HC Deb 10 June 1981 vol 6 cc502-20

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 16 line 5, leave out "In determining any" and insert "When granting an".

Mr. Rifkind

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may take the following: Lords amendment No. 2.

Lords amendment No. 3, in page 16, line 12, leave out from "duty" to end of line 19, and the amendment thereto, at end add 'and insert and for this purpose each local planning authority shall designate one of its officers to act as liaison officer and co-ordinator in the area of that authority on all matters involving access for disabled people to buildings and other facilities and the application of the British Standards Institution Code of Practice on Access for the Disabled to Buildings BS 5810: 1979, or such other code or codes as the Secretary of State may prescribe".'. Lords amendment No. 4, after clause 36, in page 16, line 19, insert new clause A (Further provision as regards the needs of the disabled): (1) In each of sections 4(1), 5(1), 6(2), 8(1) and 8A(1) of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 (which impose on persons undertaking the provision of public buildings etc. certain duties as regards the needs of the disabled)—

  1. (a) for the words "provision, in so far as it is in the circumstances both practicable and reasonable" there shall be substituted the words "appropriate provision"; and
  2. (b) at the end there shall be added the words "unless such body as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State is satisfied, after carrying out any procedures which may be so prescribed, that in the circumstances it is either not practicable to make such provision or not reasonable that such pro vision should be made."
(2) After the said section 4(1) there shall be inserted the following subsection— (1A) In subsection (1) above "appropriate provision" in relation to any case means provision conforming with so much of the Code of Practice for Access for the Disabled to Buildings as is relevant to that case and "prescribed" means prescribed by regulations made by statutory instrument, which shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament; and in the foregoing provisions of this subsection "the Code of Practice for Access for the Disabled to Buildings" means the British Standards Institution code of practice referred to as BS 5810: 1979. (3) After the said section 5(1) the following words shall be inserted as section 5(1A)— Subsection (1A) of section 4 of this Act shall apply in relation to the interpretation of the last foregoing subsection of this section as the said subsection (1A) applies in relation to the interpretation of subsection (1) of that section."; and the same words shall be inserted as sections 6(2A), 8(1A) and 8A(1A) of the said Act of 1970. (4) In section 28 of the said Act of 1970 (which empowers the Secretary of State to define certain expressions appearing therein), after the word "Parliament" there shall be inserted"— (a)" and at the end there shall be added the words "; or (b) amend the definition of "the Code of Practice for Access for the Disabled to Buildings" in section 4(1A) of this Act.". The amendments thereto; in subsection (1)(b), leave out 'such body as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State' and insert 'the local building control authority'. In subsection (1)(b), leave out 'such body as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State' and insert 'the building control department of the relevant local authority' Lords amendment No. 6, in clause 42, page 17, line 23, leave out "Section 29" and insert "Sections 29 and A", and the amendment thereto, "That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment".

The amendment to the Bill in lieu thereof: In page 17, line 22, at end insert

'() Section (Further provision as regards the needs of the disabled) shall come into force on 31st December 1981.'

Lords amendments Nos. 7, 8 and 10.

Mr. Rifkind

On Lords Amendment No. 1, the clause as drafted would require local authorities to ensure that developers were aware of their duty under the 1970 Act, even if the local authority intended to refuse to grant planning permission. Clearly that is an unnecessary requirement in the present drafting and the amendment seeks to ensure that that requirement applies only in cases where it is intended to grant planning permission.

Amendment No. 2 is a technical amendment, which removes from the clause an unnecessary reference to section 6 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. It is a technical drafting amendment.

Amendment No. 3 removes from the clause the references to the code of practice for access for the disabled to buildings and the Secretary of State's power to substitute any subsequent code of practice. As we now have a new clause to the Bill, when a planning authority draws the attention of a developer to his duties under the 1970 Act he will be made aware of the existence of the code practice. Therefore, there is no need to make specific provision in this clause.

Amendment No. 6 is consequential on amendment No. 4, to which I shall speak in a moment. It introduces no new element of policy.

Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 are also technical amendments, consequential on the amendment to the clause that deletes the power in that clause to amend the definition of the code of practice for access for the disabled to buildings.

Amendment No. 10 is consequential on the new clause amending the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970.

Amendment No. 4 is the substantial amendment in this group. It is the only one that has significant policy implications. It amends the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. In that Act a requirement is placed on developers to make provision for the disabled in buildings that are to be open to the public, in so far as it is reasonable and practical to do so.

The amendment will replace that requirement by a requirement to make provision in every case unless a body to be prescribed in regulations is satisfied after carrying out any procedures that may be prescribed, that in the circumstances of the case it is not practicable or reasonable for such provision to be made. In short, it transfers the onus of determining whether it is practicable and reasonable to make provision for the needs of disabled people from the developer to an independent party.

I hope that the House will recognise that this change represents a significant step forward. It represents the Government's consideration of the whole matter in the light of the debates in the House and in another place and our determination to ensure, along with many hon. Members of all parties, that in this International Year of Disabled People there should be significant improvements in our policy.

