HC Deb 28 March 1991 vol 188 cc1143-9

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Mr. John Hughes (Coventry, North-East)

I appreciate this opportunity to raise the important issue of the disabled. Perhaps any debate on this subject should begin with a quotation from "Breaking the Chain," a campaign issue publication by the Spastics Society: Because I'm disabled I don't even get a second look when applying for a job, so there is no way that I can get out from under the poverty line. I'm disabled and I live in a society that doesn't recognise the disabled. I can work. I should have that opportunity. The House has failed to acknowledge the many problems facing Britain's 6 million disabled people. The Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 makes it clear that society has historically tended to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities, causing discrimination to be a serious and pervasive social problem. The Act recognises that such discrimination persists in such critical areas as employment, housing, public accommodation, education, transportation, communications, recreation, health services and access to public services. Many individuals have little or no legal recourse to redress such discrimination.

I hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House recognise that, while society denies people with disabilities the opportunity fully to participate in the life of society, much human talent and energy are wasted and that the consequent dependency and non-productivity results in high costs to the nation.

Britain has a poor track record, and it is time that Parliament made it a key subject for debate and legislation. Without a change in public attitude and Government action, the idea to which the Prime Minister subscribes, of a classless society in which opportunity prevails, is so much hot air. The present Prime Minister, when Minister for the disabled, did not rule out the possibility of anti-discrimination legislation.

Because I am anxious to give the Minister ample time in which to reply to the debate—and since hon. Members could site sufficient cases from their constituencies to more than occupy the time available today—I shall give only a few examples of the way in which the disabled suffer in society.

The disabled already have enormous barriers of fear and ignorance to overcome before being able to get a job. According to a recent Government report, the 3 per cent. quota law has been a dramatic failure. The best region is Yorkshire, where, at 1.5 per cent., the take-up rate is half the legal minimum. The worst take-up rate is in the south-east, where, at 0.7 per cent., it is only a quarter of the legal minimum. Lambeth council is one of the few authorities to have made great efforts to live up to the law. It has committed itself to offering jobs only to people with disabilities. Otherwise, the reasons for the extremely low take-up rates seem to relate to ridiculous fears, prejudices and ignorance about the problems of the disabled at work.

Too often, people think of wheelchairs when the word "disabled" is mentioned. Disabilities range from relatively minor impairments, such as epilepsy, to total impairment such as paraplegia. The simple mention of a disability seems to put employers' backs up. They often assume the worst and do not even bother to interview disabled people.

The Centre for Integrated Living in Ripley, Derbyshire operates an employment agency. It had on its books an epileptic, a skilled worker, who was not even considered for a job by a company that thought that his wheelchair could not cope with stairs.

Disabled people should not all be lumped into a vast homogeneous mass. A change in popular attitudes towards disabled people is needed. In turn, that requires the Government to take the lead in introducing comprehensive legislation. They cannot wash their hands of the problem. There is frightening evidence of discrimination in the Government's agency, Remploy, which has the specific job of providing employment for disabled people in sheltered accommodation. According to observers quoted in the publication of Mainstream, an organisation that promotes integrated opportunities for disabled people, disabled people who were interviewed said: They want able-bodied people with dandruff. They want fit people for a very hard working job. There are lads down there throwing cardboard into one end of a machine and running to get to the other end before it comes out. They want their pound of flesh at Remploy. It is not top of the pops with me. Such criticism deserves an inquiry and a decent response. Regrettably, Remploy seems to be a case study in what goes wrong when the Government throw such agencies to the wall for market forces and instruct them to break even. The more such agencies adopt that approach, the less able they will be to do their jobs. The disabled deserve better than that.

Although the evidence of substantial and systematic discrimination against disabled people is overwhelming, it is persistently ignored. Ten years after the Committee on Restrictions Against Disabled People's report on restrictions on disability, and as we near the end of the United Nations Decade of Disability, there has been monumental inaction.

