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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Disability Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 2005

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Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Mr. Peter Atkinson

†Betts, Mr. Clive (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)
†Borrow, Mr. David S. (South Ribble) (Lab)
†Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab)
†Burt, Lorely (Solihull) (LD)
†Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
†Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
†Henderson, Mr. Doug (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab)
†McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Portsmouth, North) (Lab)
†Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) (Lab)
†Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)
†Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
†Robinson, Mrs. Iris (Strangford) (DUP)
†Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
†Singh, Mr. Marsha (Bradford, West) (Lab)
†Smith, Angela E. (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
†Vaizey, Mr. Edward (Wantage) (Con)
†Ward, Claire (Watford) (Lab)
Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Thursday 19 January 2006

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Draft Disability Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 2005

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela E. Smith): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Disability Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 2005.

I welcome you, Mr. Atkinson, to the Chair. You and I have been sparring partners on many occasions—long before we were Members of the House. It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship, and I am sure that you will guide our deliberations with your customary good humour and common sense.

The purpose of the order is to enhance protection for the rights of disabled people and to give effect to more of the measures proposed in the Northern Ireland Executive’s 2001 response to the Disability Rights Task Force report.

The Department has already taken forward the main employment proposals set out in the taskforce report through the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2004—the amendment regulations—which came into operation on 1 October 2004. Those regulations made significant changes to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. For instance, they ended the exemption of small employers from the scope of the legislation, and brought within its scope a number of previously excluded occupations—the police, prison officers and firefighters.

The order introduces provisions for disabled people—they are broadly in line with those already in force in Great Britain—through the enactment of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. I shall comment briefly on the order and then say a few words about the detailed provisions.

The order is intended to widen and strengthen existing disability legislation, thereby ensuring that more people than ever are protected by the DDA in Northern Ireland. For example, it would bring more people with the progressive conditions of HIV, cancer and multiple sclerosis within the scope of disability discrimination legislation, and it would strengthen existing rights in the areas of renting premises and discriminatory job advertisements. It would also close gaps in existing legislation relating, for example, to the inclusion of local councillors, private clubs and transport services.

As important, the order would extend the legislation to cover the functions of the public sector, and impose upon public authorities a new duty to promote positive attitudes towards disabled people and encourage their participation in public life. That extension of the DDA
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would bring new rights for disabled people and new duties on the public sector not to discriminate against disabled people across the whole range of its public activities.

People who responded to the public consultation on the proposals agreed that the order is an important and welcome piece of legislation for those with disabilities. During the consultation, concerns were raised that the proposed new duty on public authorities would not mirror that contained in the 2005 Act. I assure the Committee that the new duty is every bit as strong as those provisions, particularly when they are considered alongside what public authorities are already obliged to do under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

The Government are confident that the measures that we have put in place over the last few years are helping to ensure that disabled people have the opportunity to participate in the workplace, in society and in the economy along with everyone else. Once the order is made, disabled people will have truly comprehensive legislation in place—legislation that will help to eliminate barriers that prevent them from living independent and fulfilling lives.

2.33 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I join the Minister in welcoming you, Mr. Atkinson, to the Chair. It is a pleasure to serve under your leadership again.

I do not want to detain the Committee—I know that the Minister has other important business to attend to—but I want to comment on the order, and I know that one or two of my hon. Friends want to speak.

In principle, I have no objection to the order, but I have some slight concerns. Much of the language of the order is inconclusive—that is a polite term for it—which bothers me for two reasons. First, we are dealing with a serious issue, and I wonder whether the order will have the teeth, and the necessary clarity, to deal with the problem. The second reason is almost the opposite: given its ambiguity, the order could be applied in a rather heavy-handed fashion. Both possibilities worry me.

The regulatory impact assessment is a little vague. I am not so much worried by the one-off costs but by the continuing costs. Those on-costs seem a little open-ended and could be heavy. In that respect, I am thinking of the implications not so much for the public bodies as for private clubs and private landlords. So will the Minister clarify, as far as she can, certain aspects of the regulatory impact assessment with regard to private landlords and the premises, particularly dwelling houses, mentioned in the order?