Hon. Members will be pleased to know that it is the Government's intention that similar provisions will be extended to the rest of the United Kingdom by means of an amendment to the Disabled Persons (No. 2) Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley), which is at present being considered in another place.

The details of the procedure to be followed under the amendments and the identification of the body that will adjudicate, in cases where the developer does not propose to make appropriate provision, will require to be considered carefully. It is our intention to undertake substantial consultations with interested parties, including the disabled, before determining the content of the regulations which the new clause gives my right hon. Friend power to make.

I hope that these amendments will be acceptable to the House. I have heard that they were welcomed in another place. They are similar to suggestions advocated by the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and by other hon. Members of all parties. I hope that the amendments will now be approved by the House.

Mr. Home Robertson

When, in committee, I opportunistically tabled a new clause to provide better arrangements for access for the disabled to public buildings, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that it would lead to the new clause that we are now considering. By a series of happy events this has turned into a major breakthrough for disabled people, coming at a most opportune time, during this International Year of Disabled People.

There is still a tremendous amount to be done for disabled people, but if they are to be able to play their part in society, as they should be, one of the first things that we should do for them is to make sure that they can at least go to the usual places that normal members of the public can visit—shops, offices and other public buildings.

This experience has been most encouraging to me, not least because it shows that once in a blue moon an initiative by an Opposition Back Bencher can lead to improvements in the law. In fairness, I should also pay tribute to the Under-Secretary for moving as far and as fast as he has on this important issue, in spite of the known hostility of his friends in the Department of the Environment. Indeed, it appears that by leaning against an almost open door in the Scottish Office those who are concerned about access for the disabled have been able to outflank the Department of the Environment, which is a good thing.

New clause A is the one redeeming feature in a fundamentally obnoxious and shocking Bill, which will do great harm to local government and probably indirectly cause great hardship to many groups of needy people, including the disabled

The most welcome and significant of these Lords amendments is Lords amendment No. 4, which could make it possible at last to enforce the access provisions of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. Those provisions laid a duty on developers to provide access for disabled people to new buildings, but the Act failed to appoint an authority to enforce that duty. It became clear that it was only too easy to turn a blind eye to the obligation. One has only to look at any recently built public building in any High Street in any town in the United Kingdom to see that the branches of chain stores have one or two steps at their entrance, a narrow door, or an awkward passage, all of which are impossible obstacles for people who have to move around in wheelchairs.

The let-out in the 1970 Act was that provision did not have to be made unless it was "practicable and reasonable". Worse than that, no particular body was designated to have the authority to enforce that duty. Therefore, the provision has in effect been a dead letter ever since 1970–11 long years for disabled people.

Lords amendment No. 4 provides that a developer must prove that such provision is unreasonable or impracticable before he is granted a waiver by an as yet unspecified authority. Indeed, he must prove that it is not reasonable or practicable before he is allowed to proceed with erecting a building without proper facilities for disabled people. This was called for by the Silver Jubilee committee on access for the disabled. The amendment puts the onus of proof that something is impracticable or unreasonably fairly and squarely where it belongs—on the shoulders of developers.

The amendment is welcome, but I am concerned about three remaining unanswered questions. First, we do not know who will be responsible for enforcing the provision. It has been made clear that the burden of proof is being transferred to the developer, but we do not yet know to whom that proof will have to be furnished.

Secondly, when will the new provisions come into effect? I repeat that disabled people have had to wait 11 years for the coming into effect of the access provisions of the 1970 Act even to be thought of. The Minister should tell the House when he expects the provisions to come into effect in Scotland. On the assumption that local authorities will be given the job of enforcing the provisions, no guarantee appears to have yet been given that the authorities will be geared to applying proper consideration to their new duties.

10.45 pm

Three sets of amendments have therefore been tabled. The first requires local authorities to appoint access officers to carry out the functions that I have discussed. The second specifies that building control authorities should be responsible for enforcing the provisions. The third ensures that the new provisions shall come into effect during the course of this year—the International Year of Disabled People.

I wish to dwell for a moment on the question of access officers. It is right to expect that the local authorities assuming these responsibilities should designate one of their officers to co-ordinate consideration of the needs of disabled people. The Scottish Committee on Access for Disabled People made representations to COSLA some time ago. COSLA, in turn, recommended that all Scottish local authorities should designate voluntarily one of their officers to be an access officer. Forty-eight of the local planning and building control authorities in Scotland responded voluntarily and positively to the request by designating one of their officers to be an access officer. Two authorities, Gordon district council and Dumfries and Galloway regional council, refused. It is perhaps pure coincidence that these two authorities are Conservative-controlled.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman should appreciate that neither authority is Conservative-controlled. Both are controlled by Independents.

Mr. Home Robertson

I am glad to hear that there is some doubt about the political allegiance of those who dominate those two local authorities. This is perhaps a foretaste of the meanness to be expected from Conservative and Right-Wing local authorities under the new regime introduced by the Bill.

I spoke yesterday by telephone to Mr. Alexander Farquhar, of the Scottish Committee on Access for Disabled People, who confirmed that the committee had strong feelings towards the two defaulting authorities. He expressed the fear that if two authorities could get away with this kind of attitude, others might opt to follow, especially when authorities in the coming months and years will be so pinched for funds.

