HC Deb 19 November 1986 vol 105 cc667-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ryder.]

10.41 pm
Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

I want to raise a matter that has been a subject for debate for some time—namely, the need for anti-discrimination legislation to cover the needs of disabled people. Attempts have been made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) and the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) to introduce such legislation.

On 18 November 1983 I introduced a private Member's Bill. That date will go down as a day of shame for the House of Commons, because of the way in which that Bill was defeated by the manoeuverings of the Government, who undoubtedly imposed an unofficial Whip. I remind the House that Ministers cancelled their engagements to rush to the House to defeat a Bill that was intended to assist disabled people. As an aside, as this debate affects the disabled I must put on record that it is appalling that the Minister with responsibility for the disabled is not here to reply to the debate.

During the debate on my Bill, I referred to many examples of discrimination in employment against disabled people. For example, I mentioned mentally handicapped people who went to a local jobcentre looking for work, only to be told by the manager that they should not even be in the jobcentre. I also cited the case of an engineer who made 40 applications for jobs, in which he mentioned that he was confined to a wheelchair. He did not receive a single offer of a job interview.

I referred to many other cases of discrimination, many of them in employment. For example, a well qualified paraplegic submitted 50 applications for jobs in which he mentioned his disability, and received only one interview. When he made a further 35 applications, not mentioning his disability, he received 12 invitations for interview. There are many such cases.

All the cases that have been cited in the House from time to time have been anecdotal evidence, but that has now been supplemented by a statistical report by The Spastics Society entitled "An Equal Chance for Disabled People? A Study of Discrimination in Employment". It shows that, without doubt, there is wholesale discrimination against disabled people seeking employment.

Those who carried out the survey upon which the report was based answered 152 advertisements for secretarial jobs. They submitted two applications by similarly qualified people for each job, except that in one case the applicant mentioned having a disability. In 59 cases, both the able-bodied and the disabled applicants received a negative response. The remaining 93 cases proved to be a valid testimony to discrimination against the disabled. In 38 instances, only the disabled applicant received a negative response — 41 per cent. of applications. That compares with only three instances of able-bodied applicants being refused—about 3 per cent. of applications.

The disabled who received a negative reply normally received no reply. In those that they did receive, all manner of excuses were offered. For example, one reply stated that the applicant's qualifications and experience were not what was required—yet the able-bodied applicant with similar qualifications was offered an interview. Another excuse was that the post had already been filled — yet again the able-bodied applicant was offered an interview. In one case the disabled applicant received a letter saying that the temporary secretary had decided to become permanent—yet the able-bodied applicant was offered an interview. Even in one of the positive responses to a disabled applicant there were words of discouragement —"Don't forget, if you work for us you will be working in premises akin to a lighthouse."

Since 1944, legislation has been on the statute book entitling the disabled to special consideration in employment—a quota of 3 per cent. However, about 70 per cent. of firms do not adhere to that. Indeed, not a single Government Department adheres to the quota that Parliament decided way back in 1944 was advisable.

Far from encouraging the employment of disabled people, the Government have tended to do the reverse. In 1984, the Manpower Services Commission issued 18,700 permits exempting employers from the quota obligations. I remind the House that the quota in this country is small in comparison with other countries. West Germany, for example, has a quota of 6 per cent., and if employers do not adhere to it they are levied and the funds used for the rehabilitation of handicapped people. In this country, after 40 years, the total fines imposed for contravention of the 1944 Act in this respect amount to less than £1,000 and there have been only 10 prosecutions. That must bring a wry smile to the faces of councillors in my home town of Liverpool who are prosecuted by the unelected district auditor merely for trying to carry out their election promises.

In the spring of 1985 a labour force survey showed that 412,000 or 23.4 per cent. of economically active disabled people in this country were unemployed. That is twice the national average for unemployment generally.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

Is my hon. Friend aware of the letter sent to the Paymaster General on 7 November by the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation about the trap in which the association believes that disabled people would be ensnared by the new availability-for-work test announced by the Government? RADAR expresses the fear that under the new guidelines many unemployed disabled people would qualify neither for unemployment benefit nor for invalidity benefit and would be dumped in the queue for supplementary benefit, which would pile handicap upon handicap for those concerned.

Mr. Wareing

I am obliged to my right hon. Friend. I have received a copy of that letter from RADAR, which clearly shows that under the new work test many people will fall between two stools and end up without invalidity benefit or unemployment benefit. This debate gives the Minister the opportunity to answer RADAR on that point.

