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Lord Ashley of Stoke moved Amendment No. 20:

Page 8, leave out lines 9 to 17 and insert--
("(a) such organisations representing employers as he considers appropriate;
(b) such organisations representing disabled persons as he considers appropriate; and
(c) once it has been established, the Disability Rights Commission.
(4) A consultation under subsection (3) shall be commenced on or before 1st January 2000.
(5) In the event that the Secretary of State decides to make an order under subsection (2) the order shall be made within six months of the completion of the consultation process under subsection (3)."").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 20. The trouble with Clause 10 is that, as it stands, there would have to be some very considerable time to elapse before the Government could change the small employer exemption in the Disability Discrimination Act, because we would have to await the establishment of this commission, and the long wait is both unnecessary and undesirable.

Your Lordships will recall that the Government lowered the exemption from that Act from firms with 20 or fewer workers to firms with 15 or fewer. To the uninitiated this sounds impressive, but the reality is very different. The fact is that the Government bought a pup. The Government have accepted the view of the Small Employers' Federation. This is a crazy view; that by including more small firms within the scope of this Act the Government would impose unreasonable burdens on them. Well fancy that!

The Disability Discrimination Act says specifically that employers are required to do all that is "reasonable" to avoid discrimination. What is "reasonable" will vary with the size and the resources of an employer and so I suggest that it is impossible to impose "unreasonable" burdens on a small employer because of the provisions of the Act. Even the most cunning and sophisticated barrister could bamboozle a court into believing that the provisions of an Act containing the word "reasonable" could be defined as "unreasonable", but Ministers accepted that.

Naturally, business will oppose any change with a potential cost implication, but I believe that Parliament must take a wider view. The benefits need to be pointed out of associating with disabled people and being able to provide them with goods and services. The Government's reasons for wanting a staged approach for lowering the exemption are, I believe, feeble. What is required now is an early review and a ministerial change of mind.

All that we are asking is that there should be an early movement on bringing more small firms into the Disability Discrimination Act, and asking for no discrimination against disabled people. That is all we are asking for--by law, that no unreasonable burdens be

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placed on them. What more could one ask for? How much more reasonable could one be with an amendment of this kind? I beg to move.

Lord Addington: Very simply, I agree totally with the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, and it comes as no surprise to me, because when we were originally dealing with the Bill I fought for a clause to be withdrawn. The Labour Party followed me into the Division Lobby, and I believe they provided the tellers for it.

The argument does not seem to have changed dramatically since then. If something is unreasonable, I suggest that means that it is unreasonable no matter what the size of the firm may be. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, put it most clearly, and I support him. If we are going to get into the position where you can draw an arbitrary line and say that for some reason this arbitrary line applies now and it does not matter about the reasonableness of the case, you are actually throwing out the main protection that employers have in the whole Bill, in theory anyway.

There is the idea that it is not reasonable to do it in this case because of the nature of the work, or because the work cannot be done efficiently or that it will be damaging to the employer, in which case they will not be able to carry on their business. That is all we are asking here: that this very strong safeguard to the employer is kept in place and this arbitrary line thrown away. That is all it is.

Lord Morris of Manchester: Time is now at a premium and I will be brief. The aim of my noble friend's amendment is to speed up the process by which small employers are brought within the DDA. The Government committed themselves to reviewing the current threshold of 15 employees with a view to a phased reduction, but they have set no time when this should occur. It is the unanimous view of disability organisations in the last review that the threshold should be reduced to two employees.

Far too much emphasis has been placed on the difficulties that employers with fewer than 15 employees have to face in employing disabled people. So I am delighted to know that the conference to be held soon by RADAR, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, will offer specific advice to such employers. In particular, detailed guidance will be given on the kind of "reasonable adjustments" that this Bill, when enacted, will stipulate should be made to accommodate disabled employees. As Nick Goss, RADAR's education, training and employment officer says:

    "This may be as simple as giving someone time off for physiotherapy".
He believes that operating and monitoring a policy on disabled employees is easier in a business with a small staff. Allowing staff to work from home could also be easier to monitor. RADAR has given an imaginative lead by arranging this conference: one which I hope will persuade others not to exaggerate the problems to which

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approval of this amendment would give rise. Where there is a will there is a way, and RADAR deserves high praise for its initiative.

Lord Rix: A somewhat mischievous point has been made to me by the noble Lord, Lord Renton. Clause 10(3)(c) reads:

    "such organisations representing the interests of disabled persons in employment or seeking employment as he considers appropriate"--
which is virtually the same wording as I placed in Amendment No. 14. I hope that the Minister will draw this to the attention of the parliamentary draftsman and to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and his department when they are considering the class action matter.

On a less frivolous note, I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, in this amendment. I think it is a monstrous assumption that people with a disability will be forced upon small employers. I believe they will be employed if they are suitable for the work, capable of work and can provide the same value for money at all times--which most of them can--as a fully able person.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: I believe that this is a very important amendment. As he has done on many occasions, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, summed it up in a sentence. If the concept of "reasonableness" is to mean anything, the arbitrary line negates the whole principle: it should go. I think an employer of 16 people will find it extremely difficult to understand why an employer of 14 people needs that line as well, if the concept of "reasonableness" means anything.

Lord Swinfen: I should also like to support this amendment very briefly. I shall not come out with any statistics because I was told I was wrong at Second Reading: I never have been very good at statistics. I think it is quite unreasonable not to have a level playing field among employers. It is unfair on the employers and it is also unfair on disabled people. The vast number of disabled people do not want to travel very far from their homes, and that very often means that they can only go to small employers.

We should also bear in mind, as has been mentioned, that it is a reasonable adjustment that they have to make: not very expensive and not very much. However, what has not been mentioned is that there is a period in which employers can get rid of an employee after they have joined who turns out not to be suitable. That applies to able-bodied people: it applies just as well to disabled people. I believe this to be a very important amendment. I hope the Government will be able to see their way to agreeing to it.

7 p.m.

Earl Russell: The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, pointed out that perhaps too much has been made of the difficulties of small employers, but possibly not enough has been made of the difficulties of employees in small firms. If you are dealing with an employer because you want some sort of adjustment to allow you to continue to do your job and you are doing

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this in a large company, it is a reasonably impersonal process. Indeed, however it is done, it goes through channels; there is no personal element.

However, if you are dealing with a small employer, you will probably do so face to face. Workforces in businesses that small are not very easy to unionise, so you cannot expect to do it through a formal channel and have someone to represent you. You have to confront a person to whom your proposal may create certain practical difficulties. In fact, you may create a real degree of irritation. If you are going to do that, you need some form of legal or institutional protection. Because the institutional protection is less available in a small business, I should have thought that that might be an argument for saying that more rather than less legal protection is needed.

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