was, as it were, the Minister's opposite number. I proceeded with a reasonable degree of healthy scepticism, needing to be convinced; and I was convincedthat the commission was doing a good job in a sensitive way, and was an active force for good. I say that unequivocally, because I believe it to be true. Along with the task force and its well known report, it has looked at the operation of the 1995 Act and improved it.
I hope the Minister will not think I am trying to put her down when I say that a parliamentary analogy could be drawn with Ministers' alleged argument in favour of the European constitution. Some of the Bill is a tidying-up exercise to deal with areas that have not been properly covered, butin a spirit of bipartisanship, or multi-partisanshipI concede that it makes at least two major advances. First, I think we are all pleased to see that real progress has been made in improving transport. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), who spoke interestingly from direct experience of disability, rightly said that mobility was an important component of the empowerment of disabled people and the improvement of their lot. Secondly, clause 3 and other parts of the Bill give public authorities a general duty to promote disability equality and the interests of disabled people.
Those are important issues, but the transport issue is not straightforward. It is fair to say that a private sector provider of goods and services is bound by reasonable adjustments. As disability interests have been able to demonstrate, there are ways of making such adjustments that are affordable and sensible, and I would endorse such an approach. In the case of major public sector provision, however, it can be quite expensive, and objectives may occasionally overlap or clash.
There are only two railway stations in my constituency, both very small. One is Kings Sutton, the other Long Buckby. One is unmanned; the other has someone there in the mornings. They are both very much Victorian stations. The cross-line access at Kings Sutton is soon to be improved, but the problem with both stations is that the platforms are rather short. The problem with altering rolling stockin the entirely commendable and desirable interests of mobilityis that it tends to require more space. Trains may have to be longer to retain the same capacity. Trains are getting longer in any case, to meet the capacity of stations. Unless and until single-door control is introduced, it will be difficult to achieve a service at those stations. If they are closed for that or another reason, such as the rather
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poor access arrangements, the alternative is to go to a railhead in the town, which may not serve the interests of disabled people. I rehearse those as the sorts of difficulty that may be encountered, which is why I understand that Ministers will want some time to get this done. I hope that they are determined to press on and to make sure that it is done.
As regards the general duty, I am reassured by, and take comfort from, the fact that although there were some stern duties under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, it seems to have worked well. I have never had to deal with an adverse case or report from a constituent, and it is reassuring that it is possible to produce such duties without a backlash, if I might put it that way.
There are some technical differences between disability duties and awareness on the one hand and those related to racism and sexism. To use an analogy, it has always struck me that the difference between racism and disability compliance and awareness is a bit like the difference between digital and analogue. Broadly, either one is a racist or one is not, and there is a clear decision, one way or the other. In relation to disability awareness, the situation is more complex because the questions tend to include whether adjustments were considered, made and reasonable. There is much more feedback in terms of whether the action taken is appropriate.
In relation to gender preference, there is an intermediate position because the Minister, from her experience of employment law, will know that it is possible to be judged to have discriminated indirectly through for example the differential operation of the qualifying period for an employment tribunal, in terms of the length of time one has been at work. These are complex issues and it would be wrong and unnecessaryfrom the experience of race relations legislationto seek to run away from giving the duties to public bodies, which I welcome.
I appreciate that the Equality Bill has now been given its Second Reading date and I rather anticipate making a contribution on that Bill as well. It would therefore be inappropriate to make a Second Reading speech on that subject now. I have listened to the exchanges and various interventions on the DRC's attitude to the Equality Commission, and we have made a good deal of progress. However, in considering that legislation, as and when it moves towards the statute book, it is necessary to make sure that the particular features of disability are properly covered. There is already provision for a commissioner, but there is also a need for a body of expertise and the resources to meet the needs of, as well as safeguards for, disability interests in a single commission. No one would be happy with a situation where we legislated to put everything together and then found that none of the single strands was being adequately catered for.
There is greater complexity in relation to the nature of reasonable adjustments as against having a simple on-off test for whether or not someone is compliant in relation to discrimination matters. There is more work to be done there and the DRC and some of the studies to which Ministers have referred will help to take that agenda forward.
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An interesting issue that interacts with the one of public duties is that in disability matters, even more than in other equality issues, there is an interaction of different providers. It may be that a particular provider wants to do something and is perfectly prepared to comply with the duty, but other aspects of the jigsaw are not put together. We all know from our constituents how difficult it is for people to deal with disability issues. There could be legal complications for an individual provider accused of not seeking to promote the interests of disabled people, because even if the situation was not their fault and somebody else was responsible, the service, in effect, would not be being provided, regardless of whose legal fault it was.
The second issue, about which I feel very strongly, is that we need to pay much more attention to the different forums of enforcement and the relative difficulty of carrying out enforcement within them. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South mentioned the Scottish legal system and the sheriff court. She clearly implied that that was a more difficult process than using a special educational needs tribunal, which I can understand. Of course, under English legislation, schools are dealt with through the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal, but further education and higher education are not, so a distinction remains in that regard. A few years ago, the Royal National Institute of the Blind did some work on the part 2 duties relating to employment. Such duties are dealt with by the tribunal, whereas part 3 duties relating to goods and services are dealt with by the county court. It seems highly implausible that there is more discrimination in one area than in the other, so that issue has to be looked at.
Finally, there is the question of bringing all this together in a single body of legislation, taking into account people's human rights. The Government are seeking to amalgamate the various institutions and, I concede, trying to preserve disability as one of the essential strands. However, we need to look at the wider human rights agenda. I will offer for free to the Government an insight prompted by a former Labour Secretary of State, Dick Crossman, some 40 years ago. He said of rents, "What we want is rents that are fair." Public bodies, in dealing with citizenswhether or not they have a particular disability or equality issueshould be expected to treat them decently. How one puts that into law and adjudicates on it I do not know, but there is still a great deal to be done in that regard.
I acknowledge that, here, the law is an important participant, and it has two functions, the first of which is declaratory. Its first function is to say that we as a society are not prepared to put up with some of our citizens being treated as second-class citizens. Its second function is to deal not just with businesses that make honest efforts, but in particular with those that say, "We do not want to get involved in all this; it is not for us, you know." It must make sure that that attitude is rooted out and if necessary punished. But at the same time it must try to encourage those who want to help to take a positive attitude, to take advice, and above all to consider the necessary adjustments that must be made, and to take forward the agenda of serving our disabled and other minority constituents. So law has a function, but I advise the House against saying that this Bill will
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in itself transform the situation. Although it will help and be another brick in the edifice, it will not conclude the building.
I do not often quote others commenting on me, but I was rather proud to be described in a parliamentary sketch of some 18 months agothe phrase related to another aspect of the equality agenda, and I enjoyed it after I thought about itas "relentlessly inclusionist". I am quite happy about that, because we should be relentlessly inclusionist; indeed, I hope and think that everybody in this Chamber is so. We should work to ensure that it becomes a matter of course that all our citizens are empowered, included and given the opportunity to give of their best: to make their own contribution to the economic, social and cultural life of this country, and to take all the benefits that we take for granted. We do not necessarily need to treat them in a special way to do that. The more we can approximate to that situation, the better. We need the underpinning of law, but we also need the right assumptions and attitudes to become a normal part of life. I am not a MarxistI would not be sitting on these Opposition Benches if I werethough I might be more of a sceptic, but if we could see all the business surrounding equality withering away, no one would be happier than me.
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