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Lord Rix: In rising to support the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, I wish to thank him for his kind introduction. I wish to speak specifically to Amendment No. 153 to which my name is attached. I must declare an interest as I speak as chairman of Mencap, the Royal Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults, of which Mencap in Northern Ireland is a most important part and is splendidly represented by our headquarters and resource centre in Belfast, Segal House, which is named after a past treasurer of Mencap and Member of your Lordships' House, the late Lord Segal.

Mencap, of course, welcomes the Government's commitment to equality and tackling exclusion, but Mencap in Northern Ireland feels that the Bill fails to take account of the different and specific needs,

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circumstances and experiences of people with a disability, but particularly those with a learning disability, and their families, and will help to underwrite their exclusion. A single commission would create a hierarchy of discrimination with a risk that new initiatives in the field of race and disability rights would be seriously undermined, given the fundamental difference between disability legislation and other pieces of equality legislation.

Mencap believes that the establishment of a separate Northern Ireland disability rights commission is essential. The absence of a dedicated body would mean, regrettably, that disability would once more be low on the equality agenda. I hope that the Government will give an assurance that disability is to be accorded an equal place among the Government's broad based equality agenda by giving further consideration before the Report stage to the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester.

Lord Fitt: The pages of Hansard over the past 20 years will bear testament to the noble efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, since 1969 when he first piloted the chronically sick and disabled Bill through the House of Commons. He did so with great compassion. That Bill, limited as it was, brought great benefit to many people in the United Kingdom but not particularly to Northern Ireland at that time. I find myself engaged in the same kind of campaign as he has waged for many years. Disabled people in Northern Ireland were neglected from 1969 until 1978 when, with the help of my noble friend Lord Morris, I succeeded in piloting through to the statute book the chronically sick and disabled Bill (Northern Ireland) in 1978 which brought to Northern Ireland the same conditions as had existed for 10 years prior to that date in the United Kingdom. I believe there is room for a Minister for equal opportunities.

At the moment there are four commissions in Northern Ireland. I have just received word from my noble friend the Minister that in view of the representations that have been made he is prepared to establish an inquiry which is to start its work in November. It will be asked to report in January. It will consider the feasibility of making the four commissions one commission. We have already had many representations from the personnel of the four commissions. I am not too sure whether two months is an adequate period of time for an inquiry into the activities of the four commissions. My noble friend Lord Morris is quite right, disability is in a category of its own in Northern Ireland in that people's health and way of life are safeguarded by the legislation which exists to protect them.

There are other commissions for racial equality and equal opportunities. However, they do not affect the physical and mental well-being of disabled people in Northern Ireland. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will agree to appoint a Minister with special responsibilities to consider the problems of the disabled in Northern Ireland. My noble friend Lord Morris has waged his campaign on behalf of those who are least able to look after themselves. I hope that just as the

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House of Commons listened with great interest and fervour to the arguments which he advanced in 1969, we in this House will listen to those arguments with the same interest and include them in the legislation.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Renton: I would like to endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has just said about the wonderful part played by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, on behalf of the disabled over many years. Before I deal with his Amendments Nos. 38 and 39, I also wish to endorse what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Rix. I was chairman of Mencap some years before him. I was chairman for four years and I went to Northern Ireland in that capacity a number of times. Mencap was extremely well organised there. We had reason to believe that both Loyalists and Republicans had mentally handicapped people. That is why they never terrorised or in any way made life difficult for the mentally handicapped or their associations.

I am a little surprised that Amendment No. 153 has not been grouped with these amendments because they overlap. However, we shall be entitled to discuss Amendment No. 153 later in some detail and therefore I shall not deal with it any further at the moment. However, I wish to deal with Amendment No. 39. I hope to be corrected if I am wrong but I rather think that the expression "Minister for Equal Opportunities" has not yet acquired any technical description. Looking at it just as it is, one would not know from Amendment No. 39 that it was to be applied particularly with regard to disabled people. They would be included, but does it also mean equal opportunities between the sexes? Does it mean equal opportunities between citizens of the Republic of Ireland and people living in Northern Ireland? Does it deal also with racial equality? With deep respect to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, although I understand and support the motives behind it, that expression needs to be qualified.

Lord Addington: The idea of having a Minister for equal rights who will be able to address disability problems, or indeed a commissioner, is an approach that I wholeheartedly endorse. But is this the right way of doing it? Are the Government convinced that there are ways other than those proposed here which can provide guarantees of achieving the same provision? If the Minister can tell us that there are and, better still, give examples, then we need not worry. If, however, he cannot do so, I am afraid that we must go down the path proposed in the amendments. If the Minister can deal with these problems now, he will save us all a lot of time later. It is to be hoped that if his answers are good, they will be copied by other Ministers on other occasions. We have had these arguments for a long time. The Labour Party when in Opposition often supported this type of amendment. I hope that the Government can give the Committee some idea of their thinking and the progress they are making in this field, and also tell us what will happen in other areas in relation to this problem.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: I support this group of amendments, so ably and comprehensively introduced

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by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester. It gives me particular pleasure because this is the second of his maiden speeches that I have supported in this Chamber.

I also endorse the remarks of my noble friend Lord Rix. I hesitate to venture into debate on this Bill because I have never ventured into the affairs of Northern Ireland. However, I too have talked to Monica Wilson of Disability Action. My noble friend Lady Masham and I played table tennis with her 30 years ago. The other day on the telephone she sounded just as sensible and as frightening an opponent as she ever was. She is a very level-headed lady.

As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Morris, Disability Action comprises over 180 members of all different kinds of disability and different organisations. Therefore the organisation knows what it is talking about. As a disabled person I understand the point about disability coming low in the pecking order. That is particularly so in Northern Ireland because of religious and political beliefs being high on the list. However, the proportion of disabled people per population in Northern Ireland is high. It is one in six; whereas in this country it is approximately one in nine.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, made a convincing case for a separate disability rights commission. Disability discrimination legislation is different from that relating to race and gender. There is a lack of case law. Time is needed to establish case law and to build a body of experienced staff who can advise on these matters within a unified commission.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is a caring, listening Minister. I was cheered by his words in winding up the Second Reading debate on 5th October. He said:

    "The Bill also permits a new commission to establish consultative councils for gender, race, disability and other aspects of equality. We shall take account of the concerns expressed by noble Lords on the equality body. It is certainly not our intention that there should be any less emphasis, through having one body, on the different elements that go into that body. I for one should be very unhappy were that to be the case".
That is excellent news. However, in the very next sentence the Minister continued:

    "I am assured that the steps we are taking will not lessen the concern for race relations, gender and all the other matters".--[Official Report, 5/10/98; cols. 225-226.]
I look forward to the Minister's reply. I hope that his remarks will be encouraging. I bear in mind the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Addington; the Minister may say something else that will encourage us and these provisions may not be necessary. I feel that these amendments would help to ensure that the needs and rights of people with a disability were not subsumed or lost in all the other matters.

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