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House of Lords

Tuesday, 6th October 1998.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ely.

Lord Norton of Louth

Philip Norton, Esquire, having been created Baron Norton of Louth, of Louth in the County of Lincolnshire, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Weatherill and the Lord Newton of Braintree.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

Mrs. Susan Elizabeth Miller, having been created Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer, of Chilthorne Domer in the County of Somerset, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Lord Tope and the Baroness Maddock.

Disabled Employment Provisions: Exemptions

2.47 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why most employers are granted exemption from the employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, our review of the effects of the small employer exemption threshold led us to conclude that the threshold should be lowered from 20 to 15, thus bringing more employers into coverage. That means that over three-quarters both of all employees and all disabled employees will be covered by the employment provisions of the Act.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. However, is my noble friend aware that there is no valid reason why any firm should be exempt from the Disability Discrimination Act? The Act specifically provides that only reasonable adjustments need to be made, so there is absolutely no question of any unreasonable demands being imposed on any firm. Does it not follow that any claim by a firm for exemption on the grounds that it fears unreasonable burdens is totally without justification according to the law and that such firms should therefore be included under the terms of the Act that forbids discrimination against disabled people at work?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend is right in that when the tribunals, if necessary, come to consider the application of the Act and how to

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interpret the phrase, "reasonable adjustment", they will take into account the size of the firm. They will therefore undoubtably be more understanding of the problems of small firms. But the Act is concerned with responsibilities as well as rights. There are compliance costs. The Government took the view that to bring, as we have done, a substantially increased number of employees--750,000 employees and 60,000 disabled employees--within the purview of the Act was a worthwhile change.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, why is it necessary to exempt some firms from that part of the legislation when they are not exempt from health and safety or tax legislation or, more significantly, the service provisions of the Act, which will probably prove far more onerous than the employment provisions?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Lord could have gone further: smaller firms are not exempt from provisions relating to sex and race discrimination. The analogies are not perfect in either case. I sought to emphasise that responsibilities and costs on employers are involved. That is why we took the view that the lower threshold was appropriate.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that I warmly welcomed the Government's decision to create the disability rights commission for which my Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill provided. But is he aware of the recent research finding that a high proportion of employers now refuse even to interview disabled job applicants? Might not that mindless prejudice against disabled people be encouraged if those who are doing so much damage to their aspirations are unaffected by the new legislation?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right that the legislation to create a disability rights commission, which he has championed so powerfully for so many years, is the Department for Education and Employment's highest priority for legislation. We must hope that it will find a very early slot in the Government's programme.

As to whether employers are excluding disabled persons from interview, that would be in contravention of the Disability Discrimination Act and any cases should be reported to the authorities.

Lord Rix: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the removal of the employer's contribution to Access to Work for disabled persons would go some way to encourage them to employ such persons, particularly those with a learning disability?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Government have gone a considerable way to removing the employee's contribution to Access to Work. We are prepared in most circumstances to shoulder 100 per cent. of the costs of Access to Work. I hope the noble Lord will agree that that is progress.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, does my noble friend recall that the Labour Party was strongly opposed

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to any exemption when the Bill was going through both Houses of Parliament and was also opposed to it at the party conference? In and out of Parliament, strong opposition was expressed to any exemption. The sooner the Government go back to that realistic policy, the better it will be for disabled people.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, of course, I recall the history to which my noble friend refers. I have already referred to the department's hope that there will be early legislation. Once the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 has been amended, as we hope it will be, there will be an opportunity to have a phased lowering of the threshold for inclusion under Section 7 of Part II of the Act, and that, I believe, will be in the direction in which my noble friend wishes to go, though not at the speed at which he wishes to go.

The North East: Unemployment

2.56 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they are taking in the north east of England as a result of the many redundancies declared in that region in recent weeks.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, where substantial redundancies have occurred, access to the recently established Rapid Response Fund is available and task forces have been established to co-ordinate activity. Local authorities and Government Office-North East are pursuing the potential for attracting alternative buyers for the facilities, either as a going concern or for alternative purposes. The Employment Service is providing immediate on-site assistance to individual employees on re-employment, jobsearch techniques, re-training and benefit entitlement.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the northern region has had the highest unemployment rate outside of Northern Ireland since these statistics were first instituted and that it is now having to bear the brunt of the first and heaviest round of factory closures, not just by the big players, such as Siemens and Fujitsu, but by many smaller companies, a matter about which all parties are concerned? Is he further aware of reports that both employers and members of trade unions are expressing disappointment at what is considered to be inadequate discussion and consultation by the Government? While I welcome the last part of the Answer, I have to say to the Minister that much more is expected.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I understand my noble friend's concern. The Government are concerned about the impact of these decisions of companies to cease to operate on the individuals and communities involved, and that is why we acted so quickly to put in the support measures that I have mentioned. However, we have to put this in perspective.

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The fact is that the north east has undergone considerable industrial structural reform in the past few years which has helped it to become more resilient in the face of changing circumstances. The area has attracted considerable inward investment. Figures for August show that unemployment is continuing to fall. We are all concerned about the impact of redundancies, but there is some good news from the region as well.

Lord Clark of Kempston: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the high interest rates which we suffer in this country are hitting exports because of the strength of sterling? Is it not high time that the Chancellor of the Exchequer took responsibility for that rather than hiding behind the Bank of England, particularly in view of the fact that, following the recent G7 meetings, he has urged our partners throughout the world to reduce interest rates while doing nothing about them in this country?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, monetary policy needs to be guided by the long-term needs of the economy and not by short-term political considerations. It is worth making the point that interest rates are low by historical standards. It is important to put exchange rate movements in an international context. The level of sterling has barely changed against the dollar since the end of 1996, while other European currencies have depreciated against both the dollar and sterling. Of course, the Government understand the problems which the rise in the pound has caused manufacturers and exporters, but it is essential that we take a long-term view. Short-term fixes are no answer at all.

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