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Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con):
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I am pleased to do so and I know that various disability organisations are delighted that this debate is taking place and we are making progress. As we have heard from many hon. Members this afternoon, there is a real desire to see the legislation on the statute book.
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It is curious how one becomes interested in a subject. In the case of the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), who spoke movingly about his mother, the cause was his personal family conditions. It is not something that has affected my own family, but in 1992 when I became a Member of Parliament I had a secretary who was quite severely disabled. It is extraordinary how the facilities in the Palace of Westminster, however imperfect, have moved on in the 13 years since I have been an MP. It was seeing life through my secretary's eyes that gave me an abiding interest in this subject. I saw the difficulties that life presented for her in many respects in this particular place of employment, as well as the bureaucracy that she had to face on many different levels, and that is why I have continued to take an interest in the subject.
That is why in 1995, when the original Disability Discrimination Act was passed, I felt it was a welcome step forward, and I certainly supported it because it was the first attempt by a British Government to legislate on the concept and principle of disability discrimination. It gave disabled people a right not to be discriminated against in employment and a right of access to goods, facilities, financial services and the transport infrastructure.
I entirely take the point made by the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) that, as we look back over 10 years, we can see that the 1995 Act was imperfect and that there are gaps to fill. Indeed, that process has moved on, but we can equally say that it was important legislation that changed attitudes, and it was certainly radical in dealing with discrimination against disabled people. I therefore have some pride in the then Government's achievement at that time. When I saw for myself the results of that legislation, I became interested and started to make contacts as an MP with groups that were speaking for various causes related to disability. I was able, as I know many hon. Members were also able to do, to assist them in achieving results such as wheelchair access and in changing the culture of understanding so that people became aware of the needs of people with disabilities. That was an important moment.
Today, however, after seeing the effects of the 1995 Act over what is quite a lengthy period, it is certainly clear that we need to amend the existing legislation to meet the considerable challenges that people with disabilities must overcome. It is disappointing, however, that the introduction of the Bill has been left quite late, although, of course, I support it in principle. I know that my Opposition colleagues and, indeed, others would have valued extra time to consider the Bill, and in a sense, this is something of a missed opportunity.
Many hon. Members have lived with disability at first hand, whether directly or indirectly, and are perhaps in a unique or special position to scrutinise the Bill with the expertise that arises from their own experience, but many of us who are not in that position may nevertheless have had temporary experience of mobility problems. Others will have regularly accompanied wheelchair users and people with mobility problems and have experiences of the difficulties that disabled people facea point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg). That is why the provisions in the Bill that relate to transport are so welcome. Inaccessible
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transport has a major impact on disabled people's independence, social participation and employability. Some 60 per cent. of households with a disabled member do not have access to a car, so access to the public transport system is a crucial part of many disabled people's lives. Of course, that is doubly the case in rural areas, where public transport is limited. The Bill represents a step towards a public transport system that is more accessible for all disabled people.
Many hon. Members may have spoken to representatives of the disabilities charity consortiumthe DCCabout the Bill's contents. As we know, the DCC is an informal coalition consisting of Leonard Cheshire, Mencap, Mind, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, the Royal National Institute of the Blind, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and Scope. They, like me, believe that constructive debates in the other place have resulted in a much improved Bill and some very valuable results for disabled people. However, they still have some concerns that relate to transport, and I should like to make these points now in the hope of encouraging further response.
Although the rail and bus industries will have to comply with a legislative framework, the aviation and shipping industries currently operate voluntary codes of practice on accessibility. The DCC believes that the voluntary codes have not proved fully effective in improving services for disabled people. The regulation-making powers in the Bill will allow the Government to make both those codes statutory. Indeed, the Joint Committee that considered the draft Disability Discrimination Bill reported that
I understand that the Government wish to wait until later this year to see the results of research on compliance with voluntary arrangements that are designed to secure better access to air and sea transport for disabled people. If that is still the case, will the Minister comment on that specific matter?
There are numerous examples of airlines and ferry companies acting thoughtlessly and inappropriately towards disabled passengers and thus causing a great deal of embarrassment and anxiety, so that needs to be resolved as quickly as possible. Will the Minister explain the situation regarding the exemption from statutory regulations and tell us how she thinks the matter can be addressed? I share the DCC's concerns about the effectiveness of existing disability equality training programmes in the transport industry. It is important that people who work on buses, trains and the underground are fully aware of the needs of disabled passengers. Perhaps the Minister will also comment on that matter during her winding-up speech.
Disabilities are not always visible. I was pleased that a modest Opposition amendment on depression was agreed to on Report in the House of Lords. Mental health is often overlooked in anti-discrimination policies and rules, so I congratulate my noble Friend Lord Skelmersdale on tabling the amendment. I echo the appeal made by the DCC and
to fit the definition of a disability. An impairment is defined as "long-term" if it has lasted for at least 12 months, or if it is likely to have a substantial effect for at least 12 months. The provisions in the Act designed to cover recurrence have not been effective in the case of depression, although I know that the Secretary of State commented on that and I understand that he talked about a Green Paper on the matter. However, according to the website www.psychdirect.com, the risk of recurrence of an episode of depression within a five-year period is as much as 70 per cent.
"People who have recovered from an episode of depression can find that they never find paid work again yet their ability to work is not reduced in any way except by prejudice. A recent study found that where two job applications, one disclosing a diagnosis of diabetes the other one of depression, were submitted to 200 personnel managers, the 'applicant' with depression had significantly reduced chances of employment. Discrimination can short-circuit the process of recovery for those who have undergone depression, it can undermine self-esteem and exacerbate the illness. This destructive cycle brings about, above all, suffering for individuals, but also a loss of talent for society and cost to the public purse in health/social care and welfare benefits."
In light of that compelling argument, I ask the Minister to build on the comments made by the Secretary of State and reflect on the amendment tabled by Lord Skelmersdale, which deserves to be supported.
The final aspect of the Bill on which I wish to comment relates to the way the Government have declined to give a firm commitment to include schools in the specific disability equality duties in the Bill. The Secretary of State spoke about anti-discrimination and a general duty in the public sector that there should be proportionality, which is absolutely understood. However, he implied that such specific duties in the Bill would place an extra burden on schools. Teaching unions, such as the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, have stated during consultation that they would welcome the specific duties in Bill being applied to schools. According to Ofsted and a recent report from the Prime Minister's strategy unit, some schools are failing disabled children. Just one of the many saddening statistics from the Disability Rights Commission is that 27 per cent. of disabled people aged between 16 and 24 have no qualifications whatever. That compares with 12 per cent. of non-disabled people at the same age. The Government have recognised that more needs to be done to support disabled children in school.
We are all agreed that the public sector duty at the heart of the legislation will make a tremendous difference for disabled people. I am told by disability
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organisations, however, that it will be very hard in practice for schools to comply with their general duty without having specific duties in the Bill to guide them.
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