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Maria Eagle: The Secretary of State said in his speech that the specific duties would apply to schools.

Mr. Spring: The difficulty lies in the difference between what is contained in the Bill and what will be done in regulation. Will the Minister clarify that point, because there is some lack of understanding, and not only in my mind?

Such specific duties would ensure that schools have to produce disability equality schemes involving disabled people and monitor and report on their progress against those schemes. Without the schemes, it will be very difficult for schools and the Government to monitor how schools are meeting the general equality duty.

I know of schools that have worked hard to include disabled pupils. I have visited a number of such schools in my constituency, and I applaud the head teachers, other teaching staff and governors for their efforts. The best schools have been taking that approach successfully for some time. I have become aware of one head teacher who was keen to maintain an ethos in which children responded to and interacted with each other as equal members of the community and as their friends, rather than as disabled or non-disabled pupils.

In my own school—I look back at this with some degree of surprise—the head teacher, even in those days, took an extraordinarily far-sighted view on including young people with disabilities. When I think about the fellow pupils who had disabilities, I reflect on what a satisfying experience it was for them to be in such an environment. For the majority who did not have a disability, the issue never occurred to us; the approach that was taken was an act of normality. That is what I saw with my own eyes in a much more limited way than now. I am glad that the culture has moved on considerably, but I have seen that the idea of inclusion where possible works. I hope that it can continue and be carried much further, as it is a desirable objective.

Commendable practice of the sort that I have described is not, however, consistent. It is exactly the sort of activity that would be included in the disability equality schemes required by specific duties. Again, I ask for clarification, and I know that the Minister will respond. In November 2002, the DRC surveyed the aspirations and experiences of young disabled people. It found that many had low expectations about educational and employment opportunities. Almost half those interviewed said that they had experienced problems at schools for reasons related to their impairment, and 38 per cent. of respondents said that they had been bullied. Some 11 per cent. of those surveyed had been unable to get access to all school resources, and many also said that they had missed out on school sports or trips. A significant number felt that they had been actively discouraged by their teachers to consider higher education. We are aware that schools are required to have accessibility plans to try to combat such problems, but there is no requirement for them to evaluate the effect of the plans. The Government cannot tell us what effects such plans have had. In any case, Ofsted research demonstrates that 50 per cent. of schools do not even have the plans in the first place.
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Furthermore, the drive of Government policy is to join up the different agencies dealing with children. The Children Act 2004 will extend the functions of some schools to include essential child care services, and many children's services in health and social care already deliver through schools. How does the Minister respond to claims from disability organisations that it is nonsensical that these services, which are delivered in schools, will be covered by specific duties while the schools will not?

Maria Eagle: The Secretary of State has said that schools will be covered by specific duties.

Mr. Spring: I can only ask the Minister again: when she makes her winding-up speech, will she make it clear—for it is not clear in my mind—that such a provision is in the Bill and part of the relevant regulations? Schools make up about half of all public bodies, so it would appear strange to exclude them. Thirty-two of the organisations consulted felt that imposing specific duties on schools was important and that the issue of disability in schools had to be at the forefront of that. I look forward to the Minister's comments.

This Bill is wholly welcome; it closes all sorts of loopholes that needed to be closed. As we reflect on the past 10 years, we see that a considerable amount of progress has been made, but there are still areas to be addressed. I echo what has been said by so many other hon. Members this afternoon in hoping that we can complete the proceedings on this Bill as soon as possible.

4.42 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I am pleased to have the opportunity to add my two ha'p'orth to this debate and to welcome the Bill. I echo many of the excellent contributions already made by hon. Members.

First, I should declare an interest as chairman of the Conservative disability group. I work closely with various groups in my constituency and in wider west Sussex—particularly with the West Sussex Association for the Disabled and the West Sussex Disabilities Network. I am vice-president of my local Mind branch and vice-chairman of the all-party group on autism.

The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) represents a seaside constituency, as I do. As he said, in such constituencies we have—not least because of the age profile of the populations—an above-average number of people with disabilities, not only physical disabilities but many mental disabilities: dementia-related disabilities such as Alzheimer's.

