Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, the first thing that I want to do is warmly to congratulate the Government on the Bill. It helps to fill a yawning gap in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995—in fact, a number of yawning gaps—and firmly establishes new rights for Britain's disabled people. That is a great thing, and the Government deserve a pat on the back.

I would like to express my appreciation to the Ministers concerned, particularly the Secretary of State, Alan Johnson, Maria Eagle, the Minister for Disabled People, and our own noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for their assiduous work on the Bill. There was a great deal of discussion before the Bill appeared, and I know what a heavy load the Ministers have had in introducing these measures. Progress on the Bill has also been helped by the task force, and the joint scrutiny committee, chaired by the inimitable noble Lord, Lord Carter. So there has been no shortage of consultation. For that matter, there has been no shortage of first-class briefings, particularly from the Disability Rights Commission and the organisations which make up the Disability Charities Consortium.

There are many very welcome proposals mentioned by my noble friend Lady Hollis. The ones that I particularly welcome are the provision for promoting disability equality in the public sector, the extension of the DDA for most duties of public authorities, new rights for disabled tenants, improvements for mental health service users, and new rights to use public transport, as well as various others. Their combined effect will have an enormous impact on the lives of millions of disabled people.

For all that, the Bill could be improved. For example, I was sorry to see that of the joint scrutiny committee's 75 admirable proposals, much more than half have not been accepted by the Government. Since the joint committee's proposals would have further extended the rights of disabled people, a good opportunity has been missed by the Government.

In the course of our debates, especially in Committee, we shall be able to explain our reservations and suggestions for improvements. But having said that, I must frankly explain our dilemma. This Bill is so necessary to combat the wretched discrimination faced daily by many disabled people, and it is so good that we want to get it through without delay. The All-Party Disability Group, which welcomes the Bill, has, with others, been pressing for it for years, and to delay it now would be a very bitter blow indeed. Therefore, we do not want any undue delay even though we want to put forward suggestions for improving the Bill. We want to see the improvements. I hope that the dialogue we have with the Government means we have a speedy resolution of these controversial points.

Although the Bill extends the DDA duties on landlords and management companies, and obliges them to make reasonable adjustments to policies, practices and procedures, it does not provide tenants with a definite right to make reasonable adaptations. That right is absolutely crucial. Without that right disabled people lack freedom in their own homes. Permanent restrictions
6 Dec 2004 : Column 684
are imposed on their living quarters. The house becomes a prison rather than a home. I hope that the Government will reconsider the Bill and move to prevent landlords from unreasonably withholding consent for changes. Nothing could be fairer than that.

The Bill's proposal to impose a duty on the public sector to promote equality for disabled people is very welcome. However, there are some disturbing unofficial reports that schools are to be exempted. Perhaps my noble friend will tell me whether there is any substance in those unofficial reports. To my mind this simply does not make sense. Schools are unambiguously part of the public sector and none could be more important than them for formulating future attitudes to disabled people.

I want the Government to act swiftly and comprehensively on this issue. By "comprehensively" I mean it will not be good enough if schools are to be given a general duty rather than the detailed specific duty imposed on others. The general duty would simply mean that schools would not have to produce an invaluable disability equality scheme so they could not be compelled to comply. Apart from that, the omission of schools sends the wrong message to the public—a message that in the Government's view improving relations is not important and that the public sector need not bother. That is a lamentable message. I hope that it will not go out from this Government. It is unacceptable and I very much hope that my noble friend can help us.

The Bill's welcome proposal to make the public sector promote equality of opportunity makes it all the more strange that the Government have refused also to impose a duty to promote good relations between disabled and non-disabled people in the public sector, as was mentioned by my noble friend a moment ago. This is a serious omission because the level of hostility to disabled people, apart from and in addition to discrimination, is really appalling, even today. The public sector could play a very important role in easing the tension and building up good relations if the Government were prepared to bring back the idea of promoting good relations. My noble friend Lord Carter wants an explanation of why the Government did not include that provision. I hope that my noble friend will not try to justify the Government's stand to my noble friend Lord Carter. Rather she should say, "We will introduce the measure". That would satisfy me, my noble friend Lord Carter and all the other speakers in this debate. It would be a nice, simple, easy solution. I offer it with the best intentions in the world.

As regards transport, I am at a loss to understand why the Government are insisting on setting the rail end date at the year 2020. Is that acceptable? By 2017 the train companies will have had nearly 20 years to make their trains accessible. The Government are leaning over backwards to oblige them, but in doing so they are simply adding to the frustration of disabled people who suffer endless inconvenience when using public transport. I hope very much to see a change of end date.