I am not alone in arguing that the Government are complacent about the burning issue of discrimination against disabled people. Even the Tory-dominated Select Committee on Employment remains unconvinced about the Government's view that no new legislation is needed, at least for employment. The Select Committee agreed that the Government should explore urgently the possibility of equal opportunities legislation for the employment of disabled people and report to Parliament on its potential effects and costs to the labour market. The Government argue that anti-discrimination laws are too complicated to draft and enforce, that they frighten employers and that they are too expensive and bureaucratic. They are so confident of their arguments that they are frightened even to commission reports on the one country that has laws to challenge such nonsense—the United States. Ministers in the United States no doubt used to express the view that the Government regularly trot out—that little action should be taken and that the disabled should wait their turn and the munificence of municipal authorities and businesses. However, the United States Ministers were defeated in the early 1970s when that country first introduced anti-discrimination laws, which have been widely accepted. Indeed, they have been strengthened by the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990.

The House should recognise that the American Act provides a good model for legislation to outlaw discrimination against disabled people in this country. It details the way in which disadvantage in employment, public services and telecommunications can be rectified. For instance, all public transport vehicles built after a certain time must have facilities to carry disabled people in comfort, particularly those in wheelchairs. I am sure that in years to come the Government's inaction over the discrimination and disadvantage suffered by disabled people will be seen as one of the great moral scandals of their term, and, to be fair, the terms of other Governments.

The Government should also commission studies on the operation of the law in Germany, where a quota system of 6 per cent. is combined with a punitive levy or tax on those firms that do not comply. Those moneys are then directed to a fund to provide employment opportunities for disabled people. The Government should also commission reports on the operation of the law in Canada and Australia. They should take a leaf from the American book, but they have refused even to study that law. Why?

The Minister cannot continue to play each of the three wise monkeys by himself—see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. It is high time that the Government opened their eyes to the dreadful disadvantage and discrimination suffered by all too many disabled people and set in train a cross-party effort to undermine and reverse it.

1.10 pm
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Hughes) and to the Minister for Social Securityy and Disabled People for allowing me a couple of minutes in which to raise two matters which I hope that the Minister will note. I appreciate the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has not had notice of my points, but if he will promise to write to me during the recess, that will do. My hon. Friend spoke about discrimination against the disabled, about employment problems even at Remploy, which was supposed to end such problems, and about anti-discrimination laws.

I wish to refer to allowances and travel. As the Minister remembers, we have crossed swords more than once on social security issues, not least a couple of years ago in the debate on whether to extend attendance allowance to severely disabled babies under two. Although the announcement was made in a statement and the money was not redistributed as well as I should have wished, no one was more pleased than I was to learn that the exclusion was to end from 9 April 1990.

As the Minister remembers, I tabled a new clause on this matter, but there is no need to rehearse that point now. The current edition of "Counter Claim", a Merseyside welfare rights magazine, contains an article which states that Social Security Commissioner Hoolahan ruled against the Department of Social Security adjudication officer under cases CA/380/1990 and CA/381/1990. He declared that it was illegal for the Department to have denied families the attendance allowance of almost £40 a week before 9 April. He ruled that the' exclusion of children under two by regulation 6(2)(b) was not a modification but an exclusion and disallowed the appeal by the adjudication officer.

The article stated: It's difficult to know how many parents of disabled babies have been deterred from applying for Attendance Allowance because of this unlawful restriction, but when Attendance Allowance was formally extended to cover babies under two, the Government estimated the move would benefit 3,000 families. If this is an annual figure some 45,000 families may have lost up to £75 million at today's prices. Ex-gratia payments should be awarded in such cases. What is the Department doing to track down those 45,000 families and to make ex gratia payments, not least to the family from Nuneaton who came here a couple of years ago, as the Minister may remember?

The Minister will know Hereward college in Coventry. An article in the Evening Telegraph on Tuesday should shock him. I shall let the Minister read it after the debate.

At present, people in wheelchairs who wish to travel by train are placed in the guard's van with the parcels. They have no access to toilets or to food, but they pay exactly the same fare on British Rail as other travellers. It is a scandal that people are treated like luggage. British Rail says that 130 stations have been upgraded to facilitate the disabled. Such upgrading is welcome, but it is proceeding too slowly. Travel facilities from Coventry to London and, indeed, to other parts of the country are a disgrace.