I should like to pick up on a few of the comments made by hon. Members. Typically, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) made a very pertinent point—in this case, on how we view people who have disabilities. As she said, too many people call disabled people "the disabled" and think that all they really need is a place to play draughts. That same tokenism applies to elderly people, be it in Worthing or anywhere else—apparently, all they need is somewhere to play bingo—and to the young, whose problems of boredom can apparently be solved by building a skateboard park.
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There is tokenism in all sections of society. That is why it is so important that the Bill should not be about tokenism, but about real action for disabled people, who are, first and foremost, people—people who happen to have disabilities and who enjoy and dislike certain things, just like anybody else in this Chamber or outside it. We are not here to discuss tokenism, but real measures that give real access to people who do not have it as fully as they might, but who have every right to it and should have every expectation of it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) said, this long-awaited Bill is about social justice and builds on the good work done in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. We are foolish not to be doing much more to help people with disabilities. As hon. Members have said, people with disabilities often represent a great, untapped source of talent and potential and it is a waste not to tap into that. I echo the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe—although I shall not discuss them at such length—about the time that it has taken to get to this stage of the Bill. There were six and a half years between the Labour Government's 1997 commitment to produce such legislation and its appearance in the form of a draft Bill.

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman will realise that we dealt with 70 per cent. of our manifesto commitment on inclusion before the Bill was introduced because we could do so without primary legislation, so he is not being entirely accurate.

Tim Loughton: The premise on which the Government made their disability proposals was that a new Bill, such as the one we are debating, was necessary to consolidate existing legislation and to take forward the disability reform programme. It has taken a long time and it is especially unfortunate that we are discussing the measure at the fag end of this Parliament. All the supporters of the Bill, inside and outside this place, have expressed concern that at best there will be minimal time for scrutiny and at worst that time will not be sufficient before the axe of the likely general election falls. None of us wants the Bill to go to waste, but that is not to say that more scrutiny should not be undertaken to improve it further.

We all agree on the need to consolidate legislation on disability discrimination 10 years on from the original Bill, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) when he had ministerial responsibilities for disabilities. I applaud the work done in another place, especially by my noble Friend Lord Skelmersdale, who described the measure as

Many of the actions of the upper House have made the Bill better, and I hope that the Government will respect those amendments.

Much can be improved through better regulation and the Minister rightly pointed out the good work that has been done through regulation rather than through primary legislation. I do not want to diminish that in any way. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, all Governments can take pride in,
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and claim credit for, building on a progressive foundation, started in 1995, for a much better deal for people with disabilities.

Definitions of disabilities, the way we treat disabilities and our social vision of disabilities have changed enormously just in the 10 years since the original Act, and it is right that legislation should keep up with both changing attitudes and changing physical and mental conditions. It is not merely about the visible physical illnesses with which people too often purely associate disability; it is about a whole range of mental conditions. I am pleased that they are mentioned in the Bill and I shall return to that point.

We need to be realistic about what is workable, however, and what will take business and the community at large with it, given that many of the new duties under the 1995 Act came into force only last October due to the long lead-in time. Several Members commented on that. I certainly agree with the proposed long lead-in times for some of the public transport considerations. My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) was right to welcome the emphasis on public transport, which is so essential for many people with disabilities, especially in rural areas.

I welcome the amendments made by Conservative peers to put an end date of 2020 on the Bill, although I should have liked that to be rather sooner. I reiterate the point that I made earlier about the lifetime of rail franchises. It is unacceptable that our constituents and those of us who use the train to travel between our homes and our constituencies still have to travel on slam-door trains from the 1950s. That still happens all too often on the south coast line, despite the fact that we have been through at least two train operators since privatisation. Any new bidders for the franchise should do so on the basis that from day one of their operation all their rolling stock will be disability-friendly and that slam-door trains will disappear, because their demise is long overdue. They are exceedingly unfriendly to anyone with any sort of disability. The obscenity of people in wheelchairs having to travel in the guard's van like a piece of luggage is also an entirely outdated concept that we should reject sooner than 2020.

A couple of years ago, a constituent of mine who is a civil servant was travelling up to London on one of the local services from Worthing. She is in a wheelchair. She was eventually able to arrange for someone to get her on to the train at Worthing station, which has a ramp, although it is not always available. However, the station in London at which she wanted to get off did not have a disability ramp available on the northbound platform. She had to go all the way up to Luton in order to get off the train. I am afraid that she did not spend much time there, although I am sure that the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) would agree that she would have had a delightful time if she had.

