Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston) (Lab): Not only do I agree strongly with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but I find myself agreeing with the main thrust of the remarks of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and with the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who has made a distinguished contribution on disability matters, when they welcome the Bill and, I assume, welcome the aspects of it that refer to disability.

It seems odd, on a day when an election has been declared, that the House is again showing that we can reach agreement on important issues. If the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk sounded a little impatient, I hope that in the course of my remarks I will be able to reassure him that, particularly in the field of disability, patience is, I am afraid, something that has to be acquired. I hope, nevertheless, that when my party is deservedly re-elected in a few weeks' time, it will bring the Bill back to the House very speedily, if only because of its great merits.

The Bill's main thrust is to establish a commission for equality and human rights. That will, of course, take over disability rights, and I want to devote most of my speech to that, as well as to the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission.

There are, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, 10 million people in this country who experience some aspect of disability, and of course it is right that in a society committed to pluralism we bear in mind not just their needs but their rights, including the rights of participation which were, to some extent, discussed following the statement earlier today.

I wonder whether the House will, if only for a few moments, allow me a degree of nostalgia when I refer to the setting up of the Disability Rights Commission. As someone who was fairly heavily involved in that policy, it seems to me that its existence will last for a shorter term than I expected. Reflecting on the formation of the DRC, I can tell the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk that the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson)—a very distinguished parliamentarian whom we will miss very much—was extremely relevant.

As the member of the shadow Cabinet responsible for disability matters before 1997, it was my task to contribute to policy formulation and to present to my party's annual conference, which I was very proud to do, the proposal that such a measure should be included in the manifesto and then introduced by a Labour Government. I was proud to do it, particularly after we had been defeated by a mere 13 votes by the previous Government, whose spokesman on disability, the right
5 Apr 2005 : Column 1314
hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who later became Conservative party leader, strongly resisted the idea.

My hon. Friend's intervention was relevant to this extent: I can tell the House that before I was able to make the declaration to our party conference, seek its approval and, I hope, have something to do with its inclusion in our manifesto for the 1997 election, the proposal had to be costed very carefully. I remember long conversations well into the night on the Friday before conference, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, who was then the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. We did not get an agreement easily, but once it was done we knew that the proposal had been costed and was to be part of our Government's policy, and I am very glad that that has been implemented. These matters have to be considered carefully, so my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough is right.

When it was proposed to set up a new commission embracing other bodies, including those for disability, I took the view that there might be a backlash against the idea, but I am pleased that that has not happened. That was largely because of the way in which the Government dealt with the matter, which included setting up the taskforce, and also because they went out of their way to embrace not just the DRC but the various disability organisations that realised, although they were so supportive of the DRC, that they would have an even stronger role in a larger, more effective and influential body. I hope that that is how things will develop.

I can remember the Disability Action Network, some of whose members decided to occupy Labour party headquarters for nearly a day, initially to protest about lack of access. Once they found that it was easy to get to the third floor, where the national executive met, they changed their demands. They wanted an immediate declaration from the then Leader of the Opposition—now my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—that a commission would be set up. We do not make policy under those conditions, and I said so. However, because of those strong feelings, I want to refer to the views of the DRC.

It is true that there are reservations about some aspects of the Government's thinking, but the DRC view on the Bill is clear. It says that it

I know that the House will give great weight to the views of the DRC in that regard.

The DRC went on to say—and I agree—that there is a need for

It hopes that the commission will follow that path. The DRC's emphasis is important. As I said, it welcomed the main proposals but said that the Government's proposal for at least one disabled commissioner and a disability committee for at least five years should be widely debated in the House before the Bill is enacted, if only to answer the questions: why five years, and why impose a limit at all? Those are fair questions, and I endorse them.
5 Apr 2005 : Column 1315

The DRC generally welcomes both the wide enforcement powers at the disposal of the commission for equality and human rights and the remit to promote and investigate human rights—as far as it goes. Many Members on both sides of the House want it to go further. The new provisions to counter discrimination on grounds of religion or belief in relation to goods, services and facilities, and the new duty for the public sector to promote gender equality are welcome, too. They certainly represent progress.

