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Mr. Harper: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention because, indeed, that was the next point to which I was coming.
Medical downgrading permits the retention of people who have become ill or disabled in service, and that is a welcome development. The ability of the forces to adapt in that way is highly commendable, but it is only possible for two reasons. First, as my hon. Friend said, the military have a duty of care to the service member and their family. A service member who becomes disabled because of their active service is already fully trained to the required standard. Just because somebody loses a limb, for example, it does not mean that they lose their years of training and the experience that they have gathered on operations. However, that does not imply that it is feasible or desirable to recruit individuals who are not able to meet the rigorous physical aspects of initial military training, and that the standard should be lowered and we should have a military that consists of some people who are able to be deployed and some who are not.
If hon. Members look at the points that the EHRC has made, it seems that it accepts that service in the armed forces is different and is not like just another job. The EHRC simply differs from the Government and us on how to recognise that difference. It does not accept the blanket exemption of the armed forces from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, but it does recognise that if the armed forces were to come within the DDA, some specific rules would have to be applied to them to recognise their special nature. This is not a discussion about some huge principle; it is about how we recognise that what we ask of people who serve in the armed forces is different. The Government’s conclusion about how we do so is right, and we support that.
Another area of reservation and interpretative declaration that the Minister mentioned is in the area of education. We support that because we recognise that parents and children should have the opportunity to choose the education that is best for them—sometimes that will be in a mainstream environment and sometimes it will be in a special school environment. I have had experience of that in my constituency. A number of years ago, before I was elected to the House, we had a number of battles in which parents strongly took the view that education in a special school environment was the right thing for their particular children. They fought hard to retain that option when it was proposed that it should be removed. The Minister’s proposal to make sure that that choice remains in place is right. Ensuring that the choice remains in place does not in any way change Government policy about whether special schools are desirable. The Minister’s proposal enables parents to retain that choice and that is right.
The other area that I want to mention—the Minister dwelt on this—is the area around the reservation because of the lack of an independent impartial review system for benefit appointees. The Minister has already explained that the reservation is there for the moment and that once the Department has put a proportionate system in place to protect disabled people, it will not need to be there. The Minister has explained the process that will take place to put that system in place, but I did not hear—although I may have missed it—a target timeline for how long that will take. I recognise that it might not be possible to give a precise indication, but some guideline—whether it will be a year, two years or longer—might be helpful for the Committee.
The last point that I want to put on the record is on the optional protocol. The Minister has made it clear that the Government will sign the optional protocol. He also made it clear in the written statement that he made to the House that the Government’s position was that that did not set a precedent for acceding to other complaint mechanisms, which will still be considered on a case-by-case basis. My view, and that of our party, is that we have no problem with the Minister signing the optional protocol. Given our well developed legal system and the number of opportunities that there are for people to challenge the Government if they think that their rights are not being defended, I do not think that signing the optional protocol adds very much. However, it also does no harm, and we therefore have no complaint about it.
In conclusion, we very much support the convention, its early ratification and the areas where the Government have entered reservations and the interpretative declaration. On that basis, we urge the Committee to support its ratification.
4.50 pm
Mr. Davey: Mr. Atkinson, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship; on that point, I agree with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, but I am afraid that I disagree with him on a number of other points. My party and I certainly agree with and welcome the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, because it will have an impact not only in this country, but around the world—if we can get it signed up to by many other countries. However, the case for the Government’s declaration and the reservations is not yet proven.
I am particularly concerned by the lack of consultation—we had a round, which was picked up by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that. I hope that the Minister will explain to the Committee why there was such limited consultation. Given that that is the case, while in one or two areas the Government say that they are keeping the reservations under review, I hope that the Minister is able to say, today, that they will keep all of them under review and come to this House in 12 months. That will allow interested parties, both in and out of Parliament, to give their full reaction to the reservations and engage fully with the Government to see whether they can be removed. Let me deal with each matter in turn.
It may well be that, through the interpretative declaration on education, the Government simply want to clarify that
“nothing in the Convention requires the Government to work towards the eventual elimination of special schools in the UK”;
but other countries that have special schools for children have not felt the need for such interpretative declarations. Therefore, I hope the Minister has a case to make about why we need it. Liberal Democrat Members see a role for special schools, and that is not the issue of debate. However, we want to ensure that there is a move towards the inclusive agenda—that, I believe, still remains a Government policy, and we want to ensure that that happens. I hope that there is nothing in here that can in any way be misinterpreted by those who read the debates and look at what the Government are doing. I hope the Minister is able to clarify that. I accept that there may be nothing to worry about in the interpretative declaration, but given that other countries have not found the need for that, I am interested to hear a little more from the Minister on that point.
The more serious concerns that I have are about the reservations, which I will go through in turn. With respect to the armed forces, it seems that the reservation is rather blanket. I do not think that anyone in this Committee would demur from the idea that people on active duty, who have to take some gruelling physical activity to defend this country and our interests, need to be physically fit, and one can understand that concern. But as I understand it, the DDA requires that people are judged on individual merit rather than stereotype and prejudice. There is almost a false argument being put up here, so I think that the Minister has a real difficulty to try to make and justify the case. Moreover, it is already the case, as has been mentioned, that the MOD recruits people who have some degree of impairment. So the Minister needs to explain why the blanket approach is needed. Surely, it is a question of the MOD having objective and necessary job criteria when it is recruiting, and not a blanket exemption for people with disabilities. One only needs to start thinking of individual jobs or cases to see that the blanket exemption seems to be over the top.
