Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I accept the noble Lord's reasoning for the word, even if I do not

20 Jul 1998 : Column 700

necessarily agree with it. The amendment provides the opportunity for sympathetic employers to lend a hand to people with disabilities by enabling them to do a useful and satisfying job, to earn some money of their own instead of relying on state handouts and at the same time to build their own self-esteem.

In his response the Minister quoted selectively from the report of the Low Pay Commission by referring to paragraph 1.6, which said that a majority of witnesses, including the Government, saw no justification for an exemption or a lower rate of national minimum wage for disabled persons. As regards the Government's evidence, they are opposing this amendment, so I expect that that is what they would say. On the other hand, the Minister did not comment on the paper published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, published ahead of the Low Pay Commission's report, which I quoted. I remind your Lordships that it said:

    "Disabled people may have been affected by a wider and systematic shift in employment patterns. As the supply of labour has expanded employers have become more selective in their choice of staff. Marginal workers such as disabled have been excluded ... preliminary evidence suggests that very few have found a job".

The Minister also disregarded the evidence, reported on page 39 of the Low Pay Commission's Report, of the Royal National Institute for the Blind. The institute said:

    "Blind and partially sighted persons face bleak prospects in employment".

It goes on:

    "Significantly, blind and partially sighted people are concentrated in lower paying, semi-skilled, unskilled and routine manual occupations ... Many blind and partially sighted people are therefore caught in poverty even when in work".

I do not understand how the Government can believe that putting another obstacle in the way of disabled people obtaining employment will help them.

I believe that the Government have totally misunderstood the purport of my amendment, which is far more detailed than the one that received perfunctory attention in the other place. I hope that, despite the Minister's very heavy workload, he has had time to consider and reflect on the detail of what I proposed in my amendment and which I explained in Committee. I am emphatically not proposing a blanket exemption from the national minimum wage for disabled persons en masse. This clause provides for an exemption for individuals on a case-by-case basis. Each request for exemption will have to be initiated by the employee, not by the employer or potential employer. Each case will have to be examined on its own separate merits. The Secretary of State will make regulations to prescribe the criteria to be applied in deciding whether exemptions should be granted. I suggested that the procedure should be conducted by those expert assessors who already decide about disablement benefit. But that would be for the Secretary of State to decide. What the doctor or other assessor would be looking at is an applicant who says, for instance, "My disability prevents me from working for more than a few hours a day" or "I cannot go to work more than an odd regular day" or "I can only do limited tasks, but I would like to get a job from a sympathetic employer who is prepared to take me on despite my problems".

20 Jul 1998 : Column 701

We must recognise that many such employers would be willing to employ disabled persons as a commendable social duty. So why should those employers not pay the full national minimum wage? Of course, there is nothing to prevent them from so doing, but human nature being what it is, they in turn may face problems with their other employees--"Why should he be paid the same wage as me when I do more work, produce more widgets in a day or do not need so much time off?" Nothing in the clause requires a disabled person to take a job at an unacceptable wage. Nothing in the clause enables an employer to recruit an employee at a rate lower than the national minimum wage unless that employee has himself obtained an exemption after a stringent assessment procedure.

Finally, I turn to subsection (5), which deals with persons whose work is primarily undertaken for therapeutic purposes with a non profit-making purpose. We are talking of disabled people living in community homes, staying in hospital or attending some kind of day centre. They can often do jobs--frequently handicrafts, but sometimes small industrial applications. The work they do is partly to help them overcome their disability. Pay is not necessarily the prime consideration, though it is a factor in establishing the self-esteem of the worker who is possibly, simultaneously, a patient.

I told the Committee of my experience on a visit to a community home for people--mostly adults with learning difficulties--where I was presented with a vase made by one of the residents who spent his time working in the pottery shop. The shop sells the products to visitors to provide extra comforts for the residents. If the community home had to pay them a commercial wage for work which has no real commercial value, it would simply have to discontinue that operation. That would be to the considerable detriment of the residents who would then have to spend their time watching TV.

