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House of Lords

Monday, 19th May 1997.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Hereford.

Lord Simon of Highbury

Sir David Alec Gwyn Simon, Knight, CBE, having been created Baron Simon of Highbury, of Canonbury, in the London Borough of Islington, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Ashburton and the Lord Haskel.

Several Lords--Took the Oath or Affirmed.

Lord Gridley--Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

Lord Quinton--Took the Oath.

Disability Discrimination Act

2.50 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to amend the Disability Discrimination Act to ensure full civil rights for disabled people.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, our manifesto commits us to establishing

    "comprehensive, enforceable civil rights for disabled people against discrimination in society or at work, developed in partnership with all interested parties".
The Disability Discrimination Act does not achieve those aims. We are already talking to disability organisations, business and disabled people about how we can give them the rights they deserve and whether we can build on the DDA until new legislation is in force.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on her appointment. I am sure that she will serve with her usual distinction. Is she aware that I welcome the Government's commitment to civil rights for disabled people and their view that the Disability Discrimination Act at present is inadequate? Does she agree that nothing of real value will be achieved until there is legislation for a strong commission to enforce the rights of disabled people, enforce the law, investigate allegations of discrimination and represent them in courts of law? As this matter was not referred to in the Queen's Speech, can my noble friend inform the House when that legislation is likely to be forthcoming?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend for his very kind words of

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congratulation. It is a pleasure for me to take my first Question as a Minister from my noble friend Lord Ashley, who has done so much for disabled people in this country. The Queen's Speech sets out a very ambitious but at the same time achievable programme of legislation in the first Session of Parliament. We realise that some will be disappointed that that programme does not include a Bill to establish a commission to help enforce the Disability Discrimination Act. However, that should not be seen as any lessening of the Government's commitment to comprehensive and enforceable anti-discrimination legislation. We have never led anyone to expect that there will be major disability legislation in the first Session of Parliament. That does not mean that we are not committed to further disability legislation in this Parliament. We shall be consulting widely and developing our proposals in partnership with interested parties. We want to avoid rushed or half-baked legislation.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, in offering my congratulations to the noble Baroness for taking on this job. In the spirit of constructive criticism, I also offer my congratulations to the Government for transferring the Disability Unit, as I understand they have, from the Department of Social Security to the Department for Education and Employment. We believe that that move is justified by the merger of education and employment and it is one that we very much welcome. I should like to ask the noble Baroness--I now have to learn some new tricks--whether it is the case that there is no longer a person with the title Minister for disabled people and, if so, whether she believes it is a good idea that there should be such a named individual. Further, will the noble Baroness ensure that the rights and interests of disabled people are not enhanced and improved by knee-jerk reactions and the extension of the Disability Discrimination Act without consulting employers and others who may be affected?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words. He was my predecessor in this post. I also have a few tricks to learn. I am most grateful to him for accepting that it is desirable that the whole question of the rights of disabled people should be handled by my department. As to why there is no Minister for disabled people, the Government are committed to promoting the interests of disabled people and are not short-changing them by not having a Minister with that title. Disabled people, in particular younger ones, recognise that economic independence is fundamental to their playing a key role in society. That means that proper education and training, as well as good employment policies, allow disabled people to make the most of their opportunities. Their interests can have no better champions than the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment and Equal Opportunities,

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who are now in the lead in securing that those interests are recognised right across the Government's policies and programmes.

Baroness Flather: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that when in opposition noble Lords opposite informed this House that they had consulted very widely on the need for a commission? I supported the establishment of a commission. At that time noble Lords opposite stated with some force that all the consultations led to the formation of a commission. I am very disappointed. I am sure the noble Baroness is aware that the disability lobby will be extremely disappointed by this hedging on the creation of a commission. The noble Baroness will also be aware that there is great disappointment that the Disability Discrimination Act has not been working in the way that it should have been. Indeed, both the noble Baroness and her colleagues were aware of that when the legislation was passing through this House. Noble Lords were informed that they would do something about it. I am sure that everyone will be extremely disappointed.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it was the Government supported by the noble Baroness who decided against having a disability rights commission. Perhaps I may try to reassure her that no decisions have yet been reached about whether there should be an overarching human rights commission or disability rights commission. We want to consult all interested parties before coming to a final view on the matter. I hope that that reassurance will help.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that our Royal British Legion is greatly interested in this issue? It was the contributions of the men and their fathers who are members of that great organisation which allow us to live in the freedom that we enjoy. I hope that my plea will be heeded, because the Question is of interest to our Royal British Legion.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. We shall of course want to take into account the views of the Royal British Legion in any discussions about a disability rights commission.

Earl Russell: My Lords, as one who has often complained about the overloading of legislative programmes, I cannot but accept the Minister's first Answer. However is she aware that the welcome commitment that she mentioned may receive occasional refreshment by contributions from these Benches?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it is nice to receive that advice from the noble Earl. It is the first time that I have had a full frontal view of him. I look

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forward to many further debates and, I am sure, difficult questions. I know that he will ask me one later.

Mobile Telephones: Use While Driving

3.2 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will consider making it an offence to use a telephone while driving a vehicle on a public road, whether the telephone is held in the hand or not.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for the Environment and Transport (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, I am urgently considering how best to tackle the hazards posed by driving while using a mobile telephone--whether hand held or hands free. Recent court cases show that the police can and do successfully prosecute the offences of dangerous driving, careless driving or failure to exercise proper control of a vehicle that may arise from the use of a mobile phone while driving.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, and congratulate her upon her debut today speaking as a Minister. I wish her all the best in her new role. Perhaps I should have addressed her not as "Minister" but by her Christian name so as to keep in line with the cosy informality now being encouraged by the Government. Is she aware that there are differing views among the safety and motoring organisations about accidents involving car phones, because those phones can be beneficial and needed, for example, by women driving on their own? Can an attempt be made to devise a code of practice?

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