If these two authorities and, perhaps, others were to resist the proposal that they should designate an access officer for disabled people, a situation could arise in which those authorities would not be able to deal efficiently with complicated and specialised matters. The needs of the disabled would not be properly met within defaulting authority areas. It is only too possible that the needs of the disabled would fall between two stools. Neither the building control committee nor the planning committee might properly consider a matter, with the result that nothing happened.

In the other place the Minister of State referred to a flexible approach to the needs of the disabled. I can think of a number of literal examples of that approach, notably Ayr police station, to which I referred on Report, when the Secretary of State for Scotland, whose constituency is Ayr, was present. It appears that due to muddle in local authority offices, and because no one was dealing properly with the matter, the police authority was able to get away with the suggestion that Ayr police station was not a public building and therefore not subject to the provisions of the Bill.

In the other place the Government were pressed on the issue of the defaulting authorities. Only yesterday the Minister of State said: I propose, therefore, to have arrangements made for the question of the attitude adopted by these two authorities to be considered further with the Convention. That is not good enough. The disabled are fed up with having their needs considered; it is time for action. The Minister of State said that: such a measure could not have been reconciled with the general policy of legislating to require local authorities to make particular appointments only where this is regarded as being absolutely essential, it would have been insulting to the many authorities which have made appropriate arrangements without any hint of pressure from the Government— We propose to draw attention to the arrangements which have been made for designating access officers in the forthcoming circular to local authorities on the access provisions of the Bill."—[Official Report, House of Lords,9 June 1981; Vol. 421, c. 128–9.] I shall say more about that circular later.

The Minister's arguments against requiring local authorities to designate access officers are pitiful. Does he really think that a local authority that has appointed an access officer voluntarily will take umbrage if a defaulting authority is subsequently required by statute to make an appointment? That is rubbish. Equally, the argument that there are no precedents for imposing a statutory requirement to appoint local authority officers is weak. I did some homework and discovered that under section 64 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 a number of local authority officers must be appointed because of statutory provisions—for example, chief fire officers and members of fire brigades, electoral registration officers, directors of education, weights and measures inspectors, directors of social work, reporters to children's panels and agricultural analysts and deputies. If there is a statutory requirement on local authorities to employ agricultural analysts and deputies, it is not unreasonable to suggest—especially in view of the complicted nature of the legislation—that local authorities should be required to appoint access officers.

I feel strongly about the issue. I appeal to the Minister to say something constructive. If he does not, I cannot rule out the possibility that I may press the relevant amendment to a vote. I shall be interested to see whether he is prepared, at this time of night, to dragoon Conservative Members into the Division Lobbies to vote against a better provision for the disabled.

I wish to press the Minister to confide in the House about whom he has in mind to be the body prescribed by the Secretary of State to be responsible for the new functions. The Scottish Committee on Access for Disabled People favours local building control authorities. That appears to be a reasonable suggestion. They would have suitably qualified staff, and already process building control applications. It would be helpful if the Minister would say whether he would be prepared to accept an amendment at this stage.

Further points about the as yet unspecified designated authority need to be answered. First, can developers appeal against the decisions of the body, and if so, to whom? Secondly, can individuals or organizations interested in the disabled appeal against waivers granted by the as yet unspecified authority? If so, to whom—will it be the Secretary of State? Very much appears to depend on the terms of the circular that has been promised about the handling of the consideration of the needs of the disabled by planning authorities. I am a little worried about ministerial backsliding on that issue. On March 23 I pressed the Secretary of State to clarify whether planners had the power to require developers to provide for the disabled. He said: Access for the disabled is certainly a material consideration … the Government are prepared to make it clear to planning authorities that this is so. The circular will set out to try and do that. He went on: It is the case that a planning authority may impose conditions. That will be strengthened by a circular telling them that they jolly well ought to impose conditions."—[Official Report, 23 March 1981; Vol. 1, c. 753–4.] Now we have the benefit of access to the draft circular. In my opinion it is rather feeble, particularly in view of the Secretary of State's brave statements not so long ago. It says: The extent to which the provision of facilities for the disabled is a material planning consideration will depend on the circumstances of each case. The internal layout and design of buildings and the details of the provision of facilities within buildings are not normally matters with which planning authorities should be concerned. However, the arrangements for access to buildings may"— I stress "may"— be planning matters and the suitability of the arrangements for use by the public, including disabled members of the public, can raise issues of public amenity which, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, would be material to a planning application. It says further on:

"Where appropriate, conditions may"—

again, I stress "may"— be attached to a grant of planning permission to deal with the matter. That does not fulfil the undertaking given by the Secretary of State last month. As this equivocation has occurred so soon, it is not surprising that the Minister is coming under pressure at this stage to provide something more specific.

Finally, and for the same reasons, I urge the Minister to give us a clear undertaking that the provisions will come into effect during 1981—the International Year of Disabled People.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

As the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) has stolen most of my thunder, I shall be commendably brief. I do not necessarily share his eulogy on the Government in connection with the amendment adopted by the House of Lords.