On the issue of mental illness, I am delighted that the Government have made excellent changes, but I think they are being unrealistic by insisting on retaining the
6 Dec 2004 : Column 685
12-month qualifying period in cases of depression. Everyone, even laymen, knows that depression is often intermittent and episodes may not last for a 12-month period. The sooner the false test is dropped, the better.

The final point I wish to make on the Bill is that I am sorry there is no provision for independent living for disabled people. This is the next main aim and would be of enormous benefit to disabled people. In essence, independent living means that disabled people have a right to choose who helps them and who they live with; a right to make choices and to live in the community, not in residential care.

When this Bill goes through we shall monitor its detailed provisions very carefully and seek to ensure full implementation, thereby enriching the lives of millions of disabled people. I again warmly congratulate my noble friend Lady Hollis and her colleagues. I wish the Bill Godspeed.

Lord Rix: My Lords, I rise to welcome this Bill and am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this very important Second Reading debate.

I would like to declare an interest as president of the Royal Mencap Society and as a member of the joint parliamentary committee which scrutinised the draft Bill under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Carter.

I have no doubt that this legislation has the potential to make a very significant difference to the lives of disabled people. The public sector duty alone could transform society for the better if properly implemented and resourced.

But the theme of my speech today, which I regret to say is a trifle longer than is my wont, is the need for this Bill to touch the lives of all disabled people and particularly one of the most excluded of all groups—people with a learning disability.

There are 1.5 million people in the United Kingdom with a learning disability—that is around 15 per cent of the total population of disabled people. Of this 1.5 million, only about 10 per cent of working age have paid work—as against about 50 per cent of disabled people generally.

Around 90 per cent of people with a learning disability will also have been bullied in the past year—two-thirds on a regular basis. Again this is compared to an already utterly disgraceful 50 per cent of disabled people generally (according to the most recent DRC survey which was undertaken in Scotland).

It will not surprise the Minister that the need for this Bill to tackle hate crimes is something I will return to later in my speech, and no doubt will return to at considerable length at Committee stage.

People with a learning disability also have significantly poorer health and are much more likely to die before the age of 50 than the general population. Yet, despite this, people with a learning disability have much greater difficulty accessing appropriate healthcare services.
6 Dec 2004 : Column 686

I am painting this picture of a group of people who for many years have been among the most socially excluded of disability groups, who have always been the group to miss out on advances in disability rights, who have always been the group that it is deemed acceptable to ignore, because I would like your Lordships to keep this in mind as I turn to two major proposals in this Bill—the removal of the public transport exemption and the public sector duty to promote equality.

I first turn to public transport. Much has been made of how important the removal of the exemption on public transport will be for disabled people. I do not wish to downplay its significance.

For disabled people in particular, inaccessible public transport has a major negative impact on their independence, social participation, employability and health. And for many disabled people the removal of this exemption holds the key to social inclusion. As such, it has to be warmly welcomed, and, as already mentioned, the Government announced last Monday, 29 November, that their preferred end date by which all rail vehicles will have to meet the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 1998 is 2020. My preferred date, as well as the DRC's and that of the Joint Committee is 2017, although I shall then be aged 93 and if I am still around by then I do not suppose that I shall be using the trains very much. If the fares keep rocketing, I do not suppose many other senior citizens will be either; certainly not disabled people, with the costs at the moment.

The surveys show that among the things that matter most to people with a learning disability are signs and travel information that can be easily understood; audio and visual information on board trains and buses, and proper disability awareness training for transport staff.

I have heard time and again that this Bill is the culmination of many years of work and that it marks the end of a process of fulfilling the Government's pledge to disabled people on public transport. But for all this talk of fully accessible public transport, this Bill will do absolutely nothing to improve audio and visual route and destination information on board buses, which incidentally is the mode of transport that people with a learning disability most want to take. I am realistic enough to know that we are not going to get any movement in this area through this Bill. That battle was lost well before the Bill was even in draft form.

However, I would like reassurance that if a train or bus already has audio-visual equipment on board, that transport staff would have a duty to ensure that it works; that it is on and that it is set at the right volume and for the right destination. I would like reassurance that the Government will heed the Joint Committee's recommendation to ensure that the installation of audio-visual equipment on board trains will also be made a priority through this Bill.