Some employers, however, have been doing their best to provide work for disabled people. The much abused Labour-controlled Lambeth borough council has done a great deal for disabled people. In May this year out of a work force of 10,000 the council employed only about 90 disabled people or 0.9 per cent. of the work force. Five months later, the 3 per cent. quota had been reached and by November the council was employing about 400 disabled people or 4 per cent. of the total work force.

Lambeth has shown what can be done, given the political will, but every discussion in this Parliament since 1983 about legislation, benefits and employment for disabled people has shown that the Government lack that political will. When my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) introduced his Bill it was clear that although the Government might have let the Bill through they would seek every possible means of ensuring that the funding was not available for local authorities.

The problems of employment for disabled people go far wider than merely finding jobs and, indeed, wider than the ambit of the Minister. There is the question of education and training for handicapped people in our society. The Bill that I introduced was aimed at abolishing discrimination and enabling disabled people, be they blind, deaf or in a wheelchair, to go into colleges of further education and training establishments. All of those features are essential if disabled people are not to be further disadvantaged than their disability. They are able to take up the possibility of jobs. The survey of The Spastics Society has shown us just the tip of the iceberg of discrimination in one area; employment. However, it has shown that the widening of horizons can be there for disabled people if the Government are willing to act on the report, which is firmly in favour of anti-discrimination legislation.

During the debate on my Bill the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) said: For the hon. Gentleman to prove his case, he would have to show that there was discrimination, and not merely ignorance, lack of understanding or insensitivity, which we all agree exists in abundance and is directed towards people in all categories. The hon. Gentleman would also have to show that such discrimination existed on a scale that justified the very complex machinery that he proposes." — [Official Report, 18 November 1983; Vol. 48, c. 126.] I suggest that that evidence is there now and it requires careful reading by the Under-Secretary of State and by other Ministers. If they were honest, they would say to the House that the Bill I proposed three years ago almost to this very day, on 18 November 1983, is very much required and that they will make haste to see that it reaches the statute book.

10.56 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Lee)

First, let me congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) on having secured this Adjournment debate. We all know of his genuine, deep and long-standing commitment to the interests of disabled people. I am also pleased to see some other right hon. and hon. Members in their places, including my ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier), who is also interested in this area.

May I say to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Norris) that I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General will be responding to the letter from the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation and I will see that he gets a copy of the letter.

Mr. Alfred Morris

RADAR's letter was dated 7 November. I had a parliamentary answer on 17 November from the Paymaster General in which he said: I have received no representations on the effect of the new guidelines on disabled people." — [Official Report, 17 November 1986; Vol. 105, c. 66.] That is palpably untrue. It was 10 days after strong representations had been made to him. Will the Minister apologise for his right hon. and learned Friend's parliamentary reply to me and now respond to RADAR's letter?

Mr. Lee

With the greatest respect, this has just been sprung on me. The right hon. Gentleman knows the traditions of Adjournment debates. I did give way. I certainly cannot apologise, because I do not know the circumstances. However, I will look into the case and we will respond.

The disabled in the community are a group to whose concerns the Government pay particular regard and for whom we have a very wide range of special provisions. Theirs is a cause which attracts, I am sure, the genuine and united concern of everyone in the House. I am grateful, therefore, for the opportunity to debate this extremely important issue, and want to stress at the outset our resolve to maintain, and where possible improve, that support.

The Government follow earlier Administrations in continuing to base their provision very firmly on the principles set out by George Tomlinson when he was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour over 40 years ago, and which form the basis of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944. We are all indebted to his Committee, which had the vision to realise that society not only had a moral duty to help the disabled but that we should harness to the full the abilities and commitment of disabled people. That model has served this nation well. Times have changed, and the employment situation has changed, but the basis of Government policy remains unchanged. The disabled have a full and valuable role to play in the work force.

That belief continues to be relevant for the future. The back-breaking toil on which our first industrial revolution was built is being replaced by the new technology revolution. This demands other skills — use of intelligence, flexibility, the ability to find new ways around unforeseen problems. Who can have demonstrated these skills better than people who have overcome their own handicaps? Employers wondering how to find employees who can cope with the future would do well to remember that many people with disabilities have already shoe, n that they can cope with the worst that nature can throw at them.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr. Lee

I am sorry, but I must plough on.

