Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

5.5 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, we thank the noble Baroness for the Statement. Perhaps I may also place on record how appreciative I am of the fact that we were able to have the Statement a little earlier than is sometimes the case. As a result it gave us more chance to contact the groups concerned. I appreciate that and I thank the Minister.

Obviously, on this side of the House we are glad that this Statement travels the distance that it does. But we are not grateful, because every inch, every foot of that distance has been screwed out of a recalcitrant Government by the anger--yes, the anger--the pressure and the outrage not just of disabled people but of Members of both Houses, as well as that of citizens across the country. I believe that we all know in our heart of hearts that, but for the events of last summer, we would not be seeing this Statement now. It is better than nothing and we certainly welcome it as far as it goes. But, in my view, it is still far short of what disabled people are entitled to as of right. As I say, it would be churlish and quite unreasonable not to welcome the proposals.

The first thing which I am so pleased to see in the document --if I may go to individual aspects of it--is direct payments. Here I would like to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord McColl, who introduced a Bill with all-party support in this House to try to achieve just that. I remember the regret, it would be fair to say, that the noble Baroness demonstrated when she had to reject that Bill at the time. It must be a particular pleasure for her today to be able to announce the good news. The significance of that is that direct payments will place disabled people at the centre of organising their network of care rather than being dependent on the convenience,

24 Nov 1994 : Column 393

the timetable, and so on, of others. That must be an important and major step forward, which is very welcome.

Secondly, I come to the areas which concern us. The first of these is access to employment. I ask the noble Baroness three questions on this section of the Statement. The Statement says that the Government are proposing to scrap the quota system, that it has failed. I believe that many of us have some sympathy with the view that the quota system has had its day, but I believe that many of us--particularly noble Lords who have a specific interest in disabled people with learning difficulties--are very worried that it should be scrapped without more effective and better powers in its place. In particular, if employers are not to be required to meet a quota system and disabled people have to pursue their rights against discrimination through tribunals and ACAS, but without the backing of an enforcement commission, will the noble Baroness consider whether disabled people should therefore be eligible for legal aid?

As I understand it, most employers are legally represented at tribunals. Many people, in the CRE, in race relations and other forms of discrimination, have the legal support of their trade unions. All the evidence shows that where there is legal representation the ability to achieve success is that much higher. Disabled people are very much more on their own; often very poor, rather fragile and rather bruised. They will need all the help that we can give them if they have to pursue their own grievances through a procedure which is known to be cumbersome, bureaucratic, difficult and slow. Can we hope for that?

The third matter on which I should like to press the Minister in terms of employment is small business exemption. I checked with the Employment Gazette and I understand that 95 per cent. of businesses in this country employ fewer than 20 people and cover about one-third of the working population. Obviously we understand that the approach has to be one of reasonableness and we do not disagree with that at all. But will the noble Baroness consider, when we come to the legislation, producing a timetable analogous perhaps to that of the United States, where I believe the provisions have worked very well? There could be a minimum of 20 employees to start with and in five years' time only firms employing fewer than 15 people should be exempt. In 10 years' time firms employing less than, say, 10 people should be exempt, and so on. In other words, there should be a pattern of implementation which, over time and in a reasonable way, brings all employers within the frame as it currently does immediately for employers under EOC and CRE legislation. We believe that disabled people are entitled to no less rights.

Then, on employment, will the Minister look at the question of indirect discrimination? It is significant in employment. I am sure that we all know of examples where a job requirement is that one has a driving licence even though driving is not essential to the job. It acts as a form of indirect discrimination. The latest research by Scope (the former Spastics Society) suggests that 51 per cent. of disabled people believe that they were refused

24 Nov 1994 : Column 394

a job because of their disability; 35 per cent. said that they could not accept the job because of problems of physical access; and 55 per cent. of disabled people thought that they would lose their jobs because of their disability. On many occasions those forms of loss amounted to indirect discrimination. Will the Minister comment on that point?

Perhaps I may move from employment to public buildings and the pressure on volume house builders. We are obviously awaiting a consultation document on that. Will the Minister tell us when we may expect it? We welcome what the Statement said about tougher arrangements for financial services. That has been brigaded with access to goods and services; for example, insurance. I believe that I am right in saying that half of all disabled people have difficulty obtaining insurance; 37 per cent. find difficulty in obtaining car insurance; and 20 per cent. have difficulty in obtaining a mortgage. That is what we are talking about. May we hope, therefore, that the Minister will ensure that there is as much toughness with regard to the provision of financial services as to other aspects of the Bill?

I come to education. We obviously greatly welcome the fact that there will be an audit of physical accessibility. We all recognise that the DFE has a logjam of capital maintenance works which need to be implemented. As I understand it, at the moment about a quarter of primary schools and a tenth of secondary schools have full access. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government propose to introduce a phased implementation so that, say, within 10 years three-quarters of primary schools and half of secondary schools will have full access for disabled children? I believe that the cost will be around £30 million a year. That is not excessive for the degree of opportunity that it will offer children and their parents.

On transport, as far as we can tell the Government's policy seems to be sensible: as vehicles are replaced, the new vehicles will meet new disability requirements. Can the Minister give us any guidance as to what timetable she expects that to operate? I assume that it is 15 to 20 years.

We were given originally a yellow document entitled Compliance Cost Assessment. Noble Lords will remember that when we discussed the matter many noble Lords denounced as shoddy the cost of £17 billion that the Government calculated. The department asked for assessments. The DoE counted the figures twice but failed to dock off the cost of the work already done. Then it assumed that the work had to be done within five years, and that it had to be done whatever the expense. Not surprisingly, the eventual figure was £17 billion which no one, except the statisticians who drew it up, believed bore any resemblance to the figures of £2 billion to £5 billion which many disability organisations believed to be the case.

We are pleased that in today's Statement the Minister did not revisit that fictional figure of £17 billion which was wildly and irresponsibly inaccurate. We hope that the Budget forecasts and uprating statements are not drawn up by the same statistics team. We are pleased to

24 Nov 1994 : Column 395

see that the figure has disappeared. What worries us, however, is not so much the putative cost of compliance but compliance itself.

I come to the one disappointing issue in the Minister's long and full Statement. The Government have refused to set up an enforcement commission. They are setting up merely an advisory committee (the National Disability Council) to give advice to the Secretary of State but not to enforce disabled people's rights. That will not do. An advisory committee with no enforcement powers, unlike the EOC or the CRE, means that the proposed Bill will give disabled people legal remedies; it will not give them what they are entitled to --civil rights.

Disabled people will remain on their own. They will often be poor, very disabled and lacking in energy and resources; and they will have none of the enforcement powers behind them that women and ethnic minorities now take for granted. Employers themselves say, and I quote from the employers' response to the Government's consultation document:

    "If the new framework is to have credibility in the eyes of both employers and disabled people, it must be seen to be backed by the same commitment to guidance, support and enforcement which underpins the EOC and the CRE".

Employers are calling for an enforcement agency. Will the Minister tell us why the Government will not provide one? If we do not have an enforcement agency, disabled people will have only an advisory committee which will have power to do everything except act and enforce. We owe disabled people more than that. I hope that the Minister can give us some movement on that point.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page