My constituent then had to come all the way back to the London station at which she had originally intended to get off, where there was a disability ramp only on the southbound platform. That is absolute nonsense. Whoever was responsible had picked on the wrong person, however, because it so happened that my constituent was a member of the Government's
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Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, so the matter was reported straight away to the appropriate powers. That sort of thing still happens far too often, however. We need much greater clarity and transparency in the way in which new rolling stock and new disability-friendly public transport is coming on stream. My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk mentioned some of the atrocities that take place when people in wheelchairs or people with other disabilities try to get on to cheap flights, which really are not geared up for dealing with the large market of disabled people who enjoy going on holiday abroad just as much as anyone else.

I welcome the measures in the Bill that deal with local authorities and other public bodies. The Local Government Association has said in its briefing, however, that it wants to

The LGA also believes that

I entirely agree with that.

In many cases, local authorities could do more, and that is often a problem of funding. On several occasions, however, I have pushed a constituent around Worthing or other towns in my constituency in a wheelchair, just to see how easy it was to find disabled ramps—to go into the tourist information office, for example. I have found ramps set at an angle of about 45°. It was a struggle for me to push a little old lady in a wheelchair up such a ramp; imagine what it would be like for a little old lady pushing her husband, for example. It would be completely impossible. The provision of such ramps is tokenism; in practice, they are not doing the job that they are supposed to do. Local authorities could be more proactive in having local audits of disability access. It should be a question not of saying, "We've got the ramp; we can tick the box", but of asking, "Does that ramp actually work? Why aren't people using it? How can we improve it?"

In places such as Worthing, several people have mentioned problems relating to gaining access to the beach. Disabled people enjoy the beach just as much as the rest of us, but just let them try to get on to it. At the moment, a very large investment is being made in the sea defences in my constituency, which I very much welcome. This has involved large quantities of shingle being bulldozed up to the beach, the construction of rock groynes, and so on. That is fantastic for keeping the sea out of my constituents' front gardens, but very bad for enabling people with disabilities to get on to the beach to enjoy the facilities there. It has proved nigh on impossible for me to get the Environment Agency, the local council or whoever to devise a scheme whereby people—not just those with disabilities or those with extreme disabilities who may be in a wheelchair, but elderly people with sticks and parents with children in pushchairs—can gain access to facilities that we all like to enjoy, such as the beach. A lot more can be done.
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We must also consider problems with social services departments, which are spending a lot of money and finding their budgets enormously squeezed. That is the case in West Sussex, where there was no real increase in spending on social services this year. They are, quite rightly, having to spend money to make adaptations so that people with disabilities can stay in their homes. Government policy is for more people to be able to stay in their homes longer—that is absolutely right, if it can be achieved—rather than, as the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, previously Secretary of State for Health, have described, elderly people being banged up in residential homes.

Well, it is horses for courses. Residential or nursing homes provide an excellent essential service for those people for whom it is appropriate. For those who are able, it is fantastic to be able to stay at home for longer and to have that encouraged, but this can happen in practice only if those facilities are available in homes so that people can look after themselves and have the support of home care visits and all that goes with them.

Social services departments are having their budgets squeezed, however, so this problem does not arise through a lack of desire to make those houses disabled-friendly. Often, they are not getting the extra money for that from a Government who are forcing them to allow more people to stay at home, even if in some cases that might not be entirely appropriate for the person concerned.

We need greater education and awareness among the public on disability issues and on getting rid of stigma for people with disabilities. That is certainly appropriate for local authorities when dealing with social housing, looking after people with learning disabilities and handling school allocations for people with disabilities. So the extra requirements in the Bill are welcome, but this is another example of placing extra requirements and resource implications on local authorities without necessarily providing the resources to make them possible and practical.

I return to the point that several hon. Members have made about the apparent exclusion of all the duties on schools and echo the request from my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk that the Minister make this point crystal clear in her winding-up speech. Clearly, not only Members of the House, but many well informed bodies outside are confused about exactly what will be required of schools in respect of their disability obligations.

For example, the Children's Society briefing says:

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The Disabilities Charities Consortium, in responding on why it thinks specific duties on schools are needed in the Bill, says:

It continues:

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