|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Of course, there will always be some circumstances in which translation is appropriatefor example, to enable particular individuals to access essential services like healthcare or participate in local democracy.
That seems to cover this case fairly and squarely, especially if we extend the imperatives of translation to accessibility. Everyone agrees that information to enable people to participate in local democracy is
17 Mar 2009 : Column 153
I realise that the Government are well aware of the need to work hard to engage all kinds of people, and those elements of the Bill deserve our support. They are a genuine attempt to deal with a very difficult problem. I read very carefully what the Minister said in Committee. He said that the amendments were unnecessary because local authorities are already required by the Disability Discrimination Act to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people when providing services and delivering their functions. I am sorry to say that that provision does not appear to be working or, at least, to be working well enough.
In recent research carried out by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the organisation which I chair, a range of 22 local authorities around the UK were asked whether they could provide information, such as council tax bills, in accessible formats for blind and partially sighted people. Just 9 per centtwo authorities out of 22had front-line staff who could answer the query. In most cases, the caller was directed to various departments to reach someone who knew the policy on accessible formats. More than a third said that they could not offer Braille or audio for people who could not read print. How are people to be expected to behave like responsible citizens in those circumstances?
I was grateful for the Ministers invitation in Committee to be involved in the guidance under Clause 6. I hope he will understand, however, that the fresh evidence from the RNIB of the extent of the problem makes me doubt whether guidance alone is the answer. We have had useful discussions since Committee and I know that the Minister is on our side. I look forward to hearing how he thinks we can secure real change. That is why I am bringing these amendments back, as the Minister knows, because I want the Bill to contain provisions that stand some chance of bringing about that change. I beg to move.
Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, I apologise for the fact that I have not spoken previously on this Bill, but, with the leave of the House, I support the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Low.
We were debating the Disabled Persons (Independent Living) Bill in this House last Friday which makes clear that access to information is fundamental to empowering disabled people to live independently. I should emphasise one particular benefit of these amendments. Clause 1(2)(a) requires local authorities to publicise,
It is a good time to be debating this, because at the other end of the building a Speakers Conference is
17 Mar 2009 : Column 154
Despite being active in their communities many disabled people do not consider standing for election because they do not have enough information about how to do so, what it costs, the qualifications they need and the responsibilities of elected officials.
Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I associate myself with these amendments and support them. I should declare an interest as it is the first time that I have spoken in this debate. I follow the footsteps of my noble friend Lord Greaves, and I have clocked up 13, perhaps 14, years in local government. That is nothing like as many years as him. For the next two and a half weeks I will be a member of Berwick-upon-Tweed Borough Council, but as noble Lords know, we are about to be abolished. I should also declare, because I did not in Committee, that I am a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and we are inquiring into openness, accountability and leadership in local government, which reflects some of the issues that come up in this Bill. We are taking evidence at the moment. I am also a vice-president of the Local Government Association, which has an interest in the Bill.
As I said in Committee, I am particularly keen to support these amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Low, because I was encouraged to get into local government by a partially sighted lady, and therefore I understand the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins. That was a long way back in the 1970s, and my friend had very poor sight; she taught me a lot about how partially sighted people cope with the written word, the typeface that is needed and the various equipment available to help people in that position. Indeed, she got herself elected to the local authority in Southampton where I was a member with her and she did a lot, not only to promote the local authority, but to encourage others, not just with sight disabilities but other disabilities, to become involved with the council.
One thing that was particularly important in our work on the authority in Southampton was to educate officers about the issues of print and how disabled people could access information on the local authority. That is very important. We were trying to do things in the 1970s and here we are in 2009. I hope that the Minister can provide encouragement in this respect and I wholly support the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Low, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins.
Baroness Warsi: My Lords, I supported the noble Lord, Lord Low, when he moved similar amendments in Grand Committee, and I still support the sentiment which lies behind them. In response to the noble Lord at Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, rightly
17 Mar 2009 : Column 155
I have seen a snapshot survey published by the RNIB which suggests that very few councils are in a position to offer full services to those with disabilities. At Grand Committee, the Minister appeared to wash his hands of responsibility, by saying that:
In terms of the bigger picture of this Bill, that is quite some movement on the Governments position. On the one hand the Government have put together this enormously overdetailed Bill, setting out what local authorities must and must not do, while on the other hand they are saying, in effect, Once we have put this great burden on you, you must get on with it and its none of our business any more.
