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The Benefits Agency sends out benefit letters to blind people in standard print. A DWP survey of public bodies, including government, education, health and emergency services, found that only one-quarter of all organisations offered information in large-print sizes; 8 per cent offered it on disc or CD; and as few as 4 per cent advertised the availability of Braille or audio. Although some of these materials were available on request, the survey found that approximately 40 per cent of bodies surveyed did not provide information in an accessible format at all. Even this Bill, an important piece of legislation, is printed in an inaccessible formata nice irony. It may be said that it is available on the internet, which is definitely something, but it should not be supposed that that makes it problem free.
Coming right to the areas with which the Bill is concerned, RNIBI declare my interest as its chairthrough its Information is Power campaign has identified several areas of local authority responsibility, from council tax bills to community newsletters to recycling and refuse collection times, that remain out of the reach of persons with disabilities on account of their inaccessibility, despite the requirements of the disability equality duty to make sure that services take account of the needs of disabled people. I recently heard a story of a local authority that stated that it was not possible to produce a council tax bill and explanatory booklet in large print, despite the fact that telephone and utility companies have been producing accessible bills for years. Not unreasonably, the taxpayer refused to pay a bill he could not read. He subsequently received two red letters and a court summons from the council, again all inaccessible, but no accessible bill.
The fundamentals of a democratic and participative society require us all to be active citizens. No group of people is more anxious to play its full part, collectively and as individuals, than the disabled. The Bill aims to promote democracy, encourage civic engagement and improve understanding of the role and functions of local authorities. My amendments ensure that it does that effectively for blind, partially sighted and other disabled people. The Government have been instrumental in pushing for more equal treatment of disabled people and in attempting to identify ways in which they can be more involved in decision-making. Yet there is still a dramatic deficit in the engagement and interaction of disabled people with local government structures. Information is power, but only if it can be accessed and understood. Thousands of disabled people across the country are excluded from society, their local authorities and democracy by the simple fact that
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The importance of local government for all our lives should not be underestimated. Local authorities are in the front line of service provision. They are responsible for the provision of decent schools, better roads, leisure facilities, the emergency services, waste management and recycling, and they administer council tax. Disabled people arguably have more contact with local authorities through social services than their non-disabled peers. We all bemoan the growth of apathy in our society. The purpose of these amendments is simple. They ensure that public bodies have to take active steps to ensure that the 2 million blind and partially sighted people who live in the UK are able to participate effectively in public life. They also provide a powerful tool to enable local government to empower individuals to have a say in the running of their communities and the delivery of services and create opportunities for disabled people to become active and included members of civil society. The new clause in Amendment 73, which probably ought to apply to connected as well as principal authorities, provides a light-touch method of monitoring how far authorities are complying with the duty I am seeking to have inserted in the Bill.
Baroness Warsi: I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Low. He has worked tirelessly in this area, and I agree that if the Government are going to insist on this duty, information ought to be available in formats accessible to disabled people. I am sure that the Minister can assure us that this practice will be followed by local authorities across the country.
Baroness Maddock: I, too, wish to support the amendments, not only because I agree with them in principle, but because the person who, many years ago, signed me up to a political party on my doorstep was herself partially sighted. When we were both elected to the local authority, we spent a lot of time trying to ensure that partially sighted people got the access to which we believed they were entitled and the kinds of things about which the noble Lord, Lord Low, has been speaking. We did not have to persuade very hard. We were Liberal Democrats, but although we were not running the councilit was a Labour-controlled authorityall the councillors were very co-operative in providing all sorts of assistance to enable my friend to deal with council agendas. We were all aware of the script that partially sighted people need if they are to read things. Council agendas were produced in large type so that my friend could deal with them. That takes me back to my early days on the council, in 1984, when we dealt with those matters.
Some councils have done that, but the noble Lord is quite right to say that people do not think about it. Very often, when one explains the situation to people, they are very happy to do it, as the council in Southampton
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I am very happy to support the noble Lord, Lord Low. I am sorry that in 2009 we are still dealing with this, considering we first tried to deal with it in 1984.
