Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Uddin: Hear, hear!

Lord Addington: My Lords, I appreciate the acknowledgement of the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin. I should like to congratulate her on her bravery in admitting to being prepared to miss the possibility of a vote. I can only hope that it was on one of the days when the Government Benches had decided not to align themselves with us.

Baroness Uddin: My Lords, only for good causes.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I accept that.

On reading the report, I have come to a principal conclusion, one that has been reinforced by the speeches that we have heard today; namely, that Members of this House should not feel too smug or be too happy for the simple reason that whatever we have done, we have done it too late and too slowly. Government Ministers of various parties have had to be pressurised in order to achieve what we wanted. We have constantly had to chase Ministers to ensure that disability issues are brought into legislation. Although things now move a little more swiftly, we still have to snap at heels to move matters along. Pressure has to be applied.

It should be remembered that we have not been such a moral and good society that it was not necessary to set up a commission. We should always remember that we have many problems of our own, many of which can be traced to a theme that recurs throughout the document; namely, that of perception. The philosophy of the normality of disability still has to be learnt. As the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has just mentioned, the onset of disability can take place at different stages of life and it is world-wide. We should keep it in mind that all of us have contact with people with disabilities. At various times, different forms of disability become more apparent.

On our own continent, we see areas of incredibly bad practice, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Rix. We need to ensure that we first put our own house in order. In a political system where the democratic element is dominant--that is, we must be responsive to our voters--it still took us an unconscionably long time to realise that people with disabilities should be brought into the political process and that we should listen to them.

As regards international efforts, I felt that any one of my colleagues who has any kind of responsibility in the party could have spoken in this debate. Virtually every form of activity has an international dimension which in turn reflects back on this issue. Overseas aid merely forms the start of the process.

International trade refers back to the issue; and not only trade with what is rather patronisingly referred to as the third or developing world. We shall see the

14 Jul 2000 : Column 568

introduction of forms of employment regulation which will cut across the board. When it comes to international links, whether it be through sport or cultural exchanges, we must bear the issue of disability in mind. The huge growth of the popularity of the Para-olympics has been, I felt, a little condescending. I believe that people only came to notice the event because British athletes have been able to win plenty of medals. That is a perfect example of how disability is pigeon-holed in our perceptions.

However, that is the area in which the Government can make the greatest contribution. The Government should take the lead by declaring that disability forms a part of normal life. The very fact of the word "disability"--I appreciate that it cannot be changed; language contains its own iron history and when you try to change it you will get into trouble--needs to be addressed in every sphere of life. If we do not concentrate on changing perceptions, we shall continue to hold high-minded discussions for ever. We will make only token gestures, because unless disability is brought to the centre of life, we shall get nowhere.

On the practical side, the philosophy that has driven the notion to incorporate disability into mainstream education is undoubtedly one of the most important. As regards our own society, we are about to go to considerable lengths to deal with this matter properly in a Bill that will affect our own society. However, once again, "We ain't there yet". The philosophy of introducing people with disabilities into the education system as a part of normal life so that they can progress into a more technologically advanced world and then on into the economic process will mean that they cannot be ignored.

Unless we start to put pressure on people and make sure that they recognise that disabled people are part of society, ultimately we shall not succeed. I look forward to hearing what initiatives the Government propose, either today or in the future.

6.25 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, it is most unfortunate that this debate is taking place so late in the day. This is an important subject and deserves better. Let us not forget that there are, as the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, reminded us, 600 million disabled people throughout the world. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, on introducing this timely debate.

I congratulate also the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, who was invited to chair the committee of eminent people from all over the world who updated and redrafted the 1980 charter. It is a great tribute to the noble Lord, the world's first Minister for the Disabled, who was so involved with the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in this country's landmark legislation for disabled people, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. This has become a model for other parliaments across the world.

I should like to pay tribute also to Rehabilitation International. Since 1922, RI has a long history of accomplishments throughout the world in improving

14 Jul 2000 : Column 569

the quality of life of people with disabilities. From these Benches, I join other noble Lords in welcoming Rehabilitation International's Charter for the Third Millennium. I was interested to read that RI has researched the level of support for a UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities and found a positive level of support by member states. That is encouraging, as earlier attempts to establish a convention were backed by only a limited number of UN member states.

The barriers that disabled people face in any country are considerable but in developing countries they are much greater. One of my daughters has just returned from Cambodia, which is particularly affected by disability: 1.4 million of the 8 million population has been disabled as a result of poverty, war and human rights abuses.

It is important that we in this country realise the connections between the establishment of disability rights as an issue in this country and the promotion of disability rights world-wide. Without that promotion, the difficulties that disabled people face in the UK will only be reflected and amplified many times over in developing countries.