The Government created the Disability Discrimination Act. What are they doing to make sure it is implemented? Would this not be a good time to concentrate on working out how to help local authorities implement existing duties, rather than creating a Bill full of new duties?
Lord Patel of Bradford: My Lords, before I address this group of amendments, I put on record the recognition for the amount of work that the noble Lord, Lord Low, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, have done over the years in support of fightingrightlyfor the rights of people with a range of disabilities. Just looking through their past record, I can see that it is a tribute to the work they have done that they have achieved so much.
Amendments 4, 8 and 26 deal with the issue of accessibility for people with disabilities to information disseminated under the duty to promote democracy. Amendments 4 and 8 seek to ensure that information disseminated to local people by councils in discharging their duty to promote democracy is available in formats accessible to disabled people. Amendment 26 adds an additional clause to the Bill, which would require local authorities to publish an annual report listing any information that they have disseminated under Clause 1 which they did not make available in formats accessible to people with disabilities.
I reassure noble Lords that making information accessible to traditionally underrepresented or hard-to-reach groups is a fundamental principle of the duty
17 Mar 2009 : Column 156
Additionally the current disability equality duty requires, among other things, public authorities to have due regard to the need to take steps to take account of peoples disabilities and encourage them in public life when fulfilling their functions. Councils will be expected to operate under the planned equality duty which will replace the DDA and other equality duties. It will broaden and strengthen the current requirement on public authorities and will require public authorities to consider how they can meet different needs. The Office for Disability Issues is working closely with the Government Equalities Office to ensure that protection from disability discrimination is properly reflected in the new equality Bill.
In the light of this, it would not be legally or practically desirable to accept these amendments and build into this legislation a requirement that is in effect broadly covered by the Disability Discrimination Act, where it is reasonable for the authority to make such adjustments. In fact, it may undermine the general equalities duties, as well as other legislation that does not have specific disabilities access requirements built in, but which is fully intended to operate in the context of the general equalities duties on public authorities.
The equality Bill, which we hope will shortly be joining us in this legislative Session, will be accompanied by statutory codes of practice produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is keen to stress that information should be accessible to all people. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will be taking forward work to publicise and champion the new duty, which of course will be very high on its as well as the Governments agenda.
Amendment 26 is particularly concerned with monitoring the accessibility for disabled people of information disseminated by local authorities when promoting democracy. This amendment will require local authorities to produce annual reports on the information which has been made public or available under Clause 1, but which was not made available in formats accessible to disabled people. I understand that the noble Lord sees this as a discipline on local authorities, but we feel that the effect would be to impose on local authorities an unnecessary bureaucratic process and therefore an additional burden without
17 Mar 2009 : Column 157
I know that monitoring is of particular interest to the noble Lord, Lord Low, and I would like to outline the various monitoring efforts that the Government are already making in regard to this issue and, I hope, address some of the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. For example, as part of the comprehensive assessment, the inspectorates of local services will look at how well local priorities express community needs and aspirations. The inspectorate has made clear in its framework document for comprehensive area assessment that understanding the needs and aspirations of communities should always include those whose circumstances make them vulnerable and those who are hardest to reach or hear. Inspectorates have also indicated that they may need to better understand the extent to which local partners are sensitive to the particular communication or other needs of minority or marginalised groups.
There is also recourse, through judicial review instigated by an individual or the Equality and Human Rights Commission, against those public authorities that failed to give regard to the disability equality duty. Similarly, if a listed public authority fails to publish a disability equality scheme, or comply with another requirement of specific public sector duties, the commission could issue a compliance notice against them and subsequently enforcement actions would follow were those specific duties not complied with.
