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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): I concur with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) that we have had an excellent debate and on a number of other things that he said. It is a privilege for me to reply for the Government.
I believe strongly that completing the implementation of full civil rights for disabled people is something of which the Labour Government can be proud. Having listened to the general support for the Bill from all parts of the House, I believe that the progress that it represents when it is enacted will be a change for good for disabled people in Britain. By good, I do not only mean a change for the better in the individual day-to-day lives of our disabled fellow citizens but also that it will achieve permanent change and improvements that will not be reversed in the future by any Government.
For disabled people, this is a major advance, a milestone on their road to true equality and equal respect in our society. Our society is part of the way through a journey. We have left behind the place where disabled people were ignored, excluded and even hidden away, and sometimes feared, reviled, ridiculed and abused. But we need to get to a place where they have full opportunities and choices in lifewhere they are respected and included as equal members of our society and feel free, like the rest of us, to live their lives and to contribute their talents to our country and to our world. I doubt whether anybody in the House disagrees with that.
This Government have listened to the just demand made by disabled people over the years for true equality and we are acting to speed progress ever faster toward the goals of inclusion, respect, equality and improved life chances. The Bill is a great step forward and I welcome the widespread recognition of that fact across the House. In particular, I welcome the support of the
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Conservatives, whose eagerness to be seen as the champions of disabled people's rights, as represented in the speeches of the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) and his colleagues, is absolutely apparent.
Such eagerness is very much to be welcomed, but some seasoned observers of this scene might be a tiny bit surprised by it. After all, it was the Conservatives who, for 16 of their last 18 years in office, did regrettably little when they had the power to change disabled people's lives. They repeatedly squandered the opportunity, provided by the work of my noble Friend Lord Morris in the 1970s, to enable Britain to lead the world on disability civil rights. We could have been much further ahead had they taken forward these issues at the beginning of their period in office, instead of at the very end. It is the Conservatives who, reluctantly, passed what proved to be flawed and inadequate anti-discrimination legislation, after using parliamentary tactics for many years to prevent disabled people from having rights. It is a truly astonishing conversion that we have witnessed today, but I stress that it is very welcome.
Many Conservative Members stressed transport provision, but I find myself wondering why the party that originally refused to define transport as a service in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is now urging me to bring the proposed end date in respect of transport forward from 2020 to 2017. The Conservatives' legislation did not even include a power to set end dates, so this is something of a conundrum, but as I said, their conversion is very welcome. Indeed, I welcome support from all parts of the House.
Numerous issues were raised during the debate and I will do my best to deal with as many as possible. The hon. Member for Wycombe raised five different issues, including one stressed by other Members: clause 18 and the "depression amendment", if I might refer to it in that shorthand. Since its inception, a fundamental principle of the DDA has been that it protects people who are disabled. The general understanding of "disability" is that it is a condition with a long-term and substantial adverse effect, so there is a basic difficulty in that term's covering people who experience isolated, short spells of depression or any other short-term condition. The legislation has always excluded people with short-term conditions and it is equally important that, as we work to improve its coverage, we do not make it too complicated for those upon whom such obligations are to be placed. The House should remember that, in many cases, we are talking about small businesses and we must not make it too difficult for them to understand and appreciate who is covered by the legislation and who is not.
We do not believe that the proposed amendment has been thought through properly. For example, if it were accepted, the DDA would provide lifetime coverage for someone who suffered a six-month period of post-natal depression, and who suffered another period of depression five years later that had a completely different cause, such as the loss of a parent or other relative. We would all have a great deal of sympathy for such a person, but most of us would not consider them disabled, and we have always tried to be careful not to include in the legislation people who are not seen as disabled. That is the fundamental difficulty that we have with the amendment, and I hope that Members in all
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parts of the House will recognise that fact. Conversely, the amendment would not cover someone whose circumstances were exactly the same, but who had had five rather than six months of post-natal depression. In other words, the implications are somewhat arbitrary, which cannot be justified. That is our basic difficulty with the amendment.
Tim Loughton: I regret the fact that the Minister was so churlish in her highly partisan comments earlier in her speech. Will she acknowledge that a person suffering post-natal depression for six months would, under her Government's draft Mental Health Bill, be much more likely to be subject to sectioning? Does she believe that such coercive legislation will help to counter the stigma that people suffering from mild mental illness often face? It will do nothing for the rights and entitlements of people with disabilities, yet the Government are seeking to introduce such a measure at the fag-end of their time in office.
Maria Eagle: I thought that my introductory remarks were relatively subdued and gentle. I am not going to be drawn into discussing the draft mental health legislation. I am trying to explain to the House, as I have been asked to do, why we are considering reversing the amendment on depression. Members can agree or disagree, but I am simply explaining it to the House.
We do not believe that it is sensible to extend the law in respect of just one type of condition or to breach the principle of long-term conditions on which the legislation is based. Now is not the right time to do that. Conservative Members should realise that this is not the end of the road for disability rights. It is not as if there will be no further opportunities to tweak and improve legislation. I hope that I have dealt with the matter of depression.
The hon. Member for Wycombe and others raised the issue of cancer and, in particular, whether the regulations should exclude certain types. I understand the concern of many people both in and outside the House, but I want to stress that we are carrying out the recommendations of the Disability Rights Task Force, on which we consulted. The results of that consultation showed that 87 per cent. of respondents approved of the policy. These concerns have been raised with us rather late in the day. That does not mean that they are unreasonableI fully understand them, as I saidbut in deciding whether to include those whom a reasonable person would not view as disabled, we have to achieve a balance. That is what we are trying to do.
We are trying to move forward on this matter by undertaking to seek evidence about stigma relating to the conditions that we propose to exclude in the regulations. We shall also have detailed discussions with organisations outside the House, including those mentioned by the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), to establish any evidence of stigma. If any evidence is forthcoming, we are open to persuasion and we have said that the regulation-making power will not be used until we are absolutely clear about the issue of stigma. We have consulted on five different types of cancer.
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I believe that that provides a positive way forward and I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House are reassured that this is not a matter that we have come up with at a late stage to cause confusion or a stir. The Disability Rights Task Force made the recommendation, we consulted on it and 87 per cent. of respondents agreed with it. We will, of course, take account of any further concerns and the Secretary of State made it clear in his opening remarks that we intend to be as positive as possible. There is no intention to cause unnecessary complexity or to leave out people who should be included just for the sake of it.
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