New technology is also opening up opportunities for employment. More people who might have been considered unemployable can now work. More disabled people currently in menial jobs can now realise their full potential. Let us also not forget the special benefits which people who are disabled have always brought employers. Who can measure the benefits of such things as the unique loyalty that they show an employer who has given them a chance?

Indeed, there is surprisingly little that people with disabilities cannot do, given the chance. I am sure that the hon. Member for West Derby and I are at one on that. Giving them that chance is the theme that runs through Government policy. Our symbol of the gateway to the labour market is the half-open "action for jobs" doorway. People with disabilities may need a little extra help to push that door open. Government policy is rather like the wedge which prevents the door from being shut in the face of the disabled population, but to push the door wide open, we work with the full efforts and co-operation of the community at large — local authorities, employers, organisations for, and of, people with disabilities. I should like, if I may, to take a few moments to expand on that.

This Adjournment debate comes at a time when more opportunities than ever before are being given to the disabled to work on their merits in ordinary employment. As part of the growth in the youth training scheme, the Manpower Services Commission has introduced a wide range of special help to encourage eligible young people with disabilities to enter the scheme. This includes delayed entry, extension of stay, assessment courses and special help such as adaptation to premises and communication aids for deaf people.

On adult training, our aim is that people with disabilities should obtain a fair share of training provision. Where possible, they should participate fully in mainstream training programmes and there are relaxed eligibility criteria to enable them to do this. Besides mainstream provision, the MSC offers an extensive range of special training provision for people with disabilities including individually tailored training programmes with an employer, residential training, and the professional training scheme.

Some conditions also are waived to allow the disabled to take part fully in the community programme. At jobcentres, disablement resettlement officers continue to show the commitment which is the cornerstone of our success in this area—and it is a success. Last year, over 77,000 disabled people were placed into employment through MSC services—more than ever before. A cause for optimism, yes—but this year we intend to do even better than that.

Last year was also a record year for levels of take-up and expenditure on special programmes. At employment rehabilitation centres, for instance, over 13,000 people were assessed and given counselling and guidance towards the type of work or further training most likely to lead to a permanent job. Employment rehabilitation centres and the three new pilot ASSET centres are beginning to turn from the traditional emphasis on manual work to assessment and training for service industries and new technology. I welcome that development, as, I believe, do disabled people themselves.

Mr. Carter-Jones

Will the Minister give way on this point?

Mr. Lee

I am under some pressure.

Mr. Carter-Jones

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. We talked about 1944 and 1986. Will the Minister undertake now, or at a future meeting with me and my colleagues, to discuss the application of advanced technology to enable severely handicapped people to play a role in our society? That has been left out of the reckoning so far.

Mr. Lee

Yes, I take the point. I shall be more than happy to see the hon. Gentleman at a mutually convenient time. I know of his genuinely sincere conviction and commitment to this area.

Over £1 million was spent providing specialist equipment to meet the varying needs of individual disabled employees. This is not merely accommodating desks and chairs but a harnessing of new technology to serve the disabled — to enable the deaf to use the ordinary telephone network through a visual display of the message transmitted, or to enable the blind to use computers by replacing the visual display with a speech output facility. Expenditure continues to rise also for adaptation to premises, our job introduction scheme, assistance with fares to work and the personal reader service for the blind. In all, last year there were nearly 5,000 beneficiaries—that is nearly 5,000 more disabled people who were able to keep their jobs thanks to the individual benefits of these schemes.

This year is also something of a milestone —in two separate ways — for the help given to those disabled people who are just not able to compete on the open labour market. First, Remploy is celebrating 40 years of meeting the sheltered employment needs of the disabled. When Remploy was formed as the then Disabled Persons Employment Corporation Ltd, it led the rest of Europe as the first of its kind. The Government are still proud to be part of that venture. Remploy's work has increasingly been not just a boon to its employees but a commercial achievement, marketing and selling its wide range of quality goods and services. Through Remploy, and the rest of the sheltered employment programme, some 16,400 people with severe disabilities enjoy the independence, self-esteem and social standing which securing a job means. A fortnight ago I saw for myself at the SELMEC local authority workshop in Old Trafford the energy and enthusiasm of the work force which this measure brings.

Our continuing aim is to broaden the range of work opportunities available for disabled people. Flexibility of provision is vital in such a policy. The Government recognise that, while some severely disabled people find that sheltered workshops best meet their employment needs, those that are able want to work in a normal working environment alongside their able-bodied colleagues. What is more, they want to get the rate for the job, not because of some statute that requires employers to take them on but because society recognises their abilities and does not just consider their disability.