I hope that the Minister will assure us that he will liaise with his colleagues in the Department of Transport and inform me by letter or, better still, by an announcement in the House that this state of affairs will end and that people in wheelchairs will have exactly the same rights of access to public transport as those who are able to walk.

1.16 pm
The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

I shall start with a story that might illustrate some of the problems that have been mentioned by the hon. Members for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Hughes) and for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist). A few days ago, I was speaking to a young lady in a wheelchair who told me about an incident that happened when she was setting out on a trip on British Rail with her mother. After a cup of coffee, her mother had gone to buy a newspaper, leaving the young lady sitting in her wheelchair holding an empty coffee cup. A passer-by put 50p in the cup. That shows that many people perceive the disabled as pathetic creatures who are in need of help.

I have been in this job for four years, and I know that the overwhelming majority of disabled people wish to be independent, to be integrated into able-bodied society, and to have opportunities for employment, leisure activities, transportation and so on. For the time being at least, most people take those things for granted. I welcome this debate as another small step in raising awareness about the ambitions of disabled people in our society and about the duty of central and local government and society to enable them to achieve those ambitions.

I am not sure whether the blanket anti-discrimination legislation mentioned by both hon. Gentlemen is the appropriate way to proceed. There is no doubt that we are making progress. A few days ago, I was reminded of my visit to the mid-Cheshire sheltered workshop, which caters for the needs of people with cerebral palsy and mentally handicapped young people. I was told that 12 people from there have been taken on by a local factory and are living independently in flats in the same town as the factory. Anti-discrimination legislation is no magic wand. I understand, although I have not been able to check it, that, although the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 has been passed, no federal funds have been made available to implement it.

The hon. Member for Coventry, North-East said that we have a bad track record on this matter. I take issue with that. I have travelled widely in the United States and Europe, and I know that we have made steady progress in helping disabled people. It is untrue to say that there has been monumental inaction. Any fair-minded person looking at what has happened to the quality of life for disabled people in the past 10 years would have to admit that substantial progress has been made. For reasons that I shall later outline, the next 10 years will be even more exciting and important in improving the lives of disabled people.

As the House knows, I have direct responsibility only for the benefit system for disabled people. Like my predecessor, now the Prime Minister, and others who have held the job, including the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), the first ever Minister for the Disabled, I have set targets across the whole of Government to encourage and persuade my colleagues to place the needs of disabled people in the forefront of their priorities.

The hon. Member for Coventry, North-East was right to make employment the first of his concerns. I shall come back to what my colleagues in the Department of Employment are doing about that. My second priority would be access to transport, buildings and homes. The third priority, which in the next 10 years may turn out to be the most important in enabling disabled people to acquire both independence and integration in our society, is the impact of information technology and new technology on their lives.

The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East talked about babies under two who survive now as they never would have done given the state of medical technology 10 years ago. He gave me a rough ride on that subject in two sittings of the Committees examining two social security Bills. After the second debate, I made it clear that I was not prepared to defend the policy on that any further, so we have amended it. As to the decision by Commissioner Hoolahan, on this issue, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about the matter. We are studying the judgment. I think that it is probably not a reflection on the law as it stood before, but I should not want to prejudge more careful consideration of that judgment.

I have a key interest in promoting the interests of all people who suffer from disabilities of one sort or another. I am as anxious as any other hon. Member to ensure that people with disabilities should not be denied their rightful place in society simply because of their disability. Nor would I deny that discrimination exists—of course it does. We have to battle against it, but, rather than legislating, the most constructive and productive way forward is through raising awareness in the community as a whole.

As I have said before, demographic trends over the coming decades mean that fewer 18-year-olds will come on to the job market, with the result that employers will be compelled to look beyond the disability that is all too often their only perception of the disabled person to the abilities that lie behind. Anyone who has the privilege, as I have, of meeting people with disabilities week after week, will be impressed, as I am time after time, by the abilities of disabled people and their determination to use those abilities in the interest of society. I remain convinced that the way to achieve the integration of disabled people into society is to give them, as far as possible, equality of opportunity and to make it easier for them to live, work and engage in social activities along with their able-bodied peers.

