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Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, as the Disability Rights Commission has been described as "up and running" since April, can the noble Baroness summarise what tasks it has been able to carry out since then?
Baroness Blackstone: Yes, my Lords, I can try to respond to the noble Lord's request for a progress report on what the DRC has been doing. The Government are very pleased that the commission is becoming an authoritative voice on disability and that it has been able to support successfully one case under the DDA in the Court of Appeal. Its caseworker service is handling approximately 150 cases a week. It is also providing a range of conciliation services and will operate as a mediator in disputes under the DDA. Finally, it is commissioning a series of events to try to raise the profile of disability issues right across the country. Therefore, we believe that, after six months work, that is good progress so far.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I believe that the DRC has 15 such members. The chairman of the commission is himself disabled and approximately two-thirds of its members have a disability. Recruitment to membership of the DRC was, of course, carried out on open and transparent terms. Members of the DRC who are not disabled are committed to promoting the rights of disabled people and were tested with that type of question when they were recruited.
Lord McCarthy: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the main jobs of the commission must be to test the validity and utility of the Act in respect of disabled people? We should consider what the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission have done in taking up key cases and putting them through the courts in relation to race and sex discrimination. It is absolutely critical to have a commission of that kind which tests and supports good cases. Therefore, surely the Government will want to give the commission that power immediately and without any clarification.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I can only repeat what I said in answer to my noble friend Lord Ashley. The Government are looking at the matter and will come up with a reply as soon as possible--I hope by the end of November.
Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, are the Government aware of how important is the extension of such powers to disabled people who are confined to institutions? It will enable them to challenge many of the abuses which take place, such as the inability to have a relationship, to get married or even to receive private correspondence.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, yes, the Government are aware that one of the areas where there is a case for extending the powers of the DRC is in relation to people who are in institutions of one kind or another. There may be cases of discrimination against such people that can be followed up through the application of the Human Rights Act. For that reason, the Government are looking sympathetically at that request.
Lord Addington: My Lords, will the Government give an undertaking that the cost for individuals, in terms of their lives being dominated by their struggles, is taken into account when we are thinking about giving support to individuals? Surely we do not want people to have to take on miniature crusades every time they want to bring an action.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the World Health Organisation's report of 1999 assessed the number of premature deaths from traffic-related air pollution in France, Austria and Switzerland. The methodology used was very similar to that used by our own Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution. That committee concluded in 1998 that air pollution in the UK was responsible for the premature deaths of between 12,000 and 24,000 vulnerable people each year. The Government took account of the committee's conclusions in setting health-based air quality objectives in their air quality strategy published earlier this year.
Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for that very full Answer. Is he aware, from this report, that half of the pollution and fatalities were caused by microparticulates which come mainly from vehicle exhausts, particularly diesel? What action will be taken to ensure that the cost of NHS treatment of all those people he mentioned is attributed to the polluter? Does that not mean that road transport costs are too low at the moment rather than too high?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, through the way in which we calculate VED on heavy lorries and cars, there is already an attempt to reflect the cost of general pollution, which includes the health impact and CO2 emissions. Recent reports have indicated that the total cost of a combination of fuel duty and VED costs is broadly proportionate to the environmental damage, including the damage to the actual track which is produced by those vehicles. So that is one principle which informs the Government's view on taxation of vehicles. There are other considerations which include competitiveness and the movement of world fuel prices.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, will the Minister tell us what effect the Human Rights Act will have on that issue as we read that the tobacco companies may have the right to continue advertising? That may increase the consumption of tobacco, which is definitely an air pollutant, particularly for people in the immediate vicinity of someone who is smoking.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Question refers to the WHO's report, which relates to traffic. As my noble friend Lord Berkeley made clear in his supplementary question, he was concerned about the impact of traffic. The figures quoted both in the WHO report and in our own committee's report relate to traffic-induced pollution effects.
The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, will the Minister tell us what plans the Government have to share more effectively with the public at large the alarming information in those reports in order to educate them about this matter and to dissuade them from unnecessary use of cars? Will the Minister tell us also why, during the recent fuel crisis, no reference was made at all to the dire environmental consequences of ever-increasing volumes of road traffic?
As regards the Government's own research, we published a report on the environmental cost of road traffic in July. There are some contentious issues involved in that research but, broadly speaking, it indicates what I said in my second answer.
On the recent fuel dispute, I thought it was clear from the answers given by my noble friend Lord Macdonald of Tradeston that we regard the level of fuel duty as having an effect on traffic. Indeed, it is certainly the case that relatively high fuel prices have been one of the contributors to the much lower growth of traffic as compared with economic growth than was the situation a few years ago. It is not the only component of that change, as my noble friend made clear. Of course, there are other considerations to be taken into account, as I have said.
Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, will the Minister say what research has been done by the Government into electric-powered vehicles--especially electric-powered buses, because buses are one of the worst polluters--gas-powered cars and particularly hydrogen-cell technologies for improving pollution technology? It is extremely ineffective merely to increase the price of petrol to reduce pollution. A better way forward is to produce the technology which will lower the pollution
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