Lord Patel of Bradford: I fully concur with the spirit of the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Low. As always, he puts his case very powerfully.A fundamental principle behind the duty to promote democracy is to ensure that information is made available to those who seek it and promoted to sections of the community who are less engaged and under represented in the democratic process. We know that disabled people are underrepresented and it is important to address that deficit.
Amendments 9 and 30 seek to include a specific reference in the provision of accessible information to disabled people. The noble Lord has already raised the issue and although he is not as satisfied as he could be, he will be well aware that the Disability Discrimination Act already requires public authorities, including local authorities, to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people when providing services and delivering their functions. These duties include the requirement to provide auxiliary aids and services; for example, information in accessible formats, where it is reasonable to do so, such as Braille, large print or audio tape.
The expectation of this duty is that local authorities will, through their promotional work, target all local people, with an extra focus on under-represented and/or hard-to-reach groups such as disabled people. To strengthen this focus, we will be specifying this in the guidance, as well as explaining how the duties fit with other equality duties. Part of this promotional activity will necessitate that arrangements and information are made available in a form that best meets the requirements of a particular individual or group.
The amendments require that disabled persons are referred to in the legislation. Of course, disabled people are only one of a number of underrepresented or hard-to-reach groups as regards local democratic arrangements. The Government believe that it would not be practical or helpful to list what they believe to be under-represented groups. This may vary from area to area or service provision to service provision. For example, a minority ethnic group may be underrepresented in one local area but not in another. We would expect local services specifically for disabled people to have good involvement from that group in its decision-making processes. The Government believe that local authorities are best placed to understand the nature and circumstances of their community and the needs of local people.
The duty is currently drafted to require local authorities to provide information to local people. Local people are defined as people who live, work or study in the area. This means all such people including disabled people.
The statutory guidance which will support the Bill, to which local authorities must under Clause 6 have regard, ensures that the provision of information to hard-to-reach groups including disabled people is addressed. The guidance will be explicit in that there is an expectation on local authorities to make arrangements and provide information in a way that best meets the needs of specific groups; for example, the hearing impaired and people with learning disabilities. The noble Lord raises a crucial point. We would be happy to have his direct involvement, his experience and expertise in the drafting of the guidance for this area, as well as the expertise of key stakeholders with whom we will consult.
Amendment 73 will require local authorities to produce annual reports on the information which has been made public or available, but which was not made available in alternative formats. I understand that the noble Lord sees this as a discipline on local authorities, but our reading is that it would impose an unnecessary bureaucratic process and therefore an additional burden on local authorities without necessarily making more information more accessible to disabled people in alternative formats.
We have to trust local authorities and their track record. In practice, they will proactively make alternative formats available and alternative arrangements for access as a matter of course. It is important that any alternative arrangements are proportionate and reasonable. Therefore, the Government believe that local authorities are best placed to determine what is appropriate for local circumstances and what arrangements will best meet their objectives. The Disability Discrimination Act recognises that there is a balance to be struck between the requirements of disabled people and the interests of the service provider. Therefore, service providers are required only to make adjustments that are reasonable given all the circumstances.
I hope that the noble Lord is more reassured that our intention is that the guidance will ensure that disabled people, along with other hard-to-reach groups, are equally and properly served by this new legislation. I hope therefore that he is willing to withdraw his amendment and to take up the offer, alongside others, to be involved with the guidance on this area.
Lord Low of Dalston: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply and to the noble Baronesses who have spoken in support of the amendment. I am more than a little reassured by the Ministers response. His reference to the departments intention to produce guidance to support the duty under subsection (1)that is, to provide information to the public generallyis important and welcome. I would be very happy to be involved with the department in developing that guidance.
I also agree that it is probably not a good idea to spell out in legislation all the groups who might be covered by the duty to provide information. I recognise that, although I referred principally to blind and partially sighted people whose needs I know best, there are other groups, such as those with hearing impairments or learning difficulties, to which the Minister has rightly referred, to whose needs we need to pay attention.