What steps, therefore, are the Government taking to ensure that disabled people in Britain have access to every resource, service and facility to ensure their integration into the community and their ability to be an independent member of society? Will the Government endorse the proposal in the charter that international programmes to assist economic and social development should require minimum accessibility standards to include technology and communication to ensure that people with disabilities are included in all programmes?

The charter rightly points out that in the third millennium we must accept disability as an ordinary part of the varied human condition. Everyone in life is affected by disability in one form or another--the noble Lord, Lord Addington, made the point well--whether family or friends. The charter observes that one family in four includes a disabled person or friend. Last year I broke my leg and had to spend some time in a wheelchair. That experience made me realise how much more we needed to do for the disabled.

Eventually, if we live long enough we all become disabled. That will become all the more evident in this country with its ageing society. I look forward to hearing from the Minister whether the Government will support the promulgation of a United Nations convention on the rights of people with disabilities.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Bach: My Lords, this has been an inspiring debate, and I join in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, for having introduced it in such a moving and telling manner.

Since its inception in 1922 Rehabilitation International has done much to raise the profile of disability across the world. Nearly all noble Lords have referred to the Charter for the 80s, which was a notable milestone. Governments and the United

14 Jul 2000 : Column 570

Nations acted upon its recommendations. That heralded the UN Decade for Disabled People which was followed by the UN standard rules. As a direct result, millions of disabled people throughout the world now live richer and more fulfilling lives. My noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester was a driving force behind that charter. I congratulate him on the key role that he played in drafting RI's Charter for the Third Millennium. As my noble friend pointed out, I was privileged to attend the service in St Mary Undercroft in December of last year and the reception that followed it, which was itself a moving experience.

It is hardly surprising that this debate has been inspiring. Those in this House who speak on behalf of disabled people in Britain and throughout the world form one of the most powerful pressure groups in this Chamber. They do a wonderful job for the disabled. I am sure that I am not the first Minister to stand at the Dispatch Box shaking and nervous at the pressure that they place on government. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, described it very well. On this occasion I do not feel under huge pressure. I have not been asked a great number of questions which are impossible to answer, because in large part this debate has been a celebration of the charter which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister welcomed a few days ago. The charter calls for a world in which policy and legislation support full inclusion of disabled people in all aspects of society. This is an aim with which the Government identify. Noble Lords will be aware that we are committed to ensuring comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled people.

I shall not bore the House by rehearsing the measures that we have brought forward. Noble Lords who have taken part in this debate at this unlikely hour on a Friday evening are already familiar with them. Not least is the establishment of a strong Disability Rights Commission, which I understand has applied to join Rehabilitation International. That is hardly surprising bearing in mind that its distinguished chairman, Bert Massie, a former director of RADAR which is itself a member of RI, has, like other RI colleagues, taken a keen interest in the charter.

Already the commission is beginning to tackle the huge task ahead of it. It is raising awareness of disability. It has also issued a consultation document on a revised code of practice on the duties under Part III of the DDA to consider making reasonable adjustments to make services accessible to disabled people. These duties will come into force in October 2004. This provides an authoritative point of contact for individuals who seek support and guides employers and service providers to meet their legal obligations and implement best practice in combating discrimination, inadvertent or otherwise, in the high street and the workplace. In the few minutes left to me I should like to concentrate on issues identified in the charter and plan of action, the Government's view upon them and what they have done in that regard. Some issues I shall leave out completely because there is not time. Others I shall deal with in a little more detail.

14 Jul 2000 : Column 571

The subject of technology was raised. The Government are determined to see that the rapid pace of technological change works to the advantage and not to the detriment of disabled people. Advances in information and communication technology have opened whole new areas of opportunity for disabled people. They have also raised, of course, the spectre of new sources of exclusion for those who cannot access the new technology as well as for those who become over-dependent on technology which is bound to change.

We have recognised that and have facilitated the work of a cross-Government group on access to information and communication technology which has already resulted in the highlighting of some of the key issues which need to be addressed to ensure that disabled people are neither excluded from nor by--it is equally possible--the remarkable advances which have been made in this field of technology.

I turn to ethics, another subject dealt with in the action plan which underlies the charter. Wide-ranging technological advances also mean that there are new ethical issues to be addressed. Last year we reviewed our advisory and regulatory framework on biotechnology. It concluded that a broader approach was needed for strategic issues. The Human Genetics Advisory Commission forms part of the new strategic framework. The role of the HGC is to consider the potential impact of developments in genetics for humans and healthcare--in particular the ethical, legal and social aspects of such developments. At present we are considering our response to the Human Genetics Advisory Commission's report published last year entitled The implications of genetic testing for employment and will announce our response in due course.