Everyone in this House must therefore welcome the fact that the ideal of fuller integration of the disabled within the working community is being met through the sheltered placement scheme. This is the message I received when I saw it in action recently in Scunthorpe.

That the sheltered placement scheme has commanded widespread support is clear from the scale of its recent development. Last year, 1985–86, the number of people employed under the scheme almost doubled — from around 1,050 to over 1,800. The planned expansion this year, with over 1,000 new places, will mean that nearly 3,000 severely disabled people will soon be employed under the scheme, and we intend a further substantial expansion. One factor perhaps stands out here. The sheltered placement scheme is an initiative which recognises explicitly that a severely disabled person cannot contribute to the productivity of the firm on level terms with fully fit colleagues. We therefore say to the employer, "You pay for the person's ability and we will pay for the disability." That is a simple enough concept, perhaps, but it seems to work.

I trust that these examples demonstrate that there is much Government help available for people with disabilities. This year we aim to spend some £130 million, which is more than ever before. But we cannot be expected to do all this alone. The Government always value the contribution of the disabled lobby. Representatives from voluntary organisations, the CBI and TUC meet on the National Advisory Council on Employment of Disabled People to give advice—indeed, this council is at present reviewing some of the Tomlinson principles. I understand that it has produced a paper for wider consultation, and I look forward to receiving its views in due course.

I spoke earlier about the importance of working as a team to push wide open the doorway to jobs. The way to win the real benefits of integration is to secure the good will and co-operation of employers and not to impose an ever greater burden of legislation upon them. Indeed, it was in this spirit of partnership that the Prime Minister launched the code of good practice on the employment of disabled people in November 1984. Once again I am proud to say that we led the way in Europe on this, providing guidelines. Drawn up with the help and wholehearted support of the CBI TUC and disabled organisations, on how the disabled can take their place in normal employment.

I am delighted that 72,000 copies of the code are now held by employers, helping them to help all of us. The MSC's disablement advisory service teams—themselves a fairly recent, and successful, innovation—continue to promote it enthusiastically. I was able to share the message of the code of good practice and the excellent complementary video "It Worked Fine" with 120 local employers at a seminar at Reading earlier this month. The theme of that day was giving the disabled the chance to show what they can do. We are helping to make this a reality with imagination and vigour, and I am determined to continue to do so.

Encouragement of the code will continue to complement the existing statutory provision, but it is not intended as a replacement for it. Of course, there are problems in the existing system of registration and application of the statutory quota. As is well known, numbers of registered disabled have fallen since the war to the point where it is impossible for all employers subject to quota to take on their 3 per cent. It was an acknowledgement of this problem—following a thorough review by the MSC and involving interest parties — that led us to ask the commission to conduct a major, comprehensive research exercise into the numbers and characteristics of disabled people in the work force, and their attitudes and those of their employers to the quota. The results, in just over a year's time, of this exercise should enable all of us to consider the proper need for quota provision, and protect us from wild and uninformed claims.

The European Community has recognised our lead in provision for disabled people. In its recent recommendation of measures to promote fair employment and training opportunities based on eliminating negative discrimination, it explicitly endorsed our code of good practice. The Government, of course, welcome this Communitywide commitment and will continue to work in full co-operation with other member states to secure employment and training for our disabled people.

The code is voluntary and its success is based on the partnership of interests. That partnership would be threatened if we were to go down the road which the hon. Gentleman suggests. A web of restriction prevents the growth of jobs, and therefore denies opportunities to the disabled while trying to protect them. I have even this afternoon been to see how a firm—Albert Marston in Wolverhampton — is successfully promoting active participation of disabled employees in its work force.

The Government are not convinced that there is adequate evidence of widespread discrimination on grounds of disability alone to justify any attempt at antidiscrimination legislation. They are convinced that legislation is a practical way to overcome discrimination on grounds of race and gender, but that is based on the principle that there is nothing in a person's race or sex which makes that person unsuitable for a job. However, being disabled may do just that. We must recognise this and act responsibly.

I hope that one thing stands out from this account—that the Government remain unshakeable in their commitment. Let no one in this House or elsewhere be under any illusion that we do not care. We do —passionately—and I will continue to make sure that disabled people are given the help to live up to their full potential.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Eleven o'clock.