The Government's attitude on Report was niggardly and parsimonious. They were not prepared to concede much to help the disabled. Because of pressure in the House of Lords—not to mention pressure from the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian in Committee, pressure from the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley), over a period, in relation to his own Bill, and other offerings on Report from myself and other hon. Members—the Government eventually conceded in the House of Lords that they would have to do something.

The Government deserve credit only by contrast with the even more reprehensible conduct of the Department of Environment, which otherwise would have done nothing at all for the disabled in the year that has been designated for their benefit.

The amendment adopted by the Lords strengthens the existing position and is to be welcomed. However, its drafting is deficient in many respects. Some of its deficiences were alluded to by the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian. The first concerns the timing. Lord Mansfield, in the other place, was asked on several occasions when the measure would come into effect. The nearest that he came to being pinned down was when he said that he hoped that it would come into effect during this year of the disabled, 1981, but that he could give no guarantees, because of the continuing consultations that were to take place. That is not good enough.

During our late-night sitting on the Education (Scotland) Bill I referred to the system of junior colleges that has been enshrined in Education Acts since 1945 but never initiated. In the debate in the House of Lords, one of the noble Ladies gave an example of legislation in 1976 which is still awaiting implementation. So the House should be given a starting date for this provision.

The second matter relates to control. We have to await regulations that are unspecified. We do not know what they will contain. Unless we know their content we may find them unsatisfactory. That is why the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian, myself and my right hon. Friend tabled amendments to place specific responsibility on the building control departments of local authorities.

I associate myself with the amendment of the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian that relates to access officers. I see no reason why there should not be legislative proposals for access officers, which would involve no additional public expenditure. It is a matter of designation rather than appointment.

11 pm

My second criticism is directed to the absence of sanctions. Apparently there are two local authorities that ignore arrangements for the disabled. There must be some provision that the Government have in mind apart from the issuing of circulars to ensure that the statutory obligations are fulfilled. The Bill is full of onerous sanctions. The local authorities will be clubbed to death if they dare step out of line with the Government's strategy. Surely some sanction could have been incorporated to take care of local authorities that might default in respect of the disabled.

I was not impressed by the way in which Lord Mansfield failed to answer the specific questions that were directed to him on 2 June in another place. He failed yesterday to make more detailed replies when he had the opportunity to do so. We are still not much wiser about when the provisions will come into effect, the nature of the regulations, and the identity of the prescribed body for monitoring them and injecting facilities for the disabled. The Government have made a stab in the right direction, but they have not responded in a proper professional manner. The late moment at which the measure will come into effect demonstrates the grudging and belated way in which they have responded to appeals from organisations representing the disabled and to pressure from Opposition parties.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)

I pay a warm tribute to the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) for the initiative that he has taken and the work that he has done. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is once in a blue moon that the actions of a Member of Parliament lead to change. I think that he has broken through the blue moon barrier. That is a tribute to him and a tribute to the Scottish Office for responding to the hon. Gentleman's arguments. Our democracy works in no other way than when an hon. Member makes a proposal, if it is seen to be wise and sensible the authorities respond thereto.

The hon. Gentleman referred rightly to the delay in implementation. That is something that I underline. He was right to devote a considerable part of his speech to access officers. My Liberal colleagues in another place, and notably Lord Thurso, laid stress on them. The basic question is whether provision for the disabled should be required generally to be available. As a believer in local democracy I am reluctant to enforce views on local authorities. However, the position of the disabled is such that their rights should properly be nationally defined. That is a view that is accepted by many on both sides of the House.

For that reason I support warmly what the hon. Gentleman said, which covered what the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) in turn has done over a long period, to which I pay tribute. Equally, I pay tribute to what the Liberal Party has sought to do. The Government have responded to pressure. They would not lose anything or be deflected seriously from their policies if they accepted all the amendments. It would not make any difference to what they are doing. It would be a significant contribution in the International Year of Disabled People if they were to indicate that they share the feelings of hon. Members in all parts of the House who do not want to make a party issue of this. Therefore, I ask the Minister if he will make a gesture to the disabled. It would not cost much money and it would be responded to warmly.

11.6 pm

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)

May I crave indulgence to intervene briefly in the debate? I am grateful for the references that have been made to the Disabled Persons (No. 2) Bill, in which I am interested and which is analogous to the Bill under discussion.

I should like to raise with the Minister questions that were put in the House of Lords on Report on 2 June by Baroness Masham of Ilton, because the answers would be as relevant to my Bill as to this Bill. The questions that she put to the Minister, the Earl of Mansfield, were these: I should like to ask the noble Earl the Minister just a few questions."—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not quote what was said; he may paraphrase it.

Mr. Wigley

I defer to your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Baroness Masham was interested to know who the prescribed body would be and whether the local authority would be responsible for building regulations. That point has been brought up by the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson). Lady Masham also asked who would check on the facilities for disabled people, which is important. She wanted to know whether that would be done at the same time as other regulations were being checked.