Welcome as all of that is, I would have liked the Minister to go further. I thought that he would refer to the Disability Discrimination Act and the duty to make reasonable adjustments. The problem is that that legislation has been in place for some time, but there is still the democratic deficit to which I referred in moving the amendment. The legislation is in place, but it by no means does all that it was intended to do in this area. We need to do more to encourage it to have the effect that it was always intended to have.
The guidance on which the Minister has rested his case principally will certainly go some way, but I am inclined still to feel that it would help the guidance to bite if we had the duty, which I am seeking to insert, in the legislation. I will read carefully what the Minister has said and will reflect on it. Perhaps we could have a discussion before Report in the hope of reaching a form of words with which everyone is happy.
Lord Patel of Bradford: We would be very happy to meet with the noble Lord, Lord Low, before the Report stage.
Lord Low of Dalston: I thank the Minister for that. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Greaves: I shall speak also to Amendment 11. This is not a major issue of principle in the Bill. It removes,
to separate lines in the list of councils that goes on to include London boroughs, the Common Council of the City and so on.
This is a long-standing minor grudge of mine that the Minister will remember from the passage of the Planning Act. The Government have an insistence on grouping counties and districts together, with the word or, when it is really a list of this and that, all being principal councils. However, I discover that in Clause 10(3) of the Bill there is another list of councils and types of council which says,
(a) a county council in England;
(b) a district council in England,
with the implication of and throughout the list. All I am asking for is some consistency. Of course, the Government may change Clause 10(3) to what I do not want to see, but I would rather that they changed this one, subject to the amendment, to what I do want to see. Whichever it is, they ought to do the same thing in different parts of the same Bill. I beg to move.
Baroness Andrews: Indeed I remember this debate on previous legislation. The noble Lord, as a champion of district councils, is right to raise this. In Clause 1, where we define principal local authorities that are required to fulfil duties on the promotion of democracy, that includes both county and district councils in
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As he has on other occasions, the noble Lord seeks to ensure a stand-alone reference to district councils in England. I am sure that, as we debate the substance of what the districts and counties do, we will go into the important relativities between them. We share the conviction that district councils are a vital level of local government in their own right.
I was going to say that this is simply standard drafting. Members of the Committee will understand that this argument has been cut away by this reference in Clause 10, which I must confess that I had not spotted. In the light of this, I ask the noble Lord what difference it will make if we separate them out. Does he think that something substantial will follow? However, I take the point that we need to be consistent within the Bill, and I shall harass our officials to come up with an explanation of why they cannot be the same. I shall discuss this with the noble Lord before Report. I would, however, like an answer to my question about why he thinks it would make a difference.
Lord Greaves: I am sure that a lot of things we argue about here, and a lot of things that the Government dig their feet in about, do not make any difference in practice. Legislation should say what it means. The word or is inappropriate here because, as the Minister said, it is both county and district councils. Or does not mean and; or means one or the other; and means both. The implication of a list with neither all nor and in it is that it is all and. I hope that I have not dug a hole I shall fall into on Clause 10(3).
Lord Borrie: Before the noble Lord withdraws the amendment, I should saybecause I so often feel that I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on other amendmentsthat this is a very useful amendment. It represents the thoroughness that the noble Lord applies to this Bill. He has checked and the Minister has had to admit that she had not checked the contrast between Clause 10 and this clause.
I have only one thing to say in addition, which may be something of a nuisance but which I say particularly because the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, is sitting there. I notice the reference to Wales in the alternative. I am not quite sure why that is so. Consistency with the excellent point made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, would suggest that perhaps in this clause, subsection (3)(d) would be better separated outand the same applies in Clause 10, which has the same wording,
If the noble Lord is right, I wonder about the inconsistency there.
Lord Greaves: In a couple of groups time, we shall try to remove those references to Welsh authorities in these areas. But the noble Lords point is absolutely right.