My noble friend Lord Oxfuird is not able to be present today. If he had been, he would have told your Lordships of a letter he received from the Enham Trust--a charity with which he works for those suffering from cerebral palsy. The national minimum wage would be to the disadvantage of disabled workers and may impose extra financial burdens on the excellently supported employment programme administered by the Employment Service Department.

In closing their ears to our request for disabled persons to be exempted, if they individually ask to be, do the Government realise the wider implications of that action? This is one case where the Government cannot produce their usual scenario of an attempt by some unscrupulous employer to evade the Act. The qualification is that the employer providing therapeutic work must be a non-profit-making organisation. Similarly, no part of the first four subsections will enable any employer to evade the Act. It will not affect a disabled person unless he and nobody else applies for the exemption. He will not obtain that exemption unless it is granted after careful appraisal by a qualified assessor using the same criteria as apply to evaluating a person's disability for other purposes. It is entirely to the advantage of the employee and nobody else. For the Government to continue to refuse to agree to the

20 Jul 1998 : Column 702

exemption will condemn numerous disabled people to exist, often for life, on benefits doled out by the DHSS offices instead of the benefit of useful and fulfilling work.

The noble Lord, Lord Rix, is also not in his place. I saw a copy of the letter he wrote to the Minister as chairman of MENCAP--the organisation that he leads with such distinction. I believe it is a fair reading of his letter that MENCAP would not wish in any way to become involved in what it sees as a political dispute--and that is quite right in view of its charitable status. He shares the Minister's view which I have already quoted; that is, that the pay of the disabled is a difficult issue. He reminded the Minister that MENCAP's evidence to the Low Pay Commission was that in reality the employer is often doing the disabled worker a favour and is not necessarily guaranteed to do so if the cost is doubled. He pointed out that even low wages were far better than the derisory sums they received at some day centres.

The noble Lord, Lord Rix, posed two questions to the Minister, of which I only wish I had been the author. So I repeat them myself because they require simple, straight answers, yes or no. First, are the Government suggesting that all arrangements for disabled workers below the national minimum wage should become illegal and that this is the necessary price of progress for the wider constituency of low paid workers? Secondly, is not the function of the national minimum wage to lay down some rules at one end of the spectrum and not to rule out provision at the other end of the spectrum? The noble Lord, Lord Rix, said that he did not wish to undermine the national minimum wage. Well, I admit that he and I do not see eye to eye on the worth of this politically doctrinaire piece of legislation. But he also said that he did not wish to undermine jobs which are of importance to those disabled persons who have them but which are not viable at the national minimum wage levels. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, asked the Minister to help him; and so do I. I beg to move.

10.30 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, in supporting my noble friend Lady Miller in her amendment, perhaps I may further refer to the findings of the Low Pay Commission. In Committee, the noble and learned Lord the Solicitor-General quoted the Low Pay Commission:

    "Moreover, for those people with severe disabilities that limit their productivity, the Government funds the Supported Employment Programme which helps employers recruit and maintain these workers in jobs".--[Official Report, 22/6/98; col. 65.]

That is all very fine in theory and we must indeed pay regard to the Low Pay Commission's findings. But what are the practicalities? We are looking at a small firm. There will be a good deal of ill-affordable time tied up in getting the various subsidies available and almost certainly they will come after the wage has been paid, so there will be a cash flow problem for small firms. The result will be that employers with the highest intentions will say, "This is not worth the candle", and a disabled person will lose that chance of a job. That must be of concern to every Member of your Lordships' House.

20 Jul 1998 : Column 703

How much simpler it would be if we could go straight to the problem so that, as my noble friend outlined, each case was individually dealt with? We are not talking about a sweat shop composed of disabled people. This issue is not sectional and is not political. It is of the highest public concern. I urge the Minister to think again about making an exemption for this disadvantaged group of people.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page