A pertinent question put by her was: if the developer disagreed with the prescribed body, would he be allowed to appeal against the decision and would the appeal go to the court or to the Secretary of State? If the developer did not introduce the facilities that were required, she wanted to know what sanctions the prescribed body would have and whether they would be identical to those under normal building regulations.

Those were all relevant questions. When answering the debate the Earl of Mansfield failed to respond to them but said that they would be dealt with in due course; he said that perhaps they would try to answer some of them before Third Reading but, if not, discussion would take place thereafter. At Third Reading there was no progress on answering the questions. Some of them need an answer. For instance, if fines were to be used, would that not require primary legislation? Therefore, are we in a situation in which fines are ruled out as a sanction against those who do not carry out the requirements of the legisaltion?

It is relevant to define the prescribed body. There is a strong body of opinion not only in Scotland, as we have heard, but in England and Wales, that local authorities that are in charge of building regulations ought to be the prescribed bodies. If the Minister can go no further, I ask him to give some indication of Government thinking on the prescribed body. That is centrally relevant to the effectiveness of the new clause.

The new clause is to be welcomed, provided that it is effective. To be effective, we have to know how it will operate. Saying that that will be determined by regulations at a later stage does not throw enough light on the central question around which the matter revolves.

I ask the Minister, for the benefit to the people not only of Scotland, but of Wales and England, who in this instance are following Scotland—I congratulate the Scottish Office on having taken this initiative—to provide some clarity, as it will be of great importance and relevance to many people who are following the debate.

Mr. Dewar

I made my protest, which I shall not repeat, about tie timing of the debate. It is extraordinary that we should be considering the Lords amendments while their Lordships' voices are practically dying away in the corridor outside the door. The term "indecent haste", which has been mentioned more than once, is entirely appropriate.

We are fortunate that a number of hon. Members who have shown persistent and justified interest in this area were watching closely and making contingency plans about what might happen on Third Reading in another place. Those plans fortunately turned out to be justified and allowed us to put down appropriate amendments to have a proper debate tonight. That is not a satisfactory basis on which to proceed, however. Although there may be precedents—I have not been in this place long enough to be able to bandy them—for us to consider Lords amendments within less than 24 hours of their Lordships having finalised them, they are bad and should not be followed as a general rule.

The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill is to be generally welcomed. There is an area of sanity in a Bill which is marked not by sanity, but by arbitrary and vindictive spleen which has been shown consistently by Conservative Ministers towards local government in Scotland.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will not think me ungracious if I say that I shall not add to the general praise of the Government for having brought forward the measures. In a sense, it is undeserved praise. When the Bill first saw the light of day, there was nothing in it about access for the disabled. The clause which we are now considering, which has gone through certain stages of development, is entirely the result of activity by Back Benchers who are not members of the Minister's party. I add my praise to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who first introduced the question of access for the disabled into the Bill.

I shall give some praise to the Minister, although it is tepid. He has shown some flexibility. He has been harried and has given ground. At various stages, he has accepted what is cumulatively a significant improvement in access. There would have been absolutely nothing in the Bill at all if my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian, in consultation with the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) and one or two others, had not taken the initiative and pointed a pistol at the Minister's head by introducing his version, which he hoped would meet the case. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian took the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, looked at section 4 and recognised, as did many of us, that it had started out with high aspirations but that there had been little action. It was not an adequate way of ensuring that access to public buildings was properly considered.

The hon. Member put down a new clause to ensure that the duty to consider the disabled and the possibilities of access was carried out. It was because the Minister felt that, faced with that initiative, he could not fail to make some sort of response that we started on the trail. A Government new clause was put down. Efforts were made to amend it. The Government gave a little more ground, the new clause ended up in the House of Lords and they gave further ground.

11.15 pm

It is not a case of the Minister setting out with good intentions. What good has been done has been done by stealth. So far as Scottish local authorities are concerned, this Government do as much harm as they can and as much good as they must. We are grateful to a number of hon. Members for forcing the Government to do good. The praise should go to them.

Having said that, of course I welcome the position at which we have finally arrived. It is an important step that efforts are now being made to make section 4 of the 1970 Act that bit more effective. Even those who take only the most cursory interest in the cause of the disabled will heartily welcome the removal or final death of that famous qualification in so far as it is in the circumstances both practicable and reasonable". The onus shifts to the developer. I hope that that will be an impetus to local authorities to use the power of scrutiny to which the Minister drew attention in a circular and that we may see a much more positive effort to ensure that the interests of the disabled are specifically looked to when planning permission is considered.

All hon. Members wish to give a fair wind to the new clause, but I add my voice to those of the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) and others who suggest that the Minister should look with sympathy at a clutch of amendments put down to their Lordships' final version. I believe that those who spoke in the debate in another place would add their weight to the appeal.

The question of liaison officers is very important. There is always difficulty in putting statutory forms of words into practice. We may now have a section 4 of the 1970 Act that is much more satisfactory, but, unfortunately, it does not necessarily follow from that legal legislative development that we shall see the positive monitoring of a development with the interests of the disabled in mind that we should all like. It is an important safeguard to have someone in the local authority with a statutory duty to carry out the scrutiny.

