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Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her interesting reply. Is she aware of the extent to which our embassies, particularly in Bangkok and Kathmandu, have, quite voluntarily, given enormous help to victims? Is she aware, as I have recently seen at first hand, that some of these tragic teenagers have been, as it were, rescued and given sanctuary and small jobs in the embassies, even though they suffer from AIDS and other health problems? Will she take the opportunity to commend the work being done along those lines in our embassies?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I am very pleased to endorse the support that the noble Baroness gives to the work of our embassies in Bangkok and Kathmandu. I wish to add my thanks in terms of the support that DfID staff in Bangkok have given in relation to these issues. The noble Baroness may be interested to know that we are supporting a regional child rights' strategy to counter the movement of children and young people across borders in the greater Mekong sub-region. We are also supporting the promotion of similar co-operation between south Asian countries.

Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, can my noble friend say whether DfID has any special works or projects to try to protect girls from being forced into the commercial sex industry?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, DfID supports a Save the Children Fund research project on Thailand's borders which is designed to ensure that the experiences

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and priorities of vulnerable children and young people are reflected in the policies which affect them. British police officers have completed a second round of child protection courses for the Royal Thai Police and child welfare professionals, supported by the FCO. We have also helped the Nepal police to establish pilot women and children units to improve the reporting and investigating of crimes against women and children.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, can the noble Baroness say whether there have been prosecutions in our courts of British residents travelling abroad in order to abuse children overseas? Can she confirm that British travel agents and airlines have been co-operating in restraining that kind of deplorable travel?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, there have been no prosecutions under the Sex Offenders Act 1997. It was always expected that the Act would be used only as a last resort where a country will not prosecute or where the UK itself cannot extradite. The problems we have had in terms of obtaining evidence from abroad will always make prosecutions difficult, but we have a total commitment to dealing with the concerns outlined by the noble Lord.

The noble Lord asks about British travel agents and airlines. I do not have the detail to enable me to answer that question but I am sure that, where possible, airlines and travel agents have been co-operative. If I can add to that, I shall write to the noble Lord.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of PLAN International (UK), an NGO. Is the Minister aware that we are working in various countries in south-east Asia and are supported by DfID? We do a good deal of work, which I have seen myself, in Thailand. We feel that our best contribution is being able to support children and families in developing an economic base so as to enable these young people to live in their own communities instead of being forced into prostitution at an early age.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Baroness. In the projects which we have been developing in Nepal, Thailand and other parts of south-east Asia we have worked hard to ensure that when children are removed from these difficult circumstances we try to deal with the wider issues such as poverty which underline what is going on. The support of children and families in relation to that is extremely important.

Lord McNally: My Lords, what liaison is there with the Home Office to prevent abuse via the internet in such cases?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, there has been considerable liaison with the Home Office on a range of matters. In fact, my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn visited Thailand only last month. The noble

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Lord asks specifically about the internet. I do not have details of liaison on that aspect but, again, if I can add anything to my answer, I shall write to the noble Lord.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, will the Minister inform the House what discussions she has had with her Home Office colleagues about strengthening the Sex Offenders Act 1997 so as to oblige offenders to register their addresses when they travel abroad?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, there is total commitment to dealing with these issues. There has been considerable liaison between the Home Office and DfID and work continues in terms of our participation in international action and the sharing of intelligence, expertise and the training skills of our police with other governments. We shall continue to work closely with the Home Office. We have had no specific discussion on the strengthening of the legislation.

Disability Discrimination Act: Exemptions

2.53 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many firms are exempt from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and what proportion they are of the total number of firms in the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, we estimate that 1.1 million employers in the UK, or 89 per cent. of the total, are exempt from the employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. As most employees are actually employed by larger organisations, this means that over 75 per cent. of disabled employees are protected by the Act. This follows the Government's decision to lower the exemption threshold from 20 to 15 employees, bringing more employers into coverage.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I am grateful for that reply, but can my noble friend tell us whether any disasters have occurred or any unreasonable burdens have been imposed on those small employers which the Government recently brought within the scope of the Act? If not, can she tell the House what credence she attaches to the claims of those small firms which are outside the scope of the Act at present that they should be excluded from the Act because they fear that unreasonable burdens will be imposed on them? Is that not nonsense when the Act specifically says that only reasonable provision shall be made? All the Act says is, "Don't discriminate against disabled people". Why are these employers excluded?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it is a little early to know what the impact of lowering the threshold has been on small employers. However, we are monitoring

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it and a major research project is examining the matter. I would not want to claim that any disasters have taken place but I think it is a little soon to be absolutely certain of its impact. It is right, as my noble friend said, that employers have to do only reasonable things under the legislation, but small firms need to know what that means in practice in particular instances. Otherwise they might try to avoid performing their duties under the Act. They need information, advice and assurance. It is important that before we lower the threshold further we have confidence that they and others believe that this can be done without too much difficulty.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, as the first review--a mandatory review--of Section 7 of the Act, the section dealing with small firms, has presumably taken place leading to the reduction from 20 employees to 15, what plans are there for future reviews and their timing?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the Government have made a commitment to consult the disability rights commission, when it has been established, on this matter. We hope it will be set up by April 2000. Once it is established we will ask it to consider the possibility of a further threshold reduction and take its advice.

Lord Addington: My Lords, is the Minister aware of an RNID survey which shows that with the lowering of the threshold marginal costs fall with it? Should not the Government confirm these findings? If there is a much lower cost, surely there are no grounds for denying certain people the protection of the law in this area of discrimination.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, there is nothing in what I said earlier which suggests that the Government's wish to stage this further protection has anything to do with cost. I hope that answers the noble Lord's question.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many companies have 14 or fewer workers, how many single self-employed workers are registered as companies, and how many companies have 10 or fewer workers, so that we can have some idea of what percentage will be taken in each phase?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I cannot give all those statistics but I would be very happy to write to the noble Baroness. What I can say is that 45,000 extra employers are now covered by the new provisions lowering the threshold from 20 to 15. More than 75 per cent. of all disabled employees are now covered. I do not think it would be reasonable to ask me to give all those statistics while there is no commitment by the Government to lower the threshold to any particular number of employees. When the Government have made such a commitment, of course I should have those figures at my fingertips. But I will write to the noble Baroness.

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