I have no further questions. However, I repeat what has been said many times. It is a pity that we do not have an Assembly. A lot of our work used to be done by the Executive. Like the Minister, I hope that we
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soon have an Assembly in Northern Ireland; such matters could then be dealt with in far more detail and at much closer proximity than they can at Westminster.

2.36 pm

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): May I say what a pleasure it is, Mr. Atkinson, to serve under your chairmanship? I emphasise that it is regrettable that such important legislation was not brought forward in a Bill, so that amendments could be made. However, I thank you for calling me to participate in the debate.

Disabled people in Northern Ireland feel discriminated against for a number of reasons. Services for the disabled have constantly been underdeveloped in Northern Ireland in comparison with Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. When budgets have to be trimmed or funding redirected elsewhere, those with disabilities always seem to be the poor relation and to miss out. Existing service structures and practices do not match modern expectations, and are inadequate to meet growing demand. The order will address some of those grievances but not all.

Young people with disabilities often do not have the social or friendship networks to allow them to participate in their communities. They do not like being treated differently. Disability should not be seen as a medical condition, but as an indicator of the fact that the individual requires extra support to enable them fully to participate in society.

Legislation such as this will always give rise to concerns about the resultant costs. I understand that after the set-up costs, which will exceed £4 million, £5.1 million will be needed every year for making improvements in transport provision. Will the Minister tell us what proportion of that recurring sum will be required for staff training? It seems to be an inordinately large amount for disability awareness training.

As has been said, the definition of disability has been extended to include HIV, multiple sclerosis and cancer. Will the Minister say which cancers will be covered? For instance, does skin cancer meet the definition for disability? Does she have an estimate of the number of people in the Province who would be considered disabled under that definition, and particularly how many people will fit the criteria for the first time once the definition of disability has been extended?

Those in local government will welcome measures that make it unlawful to discriminate against council members in the conducting of official business. Furthermore, discrimination in the exercise of the functions of district councils and other public authorities will be prohibited. A duty will be imposed on them to make reasonable adjustments for the disabled. Rather than having to react, they will instead have to anticipate the possible requirements of disabled persons. Public bodies will have to promote a positive approach towards disability, with the
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Equality Commission for Northern Ireland monitoring and reporting on their performance. There will be a requirement to submit disability action plans.

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Lady touches on a word that also concerns me. Is she a little concerned about the meaning of the word “positive”? Is not that an example of how vague much of the order is?

Mrs. Robinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree that the wording is rather negative in that we cannot pin down exactly what it means, which gives rise to concerns about how it will be implemented.

A public authority will be able to justify less favourable treatment only when

    “treating the disabled person equally favourably, would in the particular case involve extra costs and, having regard to resources, the extra costs in that particular case would be too great”.

Can the Minister say how “too great” is to be defined, and who will be responsible for adjudicating on that question? That may answer the hon. Gentleman’s question.

I want to make a few brief comments about certain aspects of the order. The development of a draft transport code of practice is to be welcomed, but what precautions will the Government take to ensure that disabled people have a comprehensive role in its production? At present, disabled people have to inform stations in advance if they want to travel on trains. Surely that is no longer essential, especially at major city centre stations.

I welcome the common-sense decision that vintage railway vehicles will not have to undergo any alterations. That would clearly detract from their appearance—the very reason that they have been preserved. In relation to clubs or associations, will political parties meet the qualifications for being associations?

The Democratic Unionist party has been pressing for a Minister for the disabled in Northern Ireland. There is one on the mainland, and we recognise the benefits of appointing a specific individual—perhaps not a Minister, but certainly a high profile champion for the disabled. Departments should take greater responsibility for sharing the promotion of the rights of the disabled. Services should be person-focused, inclusive, and community-based.

I support the order.

2.42 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I echo the comments of others in welcoming you, Mr. Atkinson, to the Chair. I also echo the sentiments expressed by the hon. Members for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson), and the fervent wish that such legislation will soon be debated elsewhere than at Westminster.

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Before discussing the details of the order, will the Minister say what progress has been made on ensuring that responses to consultation are published on the relevant Department’s website? We have made that suggestion several times, and received encouraging responses from Ministers in both Houses, yet the web address for the consultation published in the explanatory notes does not work. Will the Minister undertake to ensure, as a matter of urgency, that all responses to consultations are published on the appropriate departmental website?

