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Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): On Second Reading, I asked the Secretary of State whether we would have time to consider the Bill in Committee and on Report, and he replied that he was confident that we would. That confidence has proved to be misplaced, and the proceedings before us are truncated. The Minister is right to want to provide a full opportunity to discuss what I shall describe in shorthand as the "depression amendment" and to devote some time to the matter. Although the proceedings are truncatedwe are not happy about thatthe Minister has set out a sensible basis on which we can proceed.
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) raised similar concerns on Second Reading. Hon. Members from both sides of the Committee fully support the Bill and do not want to see it obstructed, although Liberal Democrat Members have raised concerns about its late arrival in this Parliament. If we are to make the best of a bad job today by using the time as effectively as we can, the Minister's proposal is probably the best way, so we can at least get on the record some of the remaining concerns that exist around the difficult issues.
This is the "depression amendment", which is a useful shorthand description that we are all using. It reverses the amendment introduced in the other place by removing clause 18(3), which inserts new sub-paragraph (2A) into schedule 1 to the Disability Discrimination
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Act 1995. The Government firmly believe that that amendment of the definition of disability is not the right thing to do.
I assure the Committee that we have thought long and hard about the new sub-paragraph (2A), but we have concluded that we cannot accept it. Fundamentally, it undermines the most basic principle of the DDAthat a disability must be a long-term or permanent condition. Under the new provision, a person with depression could qualify under the legislation as disabled after experiencing unrelated depressive episodes totalling little more than six months, and it constitutes a special arrangement for one form of mental impairment, which I believe to be unwise. It introduces the arrangement with arbitrary boundaries, which are both unfair and confusing to those trying to understand its operation, either because they have depression and want to see whether they meet the definition or because they have obligations under the law and want to see whether a particular person to whom they have those obligations qualifies.
To be absolutely clear, new sub-paragraph (2A) would extend the DDA to people who have recurrent but unconnected short-term episodes of depression in a way that would be confusing, complicated to administer and potentially unfair to other disabled people and other people with depression.
Mr. Goodman: The Minister would confirm, would she not, that the clause includes new, radical and sensible arrangements from the point of diagnosis for those who have HIV and cancer? She therefore finds herself in the difficult position of arguing that there should be a departure in those cases but not in this one.
Maria Eagle: I am not arguing against all extensions or changes to the definition, and we have thought long and hard about whether this one can be incorporated. Our difficulty is that the fundamental requirement of the Bill is that in order to be a disability a condition or impairment must be long term. We do not believe that short episodes of up to only just over six months could possibly qualify, particularly given that this relates to just one type of mental impairment. I will come on to say something about recurrence of short-term conditions; I hope that that may be helpful.
We believe that the amendment from the other place would be confusing and burdensome because everyone with duties under the 1995 Actand the Committee should recall that we have just extended those obligations to cover 1 million small employerswould find it difficult to determine, without making extremely detailed inquiries, exactly who is covered by the new provision. It would be complicated to administer because there would be different rules to be applied depending on whether a person has depression or some other impairment. Employers, service providers and others with duties under the Act would have to keep detailed records in order to establish whether a person has met the "six months in the last five years" rule that the amendment would insert into the definition.
The amendment would be unfair to other disabled people. The majority of disabled people do not have special provisions enabling them to meet the long-term
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condition of the definition, and would have to prove that their impairment has lasted, or is likely to last, for at least 12 months. Creating a separate and more advantageous rule for some people with depression, but not all such people, is not fair on those other people. Moreover, people with other forms of mental illness would not be covered by the new rule. It would be unfair on other people with depression. Someone with a six-month episode followed by a one-month episode would find themselves within the definition, whereas someone with two five-month episodes would find themselves outside it. That is what I mean by saying that the amendment would impose arbitrary boundaries. It does not really make sense and therefore would not make sensible law.
It is important to recognisepeople sometimes forget thisthat the 1995 Act already provides protection if an impairment has recurring effects. Where an impairment ceases to have a substantial adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, it is treated as continuing to have that effect if the effect is likely to recur. Conditions with substantial adverse effects that recur only sporadically or for short periods will therefore qualify for protection under the existing legislation, provided that they are part of the same underlying impairment. That will include mental illnesses such as depression.
Let me make it clear to the Committee and to those who have supported the amendment's remaining in the Bill, that our seeking to reverse it does not indicate that we take the matter of mental illness lightly. On the contrary, we have demonstrated that we are willing to listen to concerns about mental health conditions and to amend the Bill where that is appropriate and desirable. That is why we have agreed to remove the requirement that a mental illness must be clinically well recognised, thus putting mental illness on a par with other, physical, impairments in the way that they are recognised in the definition. We have promised to consider whether the statutory guidance on the definition can be improved to show more clearly how mental illnesses, including depression, are already covered by the 1995 Act.
We are committed to taking forward a wide agenda to help people with mental health impairments. Last year, the social exclusion unit published its report on mental health and social exclusion and made several very important recommendations that are now being implemented. For example, Jobcentre Plus staff are being provided with improved training on mental health issues so that they can offer a better service to clients with a mental health impairment; and the National Institute of Mental Health in England has been tasked with taking forward recommendations in the social exclusion unit report that will tackle the stigma and discrimination that people face.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Does the hon. Lady not accept that, whereas it is easy to predict that some conditions are likely to recur, the problem with depression is its unpredictability? That is the mischief that the Lords were trying to tackle. Is she really satisfied that what she has said so far would tackle the problem? It does not seem to me that it would.
I do not seek to suggest in any way that the current definition is perfection personified and
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should be defended against any suggested amendment for all time. However, I do not believe that we are in a position to make a sensible amendment that is fair and proper and which achieves what is wanted by those who are trying to do something useful for people with depression. Our difficultly with the subsection is that the arbitrary nature of its drafting means that it is not useable in practical law. I will shortly make a suggestion about a potential future way forward that might satisfy the hon. Gentleman.
We certainly do not have closed minds on this issue, but I do not believe that putting impractical law on to the statute book is a way of dealing with the stigma and difficulty that those with mental ill health face. We are fully committed to improving the lives of people with mental health conditions, but this measure is not right and would go too far. If proposed new sub-paragraph (2A) is allowed to remain, it will seriously undermine one of the Act's basic tenets and the integrity of the definition of disability.
In moving the amendment, I seek the Committee's agreement on ensuring that the definition meets one of the fundamental policy objectives of the 1995 Act. The Bill is not the end of the road on disability rights. We will consider whether short-term conditions should be covered, but we believe that we should cover them strategically and across the piece, rather than covering just one type of condition. The Disability Rights Commission is reviewing whether the social model of disability can be incorporated into our legislation. We believe that that is the right and proper forum in which to consider the matter further.
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