The Minister may ask why we are getting hot under the collar. After all, 48 out of 50 Scottish planning authorities have already done it. However, that is a double-edged argument. If the vast majority of authorities accept and recognise the virtue of making the appointment, we should ensure that it becomes universal and is honoured right across the board.

I do not pass judgment on Dumfries and Galloway or Gordon. I do not want to enter into political semantics with the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), about whether they are independent Conservatives, Conservative independents or what. That is not the point. Here are two local authorities which, for reasons best known to themselves, have appointed a liaison officer, which, I believe, hon. Members universally feel should be an office filled in every local authority.

The hon. Member for Caernarvon mentioned sanctions. I do not know whether we need sanctions in the Bill, but the machinery under the old 1966 Act has been revamped in an unnecessarily severe fashion in clause 13 by the sanction for excessive and unreasonable expenditure. Under the old Act there were sanctions for authorities that underspent and did not provide a decent level of service. The failure to give proper weight and energy to enforcing reasonable access for the disabled may be a sign that an authority is not providing a proper range of services for those in its area.

I believe that there is an overwhelming case for the appointment of liaison officers. If the Minister tries to shelter behind the voluntary principle, I can only say that, having sat through the lengthy and convoluted Committee stage and having considered the consequences of the extremely severe penal sanctions, the straitjacket placed on local authorities and the constant encroachment upon their freedom of manoeuvre, the Opposition will give only a mighty horse laugh if the Minister suggests that in some way the principle of freedom for local authorities makes it abhorrent to suggest that there should be a designated officer to deal with access for the disabled.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, with the best will in the world, to bureaucratise, to be precise in definition and so forth is no substitute for a broad acceptance of the spirit of the matter with regard to access for the disabled? I could cite an example of a disabled person, hearing that a local labatory had been made available for the disabled, went to try it and found great difficulty of access. When he went to the local authority, he was told that it had been constructed according to all the diagrams and specifications laid down in the book, but the authority had not actually asked a disabled person whether it was a sensible thing to do.

Mr. Dewar

I regard that as a splendid argument for the appointment of a liaison officer who would ask the disabled whether it was suitable. I am genuinely obliged to the hon. Member, who, as always, perhaps unintentionally, has been extremely helpful. He is, of course, right about the importance of general acceptance and good will. As we all know, when the 1970 Act was passed the House thought that the problem was solved, yet 11 years later we are still struggling to get this right.

The appointment of a liaison officer would not infringe the voluntary principle in any way, nor would it infringe the rather mean approach to local government finance that the Minister has to observe. I therefore echo the appeal that has been made. There is every reason for making a gesture on this occasion, perhaps showing a generous turn of mind and introducing a little variety into the conduct of the Conservative Administration. Such a gesture would receive a very warm welcome indeed.

Finally, the timing is important. When Governments make statements about their intention to move as quickly as possible but immediately add that there must be consultation, warning bells start to ring. In my experience, consultation can become an unco' long process unless there is a terminal date which must be met and to which Ministers are committed. It would seem to me a simple concept to aim to complete this round of not very complicated administrative considerations within the International Year of Disabled Persons.

Back Benchers have done something good on this occasion in managing to jockey the Minister along and jolly him into improving the legal structure and the possibilities of access for the disabled. Nevertheless, more could be done. The Minister would make a real contribution if he accepted our additional amendments. The hon. Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson) rightly spoke of the importance of good will and the willingness to show good will. It would be a splendid example if the Minister would show the necessary flexibility to take on board these very small but important additional moves, which would do a great deal to bolster and define the limited but useful changes that he is now introducing.

11.23 pm
Mr. Rifkind

I thank Opposition Members who, with the conspicuous but unfortunately predictable exception of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), have welcomed the spirit in which the Government and the Scottish Office have responded to the points made by Opposition Members and, indeed, some of my hon. Friends in Committee by introducing amendments in another place and, indeed, in the Committee to deal with questions of access for the disabled.

The hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) called upon the Government to make a gesture. The hon. Member for Garscadden asked the Government to be flexible. I think that both hon. Members will feel obliged to concede that the very existence of Government amendments, moved either in this House or in another place, shows that the Government are flexible and anxious to do all that is reasonable in the International Year of the Disabled to help that section of the community.

I turn to the specific points that were raised. The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) asked who would be responsible for enforcement of the requirements.

I first make the general point that there is to be a process of consultation. One of its primary objectives is to try to establish who would be the best authority to deal with the matter. The Government do not start with any preconceived notion of who that ought to be. Therefore, we are anxious that the consultation should be genuine. There are a number of options that we shall wish to pursue without any degree of commitment at this stage.

One possibility is obviously the local authority, whether it be the planning department or the building control department. The latter might be even more appropriate, if it is to be the local authority. There have been suggestions that it might be an independent body, such as the Institute of Arbiters, which has experience in dealing with disagreements of this kind. It could be a body specially established for a purpose of this sort. It could be some voluntary organisation with experience in such matters. I put these forward as various options, but at this stage the Government have no preconceived view of what would be the best way of dealing with the matter. We are anxious to hear the views not only of the local authorities but of the disabled and other groups with a legitimate interest.