We welcome article 4 of the order, which would make it unlawful for public authorities to discriminate against disabled persons when carrying out their functions. We also welcome article 5, which places a duty on every public authority to promote positive attitudes towards disabled people and to encourage their participation in public life. It will ensure that public authorities are proactive in their approach to disability.

I shall speak briefly about transport. It is important that disabled people should have more accessible transport to get to work, and we warmly welcome the transport provisions. Will the Minister reassure the Committee that proper action will be taken to ensure that bus stops are cleared of parked cars so that disabled-access buses can get close enough to the pavement? It is a small, practical issue, but it can cause large problems.

On a related point, will the Minister assure us that adequate resources will be made available to tackle the problem of people who, for their own convenience and without a proper parking badge, use disabled parking bays? It is a problem throughout the United Kingdom, and all hon. Members will know about it. It is desperately problematic for those who need to use the spaces.

I have no further comments, except to say that we warmly welcome the measure.

2.45 pm

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I do not know whether it is the place of a humble Back Bencher to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Atkinson, but I certainly do, and I look forward to working under your chairmanship.

Can the Minister can help me with a small technical point that has been brought to my attention by charities for the disabled working in Northern Ireland, particularly Mencap? They have drawn to my attention the fact that section 49A(1)(d) of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was inserted by section 3 of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, states that public authorities will

    “take steps to take account of disabled persons’ disabilities, even where that involves treating disabled persons more favourably than other persons”.

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My understanding is that that section is not reproduced in the order and that the reason for that is that the Government are undertaking a review of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Minister is shaking her head, which I take to mean that she has an answer to my question. Section 75 states that a public authority is under a duty to promote

    “equality of opportunity . . . between persons with a disability and persons without”.

I understand that there are currently cases before the courts asking them to decide whether “equality of opportunity” means strict equality of opportunity or more favourable treatment. My understanding is that the judgments are likely, on balance, to be that it means equal treatment.

If section 49A of the 1995 Act is not reproduced in the order, disabled people in Northern Ireland will, in effect, be discriminated against compared with disabled people in the rest of the United Kingdom. Can the Minister answer a couple of questions on that point? First, why is section 49A not reproduced in the order? Secondly, if it is not reproduced and the reason is the review of section 75 of the 1998 Act, will she give an assurance that the review of section 75 will take as its starting point section 49A?

2.47 pm

Angela E. Smith: The hon. Member for Tewkesbury commented that it should have been the Assembly taking decisions on the matters before the Committee. The whole Committee would heartily endorse that. Local decisions are best taken by local people. I always say that Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office are the only Ministers who are working to do themselves out of a job. If we are successful, we shall not be dealing with Orders in Council; the work will be undertaken by the Assembly. All of us are working as hard as we can to get the Assembly up and running. I hope that that will happen, and I urge all those with greater influence than I on such matters to ensure that it happens as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman said that he had no objection in principle to the order, but described the language as inconclusive. I hope that I can reassure him. The courts and tribunals will be familiar with the language that is used. As he will know, the order has been drafted carefully by experts to complement and reflect the language of existing disability legislation. I hope that that reassures him. Those of us who are not lawyers sometimes find lawyers’ language somewhat difficult to understand and too complex. However, we need that kind of language in legislation to ensure that it is precise and does not lead to confusion at a later date.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about costs in the context of the regulatory impact assessment. As the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, there are costs associated with ensuring that there is fairness. We do not think that the costs are prohibitive. As work has progressed on disability discrimination legislation, costs have been incurred. It is right that we should incur certain costs to ensure that those who have
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disabilities can participate fully in public and social life, and do not feel excluded by virtue of their disabilities.

The hon. Member for Strangford made some very appropriate and insightful comments about the effect that a lack of disability legislation has on those with disabilities. I am grateful for her support. She asked whether political parties would be covered by the section on private clubs. When there are 25 members or more, they will be. I am sure that she is pleased to know that her own political party qualifies on that ground.