Mr. Harper: My point was that, in the modern operations that we ask our armed forces to do, every single member who serves in uniform has to be able, ultimately, to fight on the front line, in combat. The reality for our armed forces deployed in operations on the front line—I was recently in Afghanistan visiting my local regiment, the 1st Battalion The Rifles—is that they all have to be combat-ready. There are no jobs available on the front line, in that deployed operation, in which one cannot, ultimately, be combat-ready. That is why there is the need for that blanket exemption.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Would it be appropriate to remember the case of Douglas Bader? He lost both legs in the inter-war period, but was determined to rejoin the Royal Air Force, did so and served with great distinction. I am sure that his politics were not those of the Government Benches, but no doubt the Minister is aware of Douglas Bader and his actions and exploits during the war without his natural legs.
Mr. Davey: I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Gentleman makes the point rather better than I did. One can also think of people with learning difficulties—suffering from severe dyslexia, for example. That may be of concern in some posts, but for many fighting posts those people may be physically extremely fit. The learning problems may not affect their ability to do the dangerous job that we ask of them.
The Government have still to make the case. I believe the Secretary of State said that they are prepared to keep the matter under review. I would like to hear a little more about what that means—is that under review or simply that they will think about it at some time in the future, when they can be bothered to get around to it? It is not good enough to have blanket exemptions when it comes to human rights. Not only have the Government failed to consult properly, but they have failed to make the case.
Let us remember the exemptions applied to the police and fire service in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which were lifted in 2005. No one has suggested that that has impacted on the ability of both those services to do their jobs—if so, I hope that they will try to make that argument, because I have seen no evidence to that effect. The Government are on weak territory here. They will have to be more precise than blanket exemptions.
On immigration, the blanket exemptions also need scrutinising. The Joint Committee on Human Rights report says in paragraph 69:
“Read literally, this reservation could disapply the Convention in its entirety in so far as its protection might relate to people subject to immigration control.”
Let us think of some examples that we might be worried about. Imagine asylum seekers who are escaping trauma, torture and being genuinely in fear for their lives under all the terms of the 1951 convention, but who have a disability and are unable to make themselves properly understood because of that disability. I would like to understand about their rights as disabled people actively seeking asylum in this country because they are in fear for their lives—would that disability be taken into account? Perhaps I have misunderstood how that blanket exemption will arise, but I hope that the Minister shares my concern; just because someone is disabled, we would not want to take away rights under the 1951 convention. I assume and hope that we would not. It would seem to be taking away the rights of the most vulnerable people imaginable. I am sure that the Government would not want to be party to that, so I would like some clarification on that reservation.
The final reservation relates to benefits appointees—those who are asked to look after the rights of people with mental health problems, for example, who cannot necessarily claim their benefits. Under the convention, the idea is that there are safeguards for people with the mental health problems that I have outlined, so that their appointees are reviewed periodically to ensure that they are right and proper to take on that role. I understand that the Department is actively looking at such matters to see how it can meet that part of the convention, but the Minister did not really address himself fully to that important point.
The Department is working towards a proportionate system of review, and I am sure that it is doing so in good faith. Of course, we do not want something that is too bureaucratic or too complex and costly, but my concern about what we have been asked to look at today is that I have not seen a time scale. On what time scale can the House be assured that the Department will implement a proportionate system of review? We need to know, and we need to receive some guarantees about it. We should not allow small print on an explanatory memorandum to convince us that we have no need to worry about such matters because the Government have given an assurance. We want clear timetables; that is the least that we should be demanding for those people who, due to lack of physical and mental capacity, have to rely on another person.
Unlike the Conservative spokesman, I am not satisfied with the way that the Government have approached matters, nor am I satisfied that they have made the case for their reservations or the interpretative declaration. I look forward to receiving a fuller reply from the Minister.
5.2 pm
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): On behalf of my constituents in Kettering, many of whom are disabled, I too am not satisfied with the Minister’s explanation. Like me, many people are unhappy whenever the Government sign up to something and then have lots of exemptions, reservations and exceptions. The United Nations convention is extremely important and has attracted a lot of interest throughout the country, especially from disabled people. Scope, a member of the United Nations convention campaign coalition, which represents 33 organisations that are interested in such matters, has collected more than 50,000 signatures from across the country urging Her Majesty’s Government to ratify the UN convention in full, without reservation or limitation. That is a substantial body of popular opinion, and the Minister’s remarks this afternoon will not be regarded by many of those 50,000 people as adequate to justify the reservations that the Government have put forward. It is important to remember that the UN convention is the first international treaty in history to give millions of disabled people across the globe comprehensive human rights, yet it seems that Her Majesty’s Government are not signing up completely to that historic occasion.
The Government have argued inadequately that no such review system is currently in place and therefore it is necessary to place a reservation on the article. However, the Department for Work and Pensions has claimed separately that it is already
“actively working towards a proportionate system of review to address this issue”.
In the light of that, surely there is a strong argument for rendering the reservation unnecessary and without meaning, as the Government have already clearly stated their intention to progressively realise that right, which is specifically allowed for in the scope of the convention.
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