I turn to prevention. Advances in technology have also enabled us to reduce the risks that might lead to impairment. Medical and scientific advances have given us many opportunities to reduce the risk of premature death, ill health and disability. The charter rightly draws attention to the importance of immunisation programmes and other prevention strategies. The WHO has recognised the UK as one of the countries which has eliminated polio due to a wild virus. Indigenous diphtheria and neonatal tetanus no longer occur and measles and whooping cough are now rarities--thank goodness--in GPs' surgeries. Our routine immunisation programme protects children against diseases such as measles, rubella and polio which even today can kill or cause serious long-term ill health and disability, and is provided free to all. But our work to combat childhood diseases must and does continue. The latest development has been the introduction from November of last year of new vaccines to protect against meningococcal Group C infection.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, asked questions very material to this debate. I deal with his second question first, on whether the Government endorse the proposal in the charter that international programmes to assist economic and social

14 Jul 2000 : Column 572

development should require minimal accessibility standards to include technology and communication. The noble Lord was good enough to give me notice of those questions. The Government are fully committed to ensuring the full participation of people with disabilities in economic and social development, including access to technology and communications. For example, where development organisations are involved in infrastructure and shelter projects efforts can be made to ensure that programmes are developed on the basis of broad-based participation taking particular steps to ensure that people with disabilities and other marginalised groups are fully included.

The noble Lord asked what steps we have taken to ensure that disabled people in Britain have access to every resource service and facility to ensure their integration into the community and their ability to be an independent member of society. We seek to ensure the integration of disabled people into our society through our commitment to civil rights. There are several examples, but I shall provide just one or two. We are improving transport. The regulations came into force nearly two years ago, and apply to new vehicles entering service from January last year. We have consulted on draft regulations for buses and coaches used on local and scheduled services. Final regulations are in the process of completion. We have extended the scope of provisions relating to building regulations to apply to all new homes. That represents a significant step forward in providing more accessible housing.

We are giving people greater control over their lives, and enabling them to make their own decisions about how their care is delivered. We want to see the full range of benefits from direct payments made available to more people, and recently extended direct payments to people aged 65 and over. This is where the question asked by my noble friend Lord Longford comes into play. The Government appreciate that old age and disability often go hand in hand. We believe that the rights that should be given to disabled people should of course also be given to those who are elderly. The provision to extend direct payments to disabled 16 and 17 year-olds and parent-carers of disabled children is included in the Carers and Disabled Children Bill.

Media information and attitudes are another matter raised in the plan of action. Access to information is crucial, as well as raising awareness of disability in changing attitudes. These are areas where the Commission will be working hard. But we have not been idle. In June last year, we launched our "see the person" campaign, which through advertising and distributing information seeks to challenge people's attitudes to disability and improve awareness of the DDA. We know that the campaign offended some people, and we regret that. But it has been successful in raising awareness and in challenging attitudes, and we make no apology for it.

RI's plan of action, which supports the charter, refers to the need for role models in the media. Disabled people can and must have access to, and

14 Jul 2000 : Column 573

participate in, our cultural life. Disabled people should figure in programmes of all kinds, without there being a special issue about their disability. We are pleased to say that guidance for broadcasters and programme makers produced by the ITC, BSC and the BBC speaks of the need to avoid prejudice and stereotyping. Of course the noble Lord, Lord Addington, was right to say that as a country we have been slow to come forward with what now seems obvious, but at least we have clearly moved in the right direction in some areas during the past few years.

Our debate has illustrated some of the barriers that disabled people face in their quest for civil rights. Our aim, and the aim of all, from all parties and none, is for equality of opportunity and a fully inclusive society. The most frequently asked question has concerned the request in the plan for action for support for a convention of the United Nations. On behalf of the Government, I should say that the Government are committed to supporting comprehensive and

14 Jul 2000 : Column 574

enforceable civil rights for their citizens, and would wish to see such rights enjoyed by citizens throughout the world.

We shall look carefully at the proposals for a convention. We welcome the charter as a spur for debate and progress on these important issues. I end by using the words which noble Lords who were present at the important meeting with the Prime Minister some days ago may recall, namely, that we are sure that, like its predecessor, this charter will form the basis for global consensus on our priorities for at least the next decade. I thank noble Lords for taking part in the debate.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lady, Baroness D'Arcy de Knayth, and other noble Lords for the fact that the debate took place at a far later time than anticipated. I place on record the Government's gratitude to the staff, including our Hansard writers.

        House adjourned at fifteen minutes before seven o'clock.

14 Jul 2000 : Column 573

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page