In the time remaining in this short debate, I shall concentrate on the practical measures that the Government want to introduce rather than on the concept of generalised anti-discrimination legislation. I start, as did the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East, with employment. My colleagues in the Department of Employment have been giving serious consideration to the need for legislation on employment policy. The issue was addressed, as everyone will be aware, in some detail in the Department's consultative document "Employment and Training for People with Disabilities", which was published last June. Chapter 5 of that document, a copy of which was placed in the Library, looked at the present arrangements, including the quota system, and considered a number of alternatives.

As hon. Members will be aware, one of the problems with the quota system is that, if every employer ensured that 3 per cent. of his work force comprised registered disabled people, there would not be enough people on the register to go round. We know that many disabled people do not want to hang around their necks the label "registered disabled". Those suffering disability should be in our sights as we seek to improve the employment position for disabled people.

A considerable number of responses to the consultative document have been received. Ministers are considering the issue and will announce their decisions in due course. I have no doubt that some employers' recruitment practices discriminate unfairly against people with disabilities. Indeed, they discriminate unfairly against other groups, such as the elderly and women. Often, an employer discriminates against a disabled person because of ignorance of that person's capabilities, not from ill will. However, it is difficult to assess the scale of the problem.

Some companies implement excellent policies for employing disabled people. Indeed, a number of them have joined together in the Employers Forum on Disability to share experiences and good practice. Some examples of good practice are the Department of Employment's code of good practice—the first in Europe—launched in 1984; the establishment of the Disablement Advisory Service in 1983; the offer of financial help to employers to overcome particular difficulties; and just recently, the introduction of a new symbol for employers—we should not underestimate the importance of symbolic moves—that demonstrates their commitment to good practice. I believe that the appearance of that symbol in advertisements for jobs will help a disabled job seeker, who may be anxious about starting or changing employment, to have confidence that the employer is committed to good practice.

The hon. Member for Coventry, South-East mentioned transport, which is an immensely emotive subject. The whole concept of putting wheelchair people into a guard's van, along with the livestock and the luggage, is offensive to anyone who thinks about it. We are making progress, and there is a special unit within the Department of Transport that is planning and achieving considerable advances. The Department is working on a prototype of a wheelchair-accessible bus. It hopes that there will be a Europewide standard on a low-level access bus for wheelchair users. London has wheelchair-accessible mobility buses in 11 boroughs. As I think the House is aware, all new taxis must be accessible to wheelchair users. A number of other local authorities are now also saying that they will license new taxis only if they meet the standard of the new wheelchair-accessible taxis in London.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the problems with British Rail. Mr. Bill Buchanan, who advises on these matters and is himself in a wheelchair, tells me that there is considerable progress in making services and stations more accessible. It is all very well ensuring that trains are wheelchair-accessible, but that is not a great deal of use if the stations are not wheelchair-accessible. All new InterCity trains now have wheelchair places and properly accessible toilets. The real problem with which we must deal is Network SouthEast, whose stock is very old, and it will take some time to replace it. However, we are making steady progress, and I know that the Department of Transport and British Rail are committed to that.

Within Government as a whole, and across the Departments of Employment, Environment, Health, and Social Security, the needs of people with disabilities are receiving considerable weight. The Department of Health has wide-ranging and comprehensive plans for the future of community care, designed to give disabled people a greater say in how they live their lives and greater opportunities for choice and independence. Those are themes which underpin the philosophy of community care, and as they begin to take hold after 1993, they will increasingly help disabled people to become or remain full contributors to our society.

The interests of disabled children will be promoted by the implementation of the Children Act 1989, which integrates local authorities' responsibilities for children with disabilities with those for other children who are in need. One of the Act's key features is its emphasis on the need for the child and its parents to participate in decisions affecting the child.

I end on this note. All the progress that we can make in the area of coping with the needs of people with disabilities will be set at nought unless disabled people can find out what is available. Therefore, both through the European Community Handynet agreement—through which we have given some £275,000 to the Disabled Living Foundation to improve information technology—for services and equipment available to disabled people, and through the national disability information project launched by the Department of Health, we are determined to see that, increasingly, people with disabilities are aware of the services, the equipment and other help that are available to them to enable them to improve the quality of their lives and, progressively, to overcome the discrimination which undoubtedly still exists about their employment.