Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab): Like every other speaker, I welcome the Bill. I echo the sentiments expressed by some of my hon. Friends about the proud record of Labour in government on anti-discrimination legislation. The Bill is a logical progression. It offers a point of reference and a facility to challenge multi-strand discrimination. The commission will become a champion of people's rights. I welcome the fact that the commission's remit is significantly extended. I am always loth to repeat what other Members have said in the Chamber. The fact that their comments on the Bill have been so positive is sufficient. Obviously, I want to see the introduction of the single equality Bill sooner rather than later, because it makes sense to tie all the anti-discrimination legislation into a legal framework.
I am interested in all aspects of the Bill, but this afternoon I shall discuss the provisions relating to disability in general and autistic spectrum disorder or autism in particular. I chair the all-party group on autism, so I take a particular interest in the matter, and I seek an assurance from the Minister that disability
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discrimination will not be overshadowed by the other strands. I am also concerned that autism is not lost within the concept of disability.
I followed the Bill's passage through the other place with interest and was extremely pleased that their lordships made some amendments on disability. In the Bill as drafted, disability discrimination and the disabled group were excluded from a general provision on good community relations, which was amended in another place. In the first instance, the disability group was not seen as a community, which was an interesting take on that particular group, but the issue has been resolved.
The Bill initially proposed that the transition disability commissioner should have a shorter term of office than either the commissioner for equal opportunities or the commissioner for racial equality, but it has now been agreed that parity will be the order of the day.
Lord Rix raised the absence of a simplified version of the Bill, which should have been produced. I understand that a simplified version of the White Paper was produced, but it was published much later than the full version. I accept that the matter is probably due to an oversight on the part of the Government, but it is extremely important, given that disability is one of the major strands. People with disabilities should have access to the legislation that we are considering on their behalf.
The disability strand is unique, because the disability committee will be retained for at least five years with delegated powers and a sufficient share of resources to exercise those powers, which is vital to disabled people's confidence.
The noble Lords also raised the importance of retaining both the learning disabilities action group and the mental health group within the current Disability Rights Commission. Although that is not possible, Baroness Ashton of Upholland suggested that the disability commissioner should pay particular attention to those groups.
As far as I can see, no Member of the House of Lords mentioned the disability of autism. The DRC has just set up a neurodiversity autistic spectrum advice and action groupa mouthful. It has been set up very late, but is nevertheless welcome. Nobody argued for it to be included in, or at least listened to by, the new commission.
People with ASDs are not physically disabled and often do not look as though they have a disability. The condition is a developmental disability characterised by an inability or impairment in communication, socialisation and imagination. There is no cure. Some of those affected have learning disabilities and some have mental health problems, but they often fall into the gap between the two in relation to support services. Given that an estimated 500,000 people have an ASD, it must be treated as a significant and common disability with clear implications for mainstream policy and practice. It is now an exemplar in the disabled children's national service framework. Diagnosis in the young is better than it was, and support for children in pre-school and statutory education is improving.
However, we have an awfully long way to go to catch up in terms of the transition stage, supported living, employment, and support for carers. Seventy per cent.
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of carers of children with autism said that they were prevented from returning to work by a lack of appropriate care facilities. Seventy-two per cent. of schools are not satisfied with their teachers' training in autism, and only 6 per cent. of people with an ASD and 12 per cent. of those with high-functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome have full-time paid jobs. According to a report by the National Autistic Society, 40 per cent. of carers were dissatisfied with the support that the person whom they care for received from social services.
"I have an overriding concern that the lives of disabled people . . . will be made better by the creation of a Commission for Equality and Human Rights. The new Commission must be even more effective than the Disability Rights Commission is now, transforming the current inequalities into improved life chances".[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 June 2005; Vol. 672, c. 1246.]
He was specifically concerned about those with learning disabilities and mental and physical disabilities. So am I. I need reassurance that people with disabilities will not be marginalised in a much bigger commission, and that those with ASDs will not be marginalised either.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): It is always an enormous pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), who brings a particular expertise and a great deal of passion to the debate.
So all those who thought that they had no religion, or had explicitly decided to have no religion, are caught by the provisions of the Billthey count as though they have a religion and will be treated as such. That might lend some scope to mischief-makers. Indeed, it might give some offence to those who take a position of believing in no God.
Although some people might find it profoundly shocking, most adherents of a religion believe it to be true. By and large, they do not treat life as a supermarket where one can choose any number of breakfast cereals from the shelves and find that they amount to the same thing. Mostnot alladherents of a religion believe passionately that their religion is true and that, of necessity, casts an aspersion on other religions. Indeed, the first commandment is:
Our Lord said that he would be followed by false prophets and that we were not to treat them with respect or tolerance but to judge them. That does not lend itself to the general principle that is set out in clause 44.
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That is a wide and dangerous principle to apply to religion. Religions rub together pretty well in this country, but introducing such a wide-ranging principle is dangerous. The danger relates to the zealot or the mischief maker and the provision could cause more harm than good.
Angela Eagle: Where does the hon. Gentleman's rather Old Testament view of religion leave the scope for ecumenical co-operation, of which the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury are great exponents?
Mr. Swayne: The hon. Lady puts her finger exactly on the point. Religions are working together and rubbing along well without the Bill. Intruding with legislation provides scope for mischief and for zealots.
The Bill's principle is so broad that the remaining clauses of part 2 properly take every aspect of what one would normally understand to be religious practice and experience out of the measure's scope. So despite its size, clause 44 applies only to a narrow provision of goods and services. That is proper, but I am worried about the structure of the Bill because so many of the exemptions are potentially only temporary.
For example, clause 49 properly removes educational establishments from the scope of the Bill. Otherwise, it would be permissible for an evangelical Christian to demand access to a madrassa. I suggest that that would be done only to make mischief. Nevertheless, why is that proper exemption fatally weakened by clause 49(3)(a), which gives the Secretary of State the power to "amend or repeal" the provision? I do not believe that it is acceptable for a self-respecting legislature to give the Secretary of State the power to undermine a provision. That is nonsense and I hope that those who serve on the Committee will strike out the paragraph.
Clause 63 is a Henry VIII clause that gives the Secretary of State the power to amend any exemption in part 2. Again, that is unacceptable given the sensitivity of the matter and the need for the exemptions.
"A person . . . discriminates against another . . . for the purposes of this Part if A applies to B a provision, criterion or practice . . . which puts persons of B's religion or belief at a disadvantage compared to some or all others".
I am sure that it cannot be the case, but the provision appears to suggest that, if I, as the provider of gardening services, for example, were to mow the lawns of the church of my own denomination for free, I would also
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be required to provide the same service to the local mosque. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain whether that is the case.