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Points of Order

12.32 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At Question Time, the Prime Minister appeared to give credence to reports, which previously I had thought were stuff and nonsense, on the interception of communications or contacts with MPs. He said he would reflect on the matter. Does not this matter touch on parliamentary privilege? If such interceptions were performed within the precincts of the Commons, would it not be a matter for you to reflect on, as well as the Prime Minister? Will you come back to the House with an opinion on that before the Prime Minister decides to intercept our communications, whether for reasons of terrorism or because of rebellious Labour Back Benchers?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman raises an important matter. I will reflect on what he said, and on what the Prime Minister said. The question places a responsibility on my shoulders, as I cannot discuss security matters on the Floor of the House. However, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I take the matter very seriously indeed.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: I do not want to get into a lengthy discussion on this matter.

Albert Owen: It is a separate point, Mr. Speaker, of   which I have given your office notice. I seek your advice and guidance in respect of questions tabled by one hon. Member about another hon. Member's constituency. At today's Wales questions, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill)
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asked specifically about the decommissioning and closure of the Wylfa power station in my constituency. That has caused great concern to many local companies and people. I have spoken to the hon. Gentleman, who told me that he submitted the question on the instructions of his Whip, but what is your guidance on this matter? Will you also advise me about hon. Members visiting other hon. Members' constituencies?

Mr. Speaker: In another life, I was a Back Bencher, and I did not listen to the Whips all that often. Perhaps it is best to lead by example in that respect, but I remain a constituency MP and I understand that sensitivity is required in these matters. When an hon. Member asks a question about another constituency, he should contact the relevant Member of Parliament. He might be asking the question for national policy reasons, and I understand that in this case the question was to do with nuclear power. We need to be sensitive about these matters, but that should not deny any Member of Parliament the opportunity to ask a question about something in another hon. Member's constituency. Every hon. Member likes to protect their constituency and their rights within it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I much appreciate the points that you have made in reply to the point of order about the possibility of wire tapping being reintroduced for Members of Parliament. I have said to the Prime Minister that I consider that a constitutional issue. I am very pleased indeed with your response on the matter.

Mr. Speaker: Thank you. I repeat that I have a responsibility for this House and the privileges and rights of its Members.
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Rehabilitation Leave

12.35 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I beg to move,

In line with the Government's welfare to work agenda, the Bill aims to ensure that people who develop a disability during their working lives, or whose existing disability deteriorates, are supported to remain in employment where reasonably practicable. In particular, it provides a statutory right for newly disabled employees to have their employment capacity and support needs properly assessed and addressed, and, in addition, where necessary, to have a period of leave to adapt and undergo rehabilitation and retraining before returning to work.

Let me give an example of the kind of person I want to help. This is an actual case. Michael works for a firm in the electronics testing industry. About six years ago, he started to lose his sight. He wanted to keep working, and his employers valued his skills. RNIB Scotland provided advice on how to reorganise his work and apply the latest technology. The Government's access to work scheme met most of the costs. Now aged 30, he is still working for the company, in a slightly different job, but still using his IT expertise.

The type of job-retention policy that the Bill deals with is known as rehabilitation leave, or sometimes disability leave. The use of "leave" helps make it clear that the person in question wants to get back to work. It is explicitly identified as an example of reasonable adjustment in the code of practice relating to part 2 of the Disability Discrimination Act. It is also a feature of the Warwick agreement, with which the Government and the trade union movement agree. Rehabilitation leave is, moreover, a tried and tested policy, having been piloted by a number of high-profile private employers in the public sector.

Why, then, is there a need for the Bill, and what difference would its passage make? Quite simply, it is needed for two reasons. First, unemployment among disabled people in this country remains stubbornly and appallingly high. Secondly, it is illogical to support disabled people to get off benefit and into employment—a policy I agree with—while at the same time allowing those in work who develop a disability to join, needlessly, the ranks of the pensioned-off or those on incapacity benefit.

Disabled people are almost five times more likely than non-disabled people to be out of work and claiming benefits. The UK's employment rate among blind and partially sighted people, for example, is a staggering 75 per cent. An estimated 3,000 people additionally join the dole queue each year because they develop a sight problem while still in employment.

Yet so much expert support and equipment is available to assist employees and employers alike, much of it available under existing Government programmes, such as the access to work scheme. The Bill would ensure that employees and employers are supported at the critical time when they need it—namely, at the onset of a disability and while the newly disabled person is still
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employed. The alternative, which unnecessarily befalls tens of thousands of newly disabled people each year, is for them to lose their job. That often happens because the employer does not know what support is available or because they have not had much experience of dealing with disabilities among employees and so are understandably fearful.

When someone is coping with a disability, they need help and support. We must not fail them. To become unemployed in those circumstances is a human and an economic tragedy. It undermines the individual's confidence, risks skills becoming out of date, and often leads to long periods of unemployment. Many disabled people never return to work. That results in a drain on the state, it burdens pension funds and represents a significant loss of expertise to industry, not to mention the additional recruitment costs for employers to replace staff.

Sometimes legislation is needed to ensure that good sense and best practice prevail. The law on wearing seat belts is perhaps a good example. This Bill is both sensible and necessary. None the less, I freely accept that the Government will have to develop some existing schemes, such as access to work, to ensure that at least some of the costs of the employment assessment, and any reasonable adjustment measures required, can be offset by the employer.

The Government will also need to ensure that state benefits are temporarily payable to those employees who may not receive wages or sick pay from their employer during a period of rehabilitation leave. I   believe that, at relatively little cost, the Government will be able to ensure that any regulatory burden on employers resulting from this Bill is kept to a minimum.

There will of course be times when the nature of a disability, or of a particular workplace, will mean that it is unreasonable or even impossible to expect that a newly disabled person can remain in their current job, or even be redeployed. Rehabilitation leave is not a job guarantee scheme. The law of reasonableness will still apply. But surely it is sensible to give a newly disabled employee the right to have their circumstances properly assessed and a chance to adjust so that they can continue in employment if possible. Are we not morally honour-bound to help and support the people of this country into employment? My Government have put that at the centre of their policies over the last eight, nearly nine, years. I ask them to continue those policies and take another step forward and support this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by John Robertson, Mr. Tom Harris, Mrs. Iris Robinson, Mr. Jimmy Hood, Miss Anne Begg, Mr. Ian Davidson, Rosemary McKenna, Dr. Alasdair McDonnell, Mr. David Hamilton, Ms Dari Taylor, Hywel Williams and Julie Morgan.

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