The second question, put to me by both the hon. Gentlemen to whom I have referred, related to the time at which the provisions would come into force. They argued—I can understand their argument—that it would be highly desirable that they should come into force during the International Year of Disabled People. We should like that to happen, and hope that it will happen, but I hope that the hon. Gentlemen will accept that for me to give an absolute cast-iron guarantee would be inappropriate at this stage.

We are already half way through the year. We hope that the consultations will enable us to come to a conclusion during the course of this year. Obviously, there is no particular reason why we should wish to avoid this year. Clearly, it is an appropriate year for any change of this kind. But I cannot give an absolute assurance; I can only say that we shall do our best to achieve that sort of time scale.

Mr. Russell Johnston

I am not arguing about the Government's good intentions, but surely the Minister is saying that the Government are putting it off.

Mr. Rifkind

The last thing that I am saying is that we are putting it off. If I were saying that we were not intending to start the negotiations until next year or the year after, or some undefined time, that might be a legitimate accusation to make to me, but I am not saying that. We intend to start the consultations straight away, but I am not able to say how long they will take.

Hon. Members must remember that it is not only a matter of the consultations; once the consultations have been complete it will be necessary, in terms of the amendment, to frame regulations and to introduce them. Only when the regulations have come into force will it be possible to say that the amendments have taken effect.

These matters take time. Although I am in no way ruling out the possibility of everything being achieved during the remainder of this year, I cannot give an absolute assurance to that effect. But we intend to start consultations in the very near future, and I can assure the hon. Member for Inverness that we have exactly the same interest as anybody else in ensuring that the matter is properly resolved in as short a time as is reasonable in order to ensure the best result.

I can tell the hon. Member for Caernarvon that questions such as whether there will be an appeal, and who will check, will be covered in the regulations themselves; therefore, that is obviously what the consultations will also be about. We shall want again to find the views of the local authorities, of the disabled and of other interested parties, before coming to a final view on the matter, but we do not rule out some of the options that hon. Members have suggested. The regulations will obviously have to be framed to cover that sort of area.

Another important point related to access officers.

Mr. Wigley

The Minister is now moving away from the question of the building regulations. I mentioned sanctions. Does it need primary legislation to impose sanctions that may take the form of fines? What is the Government's thinking in that regard? Is any time limit set for response from the voluntary organisations, so that the Government can thereafter start working on the draft of the paper?

11.30 pm
Mr. Rifkind

On the latter point, we expect a reasonable response from the voluntary organisations and others concerned. We were talking about negotiations that will begin in the near future, and we would expect the information to be coming in within weeks rather than months, but if there is any suggestion of delay on anyone's part we shall want to know why, and shall wish to ensure that we get the information as quickly as possible.

I cannot at the moment give a certain reply on the question of fines, but I think that the hon. Member for Caernarvon is correct in saying that the imposition of fines would require primary legislation. I shall check and write to him with a specific answer.

The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian referred to the circular. Clearly the changes under consideraton by the House will mean that a revised circular will be necessary. We intend to issue a revised circular soon, and before sending it to local authorities we shall make it available for consideration by the authorities and other interested bodies. We shall take account of their comments before issuing the final revised circular.

A number of hon. Members referred to access officers. I listened with amusement to the hon. Member for Garscadden calling for rigid requirements to be imposed on local authorities and arguing that the Government and the House should dictate to authorities whom they should appoint. That is slightly different from the arguments that we have heard from the hon. Gentleman on every other part of the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman conceded that 48 of the 50 planning authorities in Scotland have voluntarily agreed to designate access officers. He appeared to be calling for the Government to impose a statutory obligation, which would apply not only to the two but to every authority. I can see an argument for saying that when the bulk of local authorities, or a significant number of them, are not complying with what Parliament or the Government believe to be the national interest, legislation may be needed to ensure that the majority conform. But, without any question of legislation, and on the request of voluntary bodies, 48 of the 50 planning authorities have done as requested, and there is no reason to believe that the other two will not also do so eventually.

The hon. Gentleman's argument that we should use the sledgehammer of legislation is slightly different from the arguments used by the Opposition on the rest of the Bill.

Mr. Dewar

I am delighted to know that the Under-Secretary has been entertained by my efforts. It is a small consolation for a late night, but one that I treasure.

The Government have encroached on the independence of local authorities in their vital functions, and that has been opposed by every local authority in Scotland—Tory, Labour, Independent or pseudo-Independent. There is an enormous distinction between that sort of legislative tyranny and a suggestion that we should make it a legal rule that a certain officer should be designated for certain duties. A clear consensus is emerging that that is a right and proper policy but, unfortunately, a small group apparently dissents from that view and in those circumstances a legal requirement is not only justified but thoroughly desirable.

Mr. Rifkind

There has certainly not been a consensus for such a statutory obligation. I notice that neither the hon. Gentleman nor his hon. Friends suggested that they had spoken to COSLA or had had a clear indication from COSLA or any other organisation representing local authorities that they were anxious or willing to have such a statutory obligation.