What of proper disability awareness training for transport staff? Have you seen how many of them behave towards learning-disabled potential passengers
6 Dec 2004 : Column 687
at bus stops? Many people with a learning disability may have difficulty speaking, difficulty understanding a complex timetable, or difficulty working out the right money to pay for their fares. This can lead to impatient transport staff and passengers being rude to them, bullying them, or even refusing to allow them on board the bus or the train.

The Government have said that bringing transport services under Part 3 will mean that transport operators will need to have proper disability awareness training. I very much hope that is the case, and I look forward to the Minister providing reassurance that people with non-physical disabilities, who often have very different needs, will not simply be considered as an afterthought, or indeed not considered at all.

I am sure that the Minister would agree with me that it is just as important that transport staff are trained properly on how to recognise and deal fairly and sympathetically with the difficulties faced by people with non-physical disabilities, as it is for them to be trained properly on how to deal with physically disabled passengers.

As such, I hope that any guidance and information that the Department for Transport produces to assist transport operators, and any codes of practice that the DRC produces in conjunction with the Department for Transport, will comprehensively consider the needs of people with non-physical disabilities.

I turn now to the second major proposal in this Bill, that of the public sector duty to promote equality. Again, I would like to stress the theme of my speech; the need for this Bill to help all groups of disabled people. The first issue that I wanted to bring up in relation to the public sector duty is the very important point raised by the Joint Committee in its report; that of independent advocacy.

I am hoping that the Minister will be able to provide a reassurance that where the public sector duty clause states that there is,

I hope that is an oblique reference to the need for people with a learning disability, and anyone else with support needs or communication difficulties, to have appropriate access to an independent advocate as required. If it is such an oblique reference, and it does mean that, then the Government are to be warmly congratulated, as the Minister will know that I and a number of my colleagues feel very strongly about this issue.

Another issue that I wanted to raise in relation to the public sector duty is one that I am sure the Minister is going to hear many, many times in the next few weeks; that is, the duty to promote good relations. I quoted some of the latest statistics on hate crimes against disabled people at the beginning of my speech, and the Minister will be well aware of the now overwhelming evidence, so I will not dwell on it. What is clear is that
6 Dec 2004 : Column 688
tackling hate crimes, and the causes of hate crimes, on an individual-by-individual reactive basis is never going to solve the problem. We have through this Bill a golden opportunity proactively to tackle this issue, but it will be missed if the public sector duty remains unamended.

For as long as disabled people cannot go outside their own homes for fear of being attacked, for fear of being spat at, for fear of being ignored, of being harassed, of being picked on, of being beaten up, then we might as well just bin the rest of this Bill right now, because it will not make one iota of difference to the lives of disabled people, for whom hate crimes are an everyday occurrence.

Frankly, I really do not mind whether we use a good relations duty, as recommended by the Joint Committee, or something else to fill this clear policy gap, as long as we fill it. Again, I stress that this is something about which I feel very strongly; it is something about which the Joint Committee felt very strongly; and about which I know the whole of the disability community feels very strongly. As such, I trust that the Minister is open to being convinced of the need for an explicit duty proactively to tackle hate crimes, the causes of hate crimes, and to fill this policy gap.

I will leave comments on the very important issues of healthcare and education in relation to the public sector duty to others, and instead raise as my final point the issue of employment. I mentioned at the beginning of my speech that people with a learning disability are five times less likely than disabled people generally to have paid jobs. Levels of employment among people with a learning disability may well have actually fallen since the Valuing People White Paper was published, even though raising employment rates is one of its key goals. This is despite the fact that people with a learning disability who could do paid work are indeed very anxious to do it.

Again, my plea to the Minister is to provide disability campaigners with the reassurance that the public sector duty will make it clear to employers that "all" really must mean all disabled people, and that the codes of practice will reflect this. It is absolutely vital that parity in employment levels is established between disability groups, and it is absolutely vital that all disabled people who want a job and can do a job should have a job.

I conclude my comments now by saying that I do not want your Lordships or the Minister to be left with the feeling that I have become an old and cynical curmudgeon; I really have not. I remain optimistic that this Bill has the potential dramatically to transform the lives of disabled people, and that this time the 1.5 million people with a learning disability will not be left behind again as the disability rights train vanishes into the distance.

There is an old German proverb: "it is a bad bridge which is shorter than the stream is wide". For what seems like an eternity, people with disabilities have been faced with such a bridge. Successive governments have endeavoured to complete the construction work,
6 Dec 2004 : Column 689
and this Bill makes yet another attempt. We must all help the engineers to finish the job on time and with an adequate budget to make it all possible.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page