As I have said, I of course support the spirit of these amendments. As the noble Lord has shown, in terms of the research that he has commissioned, we have clearly seen that some public authorities are still struggling to meet their responsibilities under this existing legislation. However, I believe that the situation is improving in some areas. Recent reports suggest that the disability equality duty is being used to make improvements for disabled people, and stakeholder groups with which the Office for Disability Issues works closely suggest that the duty has been used in a positive way to make changes. In fact, research published in December examining the experience of public authorities in implementing the disability equality duty, found that greater priority was being given to disability equality issues within public sector bodies, and there were examples of mainstreaming disability equality and policy-making. However, clearly there are still challenges to achieve our commitment of equality for people with disabilities by 2025, which is why the Office for Disability Issues will be following up with a toolkit called Producing Better Information for Disabled People, which will be published in April and specifically aimed at local authorities.
Although I am unable to accept the noble Lords amendments, there are a number of additional actions that I will commit to take forward, which may help to support the principles behind the amendments and will give an extra push to efforts already being made in this area, I hope. First, I intend to write to Trevor Phillips in his capacity as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, passing on the concerns
17 Mar 2009 : Column 158
Secondly, we will clearly set out reminders about the requirements on local authorities under equality legislation in both the statutory and best-practice guidance accompanying the duty. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Low, for generously accepting my offer made in Committee for him to be involved in the drafting of the guidance. We will of course be involving the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Office for Disability Issues and the Government Equalities Office in producing the guidance, as we are keen that it covers these points clearly and strongly.
Thirdly, I will discuss with colleagues in government the importance of the issues raised by these amendments to see whether there are other avenues available to us in forwarding this agenda. I will write to my right honourable friend Harriet Harman, in her capacity as Minister for Women and Equality, informing her of these debates and asking for her views on the topics raised.
Finally, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Low, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, for tabling the amendments a second time, and allowing us the opportunity to further raise the profile of these important issues. I hope that I have gone some way to reassure them by my reply and that they understand why I must resist the amendments. There is little advantage in merely having provisions in this Bill that are so similar to what is already required under the Disability Discrimination Act, which requires authorities to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people. Instead, we should promote the issues raised by these amendments and ensure that all is done to improve in real terms the way the public authorities discharge their current and future duties. With this, I hope that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, the Minister has gone a long way to reassure us, and has shown by his reply that he is very seized of the need to take more action to address the issues which we have raised in this debate. I am very grateful to all noble Lords who spoke in support of the amendment and to the Minister for his extremely comprehensive reply. His response is very helpful and shows that he certainly supports the principle of the amendments if not the actual amendments themselves.
The Minister is right to suggest that the ultimate goal is for blind and partially sighted people and others who have difficulty reading print to have the same access to information as everyone else. He is also right to say that there is the option for judicial review, though we would obviously hope to find a more constructive approach than suing people. So I am grateful that he has made a number of concrete suggestions for tackling the problem across government. I hope that the Equality and Human Rights Commission will pick up his request and run with it and I look forward to working with him and his officials on the guidance.
For the rest, I will read the Minister's remarks in detail tomorrow and follow up appropriately. I understand the point and would not wish to undermine other legislation which does not contain a specific duty such as we are asking for, by including one in this legislation. However, I am sure that he realises that we will return to the wider issue in the context of the equality Bill when it comes to this House in due course. Meanwhile, I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
(i) is in the area of the principal local authority, or
(ii) is attended by a significant number of students who live in the area of the principal local authority
Lord Greaves: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall move Amendment 9, which is in the name of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, and speak to Amendment 9A, which is in my name. I apologise for the fact that Amendment 9A was tabled only today. That was due to some confusion between our Whips Office and the Public Bill Office.
The purpose of these amendments is to return to an issue that we discussed at some length in Grand Committee, one of the issues to which the Government seem not to have responded and that we believe is important enough to press them on now. Amendment 9 says that the democratic arrangements for people to be governors of schools should apply not just to the schools in the principal local authoritys area but also to schools that are,
Amendment 9A applies the same wording to hospitals and similar facilities provided by the health service. The arrangements should apply not just to facilities that are in the area of the principal local authority but also to those which are,
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|