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House of Lords

Thursday, 18th December 1997.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

Disability Discrimination Act: Exemption

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they are taking, under subsections (2) to (10) of Section 7 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, to start the reduction of the exemption, from Part II of the Act, for employers with fewer than 20 employees.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, the Government announced on 3rd December a review of the exemption threshold, including a wide-ranging consultation exercise ending on 2nd March 1998.

We shall consider the responses carefully before deciding whether the Act's employment provisions should be extended to more employers and therefore their disabled employees and job applicants. Any change to the threshold has to be made within a year of the review beginning, that is, by 2nd December 1998.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. I welcome the fact that since I tabled this Question the Government have announced the first stage: conducting the review with a time limit of nine months. Does she recall that during the passage of the Bill there was general agreement in Parliament that once the quota system had ended, there should be examination of the reduction of the figure of 20 in consultation with representatives of smaller firms?

Baroness Blackstone: Yes, my Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, is absolutely right in all that he said. The law states that we must hold a review before we make any changes to the threshold and that is what we are doing. The consultation document does not defend an exemption threshold. At this stage we are seeking views on the effects of the current threshold and various options, and we genuinely wish to hear the views of both employers--especially small employers--and those who represent disabled people.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, can the Minister tell us exactly how people are defined as disabled? I ask the question because under the present national health rules if you apply to be a non-executive director and you tick the box to indicate that you are disabled you are guaranteed an interview.

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In my experience, when these people are interviewed and one asks them what their disability is, one finds it can be very minor, but if they perceive themselves as disabled they are entitled to tick the box and qualify as disabled. However, when the Act went through this House we had considerable debate on the perception of disability. I wonder what the position is. It seems to me that there is a conflict between the perception of disability and some more objective test.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it is difficult to produce objective tests. It could lead to many problems. The general view is that it is right that people should be involved in defining themselves as disabled, rather than leaving it to other people. Of course there need to be checks on whether people are trying to defraud the benefit systems. But I believe the right approach is by self-definition.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, first, if the extension is to be made to employers of 20 or fewer employees, it is important that there should be an attempt to have a definition. It is important that employers know to whom they are obligated. Secondly, is the noble Baroness able to tell the House what is the cost to employers of the extension to 20 or fewer employees?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the task force that has recently been set up under the chairmanship of my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Employment is looking at these questions, including definition.

Costs are also being examined, and in the process of consultation we are asking employers whether they can indicate what they perceive as the cost. The evidence from the United States is that the cost of employing disabled people is not very high.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, while I agree with the noble Baroness that the consultation round is of prime importance, have the Government followed the course of the equivalent legislation in the United States where the figure has already been moved down to 15 employees?

Baroness Blackstone: Yes, my Lords. The Government are aware that in the United States of America there is a lower exemption level. I am sure that that ought to be taken into account when the consultation process has been completed.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, following the supplementary question put by my noble friend, can the noble Baroness say what checks, if any, are made on those who have disability motoring badges? Once they have the badges, are there further checks to find out whether the owner is still disabled?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that question but I shall write to the noble Lord.

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Shopping Centres Out of Town

11.10 a.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What their policy now is on planning guidance with respect to out-of-town shopping centres.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, the Government's policy is set out in Planning Policy Guidance Note 6, Town Centres and Retail Developments (PPG6), which aims to focus new retail developments in existing centres. Our response to the fourth report of the House of Commons Environment Select Committee on Shopping Centres, published in July 1997, reaffirmed our support for PPG6. We have no current plans to revise the policy.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer: it is reassuring in the light of some of the unwise comments made on this subject in various places, not excluding the press. May I press the noble Baroness a little further and ask what progress is being made with what might be called the other side of the problem? I refer to the stimulation of economic health within town centres. Have the Government considered the research done on town improvement zones? Also, have they considered the suggestion made by the Select Committee in the report to which the noble Baroness referred that there would be a great deal of benefit in giving tax exemption or relief for money given by individual companies to improve town centres?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we are studying the various options that are available for improving and stimulating the vitality and viability of town centre development. That means that we have to look at a range of services that are available within town centres, not only retail developments but also leisure developments, and make sure that housing is available so that those centres become alive not just during the day but also at night. That has the added advantage of being able to use brownfield rather than greenfield sites for the housing that is needed, particularly for single person households. We are looking at ways of working together with local authorities and business interests within town centres to stimulate that sort of co-operative approach to planning for town centre vitality.

Lord Renton: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that out-of-town shopping centres not only take up a lot of rural land but also have an adverse effect on village shops. When those shops are forced to close down, great hardship is caused to villagers who do not own cars. Is not that a paramount factor that the Government should bear in mind?

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Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton. In looking at how new retail developments should be assessed, PPG6 sets down tests for assessing applications. That involves the need for development and the sequential test as to whether there is a town centre site available; and puts on them a responsibility to consider the impact of the proposal on existing centres, including village shops and high streets.

Lord Elton: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of the relief that some of us felt on hearing her enthusiasm for brownfield sites for developing housing, given the current alarming statements from the Government and in the press about the need to develop housing in rural areas? If we are to have any country left at all, let alone be allowed to do what we like in it, it is essential that we use urban areas for development.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, after the exchanges we had in your Lordships' House on the policy of green belts, I am in no doubt about the strength of feeling in relation to the need to preserve the countryside. The Government share that concern and the concerns about revitalising city centres. The two go together. As the House will know, we are currently considering how to meet the predicted increases in household growth and what the proper proportion should be of brownfield site development for that purpose.

Lord Evans of Parkside: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that one of the difficulties involved in city and town centre development is the almost impossible task of parking the car and the cost? Also in some instances women feel a danger in parking in multi-storey car parks. Surely the Government should be seeking to encourage local authorities to brighten up multi-storey, city centre car parks.

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