It is unusual for Parliament to dictate to a local authority how it should use its employees. Parliament does not even require a local authority to appoint a chief executive or a director of finance. The hon. Gentleman suggests that we should ignore that tradition, even though 48 authorities have already voluntarily done what he seeks.

I understand that Dumfries and Galloway regional council expects one of its building control officers to pay special regard to the needs of the disabled when access is being considered but does not consider it necessary to appoint someone for this job at this stage. In the forthcoming circular we shall seek to encourage the remaining two local authorities to consider such a designation and we shall discuss with COSLA whether it will support such representations.

A statutory obligation of this kind is not appropriate. I hope that that will commend itself to the House.

Mr. Home Robertson

The Minister seems to be setting great store by an as yet undrafted circular, which will not have the force of law anyway. Will he answer my point—that, if local authorities are required by statute to designate, among other people, agricultural analysts—it is not unreasonable, in the International Year of Disabled People, to require local authorities to designate an official to undertake these specialised and complicated functions?

Mr. Rifkind

First, local authorities are not required to designate their chief executives—

Mr. Home Robertson

They are required to designate agricultural analysts.

Mr. Rifkind

That anomaly may exist, but that is no reason for unnecessarily duplicating it. Only two authorities have not already made such a designation voluntarily, and they may be willing to do so in any event—

Mr. Home Robertson

Then why resist the amendment?

Mr. Rifkind

For the simple reason that Parliament should be invited to impose statutory obligations on local authorities only when the majority, or a significant number, of them are not carrying out an activity that Parliament is convinced is in the national interest, or when some other important issue needs to be implemented if the majority of local authorities are to conform to a national standard. That does not apply in this case, so there is no common-sense basis for the amendment.

I believe that the hon. Member for Garscadden is pressing this not because he believes that it makes fundamental difference but because, having achieved significant changes in the Bill—for which I give him credit—he finds it unattractive to give the Government any of the credit. He was surprised to realise that 48 out of the 50 Scottish local authorities would do this, so he is now making an enormous fuss about something that the other two may be pressed to do by circular.

If the voluntary approach has already succeeded with the majority of authorities, is the hon. Gentleman not making a mountain out of a molehill by suggesting that this is a case for parliamentary enforcement?

Mr. Home Robertson


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has already spoken.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Home Robertson

On a point of order. I had understood that the Lords amendments would be taken one at a time and that we would have an opportunity—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Indeed, they will.

Lords amendment No. 2 agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 3, in

page 16, line 12, leave out from "duty" to end of line 19. Read a Second time.

Mr. John Home Robertson

I beg to move, as an amendment to the Lords amendment, at end add 'and insert "and for this purpose each local planning authority shall designate one of its officers to act as liaison officer and co-ordinator in the area of that authority on all matters involving access for disabled people to buildings and other facilities and the application of the British Standards Institution Code of Practice on Access for the Disabled to Buildings BS 5810: 1979, or other such code or codes as the Secretary of State may prescribe". '.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 10, Noes 63.

Division No.218] [11.40 pm.
Buchan, Norman Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Cryer, Bob Wainwright, E.(Dearne V)
Dewar, Donald Wigley, Dafydd
Ewing, Harry
Grant, George (Morpeth) Tellers for the Ayes:
Home Robertson, John Mr. Gordon Wilson and
Ross, Ernest (Dundee West) Mr. Russell Johnston.
Alexander, Richard Griffiths, Peter Portsm'th N)
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Grylls, Michael
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Hampson, Dr Keith
Bendall, Vivian Henderson, Barry
Benyon, Thomas (A'don) Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Berry, Hon Anthony Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Bevan, David Gilroy Knight, Mrs Jill
Blackburn, John Le Marchant, Spencer
Boscawen, Hon Robert Lester, Jim (Beeston)
Brooke, Hon Peter Macfarlane, Neil
Buchanan-Smith, Alick McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)
Buck, Antony Major, John
Cadbury, Jocelyn Mellor, David
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (R'c'n) Morris, M. (N'hampton S)
Colvin, Michael Mudd, David
Cope, John Murphy, Christopher
Dorrell, Stephen Needham, Richard
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Newton, Tony
Eggar, Tim Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Farr, John Pollock, Alexander
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Renton, Tim
Fisher, Sir Nigel Rifkind, Malcolm
Fletcher, A. (Ed'nb'gh N) Roberts, M. (Cardiff NW)
Fraser, Peter (South Angus) Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Garel-Jones, Tristan Sproat, lain
Goodlad, Alastair Steen, Anthony
Stevens, Martin Williams, D.(Montgomery)
Stradling Thomas, J. Wolfson, Mark
Thompson, Donald
Wakeham,John Tellers for the Noes:
Walker, B. (Perth) Mr. Selwyn Gummer and
Wheeler, John Mr. Carol Mather.
Wickenden, Keith

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment, put and agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We now come to Lords amendment No. 4, to which there is an amendment.

Mr. Home Robertson

The amendment is not being moved.

Lords amendment No. 4 agreed to.

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