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Baroness Darcy (de Knayth): My Lords, I should like briefly to add my support for this amendment. The points have all been very well made. It is, after all, a pretty moderate and sensible amendment. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said in what I thought was a very compelling opening speech, it responds to the strong feeling on all sides of the House expressed in Committee and on Report that there is a need for clear and accurate advice and that the advice should be of a uniformly high quality.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we have had a short and interesting debate which in many ways has been a subset of the debate that we had just before we rose for the summer holidays. I do not want to repeat many of the arguments that I used that day. However, as it was a little time ago, those of your Lordships who remember those arguments will perhaps forgive me if I rehearse at least some of them.
Perhaps I may start with Amendment No. 2, which amends Clause 3. Clause 3 enables the Secretary of State to issue guidance, after consultation, on the definition of disability. That is not intended to be a consultation on new policies or legislation, nor an attempt to open up interpretation of the law to a kind of popular vote. The purpose of the consultation is to enable the preparation of a useful and practical document.
We shall consider and take into account any relevant comments and make an analysis public. But we do not intend to publicise details of all the responses received. Individual organisations and people will be free to make their responses public, if they wish. Bearing in mind that the guidance will be subject to the negative resolution procedure, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
Perhaps I may move on to the more substantive amendment, which would have been dealt with later in the afternoon if it had not been linked to this one. I am afraid that I cannot support that amendment for three important reasons.
The first reason is because it would undermine one of our fundamental objectives in setting up the National Disability Council; namely, that it should be an influential and credible body able to give independent advice to government on the operation of, and the provisions made under, the Act. I believe that its ability to do that would be hampered considerably if this amendment were accepted.
The second reason is because we have already made provision elsewhere in the Act for the Secretary of State to provide an advice and assistance service. The Prime Minister himself has already said that we shall be consulting the National Disability Council on how that could best be achieved.
Thirdly, this amendment is far too inflexible. To ensure easy access to information about the Act, we shall be setting up a telephone helpline. A joint initiative is about to be undertaken by my department and the department of my noble friend Lord Henley to consider how best to provide that information service. If, after further consultation, we conclude that the helpline should be linked to the dispute resolution mechanisms under Clause 24, or should cover specific employment issues, the amendment before your Lordships' House this afternoon would prove far too restrictive.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, gave a list of examples explaining why she believed that her amendment was necessary. Interestingly, however, none of the examples that she gave would be covered by the amendment that is before the House this afternoon, because subsection (2C) of the amendment puts Part II of the Billthe part relating to employment issuesoff limits. There is no suggestion of advice to employers on employment matters. I rather fear that the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, in his intervention argued a case based on the assumption that the amendment covered employment issues as well as goods and service provision. It is actually the provision of goods and services that the amendment addresses, as does the National Disability Council.
Turning to the National Disability Council, as I explained in July, we envisage the council with a very important role. As well as specific duties linked to the operation of the Bill, we expect it to work with industry on issues which cannot be dealt with under rights-based legislation such as the design and labelling of products. It would also be within the scope of the NDC's duties to consider other legislation which had a constraining effect on the spirit of this legislation if it chose to do so. We have also said that we will be consulting the NDC on the setting up of the advice and assistance service under Clause 24, on the information to be provided to support the implementation of this legislation, and the regulations to be made relating to the right of access to goods and services. We illustrated how the NDC could obtain information to help it undertake its duties. For example, it could ask the Secretary of State to commission research on its behalf; it would have access to collated information from the advice and assistance service, and could draw from other sources in forming conclusions as to how the Act is operating.
Turning to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, I can confirm today, as I did when we met in the summer, that the NDC would be able to invite individuals, voluntary organisations and business to put forward evidence on general issues under consideration. We do not intend that the NDC should be the recipient of individual complaints. However, the council could take evidence from individuals if it thought that would be helpful in the context of exploring a general problem, provided it made clear that the purpose of inviting the evidence was to help resolve the general issue, not to give the individual assistance. It would be open to the council to make public its area of interestfor example, by issuing a press release.
The council will have a challenging workload. Its advice will be influential and to be so it must have credibility and be independent. It must be able to praisewhich I hope it will be able to do when it sees what the Government are doing in this fieldto endorse or criticise as it sees fit.
I can assure your Lordships' House and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, in particular, that we are committed to providing both disabled people and business with the advice and assistance they will need for the legislation to be effective. As I said before, my colleagues and I have not spent many hours on this issue without the determination to ensure that the labours we bring forward will be effective. We have learnt lessons from other countries on this point and do not wish to reproduce some of their mistakes.
Perhaps I can briefly explain our intentions regarding the provision of advice and assistance for resolving disputes under Clause 4. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham asked how disabled people and service providers will find out about their obligations. As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy wisely spotted, this part of my speech interfaces with the contribution I shall make in response to my noble friend Lady O'Cathain when she introduces her amendment later. I shall try not to repeat myself and keep some of my explanation "dry" until we come to that amendment.
The main elements we envisage are the provision of a second tier advice and assistance service which will be available to local agencies providing advice to disabled people and small businesses, such as the citizens advice bureaux services or DIAL, and in certain circumstances, directly to larger businesses, perhaps where their customer complaints departments have been unable to resolve a particularly tricky problem. I would emphasise that in developing this advice and assistance service we are looking to build on, not compete with, existing structures and that we have given our commitment to consult with business, disabled people and the National Disability Council on this matter. The Government's approach of working with the grain of existing provisions and building on their valuable work is the best way of securing the help that disabled people will need, while the second tier advice and assistance service will ensure that consistent and authoritative advice on disputes under Part III is available at a local level and to bigger businesses. We fully expect the NDC to take considerable interest in the types of cases coming to the advice service so that it can build up an overall picture of how the Act is operating.
Turning to the need to provide basic information and more general advice, as I said earlier, officials in my department and the department of my noble friend, are already working together on developing the information that will be needed to support the implementation of the Bill. We will be setting up a telephone helpline to provide general information about the provisions in the Bill. This will provide a central information point for business and disabled people. We will be considering, after further consultation, the scope and construction of the telephone service. We will need to consider the type and range of questions that it should aim to deal with and whether it should be linked to the second tier advice and assistance service. Should we conclude that this is the best way forward, this amendment would prove to be far too restrictive.
The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, suggested that not all disabled people can use the phone. I suggest that the great majority of disabled people can use telephones and probably have them in their homes. In relation to deaf people, I hope I can put his fears at rest when I say that any services of this kind will be equipped with minicoms or other technical devices to allow access for deaf people. For those unable to use the telephone, through fear or whatever, other measures will be needed. That is why the provision of advice by local advice services will be so important. People then may not need to use the telephone; the services can be available for disabled people or their friends to call on to obtain advice. We hope that all the information and guidance that we will make available will be available locally where people will look for it. A centralised commission of the kind that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, would prefer, would not be much use to deaf people either if they could not use the telephone. The way in which we communicate advice is a problem that we must try to resolve and I believe we can.
In the light of that explanation I hope the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment, having heard how we propose to bring the Bill into effect. I shall be returning to the point later this afternoon, as I said, and perhaps making additional points. I hope for the moment that I have been able to persuade her to withdraw the amendment.
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