I shall put the hon. Lady’s point about a high-profile champion for the disabled to my noble Friend Lord Rooker. He is the Minister responsible for the issue, but as he sits in the House of Lords, he cannot speak in the House of Commons. I am sure that he will be pleased to consider the hon. Lady’s suggestion. Whether or not we have a high-profile champion of the disabled, the crucial thing is to introduce legislation, which is what we are ensuring today, that makes the point that the Government care about disability discrimination and are prepared to do something about it.

The hon. Lady asked which cancers will come under the definition of disability. Any person with any cancer could be deemed to be disabled from the point of diagnosis. The order provides a power to prescribe certain cancers as not being a disability, but from the information that we currently have, there are no plans to exercise that power, so all cancers will be designated as a disability from the moment they are diagnosed.

About 20 per cent. of people are affected by disability. Therefore, some 300,000 people in Northern Ireland will be affected by the order.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) also welcomed the order. I apologise if she could not access the link on the website. All responses have been published on the website, but there might have been a computer glitch when she tried to access it. In the past when she has asked about the publication of responses, I have given assurances that they are always on the website. I will double check in this case, but I am sure that they are there and she should be able to access the website now. We will come back to her if there is any more difficulty with that.

Mr. Robertson: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but she mentioned that about 20 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland would be classed as disabled under the order. I do not expect an answer now, because my question might go slightly wide of the order, but how does that figure compare with the United Kingdom generally? Perhaps she could write to me if she does not have the answer.

Angela E. Smith: The proportions are about the same. There are different sorts of disability, and the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the history of Northern Ireland has led to some people having disabilities as a result of events during the troubles, but the figures are roughly the same.

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The hon. Member for Solihull also mentioned the importance of transport. Other hon. Members have expressed concern about the continuing costs, part of which are training, but other factors are also involved. It is important to recognise that costs are associated with being a fully inclusive society.

The hon. Lady also asked for reassurance on bus stops and parking bays. The Government have no power over private parking bays, but any citizen would want the policy to be clear. In my constituency, I have launched a campaign with a supermarket to protect parking bays for people with disabilities—that is something that we can all do in our constituencies. The hon. Member for Strangford raised a particular transport issue, which I am sure she will pursue. We will talk to Translink to see if it can do any more about bus stops. If the company perceives a problem, we will support its efforts to do something about it.

The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) talked about section 49A of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. There is a similar duty under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. If we enacted a directly equivalent provision in Northern Ireland legislation, that could run counter to section 75, which would affect the way in which that provision operates. The disability lobby in Northern Ireland does not want that to happen. It was consulted on the order, and said that it was content.

Mrs. Robinson indicated assent.

Angela E. Smith: The hon. Member for Strangford is nodding in agreement.

Mr. Vaizey: Will the Minister say something about the review of section 75? Mencap, at least, is under the impression that the Government are conducting such a review.

Angela E. Smith: I will wait for quick enlightenment on that point.The hon. Member for Strangford also expressed concern about the terminology and what the term “positive attitudes” means. The meaning of that term is deliberately broad. It is important that we encompass forward thinking and inclusiveness for people with disabilities. Councils will want to interpret in their own way how positive they can be, but I want the broadest possible interpretation of how to positively encourage people with disabilities to play a full role in public life.

The hon. Lady also asked why there was a 24-hour booking-ahead requirement for train journeys. The reason is to ensure a sufficient number of wheelchair spaces. We so not want anybody to arrive at a railway station and board a train only to find that there is no wheelchair space on the train. There is a requirement for a specified number of spaces, but I expect that transport companies want to accommodate as many people as they can. The requirement is there to ensure that no one is disappointed.

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I was also asked about transport codes of practice and disabled people could have a say in them. We are keen that they should have the opportunity to do so. A disabled person’s transport advisory committee is monitoring compliance with the codes of practice and it will report around the turn of the year.

Enlightenment has come to me about the review of section 75. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland is considering the matter. It will report to the Government with its conclusions, and we shall consider them.

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I hope that I have addressed the comments that hon. Members have made. This important order enshrines in legislation the rights of people with disabilities. I hope that it has received a broad welcome from the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Disability Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 2005.

Committee rose at four minutes to Three o’clock.


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