The DRC supports a single measure on equality, and I welcome the intervention by the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). He made an important point, representing a view that is widely shared. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may not have had time to respond in detail, but perhaps the Government's position will be expressed with greater clarity in the wind-up, not least because of what we read in the excellent Library note. Library briefings are always good, but Vincent Keter has done a superb job on the Equality Bill. He refers to the TUC. Indeed, I shall simply quote what the TUC said:

That is also the view of the Commission for Racial Equality.

Angela Eagle: Is my right hon. Friend aware that that is also Labour party policy? The policy forum was of that opinion when it met last year, and that opinion was subsequently agreed at last year's conference.

Mr. Clarke: I am delighted, as always, to be reminded by my hon. Friend of the importance of Labour party policy formulation.

Before I deal with another aspect of the Library paper to which I have referred, I should like to ask whether copies of the Bill—or rather, in due course, the Act—will be made available promptly in the full range of accessible formats, so that people with all sorts of disability can have access to it. The Government are committed to a more inclusive society, as the Bill shows. They have an excellent record in challenging discrimination and prejudice across the board. That, too, is reflected in the Bill. I urge them to confirm yet again the importance of enforcement, promotion and a robust commitment to the human rights remit.

I should like to refer—very briefly, as other hon. Members want to speak—to the other aspect of the Library paper. In respect of disability, it refers to the hierarchy of equality and expresses the view that some groups have been left with less protection than others. I believe that to be the case, and I believe that it is wrong. We should seek to put it right.

The Library paper says that the equality commission will amplify the impact of discrimination legislation and promote equality. It rightly talks about employment, which is crucial if people with disabilities are to make progress and gain the feeling that they are a very important part of our society, respected and encouraged to achieve their full potential.
5 Apr 2005 : Column 1316

The Disability Discrimination Bill rightly addresses goods and services issues, but we have not been as specific as the disability organisations would like, especially in relation to transport issues. I certainly take the view that, although we have made tremendous progress under this Government, some public bodies might be encouraged to reflect the disability awareness that we have accepted in the House.

I should like to give an example, without, I hope, being at all patronising. Today, I decided to ring Mencap—one of the many wonderful organisations involved in this field—and the young woman who answered the phone has learning disabilities. I simply wish to say that there are many public bodies whose personnel could well emulate the absolutely charming, helpful and efficient way in which that young lady did her duties, and it is that sort of approach that we want to encourage.

I referred in an earlier intervention to the Government's thinking about Scotland. I welcome what they have to say about Scotland, and in particular, the links that they have already established with the Scottish Executive, with the proposal for a Scottish representative on the commission and the encouraging of an annual report to the Scottish Parliament. I welcome that very much, as long as it is consistent with the commission itself. We will provide resources and staffing so that the commission has the best possible professionalism and advice to allow it to make the kind of report that that Parliament—and this Parliament, for our interests—is entitled to receive.

I have spoken about disability, but I know that the Bill embraces other aspects of human rights, which I welcome. For example, it adds to the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. Mr. Speaker has arranged a reception tomorrow evening at which my good friend Lord Morris of Manchester will be the principal guest, and it is right for that Act to be honoured 35 years on.

Next Monday—11 April—is the 19th anniversary of the Third Reading of my private Member's Bill that became the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986. Yesterday, I was delighted to be in the Chamber to hear moving tributes to the late Lord Callaghan. I remember that on the day when we tried to get that Bill through, as I sat under the clock showing the customary humility that the House would expect, Jim Callaghan appeared and stood at the Bar. I understood that he had travelled from Cardiff that day to ensure that we had a quorum for the vote so that we could get the Bill through, which we did. I would dearly have loved the advocacy aspects of the Act to have been implemented. I pray for that even today, and hope that when the Equality Bill is enacted in due course, as I passionately believe that it should be, there will not be the delay in implementation that other Acts have experienced.

The Bill is welcome and noble. Whatever the differences that we will demonstrate over the coming weeks—I will play my part in debating them—I think that it reflects the basic commitment of the British people to a civilised society, which is reflected by the Government's policy on such important matters.
5 Apr 2005 : Column 1317

3.47 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page