Baroness Maddock: In the absence of both my noble friends, I shall move the amendment standing in their name and speak to Amendment 40, which goes very well with it. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is not very welland I understand that my noble friend Lord Tope is required to be scrutinised by his local authority this afternoon. I hope that noble Lords will understand why he is not here.
I shall be very brief and I shall not be able to do this as well as my noble friends. As most noble Lords know, my noble friends Lord Tope and Lady Hamwee were members of the GLA. Their view is that it should be a little higher up the pecking order here. It is a unique authoritynot a local authority or a district authority; in some ways it acts as a regional development agency, but it is a unique authority. That is really why they tabled this amendment. They feel that it is quite an important authority in London, and were not very satisfied that the districts in London would describe what the GLA did. That is why they want to leave out the GLA from Clause 2 in Amendment 40.
I hope that I have explained how they feel about this, and I hope that the Government can understand that perhaps they do not have the emphasis quite right on where the GLA should be.
Baroness Warsi: I am interested to hear why the Greater London Authority is to be treated as a connected authority for the purposes of this Bill, rather than a principal authority. The GLA has a very large direct electoral mandate; it has a very large budget and a great deal of influence on how London does its day-to-day business. It has responsibility for the strategic administration of Greater London, which it carries out through the work of four bodiesTransport for London, the Metropolitan Police Authority, the London Fire Authority and the London Development Agencywhich might in the terminology of this Bill be described as connected authorities. All this would suggest that the GLA is much better placed in the principal authoritys category.
The GLA is not an agency of the London boroughs, or a remote quango. It shares local government powers with the boroughs; indeed, it was created to improve co-ordination between those boroughs. It seems odd to describe it in this context as a mere connected authority. Why does the Minister think that the GLA lacks the wherewithal to fulfil the duty to promote understanding of democracy yet that the borough councils are better placed on its behalf?
The noble Baroness has probed the meaning of local people quite extensively with these amendments. I agree that it is curious to have made the definition as it is made in the Bill.
Lord Patel of Bradford: I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for moving the amendment. With Amendment 12, noble Lords are trying to address what they perceive to be an omission from the list of bodies to which the duties to promote democracy apply. I understand the intent, and I certainly echo what the noble Baroness said about the experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and their understanding of the assembly and how it responds to its constituency. I am sure that they have seen that it might have a lot to say about democracy and how public input into its decision-making could benefit us all.
Let me explain clearly why the Government have explicitly excluded the GLA from the duty to promote democracy in Clause 1. The duty is primarily aimed at encouraging greater understanding of the opportunities that exist for members of the public to get involved in, and influence, the work of local public bodies. The GLA, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said, is a strategic body. It is important, on these grounds, that Londoners understand the democratic arrangements for the GLA and how they can engage with the work of the authority. City Hall has become central to the political life of London, with the Mayor having a national profile and considerable influence over the strategic direction of the capital and the assembly having a vital role to play in holding him to account on behalf of Londoners.
We have provided for that in a way that we think will be more effective, because the provision ensures that information about the GLA is provided to local people at the most appropriate level. Under Clause 2, London boroughs will be required to provide information on the GLAs functions and democratic arrangements, and we expect the GLA will be happy to provide the necessary information to all boroughs.
Amendment 40 is consequential on Amendment 12, but it has the unfortunate effect of releasing the London borough councils from a duty to promote understanding of how the GLA works, how it reaches decisions and what its functions are. That would leave a worrying information gap which would leave Londoners at a disadvantage compared with the rest of the country. The point is that we have placed a duty on the London boroughs because they are in the front line, and they could and should be the first port of call for local people who want to find out about local decision-making. The information they give should provide a comprehensive picture of the democratic landscape, and how the work of councils at different tiers fit together, and that would be impossible without featuring the GLA.
Although some people may still go to the GLA for information, we believe that most will go to their local council as the body nearest to their local community. The new duties will allow people to consider their local council as their local hub of information about how to participate in and influence democracy.
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